Unpredictable Driving

Angela and I are both mathematicians. Inevitably, when either of us mentions math, either that we do math, teach math, or studied math, the response we get more often than not is “Oh, I hate math.” You get used to it after a while, and we can usually find ways to move conversation back out of that deep dark pit, but it happens often enough that we both get kind of excited when we run into someone who says something like “Oh, I just loved calculus. I really miss it, and wish I could get back into it.” (It does happen! Hi Violet from the Fresh Pond Toddler Nature Walk!)

I’ve noticed a similar black hole when biking comes up. The response often goes something like this: “Oh, you bike? Bikers are so unpredictable.”

In city riding like we do in Boston and Cambridge, where bikes are mixed right in with the cars in confusing, cramped and often poorly marked city streets, I do understand that we make drivers nervous. But I’ve been noticing lately that cars can also be extremely unpredictable, in ways that make navigating our streets as a biker more dangerous and more difficult. I’m not talking big asshole moves, like whisking around a biker to cut them off sharply on a right turn, or blazing past with barely any clearance. Polite drivers know not to do that, and most drivers are polite. I’m thinking about more subtle things that a perfectly skilled driver might never know put bikers on the defensive, and sometimes prompt us to do things that might seem unpredictable and frustrating. I’ve identified three that give me pause when I’m riding in traffic, and I offer them here, along with a few suggestions to make your driving (and parking) friendlier to bikers. These thoughts are offered with the understanding that most everyone is doing their best to navigate safely, in a traffic infrastructure that doesn’t always help us to share the road.

1) Nudging aggressively out into the intersection when making a left. This is something of a necessary evil in Boston traffic, but if I’m coming through an intersection straight on a green light on my bike, and you are in a car waiting to make a left, I need to know that you see me, that you aren’t going to whip into your left hand turn just as I enter the intersection. If you are aggressively nosing out into traffic, I can’t know that, and have to assume you don’t see me. As a result, I slow way down to watch what you do, holding up traffic and making you wait longer for your turn. If you see a biker approaching, even if your gap is coming up soon, please back off just a bit, and maybe even give us a wave.

2) Pulling over with the engine running and with no signal indicating your intentions. I get it. You need to pull over to pick someone up, let someone out or check your directions. But when I see a car pulled over to the right in the parking lane with the engine on, I have to assume you could pull out at anytime and probably don’t see me. That means I have to pull out and take a full lane to pass you (something that drivers complain is an “unpredictable move,” in fact, the one really bad driver interaction I’ve had in the last year was getting screamed at and aggressively cut off for doing exactly this). This is even more true if you have given absolutely no indication of your intent. Putting on blinkers while you are pulled over, and then putting on a turn signal when you wish to pull out, can do a lot for bikers trying to navigate safely. And please, always check for bikes before you pull back into traffic.

3) Parking with wheels turned to the left. Why in the world would you ever know that the position of your wheels is important to bikers? Well, probably, you wouldn’t. Like I said, I’m not talking asshole moves here. But when I’m riding on a street with a parking lane, even if I’m riding out of the “door zone,” I am watching cars on the side of the road for any sign of life. Yes, that fast moving traffic to my left is important, but I know those drivers probably see me. People pulling out of their parking spot, or waiting for a break in traffic to open their door, are much less likely to see me. I watch for faces or flashes in rear view mirrors (which can show that a door is about to open), and I also look at tires. Before a driver pulls out, they are going to need to turn their tires sharply to the left, and that can be a clue to me that a car might be ready to spring to life. Thus, it’s really nice when drivers either turn their wheels straight or to the right when they parallel park. It’s one way that I can know your car is less likely to pull out in front of me.

Our audience contains a lot of bikers, and I would love to to hear suggestions from our readers for simple changes drivers can make to be more predictable, but I do ask that any comments not devolve into driver bashing. I really do believe that, by and large, we’re all doing the best we can out there, and most of us who bike, also spend a fair amount of time behind the wheel (even us, a couple times a year anyway).

Photo Credit

Posted in Biking, Cambridge and Boston area, Problems and issues, Sharing roads and paths | 14 Comments

Kids’ walking personalities

Rebecca wrote a great post recently at Green Baby Guide that got me thinking about the impact of kids personalities on walking for transport with small children. Rebecca is a carfree mom with a fantastically unmotivated walker, and she bemoans the constant judgment of parents who push “big kids” in strollers even though no one really bats an eyelash at someone driving their kindergartner a few blocks to school. It also sounds like she’s done some pretty impressive rocky-style walk training to get her daughter hoofing it to kindergarten on her own steam. We’re big fans of getting kids walking for transport ASAP, and I’ve definitely done a few double takes at 5-year-olds in strollers, but I see her point.

Rebecca’s post reminded me that we best take some of our own advice and get cracking on the “walk training” with R. At 2 1/2, he hasn’t expressed quite the same intense internal drive to walk himself that H did at that age, and what with the new fancy bike around these parts, we’re perfectly happy to pedal him most anywhere. Throw in that our days have more time constraints than they used to because of his older sister’s school schedule, and you can see why he has been getting toted around passively a bit more than H at the same age. Thankfully, despite our neglect in this department, he has benefitted from solid time with his non-biking stroller-shirking grandmother, so all hope is not lost.

So partially on purpose and partially due to recent snowfall, we’ve been having R do more independent walking for transportation, and have realized he’s not actually  ”unmotivated.” We were making the mistake of often asking him if he wanted to take the stroller, and he would say “yes,” and was perfectly content to just ride along, so that’s what we did, especially since we were probably in a rush to get somewhere. But if we simply don’t offer the stroller, he’s perfectly content to walk, and as it turns out, walks along at a pretty good clip.

There is one slight glitch. At the end of a long day, he’s apt to say, in a very serious voice “Mama…I too tired to walk.” He’ll say this over and over, with a fluctuating amount of whine involved. But here’s the kicker, he’ll just keep walking. He doesn’t even slow his pace really, and can often be distracted with a game of running to the next tree, so I’ve been able to pretty much ignore the whining without even having to try.

At a similar age, H would fiercely insist that she could walk by herself, that she had absolutely no need for a stroller. But once presented with the walk itself, she would dawdle fantastically (walking with her still can involve a lot of urging). She was having a blast, but man did she enjoy driving us crazy by not actually *going* anywhere. We eventually got this behavior mostly kicked, but have found that now that there is snow and we’re walking a bit more often, we’re having to push through a fresh round of whining with her as well. I trust she’ll adjust here shortly (but I can’t really blame her for wanting to bike…).

So, it appears that R may not be as unmotivated as he first appeared, and that his walking might actually be pretty good from the transportation point of view (for a two-year-0ld anyway) which is an awfully nice surprise. We’ll see how he fares as the distances increase, but for now, thanks for the nudge to get him out on the sidewalk, Rebecca.

Posted in Child-related issues, Problems and issues, Walking | 6 Comments

What we ride

I thought it might be useful for readers to know in more detail what bike gear we use to ride with our kids. Sure, we ride our cargo bikes, but we also ride (and have ridden) several other more standard (and more affordable) set-ups. So, here is some basic info about our current rotation. I focus here on the kid- and cargo- specific equipment. We also have two ‘regular’ bikes (which you’ll see in the photos) but they are certainly not the kind of bikes that merit a write up of their own (a hand-me-down beater road bike for me, used by many a mathematics grad student before it was given to me about 8 years ago, and a 15-year-old low-end mountain bike for Angela, both somewhat repurposed for more comfortable city riding). And with that, I give you the current V-C kid and cargo bike stable:

Bakfiets

What: Workcycles Short Bakfiets
When purchased: Fall 2011, from Adeline Adeline in NYC, after an epic search
capacity: 1 grown-up and two kids (or three kids if the trailer bike is attached)
additional modifications: We had Adeline Adeline switch out the stock rack, for the rack compatible with our Burley Piccolo (see below), so that the bike could be used with a kid pedaling behind.
Strengths & Weaknesses: Our go-to bike for two kids, and often one kid, especially in very bad weather or extreme cold (conditions in which we previously would just have skipped biking). The bike is extremely stable and easy to control, even with somewhat rowdy or upset children (with the under-three set, occasional bike tantrums are inevitable). Extremely low
step through makes it very easy to maintain control of a fully loaded bike while getting on and off. It is also rock solid when parked, so solid that the kids can climb in themselves and you can walk away from the bike with kids in it knowing they won’t tip it over. It is impossible to overemphasize how deeply stable and secure this bike feels. The only downside is weight (79 pounds. Yes. I really said 79). We are not going anywhere very fast on this thing, but twice a week we do 5-mile round-trips for double-pick-up, including some long gradual hills and it works. When H is pedaling, she more than carries her weight, and that makes hills a bit easier.

Xtracycle

What: Xtracycle free radical extension of a Trek SU 2.0 frame (26″ wheels, disc brakes). Custom “Roundabout” bike seat by Rob Hanson (paint job by us).
When purchased: Spring 2008, new (both the free radical and the bike), seat added Fall 2008. Quad bikes attached the free radical for us.
capacity: 1 grown-up and two kids. Worked OK starting at about a year. Will fit indefinitely (kids are easily still skinny enough for the seats and deck can be switched out once they are too big).
additional modifications: Switched out mountain bike handlebars for handlebars with rise, added the xtracycle “kickback” kickstand (not in photo)
Strengths & Weaknesses: Great way to haul a lot of junk. Love the flexibility of the bags (which are like long slings and can hold a wide variety of objects). A trim and relatively light-weight set-up for two kids (ours is about 45 pounds with seats). Rides great with one kid. Handling is twitchy but do-able with two (more weight to the rear of the deck is what causes this). Now that we have the bakfiets, only I ride this bike with two kids, and if given a choice, I take the bakfiets. But we prefer this bike to the bakfiets for hauling cargo. Believe it or not, we can actually more easily fit more groceries on this bike than on the Bakfiets, largely because of the flexibility of the bags, and it’s nice to have the lighter bike for the (uphill) ride back from the grocery store. The biggest drawback of this bike is difficulty getting on & off of bike with kids loaded, particularly for Angela, who is short. A more step-through frame would have been preferable. If we were buying this bike right now, with the same cost constraints we were working with back then, we would have gotten either the Xtracycle Radish or the Sun Atlas, which were unavailable in 2008, but we’re still happy with this bike and will be keeping it around as a very flexible relatively lightweight hauler.

Burley Piccolo

What: Burley Piccolo Trailer Bike of unclear age, likely purchased new in the late 90s.
When purchased: Spring 2011, used (in beautiful condition) from a friend
Capacity: One kid capable of sitting and holding on securely, pedaling optional (our kid started using it at age 4.) I’d guess it will be useful until age 8 or 9, but that remains to be seen.
 Strengths and Weaknesses: We love this bike. I wouldn’t change a thing. The rack mount is extremely stable, and is great for short adults who might not have a lot of seat-post available to which to attach the regular seat-post mounted trailer bikes. I feel so fortunate to have lucked into our piccolo from a friend who takes impeccable care of his bikes, and anticipate we’ll use it heavily for the next 8 years or so. For years Burley was not making these, but they recently started making them again.

Bobike Mini

What: Bobike Mini Front-Mounted Child Seat
When Purchased: Spring 2011, used from parent on local listserve
Capacity: One small toddler (up to 33 lbs, about age 3 if you are lucky, but maybe just 2 or even a little younger if your kid runs big). We started using this at just shy of age two and anticipate using until about age 3
Strenths and Weaknesses: Front mounted seats are an absolute blast to ride with and the bobike is a great one (see also this great post on other front-seats at totcycle). This seat comes on and off the bike easily, and can switch easily between bikes if you get a second bracket.  Front-seats can take some finagling to get the geometry such that you can ride comfortably. To get this to work on my old-ish (80s?) road bike I needed to switch out the (quill) stem for a longer one to avoid my knees knocking the back of the seat. Handlebars with rise are also good, both because they leave more room for the child’s legs and because they raise the adult’s body a bit to get your chin a bit farther from the kid’s helmet. Straps on this seat leave a lot to be desired. At only 3 points, they are not terribly secure, tend to slip down over the shoulders, and since they come down over the kid’s head, you have to put the helmet on after you strap them in, which is a pain. As with all bike mounted seats, you have to be extremely careful loading and unloading. Front mounting means this seat can be used along with the piccolo for a two-kid rig, though this didn’t feel secure until I had really worked out the fit so I could ride comfortably with R in the seat. I wish we could use this seat for longer. R loves it and handling is so much nicer and more enjoyable than with a rear seat. Note that the bracket the mini comes with fits quill stems only. If you have a newer bike you probably have a threadless stem, and will need to purchase a different bracket (scroll down here at longleaf).

Bobike Maxi+

What: Bobike Maxi+ rear-mounted seat
When Purchased: New in Spring 2008 from Xtracycle
Capacity: One kid up to 50 pounds (age 6+ or so), though fit at the upper end of that range is uncomfortable
Strengths and Weaknesses: We purchased this seat for use with our Xtracycle. It was the only child seat sold by Xtracycle back then and turned out to be completely incompatible with our set-up (primarily due to our bike’s small frame — this was back before Xtracycle was selling the deck mounted seats which would not have been a problem). It sat around in our basement for a couple years until we pulled it out again for a one-kid set-up for R. It works OK. It’s a high quality high weight limit rear mounted seat with a nice look, and the hardware has a nifty design such that you can switch the seat easily between multiple bikes. But I never loved it. Like the mini, the strap design stinks and I really wished for a 5 point harness instead of three, especially when the kid falls asleep. The buckle was iffy, and we ended up having to get the whole seat replaced (to bobike’s credit, they did replace it without fussing). It’s gotten some use, but overall, in the context of our various family biking purchases, this one was a dud. If I was suddenly in need of a rear-mounted seat, I wouldn’t buy it again. I’d buy a Kettler Teddy or Flipper instead (unfortunately ugly, but they have a high weight limit, better straps, and look like either would work better for napping).

Burley Zydeco Tandem

What: Burley Zydeco Tandem, likely purchased new in the late 90s
When acquired: On extended loan as of summer 2011 from the same friend who sold us the piccolo
Capacity: 2 grown-ups, or 1 grown-up and one school-age kid (probably with crank shorteners, H is still too small to ride it)
Strengths and Weaknesses: We’ve never ridden another tandem so I can’t compare in terms of ride quality, but now that we’ve figured out how to ride without bickering, riding tandem is a blast. When we get very enthusiastic, we can put all four V-C’s on this bike, with R in the front on the bobike mini, H on the back on the piccolo, and the grown-ups on the tandem. We’ve only really done that a couple times though, and it was extremely stressful. But Angela and I have gotten a lot better at tandem riding since then (this is our date bike!). I think we could actually handle that better now, but I still wouldn’t want to ride with the piccolo attached in traffic. We could handle that bike in traffic with just the front-mounted seat, though. I do find it frustrating that this bike is only barely the right size for us. I ride at pretty much the lowest seat setting as captain, as does Angela as stoker,  and there’s no way Angela could fit the bike as captain. (Are there even any tandems that work for a captain shorter than the stoker? Or alternatively, tandems sized more kindly for women as captain at all? I’m unclear on how short the bike friday family tandem goes for the captain, their website is a bit unclear, so please speak up if you know!)

That’s the run down of the current V-C stable. As always, anyone with questions or in need of a test ride should contact us or comment, and anyone with notes to compare about your experiences with these or related seats and bikes, should please speak up in comments.

Posted in Biking, Biking with cargo, Biking with kids, Child-related issues, Links and reviews, Our Xtracycle | 23 Comments

Car culture and kids toys

Like many families, we’ve just had a channukah-induced influx of toys into our house. Recent improvements in storage mean that we actually do have space for these toys, and they have been keeping our kids delightfully busy. We are also blessed with considerate grandparents who remember our space constraints, often giving our kids craft sets that get used up, adding to existing “sets” which saves space, or pooling for one big extra-fun present instead of lots of teeny-tiny ones that make organizing a challenge. We know not all parents are so lucky.

But there was a definite theme to this years gifts, especially for R.

Cars.

Cars.

Trucks.

And more cars.

Taken one at a time, all these gifts were perfectly appropriate and both the kids love them. But taken as a whole, we found it a little disconcerting that our stash of pretend motorized vehicles approximately tripled during the span of a week.

So, on a bit of an impulse, feeling compelled to balance things out a tiny bit, we found the one and only bicycle toy set at our local toy store and got one for each kid for the last night of channukah. It’s a playmobil set that includes two kids, a crossing guard, a crosswalk, and a bicycle. Setting aside for a moment that it’s more teeny tiny plastic junk in our lives, that’s our kind of play set. (and now that I’ve looked up the link for this one I found this awesome bike cargo set!)

It was delightful to see how the kids played with these little sets. Immediately the toy-children went on the toy-bikes (with their included helmets) and started having pretend conversations with the toy-crossing-guard about when it was safe to cross the street. H corrected one of the children for weaving her bike on the pretend sidewalk. A dragon found its way into the game, as did a bus* (I’m afraid there was one rather unfortunate bike-bus accident but everyone recovered).

Kids work out all kinds of stuff in play, and hearing their immediate ease and detail in imaginary conversations over this one small toy set, made me realize that a big chunk of their lives was not reflected in the toys we had on hand. We’ve had a toy city bus (courtesy of grandma) in the mix for a while (bus and subway games are very popular around here, and come complete with incomprehensible PA announcements), but our pretend towns were remarkably devoid of walkers and bikers (and our town playmat completely lacks sidewalks or bike lanes). We’ll be on the lookout for more toys along these lines, and probably making more of our own since they are hard to find. The pretend town in our house, of all houses, should certainly have a healthy infrastructure. Do you have any favorites?

———–
* Aunt Cami and Uncle Howie get the prize for finding a public transit toy to add to the mix!

Posted in Biking, Child-related issues, Links and reviews, Problems and issues, Sustainability and consumerism | 13 Comments

Local Roundup: Somerville Illuminations ride, cargo bike sightings, new local family bike list

  • Last weekend, H & I decked out our bikes in festive lights, put on all the wool socks we could find, and and headed out for the second annual Illuminations Ride put on by the Somerville Arts Council and the Somerville Bicycle Committee. We arrived to a festive gathering of 75-100 brightly lit cyclists, including several other folks with kids (including Brian, who led the ride with his one-year-old snug in the box of his snazzy Bullitt). The ride went for several miles all around Somerville at a leisurely pace, making several stops to take in splendidly decorated houses. H and I didn’t last all that long. Despite all of those socks, the complaints about cold feet were increasing in frequency after a mile or two, and having suffered through a few too many of my father’s “adventures” with miserably cold toes, I decided to quit while we were ahead. She’s already planning on next year, but with more consideration to our footwear. It was absolutely delightful to see so many cyclists willing to brave the cold to ride together. We were also thrilled to see many old and new biking friends, including H & R’s longtime daycare providers. It’s strange to remember that a few years ago I didn’t really feel like part of the biking community around here. That seems impossible now. (Photo Credit for top photo: Andrew G Buck — thanks Andy!)
  • On the topic of biking community, Velouria at Lovely Bicycle has been noticing an uptick in cargo bikes in Cambridge and Somerville. She writes about how the presence of cargo bikes might signal a healthy and growing bike community, giving others confidence to take to the road. I think she’s right, and agree that there are more cargo and kid rigs on the road every day around here. (Thanks also Velouria for including such a pretty picture of our bike!)
  • Speaking of local cargo and kid biking, we recently started an e-mail list for Boston area family bikers. We got great response right out of the gate and now have a nice local group representing a wide range of kids ages, family size, and experience level. We hope this list will be a good resource for organizing rides, comparing notes on riding with kids in the Boston area, and contacting each other for test-rides of hard-to-find bikes. If you live in the greater Boston area and ride with your kids (or want to, but haven’t figured out how to make it work yet), please join us. You can request to join the group here (PLEASE only submit a request if you are local to Boston).
Posted in Biking with cargo, Biking with kids, Cambridge and Boston area, Links and reviews | Leave a comment

Unintentional Community

In the sort of circles we travel in, there is often talk of “intentional community” and it is always considered a good thing. Sometimes “intentional community” is discussed in the context of “co-housing,” where folks own individual homes, but pool resources for common space and intentionally share things like meals, babysitting, and activities more than in your average neighborhood. Sometimes it’s considered the context of a religious community, or something like the Cambridge Time Trade Circle. In addition to all the great stuff, as far as I can tell, “intentional community” inevitably also involves a lot of work and a lot of meetings.

I was staying with some friends a couple weeks ago in a lovely co-housing community while I was at a conference. We talked some about how their community works, and my friends confirmed that it is a great place to live, but that it does indeed involve a lot of meetings. After staying with them (and briefly fantasizing about some of the nice co-housing in our neighborhood), I realized how much I appreciate the “UN-intentional community” in our lives.

I love being able to send the kids out to play when we hear neighborhood kids in the alleyway. It’s wonderful to see the same families at the park over and over, and to count them as friends (sometimes close friends). I love meeting up at the end of the alley on Halloween to hand out candy with our neighbors. When we arrived home after R was born, it seemed a sea of neighbors spilled out of their houses to see the new baby. We’ve been grateful recipients of hand-me-downs, leftovers, and emergency baking ingredients, and givers of the same. This year, when the first real storm comes, we’ll all be outside playing and shoveling. It’s not nearly so exciting by the end of the winter, but somehow that first storm always feels like a party.

To some extent this is “intentional.” We could come and go without talking to people if we tried, and we have to be out and about in the neighborhood enough to participate and enjoy these perks. But none of this happens on purpose. We didn’t have to go to a meeting to organize any of it. And since I’m not sure I could fit another meeting into my life, I’m really glad about that.

What makes this “unintentional community” tick? In our case, there is some infrastructure at work. Most people in our neighborhood live in relatively small spaces by US standards (middle class standards anyway), and especially in our very local area, many of us don’t have yards. This forces us out of our own private spaces and into public ones, either the small shared space of our  alley/driveway, or the shared space of the local park. Many people in our neighborhood walk, bike and take transit frequently (and our neighborhood has plentiful sidewalks), so we’re out and about where we can run into each other on accident and catch up a bit. I find I rely a lot on these interactions, for information, for friends, for a sense of connectedness and place. I really miss my neighbors when we all head inside for winter. Every year I think I’ll do a better job of keeping up with people on purpose, and every year I don’t quite pull it off and am thrilled when it’s spring and we can see so many of our friends without even trying. I wonder how our little neighborhood (and our experience of it) will change as our kids grow, as good neighbors move away (even if it isn’t very far) and new neighbors join us. But for now, I’m just thrilled we get all of this without ever having to go to a meeting, and am grateful to the neighbors who came before us, and built such a welcoming and friendly place.

Posted in Benefits of being carfree, Cambridge and Boston area, Living locally | 7 Comments

True Life Stories of the Carfree– Melanie, Michael, Ryan (4) and Sarah (2). Winnipeg, Manitoba

In the fourth of our series about carfree families (that aren’t us), we turn to Melanie & Michael of Winnipeg, Manitoba, to provide us with some serious inspiration for winter riding as the weather gets colder. Are you a carfree with kids? Would you like to share your story? Please contact us at carfreewithkids at gmail if you’d like to contribute to this series.

Melanie writes:

We are a family of four – Ryan (4 years), Sarah (2 years), Michael and myself, Melanie, living carfree in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada). We started to go carfree about a year and half ago, and sold our car this past March. The deal was, if we could make it through a Winnipeg winter without using our car, we’d sell it. And we did! We’re heading into our second carfree winter.

Our primary motivation for going carfree was the environment, but the other advantages (health, money, fun, not having to deal with parking etc.) are so huge that I’m not sure we’d go back even if that wasn’t a consideration. We mostly use bicycles for transportation, although I usually take the bus to work – the infrastructure just isn’t quite good enough to make it safe and feasible to bike on a regular basis, even in the summer. We have a bakfiets (a workcycles long) for our “family bike”, and a folding bike that I take on the bus with me so I can bike partway to work. Ryan is training-wheels free, so we recently purchased a trail-a-bike, but we’re having trouble figuring out how to get it stable enough to ride comfortably on real streets. Not sure if it’s our hook-up or if we just need more practice.

The first year was a bit of a challenge. We were hit with record-breaking snowfall last winter, and the first storm dumped snow on us almost continuously for well over a week, so it was definitely trial-by-fire. Er – snow. We were slowly acquiring the items we needed: Pogies (handlebar mittens), rain gear, studded tires, etc., so we were sometimes cold, and I spent more time slipping on snow-covered side streets on my crummy Giant than I care to admit. But by the end of the season we’d pretty much gotten our groove (and our stuff), and this year should be much easier.

With respect to winter cycling (with kids): The physical challenges I was prepared for, and we did fairly well. There was one day where Ryan got sent home from school early because they suspected pink eye, but it was just a reaction to the cold. We learned our lesson there, and Ryan now wears a balaclava and goggles when it gets really cold, even with the canopy cover. But the physical challenges were expected, and easily solved. By far the more difficult, and unexpected, challenge for me was dealing with the abuse hurled our way by motorists. I had not anticipated the number of people who would feel the need to roll their windows down and shout epithets our way (in front of our two young children!) for daring to ride a bicycle in the wintertime. There were several times this past winter that I was quite literally reduced to tears by angry comments or dangerous behavior from motorists. And there was a time early on when I almost threw in the towel. Not because I believed them to be in the right, but because I wasn’t sure it was really worth the emotional trauma.

Luckily, I hung in there, and things did get easier. I learned to (mostly) ignore the small number of road tyrants and strive to take extra courage from the much larger number of people who smile and nod and shout encouragement to us. I especially love the positive feedback from young people (that’s how I learned that “that’s sick!” is a compliment). It gives me hope that things will change. Thankfully, as spring came and the snows receded, so did most of the angry comments from motorists.

Transitioning from the car to bicycles is part of a much larger change in how we run our lives that includes growing a garden and eating seasonally, reducing our garbage waste to close to nothing (we fill about a cheerios bag worth of garbage per week), cloth diapering, etc. Almost invariably, and going carfree is no exception, our experience is that the change is a positive one, not just because “doing the right thing” feels good, but because the net impact on our lives is a positive one, even setting aside the larger environmental picture. Yes, it requires some sacrifices. We think twice about signing up our son for that gymnastics class halfway across town in the dead of winter. When our local library branch shuts down unexpectedly for four weeks, I endure the pitying look of the librarian as I explain to her that, no, it is not likely that I will “just happen to be driving by” a library that is several miles from home because we don’t own a car. We can’t hire a babysitter unless they live nearby or have their own transportation. But by and large we find that the things we are sacrificing aren’t nearly as important as we thought they were, and pale by comparison with the things we’ve gained, like remembering what it’s like to feel the wind on your face, or smell the fall/spring/summer air (in the winter my face is covered by a balaclava – I don’t smell anything except snot), the physical pleasure of the ride, the pride of accomplishment, not to mention the good feeling that comes from living our lives according to our values and teaching them to our children. We’re learning to live our lives (not just eat) more seasonally.

Michael provides tips on winter bakfiets riding and Canada-tested outerwear to stay warm on the road:

One very significant detail about riding our bakfiets in fresh, rutted snow is that I lower the seatpost slightly. Combined with the very shallow seat tube angle and my thick-soled boots, I am able to put both feet flat on the ground without dismounting, so the only problem is glare ice. I ride with studded tires, but not studded boots. There are some Winnipeg-winter advantages. First, there isn’t even a hint of a hill anywhere. Second, the temperature in the sun stays below freezing for at least two months in a row, so there is no ice, just hard-packed snow — which is a better surface than the summertime pothole-ridden streets. The two most essential items for getting through the winter were the canopy (the kids very rarely complained of the cold) and the pogies (my hands were never cold, even when the temperature was -35C). In fact, I was generally warmer bicycling than I had been the previous winter driving — I stayed warm from the moment I stepped outside until I arrived at my destination.

The pogies we use are made by Dogwood Designs in Alaska. We bought them from another Alaskan company, Relevate Designs. Fatbikes.com has the same pogies, but a bigger selection. Another company that makes fairly well-liked pogies is Moose MittsThese are the wool gloves that I wear underneath. One note on pogies (at least the big huge ones we use); they are very spacious, so it’s possible to store things in them. I generally keep a garage door opener in one (I clip it on my belt in warmer weather).

We both wear Bern skiing helmets (Baker for me, Muse for Melanie) in the winter, with balaclavas underneath. I wear ski goggles over helmet & balaclava, and carefully arrange it so the goggles won’t fog up, which can be tricky sometimes. Our favorite long underwear is ramboulliet wool from Rambler’s Way in New England. As an outer layer, I use a rain jacket and matching pants from MEC. They are waterproof and not really breathable, though the jacket has vents. On the bike, in addition to switching to Schwalbe Marathon Winter tires, I use MKS touring pedals, which are very good for clearing the snow from the bottom of my boots.

 

Posted in Biking with kids, Links and reviews, True Life Stories of the Carfree | 13 Comments

Family Bike Shopping Part V: The Final Verdict

(See also Parts I, II, III and IV)

In a final round of consideration, we looked at some of the higher-end bakfiets, looking for something essentially like Mike’s bike, but with a better raincover and a less finicky kickstand latch. The trimmest I found was the well-regarded Workcycles Bakfiets Short, which is available in the northeast US at Adeline Adeline in NYC (thanks Andy for the tip about this store, and don’t be fooled by their website, they stock both the “short” and the “long”). As it turned out, Angela was going to be in NYC for a weekend in late Sept, so she popped in for a test ride and absolutely loved it. It fit her fine at the lowest seat setting, and felt almost exactly the same as Mike’s box bike for sizing, and like Mike’s bike, there was room for us to consider lowering the seat height a bit more by replacing the stock saddle with something less cushy & sprung*. The kickstand stayed up solidly and engaged and disengaged easily. The bike also had an available high quality rain cover to fit solidly over two kids in the box.

Giant crate containing the new bike

After Angela came back home and reported on the ride, we mulled over our options (again). We decided that kickstand functionality and the high quality raincover were important enough in terms of day-to-day usability, especially since winter riding was one of our primary objectives in shopping, that it justified the cost (and the higher quality bike overall was a nice perk). The calculation may have been a bit different if we could have been confident we could find a solid raincover for Mike’s bike without having to hack it ourselves, or adapt the Joe Bike cover to fit Mike’s box, especially since we weren’t certain we’d even be able to get a Joe Bike cover since they’ve discontinued the Box Bike line. While I enjoy a good DIY project, the raincover was important enough that we weren’t willing to just “figure it out later.” We wanted it to actually work.

We decided that if the Workcycles could fit our piccolo rack, we would go with it. But how to figure out if our rack would fit? Well, as luck would have it, I was going to be in NYC in October on a trip with H to visit friends. So H and I hauled the burley rack and hardware along with us on the bus (Note to locals: Worldwide Bus out of Alewife to NYC is great and you don’t have to slog downtown for the bus), made the pilgrimage to AdelineAdeline, and took the bike for a spin. As promised, the kickstand really stayed up, handling was solid, and for me, the fit on this bike was a bit superior to the box-bike. I think the handlebars may have been slightly farther from the seat, or perhaps the angle on the handle grips was more comfortable, but I didn’t measure so I can’t be certain. The box was beautiful and polished, a bit more solidly constructed than on the box bike with a stronger bench. I swear the bike was glowing.

So much bubble wrap!

So imagine my deep sadness when I couldn’t see any way for our rack to fit. There weren’t eyelets in the right places to install directly, and bracketing to the seat stay would have been hampered by the location of the wheel lock.  I talked with Frank, the adeline adeline mechanic, and let him know our dilemma, that we wanted this bike, but we needed our rack to fit. He sat down and pondered  and came up with a few good ideas. He was pretty confident he could get the rack to fit.

So, with a deep breath, and trusting that Frank could pull off the rack install, we put down a deposit on our new family bike, and left our rack and hardware in Frank’s capable hands.

On Halloween Monday, our new bike arrived in a giant crate, shipped from NYC. We unscrewed the crate, rolled out the bike, and unwrapped the bike from mountains of bubble wrap (this bike had better have a nice long life to make up for it’s carbon footprint from shipping alone…), and it is a beauty. Frank pulled off a fabulous install of our rack but the stock rack can be screwed right back on if we ever want to switch it back to the original. He even moved the included rear light to our rack and installed it very cleanly. Most importantly, H’s piccolo fits behind the bike like a dream. They even match! (That was pure luck though, red was the only color they had left. Obviously this bike was meant for us).

We’ve been riding the bike for a few days (though not yet with the trailer bike, I want to get solid on the handling before adding that variable), and so far, it seems to meet all our qualifications. I did drop-off and pickup on Tuesday, including a 4-ish mile round trip to pick up R from daycare and H from after-school down past Porter Square. It handled like a dream. The kids absolutely loved sitting in front (they were comparing notes on who could see farther) and the bike was wonderfully stable. It felt no different with two kids than with one, other than being heavier. This is in stark contrast to our Xtra, which handles fabulously with one child, but leaves a fair amount to be desired when riding with two. I felt so confident riding, stops and starts were easy, getting on and off the bike with the step-through frame was a breeze, and random kid wiggles barely influenced the handling. Getting the bike on and off the kickstand is smooth, and I love being able to leave the bike up parked on the kickstand with or without the kids in it. It is rock solid. The rain cover indeed looks great, and comes on and off easily, though we haven’t actually had weather yet, so further report on that will have to wait. With some doing, the bike does fit in our parking place. Getting it in, around our fire escape stairs is do-able. Backing it out is harder and is going to take some practice. It’s a very good thing we didn’t get something bigger. Any longer and getting it in around the fire escape stairs and into the spot would be impossible. So far, the gearing feels great and we’re getting used to shifting the internally geared hub gently. It’s possible we may sometimes wish for something a bit lower on big hills. Not sure yet how adaptable that will be. For now, we’re absolutely loving the bike as it is.

With the rain cover

We anticipate getting about 3 years of solid use out of this bike, until R is 5 and H is 8, with both kids riding in front in bad weather, and H pedaling behind in good weather or on errands where we need more cargo space. Once R can pedal on his own, we’ll likely switch to a tandem+trailer bike set up. We’re keeping our Xtra, which I think will actually be superior to this bike for cargo only and a good lighter weight one-kid option. We also sometimes have need for two separate two-kid bikes to arrange drop-off and pick-up logistics (in which case I’ll take the Xtra since handling it is less of an issue for me). I anticipate that this will be our go-to kid bike, especially in bad weather. For once, I may be looking forward to winter riding (though you should probably ask me again in 2 months or so).

If you’ve followed along on all this shopping, you might have noticed a strong upward trend in the prices of the bikes we considered. We started out considering the Sun, which at about $700, is extremely affordable by cargo bike standards, and ended up at the workcycles, which clocks in at $2700 (and thats before shipping and rain cover). It’s a good thing we didn’t keep mulling over our options — who knows how much we would have spent then! For our family, this is a use of our hard-earned money that dramatically improves our life for the next several years. It’s a purchase that improves our ability to ride happily as a family, to ride more safely and confidently, and to ride through a New England winter. We have enough money to go for it only because we are not supporting a family car, which costs at least double that for only one year. So, we consider this money well spent. We’re looking forward to the rides and will keep you posted (and as always, if you are local to Cambridge and are considering this or a similar bike, please be in touch for a test ride). I hope though, that as I walked you through our process, it was clear that there are other great options out there that might be more within reach for your family (see below for a few more that we ruled out somewhere along the way**). If you are in the market, good luck. And happy riding.

The piccolo fits!

——————

* Does anyone have nominations for a saddle they’d like to see on this bike? I haven’t decided yet if we need to switch it out, but if we do, we need something with less distance between the top of the seat post and the top of the saddle itself when installed. Judging by eye, this saddle has something like 5″ distance. Obviously would also need to be good for an upright riding posture, and now that we have such a nice looking bike, I think it should look rather stately as well. I’m iffy on whether leather would be OK given outdoor storage (though it will be covered, that’s certainly not 100%), but a treated leather might be OK. Any ideas?

** A few additional notes on a couple more bikes we considered and why they got kicked off the list, but they might be right for you:

The Madsen: Pros: cost (about $1500), stability, step-through frame, easy hauling of multiple kids. Cons: no adaptability for kids to pedal, no rain cover

Bike Friday Family Tandem with single trailer behind for now, and piccolo behind for later:  Pros: Cost (starting at $1500, but would likely pay more once customized, so less than the workcycles, but not exactly cheap, especially with a trailer purchase as well), longevity (we would use the bike forever, long past when our kids are grown) Cons: Less easy cargo capacity (though panniers can work, they are more tedious to load), limited weather protection, but mostly, I really hate riding with trailers. They make me nervous on the road and I feel disconnected from my kids. If you don’t mind a trailer and one of your kids is big enough to pedal, this is a great way to get a two-kid set-up that will last essentially forever.

Halloween bike (that's Glinda the good witch and a flying monkey in there)

 

Posted in Biking with cargo, Biking with kids, Child-related issues, Links and reviews | 38 Comments

Family Bike Shopping Part IV: The third and fourth bikes we almost bought, Joe Bike & Neat Bike Box Bikes

(See also part I, part II & part III)

After ruling out the Zigo, I was able to take our friend’s Gazelle Cabby for a spin. Now, we weren’t actually considering a Cabby for reasons I’ll get into in a minute, but before riding the cabby, I hadn’t been thinking a Bakfiets-style bike, with the kids in a box in front, would be right for us. I was focusing on winter riding stability and thought I’d prefer a trike. But after riding our friend’s Cabby, I realized that the two-wheeled set-up might work really well. It felt substantially more stable with two kids loaded than our Xtracycle does, but was still quite maneuverable. The stability on the wide kickstand was fabulous for loading and unloading. With the kids held low to the ground and contained in a box, we’d likely feel more secure and be more willing to ride in iffy conditions.

Now, we didn’t actually consider the cabby for two reasons. First, we didn’t think we could get it locally (though it turns out I was wrong, there was one available at Portland Velocipede in Maine — it may still be there). The second reason was that the back end would not have been easily compatible with our burley piccolo trailer bike, and we could not have used a seat-post-mounted trailer bike because when the seat is set low for Angela, there is no seat-post to mount to. So after that ride we were convinced a bakfiets might be the way to go, but the Cabby wasn’t it.

I started looking for bakfiets-style bikes that would fit a standard back rack, and thus be likely to work with our trailer bike, and our friend Brian suggested looking into the Joe Bike Box Bike. As it turns out, when we contacted them, Joe Bike only had one 2011 Box Bike left. They confirmed it should work well with a standard rack. It’s very trim for a bakfiets so we had hopes it would fit in our parking space. We actually seriously considered getting it.  But as it it happened, the last 2011 Box Bike, indeed the very last such bike to be sold by Joe Bike ever (they are replacing this bike with another in their line up), was bright pink. I really really tried, and I knew H would probably love it, but I just couldn’t quite do a bright pink bike. Then Brian mentioned a guy in Maine building on the same frames (these are the Chinese “Carrier Pigeon” frames built up with much better parts), who turned out to be this guy, Mike Gilheany of NEAT Bikes.

So, after finding out Mike indeed had similar bikes in a somewhat more tasteful red, we made a weekend trip up to Portland Maine on the Amtrak Downeaster (as a result, R now refers to all trains as “downeaster”) to try out his bike, and we really loved it (the beautiful September weather and lovely beaches also certainly made a nice impression). It is indeed very trim for a bakfiets-style bike, only a bit longer than our Xtracycle, and the box is about 25″ wide, actually narrower than our Xtra handlebars. At about 60-65 pounds, it felt much lighter than the cabby (which my friends say weighs in at about 80-90 pounds), and we got used to the handling quickly. At the lowest seat setting, Angela fit on the bike, though fit would have been better with a different seat (with less cushiness) and we would have planned to switch that out. The kids absolutely loved it, and we loved biking around Portland and getting to meet Mike. The price on this bike (roughly $1300-$1800 depending on components) was within reach for us. Indeed, this price places a bakfiets-style bike about on par with a new longbike with child seat, so folks in the northeast who are parsing their family bike options should definitely keep this Mike’s bike in mind. Bakfiets purists will scoff that this the frame is made in China and say ominous things about whether the bike will really last. But most frames are fabricated in China, and we had word from a family that has heavily used this bike for about three years, including parking it outdoors, that their’s was holding up with absolutely no issues, so we were fairly confident it would hold up to our treatment. The other huge plus for this bike was that of all the bikes we considered, this was the only one that would have taken our Burley Piccolo rack with absolutely no modification required. We just could have screwed it right on the frame.

There were however a couple drawbacks. The latch for the kickstand on this bike was finicky, and the kickstand didn’t really stay up well while riding. I thought this might just be wear and tear on Mike’s heavily used demo bike, but I found a couple similar reports about the Joe Bike and checked in with our friend who had rides this bike and she had the same issue. So it looked like something we’d need to actually think about and fix, or just decide live with. The second issue was that the box rain cover wasn’t fabulous, and according to a friend with this bike, only really fits over one kid and she just ended up usually skipping it. There was some possibility that the Joe Bike Box Bike raincover might fit, but I wasn’t able to get details on how that one would have connected to the box, and since Joe Bike is retiring the Box Bike line, it seemed iffy at best.

We very nearly signed on the dotted line with Mike before leaving Portland, but we wanted to think on it just one more time. Of all the bikes I’ve described so far, this is one I know we really would have been happy with overall had we gone with it. I’d definitely encourage folks in the area to touch base with Mike, and if you make a day trip to Portland, you can also check out the bikes at Portland Velocipede. They usually have one or two cargo & kid bikes in stock.

Next time, the final verdict.

Posted in Biking with kids, Child-related issues, Links and reviews, Recreation and Travel | 3 Comments

Family Bike Shopping Part III: The second bike we almost bought, the Zigo Leader

(See also Part I for info on why we were shopping and what we were looking for and Part II for the first bike we ruled out)

After ruling out the Sun Atlas, the next bike we considered was the Zigo Leader. It looked like it would have great weather protection, and since it was a trike, great stability in iffy conditions. It had eyelets for a rear rack, so there was a chance our burley piccolo would be compatible for H to pedal behind, and if not, Zigo said the bike worked with seat-post mounted trailer bikes (and it looks like they may be selling their own). I wasn’t sure about parking, but figured since it comes apart (the front “child pod” detaches and turns into a jogging stroller or a separate independent bike trailer), we’d potentially have multiple storage options. As a small frame with a huge range of heights on the seatpost, it looked like fit for Angela (5′ 1″), one of our biggest concerns, had the potential to be pretty good. That was around the time I posted a plea for test rides, and the company generously put us in touch with a local family that owns a zigo so I was able to try it out.

Upon riding, it was clear the Zigo wasn’t the right bike for us. The turning radius was very wide, wide enough that I would not have been comfortable with it in traffic, though it may have been suitable for path riding. It’s possible that some of my discomfort was due to being used to bikes, not trikes, but I still couldn’t see feeling comfortable with such limited ability to maneuver quickly.  The bike I rode was the “double,” with room for two kids in front (total weight limit 80 pounds, so comparable to a bike trailer but much lower than most any cargo bike), and the “single” would likely turn tighter, so had we gone with this bike, we would have gotten the single, but I doubt the improvement would have been enough for me to feel comfortable. Another thing that concerned me was that it was heavier than it looked, weighing in at about 75 pounds. That’s not really an outlier for a two-kid bike, but there are heavy cargo bikes that feel surprisingly light and nimble. By contrast, the Zigo really felt heavy even with no kids loaded. The final thing that made it clear this wasn’t the bike for us was that the bike just didn’t seem to be made for the type of utilitarian treatments our gear gets. I was very concerned about the longevity of the fabric “pod” for the kids, especially given that the bike would be stored outside, even if we covered it. We know from experience (we store our Xtra outside) that even when we intend to keep a bike covered, it still sees plenty of rain. Because the bike comes apart, we probably could have stored the trailer in the basement to get around this, and might have considered it if we really loved the bike overall, but it would have been a pain to detach every night. Overall, it seemed like a bike designed for occasional use, not the type of daily beating we subject our gear to.

I could see this bike possibly filling the right niche for some families, perhaps folks looking for primarily recreational riding, or who prefer a trike but don’t have enough cash for one of the European trikes, or who could make real use of the ability to convert from a jogging stroller to a bike (we only really needed the bike). At about $1400 for the 3 speed and $1600 for the 7-speed, it comes in at a relatively reasonable price-point (for a multiple kid family bike anyway), perhaps more accessible than most of the other options where the kids are held low and carried in front. If you think this might be the bike (or rather, trike) for you, in the process of considering it, we found out that it is available at REI, which has a surprisingly generous return policy, so it might be possible to purchase and try with minimal risk, even if you don’t have a local dealer or a local family to borrow a ride from.

Next time, the third and fourth bikes we almost bought, but the decision is getting closer, I promise.

Posted in Biking with kids, Child-related issues, Links and reviews | 3 Comments