On marriage, parenting, biking and blame

A few weeks ago, Angela got into an accident with our brand spanking new bakfiets.

She caught the front wheel in a really bad pothole turning onto a poorly maintained street/alley near H’s Hebrew school. They went over hard. There was no traffic. Everyone was fine. R was in the bike but he was fine (blessings on that bakfiets box. It’s really hard to get hurt in that thing).

When she told me about this that night, she insisted the bike was perfectly fine. I, however, was pretty worried. I’m no bike mechanic, but I know there is some important stuff in and around that wheel  – the generator for the lights, and the connection of the steering rod to the front wheel in particular. But she was right, when I rode the bike, it felt exactly the same. Nothing obvious looked amiss, except a little scratch on the box, and the lights still worked, so we were just glad it wasn’t actually a bad accident and we avoid that alley now.

Except then about a week later, the generator lights stopped working.

It turned out that the plastic tab on the hub that the lights plug into broke in the fall, but was hanging together loosely until another bump came along and it broke all the way. The broken tab is pretty tightly integrated with the hub itself. Some initial conferring with both a mechanically savvy friend and one of our favorite cargo bike savvy local shops indicates it’s going to be a difficult or at least expensive repair, as Shimano does not import the part we need, though working out a different plug may be possible with some creative soldering (the generator still produces current fine, it’s the connection to the lights that’s broken).

The whole thing put me in a really foul mood. This is our perfect bike! We’ve only had it about 4 months and Angela already broke one of the really cool things about it! As our family bike “manager” I’m now stuck figuring out what to do to fix it. It’s something I don’t really know about and something not just any mechanic can help with, which means it’s daunting, and if the whole hub/wheel needs replacing, it has the potential to be pretty damn expensive. Sometimes I like a new puzzle, but I just solved those other bike problems! I don’t want to solve this one! I don’t want our perfect new beautiful bike to be broken!

In short, I was being a big whiny brat.

And even though I wasn’t saying it directly, I definitely blamed Angela.

She should be safer. She should pay more attention. Just open your eyes and you can see the potholes! She should at least be a lot more sympathetic when I’m stuck fixing something she broke.

After a week or so of me stewing and fretting, she called me on being more or less an asshole. I hemmed and hawed. I said she really should pay more attention. I said she should at least be nice and understand that when you have weird bikes and not a ton of mechanical experience, this kind of thing is a real PITA. I said maybe I’d feel better if at least she said sorry, in a genuine sort of way.

I saw the flash of anger in her eyes, but then she didn’t say anything. She took a deep breath. She started to open her mouth, about ready to muster something of a genuine apology, and I suddenly saw clearly what a jerk I was being. I said, ”Stop. Don’t say anything. It’s just a bike. We’ll fix it. I’ve got this all mixed up. I’m the one who had an accident where our son got four stitches and you were nothing but gracious and understanding and didn’t once make me feel like a crappy parent or a crappy biker. And that actually was my fault and someone actually did get hurt. Of course you didn’t do this on purpose. I’m sorry.”

I still have to decide what to do about that hub. But that’s not why I wrote this. I wrote this to apologize for being a judgmental whiny jerk, and to acknowledge out loud that sometimes the interpersonal piece of family biking is tricky. It takes a lot of trust to send your kids out on a bike with your partner (apparently it also takes trust for your partner to ride on a freakishly expensive bicycle that serves as a proto-third-child…). We’re all exposed out there, and it’s not just that we’re exposed as unprotected bikers on busy streets built only for cars. We’re also exposed as parents. People judge us every day for riding with our kids, and some say outright (in front of the kids even) that it’s not something a responsible parent would do. The cultural norm is that it’s our duty to encase our kids in a big “safe” car and then we wouldn’t even notice the potholes. Sometimes this social reality means I start on the defensive, that I demand perfection, of both of us, that we can’t make mistakes or we’ll prove them right. But mistakes come. We both make them. We’re both doing the best we can, and on balance, I’m so grateful I have a wife who loves to ride with our kids, and even loves that new bike as much as I do, even if she did hit a nasty pothole.

Posted in Biking with kids, Problems and issues | 12 Comments

A warm bikey glow

Last weekend, a collection of cargo and family bike folks gathered at our place. Aaron Naparstek, streetsblog founder, is here in Cambridge instead of Brooklyn for the year, and he and I put together the event to contribute to the Revolutions per Minute crowdsourced documentary by Liz Canning. If you haven’t seen the trailer, check it out, and consider contributing footage! Cambridge MA may not be Portland OR, but we’re not doing half bad judging by the looks of our driveway. The short ride we took to film out on the minuteman bikeway definitely inspired us. We’re planning for more group rides as the weather gets more reliable. Many thanks to the many friends who joined us, and especially to Dan Lovering for providing his filming equipment, time and journalism skill for the project.

It was quite the weekend, because the next day, a friend of ours, Sam Christy, had arranged a bike light skillshare, where he taught a collection of about 10 of us how to make his design of a simple, very bright, generator powered bike light. A local worshop contributed space, expertise and tools, and I got to spend the afternoon soldering, filing, and wiring with old and new friends. The lights aren’t done yet, and we’ll still need to buy or build a wheel to power them, but after we get that worked out, they’ll be going on our Xtracycle. It was so empowering to spend time with such a generous and enthusiastic bunch.

If this was just one weekend in the middle of winter, I can’t wait to see what spring and summer bring. Both events were a great reminder of just how vibrant our biking community is around here.

Posted in Biking, Cambridge and Boston area, Links and reviews, Living locally | 6 Comments

True Life Stories of the Carfree: Carla, Adam, Rosa (4), and Quincy (2), Seattle WA

Reading at the bust stop

Here is the fifth in our series about families living carfree — please let us know if you would like us to feature your family! This installments comes from an interview with Carla Saulter, who is better known as Bus Chick. I was able to talk to Carla on the phone a while back about being part of a carfree family, which was a huge treat for me since I’ve been reading about her bus travels for the last several years.

The people of Seattle have known Bus Chick for a while. She’s been a voice of transit in a city in which 84% of people or more own cars. “Seattle thinks of itself as a green city,” says Carla, “but there is a lot of car ownership. There is a pretty good bus system and one light rail line, which runs from downtown south to the airport, so really, most residents of Seattle who use transit use the bus.” Carla’s family lives in the central district, directly east of downtown. It’s close in, but not one of the densest or most served by transit. However, they are within walking distance of six routes, which can take them to all parts of the city. Their primary modes of transportation are buses and walking.

In terms of managing their day-to-day lives as a family, they have grocery and drug stores nearby. They also have a daycare, parks, two community centers, and a library within walking distance. This means that most of what the kids need day-to-day are right in the neighborhood. Before having kids, they went to a co-op for groceries, but with two children, that is generally too difficult. Delivery has been a life-saver for them. Now they get groceries delivered when the weather is bad, and support their neighborhood grocery store as much as possible (especially since they only have one grocery within reasonable walking distance, and its survival is obviously important to the families in the neighborhood without cars).

The biggest challenges they face are the same challenges that every parent faces –  juggling and balancing everything. It’s a challenge to keep the kids happy, get errands done, deal with the weather, and manage the many things she has to carry. Figuring out all of the logistics is difficult, and much more so with two children than with one.

Before she met her husband, Carla had been a serious bus user, but was still, in her words, “clinging to car use.” When she met her husband-to-be, he told her that that he did not own a car. She was inspired, and by the time they were married neither of them had a car.

Carla does see drawbacks to being carfree, even though it is a lifestyle that she enjoys and is committed to. She worries about what growing up carfree will be like for her children because they live in a place where being carfree so uncommon and the association with not having a car is that you are poor. She’s raising her kids not to see that as a bad thing, but, as Carla says, “the kids are are going to deal with the implications of our choices whether we admit it or not.” Another big drawback is the unpredictability of the changes in transit. “We chose our home very carefully due to its proximity to transit stops, routes, and services we can walk to. Now, one of our bus stops has been closed — for stop consolidation — and two of the routes we use most frequently are slated to be cut.”

But balancing out these costs are a huge range of benefits. The bus provides ample bonding time with kids and for Carla that’s one of the biggest benefits of using transit. As Carla says, “Rosa recently started reading and now reads to us–very beginning books, of course–on the bus!” For Carla’s kids, exercise will be a normal part of their routine, and she hopes that their ability to get around on their own without a car will give them confidence as well as mobility as they get older. Carla and Adam specifically chose a neighborhood that they really wanted to be a part of. For Carla, being carfree “teaches you to make the best of the options that you have, not just drive away.”

Why did Carla go carfree and why has she stuck with it as her family has grown? Carla says, “I started riding on the bus due to guilt about pollution and sprawl…Environmentalism is a part of it, but only part. It’s such a different way of being in a city.” She also says that she wants her children to know that she tries to live her beliefs. “Every value I have I trace directly back to riding transit — equality, being part of my community, making my community a great place to be, and sharing resources equally…There are times that I hate the bus, but there’s something for me that’s romantic about 30 or more people riding together. You don’t know where they are from or what’s going on with them, and maybe the only thing they have in common is this one ride…I like being on the ground in my community and sharing a place with people.”

Read more of Carla’s wisdom on  her website and at Grist, where she has written a guide to bringing kids on public transit (without driving yourself or other riders nuts) and many great pieces that we love, like those about talking to kids about being carfree, why public transportation is good for kids, and why cities are safe for kids.

At the bus stop on a rainy day

Posted in Links and reviews, Public transportation, True Life Stories of the Carfree | 6 Comments

On sometimes driving.

With one notable exception*, most of our living is done within a couple miles of our home. R’s daycare is about six blocks away. H’s school is about four blocks away. Groceries are about a mile away in Porter Square for the store we don’t like, or a little over two miles for the store we do like and deem worth the (heavily loaded) bike ride. Our religious community is about a mile away outside Davis Square. We met many of our closest friends through this community, where many members prioritize not driving on Shabbat, so it turns out they also live within a couple miles of us. Most of our other close friends are from school, the neighborhood or our local bike community connections, so they’re close by too.

Given this, we don’t really have a lot of problems figuring out how to maintain friendships with people who live “far away” or in regions with poor transit access. But every now and then, an important event comes up somewhere that feels impossibly distant. We need to get there, but it’s not going to happen by train, bus or bike.

Enter the car share.

Today was one of those days. An important get together of several families was happening in West Roxbury. From North Cambridge by public transit it would have been about 2 hours on a restrictive Sunday schedule, or 12+ miles by bike. By this spring, I think we’ll be able to do that by bike, or perhaps a combo of bike+T (which works on a Sunday), but for now, it was too much. We planned ahead and booked our zipcar, and first thing this morning put our carshare prep into place (dig carseats out of basement, check map of car location, find access card for the car, check and recheck the directions, send Angela out to pick up the car…).

Except that when Angela came back from “picking up the car” it turned out that we didn’t have a car. She had forgotten to actually complete the reservation, so it was 9:15 and we were stranded.

A quick check revealed a zipcar in inman square so I started suiting up the kids in helmets/coats/mittens and figuring out how to fit both kids and car seats on the bikes but then Angela also checked Relay Rides** where I have a membership that we’ve used only once. Last time we checked, there were almost no cars in our neighborhood, but today, there were several, including one about 5 blocks away. We grabbed a reservation, and I biked out to get the car.

Now running terribly late, we wrestled the carseats in, threw the junk in the car, strapped in the kids and were on our way (and by some small miracle, no one had gotten angry and the kids were in good shape). But man was I grumpy. Because of the Relay Rides switch, I was now driving (Angela hasn’t set up a membership yet), and driving really stresses me out (Angela is usually our driver when it’s needed). With all the delay, the whole ordeal was taking us about the same total amount of time as the T and bus would have, but was costing us a lot more (about $45 total).

But as I got back behind the wheel, my driving skills came back (I guess you don’t really forget how to do it– kind of like riding a bike!), I remembered it’s not all that bad, I had a great navigator and the kids were loving it (on the way there anyway, the ride home was another story, but that’s true on the subway too). It was a Sunday morning, so traffic was light. All in all, it was a pleasant drive.

I realized as I settled into the drive that all those logistical hurdles that feel so impossible to me about driving, getting the car, strapping in the kids, answering their eight million questions because we hardly ever do this and thus they find it fascinating, feeling like it’s just way too much of a pain to possibly be worth it, come mostly from not doing it much, and are just another version the same hurdles that other parents face at the prospect of biking or riding transit, both of which are made substantially more daunting by adding children to the mix.  I always try to remember that these things aren’t necessarily easy until you practice them, but I don’t actually experience that frustration myself very often anymore, that exasperation that anyone could possibly expect me to get somewhere I need to go this way — are you kidding me? This is impossible!

But today, I felt it, and I took it as a reminder that, despite how much we really love biking and transit around here, and how much we want to let other parents know that getting around this way can be wonderful, and can even make life easier and nicer in many ways, changing anything about the way we get around, especially with kids in tow, is not a small or easy task.

I was grateful to have access to the car, and grateful to the neighbor who made their car available to us via Relay Rides (have a car you don’t drive much? Consider sharing it!), because all told, it probably still was easier than an extra long round-trip transit ride on a bus and two trains (especially the ride home smack dab in the middle of R’s nap time). It wasn’t exactly easy. Or completely painless. But it got us there when we needed it, and was a good reminder that change, even change for the better, is not necessarily an easy thing.


*The exception merits another post entirely, as I’ve been commuting to Providence, RI for part of the week since Sept by a combination of foot/T/train and bike.

** Relay rides doesn’t advertise here and didn’t pay or give us anything for this mention, we’re just occasional customers who think that peer-to-peer carsharing is a really good idea.

Posted in Cambridge and Boston area, Car sharing, Problems and issues | 5 Comments

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 | 15 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:


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.


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 | 24 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.




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