To those who think biking alone in the city may seem perilous, biking with kids in the city can seem downright reckless. But there are lots of options to bring the kids safely along with you as you bike around the city.
From bakfietsen to Xtracycles, Kidical Mass DC, WABA, DDOT Safe Routes to School are presenting The ABC’s of Family Biking to show off and demonstrate kid-friendly bike options this Saturday, 11 am to 2 pm at the Capitol Hill Montessori School at Logan, 215 G Street NE.
Whether they are add-ons to an existing bikes, such as bike seats and trailers, or full cargo bikes, like longtails and boxbikes, a number of products can help you and your kids explore new parts of the city together and perhaps even create a new daily commuting routine.
As the organizer of Kidical Mass DC, I love to share the ins-and-outs of biking with kids. Biking around DC with my son during the past 2 years has been more fun than I ever could have imagined. It’s a joy for both of us because my son loves that we can pull over on the road whenever we see anything interesting. And I get a very real thrill that unlike other parents in the area, I don’t have to worry about hunting for parking when I’m dropping him off at daycare. Plus, by using the bike to run everyday errands with him in tow, I’m teaching him that bikes are a safe, useful, and normal way of getting around.
I’ve learned a lot about the different approaches to biking with kids and think that with the right knowledge, nearly any parent can share the delights of cycling with their own children. Below is a summary of some of the most common cycling options for parents who have kids aged from infancy to early school age, listed in order of cost.
Bike Seats ($)
If you want to try biking with your children without making a big investment in gear, aftermarket bike seats are a great first step. Easily adaptable to a variety of bike types and brands, relatively cheap, and offering the intimacy of having your child within arm’s reach during the whole ride, bike seats that bolt onto either the front stem or rear rack of your bike are a great economical choice.
The most commonly-seen bike seats bike seats are Topeak’s rear seat (ubiquitous in bike shops) and the iBert front-mounted seat, a neon green contraption that is outstanding for its ability to fit onto a broad range of bike types and sizes.
I have used both front and rear seats and there are pluses and minuses to both. Front seats are unbeatable for staying in contact with and monitoring the comfort of your child. Your child gets to see everything that’s going on around him or her, and drivers can’t miss the fact that you’re child is with you.
A front seat’s main disadvantage, in my view, is that they’re only usable for 2 or maybe 3 years because most have a maximum weight limit of 35 pounds. Rear-mounted seats, though, will hold kids weighing up to 50 pounds. Kids riding behind cyclists are also a little more protected from the weather than kids riding on the front of the bike.
You should keep a few considerations in mind before you head out to the local bike shop. First, what kind of handlebars does your bike have? Front-mounted seats go best with upright or mountain-type handlebars. Also, some front-mounted seats only work with certain stem diameters and otherwise require adaptors to be used.
Additionally, make sure your kickstand is sturdy and well-balanced enough to handle the additional weight of a child on your bike. You might even want to look into aftermarket centerstands like this one available from Velo Orange to provide more balanced support for your bike.
One more consideration: I strongly recommend using a mixte, loop, or other step-through frame if you’re going to bike with a child on the back of your bike. It makes it easier to get on and off your bike without kicking your child in the face (ask me how I know!).
With a price point of $100 to $200, child seats are the most economical way to start biking with kids if you already have an appropriate bike.
For many years, trailers were the ultimate bike accessory for the hard-core, year-round cycling parent in the United States. They attach to nearly any kind of bike, include canopies to keep out the cold and rain, can carry a significant amount of cargo, and can accommodate a broad age range of passengers. Many trailers also convert to strollers, meaning that parents can potentially address two needs with a single tool.
If you’re on a limited budget and need to invest in a single kid-hauling accessory that will carry your child from an infant (in a car-seat, of course) to school-age, trailers are probably your best bet. There is also a strong resale economy for trailers, so it’s usually easy to either find a used trailer online or sell your own trailer when you’re finished with it.
The two big names in the trailer world are Burley and Chariot. Made in the U.S.A. and Canada respectively, Burley and Chariot offer trailers in a wide range of sizes and weights at prices ranging from $300 to close to $700 depending on the size and features. Thanks to its many years in the business, Burley has a fantastic customer support system that offers replacement parts even for models that haven’t been made in five or more years. Chariot produces a similar fleet of trailers but focuses more on the multi-sport market: they offer conversion kits for walking, jogging, and even skiing to increase the versatility of their trailers.
A recent innovation, longtails are a great compromise between the speed and maneuverability of a regular two-wheeled bike and the cargo capacity of a boxbike. The original longtail is Xtracycle’s Free Radical. The Free Radical is a frame extension that bolts on to an existing bike frame in the place of the rear wheel, moving the rear wheel back and adding an extended platform to the back of the bike.
Since first developing the Free Radical, Xtracycle has continued to refine its design and has spawned several variations on the original concept of bikes with extended tails. The company partnered with Surly to design an all-in-one longtail bike, the Big Dummy, that incorporates the longtail concept in a single frame and is therefore sturdier and able to handle larger loads. Recent other variations have included Xtracycle’s Radish (a lighter-weight, step-through frame), the Yuba Mundo, and the Kona Ute.
Longtails are a great way to carry multiple children at the same time or to carry older kids. Even after they outgrow bike seats and trailers, kids can perch on the rear decks of these versatile bikes. With a little creativity, you can even fit three kids at a time on a longtail.
Longtails are relatively lightweight for their cargo capacity and, though even a simple FreeRadical conversion kit costs more than some trailers, are a great investment for their ability to accommodate many different combinations of cargo and kids. FreeRadicals are about $500 while other longtail styles can cost from $1,100 to $2,000.
The true SUVs of the cycling world, cargo trikes and bakfietsen are low-maintenance, weatherproof, nearly bombproof kid-hauling machines. Both types of cargo bikes feature a dramatically extended front end with a large, sturdy front box mounted on the frame. Cargo trikes have one rear wheel and two front wheels on either side of the box while bakfietsen (the Dutch plural for “boxbike”) have one rear wheel and one front wheel that sits in front of the box. Some bakfietsen sport a box large enough to comfortably accommodate even four children, or two children, a dog, and a bunch of groceries.
Equipped with weather canopies, plenty of cargo space, built-in seats with seatbelts, and sometimes even integrated lighting systems, boxbikes are the ultimate turn-key option for families who want to make a full commitment to going car-free or extremely car-light. They often feature fully enclosed shifting and braking systems for maximum weatherproofness, so keeping these bikes outside shouldn’t be a problem. This is especially important for those without dedicated garage space. Many boxbikes have chain guards while some even include full chain cases for the ultimate maintenance-free drivetrain.
As you might expect, all these features come with a price. Boxbikes typically start at $2,700 and, depending on capacity and other factors, can increase in price to $4,000 or more.
Of course, that’s about 10 times more than most people would ever dream of paying for a bike. But $4,000 is about one-third the cost of the very cheapest car you can purchase new. Plus the annual maintenance costs for the boxbike are practically nil. More than any other family biking tool, boxbikes are designed to serve as true car replacements, giving that price tag a different context and making them a worthwhile investment. Additionally, considering how much space car seats take up in the back seat of a sedan, a cargo trike or bakfiets could even carry more children than your typical family sedan!
If you want to explore these options further, be sure to stop by the ABC’s of Family Biking this Saturday. Thanks to several helpful bike shops and a cadre of enthusiastic (evangelical, even) parent cyclists, we will be demonstrating many of the types and brands of bikes and bike equipment described above.
* available in local shops, either in-stock or by special order