Kidical Mass! Tips for family biking, Seattle-style
Madi Carlson and sons.
Update: ATTENTION SEATTLE BIKING FAMILIES! The 2nd Annual Seattle Kidical Massive is happening Saturday, September 17th.
Ballard pediatrician Julian Davies' weekday mornings are much like those of thousands of other parents in the area: He drops his two children off at school, runs a couple of errands and gets himself to work at the University of Washington's Pediatric Care Center on Roosevelt.
But unlike parents who run out to warm up the car for the kids in winter or swing by the coffee drive through for a caffeine jolt, Davies packs his bags and kids in rain, hail or shine, jumps on his Bullitt cargo bike and heads out.
Like a growing number of families in the Seattle area, Davies is a family biker, part of a movement that has mustered much strength in the past few years. He cycles with his kids on board his bike rather than driving a car.
Davies first tried family cycling in 2008 when his daughter, Drew, was 18 months old.
"I started with a front mounted child seat," Davies said. "She lost her mind with excitement." People at that time were using trailers and bike seats. It wasn't a culture or a movement, Davies said. Fast-forward to 2014, and parents are riding cargo bikes kitted out with platforms and electric assist as their primary mode of transportation.
"In lots of cities in this country, it was hard to find a person or to find families a couple of years ago," Davies said. "Now there's lots of support."
Connect with Others
Family bike riders aren't always people who have always loved to cycle, and want to adopt this mode as an extension of their previous biking lives. Noncyclists are taking to the trend for a variety of reasons, including the environment, exercise, and (as Wallingford Family Ride blogger Madi Carlson says) just because it's so much fun.
There wasn't anyone else doing what Carlson was doing in Las Vegas when she put a front seat on her husband's beach cruiser for her 1 year old and started family biking.
"It really did start as fun, and it didn't hurt that my first baby didn't like riding in the car." Carlson rode with her son around neighborhood paths, parks, and to the library. She moved to the Pacific Northwest a few months later, but there were still not many people biking with children.
"Over the last five years it has grown by leaps and bounds," Carlson said. "We bike every day, everywhere." Carlson now rides a Surly Big Dummy long tail in and around Seattle and writes about it on her popular website. She uses her car every one or two months. Her husband uses it every one or two weeks.
Photo: Joshua Huston
Paul Kisicki and family enjoying a ride.
Morgan Scherer, of Normandy Beach, uses her car only when someone is sick or there's an emergency. She runs Familybike Seattle, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting families in their quest to make family biking the way they get around. Familybike offers weeklong bike rentals, which is helpful to new people who want to try out transportation riding before buying an expensive bike.
"Rent the bikes and try them out in family life," Scherer said. "Come to a seminar and learn about safety and equipment, and integrate parenting into biking." Familybike offers information on safety concerns and what kinds of equipment is available, as well as times and dates of family rides.
There are, as Scherer points out on her website, many barriers to getting on a bike, especially with children. Infrastructure is a big one just for the city, Scherer said. "We encourage people to get involved with local greenways groups." These groups are keeping tabs on people and where they want to ride. In turn the city will create safer structures on that route.
When it comes to road safety, Scherer often advises people on road positioning. "People feel vulnerable on the roadways, especially on a bicycle," Scherer said. "We tend to hug the right side of the road." She encourages people to get out of the door zone, the area where parked cars open doors, and get into the bike lane. "Be more visible," she said. "It's far safer to be in the lane than to hug the right curb."
Transportation riding requires the ability to be flexible, deal with rain, deal with children, and deal with children who are done with riding for the day, Scherer said. "Biking as an individual is different."
As children get older, they have to be savvy enough to ride their own bikes as part of the family riding experience. "Drew is bike savvy," Davies said. "She rides just a bit behind on the curbside in the safe spot." Children have to prove that they have skills, and there is some research that suggests that children under the ages of 9 or 10 probably don't have the judgment of speed and hazards, Davies said.
There are always friends, family and drivers on the road who think family biking must be dangerous and that riders are crazy to put their kids on bikes in traffic. But with reasonable choices, family biking is as safe as riding in a car. Statistically, taking the bus is 10 times safer than taking the car, Davies said.
Slow Down and Enjoy
Families contemplating family biking should know that it can be a slow process and there needs to be a genuine connection and interest between partners. New riders should ask themselves if they are willing to do this by themselves.
Part of the reason that Tim and Anne King, Bryant, have had such a good run at family biking, is that they both do it. "Not one of us saying, "That's dangerous" and the other saying, "That's OK," Tim King said. "We've seen two parent riding that's forced," he added.
When new people start out they see all the beautiful images of family biking. They don't see what it's like to ride in wet and cold weather with wet and cold children. "There is no instruction manual and you will make mistakes," King said. "There will be great days and awful days."
Starting their blog, Car Free Days, in 2007 helped the Kings connect with other family bikers in other cities. People are doing the same thing in Massachusetts or Minneapolis, King said.
Their children, Gilly, now 13, and Pete, 11, are both on their own bikes. Anne and Tim King have ridden with them for six years. "They are confident in traffic," Anne King said.
Anne King says that family biking has changed their family dynamic. "Riding a bike causes you to slow down," she said. "You have to kind of embrace the unrushed feeling because your mode of transportation is slower."
The big benefit for the family is that they have unplugged time. "You are not in the car and not listening to the radio. You are outside and connecting with people," Anne King said. "That has seeped into our family life."
Davies notes that Seattle is becoming more and more bike friendly. In the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver, B.C. and Portland, Ore., may be further ahead of us: "They have wider, calmer streets than we do." But areas like Ballard are Portlandesque, even without a number of neighborhood greenways. "Seattle is good and getting better," Davies said.
Join the Kidical Mass
The idea is that family bikers, old and new, meet at a specified location and ride to a destination, preferably one where coffee, ice cream or snacks are available – a must when kids are involved. Riders can check out each other’s bikes, catch up on tips about city roads, best family biking trips, equipment and just about anything else.
Seattle rides are usually on residential streets, but in areas where family bikers are seen and recognized. They are short and fun routes geared toward helping families who might be starting out in the family biking world get comfortable on city streets. Basic guidelines include obeying traffic laws, being safe, and again, having fun.
Morgan Scherer runs Familybike Seattle. “Kidical Mass is a crowd source creation,” Scherer said. “Anyone can put on a Kidical Mass ride.” Starting a group is easy: contact other family bike riders online or by other means. Pick a date, a short trip with a fun destination, and ride together.
Kidical Mass began in 2008 in Eugene, OR, when founder Shane Rhodes wanted to get more children and families excited about riding. Groups sprouted up in Ballard and Seattle in 2009, and are now nationwide from Seattle to Tallahassee, and Burlington, Vt., to Southern California. Kidical Mass also has groups north of the border in Canada.
Christina Harper is a freelance writer who lives and works in Seattle. She is the mom of two daughters.
Editor's note: This updated article was originally published in June of 2014.