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September 20, 2012

Biking with 2 Big Kids to School

My 8-year old cruises the streets of London

Look left! No, look right! Look left and right! Biking with big kids is nerve-wracking especially when you bike in London where people drive on the other side of what you’re used to and roundabouts have weird rules of their own. Now the real question is not how to bike with 2 kids to school – there’s trailers for that – but how to bike with 2 big kids who aren’t street-smart to school. When we moved to our current home in London, I surveyed all possibilities to get to school with my 7- and 8-year old girls. I tried walking, taking the bus, riding the tube and whichever way I sliced it, the fastest and cheapest option was cycling to school. It literally cut commute time in half and it was good exercise. Since neither of my girls had ever biked on city streets and the young one was not even a proficient cyclist, how could I do it?

Photo gallery – click to enlarge:

The Cargo Bike Conundrum

At first I thought I was going to get one of those Dutch cargo bikes. You might have seen them around. It’s like a delivery bike for children. The adult pedals at the back and the handlebar is connected to a front box with benches for the kiddos. You can even get a rain tent and fancy padded seat inserts. They cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 – not cheap but cheaper than a car for sure.

I’m still not ruling them out for the winter but in fair weather, I don’t see the point. When I was researching them this summer, I stopped every single mom riding cargo bikes on the street to interview her. Are they easy to maneuver? Can big kids fit inside? How do you park them? Are they heavy? Do you like it?

At the end of the day, they seemed like a good alternative to a car but only if you have a spot to park them at home. That’s where I paused. No place to park them – we’re not in the ‘burbs anymore! For big kids I would have needed a three-wheeler and they measure at 27-37 inches in width. If I parked my cargo trike on the street, I ran the risk of it being stolen at night. That’s a lot of money on the street.

What ultimately made me reconsider was a conversation with a Dutch mom, Dutch moms being the gold standard of cycling moms in the entire universe. She was riding a cargo bike with two boys inside, about 5 and 7-years old.

Me: “I’m looking for a bike to bring my girls to school.”

Her: “How old are they?”

Me: “The youngest is 7 and the oldest is 8 1/2.”

Her: “Why doesn’t your oldest ride her own bike?”

Me: “She’s never ridden her bike on city streets before. It could be unsafe.”

Her: “Ah.”

That did it. If I didn’t let my little girl start some day, she’d never be street-smart. Riding her to school was defeating my philosophy of bringing up these girls as free-thinking independent girls. I knew then that I’d help her ride her bike to school with me in the background. I’d help her become a safe bike rider in a big city environment. Convincing my husband that his little girl wasn’t going to become road pizza was tricky – have another glass, dear – but I did it. Now came the logistics.

Cycling with a Big Child on the Same Bicycle

Most child seats are designed for children younger than age 5. Once the kids reach the 5-year mark, they’re expected to be bikers themselves. I looked around for bike seats that would accommodate older and heavier kids. There are basically two on the market: the Yepp Junior (from 20 to 35 kilos/44 to 77 pounds) and the Bobike Junior Plus (same weight limits but the seat can be folded). I decided to go with the Bobike because the seat can be folded and it looked like it offered better back support.

I called a bike dealer, ordered the bike seat and my husband mounted it. The moment of truth had come – we were free to ride!

UPDATE October 16, 2012 – We’ve been using the Bobike Junior Plus on my bike for 4 weeks now and twice the seat tipped over and slid down the bike frame. Fortunately my daughter didn’t fall off but it wasn’t a comfortable situation as I was riding down a busy street. Total pain to drag the bike back home on foot as the “collapsed” seat pressed on the back wheel. I took it to a bike shop and the mechanics all agree it’ll keep sliding on my bike because of how it’s designed. I’m obviously very unhappy and contacted the vendor who denies there is any problem with the seat. And yet, this blog documents the same problem. Search for Bobike Junior and read the Edit 7/11/11 + comment by Chicargo dated June 14, 2012. Same problem exactly. Whatever happens, the Bobike Junior doesn’t make it back on my bike – way too unsafe for my little girl. I’m going to look for a plan B.

The Logistics of a Cycling Caravan with a Child

The little one – check. She was safely seated and strapped into her seat behind me, weighing her full 49 pounds. Older one – not check. Should she ride in front of me or behind me? It did make a difference when it came to giving directions and safety. Was it easier to ride side by side, was it even advisable given angry car drivers? I decided that she would ride in front of me and I would yell out directions as loud I could, hoping that wouldn’t freeze in the middle of the street.

The first time was a test of nerves. My little girl has been known to turn right when told to turn left and to stop dead in her tracks when asked to speed up. I shook all my doubts away and convinced myself it would be OK. I got her to wear a really bright yellow reflective jacket and a yellow reflective helmet cover. She was a short bike rider but a yellow and reflective short bike rider! For added visibility, I strapped a blinking red light to her back and we were off in the wild of the city streets.

It’s been a week and we’ve had a few close calls, including a nasty argument with a cab driver, but she’s getting better at it. She’s also the only child her age at school who rides her bike to school. What I’m learning is:

  • She’s way shorter than most bike riders and trucks and vans simply don’t see her. I make sure I’m close behind and take a lot of space so drivers notice me and her by association.
  • She’s prone to driving very close to cars and sometimes in car parking spaces so as to be far from the traffic. I’ve told her to ride at least a car door away from cars to avoid unfortunate accidents when car passengers open up their doors without checking the road. She’s getting the hang of the right distance.
  • She doesn’t know anything about right of way at junctions and roundabouts. I don’t really know British traffic rules so I’m playing it safe, waiting for cars to be out of sight or blocking the way for her so as to create a visual screen for car drivers. Since I’m a big bike with a child at the back and a front basket with backpacks, I’m quite visible. At roundabouts, I engage first and tell her to ride by my side until we’re out of big traffic. Then she can speed up and take the lead again.
  • If cars don’t see her, they won’t stop for her. I’m teaching my little girl to make eye contact with car drivers before engaging on the street at junctions. She’s shy and still reluctant but she’ll learn.
  • Pedestrians don’t hear her coming and she has a tendency to slow down to avoid anything in her way. The problem is, sometimes that causes me to break suddenly or cars behind to be taken by surprise. I got her a little bell to ring whenever she saw pedestrians about to cross. Again, she’s learning to use it.

So far so good. When it starts raining, she’ll wear a cycling cape – yes, it’s yellow and reflective too! I don’t know what will happen in the winter when the air is so cold outside your lungs hurt just to breathe. Neither of my girls is used to cold weather. I might or might not get a cargo bike and risk it being stolen. If I find a cheap used one on eBay, I might do it. Otherwise, we’ll take the bus. They love riding in the front row on the second level of London buses!

Note: neither Bakfiets, Bobike or Yepp sponsored me to write this post and yet I so wish they had. Guys, my contact details are easy to find! The opinions expressed in this post are therefore mine and mine alone.

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