My 8-year old cruises the streets of London
Look left! No, look right! Biking with older kids can be nerve-wracking, especially when you bike in a big city like London where people drive on the other side of what you’re used to and roundabouts have weird local rules. However, it also teaches kids to be confident riding bicycles on the road, a skill they will love you for when they tour Europe on a bike when they’re 18. Here’s our experience riding bicycles on busy city streets.
When I moved to the UK with two school-age kids, my challenge was to find solutions to bike safely with 2 older kids who aren’t street-smart to school. Since neither of my girls had ever biked on city streets and the young one was not even a proficient cyclist, the challenge was real. That said, cycling was both the cheapest and the fastest way to get to school from our home. It literally cut down commute time in half, was good exercise and provided our daily dose of Vitamin D. I looked at the 3 main options when biking with older kids
- Cargo bikes
- Older child seats
- Kids riding their bikes solo
The Cargo Bike
Cargo bike with rain tent
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 (usually wood) 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.
When I researched them in the summer, I stopped every single mom riding cargo bikes on the street for quick questions. 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. We had no covered/private parking space available! For older 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 and it might suffer some weather damage in the winter. What ultimately did it 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.”
She was right. If I didn’t let my little girl start some day, she’d never become an independent and confident bicycle rider. We had to start somewhere! Riding her to school was defeating my philosophy of bringing up free-thinking, strong and independent girls. I knew then that I’d help her ride her bike to school with me. 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.
Cycling with an Older Child on the Same Bicycle
For my youngest daughter, solo riding wasn’t quite an option yet when she was 7. She still couldn’t turn and was wobbly most of the time. I had to find a child seat for her, but which one? 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. At first, I only found 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 liked the idea of a folding seat and got the Bobike but it was a disaster. Twice the seat tipped over and slid down the bike frame. I was fortunate that my daughter didn’t fall off, but it was scary knowing that the seat could “collapse” at any minute with her in the back. I returned the seat (to a grumpy dealer).
That’s when I found the GMG Classic Rear Seat 6+ (pictured above). I loved that you don’t require a separate rack and that you can mount it (fairly easily if you have good biceps) on your existing rear rack. The rack needed to be able to take a maximum weight load of 35kg/77lbs but fortunately, there’s a few of those around.
After more than 2 years of cycling around and using the GMG Classic Rear Seat 6+ with both my girls, I’m happy to report that the cushy seat is in pristine condition (not a tear or a scratch). The safety belt still clips on great and I’ve never had any issues with the screws. More than once, I’ve been stopped on the street by parents who were looking for exactly that type of seat. It was great on all points and as my girls grew, I extended the foot holders for their growing legs. The only thing I added to the back of the seat, for safety concerns, was a reflective orange and yellow sign to increase our visibility on the road.
Kids Riding Their Bike Solo
When riding bikes on roads with kids, a few questions arise. Should she ride in front or behind me? It mattered for giving directions and road safety instructions. Was it easier to ride side by side, was it even advisable given unpredictable car drivers? How could I keep an eye on her and motorists at the same time? What would be my emergency procedure?
I decided that my oldest one would ride in front of me and that I would yell out directions as loud I could. Fingers crossed.
The first time was a test of nerves. My little girl doesn’t always know her right from her left and sometimes brakes instead of speeding up. I took a leap of faith and we had a go. She wore (reluctantly) a 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.
The first weeks were trial and error with a few close calls but mostly, her cycling confidence built up. She’s also the only child her age at school who rides her bike to school. What I learned 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.
- At the beginning, she was riding close to cars and sometimes in car parking spaces, so as to avoid car 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 safe distances.
- She doesn’t know much about right of way at junctions and roundabouts. Since I’m riding a large bike with a child at the back and front panniers, I’m very visible. At roundabouts, I engage first and she rides 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. I got her a spiffy bell to ring whenever she sees pedestrians about to cross. Se loves her bell!
What About Bad Weather?
When it rains, my daughter has the option to wear a reflective yellow cycling cape (which she hates), or her reflective sleeveless jackets (that’s usually what she does). For the bottom. we have a few rain trousers but unless it’s pouring (in which case, biking becomes questionable), she prefers to ride as dressed for school.
Three years in, both my girls are completely proficient bike riders and aren’t afraid of riding on roads or city streets. They know traffic safety rules quite well and err on the side of caution when in doubt. They both ride solo and though they loved the rear seat, they’re much happier showing off their cycling skills and riding by themselves. In fact, they’re the only kids in their class that ride bikes by themselves on the road and they’re proud of that. We also ride our bikes longer distances and I fantasize about cycling vacations or short escapes. All I need is some time to get things organized. We ride our bikes to the park, to the theater, and to birthday parties.
Three years in, we still don’t have a car and bicycles have become our main mode of transportation. How cool is that?
If you are wondering if you should start your kids riding bikes on the roads, I strongly encourage you to try. It’s great fun and kids love being able to transport themselves. They also love the “green” aspect of riding bikes. Save the planet and ride your bikes. Go kids!
Do your kids ride their bikes? Do they do it with friends? How often do you “upgrade” their bikes as they grow up? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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