We started biking in San Francisco with nothing but the sense that it would be a nice idea. While the SFBC says that 7 out of 10 city residents are bikers, we were one of the few families we knew who didn’t have a bike or three lying around. Actually we did have one bike; my brother-in-law gave our son a balance bike for his second birthday. He eventually learned to enjoy riding it around our old (flat) neighborhood, and we kept it when we moved. Our daughter still likes riding it around the (flat) garage. But a balance bike with 12” wheels that perfectly fits a 2-year-old wasn’t going to get us to school and work.
Choosing a bike was starting to be a critical problem. Before we went to Europe and rediscovered biking, we had been talking seriously about getting a second car. We found the idea pretty depressing, frankly. It would cost a lot of money, which was reason enough to despair. Moreover faculty housing only allows us a single parking space (which was, nonetheless, a big increase from the usual allotment of zero), meaning that if we had a second car we’d have to search for street parking in our neighborhood, which is always flooded with cars looking for hospital parking. And we were one-car people (at most) by nature. We live near public transit and we like walking. Matt works in clean energy and I sit on the campus sustainability committee. We had gone years before kids without a car at all. We had suffered through the daunting San Francisco school lottery to minimize our commutes (old joke: “What does every kid in San Francisco get on their 5th birthday?” Answer: “A new address in Marin.”) We put our daughter in preschool a block from our house.
But we also both have jobs nowhere near each other, and there is no effective public transit option to get to our son’s early start-time school, and it was too far to walk. Matt travels frequently for work, and even with heavy exercise of our car share membership, conveniently located on campus, arranging our lives was getting increasingly difficult. Matt’s travel schedule was ramping up for fall. Moreover, after insistent begging, we’d agreed to sign our son up for soccer in the fall. But his soccer practice ended up being nowhere near any of us, and it was going to run until 5:30pm on a day that we were both in off-site meetings until 5:00pm. It was impossible for us to pick up both kids in time on that timetable with one vehicle. It was time to make a decision.
We had some guidance, thanks to our son’s school, which has a handful of regular bike commuters. Our PTA president brought his two girls to school on a tricked-out Kona Ute, which looked simply awesome. But we don’t have the mad skills to put together custom child seats. They have since upgraded to a triple tandem, and that’s a sight to see. Our principal rides to the district offices on a bike (sparing the parking hassles ordinarily involved with this trip) and at least one teacher is coming to school by BART+bike, but they were riding solo. We turned to the internet, like all parents stuck at home after the kids go to sleep, ending up almost immediately at Totcycle, which helpfully listed a range of options for family biking. Unlike the Danes, this family lived in a place with hills—my hometown of Seattle—which as it happens, narrowed down our options considerably.
The #1 choice in terms of practicality for families with young kids who live where it’s flat and have some dosh is evidently the Bakfiets or equivalent. I loved the idea of having the kids in front, the massive cargo room, and a rain cover, but even the people who want to sell you one say that it’s not suitable for serious hills. One retailer said that he wouldn’t sell to people who lived in San Francisco because even though “responsible” parents knew well enough to avoid steep hills, there would always be some “irresponsible” parents who tried to bomb down one and not be able to stop. As one of the many San Francisco parents who lives on a steep hill and thus cannot under any circumstances avoid it, I found this comment pretty annoying. It was also clear that with this kind of bike all but the strongest riders would end up walking up our hill every night on the way home, which didn’t sound like much fun. In addition, our son, at age 6, was old enough to be getting kind of big for this option, and frankly it was pricey. So box bike: out.
The #1 choice in terms of practicality for families who live where there are hills, already have a bike, and don’t want to drop a few grand is apparently the Xtracycle conversion. You can get two kids on an Xtracycle, even if they’re older, even with a significant age difference, and still move cargo and make it up a hill. Alternatively, if your kids are both young enough, there’s the mama-bike, an idea we loved but that our kids had probably outgrown. But we didn’t have a donor bike to Xtracycle, and that meant we’d have to buy a bike just to convert it, which seemed like twice the shopping and decision effort. And we are not handy. Alternatively, we could buy a longtail ready-made, like the Ute, Radish, Mundo, or the super-trendy Big Dummy. But for a number of reasons specific to our situation, a longtail didn’t seem ideal. The first was that my husband, who wanted to use the bike to commute to work, had limited space in his office, and a longtail bike wasn’t going to fit. He’d have to take his chances locking it on the street. The second, as pathetic is this is going to sound, is that we had an elevator option. By chance, the university bike cage is at the bottom of the steep hill where we live, while the main campus and hospital are at the top. As a result, bikes are allowed on the elevators. But the elevators are pretty small, and a longtail was simply not going to fit. Finally, we both liked the idea of being able to put a bike on the bus rack in the event of a flat, serious rain, or a wind advisory day. (For the same kinds of reasons, plus hills, we ruled out the Madsen, a bucket bike that lets you store your spawn in the back, which otherwise looked pretty appealing.) Nonetheless, given our desire to haul two kids on a bike and get up and down hills, this looked like our best bet. But because of the downsides, we simply couldn’t get up the willpower to make a decision and actually buy a longtail.
For a real low-budget option, there’s the inevitable advice to put the kids in a bike trailer, especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind picking up stuff on craigslist (guilty as charged), and of course, if you already have a bike. There are always lots of trailers on craigslist, which suggests how popular they are to actually use (not very). But people who live in the suburbs seem to love bike trailers, and that’s what Consumer Reports and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend, claiming that the trailer won’t tip over if the bike does, that the kids are somewhat protected if the trailer does roll over, and that the bike is more stable with a trailer than a child seat. Both sources seemed pretty sanguine about the downsides of trailers, namely that they’re hard for drivers to see, that they’re wide enough to make the bike less maneuverable and often wider than a bike lane, that they increase braking time, and that they tip over when you need to turn quickly or hit a bump or a pothole. Some additional downsides that they don’t mention are that road debris gets kicked up into low-riding trailers, that kids can fight like demons in a crowded space without parental intervention, and that in terms of a shared cycling experience, well, there isn’t one. But it’s true that they can carry lots of stuff and keep kids out of the rain. Nevertheless, reading that list of advantages v. disadvantages couldn’t make it more apparent that the people arguing for trailers didn’t live in cities, where drivers and cyclists are always in close proximity, bike lanes are on-street and usually narrow, you always need to be able to turn quickly, and potholes are rampant. Pretty much the only place we’ve ever seen a bike trailer in San Francisco is Golden Gate Park during weekend street closures, and then only on the recently repaved streets. Having spent time in many major cities of the world, I would generalize that to all cities; people who live in cities don’t put kids in trailers. They put them on their bikes. Finally, in case all that wasn’t enough, our son was getting too big for a trailer.
Given our dithering, a lot of people suggested that we try a bike plus trailer-bike for its relatively low cost and low commitment. We saw a lot of this combination around the city, because it keeps kids from doing dangerous things in traffic and gives some (limited) assist going uphill. We were stuck on the issue of hauling our son. Although at six he is technically old enough to bike by himself, he’d never really learned to ride anything but a balance bike, and personality-wise, we knew he would be slow to pick up riding. Just convincing him to get on the balance bike back in the day had taken several months, and although he no longer fits on it, he is perfectly happy to continue trying to ride it given that he’s put in all that effort. Unlike our daughter, he is naturally cautious, and as a result, has never developed the kind of close and familiar relationship with local ER doctors that she enjoys. “Oh yes,” they say now, every time we return to have yet another heart-stopping injury treated, “It’s the little girl who loves band-aids.” However we knew from experience that he liked being a passenger. The other issue with our son is that his drop-off and pickup were at different sites; he goes to school in the morning and takes a bus to his off-site after-school program in the afternoon. From a practical standpoint this was fantastic, because his after-school program is across the street from the campus where I work, meaning that I can walk across the street to pick him up and then we could take the university shuttle home. But it meant that we couldn’t bike with him to school and then pick him up and bike home, because we couldn’t get a bike from school to after-school. And he is too big for most bicycle child seats. A trailer-bike would at least fit into Matt’s office because it could be removed, ditto the elevator and the bus rack. But it would be a hassle and we worried that he would be just as reluctant to get on a trailer-bike as any other bike his size. Plus reports from parents suggested that the combination could get pretty tippy. That was the last thing we needed with a kid who was nervous about riding rather than being carried anyway. The more we thought about it, the more the choice seemed clear: our best option was a longtail, and we’d let our son learn to ride when he was ready. We would suck up the inconvenience and risk of parking on the street, being unable to take the elevator, and being unable to throw the bike on the bus.