If you are a parent taking care of the transportation of the kids and at the same time you would like to bike commute you may wonder if you can do one without sacrificing the other? Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced bike commuter, it is a challenge that can seem a bit frightening at first. It may raise many further questions, which we will try to respond to in this post, but before answering the what and how, let’s answer the original question:
Is it possible to bike commute with kids?
Commuting with kids is possible if you plan it out and prepare for it beforehand. It takes more reflection and planning than commuting without children. It requires more physical effort and some additional skills, which are quite easy to acquire. You need to invest some money into gear that makes commuting with kids possible and enjoyable. The degree to which these changes will affect your commute depends a great deal on the age of the kids.
Before you start planning it is worth asking if the bike commute is feasible from a practical point of view at all: will I be able to arrange logistics? Can I be in time to drop-off and pick-up the kids? If the answer is “yes” then this post is for you to see what you should consider beforehand.
Before your first commute: your bike and the rider
To have a bike in good condition, and to be confident on it is more important than any gear you can buy.
This is kind of obvious, but brakes are so easily overlooked or neglected. When you have the extra weight of a child your braking distance becomes longer. This may be more or less noticeable depending on how much the child weighs, the type of brakes you have, but it’s good to keep in mind. You can test it before your first morning commute.
Disc brakes provide more braking power than cantilever brakes. In fact, when I haul my kids in the trailer behind my Merida Speeder, which has hydraulic disc brakes, I only notice the extra weight when braking on a particularly steep downhill section.
Braking distance with my older beater bike with cantilever brakes is a completely different. When I carry one of my children on a child seat behind the saddle I can feel the difference immediately. Going down the same hill I can’t even let go of the brakes completely, because I wouldn’t be able to come to a complete stop at the bottom. Then again, it’s an older cheap bike from a department store which I don’t use too much, but I know that it wouldn’t be fit for regular commuting.
Sufficient gear ratios
With extra weight you will always work extra hard. On straight sections the difference may only be noticeable during acceleration, but as soon as you need to climb even the slightest slope you will feel the difference. Come to a steeper hill and you will soon find yourself going up in the smallest gear.
Some cities are completely flat, but others are very hilly. You need to know how much you will have to pedal uphill and understand if you can get up the toughest hill on your commute without problems with the gear ratios available to you.
There are a few riding skills you need to master to feel safe as you carry your little one with you, which can be acquired with some practice.
It is important to have a good balance as you ride since you have extra weight, which may even be wiggling weight in a child seat. Most children love being carried in bike seats, but they also enjoy trying to reach for leaves on the tree-branches or move their feet around. You need to be confident that you can balance the bike and your feet can easily touch the ground without tipping over, especially when going slow.
When you have added weight maneuvering the bike becomes more difficult. For example bunny hopping, which is useful when riding over a pothole, becomes impossible. Getting onto sidewalk curbs, which is quite common in certain cities, is a lot more difficult and requires you to approach the curb very slowly, you may even need to get off your bike.
Having reduced bike agility you need to scan the road further ahead to anticipate.
Get the right gear
Let’s turn to the specific equipment that will enable you to commute with children.
When it comes to how to transport your child, there are four possible methods: bike seats, bike trailers, trailer-cycles and cargo bikes. Each one has its pros and cons depending on how much movement you want to allow your child, his age and size, and how your commute is in general. Each method allows your child a different degree of movement .
Generally speaking the smaller the child the tighter you need to have him strapped, and lesser movement you allow him. For instance, you probably prefer a 1 or 2 year old sit behind you in a bike seat, and tow a 3 year old in a trailer-cycle.
Child seats are the simplest and most common way of carrying children. They are convenient as they don’t take up too much space and they add the least extra weight to your bike. They can be mounted and taken off easily within seconds when you don’t need them. The most common types are those that attach to the bike seat tube behind you and those fixed to the front frame. Some less common types are designed to be mounted directly on the rack.
The advantage of the child seat is that your child is close to you, so it is really easy to communicate and to interact. It allows him little movement, so it’s suitable from an early age when he’s strong enough to keep his head upright.
The disadvantage of a child seat is that due to the center of gravity being high the handling of the bike changes. It becomes less stable and the child’s moves can be easily felt, which you may find annoying or uncomfortable. A child seat is therefore best for smaller children.
Bike trailers are fun to ride with. They attach to the rear axle of your bike wheel, and you haul them behind you. They offer ample space to the child and some have a respectable sized storage area too. They offer your little one protection against rain and sun and they allow him to snack or read a book while you do the heavy work.
Most bike trailers can take two children, which makes them a good choice for twins or for children who are close in age. My children love playing with each other and giggle a ton when we ride on cobblestones.
When not used to carry children, a bike trailer can be used to carry stuff. Some can take up to 100 lbs of weight, which makes them ideal for weekly grocery shopping too. If you want to reduce your car use or go completely car-free, a bike trailer is a wise purchase.
Bike trailers differ in secondary functions, budget, capacity (single or double), seat type, external covers, storage, etc. Depending on your circumstances you can easily pick one that fits your needs.
The price of the trailers vary between 130 dollars to well over a 1000 dollars depending on the brand and what they offer.
Keep in mind that a trailer means added weight. This is very noticeable as soon as you need to get up the first slope. With a child or two children aboard (and maybe even your computer and change of clothes), you will find yourself pedaling slowly in the smallest gear.
When riding in city traffic, you will soon find out that having a trailer behind you is like travelling with a smaller car. In order to pass among objects you need wider space, since the trailer’s tires are about 1 ft on either side of yours. A trailer also affects how you can take turns, which takes some getting used to. It’s not very difficult, but it definitely has a small learning curve.
You also need to think about whether you lock it up at the school or haul it with you to work and lock it there.
A trailer-cycle or a tag-along
If you have a bigger child who enjoys cycling on his balance bike or cycling with stabilizers or just not a confident rider yet, a trailer-cycle can be an attractive solution. It allows him to pedal along with you, and at the same time it gives you the peace of mind that he’s safe.
There are two main types: a unicycle with a frame attached to the adult’s bike or an arm that lifts up the child bike’s front wheel and locks it in a straight position. In a way it is similar to a tandem bike where the person sitting at the front does the steering while pedaling is shared. If you haven’t tried a trailer cycle, you will be surprised how much a little one can contribute with his effort.
To use a trailer bike your child needs to be confident in the saddle. This option doesn’t suit small children, it’s best for kids aged 3-5. In some countries or states children under a certain age are only allowed on their own on dedicated cycle paths, but not in city traffic or cycle lanes. This could be a good solution.
The price of these vary between 100 dollars to a few hundred dollars depending on construction and manufacturer.
There are a few downsides to trailer cycles. One of them is that after leaving your child at school or daycare you have an odd-looking device attached to your bike with nobody on it. This in itself is not inconvenient, but only strange.
It is also quite tricky to maneuver in tighter spaces with the trailer-cycle behind you. You can easily bump your child’s little hands if you aren’t careful taking a corner or avoiding an obstacle.
Whether you opt for a trailer or a trailer-cycle you need to make sure you carry tools to fix their flats. I’ve been left stranded with my son once, because I only had the tools to fix my own bike’s flat, but not his.
Cargo bikes are designed to carry a lot of load, some of them have the capacity for up to 200 lbs of cargo. Some cargo bikes have a box with plenty of room for children to sit in. They are comfortable for the little ones, who enjoy travelling in them.
They are also great for carrying plenty of things, opening up possibilities that would be inconceivable with a normal bike. Although they are heavy, they aren’t difficult to balance, but the weight is definitely felt when riding, especially uphills. If you need to climb hills it’s best to go for an electric assist cargo bike.
Needless to say that because of their bulkiness they are difficult to maneuver. They are definitely not designed to be fast or nimble in city traffic, and if you buy one for commuting with your children, you will be left with a whale of a bike once they ride their own.
Their purchase price is usually very high. You will struggle to find anything under 2000 dollars, but luckily their depreciation is very slow, so you will not lose much money if you ever decide to sell yours.
Get rid of the stress factor
Add extra time & make it fun
Commuting with kids takes more time than going on your own. If the ride to the school or daycare takes more than 20 minutes the kids will likely get bored. If you decide to regularly undertake a longer trip, you need to have a strategy and maybe stop for a short break to give them a snack or a toy, simply to distract them.
A ride that would normally take half an hour without children will take 40-50 minutes with them.
Leaving the house in the morning, dropping them off also takes longer than going on your own. No matter what you do if you do it with kids it always takes longer than you anticipate. Make sure you leave enough preparation time and leave early enough so instead of being stressed you will feel happy and refreshed.
Some days you may be a little bit early, while other days may be a complete disaster and you may run super late to work. If you work with other bike commuters they will understand you, and in my experience even those who don’t commute by bike admire you for your decision, even if they don’t say it to your face. It’s important to not be anxious about it and make sure that your superiors know that occasionally you may be a bit delayed. It happens to car commuters too.
Bike commuting with kids has educational value. It is worth it because you can spend quality time with the kids too. You can make the ride really enjoyable for them if you can play some games like “I spy” or give them a bell they can ring. They’ll have a ton of fun and those around you will definitely notice you. You may even bring some smiles on people’s faces
It’s a good idea to have some extra snacks and water available, especially if your child pedals behind you.
Choose the safest route & test it
Safety is the number one aspect you need to have in place when bike commuting. When you have your children to look after this is even more important. Plan your route beforehand and try to find bike paths and protected bike lanes with the least amount of traffic. Be confident to know what obstacles and traffic conditions you can expect on your way. Go over the route beforehand and plan your commute. Using the same route will help the kids to learn the route how, when and where to stop and/or use hand-signals, etc.
The number one item that will provide added safety is a helmet for both you and your children. This is not only a prudent choice, but in some countries a legal requirement.
Whatever mode of transportation you choose, make sure both of you are visible. If you ride in the dark, make sure that you are properly lit and that can be seen from any angle. Trailers, for example, have a flag on them so that they can be seen even from higher vehicles.
The way you behave on the road is an example for your children to follow. Don’t expect them to wear their helmet without using one yourself. They will learn from you what precautions to take what are the basic rules like hand-signals, how to use the lights, etc.
A rearview mirror is a small but very useful gear. Looking around can be a challenge when you go slowly, so it is good to have a rearview mirror on your bike or on your helmet so you can be aware of traffic approaching from behind without having to turn around.
Dress appropriately and be prepared
If you decide to commute with your child in autumn or winter months, it may be easy to forget that you generate extra heat while he’s sitting still. Make sure that you dress him appropriately. It’s always good to check the forecast and bring along rain gear whenever there’s a chance of rain. Small things, such as this, can make a huge difference.