Early November is a challenging time to bike. In my region, it tends to be cold, windy and wet. So I really wasn’t looking forward to our last Kidical Mass ride of the season, a joint ride with our sister group in nearby Gaithersburg.I was tempted to cancel our half, considering the low temperatures. However, the city had promoted it in both their monthly newsletter and their Facebook page, so I felt obliged to show up in case anyone from Rockville trekked over. Despite a few literal wrong turns, I’m glad I went. My ride to the meeting place and lunch with fellow family biking advocates highlighted a number of our shared challenges.
Our meeting place was about eight miles from my house, so it was too far to bring Sprout in the trailer. As the car trunk doesn’t fit both the bike and trailer, I rode there towing the trailer while Chris drove himself and Sprout. Unfortunately, I got rather lost on the way. While my intended route wasn’t ideal, my detour truly illustrated the infrastructure barriers families face in using cycling for transportation. I cycled over paths and curb cuts that were so bumpy and narrow they’d be uncomfortable or even unsafe for a kid in a trailer. Multi-use trails paralleling major, high-speed roads ended abruptly, forcing me onto the sidewalk. Even those were piecemeal. One sidewalk was split by a single piece of property with a fence, rendering the entire sidewalk on that side of the road useless. Crossing signals at intersections were too short, infrequent or non-existant. Intersections at major roads lacked islands to stand on as you crossed multiple lanes of traffic. I was very glad I didn’t bring Sprout – I would have been quite nervous about his safety.
In contrast, my destination – one of the first planned “smart growth” communities in the country – it was lovely. The residential roads had street parking, but were relatively quiet. A whole network of trails connected different parts of the development.
Moving from one area to the other, it was obvious that while there are islands of high bikability, they’re separated from each other and riding between them is problematic. I’m fortunate to live in one of those islands, especially one that’s well-connected. But the further you go out in the suburbs and away from the semi-urban core, it becomes increasingly more difficult. While it’s nice that people can ride around their neighborhoods, achieving even a “car-light” society where people can rely on biking, walking, and transit for their transportation needs requires a much more comprehensive, connected system than we have now.
When I finally arrived after my misadventure, the ride ended up being me, Sprout, and the Kidical Mass Gaithersburg organizers. We went ahead anyway, believing seeing families out and about on their bikes in such brisk weather sent an important message to the community. Afterwards, we went to the Farmer’s Market and a cafe, where we discussed the particular issues we face with family biking.
One problem we kept coming back to was a lack of understanding of family biking from pretty much everyone, non-cyclists and cyclists alike.
On the non-cyclists’ side, there’s the eternal cry of “But it’s not safe!” The Gaithersburg folks told me that their elementary school won’t allow students to bike there, even though the school is inside a neighborhood designed to be walkable and bikable. If that’s a rule in a “smart growth” community, the rest of us are doomed. Perhaps most frustratingly, the school appears completely uninterested in changing that status quote. The cry of “unsafe!” shuts down the conversation instead of opening it up to the question, “What can we do to make it safer?” Besides just benefitting students, answering that question could help everyone – the school is next to a large park that’s a prime biking location.
Within the cycling community, one fundamental disagreement we have is with “vehicular cyclists.” This group believes bicyclists are the safest and best off when they act and are treated like cars by always taking the lane. While there are plenty of quiet, residential streets where that’s a fine approach, holding it as a philosophy on which to base infrastructure policy decisions is fundamentally incompatible with family biking. Parents who bike with their kids are already nervous enough, when both the American Pediatric Association and Consumer Reports emphatically state use a bike seat or trailer anywhere there might possibly be cars. So to expect parents to take the lane in streets with speed limits above 25 mph or that have stop-and-go traffic is unrealistic. Sticking to the slowest of streets may work for recreational rides, but there’s no way to ride for transportation without a busy road blocking your way, especially in the suburbs. Then of course, there’s the issue of what to do once kids get older. For kids to be able to ride to school or stores on their own bikes, we have to have places they can ride safely as well. If we want parents and children to ride for transportation, we have to provide infrastructure they are comfortable with, such as protected bike lanes and good, well-maintained multi-use paths. Neither on-road cycling or protected infrastructure are the be all end all of biking – rather, having both as viable options is important if we want to make family biking a reality.
Lastly, there’s a bit of a culture gap between the majority of biking advocates in D.C. proper and the suburban family biking crowd (all two of us). People who lead large group rides that attract young professionals don’t have a lot of advice for marketing to families or reaching out to schools. Folks who are used to dealing with biking infrastructure in the city aren’t as familiar with the suburbs’ opportunities (lots of space for protected bike lanes and multi-use paths!) and challenges (everything else). While these aren’t anyone’s fault, they’re another set of communication issues to work on.
Lately, I’ve been telling people that family biking is the “next big thing” for biking in America. But it can be lonely working on something just starting to get off of the ground. It was good to connect with my fellow Kidical Mass leaders to share frustrations and compare notes.