May is National Bike Month! To celebrate, I’ll be profiling some awesome families who bike with their kids for transportation and recreation. Later on, I’ll also highlight some excellent resources for family biking.
Here’s the fourth of my Bike Month family biking profiles, following Leanne, Kate, and Stacy. This interview comes courtesy of Kathleen Youell, who lives in the bike utopia of Inner SE Portland, OR. (If only we were all so lucky!) She has two children, a son who is almost eleven and a daughter who recently turned nine. While her family is originally from Sacramento, they moved to Oregon about eight years ago. She runs portlandize.com, tweets @kyouell and is one of the administrators of the PDX Cargo Bike Gang Facebook group.
1) How long have you been biking with your children and how did you get started?
We have been biking with the kids for five years. We got started because I found and followed Sarah Gilbert on Twitter back in 2008. She carried her three boys on her Electra Townie converted to a cargo Xtracycle and I was fascinated. I started finding other people to follow on Twitter, such as Katie Proctor. Shortly after, I started searching for family biking blogs, with Madi Carlson’s familyride.us one of the first ones I read.
My husband and I talked over the options. As my son has Down Syndrome and is non-verbal, we didn’t like the idea of a trailer in back where you couldn’t see the kids and they were at tailpipe level.
In June 2010, Clever Cycles held the first Portland Fiets of Parenthood, a family biking showcase. Living car-free in the suburb of Hillsboro, we rode a bus, the MAX light rail and then another bus to see all the rigs on display. That was the first day that I saw a bakfiets (otherwise called a “box bike”). I rode it around the closed-off streets with our son and got the hang of it quicker than I predicted. While my son’s normal reaction to new things is to be very wary, this was like he’d been sitting in a bike and riding around all his life. I was instantly sold and would’ve bought one that day, but we had no way to get it all the way back home. We bought a helmet for me as a down payment and went home.
Almost a year later in April 2011, we were moving into Portland proper and it seemed like a good time to buy one. Unfortunately, Clever Cycles didn’t have any in stock. Seeing that the shop had tweeted about one on Craigslist, a friend tagged me, and we ended up buying the bike. I am the third owner of one of the bakfiets that was part of the very first shipment that Clever had imported from The Netherlands.
2) What are your typical family biking outings? Are they mainly for transportation, recreation, or some combination of the two?
We typically ride for transportation. When we ride for recreation, it’s not “drive bike to trail, ride around, drive home.” Even for recreational events, like Kidical Mass, there’s always an element of transportation because we have to get to the start. I ride a bike for almost everything that most moms use a minivan for. I will sometimes use transit instead because I need a day off or I need to get somewhere that’s on the other side of Mt. Tabor (our local dormant volcano) and don’t have time to ride the flat way around it. When that happens I tend to postpone errands because I love doing them by bike and loathe doing them by bus.
3) Describe your current set-up for biking with your kids. What’s your dream set-up?
Right now I have a Bakfiets.nl and my husband has his own bike. He’s a foot taller than me so we can switch and have him pedal the kids in the bakfiets, but it’s really hard for me to ride his bike. Our daughter has a bike of her own and she’s working on learning, but is not a solo rider yet. My dream set up would be to have two Bionx’d (electric assist) BikeFriday Haul-a-Days, one built out that would fit my husband or me and the other built out to fit me or my daughter. We’re working toward a setup somewhat like that since we borrowed a friend’s Surly Big Dummy and found our son can handle riding on the back of a longtail (a bike with a longer frame).
4) Do your children ride their own bikes or only on yours? What is their attitude towards biking?
Our son only rides with us, and so far our daughter too. They are both very comfortable and not skittish as passengers, but she is a big ‘fraidy cat when it comes to riding her own bike. We have stressed the joy, freedom, and independence that riding gives, but she says she’s worried about the cars. She is exactly how everyone describes the “interested but concerned” rider. She has started to notice that all the kids her age at school ride their own bikes instead of riding on their parents’ bikes, so I think we are starting to turn a corner. As for our son, he will be a passenger for the foreseeable future. People with Down syndrome are all different, but for him it means that he doesn’t express himself much verbally. Since he doesn’t yet understand “left,” “right,” and “stop!” I can’t let him ride solo.
5) What do you love the most and the least about biking with your family?
I love the lack of speed that allows us to talk to each other and our neighbors, and the feeling that I can get us where we need to go. What I don’t like is that I have to be the power that gets all of us all everywhere. The kids riding on their own bikes would solve that. I also wish that drivers had more patience. We move slowly, especially up hills. I know this and will pull over when it is safe, but not before then. If drivers would stop and remember learning that “you can’t be the line leader every time” in preschool, they could see that it takes 10 seconds for me to find a place to pull over. I know because I count the seconds between when I hear an engine rev behind me and until I get to a place to pull over. I’ve never reached “one-thousand ten.” I don’t necessarily need separate infrastructure when drivers are courteous.
6) What is your number one wish for improving family biking in your area?
Conversely, my number one wish is for more diverting roads on residential streets. Even though I just said I don’t need infrastructure, I think it is unlikely that an educational campaign will stop drivers from feeling the need to zoom past us too closely. Until the day that we all see each other as people and not “bikes” and “cars,” I think the single best thing to improve family bicycling in Portland is more diverters. When neighborhoods are a maze instead of the predictable grid we have, drivers will stay on the collector streets and arterials and leave the other streets for walking, biking, and driving to and from your front door.
7) What is your best piece of advice for a parent looking to start biking with their children, either on the parent’s bike or on the children’s own bikes?
My best piece of advice is to connect with other families. I did that by going to Fiets of Parenthood, but nowadays it can be done online. I’m an administrator for the Facebook group PDX Cargo Bike Gang and we have a number of members that are outside the area. I am also in the San Francisco and Seattle family biking Facebook groups. Even if you can’t find a group in your area, there are people online that want to see you succeed. Kidical Mass is another way to get out in a group and have it be fun and positive. Once my daughter gets a little better at riding on her own, Kidical Mass rides will be one of the first places that she will ride in a group. Kids, bikes, parks and treats — what could be better?
Thanks to Kath for sharing her perspective!