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Child Bike Seat, Bike Trailer, or Cargo Bike? – Part One

There are many options for traveling by bicycle with your children.  Should you choose a child bike seat, bike trailer, or a cargo bike?  Making the best choice for your needs can be a bit confusing.  We have created this primer series to help you choose the best set-up for your needs when traveling with children by bicycle.  

(This part is intended as an overview of some general considerations that will help you to select a suitable bike for the job, and examines some of the benefits and challenges of choosing the bike over the car.  Part Two examines the various choices available for meeting your needs, including different bike styles and accessory options such as a child bike seat, bike trailer, cargo bikes, and gear carriers.  Your best choice will be influenced by your needs, which you will better understand by reading (this) Part One.)

General Considerations for Traveling By Bike with Children: Child Bike Seat, Bike Trailer or Cargo Bike.

Distance, Available Routes, and Terrain.  Do you live in a flat, small town?  A city with lots of hills?  Miles from your daily destinations?  Having an idea of how far you will ride on a typical day, on what routes, and over what terrain will all help decide on the right bike set-up.

Rider Sizes.  A bike set up to carry kids is a family vehicle and may be used by multiple (adult) riders.  Choosing a bike that can accommodate multiple operators (often of different sizes) is a huge consideration for harnessing the full potential of a kid carrying cycle.

Number and Age of Children.  How many children you plan to carry will obviously influence your decision.  For example, one child can fit on a standard bicycle with a child’s bike seat (though there are other considerations with this) while two children would require a different solution such as a bike trailer or cargo bike.  Also, as your children age and the family grows, this leads to considerations of adaptability (see next).

Experience.  Are you an experienced cyclist or just beginning?  In addition to comfort while navigating your bike, your level of experience could also influence the day to day decision of whether to ride the bike or not.

Budget.  Each option examined has a price range, and determining your available budget may be one of the biggest factors in making your decision.  However, it also helps to consider the ways a bike can save–and in some cases even make–money for your family.

Reasons for Riding.  There are many great reasons for traveling by bike with kids.  What your personal reasons are may be different from others, however.  Considering why you want to travel by bike with kids will help when making your decision.  (The next section covers some of the benefits (and challenges) of traveling by bike with children, some of which may be your reasons for choosing the bike over other ways to get there.)

Safety.  This series covers the options for bikes, but it does not cover safety equipment–such as helmets–or appropriate riding ages.  Please consult the intertubes for great articles such as this when deciding when to travel with children and what gear to outfit them with.

Benefits and Challenges of Carrying Kids by Bike

Before you select the best bike for you to travel with your children, there are some general benefits and challenges to consider.  Understanding your needs, riding styles, terrain, etc. in context with these general considerations will help you to select the right bike for your situation.

Benefits of traveling by bike with kids

Exercise as you go!  Many of us find it a challenge to find the time to enjoy the exercise we once did before the responsibilities of parenting filled our lives.  By including cycling in our daily lifestyle, we build activity into our day and get exercise as an added benefit of going to the places we normally go, while also instilling the fun of living a fit and active lifestyle in our little ones at a young age.

Memories for Life.  In addition to the exercise, we get quality time with our kids that is qualitatively different than when we travel by car.  Flowers, animals, other people, and other sights from around our community are all a part of the cycling experience, rather than the isolation we feel being inside an automobile, behind windows, steel, and plastic.  The trip becomes part of the adventure, rarely peppered with the repetitive chant of “Are we there yet?!”

“Going to school by bike means the opportunity to slow down, pull over, and watch cute and clumsy newborn lambs at our neighbor’s farm… Our version of “stop and smell the roses!”

Experience.  Very soon after the training wheels come off, your family will be traveling by multiple bikes, with the little ones (now not so little anymore) on their own bikes.  Starting with them at a young age instills a love for riding, and it also allows them to observe how to navigate on a bike trail and elsewhere.  Where to look, how to signal, where to be extra cautious, even the friendly “Hello” exchanged with a passing rider all gets observed and–someday–used by your young riders.

“I am quite over the moon about our Mundo. I have a child with higher needs who has been brought so much joy and freedom now that we have our cargo bike.”

Avoid traffic.  The school pick-up and drop off seems to have become a long line of cars waiting their turn to get the kiddos.  After what is often a long wait in a line of other parents in cars and SUVs, it’s a quick pick-up and–out of the way!–for the next car.  When we travel by bike, not only can we avoid this annoying and time consuming traffic, but it also…

Fosters community. Since you’re not concerned with the people in the car behind you having their turn in the school pick-up line or in the grocery store parking lot, you may choose to linger a bit and interact with other parents, faculty, and other community members.  On a bicycle, we often see or hear curious sites and events that we may not have noticed as we sped past in a car.  Cycling is an experience that encourages interaction, especially–as you will read below–when you ride an unusual style bike designed for carrying kids and gear.

(In addition to the general community, cycling oriented groups such as Kidical Mass organize events to get involved with other local cyclists.)

“What’s one fun story from your trip to school? (for you and your child as well)

“There are so many.  Around the holidays, my two girls belt out Christmas Carols and everyone hears us as we roll down the road. The smiles and laughs you get from people is a great way to start your day. We also see a lot of people in the neighborhood and get to pull over and talk the way you never could if you were in a car, its much more social.” link

Reduced car mileage and emissions.  Whether your motivation is lowering fuel and maintenance costs or decreasing your carbon footprint, traveling by bike is an excellent alternative to getting there by using non-renewable fossil fuels.  Many cargo bike riders report selling their second (or first!) car after transitioning to their kid and grocery carrying cycle.  (See Part Three: Rider Profiles for more on this.)

Challenges to traveling by bike with kids

For a culture that focuses on the automobile as the central mode of personal transport, there are some challenges.  Some of these are genuine considerations, and with a shift in perspective, others can actually be seen as benefits.

Increased travel time.  Over shorter distances and considering traffic, this may not be the case, however there is certainly a different pace to consider when choosing the bike instead of the car.  This “extra” time can be seen as a positive as well, as our fast paced lives often miss the sweetness, trading speed for quality time.  What’s an extra 15 minutes when accompanied by your child’s giggles, a cool breeze, the smell of wildflowers, and the human pace of a passing smile of a fellow traveler?  Of course, an electric assist can cut down on travel time, particularly when there are hills or frequent stops along your route.  (See the Electric Assist section for more on getting some help with your pedaling.)

Weather.  While this can be an issue, the right gear can make it an adventure.  However, only the most dedicated cycling families would be expected to ride in the snow and rain.  Remember, the number one factor is enjoyment, and while some find it a hassle, others appreciate the challenge.  Whether you are seeking some fun alternatives to the car, significantly reduced car trips, or going “car-lite” or “car-free”, make the decision that is right for you and your kids!

Finding safe routes to your destinations.  Many cities are rapidly improving their bicycle infrastructure as bike riding continues to see record growth in urban areas.  Finding safe routes to your regular destinations will insure your continued enjoyment of travelling by bike.  We suggest you contact your local bicycle coalition or bike shop for assistance finding the best options in your area.  Parents that are inspired to be further involved might consider participating in a “Riding School Bus“.

“Put all these considerations together and it looks like the added increment of crash danger you put yourself in from biking, rather than driving, is small, if it exists at all….Biking’s health benefits massively outweigh its health risks.” http://grist.org/article/safe-streets/

Sweat.  Like all good exercise, cycling raises the heart rate and works the muscles.  Upon reaching your destination, sweat could be an issue.  (Not for the kids though, they get a free ride!)  There are many companies that make fashionable commuter wear that breathes well.  Changing clothes at your destination is also an option.  Some bicycle commuters have access to showers at their work or at a nearby gym.  Additionally, the Electric Assist Cargo Bike is a match made in heaven as it flattens the hills and shortens the miles.  (See the Electric Assist section for more.)

Part One Conclusion

All in all, we feel that the health, enjoyment, financial, environmental, and social benefits of traveling with kids by bike far outweigh the challenges.  Now that you know some of the things to consider when selecting a bike and gear for your needs, have a look at Part Two (coming soon!) which looks at the different styles of bikes and accessories–such as child bike seats, bike trailers, and cargo bikes–suitable for the ride.

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