Bike with Kids
Winter Biking with Kids (emphasis on the 5 and under set)
When is it safe to transport your wobbly headed baby by bicycle? The standard advice is to hold off until his or her neck is strong enough to withstand the potholes--about 12 months old. For bike-centric families, this wait can seem interminable. That first year is a good time to slow down, explore other modes. . . and research your options for the day you will finally be able to ride with your child. If the 1st birthday falls closer to Thanksgiving than Memorial Day, don't fret. Most Bike Winter parents agree: with a little extra gear and patient preparation, biking with young children year-round is easier (and warmer!) than it may look.
Jane Healy, board president of Active Transportation Alliance, is a role model to many Chicago-area biking families. She transported her three children by bicycle trailer through wind, rain and snow; all three are now confident young cyclists. "They never complained about being too cold; in fact, it was usually just the opposite" says Jane. "Even on the windiest, coldest days when I covered every extremity, they were comfortable in their little cocoon."
For me and Michael, parents to now 4 year old Miguel, the answer to the question "Bike seat or trailer?" is "Yes!" especially since we have enough room to store both. There are pros and cons to each, discussed below. If you have a partner who will be sharing in the kid-towing, buy extra hitches so you can switch off. The last few years have also seen a surge in Dutch style cargo bikes. It's a bigger investment (still much less than a car), but they provide a smooth, sturdy, stylish ride with plenty of room for kids and groceries.
No matter what choice you make, allow you and your child time to build up your skills and confidence. Stop by your local bike shop to make sure your bike and accessories are in good working order. Start off with easy, low-stakes trips and do test runs with a partner who can provide feedback on lane positioning and visibility. Try to make those first biking experiences positive for your child, with a fun destination. Kids usually respond well, but it can take some trial and error to figure out what will make them feel comfortable, and you feel safe. Take comfort in knowing there are many other biking families who have worked through the learning curve and are on call to help you out!
With the rain flaps down, bike trailers are a wind-chill and splatter free zone for kids. Dress your child as you would for a regular cold weather outing to a park. The greatest risk is that he or she will be too warm in the trailer. We tuck a fleece blanket around Miguel's legs on particularly cold days and because he usually prefers the flap up, regardless of the temperature.
Compared to a bike seat, trailers provide more options for carrying other items--they usually have a rear compartment and you can still use your rear rack for panniers. Trailers also make it easier for kids to read, play with toys, nap or snack. However, just like a car, you'll need to vacuum out the crumbs. One downside of trailers is that they can be a little harder to maneuver on slushy streets, and you have to get used to taking up more space on the road, especially when turning. On the flip side, if the riding adult should happen to go down, the trailer remains upright. Other tips:
Bike Seats--For the Co-pilots
Compared to trailers, bike seats take up less space on the road and in storage. Sitting higher up and closer to you than in a trailer, your passenger has a better view and can easily communicate with you. Cons include less space for carrying other items. Also, you can feel unstable at first, especially when starting and stopping.
For colder weather, bundle them up, and cover as much skin as possible. While you are warming up with exercise, he or she is just sitting exposed to the elements. Options include an under-layer (long johns or tights) or snowpants, plus a child sized balaclava that fits under the helmet, or a hat plus gator or scarf to cover the ears, neck and cheeks. There are even specific ponchos that cover child, helmet and seat. Some parents only use their bike seats when streets are clear and the weather is not too harsh; a judgment call. Michael and I usually switch to the trailer Nov-March. More tips:
Cargo Bikes--Modern Day Carriages
Much of the advice above applies to cargo bikes. One advantage of cargo bikes is that their size makes them inherently visible, and locks and lights are often built in. Indeed, everything is built in, so you don't have to fiddle with connecting your trailer, or worry about your bike tipping over when using a bike seat. Before you buy, check to see if it comes with a cover that can go over the box, or plan to make one yourself. Blankets work great in cargo bikes, conjuring up images of carriage rides and baked potatoes in pockets.
Kidical Mass rides are a great place to meet other cycling families, share tips and have fun! In Chicago, the Logan Square Critical Mass meets at the Palmer Square "bunny park" on the second Saturday of every month, 10:30am-- rain, snow or shine! www.thechainlink.org/group/kidicalmass. And new Kidical Mass rides are quickly spreading across the globe: www.kidicalmass.org.
In no particular order, here are some blogs and other resources.
Please share your advice for biking with children of all ages in the comments section below and stay tuned for a page devoted to the winter biking needs of older children. --Gin Kilgore, February, 2011