One thing I am good at is abruptly becoming a passionate supporter of something I used to disdain. Not to brag, but sometimes all it takes is the lightest pressure from whoever my current peer group is. After proclaiming, definitely saying out loud more than once that I would never ride my kids around on a bike, I am now an outspoken Cambridge Cargo Bike Mom and I am not going back not ever. My decision to get an expensive, shiny, beautiful blue electric cargo bike was somewhat impulsive but it has turned out to be the only major purchase I’ve ever made that I had not a sliver of regret about. I just wish I had gotten it sooner.
The actual distance of the commute for the kids and me — from our house to Alice’s school to Hugh’s school to my work — is three miles. With no traffic that should take 20 minutes, but there’s never no traffic in Cambridge, so driving it on a weekday morning or evening is an hour plus, and then there’s finding parking and getting the kids in and out of their seats. The worst part of the commute home during rush hour is within view of our house, meaning we can be sitting in the car able to see our street but will wait another 20 minutes to actually get there. This is the part of the commute when, inside the car, things begin to go to shit. If the kids have been eating snacks, the snacks are gone at this point. They start snatching things from each other and dropping stuff under the seat. I noticed starting last winter that it was also at this point when Alice started asking the most mind-bending, attention-requiring questions (“Mom, you know how Dad’s skin is a little bit dark sometimes?”) So in the spring we started walking, with Hugh in our creaky old stroller, but it took forever and then they began fighting over the stroller, with Alice wanting to ride in it even though I felt she had absolutely no right, but as she pointed out Hugh could also walk perfectly well, so I alternated between yelling “ALICE. YOU WILL NEVER RIDE IN THE STROLLER AGAIN,” and, occasionally, trying to push both kids in the stroller as they assumed comical positions, or letting them push each other in it, right into the street or into a pole.
Anyway, I thought about it on and off for a few months and researched. I looked at and read about different kinds of family cargo bikes, and you can kind of go two ways: You can get a regular-ish bike that is long enough to put two maybe three kids on the back, and then hang stuff on the sides and carry it on a rack in the front, or you can get a bucket bike, with the giant container in the front, like what you probably think of when you think of beautiful Dutch women biking their kids around (if there is even an image in your head of this; there was in mine), and put as many as four kids and all their stuff in the bucket; some of these bikes even have carseat adapters so you can hook in a rear-facing carseat. But this, the Tern GSD, was the one that I fell in love with and the one that three real Camberville mothers I knew had and raved about, and so I got Kevin’s approval or at least reluctant okay, because this was $$$$, and here we are.
At the bike store — the “LBS” or local bike shop, in internet parlance (and woe fucking betide you on Bike Internet if you don’t patronize your LBS) — I sort of couldn’t believe that they would give me the bike (I mean, sell me the bike) without forcing me to take some kind of test first — not a bicycling test, necessarily, but like a gear or culture test. My main vision of “bike person,” besides those Dutch women, was the bike messenger from Portlandia, or the Spandex guys who zoom up Mass Ave all bent over on their bikes with the skinny wheels. For instance, maybe the guy who set me up on the bike would be like QUICK! GEARS: TELL ME EXACTLY WHAT THEY ARE!, or he’d hold out his foot — he was wearing these odd, hard, rubber bike (?) clogs — and be like MY SHOE. WHAT AM I WEARING IT FOR AND WHY, or he’d hand me a bottle of…oil and be like, use this properly. There’s the whole “oh! The hospital is just letting me have my newborn?” thing, but I never felt as uneasy or nervous about leaving the hospital with the baby as I did about leaving the store with this bike.
The first day was not great with the bike. At the shop they set my seat really high, because I guess bike people like to extend their legs fully, and as a result the first time I biked both kids we tipped over, which was an excellent introduction to the bike for them. The other bike moms I knew explained to me, though, that I should lower the seat, because when you’re biking two kids around it’s most important that you be stable, and it’s really nice to be able to put your feet on the ground, and it worked. Also, I just — practiced and got better? Which seemed astonishing, frankly, that I could go from zero bike riding with kids to every day. But I did, because if you’re commuting with your kids on a bike every weekday, you just are going to get better at it because you’re, you know, practicing.
Also, it’s really fun. It’s efficient — it’s made our commute zippy and painless, we zoom past the bumper-to-bumper traffic, even though we are pretty slow. But it’s also fun. The kids do a small amount of fighting on the bike, but mostly they’re either quiet or they sing, separate little tuneless songs that I like to hear and I don’t really have to say anything in response, we’re just going along.
Now, of course, I want everyone to get a bike and bike their kids, so I put together a list of questions that I had that you might also have.
How much did you bike before this?
I really didn’t. I knew how to ride a bike like at proficient kid level and I did the city bike share thing sometimes, but I didn’t commute that way, bike regularly, or own a bike.
How scary is city biking with kids? Are drivers mean?
Cambridge is a pretty bike-friendly city with a lot of bike lanes, and like 7% of people here bike commute, so as usual nothing I say is really representative of anything, but I don’t find biking here much more intimidating than driving here. City driving I think requires a certain level of aggression that doesn’t come naturally to me, but you don’t have to be all that aggressive when you are on a bike; also, the pressures of trying to beat traffic are off, because a bike commute takes roughly the same amount of time no matter what. Driving with kids can be very distracting, especially when they start getting bored, and since they are less bored on the bike, I am overall less distracted as well (I also keep my phone zipped up so I can’t get distracted by that). The best tip I read was that you’re most likely to have a bike accident if you’re either acting overconfident or underconfident, but that more severe accidents are likely caused by you being overconfident, except for the total flukes. I mostly try to behave predictably and watch out for stuff like someone opening their door into me. Lyft and Uber drivers are probably the scariest part of city biking because they don’t behave predictably and pull over randomly, but at least they have big stickers on their windshields so you can watch out for them.
The kids themselves do not make biking scarier except for, you know, precious cargo blah. Hugh is strapped into a seat so he can’t make any wild movements. Alice rides in the middle on a little seat pad and has her own handlebars that she holds on to. If they wiggle too too much they can throw off my center of gravity and make us tip over, so I yell at them severely when they wiggle, and it is ~~~immensely satisfying~~~.
We super occasionally will encounter an old asshole man who hates bikers, but I’ve also been yelled at by asshole old men while driving, so I don’t know that that’s all that different. People are actually possibly a little nicer because my kids are extremely visible, also the bike is bright blue with a bright yellow child seat so we’re somewhat hard to miss.
Also, there are usually multiple bike routes you can take to a place, which allows you to avoid particularly terrifying intersections, etc. I’m in a Cambridge biking group of which of course there are multiple and you can always ask people what’s their best way for getting to a place and they’ll share a map screenshot with you.
Talk about the shopping part of it.
OKAY I WOULD LOVE TO. DID YOU KNOW THAT THERE ARE ALL THESE AMAZING FAMILY BIKING ACCESSORIES THAT YOU CAN BUY DIRECT FROM THE NETHERLANDS AND HAVE SHIPPED TO THE U.S.? Shopping in the name of virtue is one of my absolute favorite things so of course I am all over this. But even if you don’t need a Dutch wicker basket or something, you can order a Thule kid seat for about $100 cheaper than in the U.S.
As I enter my annual stocking up and fattening season, I’m starting to think about what we are going to do in the winter. Just think, I have a real reason to buy tiny balaclavas now.
What are you going to do with the baby on the bike?
Haha, great question. The European version of the rear-facing carseat wars — complete with endless streams of angry Facebook comments, but a wonderful difference is that childless men weigh in too — is as far as I can tell, how young of a baby can be a passenger on a bike. TBD, if only so I have an excuse to write another newsletter about biking a year or so from now.