Even though I'm a year-round bike commuter, I still haven't taken the step of putting my daughter, now two, on the bike. It's not that I don't think she'd like it. It's quite the opposite, her balance bike is one of her favorite things in the world, and she loves being outside in almost any conditions—especially rain and snow.
It's more the stuff that kept me from being a bike commuter for years: getting over the fear, knowing what I need to have and what approach to take. So when I had the chance to talk to Gin Kilgore—program director for the League of Illinois Bicyclists, a bike advocate of all kinds, from Bike Winter to Kidical Mass, and part of a bicycling family with a young child—I sought her advice on what to do.
How did you get started riding bikes?
It was a non-negotiable thing. We don't have a car. We use a lot of different ways of getting around. I love transit, I love the CTA, but especially for shorter trips, I just can't stand waiting. And getting a kid on and off a bus with a stroller is just such a pain in the butt. It was a countdown to the day we could get him into a bicycle trailer.
Things have changed a lot since our son was born. There are some really interesting options. Technically, you're supposed to wait until your kid is a year old to have him on wheels; we waited until 10 months, since his neck was pretty strong.
We liked using the trailer, especially when Miguel was very young. It was really cozy, easy to get him in and out. The key thing for us is that we got two hitches, which means we could switch off. I could take him to daycare and then Michael could pick him up. And we'd park the trailer there. That's why I really like the trailer and the bike seat—we were able to switch it off between the two of us. For us, that was essential. If we'd had one of the bucket bikes, those tend to be more handy if there's the primary parent who does the bicycling. The trailer and the bike seat were much more nimble.
A lot of people get scared having a trailer in traffic; we didn't have a problem with that. You put up a flag, you put lots of lights on there. Nobody wants to hit a bicyclist. Drivers give a wide berth, especially when you have a kid with you.
And just the fact that he was weather-protected. He'd fall asleep; that was great.
When you're talking about what's important, besides having a bicycle that fits you and that you like, it's actually meeting other people who ride bicycles; riding with them to get a sense of where you should be riding on the road. You can read this stuff, like "don't bike in the door zone," but it's really biking with somebody. I'm a good cyclist, but I got started by riding with other people. Same thing with riding with kids. There's Kidical Mass, which is a great way… are you familiar with that?
I've been meaning to do that.
It's a lot of fun. You don't have to come ready to ride with a kid; you can meet up with the people at the beginning of the ride, and talk to parents, and see what they have. Maybe someone will let you test-ride their cargo bike. It's a good way to just connect with other people and ask the questions.
It's funny what you said about the trailers. I have the same instinct. It's kind of irrational—if someone's going to hit the bike, I don't want the kid to be separate from me.
It's not irrational at all. The truth is, I was already a very experienced cyclist. Having a bicycle map can help you find the better routes. If you drive everywhere, you don't necessarily know what the good residential streets are, what the good collector streets are. Having that resource, having a better sense of the backdoor routes, I think that helped because we knew what routes to take.
What did you have to get used to when riding with your kid?
For me it's kind of like breathing; it's hard to know. I would see people wrangling—you know, carrying around a car seat is a total drag. It's not like it's always easy for parents to get their children into automobiles, nor is it always easy to get your kid on a bus. There's a certain amount of, okay, things aren't going to be easy.
One of the benefits of having a trailer is that it's weather-protected. To me the trailer was sort of like having an automobile, so you didn't feel like you had to dress your kid head to toe.
One thing that's unique about being a biking family is how your needs change. Going from a trailer and a bike seat to a very awkward in between stage when he's pretty big—sometimes hauling him in that trailer when he was older, I was like, oh my god, I'm getting the biggest workout. Or the bike seat: this is crazy, I hope I don't tip over.
I imagine that if you're someone who drives, what your kid needs to use for seating is the analogy. You go from a baby seat, to a car seat, to a booster. That's one of the pains of being a bicycling family: we did get all of that stuff, and you have to remember to bring the booster seat if you're getting a ride with someone.
I take it your husband is a cyclist?
Yes, we met through Critical Mass about 17 years ago. People say, oh, that's so crazy, having all that stuff. But it's still way less expensive than owning an automobile. It's so much more budget-conscious. I don't want to sound anti-car; I understand why people have cars, it's a complicated issue. But just for us, the cost savings are a component.
What temperatures do you go down to with your kid on the bike?
I ride my bicycle all year. The only time I wouldn't ride is when the snow conditions are really, really bad. The thing about a kid is that, if they're in the trailer, it's not a problem. It's a cocoon; you get a blanket in there. We never took Miguel out of the trailer and thought, oh, he feels really cold. Having a trailer, that's one of the biggest benefits. You can take them through super-cold weather and it's fine.
Conversely, if he was in the bike seat, we really had to dress him warmly, because he's not doing anything. But how's that different from waiting for the bus? That's not really any different than riding your bicycle.
I wonder if part of what makes people uneasy about trailers is that you can't just turn around to your kid.
Yes. One other thing that's a positive about the trailer, though, is that you can put snacks and other fun activities in there. We've bicycled 40 miles with Miguel in the trailer; our friends and I do this crazy trip every year where we ride our bikes to the Indiana Dunes and rent houses in Miller Beach and then ride back. It's a whole motley assortment of extracycles and trailers and tandems, and the kids trade off. Kids are hardier than we give them credit for.
Yeah, my daughter was clearly disappointed when it stopped snowing.
How old is she?
She just turned two. Late this spring, when it was still kind of cold, she'd run out and go "snooow?" Sorry, kid, you have to wait a few months. She loved it out there.
Kids love to be outside. That's my own rant: we're not going to melt when it rains! People have been living in different climates for thousands of years. Somehow, we've figured it out. They didn't even have high-tech fabric then.
It goes back to riding with other people. I've never met a person, especially who has kids, who hasn't been very excited to help somebody else who's interested in biking with their kids. I think it's a pretty generous community of people.