The best bikes for families (even for larger families)
Biking as a family is great: it’s fun, relatively affordable, feels virtuous, and my kids absolutely love it. Family biking, though, has special needs. When biking with a child, most riders feel extra cautious. The bike is heavier and has additional appendages and there are lots of other practical concerns: where to put the extra gear, the second child, and what happens when the kids fall asleep.
I am just as lazy as the rest of them. My first thought when it is rainy or cold or when I am running late is NOT: wouldn’t it be fun to bicycle? Yet, I also hate trying to find parking, trying to drive safely while children are whining in the back seat, and the expense of filling up my car with gasoline. Then there are the environmental reasons: most Canadians are shocked to realize that we are one of the most polluting countries in the world. We rank 15 out of 17 developed countries for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita. For most of Canada, transportation is the second largest source of GHG emissions after energy used in our buildings. For many Vancouver families who heat their homes from hydro electricity, transportation is their highest source of GHG emissions, and an easy one to do something about. Most of the trips you take as a family are trips of five miles or less and because of the way anti-pollution controls work on a car, these first few miles are the most polluting.
A biking habit can save big bucks. According to Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) it costs an average family in BC more than $10,000 a year to own and operate a car.
So, which bike is right for your family?
The pedal-powered alternative to the mini-van: Cargo bikes
Cargo bikes are bikes designed to carry extra cargo. They come in a few different shapes, sizes and styles. The “cargo” can be carried either in front of the “driver” or behind her; the bike might have a bucket or a box or simply seats that hold anywhere from 2-5 kids; and it might be built upon a two-wheeled bicycle frame or be a three-wheeled tricycle style. Cargo bikes are designed to carry heavy loads and thus often have stronger frames, spokes, and a double kickstand, which is extremely useful to safely hold the bicycle while kids load in and out.
If you want your cargo bike to have the capacity to function more like a pedal-powered-mini-van that you can load up with kids and groceries, I strongly encourage you to consider investing in electric-assist. Without it, you have to be very strong to get up and down any hills. As a relatively small woman, I consider it essential here, but I did ride a fully-loaded cargo bike in other cities without it. You can add electric assist as a retrofit to most bikes and it turns your bike into an “e-bike.” That way you have a little electric power boost available to you every time you pedal. The BionX is what we use. We chose it because it is competitively priced, gets great reviews, and was capable of working with our big cargo bike (and has a two year warranty). Price: $1,000 to $3,000.
The “bucket” bike
The Madsen is a cargo bike—a bike designed to carry extra cargo—that has the carrier in back. The Madsen is what I ride with my kids. It is the lightest-weight, easiest-to-ride cargo bike I have every tried (and I have tried quite a few). The bucket contains two bench seats and four seatbelts and we have indeed gotten four children in it. We have added electric assist to ours. For all these reasons and due to price, the Madsen gets my top recommendation. The only major con is that the company just doesn’t manufacture the bells and whistles I wish it did: no rain cover!
Age range of passenger: A child needs to be able to sit-up well on their own to use the Madsen, approximately 2 years old to adult. (My husband has ridden me in ours many times.)
The Madsen comes from the U.S. and prices range from $1400 to $2000. Learn more at www.madsencycles.com.
When I lived in the flat-lands of Chicago, I rode a Bakfiets-style cargo bike. In Dutch, Bakfiets means “box bike” and, as the name implies, they look like a bicycle with a big box on the front. These bikes are extremely popular in the Netherlands and Copenhagen where parents throw any number of kids, animals, and small household appliances into them. The smaller versions are usually bicycles with a wooden box that can carry two to four children. There are also larger versions that are tricycles and I have seen these carry five kids.
The cons of the Bakfiets-style bikes is that the bike itself is quite heavy. I can’t imagine any but the very smallest of them ever working in a place with even moderate hills. As well, the two-wheeled Bakfiets can’t carry more than about 80 kg before they get very hard to steer. Because the box is in front, it takes a while to get used to riding and it can feel a bit precarious. This design also means that it is very hard to find electric assist options that work with the Bakfiets. I don’t like the three-wheeled Bakfiets-style tricycles as I find them too heavy to maneuver easily, nearly impossible to use anywhere with hills, and quite tippy because of the tricycle design. They do have light-weight, canvas, versions of the tricycle style, but I found the maneuvarability, tippiness, and inability to supplement with electric a continued turn-off. The pros of the Bakfiets-style bicyle. These bicycles have been around for a number of years and they are by far the most beautiful cargo bikes available. There are a number of reputable manufacturers and they all provide wonderful accessories, including great rain covers. (The Netherlands is a very rainy place.) As well, almost all Bakfiets are designed so that you can put kids in seatbelts on the bench seats and safely hook infant carseats inside. These are also the funnest bikes to ride (as long as you are on a gentle downhill) as the kids are located right in front where you can see them, talk with them, and enjoy their laughs as you all whiz by gaping onlookers.
Age range of passenger: From infants to adults.
Prices are usually in the $3,000 range. Learn more about getting a Cargo Bike in Canada.
The long-tail bicycle
Long tail bicycles look a lot like any other around-the-town bike, but just a bit longer. The longer part in back can be set up to hold two bike seats: one right after another. I have even seen people put two kids on back and one on the front in a front-bicycle carrier. The long-tail bicycles are also available as e-bikes.
Age range of passenger: From 9 months (in a kid bike seat) to adult.
Without electric-assist: under $2000, with electric assist: $3000.
Ways to turn your “regular” bicycle into a family-bike
Your regular bicycle can become a family bike too just by adding a few “bells and whistles.” You can add up to two bicycle seats, a wagon to pull behind the bike, bags and baskets to hold your stuff, and even electric-assist to help haul it all to the bike you have now.
Bike extension kits
Turn your road or mountain bike into a longtail style cargo bike with this nifty new kit called the Free Radical Family Kit. Learn more at: www.xtracycle.com/cargo-bicycles/xtracycle-cargo-bicycles/xtracycle-freeradical/freeradical-family.html
The age range would be the same as for the long-tail: 9 months to adult.
Get a taste of the convenience of cargo biking for $569.
The front-mounted kid seat
The first time I saw a kid being ridden by her dad on the front of a bicycle, I was in Ireland. The kid must have been five and her feet were nearly dragging on the ground. Yet, I still knew I wanted one for my child when she came. There are any number of kid bike seats that you can get now. They actually mount over the centre of the bike, but the kid looks to be sitting on a seat near your handlebars. The child really only fits in the front until about 3 years of age, but from about 9 months until that time, this is the funnest ride available. I love being able to look down and see my child while I am riding. It is also easier to balance than a bicycle with a back-mounted seat. The downsides are that when they fall asleep their heads bounce around unsupported and there is less room for the rider so if you have very long legs or you are 7 months pregnant you will find there is simply no room to get on the bike with this seat. The one I have is the Bobike mini and I love it.
Designed for children ages 9 months to 3 years.
Approximate price: $150
The back-mounted kid seat
When you think about riding a bicycle with a kid, most people get a picture of a kid riding in a back-mounted bike seat. They make the bike a bit heavier and it’s a bit harder to balance, but it is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to start biking with a child. Most of these have tall backs that allow a child to sleep pretty comfortably.
The back-mounted seat can be used for kids from approximately 9 months to 5 years.
Prices range from $5 at your local yard sale to $250 for a beautiful one with all of the bells and whistles.
The next most common way to pull a kid after the back-mounted bike seat, is a trailer that holds one or two kids and attaches behind the bike. These are often referred to by the leading name-brand makers such as Burley or Chariot. Canada also makes its own brand called the Wike. The benefits of a trailer is that they are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, don’t require you to buy a new bicycle, and some of them can carry two kids and their stuff easily. It also will protect your child from the rain and provide them a cozy place for napping on the go. Most bike trailers can also serve as a stroller, so, for one price you get it all. I disliked using my trailer, however, as it never felt safe because of how low-to-the-road and far away it is. These trailers are thus harder for vehicle drivers to see. I strongly recommend using a tall flag and bright lights if you chose this option. I also found that my children fight more when they are in a trailer as they, too, don’t have the same visibility and are thus less engaged with the ride compared to the other options discussed.
Age: The trailers all say that in North America it is advised kids wait to bike until they can sit up and hold their heads up on their own, at approximately 1 year of age. Although many have baby support systems as add-ons or work with infant carriers as well. They work until a child gets too big at about 5 or 6 years of age.
The prices range from $250 to $800.
The Trail-a-Bike is a Canadian company that created a “tandem style” bike that attaches to your bike and pulls the kid. It got so popular that the whole category is referred to by this name now. You can even get a version that seats two kids. The trail-a-bike has the added advantage of letting your child get a feel for the balance and skills needed for bicycling on her own. The child needs to do some work on the Trail-a-Bike, at minimum to stay awake and hold on.
There are options for kids ranging from 3 to 10 years old. (Although they also have a babyseat accessory for kids starting at 1).
Prices from $250 to $600.
Making a habit of family biking
Figuring out how to make biking part of your daily routine is really about learning a new habit. Like with any habit, you have to figure out how to make it easier to do than not. Here’s a few tips to consider:
- Invest in bike parking. Park your bike(s) somewhere convenient: simple to get on the road and simple to get off the road. Pay for a parking space if you have to. If parking your bike isn’t convenient and easy, then you are way less likely to succeed at making bicycling a habit. (Remember, you will still save money over driving the car or paying for transit, so invest in this.)
- Gear-up! Get helmets you love. Buy a light for every helmet, for the front and back of every bike, and invest in bells and horns, cute little baskets or bags that hang off the sides, rain-proof pants, and bright reflective jackets. Getting the right gear costs relatively little, but not having it can become a big barrier to biking. Feeling safe on a bike can make riders more confident and having the right gear is a big part of this. All busy parents hate not finding things when they need it, so buy extras and put everything in a designated spot that is easy to access when you need it. Getting out the door is hard enough without having to search for a working rear light: so every week do a little maintenance check to make sure everything is still charged, working, and where you think it is.
- Research your routes. While you are getting the hang of your new bicycling way of life, spend a little extra time to carefully plan your routes. In cities like Vancouver, New York, Chicago, and Montreal, there are extensive networks of bike paths: including separated bike lanes. Figure out which roads and lanes you feel comfortable riding on and then map your route to the grocery store, playdates, school, daycare, and work. Many city’s have websites to help. In Vancouver. In Montreal. In Halifax. In Edmonton. and Calgary and what’s left of Toronto’s bike routes.
Finding the right bike for family biking. There are a number of fun and convenient options for riding with your children on your bicycle. I’ll share a few of my favourites.
Learn more about the different bikes that might work for your family at www.bikes-as-transportation.com
An entire website dedicated to helping you figure out cargo biking in Canada, including where to buy one made in Canada: www.cargobike.ca.
A website to understand and buy electric bikes in Canada, including longtails and cargo bikes: www.ebikes.ca
Buy a Bobike kidseat at www.weelike2bike.ca
Buy a Canadian bicycle trailer at www.wicycle.com/
Buy lots of accessories for your cargo bike of any type or turn your existing bicycle into a cargo bike at www.xtracycle.com
Get inspired and read: “Mud, Sweat, and Gears: A Rowdy Family Bike Adventure Across Canada on Seven Wheels”
And you can always ask The Green Mama your questions about bicycling or any other aspect of green living at www.TheGreenMama.com. A version of this article first appeared in the amazing EcoParentMagazine.