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Nov122009

« A Pilgrimage to Portland, Part 2 »

My recent trip to Portland wasn't just about drooling over a panoply of family biking options. The main draw, for me, was a Family Biking Solutions workshop that Oregon Manifest was hosting, featuring Martina from Clever Cycles, and a number of invited "content area experts". 

The goal was to:

Participate in lively discussions to share ideas for product innovation and improved bicycle riding conditions with bicycle manufacturers, organizations and community members. Ultimately our workshop will create a manifest that reflects the needs & ideas of Oregon’s cycling families.

Or Washingon's cycling families? Why not. To my delight, I got to meet some other cycling parents that I already felt I knew in that internet sort of way. Namely, Sarah Gilbert (a "family biking evangelist" on CafeMama and other sites) and Marion Rice (the family biking columnist for BikePortland.org).

I also got to meet something else I had great affection for from afar:

Ah, the beer bike. The cause of, and solution to, all of our family cycling problems.

Don't mind if I do.

The workshop started with opening invited speakers (my new BFFs!). Here's a sampler, from another venue (before you watch, download the pdf with all the lovely photos!):

Marion shared her thoughts as well, and struck a chord with many of us as she described things she'd cobbled together to make family cycling more practical: a sippy cup bungee cord (no more dropped cups!), and rain poncho with an elasticized hem and high-vis triangle on the back that makes a stellar Bobike child seat raincover.

We then split into 3 groups and rotated through the content areas of Products, Community, and Infrastructure. Each of those tables were anchored by two folks with expertise in that area, with a scribe, who collected notes that will eventually form a document for bike industry and government type folks. Between having others taking notes, and the Hopworks beerfiets, I can't claim to have an complete or accurate representation of the excellent ideas from the workshop, but here's some of what I do remember, and what thoughts I've had since ...

Products

  • I've noticed that the ideal family cycling setup seems to change every 2 years or so in the life of a young family. That said, you can certainly get a lot of use out of a bakfiets, Xtracycle/Mundo/MADSEN, or even bike trailer. It'd be nice to see more products with the flexibility to take families from one infant to multiple young kids come onto the market, especially ones with infant capability.
  • Anja noted that many European companies that have this issue considerably more sorted out refuse to distribute in the US market due to our legal/regulatory climate. Arghhh ... but kudos to those that do.
  • There was a lament about not seeing any user research in the family cycling product market. My brother-in-law is a user research guy, and it would be nice to see that incorporated into the process. I do hope the increasing level of competition in the family/cargo bike market will bring on some nice refinements and new options, however.
  • Better rain/shelter options for kids on bikes would be welcome, as would kids bikes that don't suck.
  • I've also noticed that in the US, there's a tension between what families contemplating biking with their kids think they want, and what they end up being happiest with. In the US, it seems that new biking parents and average bike shops end up focused on what they think is safest: bike trailers and big plastic bathtub rear child seats. But the more enclosed the child, the less enjoyable family cycling becomes (less social, less to see), and the safety benefits aren't proven. In general, I think bike trailers are likely to confer some safety benefits over child seats, but I would argue that front seats may be safer than rear seats, and that family cargo bikes handle better than bike trailers, which can be prone to tipping. So the "safe" and easily available options may not be what's best for a particular family, and may not be as fun or practical, limiting their use.
  • So what follows is that it would be nice to see family cycling promoted here in a positive way that emphasizes fun, shared interaction, ease of use, and practicality, without getting so hung up on safety features. Because when safety becomes the main marketing point, the underlying implication is that cycling is inherently unsafe. I think Xtracycle is doing a lovely job of this in their marketing materials. 

Community

  • A recurring theme in this area was helping families new to cycling a la familia find support, advice, and a sense of normalcy in our car-dominated culture. Kidical Mass rides, Portland neighborhood barbeques, ciclovia-style street closures, demo days (like this one), Safe Routes to School programs, and the like are excellent ways to encourage family cycling in your community.
  • Being part of a far-flung internet community of cycling families has been an important part of our family cycling as well. The Fahrners, Stouts, and CarFreeDays families, among many others (see the cycling families blogroll in the left column), have been virtual mentors and inspirations for me, and I can't help but feel that I've been shamelessly imitating their exploits. 
  • Bike shops can (and probably should, from a business perspective) nurture communities of cyclists too. In Seattle, we've got Dutch Bike Seattle, which carries mostly Dutch bikes/seats, and has hosted a number of barbeques, soirees, and rallies, but a bit more from the cycle chic perspective than the snotty-nose and diapers perspective. Aaron's Bike Repair also has a lot of family/cargo bike expertise, and hosts cargo bike rides for every season, but while families are welcome and do participate, they're also not quite the point. I'd love to see a Seattle bike shop carry a wide array of family cargo bikes and seats and embrace/educate/support cycling families, including events and demo days. I don't mean to sound critical of those two shops, both of which I really like. It's just that my fantasy LBS would have more family gear options and events, and be easily accessible by bike (West Seattle is a trek for most of us).
  • I also think Seattle needs a middle ground of bike culture, somewhere in between the Dead Baby Races/Critical Mass (drink drink drink, we're a proud/angry subculture, antagonize motorists) and Cascade events (helmet helmet helmet, sign a waiver, safety over spontaneity). Like Portland's Pedalpalooza, a 2 week celebration of "bike fun" with volunteer-created bike events posted on a community calendar, with some big-ticket events on the weekend. And like our "Fiets of Family Cycling" event! 
  • Another "bike fun" stunt that might highlight the fun and convenience of family cycling would be a family modal challenge similar to the commute challenges where 3 commuters race by bike, car, and transit. Ours would have a family cargo bike versus a Suburban, from house to preschool. I think we could take 'em, when you include traffic near the school and parking. It'd highlight how the perceived ease of car trips is offset by aggravations, and that kids are happier on bikes. Alert the media. 

Infrastructure

  • Greg Raisman (Portland transportation guy) and Todd Boulanger (recently of Vancouver, WA transpo) held down this table, where we discussed congestion around schools. Apparently, "slower is faster" when it comes to traffic engineering for school dropoffs. Slow but steady keeps things moving more than roadways that invite a lot of cars to "hurry up and wait", if that makes any sense. What can I say? This was my third table, and not my first trip to the Hopworks bike.
  • Onstreet parking for cargo bikes was requested, since even with Portland's popular on-street bike "corrals", longtails and such stick out too far. We didn't come up with anything nearly as cool as this, however.
  • I asked if they'd solved the "road diet" problem of taking 4 lanes of traffic down to 2 lanes, center turn lane, and bike lanes, without positioning the bike lane too close to parked cars. They haven't.
  • There was a lot of support for continued expansion of the bicycle boulevard network. Amen! If I have but one wish for our newly elected bike-commuting mayor (and county exec, and council members ... that's right, Seattle is now run by cyclists), it's to aggressively move forward on a bicycle boulevard grid in neighborhoods like Ballard. Our bike lanes tend to be in door zones of arterials, so the vehicular cyclists don't use them, and the newbies either shy away from those busy streets, or end up positioned for a "door prize". I rode on a buffered bike lane that day in Portland, and loved it, but they require the political gumption to take away lanes of traffic or parking. Bike boulevards parallel arterials, are aggressively traffic calmed, have signs/signals that favor bike throughput, and are attractively marketed to cyclists, resulting in safety in numbers advantages. Win-win, across the cycling age/experience spectrum. Our street grid (in many neighborhoods) would be well-suited to this approach, and other than handling crossings of busy streets, they're relatively cheap. 

And then we wrapped up, sharing each group's ideas via scribe, and continuing the conversation. When all this is written up and posted on their site, I'll let you know. Big thanks to Oregon Manifest, Martina, and the participants! The trip home on Greyhound and Tikit was lovely (empty city streets and canal path at night), and I collapsed into bed at 1:30am.

What would you like to see happen in terms of Products, Community, and Infrastructure where you are? And for the locals, is Seattle ready for such a summit? It would sure be nice to share the perspective of family cyclists with our new bicycle overlords in city/regional government.

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Reader Comments (17)

I would love to have more local community support for family biking here in New Haven. Lots of people seem to get a kick out of our cargo bikes but we don't seem to have many other local biking families. (There are others that clearly think we are insane and bad parents). Family cycling is happening little-by-little locally as there are now TWO Madsens here in New Haven and a number of Xtracycles with stoker bars/Peapods. I think we still may have the only bakfiets in the vicinity. I am on the local bike community listserve and while I totally appreciate their general bike advocacy, there isn't yet a voice chiming in about family biking. I know I can't sit back and expect others to find their voices if I am not willing to speak up but really with three little boys and a fulltime job, I honestly don't know how to take more on. AND the fact that this local bike advocacy group meets at 5:30PM on Mondays-- just the time I need to be getting my little guys fed, it is just not realistically doable for me. I've talked informally with some of the other local biking families but we haven't moved into any formal get-togethers/gatherings.

I have so, so, so relied on the example and support of family cyclists in the blogosphere. Every time I read about someone else's experiences with their kids on a bike, it makes me realize just what can be doable for my family as well.

November 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersara

what sara said!! I have two biking groups in my town but one is soooo boorrrriiinng and takes 3 hours on a tuesday night that I can't bring myself to go each month. I think they are doing good work- but they are in the middle of a project and in the minutia of details that it's hard to come into it.

The other one doesn't really have open mtgs and the rides they organized last sumer were from 6-7 on a mon night. Again prime feeding time for my kids. Plus I was told that riding with my cargo bike on the routes would not work well, they were long 7 miles rides and I move really slowly and do 7 miles in a whole morning.

Right now I look to the blogosphere for community. and your comments about what people think is safe vs what works is right on. I was given a trailer and as a new biker it was really hard. I hated that thing. I much prefer my huge ass bike as it handles like a dream. I've walked it one handed!

November 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMamavee

Thanks, Sara and Mamavee ... you're both a warm and fuzzy part of my internet family biking clan. And of course, as biking, blogging mamas, "you are the change ...", so formal advocacy might not be that necessary where you are right now.

If you get a hankering, though, the Kidical Mass startup, while nerve-racking, wasn't a ton of work, and social media/email/community blogs took care of the publicity. It's a casual thing to "organize", and you'll soon gather a lovely group of biking families around you ...

November 12, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Hi, i was thinking about getting a globe haul and attaching a bobike maxi to the rear.. have you any experience with mounting one on the back of any globe bikes?

Love the blog..

November 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterXander

When I was choosing a Globe and thinking bobike, I worried a bit about the distance from the rack to the top of the seat tube on the Haul. You might want to discuss with Clever Cycles - they don't carry the Globes but have Bobikes up the yinyang and a rare adapter that might be necessary.

November 12, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

There are a few more bike clubs in Seattle than just Cascade and the Dead Baby Bike Club.

http://cyclistsofgreaterseattle.org/
http://www.point83.com/
http://seattlebiketours.org/
http://seattleeasyriders.net/default.aspx

and more:
http://www.cascade.org/Community/Contacts.cfm
Even that list isn't complete. For example it is missing the International Christian Cycling Club chapter in Seattle.

November 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Snyder

What a wonderful write-up! I am surprised to see that my "wish-list" for this area is nearly the same! A couple of thoughts:

We don't have a single bike shop carrying cargo bikes in my area (I'm not even sure there is one in the state!)--I'd love to see that change so there was more opportunity to test products.

I'd also love to see a good rain cover. Not only does it rain frequently here, but during the summer the sun is unbearable. We buy sunscreen by the gallon, but it would be so nice to have some sort of cover. Otherwise, we feel trapped inside for much of the day. We have both a Madsen and a Radish and we haven't come up with a good option for either.

Most importantly, I'd love to see family riding marketed in a positive light in my area. We get yelled at fairly frequently and it's disheartening, especially since my 5-year-old is old enough to pay attention. I think seeing more families on bikes would help at least a little bit.

Love the SUV vs SUB race!!

I also have to chime in and say that I love all these family biking sites! This site in particular helped us pick the Madsen and reading about all of these other parents getting out with their kids has helped keep me riding! Being told you are crazy for riding with your kids all the time can get to you after a while, so focusing on the positive (via these sites) has really helped.

November 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

Thanks for the links, Michael - I didn't mean to imply that those were the only games in town, or that CM was always alterna-angry or Cascade is only for weekend warriors. I meant to address the perception that cycling in Seattle is either an alternative subculture, diehard commuter activity, or a weekend recreational activity, and that even with all those groups (to which I'd add your own Spokespeople), we seem lack a Pedalpalooza-style popular middle ground of bike fun.

Thanks Angie - we have it better in Seattle than I often admit. We've never been yelled at in 1.5 years of biking with little kids. I do read online comments aplenty about how irresponsible people like me are. Then again, lack of direct confrontation may be the Seattle way.

November 13, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Well, it's almost as horrible having all the infrastructure when you don't use it, I think! I do love portland for the bike-i-ness but my husband poo-poos the idea of child bike seats or tagalongs, fearing the worst, so I'm stuck with the trailer (so I can only bike when 1 child is w/ me, or none if I want groceries... I have 2 for the record). I dream of xtracycles and madsen's though. (And even maybe a red live 2 mixte. You are not helping with that matter, either :-P). And if it isn't bad enough, clever cycles is w/in walking distance of my house. Now, all I need is someone to write a blank check for me :-D

November 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commentershetha

oh my gosh, this is so inspiring: family biking summit. love. it. we move our two boys 'round toronto in a cargo bike and always appreciate meeting other families who have the same priorities. we tried Kidical Mass, but it wasn't so successful here. i think the name put a lot of folks off...too many negative associations, i guess. i'm hoping to organize another family biking event this spring/summer, under a different guise. (please wish me luck)
anyway, a great big THANK YOU for the awesome, informative, and always entertaining blog!

November 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterheather

Shetha - there's a reason my people call me their "expensive friend" ...

Heather - Love your baby & toddler long-john
Yeah, we had some "branding issues" with the KM name in Seattle too, but that seems to have subsided. People tend to chuckle more often than take visible umbrage, at least. Good luck with your rides, and let us know what you come up with!

November 19, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

This is great information, I live in another state with virtually no family cycling support, although I know we're out there, we're just not all that visable. The cycling groups around here all seem to be focused on racing or commuter cycling. I've been considering organizing something like the Kidical Mass to encourage families to get together and support one another. I would love to talk to you about how to do that, I think that would be a great outreach for families in my area.

December 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLorrea Hall

Kidical Mass is not that hard to start, but I was lucky to have a lot of social media/community blog traffic at first, which might be harder where you are (but you could flyer the library, schools, and other places families hang out - not just bike shops). Shane and company at the original Eugene www.kidicalmass.org were helpful, and I'd be happy to help too - just drop me an email ...

December 7, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Owning a bike shop that does a couple of cycle chic-ish rides every month, I think I know why the kid angle doesn't appeal to even the most adamant pro-transportation bike shop owner.

First, hosting anything with kids entails providing a ton of amenities for the little ones. Since we live in a country that pretty much hates kids, you've got to work extra hard to remember all the small stuff you'll need to provide for young ones.

Second, "liability" will keep people awake at night wondering if everything will come crashing down on them because someone's baby got hurt on a ride.

Third, nobody has really done this and spread the word! I hope to be one of the first shops to openly embrace bike rides with parents and kids.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterubrayj02

Hey Umberto! Let us know about your kid rides when they happen - between that and a Dim Sum ride we'd be happy to have an excuse to come visit LA. Plus with Drew's bedtimes being as focacta as they are these days, who's to say she's not one of your Midnight Ridazz.

As for kid amenities, our parents do a fine job bringing what they need (drinks, snacks, dipes & wipes). We just provide a treat.

January 12, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

I think the whole idea of liability is one of the most damaging things to American society overall, and one of the main contributors to the "the world is out to kill me" feeling that so many people have. Note to everyone (and I'm probably preaching to the choir here): just because a company covers themselves in terms of liability with 1,000,000,000 warnings in their user's manual doesn't mean their product is dangerous. Most of the things they are warning about have about a 1/1,000,000,000 chance of actually happening if the product is used normally. It's just that if that 1/1,000,000,000 chance happens, they will be held liable if they haven't warned you, and that could very well destroy them in our society.

This not only causes us to have a smaller selection of bikes available (not to mention seats for bikes, etc - half the time you see kids on bikes in the NL, they're just sitting on the rack or top tube, imagine the reaction to that here!), but it causes us to make decisions for "safety" that mitigate small risks with the effect of damaging our quality of life - for instance, our fear of bacteria and sickness causes us to process food to the point that it sometimes becomes toxic to us. We choose to exclusively drive because we cycling is dangerous, and in doing so, we remove our experience of the outdoors, our interaction with people during day to day travel, our healthy bit of exercise and fresh air.

I think it would be awesome to see cycling in general, and of course transportational/family cycling promoted in much more positive ways than it is currently in the U.S. (basically the only major media promotion for it is safety promotion, which of course is not really promotion to anyone not already cycling). It really is an enjoyable, practical way to get around a city, it is not overly dangerous (I still find it amazing that people think driving is perfectly safe), and has a lot of quality of life benefits for those who do it, as well as those who don't.

Though I also think one of the best ways to advertise it positively is to do it. I feel like, in Portland, people who don't even think about bicycling, when they see the kinds of things people are doing with bikes daily in just a normal capacity as a normal part of their lives (carrying kids, moving, using them for business transportation, as well as just people getting groceries and going to the library, etc), often they're pretty interested, even if they still wouldn't ride themselves. When it's presented as normal, it's not hard to view it as normal. I also feel like a lot of people in the cycling community are very open and interested in new ideas for how to do more things with bicycles and all of that fosters new development and introduction of new products and ideas, both from Portland, and other places in the world.

Thanks for writing this, great post and great discussion to be having - eventually we'll get to the point where there's enough political pressure from citizens in the U.S. that cities will start making real strides towards reclaiming road space for non-automobiles (even in Portland, that effort has been fairly marginal and experimental), and making things nicer for anyone to go on foot or by bicycle, and when it happens, we're going to remember all this that led up to it. I'm glad to be a part of a group of cyclists whose aim is simply to use a bicycle as their means of transportation. Cheers!

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Well-put sir!

Make it normal. Because taking stairs and baths are probably more dangerous activities than cycling, but they're normal, so no one exclaims "you took the stairs without a helmet?" or "I bathe on the weekends but I would never let my kids take one".

January 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

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