What follows is the first installment of a series on ways to carry kids on your bike. In a country with such a high lawyer to personal-responsibility ratio, this series should probably start with a lengthy safety admonishment and legal disclaimer, but luckily, someone's already written that for me.
So before we go too far down my giddy biking trail, let's just get the responsible part out of the way. If you're thinking about taking your young children with you on your bike, please do give the following links a careful read:
- "Should You Take Your Baby Along?", from the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (an admittedly alarmist take on this topic)
- Brochure from our local Cascade Bicycle Club
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Child as Passenger on Adult Bicycle
- Our own take on "Is Family Cycling Safe?"
No really, we'll wait ...
... welcome back. Still wanna ride a bike with your kid? Splendid. Let's get into the options. We'll start with my favorite way to carry one young child on a bike, the front child seat. For some reason, the rear child seat still is easier to find in most bike stores. Which is well enough for older kids if you've got a sturdy bike and rear rack, but rear seats are not ideal for younger kids. They make the bike less stable, require spoke guards to prevent wheel injuries, aren't as social or fun, and feature a lovely view of your sweaty derrière.
For these reasons and more, front seats are my favorite way to go for kids from 1 year to 3 years of age. Riding a bike with your toddler between your arms, talking about stuff you see, and having her feel like it's her bike, is unbeatable. My 15-month-old let out an enormous WHEEE! the first time we rode up and down the block on her first front seat, and started signing "more" frantically and crying each time we passed the house, worrying the ride was over. Now she's a bit more nonchalant, but still likes bikes so much that she tosses out a "cool bike!" to everyone we pass. I don't think she'd be such a fan if she'd been stuck in a trailer all this time.
Is It Safe?
Are front seats safe? I'm not aware of a study that compares front child seats to rear seats. In my opinion, a front seat may have some safety advantages over a rear seat:
- You can see your child at all times, and anticipate weight shifts or dropped objects
- You'll know if they fall asleep, and can stop or make sure their head is supported well enough
- If you tip, your arms can break their fall
- Having extra weight up front on a bike feels more balanced than having more weight over the rear wheel behind you
- Less jarring ride to the child, since they're not right over the wheel
- No feet-in-spokes worries this way
But in general, having your child up on your bike probably does add some risks, compared to bike trailers (or not biking with your kids). There is no quality dataset that I'm aware of here, but plenty of parental and professional opinions on the matter; you will have to come to your own decision here based on your risk tolerance, bike skills, local riding conditions, and comfort. Here are some drawbacks:
- Knee clearance. Taller riders may find their knees bumping the seat, so demo if you can. I've found that splaying my knees a bit is surprisingly tolerable for moderate-length rides, especially since I use platform pedals instead of clipless. In general, an upright city bike or MTB conversion will work better with front seats. Raising your stem or moving your seat back might help some recreational/sport bikes, but trust me, these front seats are so worth it that you might as well trade up to a nice practical city bike.
- Naps. Little kids like to fall asleep on a bike. Some seats are better than others in this regard, but none are that great. I don't love to see sleeping kids dangling sideways out of their seats with their necks bouncing all around, which is more typical with rear seats that transmit every bump in the road. Fatter tires at lower pressures, seats with better upper body and head support, "sleep pads" in front of the child, etc. may help, but sleeping kids are where bakfietsen, trailers, and other family biking solutions we'll review in future posts have an advantage.
- A child seat affects your center of gravity, and an active child can send you off balance or interfere with your steering.
- Tipovers, even at low speeds, will generate significant rotational momentum by the time your child hits the ground.
- You have to worry about landing on your child, and whether or not her being harnessed to a falling bike is a good thing.
Needless to say, I ride a lot more cautiously with a child on my bike. In addition, please think about the following:
Safety Tips for a Child As Passenger on Your Bike
- If you're just getting into cycling, fantastic, but do build your skills and street awareness before taking your kids along.
- Practice riding your bike with your new seat installed before putting your kids in it, to check handlebar clearances, and to practice mounts and dismounts.
- In particular, there may not be adequate "crochal clearance" on the top tube with a seat there, so you may need to perfect the dorkstand (balancing on a tippy-toe from the saddle at stops).
- Get or perform regular tuneups on your bike to find problems before they happen, and if you hear a new funny noise on your bike, obey your "spider-sense", and stop to figure out what it is before your wheel falls off or other such calamity.
- Invest in a burly double kickstand (Dutch bikes come with these), to help make loading and unloading more safe. Either way, keep a firm hand on the bike when your child is in the seat. Don't lean the bike against a wall or trust the kickstand. This is how most falls seem to happen with bike seats.
- If there is potential for your child to fall forward on the handlebars (as with the Bike-Tutor), remove pokey accessories, and consider padding your stem and handlebars. We attached the padded head from a hobby horse with zipties - squeeze the ear, and it whinnies. Bonus.
- Be careful about dropped objects, which could jam a wheel. Tethers for sippy/snack cups are a good idea.
- Stick to low/slow traffic areas at first, or dedicated bike trails.
- The sidewalk is usually NOT the safest place to ride (and may be illegal). Drivers don't expect or see you there, and you are more likely to get hit at crosswalks and driveways.
- Don't hug parked cars to stay out of traffic - you are traffic, and you do not want to get "doored" with your child on your bike. Drivers behind you can wait, or pass you with room, and are more likely to give you adequate clearance if kids are involved.
- Study these most excellent tips on "How Not to Get Hit By A Car".
Still with me? Let's do a roundup of front child seats. I've owned or ridden most of the following, favorites first. You'll note that my faves are European and harder-to-find, which stems from the fact that we in the US are way behind Europe when it comes to riding with kids in anything other than a trailer.
The Bike-Tutor probably deserves a full review, since coming from "across the pond" it's a bit obscure here. It requires more dynamic balance than the more passive seats, which makes it inappropriate for younger kids, but more fun for kids over 18 months, and it has a higher age/weight limit.
The advantages include an active riding position - they really feel that they're riding the bike, and may absorb early balance and steering skills on your rides. My daughter even tries to take over the handlebars (this, of course, could be a negative). It's frame-mounted, which feels more secure, and affects handling less than the stem-mounted seats. The adjustable footrests are comfortable, protect the legs a bit, and allow for mild "hot-dogging" (trying to stand). It also has decent knee clearance, especially when she's not on the bike (narrow seat). It has a waist belt/thigh strap harness which is easy to click in and out of.
Disadvantages include cost and availability (we got ours from a Canadian eBay seller). It features a PITA installation - you will cuss for an hour or two figuring out the best configuration for your bike (instructions are kinda vague, and there are many fastening options). But thereafter it's smooth sailing, and I haven't had to adjust mine all year. It's not compatible with napping (but might be with a slaaprol - Dutch for sleep pad ... see horsey head above, and a future post). It's also not as quick as the others to take on and off.
Update: This is now made in UK, redesigned to mount on step-through/loop frames, and hopefully less of a pain to install. Now called the Co-Rider.
Updated update: Doesn't sound like the mounting system for non-horizontal top tubes is safe, per this family's hair-raising experience.
The Dutch BoBike Mini seat is a splendid seat for kids from 1yr (manufacturer says 9mo) to 3yrs old, up to 33 lbs. They're expensive at full retail (but so worth it), but can be found used and on eBay. Your local kid-cargo-friendly bike shop may have them too (Dutch Bike Seattle, Aaron's Bike Repair, and Clever Cycles carry them, and deserve your business). If you have an upright bike with older-fashioned quill stem, you're all set. Otherwise you'll need an adapter for threadless headsets, and you will have knee clearance issues on drop bar bikes. See this handy overview of Bobike fit issues.
What I love is the speed and ease of taking it on and off the bike, once the mount is installed. It's also a comfortable, well-built seat, with a nice riding position for your little one. The straps are easy and secure. It doesn't affect handling as much as I thought it would, and knee clearance is good for me - I usually keep the seat on the bike even without Drew, as it makes for some extra cargo space. Overall, this is the most refined seat in this roundup.
An accessory I would recommend is the windscreen, which can really increase your child's comfort on colder/wet days. If you do a lot of wet riding, or would like to, I spotted this ridiculously cute Basil pink vented rain cover for the seat/windshield combo at Clever Cycles ... if it weren't for le Veltop, I'd have picked one up.
The Yepp Mini is a new arrival on the scene from the venerable GMG, formerly making the kind of tubular steel kid seats you might have grown up on. And while I haven't gotten to ride one yet, I've drooled over plenty, and they look great. Crocs-esque soft-but-not-soggy foam seat, chic colors, available windscreen and sleep-pad, quick on and off. Likely to have similar bike frame fit/knee clearance considerations as the Bobike Mini.
The little ones tend to nap on the bike, and for that a WeeRide has you covered, as it has a large napping pad in front of your child. Its uses a frame mounted bar with removable seat. It was our first child seat, and it worked well enough at the time, but Drew outgrew the straps well before the age limit, and I was never that happy with how they worked (kept sliding off her shoulder). Also, knee clearance wasn't great, but probably could have been improved by mounting the bar higher. For a younger infant, with parents on a budget (we found ours at Target), this is a decent way to start, if you don't mind futzing with straps.
The Ibert "safe-T-seat" is a cute little seat, more easily mounted to standard US bike stems than the Bobike, and easily removed. But when the seat is off, a metal prong threatens the family jewels. I'd keep the seat on, or avoid forward dismounts, unless your family is large enough already. Our friends liked this with their 1 year old, and it's got a Kermit-vibe going for it. I haven't tried it, but the knee clearance looks excellent; I've even seen these on road bikes.
A Brompton-specific front seat solution is the ITchair, and I've seen various kid-bike-saddle-on-top-tube DIY variations online, but since those are unrestrained ways to go, they don't make so much sense for younger toddlers who are prone to falling asleep or letting go. Have I missed any that you, my gentle reader, have tried? What's been your experience with front seats? Anyone out there crashed with one of these seats? We haven't fallen, and are not planning on it, but bad things do happen. Other than bike-fear trolling on forums by folks that haven't ever ridden with such seats, I haven't read any concrete accident reports with this mode of child transport, and it would be useful to know some actual causes and results.
But let's not end this roundup on such a Debbie downer note. Let me leave you with this passenger panda portrait (self-portrait while riding - yes, I know, "speaking of accident reports ...", but this was taken on a closed course by professional drivers). It's Drew on a Bike-Tutor seat on a Dutch bike, under a cozy Veltop ... do kids usually look this happy in a carseat or bike trailer? This is why we love the front seats.