Totcycle | Family Biking

Tots on bikes, kids as cargo, family cycling, and other high-occupancy velo goodness.

Not caring how much our bikes weigh since 2008.

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Jun262009

« Family Biking Ages & Stages »

Now that I'm a self-styled family biking <airquotes> expert </airquotes>, I do get asked a bit about what bike or seat is best for such and such family configuration. And I'm always happy to answer at greater length than is perhaps hoped for.

So here it is, my opinionated take on what bike setup you need for you and yours. I should note my biases: for cycling a la familia I like big bikes (and I cannot lie). Big sturdy practical bikes with cargo capacity. Because you'll soon want to do a lot more than drive your bikes to Sunday toodles along the bike trail, and having some ever-ready cargo ability makes bikes so much more practical for errands, school dropoffs, and everyday cycling ...

I also don't love bike trailers, which seem to be the default way to bike with young kids in this country. Yes, they're easy to find, let you ride your existing road or mountain bike without much modification, work well with narcoleptic toddlers, and have good weather protection. BUT - the awkward maneuvering, lack of interaction with your kids, and the intense dislike or, at best, tolerance that they inspire in passengers (my daughter won't ride in a trailer unless another kid is along, which works until the squabbles start) make me unenthusiastic about trailers. In some respects, they might be safer than some of the other options below, but they can and do tip over.

If you like to ride bikes for the wind on your face, swoopy turns, the sensation of self-powered speed, and getting to experience the world around you with all of your senses ... then so will your kids! if you're a reasonably confident & careful rider, don't miss the delightful conversations and shared delight that comes with riding together on a family bike. Get giddy.

So find your current and future family configuration below, and see what might work for you. I'm sure other family cyclists will have their own opinions (here's another family biking overview, and another, and another). Please comment below about what's worked for you, and I'll keep this page updated with evolving options and opinions. This is a work in progress ...

Photo Credits: All photos are linked to original flickr post. Apologies for not including credit captions - I lack the web-fu to do them on side-by-side images here.

Infant - "Baby Got Bike"

Car seat in bakfiets > MADSEN with custom insert > adapted bike trailer

This baby on bicycle section got so convoluted that it became its own blog post (you know you want to do it ... click the link). A bakfiets "box bike" takes the cake for this age, and grows nicely with your family. But we like our DIY infant seat in the MADSEN too.

Toddler (1y-3y) - "A 10MPH Hug"

Front seat > MADSEN or bakfiets or xtracycle with seat > trailer

If you have a toddler, and want to go by bike, don't miss out on your chance to ride with a front child seat (see link for big front seat rundown and safety tips). As another biking dad put it, it's a 10MPH hug. Having your young child in between your arms as you ride along, pointing out trucks and geese and planes, waving to folks as you pass, and frequently squealing with glee is amazing - truly one of my favorite parenting experiences so far. Your toddler will feel that they're driving "their bike", and will be considerably more enthused about riding with you than when they're slumped in a trailer with their helmet tipped over their eyes.

MADSEN "precious cargo bikes" and bakfietsen (or similar, like the Metrofiets above) work well too, and add room for friends and groceries. And an Xtracycle "sport utility bike" with a Bobike Maxi/Peapod rear seat or custom seat is also a great way to go. But I prefer a front seat position for as long as the child will fit up there. The advantage that a bakfiets, MADSEN, or trailer have over a front seat is naps, which can be awkward or less safe in a front seat without a "napping pad" in front of the child.

Preschooler (3y-5y) - "Backseat Driver"

Xtracycle or MADSEN or bakfiets > city bike with rear seat > trailerbike

A child this age will be too big for most front seats, so unless you've got a bakfiets, the kid moves to the back, where they get to enjoy the view of your hiney. With rear-loading seats (I like Bobike Maxi's) and bigger children, having a sturdy bike with centerstand or double-kickstand is important for loading safety and convenience. The first three up there have more stable stands and more cargo capacity than most city bikes, excepting the Dutch-style bikes with burly double kickstands. Older kids in this range might be ready for a trail-a-bike or other towing option, or could ride on an xtracycle with "stoker bars" (handlebars for them). They do need to stay awake for that kind of riding, however, and have some modicum of impulse control.

Infant & Toddler - "Party in the Front"

Bakfiets or modified MADSEN > front seat plus modified trailer

Bakfiets wins this one too, but we'll see how my MADSEN baby seat works out. I'd still prefer to have them where I can see them ... for now toddler Drew rides in a front seat and baby Luc's in the trailer.

Toddler & Preschooler - "Party in the Back"

MADSEN or xtracycle or bakfiets or "mamafiets" > trailer

This is a fun family biking situation, so look for a "party on a bike" option like the first ones up there. The MADSEN allows up to 4 kids to face each other, and in a bakfiets they can ride abreast, but an xtracycle one behind another solution is still plenty fun and is perhaps an overall more versatile bike.

A "moederfiets", or "mamachari" is a city bike with both front and rear seats. They come ready to roll like this in the Netherlands and Japan, but you can make your own with an "omafiets" (Dutch bike with step-through frame) or low-stepover xtracycle and 2 seats. A bike like this has an advantage if you want your kids separated for a more peaceful ride, or want a "normal bike" (if you're Dutch, that is) that happens to carry 2 kids.

Bike trailers work for 2 kids as well, but it's a little harder to intervene in the inevitable squabbles, which you may not hear until they get apocalyptic. Heck, in a MADSEN, you can even reach back and flail your arm around the backseat like your Dad used to do on road trips ... "He keeps thumping my helmet!" ... "I will pull the bike over this instant!"

Preschool & Older - "Too Cool for School"

FollowMe Tandem / Trail-Gator or xtracycle with bike hauler or Family Tandem or trailerbike

If you have a child that's riding their own bike but isn't yet ready to negotiate traffic, a FollowMe Tandem or Trail-Gator is really handy for school drop-offs and the like, as it allows a parent to tow their child on busier streets, but also easily detach the child's bike for independent riding. And there are several ways to carry or tow another bike with an xtracycle, either using a rack on the side-loaders, or attaching an axle clamp at the rear and towing, which is another nice way to carry child and bike. But the first options allow the child to pedal with you, which is sometimes preferable.

If you're able to trade up to yet another family bike, there are a number of family tandems out there like the KidzTandem, where the child rides in front, or modified traditional tandems where the child is the stoker in the rear. I hear lovely things from families that ride with setups like these. A trailercycle add-on (trail-a-bike, etc) is a easy, modular way to make a family "tandem" as well. It introduces some handling squirreliness relative to a real tandem, but cheap is good these days, and being able to remove it when not needed is handy.

More Older Kid Options

Xtracycle or Family Tandems/Triples

An xtracycle seems ideal for occasional kid passengers, since it performs well as a solo bike for commuting and other practical purposes as your kids graduate to their own bikes, but is always ready to give someone else and their gear (or bike, even) a ride. For regular riding together, a family tandem or triple (or quad!) is expensive but a hoot. And instead of towing kids, you get extra kid pedal power!* 

* Kid power variable and intermittent, with bursts of herky-jerky, your mileage may vary.

3, 4 & More - "The Family Circus Bike"

Family Tandems/Triples Plus Trailers or Longbikes

Wherein I finally endorse a bike trailer ... for maximum clown car effect on the back of an absurdly long bike. And if you've got nice quads (multiples, not muscles), MADSEN has you covered.

Kids' Bikes

Runbikes or pedals-off bikes -> Practical & stylish kids' bikes

The current state of kids' bikes in this country leaves a lot to be desired, but we're optimistic that more sensible options will be available by the time our toddler hits this stage. Until then, here's a nice series on making the bike above right, and a discussion on BikePortland.org. 

Family Biking Awards

Still confused about what to get? There are a lot of specialized options up there, so let's just keep it simple.

Best All-Rounder Family/Cargo Bike: Xtracycle. Versatile, nimble, and homegrown on our West Coast, with a great community of family riders and official/unoffical add-ons.

Up-and-coming: MADSEN's are close behind, though, as they're ready for young kid transport without expensive or custom seats. They're actively working on a lot of the 1st gen issues, and have a cabriolet-style raincover and electric assist in the works.

Just One Kid: Go Dutch, unless you have hills, in which case a lighter city bike would be better. A burly city bike will get you and your kid and your cargo around with aplomb. Carry your sweetie on the back rack while you're at it.

Best Bike for Young Families: A tie between MADSEN and bakfiets. Depends on your budget and your hill situation.

Cheapest Way to Go: Have you noticed that I like shiny pricey Euro-bikes? You could also just go with an Ebay child seat or Craigslist bike trailer on a used steel-frame bike with potential, or your old MTB in the garage. But start saving ... you'll want to city bike it or xtracycle it before long.

Best Kid Seats: Bobike (Mini in the front and Maxi or Jr. in the back). UPDATE: Yepp seats have pretty much swept the market in the past 2 years, and yes, they're great. 

Best Family Bike Shop (and blog): Clever Cycles, in Portland, OR. I do love my local Dutch Bike Seattle and Aaron's Bike Repair (both of whom have excellent websites too), but the Clever crew have more family bike options, oodles of family & carfree expertise, dynomite customer service, a gorgeous store that's like Willy Wonka's for bikey people, and a blog worth reading from start to finish.

Most Inspiring: Xtracycle. The folks that started the longtail trend have a lovely company personality, what with their website & tweets, their bike activism, their generous attitude to newer competition, their slogans ("Every day adventure", "Where practical meets magical", etc ...), and their slideshows. I'll leave you with this one:

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Reader Comments (24)

I'm an Xtracycler -- 4 year old and 6 year old on the SnapDeck. 9 year old rides her own bike. I haul groceries, too. :-) Love, love, love the way the Xtracycle handles -- we test-rode a Madsen and didn't like it nearly as well.

June 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen McDade

Totcycle, what a timely post, a friend of mine just asked my opinion on some family biking and I just forwarded this post. I find you to be a family bike expert, based solely on the high quality information (and I agree with your perspective on life--cheers!).

I have three sons: 9, 6, and 4 years-old. All boys. We cruise around in a bakfiets. My eldest two often ride their own bikes when we are going shorter distances or neighborhooded streets.

I like the kids in front of the bakfiets. It was a big selling point to me. When we commute home from school, my sons are stuck talking to me four about 40 minutes and we have grand time talking about the day and playing games. Easier when the kids are in front.

The load carrying capacity of the Madsen is compelling.

Eventually I will move the bakfiets on to another family and get an Xtracycle. I am a utility bike rider by nature and will always want something big. I see the Xtracycle as a beautiful option for bike use needs: kids, stuff, still use it as an individual rider. (Plus, if someone needed, they could always get that cool StokeMonkey electric assist motor thing.)

I love the categories you have created. Party in the front/back...Ha....reminds me of a mullet (party in the back). Thanks for including links to "everyday cycling" and some of my photos. Always fun to see where things end up.

June 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTravis A. Wittwer

I have threatened to "turn this bucket bike around" when the party-in-the-back of the MADSEN got out of hand. On the plus side, not seeing every little thing that three children are doing in that bucket keeps me more focused on the road and traffic.

I agree with the Xtracycle accolades. It's much more than a family bike.

I'll be bookmarking this for future forwarding. Great job and many thanks!

June 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatt in Tacoma

Thanks for the comments, folks! Keep 'em coming ... I love to hear what families are riding.

I agree, Travis, every time we rented a bakfiets for bike fun I really enjoyed the conversation and songs.

And yeah, our kids like to boogie in the back too. Swaying in unison seems to be their favorite thing, which keeps the handling exciting.

I want to make a family cycling slideshow video too, for more inspirado with fewer words! I'll be asking you guys if I can use a few of your images ...

June 28, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

I'll be bookmarking this post as well & passing it on to other families interested in family bike commuting.

Our family has three boys: 6/6/3 and two cargo bikes: a bakfiets and an xtracycle Radish.

For commuting with all three, it's all about the bakfiets. I, like Travis, love having the boys in front of me so we can chat and point out things to one another along the way. The guys like it because they can easily read in the box & don't need to pay attention to holding on & can mess around quite a bit in the box without impeding my riding.

For traveling with one boy, we take the xtracycle with the boy sitting right on the snap deck with a homemade simple seat belt & stoker bars. It's quicker & lighter & far easier to get up a hill, but still has loads of cargo space.

Riding with two boys-- not a clear winner yet. We have room on the snap deck for two with two homemade seatbelts, however, sometimes the front rider doesn't want the back rider to hold on to his shoulders or waist. The back rider can grab on to the snap deck and frankly as we use the xtra more & more, the boys like not holding on at all (but I don't let them put their arms out & yell rollercoaster-like when we are on busy roads) which can make a mama nervous at times. When I have two riders on the snapdeck & they start messing around--it affects my riding far more than when they are messing in the bakfiets. Riding in the bakfiets with two boys is really not much different than riding with three. They have space & can be handsfree. However, the bakfiets is heavy & I am just not riding up hills on it. When we have to go a route where a hill is unavoidable, the boys jump out of the box and we all walk up so...

That's our experience thus far & I am happy to be in touch with anyone who wants to hear more. I must say that I am happy, really happy that we own both a bakfiets and an xtra. While we are not totally carfree, purchasing the second cargo bike (in our case, we bought the baks first & just bought the xtra a month ago) has really made us a family that is truly car-light. Sorry for such a long reply...

June 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersara

We're 2-kid family and we LOVE our Xtracycle. It takes the 14-mile commute to and from preschool with humor and grace, leaving us lots of options for sidetrips and pitstops. When my 7 year-old is riding alongside (on his own bike) we can make speed, but there have been times both have ridden together on back. It can't be beat at the farmer's market, where literally EVERYTHING you could imagine bringing home can be hitched safely within and on the longtail. It's amazing. More amazing is looking back from time to time at my son, who is standing on the deck and pretending to surf at 7mph. This thing is DEFINITELY made for the hard rocking family! Fainthearted can simply add a peapod to the back if you want to contain your rockstar ;)
Whatever way you go, I'm so happy to both see this article and see more and more family ditching cars for bikes. It's so liberating and FUN!

June 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersteph

Great article! It's awesome that there are so many options out there these days. We've had Xtracycles which we love, but when we had twins about 2 years ago (kid count 3) we had to find a different solution for everyone. Being far from Portland, the Madsen was it. The kids took to it immediately and the twins (18mo) loved getting out of the trailer (which they hated). My 5-yr old prefers to ride in the "bucket bike" with her sisters and we keep behavior in check by telling her she'll be back on the Xtracycle if she gets too wild : ) . Recently, we electrified our Madsen which increases its range to easily cover the 7 miles to downtown over hilly terrain. Now it really replaces the car. Only problems are occasionally cargo gets dumped overboard if it's not tied down (lost a swim noodle on the last ride - whoops!).

I love the Xtracycle for a great ride and it's still my regular commuting bike, but the Madsen is great for everyone!

June 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElise

Living in Australia we are lucky to have a Christiania dealer. It was a bit daunting exploring all the options for carrying the two boys around but basically because they are so large for their age the Christiania was the only thing they could both fit in! I wrote about the detailed reasons why we went for the Christiania and how we have found using it on my blog at lifewithatrike.blogspot.com The kids love it, I get a lot of exercise (especially up hills) and it is great to leave the car at home for most trips!

June 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

I'm still trying to decide, but just test rode a Yuba Mundo, xtracycle, and their custom short-box bike at Joe Bike in Portland and I liked the Mundo best.

The Masden seems like it has many of the same attributes (able to carry very heavy loads and fairly nimble/maneuverable for a cargo bike) but I'm not sure if I like the bucket more than the rack for the Mundo.

The Masden bucket seems like it would constrain cargo carrying but might be easier for kids that might snooze on the bike. Wish I'd tried one at the Bike Gallery before coming back to Baltimore.

Any thoughts on Yuba vs. Masden?

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

@Aaron Nice trike! I didn't give trikes as much attention above as they're very hard to come by here, at least the big Euro-trikes like the Christiania. I'll be curious to see what folks think of the Zigo trike, which is available here.

@Patrick I haven't ridden a Mundo, and of course you'd have to do some customization to haul kids, especially younger ones, but the Stouts traded up from Big Dummy's to Mundos as they like to haul washing machines and such and liked the overbuilt cargo-hauling qualities of the Mundo. They've talked about selling their excellent double kid seat as a kit, as well. That said, we love the MADSEN, and yes, naps work really well in the bucket. Both bikes would deserve some component upgrading as currently spec'd.

July 6, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Hey Julian - Just want to thank you for all the info here which helped me choose the Madsen. Tried it out today with the kids for the first time (twin 3 year-old boys and a 7 year-old boy). I started with the twins, got used to it pretty quickly so added my 7 year-old and while it was a little scary at first, I quickly got used to it and managed well. Even on some hills, surprisingly! All 3 boys are heavy for their size (e.g. my eldest was born 10 lbs 12 oz and the twins are about 50 lbs each and were 9 lbs each at birth!). Not sure what the total tow weight was...maybe somewhere around 170. Anyway they all enjoyed it, though were goofing around/moving around back there too much - but I never felt like I might really lose control. Just threatened that the bike might topple over if they didn't knock it off!

I really only got it for the twins, since they've outgrown the Burley D'Lite trailer's max. weight limit, but knowing all 3 kids can ride in the back is a great relief! I'm thinking of dressing the bucket up in battery-operated Halloween lights this year and towing kids-in-costume home from a long walk of trick-or-treating! ;)

October 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarya

How do you nap a kid in a Madsen? I'm a new owner and really struggling with getting my two 2.5year olds comfy in the back. As for napping, I can't even imagine getting that to happen since they are so high up. What do they lean on? Tricks? Tips? Any advice is appreciated.

They are used to the burly where they could nap just fine as long as the other child cooperated and didn't poke out the other's eyes. And my 6 year old often rode in the cargo hold where she felt like she could spy on the world. I'm starting to feel like this purchase was a mistake!

December 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

The new (or perhaps just new to North America) cargo and family bikes do look nice, but I commute with my kids in a Burley and I wanted come to the defense of the trailer option. I'm in the colder and smaller Portland (Maine) and encountered some black ice on the way to my son's pre-school earlier this week. Despite my studded tires, my bike slipped out from underneath me and I hit the deck. It was a harmless fall, not in traffic and no injuries to me or my bike. Fortunately, however, my son ( tucked under a blanket in his trailer) was surprised by my tumble, but that was the extent to which he was affected by my fall. My thought as I was falling was, "Thank god my son is inside a trailer and not sitting on my bike with me."

January 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

this is sooo cute.. my little girl loves to go biking.. going out with the whole family would be perfect!

November 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterann smith

Any ideas for infant + preschooler? I have a single-kid trailer that I used for #1 when she was small - didn't bike at all this past summer because I was too pregnant :( Want to get back into it this summer, but #1 is too big for a front-mounted seat, and I don't want to make her share a big trailer with a carseat (for #2).

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnitra

Trailer plus rear seat, MADSEN, bakfiets could all work ...

April 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Awesome blog! So much helpful information. I am really interested in finally getting back on my hybrid by front carrying my 21 month old son. The Co-Rider makes it seem like it's not too late to do this. Up to what age were you and your daughter using it? They told me 5-6 years would work--but my son is ueber tall. Is there an approx height or weight equivalent of 5-6 "years" that I could keep in mind? Any hesitancy in recommended it?

April 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMercedee

Co-Rider would seem to work well up to age 4-5. I had my 6yo niece on it once, which was a bit much. Should have decent resale value, since they've been a bit rare over here. I haven't gotten to try the new version, hope it's a bit easier to install! I also had difficulty getting it tight enough not to rotate slightly on the top tube without over-tightening and denting the the tube. Good luck!

April 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

So this is all amazing! We're excited to get a cargo bike & we're ditching our car (we'll use zipcar when needed) but I am stuck between the madsen and the bakfiets. My main issue is that I live in San Francisco- there are inevitable hills that I can do my best to avoid but I'll surely run into them. My friend has a madsen so i can test hers (but she's in the burbs, flat with bike trails) and a local dutch bike store has a bakfiets i can try which i'm looking forward to doing. I've got 2 girls, currently 2.5 years & 10 months old.
What's your advice on the best bike for my city? I feel like the lower weight load of the bak & the front positioning is better for us but ?? My friend says shes sways a lot in the madsen from the kids moving about & was worried that on my busy city streets that could be stressful.
thank you so much.

May 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commentershayna

I love the kids-in-front aspect of the bakfiets too, but worry about the hills in SF. Even the flatter routes aren't Amsterdam-flat. Definitely demo a bakfiets (My Dutch Bike has 'em, and the excellent FR8) on some hills before committing. The Bullitt is a better hill-climbing bike but even more $$$, and would need a custom box for two kids.

I don't think little kids throw off the MADSEN handling as much as big kids, but my wife does also notice/worry about that more than me. There may be a gender-upper-body difference in how wobbly the MADSEN feels, as I've heard that comment from a few other women.

You should also demo a Yuba Mundo (RockTheBike in East Bay) and Xtracycle setup, as the longtails can be a bit friendlier on hills, and have easier electric-assist options. Yepp Maxi seats pair well with those.

May 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Very cute and a good idea. I just don't know how practical it would be for the everyday person. It takes up a lot of room.

May 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBilliards Boy

I think the "wobble factor" of the Madsen wears off after some experience. I've got two kids, each about 45 lbs, in the bucket of mine, and I have never experienced swerving on the road as a result of their movements. Sometimes I find it annoying, and I yell, "calm bodies on the bike!" but it hasn't ever felt dangerous while riding.

As for the amount of room the Madsen (or other child-toting bike) takes up-- we do have a garage with no car in it, so that's where we keep ours. But a bungeed tarp could store it outside without too much trouble, I'd imagine.

June 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

If you live in a hilly area then get electric bicycles. This is a totally different cycling feeling. You just cruse along, it is great.

July 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergo green

Glad your site is back online! My older child is about to outgrow his rear seat, so I have to figure out what comes next!

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEsay

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