Totcycle | Family Biking

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Thursday
Dec312009

« Is Family Cycling Safe? »

Yes.

Please elaborate ...

This post has been a long time coming. Totcycle has been in existence for over a year, yet through luck or obscurity I haven't yet had a comment about child endangerment, such as you'll find on less "niche" online articles about cycling with kids.

I'm also fortunate to have a supportive wife and family when it comes to my OCD (obsessive cyclist disorder), and many of our friends are taking up family cycling as well. But I'm not so ensconced in a rosy family biking bubble that I don't worry about whether my choice to ride with small kids is safe.

What is this thing you call "safe"?

Is there any aspect of raising kids that could be considered absolutely "safe"? No. There are risks to any parenting decision we make, and in this age of parenting anxiety I think parents are (hyper)aware of this fact. But we tend to get hung up on the "active" risks, where by allowing our children to do blank [biking, walking, playing, climbing trees, talking to strangers, trick-or-treating] we put them at risk for blankety-blank [getting run over, closed head injury, fractures, abduction, poisoning, dismemberment].

And while we're wired to worry about the "yes" decisions we make, we often ignore the perils of "no" decisions, or the more "passive" risks. The risks here may be more insidious, less grisly, and certainly less likely to cast you as that parent on the TV news, but are arguably more harmful. Unreasonable fear of strangers, anxiety about quite rare events, lack of confidence, social isolation, excess screen time, lack of practical street skills and independence are all very real risks of habitually "protecting" our kids from exagerated dangers. And as the rates of active transportation have declined in this country, we've seen a dramatic increase in childhood obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other health risks. In fact, our children may be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

So rather than pursue some mythical goal of "safe", it seems more appropriate to find activities that are "safe enough". Would you want your child to have an "injury-free childhood" (the stated goal of a local injury-prevention group)? Free of death or permanent disability, yes! But free of injury risk, not so much. I don't think that childhood reasonably exists, now or in the future, without running the risk of creating an anxious, sedentary, overweight shut-in headed for early death and disability from inactivity.

Whoops. Now who's preying on parental fears? Scratch that last part. Turn off the TV news, stop watching CSI, remind yourself that violent crime has declined in this country, stranger abductions are very very rare, and let's get busy reclaiming childhood freedoms that we enjoyed. And pick up a copy of Free Range Kids while you're at it ...

The data on cycling, such as it is

Depending on what you read, cycling in the US is either 10 times more dangerous than in Europe, safer than driving, more dangerous than driving, or life-prolonging. Bike lanes and trails are safer, unless they're more dangerous, depending on how the data is massaged. Helmets save lives, or add rotational forces and invite cars to buzz you; helmet laws are the be-all and end-all of bicycle safety policy, unless they discourage cycling and raise the risk for those that do ride. Trailers are safer than child seats, except they tip over and cars might not see them. Riding a bike makes you happier and healthier, unless it makes you a habitual scofflaw whose smugness is barely contained by unsightly spandex.

Glad I could clear that up.

Here's the problem: we have some imperfect stats on cycling injuries and death (with injuries being under-reported, most likely). You might even find some statistics from your community, but as you read them you'll find a lot of cyclist behaviors that you very likely do not engage in (e.g. drunken wrong-way cycling in the dark without lights or helmet). Hmm. Where are the statistics for people who ride like me on the routes I ride?

And while total numbers of people injured or killed on bikes may be useful from a public policy perspective, these numbers are meaningless for individual decisions without a denominator, whether it be per hours cycled, or per mile. And we just don't have accurate numbers there. I've looked. Without them, there is no valid comparison between modes of travel (walking, biking, driving), nor can one compare child seats to trailers or other questions. Without them, all we've got left is opinion and bias.

Having read a lot of the statistics, and what few papers have been published on children and bikes, my impression is that cycling in most parts of the US is indeed more dangerous than in European cities with mature bicycle infrastructure and more "tame" drivers. The risks also seem higher in rural and exurban areas. But there are choices that one can make as a cyclist that will make you considerably less likely to become a statistic. Given smart cyclist behaviors, a community with reasonable bicycle route options, and a growing popularity of cycling, you may even be able to lower your family's immediate risk from cycling below that of driving. I already think it's healthier in the long view. Other reviewers I respect agree. Let's not forget that being in a motor vehicle is the number one cause of death and disability for most pediatric age groups, total numbers-wise.

How Irrational Fears Make Us Less Safe

[This added section inspired by the excellent comments below]
Data, or "objective safety" aside, we've also got subjective safety to deal with. Our nature is to fear rare, exotic events like abductions, and to ignore the humdrum but far-more-prevalent daily risks. Like driving, walking, stairs, bathing, and eating. Those don't make the news, but they're far more likely to cause us harm. Besides, if it makes the news, it's generally a rare event, no?

In our family, it's the stairs we should fear. Drew's taken many a solo tumble, and Kim and I have had more near-misses carrying kids down stairs than we have on bikes (arguably scarier than the typical low-speed family bike tipover). So we should probably all have stair-helmets and feel guilty about exposing our kids to our family stairclimbing "hobby".

But we don't, because stairs are familiar, mainstream. But by worrying excessively about rare events, we miss opportunities to mitigate common dangers, and we also may put others at risk. You can see this in maddeningly circular discussions about school dropoff safety, when it's the often distracted and rushing parents that make up the majority of the dangerous traffic they're so worried about. By choosing to drive over walking or biking for subjective safety concerns, we make the roads more objectively dangerous for those that do choose active transportation.

David Hembrow makes some excellent points about how increasing subjective safety can increase cycling rates (especially among women and parents who stereotypically are more concerned about safety), which through the "safety in numbers" effect can increase objective safety as well. Another such virtuous cycle is the peer modeling in bikier towns or schools where cycling starts to seem like the "normal" (ie non-extreme sport/hardcore) thing to do.

One caution is that as cycling rates increase, a "teenage driver" phenomenon may occur. As more inexperienced riders hit the roads, the injury numbers go up, and perhaps even the injury rates (which may be counter-balanced by motorists becoming more aware of cyclists). We do see higher rates of pediatric injury on bikes in the newly independent pre-adolescent and adolescent age groups. So bicycle campaigns and infrastructure improvements will ideally be married to education efforts (without flogging the safety angle so much that cycling starts to feel dangerous again).

So what can we do?

My hope regarding the "teen driver" issue is that by riding with my kids on my bike from a young age, I'll not only instill a love for bikes (that's already working out quite well!), but an ingrained awareness of how/where to ride. Through Kidical Mass rides and other adult-accompanied experiences, I plan to help my kids (and others) learn practical street riding skills, and when my kids are in grade school I want them to be involved in Safe Routes to School, and other ways to gradually increase their independence. Similar rides and classes are likely available where you live. If not, make them happen!

Parents newer to street riding can also find local classes in transportational cycling for themselves, ideally ones that aren't too steeped in a rigid "vehicular cycling" ideology. While there's a lot to be learned from that approach, you'll find that riding with kids needs a more flexible approach to route selection, and that the separate bicycle infrastructure they oppose can be just the ticket for newer/younger/less confident riders.

Or learn as I did, following in the steps of other online bikey families (see our blogroll in the left column), exercising a reasonable level of caution, and increasing my and my family's confidence level on local streets over the past year.

Other ways to make family cycling safer

  • We're fortunate to have an abundance of family cargo bike, child seat, and trailer options these days. This site is a bit obsessed with them. Poke around.
  • Choose routes carefully. When biking with kids I avoid busy arterials when possible, and choose parallel traffic-calm side streets or bicycle facilities separate from traffic (we're fortunate to have a lot of safer options where we live).
  • Take your time.
  • No wrong-way riding.
  • Ride well clear of the door zone, especially when riding fast.
  • Maintain a steady line, and avoid weaving in and out of parked cars.
  • Have utmost respect for train tracks (cross at a right angle), slippery leaves, grates, gravel and other hazards.
  • "Take the lane" at intersections to avoid right hooks and increase your visibility to oncoming and cross-traffic.
  • Make eye contact with other road users, and assume otherwise they do not see you.
  • Signal your intentions.
  • If you must ride on the sidewalk at times, be hyperaware that driveways and intersections are more risky for sidewalk cyclists.
  • Light up the night with front, rear, and side lights and reflective devices.
  • Wear helmets. They help in some falls and collisions. Not all.
  • Be especially careful when loading/unloading small children from your bike; invest in the more stable kickstand or centerstand (centerstand) you can fit, but don't trust it to keep your bike up.
  • Behave courteously to others, especially pedestrians. "Ride with your heart".
  • You'll probably roll through stop signs at empty intersections (I do), but puhlease don't run red lights or take right of way from other road users. Even if it doesn't get you hurt, it puts the rest of us at risk from motorists all hopped up on "scofflaw cyclist" outrage.
  • Maintain your bike, or have someone do it for you. If you hear a new noise, or your "spidey-sense" tells you something feels different on your bike, investigate it before it crashes you.

Your well-meaning safety advice is making me feel less safe

I know. Sorry about that. An overemphasis on "safety" in bicycle promotion efforts makes riding a bike seem like an extreme sport.

It's not. It's just a delightful way to get around. Yes, yes, it's good for the environment, your health, and your community, but at heart, I ride because it makes me and mine happy.

Does it take courage to do so? Is it fool-hardy? Selfish? I don't claim to know for sure. It depends on your comfort level, and on where you live. We've all figured out by now that parenting ain't easy, and neither is this choice. But as with other decisions, educate your instinct, and then follow it.

It's not at all unusual to go by bike in Seattle, even with kids, but it may be in your town (not that it should stop you). I also think it's safer here than in suburbs/exurbs with cul-de-sac developments poorly linked by scary arterials. We have it pretty good, as much as I envy bike-friendlier towns like Portland, Boulder, Davis, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam.

But there are still rides and routes that worry me, and we're still sharing streets with distracted drivers hell-bent on speeding to the next traffic jam. We've got a long way to go in this country in making the public roads safer for all of us road users, and until aggressive traffic calming and active transportation infrastructure arrives, riding with kids can be a bit, well, at the leading edge.

We're an indicator species ... when you see enough parents out there feeling comfortable riding with kids is when you'll know we've arrived at a more sane and humane, less auto-centric society. But right now, where we live, people seem ready, or close to it. We get smiles and big waves and bike appreciation most places we go, as well as lots of questions from interested parents. I hope we're making cycling more subjectively safe for them.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the "is it safe?" elephant in the street, both on real and perceived risks, your experiences, and what your comfort level is riding with kids where you live. And ... Happy New Year! May 2010 be the Year, nay, the Decade of Family Biking. A big big thanks to all of you biking a la familia in your communities, and to all the 'Bike Supermoms and Dads' out there who've inspired us. Now go out there and "be the change ..."

Kim takes the kids for a MADSEN ride

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Reader Comments (33)

Julian - This is brilliant! You've really summed up much of what I think, but am far too lazy to write about myself. Very useful information, even for me, and your "babies" are looking as darling as ever. You guys are such an inspiration, thanks for taking the lead on this!

-Miss Sarah

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Chan

Well, I can't comment specifically on riding with kids, as I don't have any... but I think a lot of what you said applies to everyone. In Portland, it's estimated about 60% of the population in the city would ride bikes more than they do, except that they feel it's dangerous. While it may be dangerous, let's say in relation to... drinking water (but you never know what could be in that water!) - I think it's safe to say from the anecdotal experience of thousands and thousands of people who ride bikes everyday in cities in the U.S. and rarely have any safety issues, that it's much safer than we give it credit for. It's certainly not a death sentence or something only crazy people do.

I totally agree with you about the hyper-emphasis on safety in America these days, and equally so about the effects it can have on kids (much less on anyone else). You have to experience life, take some risks (even reasonable ones), get out and interact with other people, in order to really get what you can from life. We do ourselves much harm by locking ourselves and our children inside our houses and cars and never letting them touch the world. Besides, who knows, maybe having contact with the world after being sheltered will awaken a deeper understanding of life. It worked for the Buddha, after all :)

In Portland, we have a huge part of the city that's really nice for cycling, but unfortunately, it's broken up in pieces still. You can ride down a nice, quiet neighborhood street that continues across half the inner part of the city, and then oops - you're stuck at a 6-lane arterial street with no traffic signal. Sorry. There is always an alternate route, but until you don't need an alternate route, it's not going to be convenient and feel safe enough for the majority of people to do it.

Anyway, I agree that families cycling are an indicator species, and as that goes, things are getting better. In the end, a bicycle is a tool to get you, stuff you need with you, and potentially your family from one place to another. As much as it is good at fulfilling that purpose, it should be used. I love riding myself, and have thought about whether that's selfish or not, whether I'm putting myself unnecessarily at risk, but at some point, I can't simply hop in a car because I feel safer (in fact I don't, I feel uncomfortable moving that fast, and having such limited visibility at the same time), and I have to also consider my likelihood of injuring other people in my decisions. Even if I am slightly more likely to get killed on a bike (which is debatable), I will never have to live with having killed someone else with my vehicle.

Life is complicated, none of these decisions are easy, and it requires a lot of thinking and feeling to come to what you feel is the best decision. Thanks for a great post. I hope it will be thought-provoking for other folks.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Thanks Miss Sarah! I've been loving the Dexter on MADSEN posts and video ...

And Dave, great point on broader safety - the risk I place others in when I choose to drive. As much as I complain about "carhead", I'm not at all immune to it when I drive. I'm frequently distracted, and my temperament shifts to sociopathic behind the wheel of a car.

And yes, we need safer and continuous routes that go where families want to go to get many of those "curious but worried" parents on bikes.

December 31, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Get them outside

January 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersam

Fantasic post!
I'm amazed by the attitudes to cycling safetly where we live (NE Scotland), as its an oil county car is King and people regularly drive less than a mile. People are amazed that we cycle into town (yes...a whole 3 miles!) and that the kids can do it! My eldest and middle sons (9 and 6) can cycle that and more independantly (as in by their own steam NOT alone!) and my youngst (5) uses a tag a long bike.
The funniest thing ever was cycling past some of my middle sons class mates being allowed to cyle round and round a tiny island on a cul-de-sac and the look of shock when the parents realised my boy was off on a 7 mile ride up and down hills.

Many people have been encouraging but always say that the speed of traffic and safety stop them from actually doing it themselves. We live in a very rural area with (ironically) very fast traffic, but I can honestly say we have had the vast majority of drivers treat us well and give the kids space.

We're currently waiting for the snow and ice to receed a little and then we can pump up the tires and get back out on the road :)

January 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

Thanks for putting this all down, Julian. Thoughtful, thorough, & quite reflective of my husband's and my views. I hope you don't mind if I post a link to this blog post my Facebook account & link it on my blog with big "this was written by a PEDIATRICIAN" intro :).

When contemplating investing in the Bakfiets and taking the big plunge into family biking, I did have some worries. I had a few anxiety dreams before I actually got out on the road on a bike, particularly dealing with this one crazy intersection we must cross on our way to school. But once I was actually ON the bike and riding, many of my extreme worries went away and I felt so much safer and more comfortable cycling than anticipating cycling in my dreams.

Whenever I ride with one or more of my children, I am always (hyper)aware that he/they is/are on the bike with me. I am an extreme traffic rules follower & even if I get fuming about something a driver does, I let it go (in ways I wouldn't likely if I were driving a car where I might speed up & express my displeasure). I always stop at red lights, I signal, I ride on the right unless I need to take the lane, etc. In the ten months that we have been doing this, we have only had two real incidents that scared me on the bike and I don't live in a town that is particularly bike friendly. I can't even count the number of times I was totally delighted out there on our bikes; there have been so many, a nearly everyday happening.

I had a moment just this past week when we got my sons' fixed-up bikes back from our local shop. One of my guys was thrilled to hop on his bike and wanted to ride around our block. We live in an urban area, not super urban though, and in the past, I think one of us always accompanied him. He was staying on the sidewalk, not crossing any streets, and has had practice slowing down & voice signaling if he comes upon pedestrians (it was a quiet afternoon). So I said yes & off he went. And I hung out in front of our house & he lapped me again and again, calling out the number of times he did. I realized that this was the VERY FIRST time he had 'gone off' on his own and it felt... I'm not sure, sort of weird. When I was his age, I think I rode all over my suburban neighborhood by bike alone or with friends or my siblings. The truth was that I wasn't really worried about HIM; I was more worried what other folks who saw him riding alone on the far side of the block would think about ME and my parenting choice.

I don't, however, really worry about what others think of me cycling with my kids on our cargo bikes. I have gotten a few super passive aggressive comments from other parents who clearly disapprove of my choice, but we've gotten far more support for our family cycling. We were thoughtful in our decision to family cycle and we try to remain ever thoughtful and vigilant when we are out there on our bikes.

January 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersara

p.s. I neglected to mention that I concur with Miss Sarah about the utter deliciousness of your 'cargo.' Wonderful photo.

January 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersara

Hi,
I agree with most of what you say and I applaud you choice of cycling for transport as I have myself.
How ever, one paragraph I have a problem with.
"Parents newer to street riding can also find local classes in transportational cycling for themselves, ideally ones that aren't too steeped in a rigid "vehicular cycling" ideology. While there's a lot to be learned from that approach, you'll find that riding with kids needs a more flexible approach to route selection, and that the separate bicycle infrastructure they oppose can be just the ticket for newer/younger/less confident riders."

As a VC for years I don't see the ideological rigidity. It's just following the rules of the road and driving your bike like a vehicle, which is what it is in law. You mention taking the lane when necessary. That is VC. Sometimes it's necessary to take the lane so as to be well out from the curb, to be visible to drivers coming from sidestreets. Bike lanes are not safe as they guide the rider to be too far right where they become invisible to traffic. This causes left cross and right hook crashes besides passing too close when overtaking. Depending on facilities is a mug's game for transportation cyclists. They can never afford to put facilities everywhere a TC needs to go, which is where everyone else needs to go. doctors, business meetings, work, daycare, shopping etc. Especialy in the next 5-10 yrs as all municipalities are downsizing and cutting budgets due to recession.
In the meantime while we are all wishing for this Amsterdam valhalla, our children are growing older and need to know how to cycle safely on the streets as they are now. The best thing that we can do to ensure our kids are safe when they'take off on their own' is to make sure they get a good Smart Cycling course or take one yourself and teach your kids. These graduated courses will give them the skillls and confidence they need to cycle safely all their lives, regardless of facilities. The North American version of Cyclecraft by John Franklin is now avalable too.
Happy New Year and good health.

January 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertrikebum

Thanks Sara, comments like that are exactly was I was hoping folks would respond with. I think families who ride with their kids have had a lot of anxieties and second thoughts about these things, but also get into a bit of a defensive posture against real or anticipated judgments. I hoped this would be a comfortable place to drop that.

And Trikebum, thanks for your defense of VC (didn't mean to attack the concepts, just the "one true way" attitude that often rides with them). I ride vehicular much of the time. But with kids, my route selection, speed, choice of bikes, and use of separate infrastructure when possible doesn't seem to fit the VC I hear about from its more vocal proponents.

Yes, we're vehicles by law, but it's unrealistic to think that a 9 year old on a bike and a speeding SUV can easily coexist on the busy arterials often favored by fit, fast VC cyclists. I have problems with many of our bike lanes too, as currently striped in the door zone, but still want more and better bicycle infrastructure (like more bicycle boulevards). As for cost, since we could build Portland's bikeway network for the cost of one highway onramp, it'll depend more on community priorities than budget.

January 1, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Julian,
This is a great post; I will be sharing it with worried family. When I think about these issues, there is another element involved, similar to Dave's point above. I know that every additional car on the road makes the whole system less safe for all users: other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike. Furthermore, every additional bicycle seems to make the whole system more safe, especially for bicycles but for other users as well. So if I choose to drive because cycling isn't safe enough, my action reinforces that belief in reality: our collective fear actively makes the situation worse for everyone. By opting out, and staying out of cars as often as possible, I can choose not to make the roads unnecesarily less safe by my presence on them. And by being loud about that choice, and the hows and whys of making it, I can encourage others to do the same.

I'm glad you're out there, living some of the tricky choices and writing so clearly about them. It is this visibility, along with your other acivism, that makes the impact of your choices broader than one family. Your voice online has certainly affected our plans and goals as a new family! Thanks again.

January 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterInkandpen

I have a great deal of admiration and appreciation for you and all cycling families. I believe that you have the right view of understanding the risks in order to mitigate them. While Vehicular Cycling focuses on the risks in the road, you are right in that it does require an athletic ability that excludes a portion of family cycling. While sidewalk riding is generally denounced by VC advocates, I believe that it can be safe if speeds and awareness match the environment.

The League of American Cyclists does have an education module for children, and another for parents. These modules focus on things like wrong-way riding, driveways, looking both ways when entering the street, helmets, starting and stopping, stop signs and very basic basics. It is a far cry from the full Effective Cycling / Cycling Skills 101 / Urban Cycling Techniques class that is the basis of the typical VC toolbox, and even the full toolbox doesn't talk much about how to improve your safety in sidewalks and on trails, but it is a start.

Thank you for all of the awesome groundbreaking work that you do!

January 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Snyder

Firstly, what a terrific post. I especially like the paragraph on "The data on cycling" - pretty much sums up the way I view this data.

As somebody who does not have children and does not plan on them, my views are purely philosophical. But the main issue for me is this: When we cycle, we make assessments of whatever risks are involved and we <i>choose</i> to do it. When we strap our baby or toddler to our bicycle, we decide <i>for</i> them, leaving them no choice. Though I choose to cycle every day, I would not be comfortable imposing that choice on another person who is not aware of the risks. If I had a child, I am not sure how I would resolve that, unless I lived in a place like Holland where cycling safety is a non-issue.

January 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLovely Bicycle!

"Safety" is highly overrated, stifling, boring and frequenjtly illusory. It is not the Holy grail that most believe it to be.

January 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVal

<3 you guys. you're an inspiration... i can hardly wait to make babies. hardly. but i still can. wait, that is. :)

January 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkit

@Inkandpen - Absolutely: "our collective fear actively makes the situation worse for everyone" ... this is so clear in maddeningly circular discussions about school dropoff safety, when it's the (often distracted and rushing) parents that make up the majority of the dangerous traffic they're so worried about.

@Michael and @trikebum - Sounds like I'll have to get over myself and pick up Cyclecraft (I hear it has family cycling chapters) . And we'd be delighted to involve you (Michael) in a family cycling workshop, maybe this summer when the turnout'll be higher.

Hi @LovelyBicycle! Love your blog. I hear you about decision-making for vulnerable parties below the age of comprehension/assent/consent. But I think I'd be more angsty about it if I thought the cycling we did was a lot riskier than other modes of transport. But I don't, and we need to get places, so ...

The big risk in our family seems to be stairs, actually. Not being facetious here. Drew's taken many a solo tumble, and Kim and I have had more near-misses carrying kids down stairs than we have on bikes. So we should probably all have stair-helmets and feel guilty about exposing our kids to our family stairclimbing :) ...

Thank you Val for the perspective. And Kit, if you'd been cooped up with our charming brood this holiday, you'd have gotten several years worth of natural birth control.

January 4, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Wow, what an absolutely fantastic post!! You really did an amazing job providing a concise response to the questions we get and even ask ourselves about family cycling. Being a good parent is hard work and there are very few "easy" decisions along the way (Stride Rites or Robeez?!?). My husband and I have spent many a night discussing family cycling and going over the safety of it all. Each time, we have come up with these same conclusions. You can't remove all risk from childhood, nor should you. And after looking at it from each angle, I think the small increase in risk (one I'm not entirely sure exists) caused by riding is far out-weighed by the benefits of riding together.

I think of the freedom I enjoyed as a kid and admit I struggle with the idea of allowing my own kids to ride around as I did. That's a problem and I'm hell-bent on fixing it. I know crime is down, I know the world isn't more dangerous (at least not at our community level), and I know things haven't changed that much since my youth. So why all the fear? Family biking is one way that I think we come alive again and learn to escape the fear. Because as you mentioned, there is more danger (physically and psychologically) in our inaction.

Thanks for another great post!

January 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

Hi Julian,

I'm glad you decided to write about this. Coming from the "we're not there yet" side of things, "safety" is one of the primary reasons my family is resistant to the idea of family cycling. There are other reasons too, but the kids' safety is paramount, and to be fair, I am a novice cyclist, so I find it a hard point to argue.

Family cycling looks so wonderful to me and I'm anxious to be doing it, but... For example, we don't live in the best area for cycling. We're sandwiched between I-5 and Aurora on the east and west, and then two major arterials on the north and south. I have to cross at least one and usually two of these to get anywhere, which is ironic since the places I want to go are only a mile away. I want to cycle there, but those roads scare me walking, and I'm not sure if it would be better or worse by bike.

It's funny, there are so many more things I'd be perfectly willing to do by bike myself, but throw my kids on board and I get very nervous. Like the Lovely Bicycle lady said, I'd making this choice for them, and that scares me a lot. I guess the thing about the "data" is that someone can give me all the data in the world, but when something awful happens to my kid and it was my choice/fault, that's not something that's easy to live with. Now why doesn't that argument apply to cars? Wouldn't a car wreck be the same situation? Maybe when I've been biking as long as I've been driving I'll have an answer for that.

January 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie

This comment thread is making me very happy. You've inspired a new section above: How Irrational Fears Make Us Less Safe. Because this post just wasn't long enough, apparently :)

I don't mean to point anyone out as irrational, by the way. Just that the data on cycling, at least, doesn't really let us make rational judgments about safety, and that what we worry most about seems quite arbitrary.

January 5, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Great post Julian.
I had a post on my Eugene SRTS site last month on the topic as well- "Scare-Your-Pants-Off Routes to School?" in which I introduce the idea of FARTS (Fun and Active Routes to School).

http://eugenesrts.org/news/syports

Also, as an LCI I have certainly come across those "VC" types who are so deep into "vehicular cycling" that they have talked themselves into thinking we need to be just like cars... even though we're not. I have yet to meet a mom or dad with a child under 16 who is a strict VC (by strict I mean the type who don't "believe" in bike lanes or paths). The rationale that "we'll never get those facilities built everywhere so we might as accept it as act like cars" just doesn't fly with me, especially as a dad! The 'facilities' don't have to be lanes and paths everywhere but they do need to consider biking and walking kids and families in their construction and we're NOT going to get there if we don't ask for them!
Families need to speak up and tell their city that they want to walk and bike more but they don't have the facilities to do so.
And yes, more Kidical Mass rides!

And more fun =)

January 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShane

I would actually argue that family cycling is safer than cycling alone. For one thing, when you have a kid onboard, however that is, you're bigger and more visible than a regular bike. Generally, you're brighter, too, as most family cycling stuff comes with bright colors and flags. Second, you're riding more slowly. I can barely get up the hills of Seattle with my son on the back, so I'm not darting in and out of traffic! In fact, I'm often barely moving faster than walkers...:) I also notice that drivers give me more space when I have my son with me. Most people don't want to be the jerk who runs over a 3-year-old on a bike. For awhile, I actually pulled the Burley bike trailer to work and back without a kid in it because it made me feel safer.

I find it interesting that people who think nothing of strapping their kid into a car seat and driving 80 mph down the freeway while talking on their cell phones or eating lunch feel terrified of riding a bike with their kid.

@LovelyBicycle, when you're a parent, you make a million choices every day for your child without their consent, some simple, some not-so-simple, from lunches to clothes to vaccinations to schools to transportation. Like Julian said, you have to make a choice of getting your kids from Point A to Point B in some manner, most of which involve strapping them in to some vehicle. I think the point is that we've allowed ourselves to be convinced that cars are safer than bikes without any real data proving that. Why do you think it's more of an imposition on them to strap them into a car than onto a bike?

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBetsy

Yikes. so many comments that I can't remember if I put in my 2 cents or not.

Great post, Julian.. Thanks for getting this out there. I'll leave it at that

Oh, and @Betsy: Right on with 80mph Burger King and cell phone thing. People texting with their kids in the car. Now that's scary!

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim K

One thing that keeps coming up for me is that when I think of car collisions, it's usually car vs car that I think of. When I think of bike collisions, it's usually car vs bike that I'm imagining. It's not an even comparision. When I go for a car trip with my kids, I do everything I can to make that as safe as possible -- I have a car that is as "safe" as I can afford, ditto for the carseat. Biking with kids is just harder for me to imagine in a world filled with cars. In a car I feel like I have at least a chance of coming out alive. But if a CAR hit me and my kids on a BIKE? That feels so much more exposed, and therefore more dangerous, than being in a car. The data may not agree, but it's still a feeling I can't seem to shake.

Now none of that diminishes my wish to do family biking. I still want to and think it's a great idea and solves a lot of problems, never mind that it would be fun! But it certainly gives me nightmares and contributes to my extended family thinking the whole idea is unsafe and I shouldn't pursue it. Just 2 more cents to add to the whole conversation.

January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie

Julian: Great post. Appreciate the thoughts and articulation. Here's to riding with Kiddos!

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterghdurham

I really enjoy reading you post and the photos are great!

January 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkinder_party

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Julian. I've been riding with my daughter, first in a trailer, then a trail-behind, and now an Xtracycle, since she was 2. But until this past year we've been on bike trails and side streets on the weekends. Now we commute to school on the Xtracycle, about 15 blocks or so. There are days I struggle through the risks viscerally. As others have said, statistics do not equal my family. I've spent my life driving and it's hard to tear up that complementary membership card in the risk-adverse generation. Some say our kids don't get a choice in the risks of cycling. This is true. Yet as our children grow up, it is possible that my generation will be bombarded with recriminations that we stomped on the environment to protect our addiction to the speed that petrochemicals offer. I think that our car-thinking is tilted, lopsided, off, fuzzy. I would rather consult the generation that came before the automobile. Their values and recognition of the risks of life may have some resemblance to our great-grandchildren-to-be. But since neither generation is available to consult, I'll have to muddle through and choose the bike over the car, insofar as I am able.

February 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJalair

Thanks Jalair - well put. I struggle with the kids not choosing the risks aspect, but then realize that as parents, it's our burden to determine acceptable risk in most things they do, not just transportation choices.

February 23, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Julian. I enjoyed this thoughtful piece. The first bit made me think of this article that appeared a few years ago in the Daily Mail (UK): "How children lost the right to roam in four generations"
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-462091/How-children-lost-right-roam-generations.html
Great to see you the other day. Take care.
-pablo

April 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPablo

Hi Julian,

I'm a new reader of your blog, and just stepping out into the world of family cycling. I want to thank you for your post, and I want to thank your readers for their comments. This has been a very helpful topic for me because I've been really struggling with all of the regulations I'm facing with cycling (I'm in British Columbia). When I heard that I am required to have my 7 year old ride her bike on the road, my jaw dropped, and for a second I reconsidered this whole cycling idea. But after reading many a blog, and now yours, I'm feeling more confident. I just posted on my blog today about this very topic what plans I am putting in place to get around.

Your blog is great. I'm looking forward to reading more!

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

First off I would say, valiant effort and I think the ultimate point is correct: this issue is bigger than a simple car versus bike safety measure. But I do want to talk about the measure. Even if we were able to provide a denominator that allowed us to have an "apple to apple" comparison of the relative safety of biking vs. driving or walking (such as # or severity of accidents per mile or at various mph strata) the context in which those units are applied is completely different.

Let's say we find that we can reliably say biking yields more accidents per mile or at certain speeds. Car trips are probably more likely to involve greater distances at faster speeds than bikes. Even a devout cyclist, when faces with 100 degree heat or pissing down rain, will take the fastest and most efficient route to his goal (unless avoiding a hill :P). My motivation to take a short efficient trip when ensconced in a dry, warm personal theater blasting my favorite playlist on the stereo is far less. So in its practical application, the unit of measure might show that, sure, it is more dangerous a priori to bike, but the probability that a driver would be more prone to travel greater distances at greater speed would increase the likelihood of a severe accident.

Also I imagine many of the factors that contribute to the likelihood of an accident are influenced by some of the things I mentioned: terrain, temperature, infrastructure, etc. and so it always galls me when people compare Europe to America. Particularly major European cities show far less diversity in the density, geographic spread, infrastructure and temperature than do American cities (Denver versus Los Angeles versus Dallas).

Ok I am rambling...time for bed!

January 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTanya Barham

Hi all:
I have been a cycle-commuter for about 10 years now and I live in British Columbia. Recently I had a wonderful baby boy. He is 9 weeks old and we put him into a MEC trailer at about 7 weeks. I had a few raised eyebrows but no major grief. I did however have a friend recently and diplomatically provide me with data on why the recommendation is for infants to be one year old before cycling. This data talked about brain injury from vibration and retinal detachment. Now I am concerned that I am possibly harming my child. This data was clear that it was not that the infant could not hold his/her head up but that the vibration and bumps were a problem which are almost impossible to eliminate. I do not want to stop cycling and I am wondering if any other readers could help me find facts about the risks and also provide some possible solutions? I am going to try to put his carseat into the trailer and see how that works and I will continue to dig for more facts/research on the subject..

May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLori

Hi Lori -
I'm pretty familiar with the published research on this issue, and have to say that your friend's "data" sounds more like "opinion." Which people are welcome to, but there is a difference.

Which is not to dismiss the advice. It does line up with the "expert consensus" guidelines of pediatric societies, etc. Who tend to see cycling as recreation rather than transportation.

You DO need to worry about the degree of shaking/jostling movements such a young child is exposed to, especially over the axle of a trailer, which is why waiting until older, getting a trailer with suspension, keeping the tire pressure low, riding slowly and avoiding bad pavement, etc would all be important. But retinal detachment as seen in shaken baby syndrome sounds like an exaggeration of the jostling movements one might expect in cautious trailer or (better) bakfiets use.

Lots more on this "baby on bike" topic here:
http://totcycle.com/blog/baby-on-a-bicycle.html

If your friend can share links to the data they referenced, that would be interesting.

May 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Needed to re-read this after an article in our local paper featured our family's Madsen and the online publication yielded a number of "this lady is endangering her kids" comments. It isn't productive, but sometimes I want to respond "Actually, you're the one endangering my kids." We're in the deep south, and our city is not particularly bike friendly. We make do with what we've got, and I think the routes I use are reasonably safe. But those "what ifs" are always present, and I cringe every time I think about them. Thanks for the solid reasoning and encouragement.

June 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterN Allison

Found your post after a recent encounter with a very "passionate" motorist. After turning off the main street into my neighborhood, she stopped me after following us to the stop sign. She asked if i was "crazy" and yelled at me for endangering my 15 month old's life by transporting him in the Madsen. Her approach was very aggressive and I did not bother trying to explain my side. Her husband swore at me as they drove away and called the police. The police found me in the neighborhood, at which time I explained the bike and he carried on with his day.

Thank you for the post and reminding me that we are all trying to make the best choices we can for our families, even if it involves some risk. Practicing safe cycling and showing people it is "okay" not to drive is the only way were going to get more people like us to commit to cycling.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrett

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