Most people think that biking with kids is nuts. Perhaps it’s acceptable if you are out for a nice Sunday family ride, but it is otherwise seen as an extreme form of transportation. In North America, that is. Or, at least wherever I have lived in BC, Alberta, and Québec.
The North American internet presence of utility cyclists is laudable. Very admirable. Yet dominated with real keeners showcasing their purist, car free ways. Reading people’s accounts and perusing Instagram feeds makes me want to go out and be hardcore; but, it can also make me feel inadequate or as though what I’m doing doesn’t count.
I’d like to announce here that, although I strive in small, incremental changes to reach my goal of mostly utility cycling and pretty much only using our car to get to the mountains, I am human and, on top of that, I am a full-time parent to two children, five and under, and I live where there is snow and serious cold, some times. There are very real reality checks to getting us out the door by any mode.
We are at the margins. And, that’s okay. In fact, it’s awesome. If so many more people at the margins starting rolling their wheels, there would be a utility cycling revolution in North America. We don’t all have to live a car-free life, but it would make a huge difference if we went car-light. It’s like the Meatless Mondays idea.
Yesterday morning over breakfast, before I had a chance to think it through, I asked the girls, out loud, “Wanna go to the Zoo, today? I’d like to ride. Wanna ride?” “Yes yes yes!” I madly texted a friend to see if she wanted to join with her munchkins as it’s always fun to have a partner in crime and, in doing so, I had to set a timeline for the morning. It was 8:05 and I guesstimated to her that we could be at the Zoo by 10h, thinking that a week and a half of kindergarten mornings had whipped our asses into shape so that we could make a turnaround from breakfast to bikes in just over an hour: no sweat.
I started packing food right away. I hadn’t even finished my second coffee yet. Somehow I feel like everything will be okay if we have food. Food covers many of my bases from fending off actual hunger to distracting a potentially crabby toddler on the ride home when we inevitably look at one-too-many-animals and venture into that ever unchartered territory of Nap Time With No Bed in Sight and a 40+ minute ride on the horizon.
Emergency stash of raisins and chocolate chips. Check. Leftover birthday cupcakes, yes, please. We’re set – gummy worms and German buttercream can fix anything, right?
10h, I’m unlocking the bikes in the shed and rolling things out, thinking, ‘Whatevs, it’ll alllll work out.‘ Timeline schmineline. Bah.
I shake off my nerves, load up the monsters, and start cruising.
Thinking it through
How did I get to this point and still decide to ride the almost 10 km when I have a perfectly good minivan sitting on our parking pad with the costs of parking included in my zoo membership? I can boil it down for you to three key points. Read on.
Don’t worry. I’m human. I thought about that nice, warm minivan with seat warmers on this +2°C (~35°F), fresh, late summer morning. The prospect of a quick 15-20 minute drive home with a screaming 2 year old, sealed in a box of silence (for everyone else’s sanity), almost tipped the scales as we were well at the point whereby the time we biked to the zoo I would somehow have to extract both kids without tears after only an hour there in order to make it home for a solid bed nap. Verrrrry tempting to take the car. Very.
But, that 2 year old really wanted to ride (and, so did I, goddammit). So, we threw caution to the wind, embracing good attitudes, plenty of delicious food, and accepted the stark fact that 20 clicks on the bike would make me a happy mama no matter how the toddler fared mid-day.
This one is two fold. First off, I’d say that I’m a habitual kind of person. There’s a fair amount of inertia in our lives at this point, embracing the slow days with young kids. Lots of park time. Gardening. Mucky-muck, as I like to call it. Some times it’s just better to go with the flow than to break the mould. I know full well that most people see cargo or family biking as smashing the mould; whereas, I mostly see it as the way we get around because it’s our habit. I made it a habit because I am not a pleasant person to be around if I can’t get a bit of exercise (see Point 1, above). It’s a familial trait that my husband has to contend with, so he is very supportive of my biking cause (for this reason and others).
It is so tricky to change the way we roll. Although the car looks easier, I find changing modes a real challenge. I pack differently. I remember when I used to work out of the home and there was the odd day that I had to drive for whatever reason, pretty much guaranteeing that I would show up to work without my keys or i.d. card or something super important when you work in a high-security building because it was at home, having a day off in my pannier (which was essentially my purse – something most people don’t switch up often). This was pull-out-my-hair frustrating for me, usually ending with a ‘I shoulda just biked, anyway‘ harrumph.
I’ve learned over the years that I cause myself less grief if I change fewer things (and that sounds so fuddy-duddy of me, but I only mean it in an organizational sense). This ridiculousness can even carry over to my privileged, two cargo bike family conundrum: Should I take the Edgerunner or the Largo? If I take the same bike all the time, I know my tools are on board and the seat height is where I left it.
Secondly, my altruistic mom-self is striving to help my kids build strong habits. Trying to teach them that, yes, cars are awesome for getting to the mountains, but we don’t need to use them for the everyday and going to the Zoo by bike is heaps more fun, anyway. This is not the mentality that they are surrounded with, unfortunately. I joke that I’m supporting their Dutch nationality and they think that’s just great. Which brings me to my third point:
Infrastructure and a feeling of safety and respect
I am constantly counting my lucky stars about where we live. While it certainly isn’t the Netherlands, we very consciously purchased a home in our neighbourhood for all of its merits with respect to transit and parks; but, we struck gold with respect to bikeability, in my humble opinion. We are two blocks (all downhill) from connecting to the Elbow River Pathway system in Calgary, Alberta and I can ride for kilometres without hardly seeing a car if I want to. How better to incent me to get on my bike, with two kids no less, and ride? And, now we even have protected cycle tracks downtown (and they better stay put – it’s still a trial and it’s fate will be sealed at Council, December 2016).
Our network keeps getting better and better
If I want, I can ride all the way from my house to the Zoo, riding on-street for only 3 very quiet blocks, crossing two (albeit dodgy) intersections (one signalized and one unsignalized), totaling just over 11 km (about 7 mi), one way. I also have a shorter, fairly calm route that involves some on-road time and is just under 10 km (6 mi). And, there are even more options that are mostly good that shave off another kilometre or two. The bulk of my ride is on a beautiful network of well-maintained pathways that follow the banks of the Elbow and Bow Rivers. It is pure bliss.
I wholeheartedly support any and all cycling infrastructure to improve my safety, my kids’ safety, and any other person out there who is trying to move around the city in a healthy and sustainable way. If part of that is a scenic pathway system along major tributaries, I’m okay with that, but it’s got to be more than that to be useful and direct and safe beyond where it’s pretty. And, I look forward to heaps more improvement with respect to putting people (and not cars) first, especially at intersections. Infrastructure supporting our most vulnerable users is infinitely cheaper and more sustainable than any form of road improvement aimed at cars and motorists.
Intersections aren’t just where roads cross, they’re also where people traveling in all manners interact: pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They are key places to focus on for all of our safety and it is my hope that my city and yours moves towards focusing their efforts at these crossroads – Netherlands style – in an effort to continue to safely expand transportation networks for all users, but especially the most vulnerable and exposed. “In every situation a person might fail, the road system should not.” (Vision Zero)
Consider how inexpensive it would be to drop speed limits down to 30 km/h on any and all on-street bike routes, especially connections between off-street pathways? Thereby reducing chance of death from about 45% to 5% (for pedestrians struck by motorists; I expect similar statistics for cyclists struck by motorists even though the vectors are different). Still shitty, but much, much better, relatively speaking. Or, using cheap plastic posts to signal the existence of a bike lane, as opposed to only painted sharrows. We need to decide that people’s safety and lives are more important than ease of snow removal for a couple of months per year.
I feel safe riding with my kids in many places that I want and need to go in Calgary and that means a lot to me. I have ridden bikes for a while now. I tried bike commuting in middle school along the Upper Levels Highway in West Vancouver, back in the early 90s, but it was super sketchy riding along the shoulder of a highway with a 90 km/h speed limit, with each truck that whooshed by, unwittingly pulling me into its draft. I came to the conclusion that I was more comfortable with the prospect of colliding with dirt, rocks, and trees than vehicles, so I continued to only engage in high risk activities while mountain biking. Biking has been omnipresent in my life as a sport since I was about 13 years old and it slowly became a way to move around a city, initially under fair weather conditions in Montréal, but I didn’t seriously pick up utility cycling again until I moved back to Vancouver in 2008. And, I had to do so all on-street.
It took me a long time to work up the courage to become a bike commuter and it was merely out of frustration with bus after bus passing me by in the mornings that I finally took the plunge and started riding. There were only on-street routes where I was, thankfully it was in a calmer part of town, but there wasn’t even close to the infrastructure in place in Vancouver that there was in Calgary at the time. By the time I had my first real Monday to Friday job in Vancouver, part of my route was on some pathways, and my last year at the job before mat leave we had cycle tracks downtown which were glorious (but you still had/have to be super cautious at any intersections).
I had to wait for my feeling of frustration to overcome those of being exposed and unsafe before I could simply ride my bike to school. I am very pleased that we are where we are and I will always measure any future moves, within city or any place, by how we can (or cannot) continue our biking ways. Never say never, but: I never want to live in a place that does not emphasize the safety of all people moving about its city via different modes; it’s a question of respect. I am proud to live in a place that truly is growing to be a Bike Town. I’m even happier to be able to able to expose my kids to it.
I am not perfect
Even though you may think I’m Superwoman, I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, biking with two kids may seem daunting, but just doing it seems to be the key for us. Ripping off the band-aid and carpe dieming.
This year, my goal is to conquer winter with kids. I gave up on using trailers in the winter due to freeze-ups messing with my habitual ways, but now we have the CETMA Largo, a sweet bakfiets with a nice low centre of gravity and a cozy bubble of goodness for the kiddos. It looks like we have a wicked winter coming our way, so it is with much gusto and realism – clashing together – that we will make our attack, er, I mean, incremental steps towards achieving our goal. Come join me at the margins, which will some times be in my car.
Until then, I am going to be out and about with the girls enjoying the amazing fall weather, quite possibly my most favourite time of year. And, I hope to see you out and about, too. Feel free to say ‘hi’ (we’re hard to miss).
Oh, and we had an awesome time at the zoo and the littlest wanted to go again this morning as we were getting ready to walk her sister to kindergarten.