The following is adapted from a speech I was asked to give at a bike summit organized a few months back. I get asked about bike riding with kids in LA enough; I figure this might help some people out.
So, riding bikes with kids in LA – is it possible?
Really, just about anyone can:
- find the equipment
- physically ride a bike with kids
The troubles you’ll face:
- obviously, it is physically tough sometimes
- learning to ride confidently as a solo adult is one thing; learning to ride, and choose routes, confidently BUT also taking into account social factors and perceived risk is something else entirely
- defining what is “Normal(tm)” and what is “Safe(tm)” is the hardest part of doing this – largely because we exist in families, communities, and a culture that cannot imagine either “Normal” nor “Safe” being affiliated with the idea of riding your kids around on a bike in Los Angeles
WHY DO THIS?
For all the adults I know at my kids school, when we had kids, we became many of the following things:
- sleep deprived
- stuck being physically inactive driving kids everywhere
- more likely to become overweight
- more likely to become depressed
- more likely to be socially isolated
In most adults lives these turn into a negative feedback loop that spirals towards a defeated and unhealthy middle age and a verifiably grumpy and ill senior citizenry. Poor, tired, and sick – is it worth it to be this “normal”?
Riding your kids around on a bike is like a miracle cure for all of the above. Does it take physical effort? Sure, but that is why it helps make you feel better. Can everybody do it? No, but not everybody can drive a car either – but that doesn’t stop car makers from making and selling fine automobiles and it doesn’t stop governments from building more and wider highways. Riding your kids around on a bike is a sensible thing to do from a personal perspective – it makes you spend less, live better, and spiral towards a healthier happier life. Thrifty, happy, and healthy – it may not be “normal”, but it sure feels a hell of a lot better.
FINDING THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
The biggest hurdle you will face is not in finding the right equipment. It is out there now. People like me sell some of it in your city, others will ship it to you from abroad. You can find it used. You can even cobble it together in your garage and still end up with something safe enough and workable.
PEOPLE THINK YOU ARE INSANE
The biggest hurdle is that you will have to deal with the negative judgements of others. People in your personal life will insist that you have to follow their insane or unrealistic perceptions of safety and normality.
Woe unto the mom or dad bike rider who gets their kids hurt on one of the “rigs”, “contraptions”, or “devices” you may be using.
In my own personal life the stress of injuring myself or my kid really paled in comparison to the always hovering judgement of our entire civilization waiting to crash down on me from above. This pressure radically changed the way I chose routes, dress, and the way I ride my bike and act in public. People who tight rope walk probably get the same flack once they get injured – because outside observers think that what I’m doing is akin to taking my kid 50 feet in the air and balancing her on my shoulders, hovering above oblivion. I don’t see it that way, but most of the people I encounter start talking about what we’re doing as if it were some dire risk (it’s not) we’re taking.
Dealing with the bleak assessments of your competence as a parent and a human being is the harshest thing I’ve had to cope with. Fortunately, the benefits of riding everyday easily make up for this occasional bother, as does the smug feeling I now allow myself to have when we cruise past a long line of very bored and frustrated looking drivers every morning on the way to school – because, no matter what others think of us, I know that we are generally quite happy and healthy doing what we’re doing. I believe that kick starting this virtual financial-health-happiness cycle is what being a mom or a dad cyclist is all about. It is too easy to break free from motordom as a free living, and single, 20 year old. It seems harder when you are in your early 30′s and saddled with kids and the vague sense that you are not allowed to really be happy anymore, that it is time to “get serious”, and be “responsible”. I agree with the seriousness and responsibility parts – but not with the means most people think “serious” and “responsible” we should use to get there.
In short, the emotional and psychological baggage of our civilization will get spilled on your happy bike dream party every once in a while. Steel yourself for that and when the judgement hits just smile and wave (at the grumpy dad with four fat bored kids in the car with him shaking his head at you) or laugh (at the people yelling “You’re a bad dad!” as you cross the train tracks heading into the local farmers market.
THE REAL BARRIERS
So, what is really going on when you ride your kids to preschool or school every day on a bike? Mostly, a crap ton of normal, grumpy, morning stuff (“For God’s sake, just put your socks on so we can go! Did you pack that form?” etc., etc.). The benefit is that we’re getting the emotional feelings during our commute that we’re just kind of hanging out the whole time and there is no distraction (except for unpleasant street noise or road surfaces) that keeps us from experiencing the totality of each day as humans were meant to.
What else happens? You get stronger. You feel happier. You develop a vocabulary for understanding your neighborhood that goes beyond, “God, this intersection is a nightmare.”
What kills riding your bikes with a kid? We all assume that the things that slow down cars and make conditions difficult for motorists also hold true for everyone else trying to get somewhere in town. We then imagine that bike riding is like being a starving potato farmer in famine-wracked Ireland – a life of woe and privation. Let’s look at what you think is stopping you from bike riding in “tough” conditions:
Rain? Nope. When it rains: put on a rain coat (duh). There is lots of great gear to go with your bike – at this point, someone has dealt with your problem and you just need to do a little Google research to find either the product or advice you need.
Fog? Nah. When it’s foggy: you are already going 10 to 15 mph, just make sure to turn on your blinky lights.
Snow? Pshaw. Snow: cover up and watch for ice. In LA this is a non-factor.
Traffic? Ha ha ha! What a joke! Traffic: LOL. One of the great secrets about bike riding to work everyday is that it is generally going to take you the same amount of time every day. Trucks can jackknife into oncoming traffic and you can still slip around the side on your bike and be on your way.
Hills? Don’t be a wimp/eBikes(!)/maybe move closer to work and school.
What kills it is injury, illness, and air pollution. Oh, and wind!
The toughest times in my life have been when I’ve sustained an injury and couldn’t ride a bike – either a hurt knee from over doing it in a rush on the way home from work, or a strained back from a monster 32 hour drive to Arizona and back. Or that time I got the flu a month back.
Forest fires! Oh my God – forest fires, BBQs, and freeways all need to stop.
Once the calamity of personal injury, illness, or severe air pollution hit you are constrained in cycling. Being injured or sick and driving is sometimes possible (just like on a bike) but is sometimes impossible (just like car driving). There isn’t really a workaround for being sick or injured – it just kind of happens to all of us every now and again. Do your best to prevent it by continuing to be a Billy or Brenda Badass and ride your kid(s) around on your bike – but don’t pretend like you’re an 18 year old captain of the cross country team or cheer squad. You getting injured or sick can be a major setback for your entire spiral of health and happiness. Push it, but don’t push it too hard, physically. Get as much sleep as you can, stay hydrated (in LA, believe me, you need to STAY HYRDATED), moisturize (to show off your healthy body), and try not to eat crappy food that sucks more energy out of you than it gives back. The impact of your diet on your physical output becomes very, very, obvious once routine physical activity is a part of your day to life.
The trouble with air pollution can sort of be worked around by going really slow and getting some air filtration masks if you’re really worried or gung ho about the whole thing.
Wind! Those Santa Anas! The onshore flow! What to do? There are no pills. I recommend writing a letter to the Gods (might as well hit them all up) or just toughening up and living up to your heritage as coming from a long line of badasses worthy of passing on your genes (personified by the giggling kid(s) loaded onto your bike). If you drink, complaining about the wind is a great topic – so it’s not all bad news.
So, in short, yes you can do it. People will incorrectly judge you to be abnormal or unsafe, but you will be happier & healthier, safer too – so foo on them. The real hurdles are getting injured or sick, forest fires and pollution, and not having a full vocabulary to describe how annoying the wind can sometimes be.