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Philly parents pedal with kids

What happens when a passionate bicyclist hits parenthood, and all the kid-chauffeuring that parenthood entails?

What happens when a passionate bicyclist hits parenthood, and all the kid-chauffeuring that parenthood entails? The question isn't personal for me just yet -- I'm not having babies anytime soon -- but as someone who would like to see many more Philadelphians riding bicycles, I think it is very important to address the challenges of biking with kids.

That you will drive your children around in a motorized vehicle is an assumption deeply ingrained in our society. The "minivan mom" is an easily accessed cultural trope, but how many biking moms do you know? For many people, even those who have lived without cars for years before having kids, a family car can feel inevitable.

But some Philadelphia parents are challenging the assumption that the arrival of kids requires a shift away from people-powered transportation. They are part of the vanguard of a nationwide movement to transport tots on bicycles, tricycles, and other contraptions. And they are growing.

Last Saturday, July 20th, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia organized an event for local parents excited about riding with kids. Families rolled up to the Schuylkill Banks meetup point on cargo bikes, bakfietsen (Dutch-style "box bikes"), tricycles, e-assist bikes, traditional bikes with kid seats bolted on, bike trailers, adapted tandems, and more. Some families came on foot or by car, ready to check out the options and go for some test rides. Over the course of several hours, moms and dads (and some enthusiastic children) pointed out the various features of their vehicles, answered questions about age-appropriateness for different setups, discussed where they bought their gear and for how much, and generously allowed test rides along the Schuylkill River Trail. Three bike shops also came out to demo their family-friendly bikes: Fairmount Bicycles, Firth & Wilson Transport Cycles, and Trophy Bikes.

It was the kind of event you expect to hear about happening in Portland -- that bicycle mecca that always seems to be the star of every "bike story" in the news. But it happened right here in Philly.

Diana Owens Steif, the event's organizer, is the Director of Education and Safety at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. She has a personal interest in the topic: she is due to have her first child in early August. Expressing her enthusiasm after the event, she said, "There are already many parents in Philadelphia bike riding with their families in safe ways... For me, bike riding has been something that makes me happy, gets me from place to place in an efficient way, and keeps me fit. As I am quickly approaching parenthood myself, I cannot wait to share the joy of bicycling with my boy and see the ripple effects it has on him as he grows up." If you want to learn more about the options available for biking with children, I urge you to download the Family Biking Resource Guide she put together for Saturday's event.

Diana is not the only one in the city organizing around this topic. Every other month, a group called Kidical Mass Philly takes to the streets for a short, family-friendly bike ride. The group's name is a play on "Critical Mass," a controversial and now largely defunct mass bike ride that took place in cities around the world. This version retains some of the same goals -- making the streets safer for bicyclists -- but with a serious cuteness boost. Details of upcoming rides can be found at the Kidical Mass Philly website.

To be at the forefront of the family biking movement isn't easy. Some accuse parents who bike with kids of being irresponsible, of exposing their kids to unnecessary traffic danger. To this, I would say that a car isn't a perfectly safe option for your child either -- all transportation involves some degree of risk. We tend to overestimate the danger of riding bikes and underestimate the danger of driving cars. And you can safely assume that parents who are riding with the most precious possible cargo are among the most careful cyclists on the roads.

Another challenge is cost: the best bikes on the market for toting children are prohibitively expensive to many. While a kid seat that attaches to a bike might only cost a few hundred dollars, fancier trailers and cargo bikes can quickly become investments of thousands of dollars. Still cheap compared to a car, of course, but far from feasible for everyone. As demand for these bikes grow, however, I hope that a decent local market for used options will arise. (After all, kids grow up and start riding their own bikes eventually!)

I left Saturday's event deeply inspired by the parents I met, who are choosing a healthy and environmentally sustainable transportation option for their families even in a society that sees their choice as out-of-the-ordinary. I know that one day, if I decide to be a mom, I will be biking with my kids -- and I hope that there are a lot more biking parents by then.