I live in New York City and use a bicycle to get around more frequently than any other mode of transportation. It’s the fastest option to reach most destinations and certainly the most fun. My children join in too, cycling with me to movie theaters, museums and various after school activities. My 6-year-old daughter pedals on a trailer cycle connected to my bike, and my 12-year-old son rides his own. Urban cycling is a great way to bond with your kids, get a little exercise, and have fun. But sadly, many people seem to think that it is akin to gambling with your child’s life.
I have received plenty of concerned questions and judgmental looks over the years from adults who learn that I let my children cycle all over NYC with me. Every parent’s primary task is to keep our kids safe, and I think teaching my children how to ride a bicycle responsibly and with confidence in traffic is part of my job as a father. When we ride, I point out a variety of irresponsible behaviors that we witness all too frequently: texting drivers, jaywalking pedestrians, businessmen in suits going way too fast on scooters, bike messengers rushing through red lights and forcing cars who have the green light to brake suddenly, etc. I explain to my children that there is a simple way to cycle (and drive and walk and scoot) that greatly reduces the odds of hurting yourself or others: slow down and follow the rules of the road.
Riding a bicycle is a joyful experience and a skill I think every child should possess. It is up to parents to teach children how to ride a bike safely. But when is a child responsible enough to cycle in the city? Each parent must make a judgment call about whether the route and road conditions are acceptably safe for cycling, and at what age a child is ready to take on certain routes. I think urban cycling with kids can be safe, as long as you follow some basic guidelines. Here are my tips for anyone interested in bringing their children along on cycling trips through a city:
- Get comfortable with riding a bicycle in the city yourself, so that you can teach your children how to stay safe.
- Ride together for recreation in a safe place, like a protected bike path, until you feel confident in everyone’s ability to keep the bicycle under control on a shared street with cars.
- Use a trailer cycle attached to your bike for kids between ages 4 – 10. This allows the child to pedal, change gears (some models are single speed), and get a feel for handling a bike. A trailer cycle does not have brakes and, unlike a tandem bike, has a chain that is not connected to the front rider’s. This means the child does not have to pedal at the same rate as the adult. And she can stop pedaling at any point, allowing the adult do all the work (my daughter has honed this skill). Make sure your child wears a helmet and is old enough to hold onto the handlebars firmly.
- Bike-mounted child seats work great for young children from around ages 1 to 5. There are various designs out there. I prefer having the child sit behind me instead of in front – it’s easier to control the bike and feels safer. Bike trailers are also great for this age range. I use a Burley D’Lite, which has space for two little bottoms (convenient if you have twins) and double shoulder straps to keep the children secure.
- Try to cycle on streets with dedicated bike lanes.
- Teach your children how to avoid being “doored” (hit by an opening door when cycling past a parked car): watch for brake lights on parked cars, look for passengers seated in the car who may suddenly decide to step out, and teach your children to use their brakes rather than swerving to avoid an opening door (which increases the odds of being hit by a passing car). The secret is to ride slowly, so that you can stop quickly.
- Make decisions based on the child’s experience, temperament and your comfort level. Even though my 12-year-old son is an experienced cyclist who has consistently demonstrated good judgment while riding, I still accompany him when he commutes by bike. I have no doubt that he would be safe, but I would prefer to give him another year or two before letting him ride alone in NYC.
- Wear a helmet. You may think this is obvious, but many of my European friends who grew up riding helmetless chuckle at the American obsession with protecting our heads, arguing that we make cycling seem much more dangerous than it really is. I take their point, but prefer to err on the side of caution. Whether to wear a helmet or not is one of a handful of variables fully within my control. So I always wear one when I ride, and I require my children to do the same.
As long as you take reasonable precautions, cycling in a city with children is likely no more of a gamble than driving or walking. And it offers an opportunity to give your kids several wonderful gifts: increased confidence and fitness, a fun and educational experience shared with someone they love, and the foundation one day to teach their children the joys of urban cycling.
Charles R. Scott is the author of Rising Son: A Father and Son’s Bike Adventure across Japan. In the summer of 2013, he and his children will follow the Lewis & Clark Trail by bicycle, a trip that will be featured by National Geographic.
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