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Carrying children on bikes
Bike rides are a fun way to spend time with your child. Every Thursday afternoon after daycare, I pick up my son and ride through Centennial Park to look at the horses, ducks and swans. As an ever-curious 2 year old, Eddy calls out the names of things he sees. Our rides together are bit like reading a picture book! By planning the journey through the park, on quiet streets, and the cycleway, I never fear any sense of traffic danger. Most of our travels are small journeys to the shops, playground, or childcare centre. There are some places that are easier to get to than others, but riding with my son on-board has taught me a lot about being a careful, patient, and risk-adverse cyclist.
The age at which you can start carrying your child on a bike is a contested issue (see: Momentum Magazine, Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, and Bicycle Network) Basically your child needs to have the neck strength to comfortably sit-up on their seat with a helmet on. This milestone is usually reached by 12 months but it will depend on the child’s own development. If you’re contemplating cycling with your child their before 12 months, be aware that there are no helmets manufactured for babies with a head circumference of less 46cm. Parents who are eager to start cycling with children this young can find themselves in a quandary as to what is safe, legal, and practical!
There are many different options for carrying your child by bike (e.g. a childseat, trailer, and cargobike). In my experience they all can work well, however what is best for you will depend on your own needs and aspirations. If you're intending to use your bike as a regular form of transport, it’s worth taking a very serious look at the various options and equipment that are available to you.
Front child seats allow you to sit on the bike with your child seated between your arms as you hold the handlebars. Designed for children aged 1 to 3 years, they allow you to see and communicate with your child as you ride. Children under 2 will often fall asleep whilst riding so some child seats have an additional bar for your child to rest their head on. One disadvantage with child seats is the centre of gravity is up high which can make the bike feel less stable when you mount and dismount. Having a good two-legged kickstand will make this job a lot easier. There are also wheel stabilizer devices that can keep the front wheel more steady. Front child seats can be difficult to fit on all bikes, particularly if your bike requires you to lean forward. This can be resolved most of the time by modifying your bike’s stem and handlebars into a more upright position. However, front child seats can disrupt your pedaling motion. Depending on the fit of the carrier, you may have to change your seat height and turn your knees outwards (not ideal for longer rides or looking after your knees!)
Rear child seats are typically larger and designed for children aged 1 to 5 years old. Rear child seats are attached on a separate rack or mount that attaches to the frame. It most cases they can be easily detached when the child seat is not needed. Rear child seats also have stability issues due to their high centre of gravity. This issue will become more pronounced as your child gets older (or heavier). When mounting and dismounting it’s best to lean the bike against a wall on a flat piece of ground. Because your child is right behind you, you’ll need to lift your leg straight over top tube and hold the bike steady. For this reason, a step-though frame will be much easier to use. Almost any bike can have rear child seat attached to it. When fitting, it’s important to ensure that the weight of the child seat is over the axle and not far behind it so the bike won’t tip backwards. Better quality child seats will have skirting boards covering the rear wheel to keep your child’s feet away from the spokes should their feet come out of the footrests.
Bike trailers are designed for children aged up to 4 years old. Trailers use a hitch mechanism that can attach to almost any bike. Trailers provide better stability because the weight is more stable with a lower centre of gravity. A trailer will provide far better protection than a child seat should you fall over. Trailers also provide better protection from the elements (rain, sun, cold) so you can travel in almost any weather conditions. Trailers can be fitted with pillows and extra padding so your child is comfortable if she needs to sleep. Higher quality trailers have larger wheels and suspension which provide a more comfortable ride. This is particularly important when riding with younger children who are more vulnerable to the jolts of bumps in the road. Trailers also have room to carry more things including other children, shopping, and toys! Some trailers can be converted into prams for extra flexibility at your destination. A disadvantage of trailers is you’ll have less ability to interact with your child. Another concern many parents feel is that their child is more exposed to traffic dangers in a trailer. Being large and brightly coloured (often with a flag), this is not necessarily the case and most drivers will act very cautiously when they see you riding with a child trailer. However the larger size of the trailer will mean that you are less nimble in and around traffic, which can make you feel uneasy. If you ride with a trailer on congested roads, your child will be more exposed to pollution emitted from car exhausts (not a good place to be!).
Cargobikes are designed specifically for carrying large loads including one or many children. Cargobikes have been around for a long time, but have only recently become popular in cities such as Sydney. Cargobikes come in various shapes (e.g. ‘bakfiets’, cargotrike, and longtails) and have been described as “the SUVs of the bike world". Cargobikes have a lower centre of gravity, a long wheel-base, and heavy-duty kickstands for extra stability. They can be fitted with child seats and rain covers. The addition of a solid box upfront also means your child is more protected. In many respects, cargobikes are the ultimate child carrier, however the physical effort of riding one can be an issue if you’re riding longer distances, up hills, and with significant loads. It is common for many cargobike owners to convert their bike into an e-bike with electric assistance. Aside from costs (which are cheaper that a car!), one disadvantage with a cargobike is they take up lots of space, require secure parking, and cannot practicably be lifted up stairs.
Here's some of our key tips for carrying children by bike:
(Image credit: BikeSydney.org)
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