Strap on Your Helmet: Family Biking 101

Biking is an unbeatable way to get around town. With the annual cost of car ownership and maintenance estimated at $8,698 a year, traveling by bike can save families big bucks. It’s also associated with better overall health. And it benefits the planet’s health by preventing carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, greenhouse gasses, and other auto emissions from spewing into the environment. But above all, it’s fun.

Unfortunately many new parents hang up their helmets because biking with young kids can feel overwhelming. (Okay, just leaving the house with young kids can feel overwhelming.) But with the right setup and a little know how, biking can be an enjoyable and safe way for parents to shuttle kids to run errands and go to parks, preschool, and school. Read on to discover what you need to know to make family biking safe and fun.

Introducing Baby to Bicycle

What’s the best age to take your tyke biking for the first time? Opinions vary, but the majority of safety experts recommend a new parent wait until a child turns one, can sit unassisted, and can safely wear a helmet. They point out that there’s little research on how the bumps and vibration inherent to cycling affect the newborn brain and neck muscles.

Lawmakers generally agree. While laws vary from state to state, New York state expressly outlaws cycling with a baby under one. A number of other states and some cities require riders and passengers under the age of 16 to wear a helmet. Helmets do not fit and are not recommended for babies who can’t hold their heads up. Thus newborns are effectively forbidden from bicycling, even when buckled into a car seat in a carrying device.

Once a child turns one, parents have all sorts of options to hit bike paths with kids.

Ultimate Guide to Family Bike Riding: Carriers for Kids

Choosing the Best Bike Setup

The best option for your family depends on:

  • Budget
  • How often you ride
  • How old your children are
  • Local weather extremes
  • How much cargo space you need

If you need help narrowing down the choices, start here:

For occasional riders or bicyclists on a budget:

One kid:

  • A mounted bike seat may be the least expensive option. Make sure it’s compatible with your bike and can carry your passenger for several years. Also be prepared to upgrade your kickstand.

Two kids:

  • A bike trailer may be the best option. Look for a durable one with at least a 100-pound weight limit.

Three kids:

  • A bike trailer can be combined with a mounted bike seat.

Cold or rainy climate:

  • A bike trailer provides protection from the elements.

Older kids:

  • A tag-along or tow bar can help kids transition to riding alone.

On a budget:

  • Inexpensive mounted bike seats, trailers, and tag-alongs can all usually be found in good shape in the second-hand market. Check Craigslist and local sports resale shops.

For frequent riders:

  • It may be worth test driving a cargo bike. Find a local dealer and try several different options in your price range.
  • Keep an eye on Craigslist for rare listings of used cargo bikes.

For frequent riders who contend with hills and/or long distances:

  • An electric cargo bike may best suit your transportation needs. Some bike shops offer payment plans.

Knowing the Rules of the Road

Ultimate Guide to Family Bike Riding: Tools to Stay Safe

Riding a bike and driving a car are seen similarly in the eyes of the law, and tickets for biking offenses are usually just as steep as for motor vehicle offenses. Thus, it pays to know the rules of the road.

Cyclists need to be aware of a handful of local laws. Do all riders need to wear helmets? Is it okay to ride on the sidewalk? Does a bicycle need a front and back reflector? Can a rider wear headphones or talk on a cell phone? How far must a bike be away from a car when passing? Cities vary on all these issues as well as others that affect bicyclists. The League of American Cyclists keeps track of how states vary in many areas of the law. For a comprehensive list of the bicycle laws in your state, refer to your state statutes, which are usually available and searchable online. For city-specific laws, seek out your municipal code.

Ultimate Guide to Family Bike Riding: Fitting a Helmet

Advocating for Better Biking

Biking offers countless individual and societal benefits. Unfortunately, Americans make less than one percent of outings on bicycle. And only 13 percent of kids bike or walk to school, down from 48 percent 30 years ago.

Part of bicycling’s popularity struggle is due to city infrastructure. No one feels safe biking on busy roadways that lack sidewalks and bike lanes, especially with small children. American cities that invest in biking by building lanes that separate auto and bike traffic see cycling surge in popularity. All U.S. cities have room for improvement. Davis, California boasts the highest rate of ridership in the country with 15 to 22 percent of outings done on bike, yet it only ranks 43rd internationally.

If your city lags in bike-friendliness, seek out routes that are least travelled by vehicles. (Google Maps can help.) There may be a family biking group in your area, such as Kidical Mass, where families gather to enjoy rides together, share tips about safe routes, and teach kids about bike safety. Consider connecting with a local bike advocacy group and letting elected officials know you support better biking infrastructure.

Ultimate Guide to Family Bike Riding: Safest States for Biking

Gearing Up for Quality Time

Most of the benefits of bicycling are obvious, but it’s difficult to quantify how much fun it can be for both parents and kids.

Expect lots of grins, laughter, and happy chatter about the scenery. As John F. Kennedy is oft quoted, “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”

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