American cities have long barely tolerated cycling, with notable outliers like Portland, Oregon. That’s begun to change, Elly Blue explains. In a companion article in this issue, “A Bicycle Built for Six,” Lianne Bergeron offers the view from the Netherlands.
Sara Armstrong faced a classic transportation dilemma five years ago. She, her husband, and their three young boys had lived in New Haven, Connecticut, for about a year. Armstrong had just begun a full-time job, and her older boys, five-year-old twins, would start kindergarten in the fall at the school where she worked. It was too far for them to walk, but she also felt it was too close to justify the environmental impact of driving them in the family minivan. She needed an alternative that didn’t seem to exist.
“You need a bakfiets,” Armstrong’s friend told her one day: a European family bicycle. A bakfiets (literally, box bike in Dutch), her friend explained, looks like a wheelbarrow and can carry multiple children. She had read about such bikes on an environmental blog. Armstrong had no idea what she meant, but she wrote the word down to look up later.
Cycling would be perfect, she thought. Her husband regularly commuted by bike, often with their two-year-old in a seat on his vintage English road bike, but she had never seen a bicycle that could carry more than one child. Her biking horizons were about to expand.
Bumpy roads ahead
Armstrong had already gone from joking about buying a pedicab to beginning to research purchasing one when her friend mentioned the bakfiets. Armstrong plugged the word into Google and, she says, “became a woman possessed.” She spent every spare moment that fall and winter researching cargo bicycles, visiting every Web site she could find that mentioned family bicycling, and trying to track down owners of the contraptions in nearby states. She read blogs based in western Massachusetts, West Virginia, Seattle, Chicago — if other families could get around by bike in unlikely places without a lot of bicycle culture or infrastructure, why not hers?
Bakfietsen (the plural) are perfectly practical in the Netherlands, where hopping on a bicycle is as normal and taken for granted as climbing in a car to go to the mall is in the United States. But they are not well-suited to many US cities. They are built like tanks, weighing as much as 100 pounds (45 kg) even before you stow your kids and bags of groceries in them. They come with limited gearing, and their brakes are designed for level surfaces on dry roads.
They cost more than $3,000, a bargain for a vehicle intended to replace a car, but far more than your average entry-level bicycle. Few North American retailers carry them, which adds high shipping costs to the total and makes the bikes difficult to test-ride before purchasing. They can be difficult to ride, and their lumbering pace is not compatible with US streets designed for automobile traffic traveling at 25 to 30 miles per hour (40 to 50 km/h); a heavy bicycle can travel only 5 to 10 mph (8 to 16 km/h) on level ground.
Armstrong faced the additional difficulty that she had nowhere to park the bike: her family lived in a walkup apartment with no garage. Nonetheless, a plan began to form. She and her husband decided that they would wait until the snow melted, then spring for the bike and see what happened.
New Haven is not inherently unsuited to cycling. It’s small and relatively flat, with a grid of reasonably wide streets. Some factors have conspired to make it more difficult. Over the past half century, freeways were built right through downtown neighborhoods. Postwar depopulation and the subsequent ravages of urban renewal took their toll. A hub-and-spoke layout of fast, shoulder-less arterials makes it difficult to access the suburbs by any means but car.
I understood this firsthand. I grew up in the nearby hamlet of Hamden, in a quiet, lower-middle-class neighborhood hemmed in on one side by one of those arterials and by the freeway on another, and with an endlessly sprawling wasteland, alternately wealthy and poor, to the north and west. I could walk to my elementary school, the library, and a couple of stores. But until I was old enough to ride Connecticut Transit’s unreliable buses on my own, most trips I made were in the back seat of my mom’s car.
At age 10 I took for granted the need to be picked up at school, brought to gymnastics practice, and later chauffeured to a classmate’s birthday party, all located inconveniently distantly from one another. I was highly aware of the constraints of streets and ponds and buildings and freeways, and of the limits they put on my need to roam the world. When I hit my early twenties I fled to the green, gridded streets of Portland, Oregon, to become a bicycle activist.
Mothers of re-invention
Transportation cycling has taken off in the last decade. The National Household Travel Survey found that bicycle trips to work increased 25 percent between 2001 and 2009 in the United States as a whole; in many cities that increase is much higher. About 1 percent of Americans say a bike is their primary commuting vehicle. That number hides a gender gap: cycling by women hasn’t increased a bit in that period, according to research by John Pucher. (Expressed as a percentage of the total, the number of women’s trips has shrunk; the absolute quantity has remained steady.)
The most compelling reason for the gap is the “mom taxi”: with stay-at-home and working mothers disproportionately handling shopping and household errands and responsible for the transporting of children, a car — for those who can afford one — is the only viable choice, just as it was for Armstrong in 2008. The issues that constrict bike usage affect men, of course, but not based on the same set of requirements.
In this context, a cargo bike that can carry both kids and groceries is a revolutionary piece of technology. It may not be a silver bullet, but it provides many parents with another choice. It could also offer trade workers and others who rely on pickup trucks and minivans an alternative or a piece of a multi-modal commute, and reduce their costs of travel.
It’s no coincidence that these beasts are commonplace in countries where half or more of all cycling trips are taken by women, as in Germany and the Netherlands. In most of the United States, the family bicycle is still a unicorn. Many early adopters of cargo bikes report slack-jawed stares and confused questions about their bicycles everywhere they go.
That’s changing, and quickly, as family cycling makes its way into American cities. Tidbits of news from the bike industry seem to support the anecdotal growth I’ve found. A representative of Yuba, a small company that makes longtails (bikes with extended trailers) tells me that sales had grown steadily since 2006 but spiked upward in 2013; that rep has heard from others that it’s also true across the trailer and cargo segment. And Joel Grover, owner of Splendid Cycles — the third cargo-bike-specific shop to open in Portland — relates that he ships $3,000–$4,000 imported Danish bicycles as far as Alaska and Florida. He says many customers are in such a hurry to get one that they are willing to buy sight unseen.
Perhaps the best indications are cultural, seen in a feverishly expanding network of blogs and cargo-bike-oriented grassroots events. Take Kidical Mass, a funny play on Critical Mass, a much more controversial (and arguably less adorable) monthly bike event held in cities all over the world since 1992. The first of the Kidical Mass family rides, intended to encourage kids and parents to ride and to create community and visibility for families on bicycles, took place in Eugene, Oregon, in April 2008.
The idea captured the imagination of other bicycling parents; the Kidical Mass Web site today lists 26 regular rides in the United States and Canada, and seven more cities where rides will launch.
A new haven for cycling families
I met Armstrong on a trip back home at the very end of 2008. I’d brought a folding bicycle with me as a means of fleeing winding streets for New Haven’s grid, but I was foiled by a series of snowstorms. Her young sons clustered around me in the coffee shop where I’d taken refuge, asking questions and demanding that I fold and unfold the bike for them. Their mother ran up, embarrassed — and then became as engrossed by the bike as they were. “I’ll take this as a sign,” she wrote on her blog later that night.
I had been working as a reporter for a bike blog and took the opportunity to meet with New Haven’s bicycle leaders. I was seriously amazed. Just as I moved away in the fall of 2001, the city hit a critical juncture: a new bike shop opened, an advocacy organization was in formation, and Yale — the influence of which is significant in the city — had started to take an interest in active transportation like bicycling. During my 2008 visit I happened upon the ribbon cutting of the former rail line, now pedestrian and bike trail, that connected downtown with my suburb, bypassing the dangerous on-street routes that had stood so frustratingly in my way as a younger person.
In May 2013 I returned to find a massively growing bike movement. It was Bike to Work Day, and I attended a commuter-focused breakfast event where I was glad-handed by both the mayor and the police chief, which boggled my mind. A fleet of cargo bikes and children on their own bikes suddenly swarmed into the square: Armstrong’s family and two dozen other kids and parents from their school.
The bakfiets had long since been outgrown, Armstrong told me; purchased in March 2009, it had served the family so well that within five months they had bought a second cargo bicycle. At that time they had been the only family with a cargo bike in New Haven. Now there were more than she could count, and she knew of at least five families that had multiple cargo bikes.
Armstrong’s family started the New Haven Kidical Mass ride in 2011, and it has been going strong ever since, taking New Haven’s ice cream parlors by storm and boasting over 100 members on its Facebook page.
“What is it like to be pioneers?” I ask later, through email.
“I laugh to think of us as ‘pioneers,’” Armstrong replies. “I think of us more as that crazy family that wanted to avoid purchasing a second car, so became obsessed with cargo bikes!”
Armstrong’s family happened to have a need at the right moment that a bakfiets could fill. Their example showed other families that riding a cargo bike was possible, while their practical advice and shopping assistance provided material help in shifting one set of wheels for another a family at a time.
Photo by Stig Rudeholm. Used under Creative Commons license.
Elly Blue lives, writes, and rides bicycles in Portland, Oregon. She publishes a series of zines about feminist issues in bicycling and is the author of Everyday Bicycling: How to Ride a Bike For Transportation (Whatever Your Lifestyle) and the forthcoming Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy (December 2013, Microcosm).