Friday, May 13

Justifying the Risk: Why It's Okay to Bike With Your Kids

How do I justify transporting my children by bicycle on busy roads? While that question is rarely posed in such a civil manner to me, it's a question I often receive and/or see written upon the faces of those who witness our family in transit on a daily basis.

First, I don't really need to justify it to anyone else. The only people I truly feel answerable to in regards to my parenting decisions are my children, my wife and to God. But lately I've been pondering the topic and decided it would be a worthy exploration on the Pavement's Edge.

While I don't feel an obligation to justify my decisions to persons outside my family I do feel a great sense of responsibility to keep my children safe while providing them with a rich environment to develop and thrive. This is my duty as a parent. The welfare of my children is something I take very seriously.

One thing I realized at a very young age was that people tolerate different degrees of risk and judge the risks taken by others with a more critical eye. While I never felt like a reckless youth, I was often encouraged to make different decision regarding my recreational pursuits and my tendency to wander alone across the face of the earth. Because I was often challenged concerning my choices I have always analyzed them intently.


My mother rode with me in a '70s era bike seat on narrow and curvy two lane roads in rural southeastern Kentucky. No helmet, no lights, no bike lanes. We survived. I can't say for certain that riding in that seat has nurtured my current love of cycling and all fo the experiences that have helped me to develop into the person I am today. I can say it sure didn't hurt.

Since then I've had literally 30 years of experience riding my own bike on the road. I've been engaged in the process since day one. I've ridden daily in traffic in three American cities with populations over 100,000. I've ridden countless miles on backroads, trails, bike paths, bike lanes, in traffic and in the suburban landscape. I've been struck by a car exactly two times, both minor incidents. Those two instances and the numerous close calls I've had were mitigated by my constant diligence while traveling on the road. I'm not saying I am perfect, but I am saying I take riding a bike on the road very, very seriously.

I'm a cautious person. To say I err on the side of caution is an understatement. As a novice whitewater kayaker and then as a recreational rock climber I expanded my comfort zone very, very slowly. I did not take ANY risks initially in either pursuit slowly gaining experience and confidence until I reached the point with both activities where I was comfortable engaging in them as a lone participant. I eventually became a rock climbing guide and for a few years I assumed the responsibility of taking families and groups of children into the forest to hike and climb while maintaining a safe, though not risk free, experience.


Is it better for my child to ride on the back of my bike with flashing LED lights, reflectors and my hyper-vigilance protecting them or to be lashed into an SUV traveling at least five miles an hour over the speed limit, with a parent behind the wheel trying to juggle wireless devices and coffee cup while putting on makeup or lost in the day's stresses?

I'm not saying SUVs are more inherently dangerous than bikes, but I am saying the perception that they are safer is flat out false. How many children each year are injured in automobile accidents? How many children are injured each year as passengers on bicycles?

I value experience and knowledge based on first hand participation far above comfort and a sheltered environment. I'd rather be out hiking in a thunderstorm than sitting inside watching a sitcom. There are inherent risks in all activities. The general perception however, seems to be that static or passive activities are more safe and more beneficial than dynamic and fluid activities. I've always been willing to accept that this may not be true. And in doing so I've experienced so much in life that is good and interesting and worthwhile.

I want to instill this value in my children. I don't want them to be complacent, or to shy away from adversity or challenges in life. Life is not a couch trip, and the couch isn't always a safe place after all. Most definitely the couch is not a place where we learn resilience and self-reliance.

Put Down the Camera and Stop My Bleeding!

Children also need to learn how to manage pain and consequence. You cannot learn these things by avoiding pain and avoiding risky situations. And what better way to learn these things than under the supervision and care of competent parents. And while I am mostly referring to physical risk I truly believe all of this translates to "softer" activities related to functioning within society. My own self-worth and confidence increased tremendously when I became comfortable as a rock climbing guide.

To take your children into situations that have inherent risks demands competence. If you do not have good judgment and the skills and knowledge necessary to protect your family then it may not be appropriate to engage in activities that may result in disaster. You should never undertake an activity that's clearly above your abilities. It's okay to get in a little over your head, but you should always avoid going too far, taking on too much risk.

Becoming competent at risk assessment is a long process for many people. It can take years and years of slowly expanding your comfort zone and knowledge base. And for some people it may not be appropriate to take certain risks, as they are not comfortable or competent in managing those risks alone. While working as a climbing guide I saw many parents who would never be comfortable tackling an activity like rock climbing with kids on their own. And in hiring a guide they were making an intelligent risk assessment and trusting someone else who did have the confidence to lead them in an activity with inherent and complex risk factors.

I want my children to enjoy a lifestyle of everyday adventures, to be engaged in the world around them and to know how to find their way through life on their own, without being overly dependent on others. By exposing them to new experiences and guiding them into knowledge and confidence I feel as if I am giving them the greatest practical gift I can. I'm teaching them to be self-reliant and forward thinking. I'm enticing their little brains to grow and flourish.

Over the past year I've seen a gradual increase in acceptance by my wife of transporting the children by bike. Its not that she didn't approve of it a year ago, but that she's gone from being somewhat indifferent to the idea of family utility cycling to having fully embraced it and taking ownership of it. She takes every opportunity she can to choose the bike over the car and she does it because she has found the value in making the choice.

I was intrigued by her long transformation and so we talked at length about it the other night. We agree that having the longtail bikes has made family cycling less of a chore and more of a joy. Its more convenient to jump on the Ute or the Xtracycle and zip down to the store and back. There's no wallowing in traffic, searching for a parking space and walking halfway across town from the other side of the parking lot. We save money on gas and get to ride our bikes all the time now. And we rarely plan for or make time to ride recreationally. But it just so happens we are riding so much more than before the investment in the longtail cargo bikes.

But how does risk factor into choosing bikes when your family is involved? We've rationalized it to ourselves and our children by weighing the pros and cons in the context of our collective experience and knowledge. In addition to reducing the hassle of most of our trips away from home, cycling instead of driving has benefited our family in other ways. The benefits are greater in choosing the bike over the car.

We've had the wonderful opportunity to explore our town and neighborhood utilizing the amazing bicycle infrastructure of our Bronze level Bicycle Friendly Community. And as we've pedaled around running errands and exploring new routes to our destinations we've spent an amazing amount of quality time together as a family.

One of the greatest benefits is that our kids enjoy going by bike. They look forward to our trips, whether utilitarian or recreational. The ask and beg to ride. And it makes us happy to know that they enjoy being active and that they are motivated to use their own power to get out and play.

So how do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Hopefully our children are learning responsibility as road users, first as blossoming cyclists, but eventually as motorists. They both understand trail etiquette and hand signals. They know road signs and their functions and they are participating in traffic, not detached behind a car window, but in the open air and aware. They know safety on the road and they will continue to learn about traffic and its flows in the years until they begin driving. We're teaching them about choice and the reasons we are choosing the bike over the car. We talk about our environmental impact and the cost of operating the car.

Over the past few years we've developed protective strategies for cycling as a family. We know what obvious dangers to avoid and we know how to manage ourselves on the roads as we go. We didn't dive into heavy traffic from the get-go. We've moved in increments to a fully functional utility cycling family.

We've also moved beyond doubting the validity of our choice. We're enjoying the same right to the roads that we all share as citizens, and we're doing it in the way that is most appropriate for our family. The choices we make do not impede or adversely impact anyone else. We're living more sustainably, more self-sufficiently and we're having fun doing it.


I can't say that our choices would be the best choices for your family. I can say that there are families that are more cyclo-intensive. There are families that do not own even a single car like we do. And then there are families that traverse the globe on foot or by bike or other means with their kids trailing along with great success.

In our lives the inherent risk in traveling upon the road has not magically disappeared, but we have embraced the conditions we've found and have learned to mitigate any danger we are confronted with in an effort to gain valuable experience and knowledge for ourselves and our children.

And assessing risk is only one component of any trip planning exercise. The pure logistics of hauling kids, gear and yourself to a far destination on a bike with only your built in people power can be overwhelming. That's why risk assessment should be something you do instinctively without having to sit down and run the numbers.

I think this is a topic that should be further explored. Perhaps I'll delve a little more into the specifics in the near future. Maybe I share some technical, step by step, bullet list-type information on how to assess the real risk involved in traveling on bikes with children and how to develop the skills necessary to be a good risk taker.


  1. This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Absolutely! There are plenty of folks that think we are nuts for riding at all in city traffic, with or without the kids -- and our kids are teens! Both of them have learned, by riding with us since young, how to ride carefully in NYC traffic in order to minimize risk and willingly do so on their own now.

  3. Thanks for the comments all!

    NicoSwan, biking IS parental bliss!

    Devorah, I think the key that you mention is "have learned, by riding with us since young". Kids don't learn how to ride in traffic the right way by being turned out on the street to figure it all out on their own. We're finding our eight year old is misinterpreting our direction at times and we constantly have to mold him further to keep him safe. If he were out riding on the streets without us, or not riding at all, he'd never learn the right way to ride.