Cycling with kids: a journey through the ages

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 110.

‘I love cycling but now with the kids it’s just not practical any more’. Even the keenest cyclists can switch to four wheels when they have children. It seems the only practical solution at the time. You tell yourself it is just for a few years but busy schedules and busy roads have other ideas. As baby number two (or more…) appears, it gradually sinks in that this was the turning point.

Practical as it seems to hop in a car, there are other ways to look at it. You cannot teach your kids that cycling is fun and a healthy way to travel while sitting in a traffic jam. There are only a few years when you can have the bonding experience of being pick-pocketed by the occupant of the child seat behind you, so why miss it? And one parent’s convenience delivering their children to school is another’s concern as their teenager pedals off into the rush hour traffic. Ten years later, this teenager may be your child so you may want to do your bit to reduce the traffic now.

If only there was a practical and safe solution for all those ages in between. Well, there is! From 6 months onwards, there is a vehicle for every stage. From babies on bike seats to teens on tandems, this is my personal experience of most of them. If you are a young parent and keen to keep cycling, or if your older child is pestering to start cycling alone, this article is for you.

Safety considerations

The safety advice below is not meant to be comprehensive, but it does reflect actual experience from years of cycling at each stage. The guidance on age suitability is also just from personal experience. Manufacturers will specify actual weight limits for each device.

Rear child seat: Age 6-9 months to 3.5-4 years. This is a great bonding experience. Communication is easy, your child is within reach and so are you! Singing, tickling and having your wallet removed from your back pocket are all part of the fun. It is the best solution if you want to take the bike on a train and the seat doubles up as a way to transport shopping etc when your child is elsewhere!

Watch out for wriggly children – bigger children think it’s great fun to rock the bike but the driver may disagree! On a similar theme, sooner or later your child will fall asleep in the seat. When children of that age want to sleep, they will sleep and there is nothing you can do about it, save to make sure they are securely strapped in and reach back occasionally to make sure their head isn’t flopping around excessively. A child at this height will make the bike top-heavy. As a result you need more wobble room so avoid narrow paths, and when pushing the bike always hold the seat itself. A good flip-out stand on your bike helps for loading and unloading, or better still fit the two-pronged, fold-down variety but don’t rely on this alone while the child is in the seat.

As every parent knows, children come with their own luggage so the fact that child seats cover the luggage rack can be a problem. However, panniers can often be squeezed into place depending on design. The seat also narrows the options for where to put a back light. Ideally attach one to the seat itself or fit it to the back of the luggage rack. Cold and rain do pose a problem but this is easily solved. Thick clothes and a waterproof cover (photo) can leave your child as happy as a summer’s day while you brave the elements out front!

Child seat with rain cape
Image as described adjacent

I do not have personal experience of front child seats, but they appear to be a good solution for the youngest children, at least for parents who don’t have long legs. The combination of rear and front seats also offers a solution for transporting two children aged around 1-2 and 3-4 but a trailer will be a longer lasting solution.

Rear trailer: Age 1-5 years. A trailer can also be used at younger ages by securely strapping a car seat into it. You may need to remove the original trailer seat to do this and do not use the trailer until the baby is strong enough to support its head well on a bumpy path.

The big advantages of trailers are that many take two kids (photo), or one plus luggage, and of course they keep the kids warm and dry. They can also be combined with a rear child seat for a third child. The children often enjoy having their own space. No-one else can fit, after all, and it soon clutters up with toys, books, sweet wrappers and the like!

On the down side, communication is harder than on a child seat and two kids in a trailer may fight. Squeezing through narrow gaps can be a problem of course, and go slowly over bumps, especially with younger children, to avoid excessive shaking. Some parents worry about vulnerability to passing cars but in my experience, as long as you ensure good visibility, drivers are very careful passing trailers. A brightly coloured flag is important and cover the back in a large amount of reflective material if it does not already have it. This is very effective as it sits directly in the line of car headlights. The biggest hazard in my experience is not traffic but hitting a kerb with one wheel, which can tip a trailer on its side. Always allow extra clearance from these edges and if you cannot avoid going close cycle slowly.

Two children in trailer
Image as described adjacent

A good rear mudguard on the parent’s bike is important to avoid dirt being thrown onto the trailer and always keep at least the mesh cover in place for the same reason. Trailers vary in quality – don’t buy a cheap one! It will be less safe and less waterproof.

Bakfiets: A bakfiets, where the children sit in front, is an effective alternative. On our one test ride, the passengers labelled it ‘awesome’. Some parents feel reassured that the children are in front where they can see them and perhaps protect them a little more, and depending on design they may take older children than a rear trailer. On the other hand, this bike does not convert into your everyday solo bike if you want to get around easily by yourself later in the day. It is for carrying kids (or other luggage) and little else, in contrast to the detachable rear trailer, etc.

Tagalong or trailer bike: Age 4-7 years. The biggest advantage of the tagalong is probably for the kids themselves, who appreciate being able to see more than in a trailer or being more ‘grown up’ than on a child seat. They also fill an important gap at an age where other solutions have been outgrown but your children are still very slow and hazardous on their own bike and too small for a tandem.

At first the loss of control is alarming. Suddenly you have to trust your four-year-old to hold on and to stay awake, but in practice this was never a problem for us. As your child grows the bike will get wobblier, not to mention harder to pedal, and this is what determines when to move on. If you are carrying two children remember most tagalongs are not compatible with a rear child seat. You can, however, get double tagalongs, which can be more stable and used up to later ages if they have two wheels.

Tandem: Age 5 years to adult. A child can go on the rear seat of an adult tandem as soon as they can comfortably reach the handlebars. Short legs are not a problem as there are a variety of solutions for reaching the pedals. The easiest to fit are crank shorteners, which screw into the normal pedal fitting and position the pedal itself part way up the crank. More complex, but potentially usable even younger are ‘kiddie cranks’.

Tandems are the two-wheeled answer to the ‘taxi service’. Your child can be dropped off at school, swimming lessons, piano, ballet or wherever and you can continue alone as long as you can deal with the daily comment of ‘you forgot your passenger’. Just remember that many motorists drive with four empty seats! The transition from tagalong to tandem is bliss. It is much smoother and more efficient to ride, so much so that you can almost forget the child is there! It is faster and safer than having your child on a separate bike and you do not need to worry about how to get the child’s own bike home again if they are heading somewhere else afterwards. As children grow, a tandem can be used for longer day trips or tours and with appropriate care it is compatible with another child on a rear seat, tagalong or trailer.

There are few disadvantages. Children reach an age when they want more independence by riding their own bike, but they are strangely keen to get back on the tandem if they’re tired! A tandem is considerably more expensive than a solo bike but hugely cheaper than another car! It also needs more storage space and can be difficult to transport by car. Finally, make sure your child uses toe clips to avoid their feet slipping out while the pedals continue to turn.

Child on own bike, accompanied: Age 3 years to teens, depending on traffic level. As indicated above, your child will eventually want this themselves and if you want them to gain experience to become safe cyclists they have to learn sooner or later. It will also keep them fit.

The loss of control can be truly alarming. Of course you should always get them fully used to cycling using off-road paths but when they finally go on the road you will find that rules you take for granted have to be taught one by one: to cycle on the left, to leave space when passing a parked car, to look behind and signal before turning right (a common blindspot!) and who has right of way at junctions. There may also be lapses of concentration for no obvious reason, which in our experience can persist until at least pre-teen years. You can minimise the risk by cycling behind, watching the traffic with a rear-view mirror and controlling it if necessary to ensure drivers take extra care for the child. Of course progress is slow at first but it is all in a good cause!

Child on own bike, unaccompanied: I would recommend starting at age 10-11 on a bike path and a couple of years later on the road. The great advantage is that finally the child has their independence, and so do you if alleviates taxi service! It is a good way for your child to become fit and it can be sociable.

The overriding issue is of course safety. Let go gradually by riding further behind or cycle in front so your child learns to deal with passing traffic. Stop giving any advice about handling junctions or traffic unless they are about to do something horribly wrong! Make sure they know the biggest hazards on a given route and that once they go alone they stick to these same routes. Wait a couple more years before allowing them to cycle in the dark, and of course only then with hi-viz clothing and very good lights. I would strongly advise against headphones (the cause of my own worst accident) and ensure a zero tolerance policy towards texting while riding, which is becoming all too common. Finally, check your child’s bike regularly for problems, as they may not well tell you about that faulty brake or flat tyre!

Michael Coleman