Liz Canning Rides an Electric Cargo Bike

Liz Canning on managing her twins’ schedules by bike and the transformative power of electric-assist.

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Name: Liz Canning 

Occupation: Filmmaker

Children: 6.5-year-old twins Rocko & Stormy Canning Smith

Location: Fairfax, CA (Marin County)

How do you fit riding into your family’s daily life? 

I came at this problem from sort of the opposite perspective, as someone who really ONLY rode bikes until having twins forced me to drive. We live atop a long, very steep hill; eventually that double bike trailer was too much for me to pull. I found myself wondering, “how can we avoid getting back in the car?” The first step was switching to a bakfiets-style ShuttleBug built by Portland’s Joe Bike, but the clincher was adding an electric-assist hub motor to the front wheel. It’s just an all-around blast and true car-replacement! 

What is your favorite place to go by bike with your family?

When the twins were about 3-5, we had a favorite routine where we’d ride 8 miles (13 km) to the JCC to swim, then get on a bike path through a re-purposed train tunnel to Larkspur where we’d eat panini and frozen yogurt, then back on the bike path to a huge playground in Corte Madera, and then home, mostly via a lovely creek side bike path. Probably 30 miles (48 km) or so round trip, carrying all our swim stuff and little kid necessities. Without e-assist this would take all day, totally exhaust me, and be far less fun. We all loved it.

What is your favorite piece of gear for riding with a family?

I love the cabin of the ShuttleBug that has tons of handy pockets. But, I have to say again, the motor is a game changer. I used to race bikes and do crazy mountain-climbing endurance rides – I can pedal, a lot! – and I still LOVE my motor. It’s great for getting started fully loaded; for accelerating quickly through a sketchy spot; and of course saving time, avoiding excessive perspiration if needed, and appeasing cranky bored children (go faster Mama!! FASTER!!!).

What is your current setup for family riding?

We love our ShuttleBug (as seen in photo attached) with a double seat and fabulous Ortlieb bags on a rear rack. She has served us so well. But, kids are in first grade now – they want to ride their own bikes, and to have friends over to play. So we are getting ready to purchase a bigger, burlier, even more Super Bike. It will feature a rear rack customized to tow 2 kids’ 20”-wheel bikes up and down our giant, windy hill, so that when we are on flatter, safer roads Stormy and Rocko can get out and ride their own bikes. We’ll also be adding a box big enough to carry 4 kids, and a motor powerful enough to pull all of this up a 0.6-mile hill that averages 13% and gets up to a 22% grade!

What challenge have you overcome in adapting to riding as a family?

There were times when Stormy really didn’t want to wear a helmet or ride early through the “cold spot” at the bottom of the canyon. My little girl can be STORMY (as in Hurricane), but she really wanted to ride, so she got over it! 

We’ve had mechanical problems (or Mama forgot to charge the motor) and been left stranded and in need of assistance at the bottom of the hill. It’s an adventure for sure, but that’s part of why we love it. Being in a car removes you from reality – from the real cost of getting from A to B, from the real sensations of wind and weather, and from the real people in your community. The kids totally get it, intuitively, they know going by bike is the way to go!

What one piece of advice would you give other families who are thinking about trying to ride with their children?

I’ve owned a cargo bike for almost 4 years and for most of that time I’ve also been making LESS CAR MORE GO, a crowdsourced documentary on the cargo bike movement. So, I’ve been in contact with hundreds of family cyclists! I never cease to be amazed at the transformative power of riding as a family. People who give it a real try almost always fall in love with the experience. And, an incredible number of these parents become hardcore family bike evangelicalist! So, first piece of advice: TRY IT. Go on lots of test rides on bikes that are set up for your family. Borrow or rent one for a few days. Sample electric-assist – if you aspire to ride with cargo everyday, it is worth the money and the extra weight, hands down.

Also, riding with kids on their own bikes is stressful in some places and with some kids, so I’m a fan of “whatever works.” This year, starting kindergarten, adjusting to the school run, I was quite happy to have the kids on my own bike. Next year, with our new setup, I hope they will ride their own bikes a lot, but I still appreciate having the option to carry them the whole way in a pinch, and/ or to carry their stuff. I know families who still use trailers for first graders when they are reluctant to ride and others who carry teenagers on longtails because it’s simple, quick, and safe. 

My point is: e-assist or no, longtail or long john, together or separate – just try a lot of different things until you find what works for your family. Then expect it to change! That’s parenting on two wheels for you.

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