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How to successfully juggle kids and errands while on a bicycle.
“Did you shrink your bike in the dryer?” teases my neighbor as I walk down the street, pushing my son’s 16-inch bike home. At five, Jasper loves to ride to his afternoon kindergarten class. But I pick him up at an off-site aftercare program, so it doesn’t make sense to leave his bike locked up at school. At first, the walk home involved me leaning awkwardly to one side to reach his little handlebars, but over time I’ve developed a system. As long as I’m on a quiet, traffic-free side street, I push Jasper’s little bike on the sidewalk and walk beside it on the road, so the handlebars are at a more comfortable height for me to reach. It’s not the easiest way for him to get to school, but it gives him a chance to ride his own bike, which turns his commute into an adventure.
Over the years, depending on where we’re going, what the weather is like, what we need to transport and how old our two children are, my husband, Derek, and I have had lots of different biking and walking systems for running errands and traveling around the neighborhood.
When Anna Sierra was a baby, she’d often fall asleep in the stroller and I’d quietly and efficiently mail packages at the post office, pick up a few things at the hardware store and load bags of fresh veggies under her feet after stopping at the farmers market. If we were using the bike trailer and she fell asleep, I’d unhook the trailer from the bike and wheel it around the grocery store or park it inside the coffee shop while I caught up with friends. Naps were golden, and I loved not having to wake her up to run errands.
I asked Derek what he thinks about running errands with the kids on bikes and his eyes lit up. “Errands are part of life, so why not make the most of them by riding my bike and bringing the coolest, most fun people in the world?” Exactly!
As the kids have gotten older and bigger, we’ve had to retire some systems and find new ways of getting around together. For two glorious years – from Anna Sierra’s sixth birthday to just after her eighth – I was able to take both kids easily on my Kona Ute longtail bike. Library books, groceries, school bags, picnics, fabric finds and all kinds of other things fit in my enormous panniers. After loading up the panniers, I’d scoop Jasper onto the back and Anna Sierra would hop on behind him. She’d either hold on to his waist or wrap her arms around him and share the handlebar Derek had attached to my seat post. I loved listening to the kids tell each other stories while I navigated our neighborhood. We were so fast and compact together. With such big panniers, we could combine multiple stops and still carry everything. Because both kids were on my bike, we didn’t have to restrict ourselves to quieter streets or bike paths.
But then, one day, we were heading across town for a potluck dinner. Derek was joining us there, so I packed our salad and the kids on our Kona and we pedaled off to meet him. Our route took us up a steep hill that has a stoplight halfway up the slope. While trying to get started again mid-hill, I had to really focus to keep the bike stabilized against the back-heavy load, and even in the lowest gear it was challenging for me to climb the hill without wobbling. The kids cheered “Go, Mama, go” all the way to the top, but my heart sank because I realized the kids had grown too heavy for our favorite bike system.
While locking up the bike, I broke the news to Anna Sierra. “I’m going to have to ask Carl and Katarina to drive you home, sweetie. Mama can’t carry you both on the bike anymore.” Anna Sierra and I hugged and I had to wipe away a few tears from both our eyes. Carrying the kids on the bike is fun, intimate, tender and a great way to combine hanging out with the kids with getting stuff done.
This ending reminded me of the day I woke up with a sore back after a long hike and realized I couldn’t carry Jasper around in his Ergo baby carrier anymore. He was four at the time, so we’d had many years of cuddles, but I still wished we didn’t have to let go. The mourning is both for the lost intimacy and for the end of an efficient system that enables everyone to share great everyday adventures, often at an adult pace.
To make sure I could still carry her on the back of my bike, Anna Sierra asked me to drop her off at school on the Kona the next morning. Sure enough, it was easy to manage one kid, even a getting-bigger-every-day eight-year-old.
Now, when the three of us go somewhere together, we try new systems. If we don’t have too much to carry or too far to go, Jasper rides his bike on the sidewalk and Anna Sierra and I run beside him. He’s still learning to stop and start on his own, and I’m learning to trust that he will remember to stop at all the intersections. So I’m not ready to take my own bike when he’s on his, and Anna Sierra’s bike is too big to ride on the sidewalk regularly. Every time Jasper gets to ride his own bike, he becomes a safer, more confident and more consistent cyclist. Anna Sierra enjoys this system, too, because she and I get to run together.
When we have further to go or more to carry, Jasper hops on the back of my bike and Anna Sierra takes her own bike. This system works as long as the traffic is light or we’re taking bike paths. Anna Sierra can signal, is shoulder checking and is learning the rules of the road, but she’s not ready for negotiating parked cars or dealing with traffic. If we need to go where the traffic is heavier than I’m comfortable with Anna Sierra riding in, we walk or take the bus. Our transportation choices depend on the distance, what the weather is like and how much power Jasper has in his legs.
If I don’t feel like locking the bikes up at each of our stops, the kids get to run errands inside while I stay outside, watching the bikes. They love going into our local library branch all by themselves and carrying a big bag of books up the steps to the circulation desk. They get a delicious taste of freedom and I enjoy a quiet moment. We’ve been going to this library at least once a week since they were babies; we know all the librarians and the librarians know us, so it was a great first place for the kids to go on their own.
The kids enjoyed going into the library by themselves so much that now I wait outside the bakery for them while they pick up a fresh loaf of bread. Being trusted with a crisp $10 bill seems to be just as big a treat for the kids as the molasses cookies they pick out for themselves.
I think the most important thing about running errands with kids by bike is to keep safety in mind and to be honest with yourself and with the kids about how the system you’re using is working. It hardly ever means you can’t travel by bike. You just might need to take a different bike or figure out a different way to carry whatever it is you’re trying to carry. It’s about flexibility, creativity, compromise and patience, all of which, incidentally, are important life skills.
Last fall, the kids and I decided to buy a half-bushel of two different kinds of apples at the farmers market. We carried all of those apples, two large jugs of apple cider and assorted veggies in my panniers and in bags dangling from my handlebars. But that made the bike tippy, so we had to walk it home. I would have ridden it on my own, but adding the precious weight of the kids to the bike would have been too much for good steering, braking and stability. The kids were so proud of all we were carrying that they didn’t care if we walked or rode. They even helped me push the bike up our street. They couldn’t wait to tell Daddy where we had gone, what we had seen and found along the way, and what we had managed to bring home on our bike.
Kathleen Wilker is the editor of Momentum’s popular Families on Bikes blog. She loves riding around Ottawa with her family and friends. Kathleen is very grateful that her family keeps her many bikes in such good repair so that she can spend her non-biking time writing about biking.