Posts by Megan Odett
Buses are vital for families across the region but riding with a young child can be challenging. Families can make the ride better for both parents and kids with a little planning. And WMATA could help accommodate families with a more flexible stroller policy, by making the bus easier to board, and providing more real-time arrival information.
Living in the outskirts of Wheaton without a car and with a premature newborn son, I got used to the bus system very quickly. Like a lot of families in the region, our family rode the bus daily to get to the Metro for work, to buy groceries, and to visit doctors or friends.
Even after we moved back to the District and got a car, we found that local buses continued to be a convenient, cheap, and even fun way for our family to get around the greater Washington area.
Riding the bus has many advantages
If you asked our son, he'd probably say that riding the bus is the best way to get around. He is now over 2 years old and has sufficient verbal skills to express just how much he likes riding the bus, or, as he would say, "Bus. Bus! BUUUUSSSSS!"
I agree with him because the bus is a better option than driving or Metrorail for some of our regular trips. There's a Metrobus stop right at the entrance of our apartment complex that takes us close to some of our favorite destinations, avoiding both Metrorail's "last mile" challenge and the hassle of parking.
And, since I'm not driving, I'm free to enjoy my family's company on the trip. Our son likes the bus because he doesn't have to be strapped in a car seat as he does in the car, and there's more to see out the windows than on underground trains.
Not to say that riding the bus is entirely wonderful. We're all familiar with the horror stories from both sides of the kids-on-transit issue, including those of children who behave badly or scream for the entire trip and of seemingly oblivious parents. But there are also stories of passengers who fail to accommodate parents and children or who react with obvious disapproval when a child exhibits perfectly normal behavior.
However, it's important to remember that at least some of these horror stories can be prevented or mitigated.
Tips for riding the bus with a young child
As our son grew, we developed different strategies for bringing him on the bus with us. These tips may not work for everyone, but they certainly helped my family:
- Newborn: When our son was a premature newborn and we were taking lots of multimodal trips (mostly buses and cabs) to visit specialists, we relied on a snap-in frame with an infant car seat that had a special insert for very small babies. Generous fellow passengers frequently helped me carry this rig (dismantled, of course) onto the bus.
- Infant: When our son was about 3-months old, I switched to a sling or harness to carry him on the bus. This was both faster and easier than constantly collapsing and reassembling a stroller. It also kept him shielded from potentially germy strangers.
- Toddler: Once our child was able to sit up straight and stand on his own as a toddler, I used a folding umbrella stroller for our bus rides. This has been a great tool for both local and inter-city bus trips because it collapses easily and is quite compact when folded (though it's still too long to fit under the sideways seats on Metrobuses and trains).
I hope these tips can help encourage parents living in the city with their children to consider including local buses among their transportation options.
A few policies or technologies can help as well
One of the worst bus trips I ever had with my son was a stressful crosstown trip to the hospital during his nap time. He wasn't happy that I had to wake him every 20 minutes to get him in and out of his stroller for transfers. If I could have let him sleep for the entire trip, he'd have been happier, I'd have been happier, and all of our fellow bus passengers would have been happier.
This experience taught me how helpful it would be if we could bring unfolded umbrella strollers on Metrobuses. Believe me, I would have been thrilled to stand through our entire hour-and-a-half trip if it meant that my son could have had his much-needed afternoon nap. There are plenty of times when my son and I can sit in a 2-person bench like adult passengers, but it would improve Metrobus' accessibility to families if their policies made some accommodation for times when that's not feasible.
Another feature that would benefit bus-riding families is automatic kneeling. Bus drivers don't always notice that I have a child with me, or if they do, they don't always seem to realize what a big step up the bus is for a little child and a woman carrying 20 pounds of gear. It would be helpful for parents and other similarly burdened passengers to be able to count on having the bus lowered to curb level.
I'm lucky that I can use my phone to check WMATA's NextBus website to find the real-time bus information for our most commonly used stops and routes. If I didn't have that resource, however, taking the bus with a small child would be an immensely frustrating experience. While some children are perfectly happy to sit for 20 minutes or more at a bus stop surrounded by all kinds of intriguing trash and a wide-open street just begging to be played in, my son is not one of them.
Being able to check NextBus on my phone and time our arrival at the stop just in time to fold up the stroller and board the bus has been an absolute godsend. If instead I had to wait for at a bus stop with my son without knowing when the next bus was actually arriving, I would probably avoid taking the bus altogether.
WMATA has been talking about adding real-time arrival signs to more bus stops so everyone can have access to this information. The sooner they can move the program forward as quickly and comprehensively as possible, the better
Even with all the ups and downs of riding the bus, I've found that it can be a source of wonderful time spent with my son. We recently visited friends in Brooklyn whose son is close in age to our own. The sight of 2 little boys happily plopping themselves into seats on the bus after a full morning of adventure is one of my favorite memories of that trip.
So make your own memories and happy riding!
Cross-posted at Big Orange Bike.
To those who think biking alone in the city may seem perilous, biking with kids in the city can seem downright reckless. But there are lots of options to bring the kids safely along with you as you bike around the city.
From bakfietsen to Xtracycles, Kidical Mass DC, WABA, DDOT Safe Routes to School are presenting The ABC's of Family Biking to show off and demonstrate kid-friendly bike options this Saturday, 11 am to 2 pm at the Capitol Hill Montessori School at Logan, 215 G Street NE.
Whether they are add-ons to an existing bikes, such as bike seats and trailers, or full cargo bikes, like longtails and boxbikes, a number of products can help you and your kids explore new parts of the city together and perhaps even create a new daily commuting routine.
As the organizer of Kidical Mass DC, I love to share the ins-and-outs of biking with kids. Biking around DC with my son during the past 2 years has been more fun than I ever could have imagined. It's a joy for both of us because my son loves that we can pull over on the road whenever we see anything interesting. And I get a very real thrill that unlike other parents in the area, I don't have to worry about hunting for parking when I'm dropping him off at daycare. Plus, by using the bike to run everyday errands with him in tow, I'm teaching him that bikes are a safe, useful, and normal way of getting around.
I've learned a lot about the different approaches to biking with kids and think that with the right knowledge, nearly any parent can share the delights of cycling with their own children. Below is a summary of some of the most common cycling options for parents who have kids aged from infancy to early school age, listed in order of cost.
Bike Seats ($)
If you want to try biking with your children without making a big investment in gear, aftermarket bike seats are a great first step. Easily adaptable to a variety of bike types and brands, relatively cheap, and offering the intimacy of having your child within arm's reach during the whole ride, bike seats that bolt onto either the front stem or rear rack of your bike are a great economical choice.
The most commonly-seen bike seats bike seats are Topeak's rear seat (ubiquitous in bike shops) and the iBert front-mounted seat, a neon green contraption that is outstanding for its ability to fit onto a broad range of bike types and sizes.
I have used both front and rear seats and there are pluses and minuses to both. Front seats are unbeatable for staying in contact with and monitoring the comfort of your child. Your child gets to see everything that's going on around him or her, and drivers can't miss the fact that you're child is with you.
A front seat's main disadvantage, in my view, is that they're only usable for 2 or maybe 3 years because most have a maximum weight limit of 35 pounds. Rear-mounted seats, though, will hold kids weighing up to 50 pounds. Kids riding behind cyclists are also a little more protected from the weather than kids riding on the front of the bike.
You should keep a few considerations in mind before you head out to the local bike shop. First, what kind of handlebars does your bike have? Front-mounted seats go best with upright or mountain-type handlebars. Also, some front-mounted seats only work with certain stem diameters and otherwise require adaptors to be used.
Additionally, make sure your kickstand is sturdy and well-balanced enough to handle the additional weight of a child on your bike. You might even want to look into aftermarket centerstands like this one available from Velo Orange to provide more balanced support for your bike.
One more consideration: I strongly recommend using a mixte, loop, or other step-through frame if you're going to bike with a child on the back of your bike. It makes it easier to get on and off your bike without kicking your child in the face (ask me how I know!).
With a price point of $100 to $200, child seats are the most economical way to start biking with kids if you already have an appropriate bike.
For many years, trailers were the ultimate bike accessory for the hard-core, year-round cycling parent in the United States. They attach to nearly any kind of bike, include canopies to keep out the cold and rain, can carry a significant amount of cargo, and can accommodate a broad age range of passengers. Many trailers also convert to strollers, meaning that parents can potentially address two needs with a single tool.
The two big names in the trailer world are Burley and Chariot. Made in the U.S.A. and Canada respectively, Burley and Chariot offer trailers in a wide range of sizes and weights at prices ranging from $300 to close to $700 depending on the size and features. Thanks to its many years in the business, Burley has a fantastic customer support system that offers replacement parts even for models that haven't been made in five or more years. Chariot produces a similar fleet of trailers but focuses more on the multi-sport market: they offer conversion kits for walking, jogging, and even skiing to increase the versatility of their trailers.
A recent innovation, longtails are a great compromise between the speed and maneuverability of a regular two-wheeled bike and the cargo capacity of a boxbike. The original longtail is Xtracycle's Free Radical. The Free Radical is a frame extension that bolts on to an existing bike frame in the place of the rear wheel, moving the rear wheel back and adding an extended platform to the back of the bike.
Since first developing the Free Radical, Xtracycle has continued to refine its design and has spawned several variations on the original concept of bikes with extended tails. The company partnered with Surly to design an all-in-one longtail bike, the Big Dummy, that incorporates the longtail concept in a single frame and is therefore sturdier and able to handle larger loads. Recent other variations have included Xtracycle's Radish (a lighter-weight, step-through frame), the Yuba Mundo, and the Kona Ute.
Longtails are relatively lightweight for their cargo capacity and, though even a simple FreeRadical conversion kit costs more than some trailers, are a great investment for their ability to accommodate many different combinations of cargo and kids. FreeRadicals are about $500 while other longtail styles can cost from $1,100 to $2,000.
- Yuba Mundo*
- Surly: Big Dummy*
- Xtracycle: Free Radical, Radish
- Kona Ute
- Madsen (longtail/boxbike hybrid)
The true SUVs of the cycling world, cargo trikes and bakfietsen are low-maintenance, weatherproof, nearly bombproof kid-hauling machines. Both types of cargo bikes feature a dramatically extended front end with a large, sturdy front box mounted on the frame. Cargo trikes have one rear wheel and two front wheels on either side of the box while bakfietsen (the Dutch plural for "boxbike") have one rear wheel and one front wheel that sits in front of the box. Some bakfietsen sport a box large enough to comfortably accommodate even four children, or two children, a dog, and a bunch of groceries.
Equipped with weather canopies, plenty of cargo space, built-in seats with seatbelts, and sometimes even integrated lighting systems, boxbikes are the ultimate turn-key option for families who want to make a full commitment to going car-free or extremely car-light. They often feature fully enclosed shifting and braking systems for maximum weatherproofness, so keeping these bikes outside shouldn't be a problem. This is especially important for those without dedicated garage space. Many boxbikes have chain guards while some even include full chain cases for the ultimate maintenance-free drivetrain.
As you might expect, all these features come with a price. Boxbikes typically start at $2,700 and, depending on capacity and other factors, can increase in price to $4,000 or more.
Of course, that's about 10 times more than most people would ever dream of paying for a bike. But $4,000 is about one-third the cost of the very cheapest car you can purchase new. Plus the annual maintenance costs for the boxbike are practically nil. More than any other family biking tool, boxbikes are designed to serve as true car replacements, giving that price tag a different context and making them a worthwhile investment. Additionally, considering how much space car seats take up in the back seat of a sedan, a cargo trike or bakfiets could even carry more children than your typical family sedan!
If you want to explore these options further, be sure to stop by the ABC's of Family Biking this Saturday. Thanks to several helpful bike shops and a cadre of enthusiastic (evangelical, even) parent cyclists, we will be demonstrating many of the types and brands of bikes and bike equipment described above.
* available in local shops, either in-stock or by special order
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