Family Bikes: The Minivans of Bicycles

In the morning it’s school or day care drop-off. In the afternoon it’s pick-up then soccer practice, swim lessons or dance class. On the way or in between there’s shopping for groceries or craft supplies for school projects. For most, being a parent means lots of driving around town and waiting in long lines of cars. But in our area more and more parents are hopping on bikes instead of into minivans and SUVs for their “mom’s taxi” trips, especially now that there are more options for carrying kids and gear on bikes.

For the past 30 years, parents have had two basic options: mount a child seat on a rack over their bike’s rear wheel or drag a trailer behind it. More recently, single-wheeled trail-a-bikes that let a school-aged child pedal along have appeared, and now there are small child seats that mount just behind the handlebars too. These are all easy, relatively inexpensive options for converting a standard bike into a kid-hauling machine.

But for more kids and bigger loads, some local families have graduated to bikes that are designed from the wheels up for the job. Cargo and family bikes come in all shapes and sizes, each with advantages and disadvantages. Here are three basic types that local parents are piloting.

Long-Tail Bikes
Cherie lives with her husband and two children in Mountain View’s Jackson Park neighborhood. When her kids were toddlers she hooked a trailer to the back of her mountain bike took them with her on errands and to their favorite playgrounds all over town. But as they kids got heavier, she found it tougher to stay balanced starting and stopping and she didn’t have as much room for gear as she needed. So Cherie bought a long-tail Xtracycle family bike.

Long-tail bikes look like mountain bikes where someone grabbed the rear wheel and stretched the frame back. This longer wheelbase means there’s more space for a longer rear rack and larger panniers (saddle bags). For Cherie, that means room for up to three giggling kids and four oversized bags of groceries. And if her seven-year-old daughter gets too tired to ride her own bike mid-ride, Cherie can secure the front wheel of her daughter’s bike in a pannier and drag the bike behind while her daughter catches a ride on the rear rack.

Bucket Bikes

Even before her son started kindergarten in Dublin in the East Bay, Kristi had heard enough horror stories about long lines at school drop-off to push her to look for better options than driving. Walking the mile to school wasn’t a problem for her, but would have been a challenge for her son and his 2-year-old brother. She considered and rejected pulling a wagon due to the hills, and she didn’t think a stroller was a dignified way for her little man to roll up to school. After searching family bike options, Kristi went with a Madsen bucket bike.

Bucket bikes have longer wheelbases like long-tail bikes, but instead of a rear rack, they have a cargo bucket in the back, usually with a bench seat and room for extra gear. Even though she hadn’t ridden in years, Kristi found the bike comfortable immediately, making it easy to get started. Her sons love being in the fresh air riding in her Madsen, and she loves pedaling straight to the school entrance and skipping the queue of cars, as well as doing errands after work. She recently added an electric-assist motor so she can climb some of the steeper hills easier.

Box Bikes
If you’re in San Carlos and see a mother pedaling two towhead toddlers in a Dutch-style bakfiets, or box bike, it’s probably Tyra. Tyra’s husband was itching to buy this classic cargo bike, but until they moved to London she had no interest. After dragging kids and a stroller on buses and on the underground to get around the city, Tyra decided to give a bakfiets a chance. She loved it so much they shipped it here when they moved back to the US.

Dutch-style box bikes have a distinctive low-riding box in front of the bike rider instead of the rear like the bucket bikes. While there are three-wheeled models available, Tyra chose a classic two-wheeler from because it rides more like a standard bike. She likes having her kids in front where it’s easy to keep an eye on them and to chat. Her also has a rain cover that keeps her kids completely dry and comfortable on wet days. She was the only one who had to brave London’s infamous drizzle.

Replacing a Second Car
Tyra can get almost anywhere within 2-3 miles of her home in downtown San Carlos as easily on the bakfiets as in a car. That means she and her husband are able to share a single family car. Ditto for Cherie and Kristi. Having a family bike saves them the expense of buying and maintaining two cars. It also means they have more space in their garages for more bikes. As Kristi explained, family bikes can become an obsession.

Talk to Other Parents
These three bikes are just a taste of the many family bike options available. You’ll find long-tail bikes at several local shops, and A Street Bike Named Desire in Palo Alto sells European box bikes. But the best way to find one that works for you is to talk to parents, both in person and online, about their experiences. One great opportunity is Kidical Mass, a ride for kids and families on Saturday, October 19 that rolls from Eagle Park in Mountain View at 10am. There will be a wide variety of bikes on hand, and you can get straight advice from parents who use them day in and day out.

Kidical Mass Ride:
Family Bike Photos by Bike Fun:


Categories: Gear Talk | Leave a comment

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: