Bicycle Time

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

THE FOG BANKED far below my eldest daughter and me. Through openings in the forest canopy, we looked out upon pillowy white clouds punctured by glassy skyscrapers and Cascade volcanoes, all reflecting the sun’s brilliant morning light. My daughter declared the scene an ocean, which meant that we were sailors riding the swells.

Our vessel was sturdy, made of steel, painted a mint ice cream green. The cabin, where she rode, was shaped like a box. I sat behind and steered. Our “ship” was inspired by a Dutch vessel, called the Bakfiets, but it was made by a local guy named Joe. My daughter had christened it Green Grass. It had wheels. We were biking to school.

While Portland, Oregon, has its own Cargo Bike Gang (a dedicated group of parents who commute by bicycle with their kids) parents riding with children are still in the minority. Which is why whenever my husband or I head out with our children we get lots of looks, but many more smiles.

We own two kid-carrying bikes, built uniquely for their purpose; both are about half again the length of a regular bicycle. On Green Grass, the precious cargo rides up front in an iron-framed canvas bucket that stretches three feet between the handle bars and the front wheel. On Blue Bird, the kids sit behind whoever’s peddling, on a long tail that extends over the rear wheel. Our bicycles look like bicycles, but also something more.

Together Blue Bird and Green Grass cost more than the Honda we sold, but without gas and insurance bills they’re one of the best investments we’ve ever made. Money aside, the bikes also pay dividends in an emotional and experiential fulfillment that I’m sure we’ll miss when our daughters are teenagers.

One summer evening as we cruised along the waterfront, our five-year-old commented on the hundred tiny puffs of white clouds against a wash of purple-blue sky. It looks like “a Jackson Pollock painting,” she said. If we’d been in the car, we would have missed that. If we’d been driving, we wouldn’t have had the opportunities to be slowed down by traffic: the Cooper’s hawk that flew past us like he was running a red light or the fuzzy wooly bear caterpillar undulating black and burnt umber across a crosswalk visible only to arthropods. On the bike, it’s easier to be friendly. “Hello, crow,” said my two-year-old just this morning, to the scruffy bird pecking at the detritus washed up along the curb. All I had to do was pedal.

Though we could get to school in about five minutes if we drove, my older daughter says the bicycle is faster. And it’s true that the roads are more often than not clogged during the rush hours—Portland has the ninth worst traffic in the nation—but that’s not what she means. People say they drive cars for the convenience, but from where we sit on the bike they seem trapped. Outside of the car time belongs to us.

 

Tara Rae Miner is a former Orion editor, who now freelances in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of Your Green Abode: A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Home.

Comments

  1. I would NEVER take my family on city streets in this “age” of texting. It is much too dangerous no matter HOW CAREFUL you are! You need to rethink your lifestyle unless you’re willing to lose a child or spouse….
    Wait until cars are smart enough to quit hitting bicyclists on their own…. Their drivers can’t be trusted.

  2. Might as well not walk or drive then, Stephen. You’re statistically safest on a city bus. Please reconsider driving with your children. Bus only. Better yet, keep them at home. But not near the street. Maybe in a bubble-wrap jumpsuit.

  3. Mr Anderson, please refrain from fear mongering and anecdotal beliefs about something you apparently have NO experience enjoying. If you don’t feel safe biking in your own community, DO something about it, rather than sully such a well-written article. The data shows more children are injured in auto collisions than bicycles being hit by cars.

  4. Agreed, biking for transportation is an absolute delight. On a bike, I can enjoy the cascading scents of flowers as I pass from one one block to the next, the shoosh of leaves in a light breeze and the gleeful sound of kids playing, the shifting colors in the clouds as sunset approaches, or a glimpse of a heron lifting off as I pass by. I get to feel the wind in my face on a downhill and a light strain in my muscles on a slow uphill.

    Thankfully, I live where I can take back streets to just about everywhere that I want to go. There, the occasional car moves more slowly and the driver, who’s almost home, is more considerate than when out in the hubbub of a thoroughfare. I can mix it up with traffic when I need to, but there’s no pleasure in it; I have to pay too much attention to what’s going on immediately around me.

    I owned cars for many years and had even bought the car of my dreams a few years before I decided to try going carfree. The transition to getting around only by bike and by public transportation was gradual. I spent a year experimenting with riding for groceries and other errands and to visit friends. After that year, I’d driven so little that the car was costing me a couple of dollars a mile, and I decided that I’d rather have the money from selling the car than the convenience (and expense) of having it sit (and depreciate) in my driveway. After nearly seven years, I have no expectation that I’ll ever own a car again.

  5. Stephen, You’re right. Drivers of cars can be very unsafe. I have found as a biker that the most dangerous thing while biking are the people operating 3000 lb machines near me while being very unsafe.

    Tara, how lovely you’ve been able to show your family a way to help your bodies be healthy while spending more time outside AND reducing fossil fuel emissions.

  6. Time spent bike commuting is a highlight of my days now since starting the gradual shift 9 years ago next month. Cargo bikes make so much more carfree days possible. My longtail has double the miles on it compared to any other bike in my fleet. It’s an awesome way to spend time with my son, now 12 (and often on his own bike now). We can be part of a positive new way of living, actively empowered and engaged each day, by bike. Peace and bike smiles to all here

  7. We are a car-free family in Seattle. Our daughter is 6 1/2, and we don’t own a car, and haven’t even rented one in nearly 2 years. While I don’t always feel safe on our bikes on Seattle’s streets, I feel safer than in a car. We have ridden with all sorts of setups for hauling our daughter, and sometimes her friends, too. She has recently transitioned to strong, independent riding. She has ridden in downtown Portland, and many places in Seattle. She is stronger and stronger all the time, climbing giant hills, and constantly increasing her range. It’s a beautiful thing to see. She has a strong connection to her environment, since she gets to interact with her surroundings in such a vibrant way. In a car, there wouldn’t be that connection. Metal and glass boxes on wheels create disconnection.

  8. It’s a too bad that the first comment was from someone who feels the need to shame other parents for their choices, especially when the statistics and research contradict their status-quo enforcing point of view.

    Lovely article! I hope it gets more parents out on their bikes with their children.

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