I was pretty oblivious to the world of family biking until I began hosting the Errandonnee and a few of the participants were family bikers. The types of errands and transportation cycling done by family bikers fascinated me. It was exciting to see that people could be parents without using a car as the primary mode of transportation.
This week we’re talking with Gillian, Arlington resident and founder of Kidical Mass Arlington. She has not only mastered family biking, but has also spent the last nine months cycling while pregnant. Thank you so much, Gillian, for being part of the Women BikeDC series (one week before your due date )!
Why bike with kids?
I bike as a primary form a transportation. Since I have kids, that has to include kids. But really, I’ve kept at it even with kids because it allows me a sense of freedom and fun.
I get to interact with my community and with my kids in the community — talking to neighbors, pointing things out, stopping when we see something cool.
Plus, I don’t have to deal with parking a car or toddlers in parking lots (which I find terrifying). It gives me a sense of power: I got here with my own two legs, sometimes with a little help from e-assist, but still. Related to that, it keeps me healthy.
I can’t always fit regular workouts into a busy life, especially when that means taking precious time away from my kids. But by biking as transportation, I get to be active whenever I travel, which keeps me healthy. This pregnancy has been a real reflection of the benefits of staying active.
Tell me a little about when you started riding.
I started riding as a kid. One of our favorite weekend activities was when my Dad would bike with me (on my own bike) and my little brother (in a bike seat) to Burger King for breakfast Sunday mornings before church.
We lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, and looking back, the infrastructure was horrible. We mostly took sidewalks and were very careful crossing streets, even on quiet Sunday mornings. But my Dad worked a lot so these adventures with him were really special.
Fast forward to when I was working and living in D.C. after college. I quickly realized that the best way to get around was by bike. I biked everywhere long before it was cool to show up with a helmet. It felt like me and the bike messengers on the streets. But it was by far the easiest way to get around, especially from my office near the Vietnam Memorial.
After living in Manhattan for a few years, my now-husband and I chose to move somewhere we could live a more outdoorsy lifestyle, while not relying a car most days. The D.C. area, and specifically Arlington fit the bill, and we quickly adapted to a life where we mostly used bikes to get around.
How has riding a bicycle influenced your life?
It’s definitely made me healthier and happier. I arrive at work more awake than I would be in a car or with Metro. This pregnancy I have so much more energy and I just feel so much better than I did with my first two. I get to interact with my kids more and talk about our community more on the bike than I would in a car. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of other cool families who bike, and talk to even more who are interested in trying it.
Biking around has also led me to notice ways in which biking could be better in Arlington and in the region. So I’ve gotten into bike advocacy. I started Kidical Mass Arlington to have family bike rides in Arlington, which helps families who bike meet each other, find routes, and generally have fun.
I now chair Arlington’s Bicycle Advisory Committee. There’s a time commitment to all of that, but I’ve also learned so much about local government, urban design and how all the moving parts that make up the transportation system work together. I find it really interesting.
What sorts of activities do you do by bike?
Everything. It’s how I get around, unless it’s just not possible to bike there. So I bike to work, bike to the store, bike to restaurants, bike to the park.
For example, this morning, I biked to a doctor’s appointment with my son, then biked him to preschool. I biked to Fort Myer to run an errand, then on to work.
When I’m not pregnant, I also do triathlons, so I bike to train. That seems like another life at the moment, though.
What features make a city bike-friendly and why?
A bike-friendly city is one in which all types of people – young and old, men and women – are actually biking. By the numbers, biking is actually fairly safe right now. But people don’t feel that it’s safe enough.
Until it’s safe enough for the most vulnerable — the youngest and oldest — then it’s not safe enough. So protected bike facilities, like trails and protected bike lanes on arterial and secondary streets, are a must.
Bike routes using neighborhood streets that are clearly marked (both to tell drivers to expect bikes, and to show bikes how to follow the route) are great. Overall, there has to be a complete network that connects everywhere people want to go using safe, marked bike routes. And of course, bike parking, including room for cargo bikes, at destinations.
What’s good about riding in the D.C. area?
There’s a pretty good network of comfortable bike infrastructure, especially in D.C. and Arlington. It’s not perfect — for example, finding good routes can be tough, and on-street signage for getting around is lacking. But it’s getting there.
There are more and more people out and about on bikes, and more families out on bikes. It’s fun to be part of a growing movement!
How could our area improve for cyclists?
WABA, the region’s planners and area bike shops could pay more attention to family biking. If you make cycling safe enough and possible for families, you make it safe enough for everyone. We are the common denominator.
We need to advocate for safer routes to schools, hospitals, parks, grocery stores — all of the destinations that make up a typical family’s life.
We need to build facilities that are safe enough for kids to bike on, and wide and gentle enough to accommodate family cargo bikes with long wheelbases and more heft. We need access to shops that sell and service those cargo bikes and ebikes. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.
What do you think prevents more women from riding a bike?
There’s a big perception problem, both in terms of safety and in terms of difficulty. Cycling is not, in fact, unsafe, but many people, especially women, feel it is. It’s also not that hard, especially when you introduce e-bikes into the mix, but people don’t realize the options for slower speeds, flatter routes, and better bikes.
I’ve biked through this entire pregnancy on an e-assist midtail bike, often riding with my kids. People are amazed that I can do it, but with the e-assist, biking is no more strenuous than walking. In fact, now that my belly is huge, biking is easier than walking because I’m not vertical. It’s flattering that people call me Superwoman, but the reality is that they’re wrong. I’m healthy, but no more so than the average pregnant chick.
Do you have suggestions for employers who want to be bike-friendly?
Parking is the threshold issue– safe, covered parking is the gold standard. Providing employees a place to store things– clothes, and other things they need to transition from bike to work– and change and shower, ideally near the bike parking, and before they get to their desks would be best.
And of course, offering the bike commuting benefit, with a flexible policy that lets people easily change to the public transportation benefit when they don’t bike.
How does it feel to be a woman who rides in an area where women are less than 26% of the riding population?
Back in the early 2000s, I often felt like I was the only woman on a bike, but I also felt like I was one of 3 people on bikes (aside from the bike messengers). Now, it seems like there are other women other there, even if it’s not as many as it should be.
The bigger issue I have is being the only bike or one of few non-cars at school drop off.
What are the issues you deal with as a woman cyclist, or is it something you think about?
Aside from biking while pregnant, this isn’t something I think about. Of course, since I’ve spent the last 40 weeks biking while pregnant… Seriously, though, I don’t think about this.
What are some of the unique issues you manage when family biking?
Since the bike is our normal means of transportation, taking the car is special to the kids, and what they whine for when they’re in a mood. They also see things like parks when we’re out on the bike and want to stop.
We have one box bike, which is amazing, because it has a rain cover that basically weather-proofs the kids, and can carry basically anything we’d want to bring. Our other kid-carrying bike is a midtail, which is great, but we do have to think about how to carry what we want to take, and dressing the kids appropriately for the weather, which they’re not always in the mood for.
But really, these issues are issues all parents have (how to manage kids’ schedules and moods and generally deal with weather and stuff) and all cyclists have (how to manage stuff and weather and the desire to just do what you want to instead of what you have to).
There are places where turning the cargo bikes gets dicey, because the infrastructure was not built with big bikes in mind. And parking — on the one hand, it’s easier because we can frame lock the bike even when there’s no rack. But on the other hand, these cargo bikes take up space!
Tell me about your bikes. What do you like about them?
“My” bikes are:
•Yuba elBoda: this has been my trusty steed for the last 9 months. It’s an e-assist midtail bike, with step through frame. We added a seat pad on top of the rack, and some ape-hanger bars coming off the seat post to give our kids a place to sit and something to hold on to (last year, the Hooptie wasn’t available for a midtail). It’s great for having a second option for transporting kids, and for getting around town with a little help.
•Raleigh R500: my commuter bike when I’m not pregnant. It fits me perfectly and carries my around longer distances zippy fast.
•Felt ZW35: my fast bike. It’s so zippy and light and fast. It’s seen me through a number of triathlons.
“Our” bikes are:
•bakfiets.nl: An e-assist box bikes, imported from the Netherlands, this is the most amazing, no excuses, do everything, minivan of bikes. We can toss the kids in and not worry about how they fit or even how they’re dressed — if the weather is an issue, we just throw on the rain cover or sun-umbrella. We can carry just about anything — we’ve loaded up at Costco and gathering food for AFAC, even with the kids in the box. Since it’s e-assist, it’s no excuses. It’s really an awesome bike.
•Biria Citibike: The first bike we bought for biking with kids. It’s not e-assist, but it’s step through, has a great rack, fenders and chain guard. And it was cheap. It’s perfect for pairing with the BoBike Mini font bike seat, or the WeeHoo recumbant trailer, and for short rides around town.
Which bike accessories do you consider must-haves and why?
•Rain cape – so great for dealing with rain (modest amounts alone or a deluge when paired with rain pants). Easy to toss in a pannier and always have with you.
•Rack & panniers – For carrying stuff. I leave one pannier with my other must haves (water bottle, rain cape, lighted reflective vest, lock) on my bike. It also has some space if I end up running by the store without a 2nd bag…
•Lighted reflective vest – I grabbed one off Woot for $15. Great for riding at night and getting attention.
•Lock, MetroCard and a plan – Some of my bikes are not fix-a-flat-friendly, so instead of carrying a flat repair kit, I just have a plan for how I’ll get around if something goes wrong. With my elBoda, that means jumping on a bus with my bike to continue my trip and getting my bike home or to a shop to fix it.
On my road bikes, I carry a flat repair kit, but just as often throw them on a bus if there’s a problem, because it’s just nicer to fix it at home.
On the bakfiets, I’ll either patch the flat on the side of the road, or lock the bike and leave it, and continue with the kids some other way (bus, taxi, etc) and pick it up later (luckily, this hasn’t ever happened – it’s just the plan). We have a minivan that can fit even the bakfiets, so if we need to pick it up later, that’s an option.
For biking with kids:
•SNACKS – because kids get hangry too.
•Something for them to do – especially for trips longer than 15 minutes, giving them something to color or play with is key. I’ve even given them the camera and let them go crazy.
For carrying kids:
•I LOVE a front bike seat for the young set. It’s like a 12mph hug! We have a BoBike Mini, with adapters on a couple different bikes so we can easily swap it.
•We have a Weehoo for longer rides. It’s a recumbent trail-a-bike with five point harness so it works with younger and older kids than most trail-a-bikes.
•Box bike with rain cover: yes, it’s an investment, but it makes life so much easier.
What’s one of the best adventures you’ve ever had on a bike?
Isn’t every trip an adventure? My favorite ride was at my wedding — my husband and I rode a tandem from the ceremony to the reception. It was only about 2 miles through leafy neighborhood streets in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It was beautiful and gave us a little time together on a very busy day. Plus it was fun to say hi to everyone out mowing lawns and playing on the gorgeous August day.
What is a word or phrase that summarizes your bicycling experience?
Well said. Thank you again, Gillian, for sharing your perspectives and for all of the excellent gear suggestions. I’m so glad you were able to be part of the Women BikeDC interviews.