I’ve seen the future and it’s bikes.
I’m not thinking lycra-clad pelotons, though I’m sure there’s that in the future too. I’m talking about bikes as a big part of how we get around in an emissions-free future. Standard bikes are an excellent mode of transport, but when you throw electric bikes and cargo bikes into the mix an exciting future of bicycle-dominated cities comes into focus.
I’m keen to share the experiences of a few people in my own community who have pedalled ahead towards this future: parents of young kids using cargo-bikes to move their whole family and a car-free family with teenagers. My focus is on families because I think there are some barriers to bike-life that are specific to having children to transport. On the flip side, families also generally make many short trips close to home: trips that are very bikable with the right set up.
This little time-travelling insight into what the bike future would look like is somewhat marred by the poor current state of bike infrastructure: the pioneers of bike-life, be they students, people who can’t afford a car, bike freaks or emissions-conscious families, are riding in a car’s world. Even so, bike-life is looking good.
Elvira, mum of kids aged 2 and 6, non-electric cargo bike rider
Elvira moves her two young kids by pedal power. She bikes to school and to childcare and sometimes to the pool, to the park, to get shopping and to visit friends. Basically for all the daily and weekly trips that are under 5 kms. She has a long framed cargo bike which allows both kids to sit comfortably behind her (the youngest in a secure kid’s seat with harness).
I find it impressive that Elvira does all this with a bike that’s not electrified. Carrying two children on your bike (even young ones) can be pretty heavy going! She explains that she’s been a bike rider for a long time – in fact she didn’t own a car until her mid 30s. Getting around by bike was just how she did things. After a short period of getting used to balancing a much heavier bike, she’s found the cargo bike is a smooth and manageable ride in most situations thanks largely to good gearing. Regular maintenance is also key.
The cargo bike has become an integral part of her family’s life and it has replaced the car for many trips. Elvira is able to drop kids and then commute to work (either on the cargo bike or after switching to her regular bike). Her partner also commutes by bike.
Elvira describes moving her kids by cargo bike as a joyful experience:
“I feel amazing riding a cargo bike with 2 kids. It’s a way of getting around that does not pollute the air we breathe, cause climate change or add to congestion in the city. I also just feel physically strong and capable. Riding a bike means arriving happy rather than stressed, always having a park outside the destination, and taking a prettier route”
Elvira also points out that drivers become more bike aware the more everyone rides, and new norms are created. She is glad to be part of that change herself.
“I am being the change I want to see in the world when I am on my bike. The kids are growing up knowing that the car is not the default urban transport option.”
Ruby: mum of kids aged 6, 4 and 9 months, electric box-bike rider
Ruby bought her electric box-bike when her second child was still a baby, about 4 years ago. She was keen to get back to the bike lifestyle she’d enjoyed before having children. Ruby saw many benefits for the family, like her children being out in the world more, observing and talking about what they were passing on their trips.
A box bike is a type of cargo bike with a ‘box’ compartment for cargo or passengers positioned in front of the rider. Some are tricycles but Ruby’s is a two-wheeler.
Ruby has used her bike for all the regular drop offs (e.g. the 2 km trip to school), shopping trips and her work-commute (with kids in tow). She has also used it for quite adventurous excursions across town (more than 30 kms return). For her daily trips like school drop offs it’s actually far more convenient than a car as she can ride right up to her destination – no jostling for parks or hauling younger kids out to drop off the older one.
When she bought the bike she knew the electric assist would help her maximise use. It’s so convenient and easy that sometimes she’ll opt to use in place for her regular bike when the kids aren’t with her. She was even confident and happy using the bike to ferry her two older children around when she was 9 months pregnant with her third child (with the approval of her antenatal support midwives).
Having a new-born third child kept Ruby off the bike for a few months but she’s now back to using it, with all three kids snuggly nestled into the box. For her baby she uses an infant car seat safely secured to the box in a rear-facing position just as you would have in a car. An infant helmet is somewhat redundant when using a fixed infant seat in this way but is required under Australian law: it’s a bit awkward because of the helmet pushing the baby’s head forward but can be made more comfortable with added back and neck support.
One of Ruby’s favourite things about using the box-bike with her kids is being able to chat as they ride along. There is always much to chat about too: they are out in the community, feeling the weather and more engaged and attuned to their surroundings than car-travel would allow.
Ruby also absolutely loves that when she’s using the bike she’s not contributing to emissions.
“Each trip I make I congratulate myself about that trip not contributing to climate change and it makes me feel good.”
What’s more she has noticed that other people get inspired by seeing her on the bike. They see what is possible and they might think ‘I could do that’ and gain confidence about making changes in their own lives. Ruby believes that the shift towards bike-life being the norm for families will be a snowball effect: the more people do it the more other people will want to do it.
Victoria: mum of kids aged 10 and 5, electric cargo bike rider
Victoria was living more than five kilometres from her daughters school when she first bought her electric cargo bike. At the time her children were 7 and 2 years old and whilst the 7 year old could manage to ride the distance to school it was a big ask to expect her to have energy to ride all the way home again at the end of the day. Furthermore Victoria would have had to pedal her two year old son there and back on the back of her normal push bike. So they’d been fairly car-reliant, and Victoria hated that – both the experience and the expense.
The initial outlay was off-putting but it’s clear from speaking with Victoria that she feels her decision to buy an electric cargo bike has been thoroughly validated by the enjoyment and convenience it’s brought her.
“I much prefer to be in the world as I do things…. [on the bike] the kids are more engaged with the journey. We’re all together and we notice more things and talk about what we see.”
Victoria also feels much better for the reduced emissions her family now has.
Victoria’s bike is used for shopping, errands and school drop offs among other things. Even after dropping her kids off the electric assist makes it a quick and convenient way to travel on to work or study commitments of her own. When it’s raining she doesn’t overheat in her rain gear as the motor can do most of the work; when it’s hot likewise (and Victoria can stay quite cool with the breeze created by the bike’s movement).
These days Victoria lives much closer to her children’s school and uses it less for drop offs (they walk) and more for longer trips to other suburbs. She’s now close to the Merri Creek bike path which offers a scenic route into town, and notes that if she didn’t have the electric assist she might opt for a more direct route, but loves that she can add a few kms for the scenic route and it’s really no extra effort and every little extra time.
Amy: car-free life with teens
Amy, her partner and two teenagers have been living as a car-free household for almost 6 years. The decision to go car-free was precipitated by on-going car trouble. They sat down and worked out what the car was actually costing them and thought it just wasn’t worth it: even taking a taxi or hiring a car regularly would be a saving. They also saw the environmental benefit of driving less. Nevertheless it was such an unknown, managing without a car with kids aged 9 and 11 at the time, that they envisaged it would be an experiment that might last a year or two.
An integral purchase that enabled the transition to all family members getting around by bike was an electric bike for Amy. Whilst Amy’s partner was already used to being a bike commuter and the kids were competent at pedalling themselves (and mostly only had to move short distances), Amy wasn’t much of a rider and isn’t a fan of physical exertion. The e-bike proved both practical and enjoyable as a way of getting around, including a commute to work of approximately 7 km.
The car-free experiment was such a success that there are now no plans for the family to own a car again. Good for the family finances and for reducing their emissions. It has had other benefits too. For Amy, it’s getting out into the world that she enjoys.
“I just feel happy on the bike. I like experiencing the weather before work.”
Another benefit has been the kids developing confidence and independence about getting themselves around. Now that they are 15 and 17 they don’t need a parent cycling along with them but earlier on they got to learn the best routes and build skills for negotiating traffic with parental guidance. They have also become fitter and stronger riders than they would otherwise be.
There have been challenges though. Even when children can walk or ride to school, most parents with kids in upper primary school or secondary school will be familiar with the expectation of ferrying kids around to sports and other activities.
The family partially managed this by keeping involvement fairly local, and also drawing on the collective community resources (e.g. getting to soccer games with other kids on the team who live close, or borrowing neighbours’ cars). One activity they found particularly tricky was squad swimming in early high school. The pool was about 8 kms from home and the kids were often too tired to ride back after swimming. In winter the early morning swims meant getting up and riding in the dark. In the end they found borrowing a car on those days was a more practical solution.
I’m curious if there was also resistance to bike-life from the kids, of the ‘do I really need to ride? I’m too tired!’ kind. Amy pointed out that her kids were as prone to having a whinge as any, but simply not having a car sitting there available to use spontaneously has been the best antidote to any resistance to getting around by bike. This goes for the adults in the family as well as the kids!
Amy believes that many more people would be motivated to go car free if they simply realised how expensive owning a car is. So much of the expense seems to go unnoticed as it’s taken for granted that a family ‘needs’ a car.
What’s holding us back?
I asked the bike-life pioneers I spoke to about what is needed for us to transition to a future where bike life is the norm and not the exception, as the climate emergency demands. All were clear that we need improved bike infrastructure and other measures to ensure greater safety for cyclists.
They volunteered examples of infrastructure improvements that were needed. These included:
- dedicated separate bike lanes (where bikes and cars are separated)
- better connectivity of bike routes (no lanes that just end suddenly)
- integration of cycling and public transport (e.g. bike routes to stations, better bike security if leaving your bike at the train station, or bike bays on the train to take it with you).
All the people I spoke to for this story live in the north of Melbourne (Preston and surrounds) where connectivity to services is relatively good, yet it’s very apparent to riders that bike infrastructure needs vast improvement.
Elvira suggests legal changes such as reduced speed limits for cars and presumption of fault against car drivers in case of collisions could also improve safety for cyclists.
Ruby mentioned the need for some driver attitudes to cyclists to change. Victoria feels it would also be helpful to have widely available bicycle education for potential riders so they can feel confident on a bike.
The bike future we need could arrive much sooner under state and local governments with an ambitious bike infrastructure plan. The early adopters of bike-life are an important part of the transition, as they demonstrate that families can often get around without a one-tonne metal capsule around them. In fact, they find it enjoyable to do so!