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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The biking parent: Interview with Jon Winston

Image of bicyclist and advocate Jon Winston, host of Bikescape podcastOne of the most common inquiries I get from visitors to my Bike Commuting Tips site is from parents, who wonder how to combine bike travel and kids. Not having any children of my own, I was at a loss to respond. So I contacted my friend Jon Winston, a San Francisco bicyclist, activist, and parent. Among his other accomplishments, Jon is the host of the outstanding Bikescape podcast.

Bike Commute Tips: Tell me a bit about your family. How many kids, ages, bicycling experience.

Jon Winston: Karen and I have been together for 17 years and married for 11. My oldest son, Cassady (from an earlier marriage) lived with us from age 12. He's now 26. Recently we added two new kids, Theo, age eight and Lillian, age five.

Lillian and Theo both began riding at nine months, the age when a baby can hold up her head with a helmet on. We started them on a Rhode Gear Copilot Bike Limo, a seat that snaps onto a Blackburn rear rack. The contraption worked well although it could have accommodated the rear overhang of the kiddie helmet better. No complaints from the kids though. A better set-up would have been the European style seat that rests on the top tube just in front of the adult. These are nice because the child can see where he's going and conversations are easier. I suppose one adult could carry two small kids at once with both contraptions but I've never tried it.

When the kids reached 40 pounds and could no longer sit behind me, they graduated to a double-wide Burley Delite Trailer. The trailer was very functional. It allows for two kids plus several bags of groceries. The Burley has nice dished wheels and kept their cargo out of the rain. On the other hand the disadvantages of the trailer were many. It was very hard to ride into a headwind and worst of all, it robs cyclists from the biggest advantage of biking: the ability to split lanes. During the trailer era we were uber vehicularists!

We were finally able to put the trailer behind us when we got a pair of Burley Piccolos, which are third wheel "trailer bikes". I like the Piccolo because it attaches directly onto the proprietary rack, rather than onto the seat post. This makes for a nice stable ride with no wobble. After a few years on with the trailer, these machines were a real pleasure. It was as if we had regained a large measure of our freedom. It was suddenly easy to take the family on the subway and we could ride like normal cyclists, immune, once again to gridlock! Another advantage to the Piccolo is that the kids learn innately to ride a bike and get to bypass the training wheel stage. After just a few rides kids learn that leaning is what makes the bike turn, not the handle bars. When Theo first began to ride a real bike, all he needed from me was a push and he was riding on his own!

I am now considering getting a Trail Gator, a telescoping tube that connects the kid's head tube to the adult's seat post. lifting the front wheel of the small bike from the ground. Then, when you arrive at the park, you can set the child free.

Bike Commute Tips: You are a dedicated non-motoring bicycling enthusiast and advocate (an understatement). Tell me something about how you came to this commitment? How have you been able to maintain this dedication to a bicycling-centered lifestyle while raising a family.

Winston: Originally, I came to every day cycling for transportation because of politics. Back in 1990, I found myself driving home from a Gulf War demonstration after having spent the last few hour shouting "No blood for oil!" That's what it took for me to see the one big contradiction in my life.

After a few weeks of riding, I became addicted to the unexpected freedom from parking, gas bills and learned to love the adventure of getting to work each day.

Nowadays cycling is never really a difficult to keep commitment for me. I like to say I do it for health or for the environment, but really it's because I find it easier than driving. Living in the city, I am never very far from my destination and I'm spared the hassles of loading kids into car seats, looking for parking, all of the problems that led me to bike in the first place. We've always kept open the possibility of buying or sharing a car but as our lives became more complicated, we found that we could still keep our transportation simple.

Of course, we also make good use of transit.

Bike Commute Tips: What are some of the challenges that you've had? How have you dealt with some of these challenges? Has anything surprised you, perhaps something you thought would be difficult that turned out to be easier than you anticipated?

Winston: The first year of cycling was similar to my first year of driving. It took about that long to be at ease in traffic. The late 1980s and early 1990s were not an easy time for cyclists. There were no bike lanes and the ugly surprise was the way I was treated in those days by drivers. "Get off the road!" was commonly yelled from speeding cars as they brushed within inches. It wasn't until I learned to take my place on the roadway as part of traffic that things began to become easy.

The biggest surprise was the day I volunteered for one of the early Bike to Work Days. It was then, and a bit later at one of the first Critical Mass rides that I discovered there is a bicycle community and I wasn't really the estranged radical I thought I was.

Bike Commute Tips: I've heard you say on your Bikescape podcast that you don't like training wheels, but prefer to use an Alley Cat to train children to bicycle. Tell me more about your experience teaching your kids how to bicycle.

Winston: (See above.) Training wheels are only good for teaching kids how to pedal and brake. Unfortunately they also teach them the wrong way to turn and they delay kids from really learning how to be on two wheels. Kids become dependent on them and fear having them removed. The real trick is to make cycling a part of your kids lives from an early age, and introduce them to bike culture the same way our parents eased us into the world of automobiles.

Bike Commute Tips: How has your bicycling-centered lifestyle affected your kids? (More independence, better fitness, better problem-solving skills, better balance/coordination, better understanding of community and neighborhood, etc.) How are they viewed by their peers? Does bicycling contribute to social and education success? Has your example inspired other parents?

Winston: Of course biking has helped my kids in all of the ways you enumerate. They love to show off to their friends when they get picked up by bike at school. They surprisingly have no urge to be like the other kids. In fact, since they have grown up unaccustomed to driving they have a real problem with car sickness!

Has our experience inspired other parents? Yes and no. Our cyclist friends and acquaintances, when they have kids follow our lead. Sadly, all of the obstacles that get in the way of converting our non-riding friends are compounded when it concerns their kids. The perceived danger and the fear of physical activity are the two biggest obstacles. They don't want to hear that we are not athletes and that cycling is statistically safer than driving. I'm really not sure how to deal with this issue although I think the answer might lie in the schools.

Bike Commute Tips: Have San Francisco's bicycling improvements made it easier to be a non-driving parent? How? What further improvements would you suggest? For parents outside SF, what do you think are the priorities? What's your best advice for a parent considering bike commuting?

Winston: Certainly, the infrastructure improvements of the last decade have helped a lot. Bike lanes and traffic calming are indispensable, if only because they make cycling seem safer. When there is a perception of safety, more people take to the wheel and it's our numbers more than anything else that makes for real safety. I would like to see urban car traffic slowed to bicycle speeds and more car-free space in parks where families can learn to ride together.

Of course we have a long way to go before we get to the level of some Northern European cities where moms ride helmet-less with two kids on board. But as we continue to add to our numbers, that day is on the horizon. I look forward to the day we can send our ten-year-olds off to school by bike as I once did when I was young.

Image: Jon Winston, host of Bikescape. Photo by San Francisco Bike Coalition.
Visit: Bikescape - great podcast hosted by Jon Winston.
Visit:Twelve tips for bicycling with kids, Marion Star
Visit: Auto traders: Families who give up their cars like the savings--and their life in the slow lane, Boston Globe
Visit: Bicycle travel, with children too!, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Dan said...

Great interview. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Saw an interesting alternative to the bike trailer on the Sawyer Camp Trail yesterday (San Mateo County, CA). The sidecar looked pretty cool, though it's obviously wider than a typical bicycle and may affect handling a bit. Both dad and kid seemed to be enjoying it.

As with any addition to your bike that involves kids, I'd recommend getting used to riding w/o the kid loaded first...

Link: Chariot SideCarrier or:

Dave said...

Nice topic, thanks.

My daughter just isn't showing interest in cycling, but I like to ride. She's 7 and about 45 lbs. I'm considering a long bike, one of the Mundo line to just give her a ride to school and me to work. Got any opinions on this option?

Arcanum said...

I have a Mundo V3 but no kiddies to carry around on it.

It's a big, solid, stable bike with massive weight capacity. In terms of weight capacity, it will easily carry you, your girl, a substantial load of groceries, and probably your wife or girlfriend as well; your ability to fit everything on and still pedal with all the weight is a bigger limitation than the bike's 440lbs + rider capacity. Finding a way to put all that on at once would be a challenge.

As the above suggests, the Mundo is a workhorse bike. It's not especially fast or quick to accelerate. Conservatively, a complete Mundo weighs in at 55ish lbs. If you're not looking to Carry Stuff other than your daughter and school/work related stuff, the Mundo is likely overkill. You may be better served with something like an Xtracycle conversion kit for an existing bike; take a close look at the weight capacity and features available.

Finally, while Yuba has improved on this immensely with the Mundo V3, it is still a bit of a do-it-yourself bike. The basic bike they sell is quite functional, but is also relatively bare-bones. They sell a number of handy add-ons (I especially recommend the Stand Alone kickstand), but to a significant degree it's up to you to figure out how to carry stuff and what features to add. The Big Dummy, Radish and Xtracycle stuff is much more pre-packaged, pre-solved.

Personally I love my Mundo. I'm car-free and use it for my shopping. It makes shopping at Sam's Club worthwhile.

Dave said...

Thanks so much for answering on such an old post with such a thorough answer.

I've heard similar comments about the Mundo, and am thinking it might be overkill. I think the Radish might be a better choice. Big problem with them all is finding a test drive in Columbus, OH. Not many dealers.

Thanks again!