When I was pregnant for the first time and sharing the news with friends and family a common refrain emerged: “Congratulations! So, I guess this means you guys will have to get a car?” Matt and I have been riding bikes for a long time. We are bike people. We didn’t want to get a car – for a long list of reasons: health, low environmental impact, low cost, simplicity – and we hoped that we could continue our happy bicycle lifestyle with a child in tow. We lived in an urban setting and planned to do our best to remain car free. We got a bicycle trailer outfitted with an infant sling, later we upsized to a long bike for our growing girl, and later to a trail-a-bike. Then Ro got her own bike and was pedalling around with us wherever we needed to go: groceries, ballet rehearsal, birthday parties, family reunions.
When I was pregnant for the second time and sharing the surprise with friends and family a common refrain emerged: “That’s great news! Well, now you will really need to get a car!” If managing to work outside the home and do all of life’s tasks without a car and with a child seemed unduly difficult (did I mention 5 months of snowy Canadian winter?), doing this with two children appeared to be downright impossible to most, and at the very least borderline extreme. We decided to carry on with our bicycle lifestyle and see how we could get on.
As it turned out we managed just fine. In fact, we realized we much preferred not having a car. When Sen, our second, was around 2 and a half our good friends decided to move to Bali (lucky them!) and so they offered us their car at a very good price. While we hadn’t wished for a car, we figured this was a really generous offer and that maybe having a car would be useful. We knew ourselves well enough that we wouldn’t just start driving everywhere we used to walk or bike simply for the fact that we could drive. Indeed, I didn’t have a driving license and did not plan on getting one. So, essentially the car was there for us to do camping trips, where, in the past, we would have rented a car, and for Matt to offer rides to friends and family on special occasions. We also used it a few times in the city to pick up materials from the home store (lumber, etc) or large grocery trips in the winter months.
The thing is riding in a car just wasn’t fun. It was often faster, sometimes more convenient, but just never felt right. When we drove places we didn’t have the same sorts of experiences, the same conversations, the same interactions with our surroundings, the same connection with nature. The same quality, that is. We were starting to feel disenchanted with the car. It was an ongoing expense from gas, to repairs, to insurance. It seemed to take more than it gave. Whereas our bikes, which we’d been riding for over a decade were a pleasure, they gave back in terms of health and fitness, enjoyment of our time and movement through space, and it bonded us as a family. I can’t say that car rides, perhaps with the exception of road trips, often bond people. Travelling by bike as a family whether for pleasure or purpose always seemed to energize us, whether physically from the exercise or mentally from the time spent in nature, even while on city streets and paths, with the wind hitting our faces, snow flakes landing on our cheeks, puddles splashing us, sun warming our backs, there was something invigorating about this daily family experience with the elements. As it turned out, our car bit the dust soon after our disenchantment began, and so we happily returned to our biking ways (which, full disclosure: involves the occasional use of a car from the car share co-op).
Around this same time, I heard in a podcast (I wish I could remember which one) that researchers had found that the average time spent in conversation between children and their parents (who work outside the home) is 5 minutes a day. 5 MINUTES. I was shocked! It seemed that for a variety of reasons parents mostly just gave instructions to their children (“wake up” “finish your breakfast” “don’t forget your lunch”) and didn’t engage in conversation – there was no time left in the busy days for quality talk. I wondered whether this was true for us, it felt very far from our reality, but at the same time I wondered how close we were to this statistic — sometimes we are not the most objective observers when it comes to self-observation. So, I paid attention to our talk for the next few days. I quickly realized that our time on bikes – commuting to school and work, riding to ballet class, picking up food at the market – provided over an hour a day of quality conversation at a minimum. This seemingly small realization – even after knowing that cycling is great for our health and the health of the planet – solidified my commitment to live a bicycle lifestyle. The health of our family, our connection and bond, was being strengthened as a beautiful side effect of pedalling instead of driving. When it takes you longer to get somewhere and when you can choose a scenic or safe pathway, you are given the time and opportunity to connect more with the world you are passing through and with the people you are travelling with. Simply put, moving at a slower pace makes it easier to notice things as you move through space, it provides opportunity to talk about life, and to make memories together through the mundane.
Before we had children riding bikes was important to us, it felt like a gentle political statement, a commitment to our values: health, environment, adventure and community. We are happy that as parents we were able to stand by these values and raise our children in a way that did not require compromise. Indeed, when we did compromise life just wasn’t as fun or as healthy for any of us.
One evening this past spring Sen decided he wanted to ride a two-wheel bike. We hadn’t pushed this on him at all, in fact, we hadn’t offered him the opportunity to try. We were quite happy towing him along on our family trips around the city. The two-wheel bike we had for him hadn’t been ridden in about 5 years, the tires were deflated and the saddle was loose. Matt wasn’t home and I’m a little hopeless with tools so our kind neighbour pumped up the tires and we took the bike down to the pond at the end of our street so he could pedal on grass. I had bargained for an hour or so of falls and tears, but to my surprise after a few false starts he pedalled off and around the park. Ro and I could not believe our eyes! Since then he’s been keen to ride his bike everyday, including waking up early to ride his bike before school and to try to join Matt for his 6:30 am fitness ride.
A few days later as we all biked over to the grocery store, each on our own bike for the first time ever, Sen said: “Guys, now I’m really part of the family. I can bike all on my own!” Matt, Ro and I looked at him and at each other and felt our hearts swell. We were a family, and our bonds were tight, thanks in no small part to our bicycle lifestyle.
Since Sen is mostly independent biking now (at least for short trips) I finally had the opportunity to get myself a bike that suited just me. For the last decade I’ve pedalled utilitarian bikes that attach to a bike trailer or some other gadget. I’d been eyeing the Dutch-inspired city bikes and found the Brooklyn Bicycle Company. I settled on the Willow 3 model, a three-speed, which is adequate for most city riding. I was excited to see that they offered vegan-friendly saddles and grips, and that the aesthetic was classic. I especially loved the angled top tube so that I could ride it with a dress. On top of this, they offer a monthly payment plan so you don’t have to have all the money up front.
I’ve now had the bike for a month and I love it. It’s so comfortable to ride and it’s stylish too. The only problem is that Ro wants it for herself and with her being almost as tall as me I can see some lively family bonding over who gets to ride it in our future!
My delightful friend Zara took all the photos in this post. Zara is a photographer and cycling fashion writer, she maintains the superb online magazine XOVELO. Please go take a look and find her on Instagram too @xoveloxo.
Please leave a comment or question below if you’d like to know more specifics about my Brooklyn Bike or how to incorporate biking into your life more, I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years so I’ve got lots of tips.
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