Upon meeting me, away from my bike, your first thought would not be, “Oh, she’s so clearly a cyclist.” I am an overweight, 42-year-old mama of three boys: twins, aged nine; and a nearly-six-year-old. I own no Lycra cycling jerseys nor even padded shorts. While I understand the concept of replacing a punctured bike tube, I, in fact, never have. As a kid I biked around the various suburban neighborhoods where my family lived. As an adult, however, throughout my twenties and thirties, I never rode a bike– with one exception, and that was during my Peace Corps service in the Philippines. Even then, I didn’t have a bicycle at my site but only hopped on two wheels when visiting my now-husband, a fellow volunteer. Peter had purchased a bike to get around his coastal Luzon town and would borrow another from his host-brother whenever I could make the eight-hour trek to his site. But the truth is that I had not ridden a bike, not once, for ten years when I became a family bike commuter.
It was really about avoiding the purchase of a second car for our family of five. We had lived car-free or with one car throughout our marriage and arrival of sons. When we moved to New Haven in 2007, we looked for a rental apartment that would allow us to remain a one-car family. After a year in New Haven of full-time, at-home parenting, I was offered a position at a school about two miles away from our apartment. My older sons, then six, would join me there as students. Two miles was too long for two sets of six-year-old legs to walk to and from school daily, but it seemed, well, silly to drive just two miles every day, hogging the one car we owned for four measly miles to-and-from work. With no public transportation options available, I began telling friends, with a joking edge, that I was going to buy a rickshaw, a pedicab to get the three of us to school. I actually did begin researching pedicabs on the web, seeing only commercial options, and knowing we could never quite pull this off.
In October of 2008, I spent a weekend away with a friend from Maine. Andrea, a committed environmentalist (think twins, cloth diapers, Maine winters, and no clothes dryer), heard my story of the two-mile commute and my aim to remain a one-car family, and replied, “You should buy a bakfiets.” As I had never heard of such a thing, she explained that it was a type of Dutch bike seen around Portland, Oregon, that had a wheelbarrow-esque front with a bench seat for kids. I remember asking her to write out the name of such a contraption, which she did on a scrap of paper that I then slipped into my jeans. When I returned home, I typed ‘bakfiets’ into a Google search and seeing the initial photo, my first exposure to this thing called ‘a cargo bike,’ I suddenly became a woman possessed. I reached out to anyone on the web I could find that sold or owned a bakfiets (pronounced BAHK-feets and meaning ‘box bike’ in Dutch), and I became convinced that this was just what my family needed.
It took four months of research and discussion about investing in such a bike before ours arrived on a cold February afternoon. We had no idea that we had just found our new passion. Initially, we started with the school commute. Then we discovered we could load the bike with the boys and their instruments and head down to the Neighborhood Music School for their Saturday morning lessons. Suddenly, we realized that the majority of our errands could be done by bike and the more we rode, the more we found we were able to do by bike. When the kids’ schedules took us in opposite directions, Peter and I began to jockey over who got to ride the bakfiets and who was stuck driving the car. Investing in a second cargo bike, this time a longtail one, an Xtracycle Radish, allowed us both to take bikes and leave the car parked at home.
We still own a car. We drive it when necessary. But whenever we have the option, we take our cargo bikes. We’ve loved the greater connections we’ve developed in our community, heading out on two wheels, noticing more, interacting with different people, easily pulling over to experience something or someone we would have missed while driving. We’ve loved saving gas money, making a small dent in our carbon footprint, and the quick exercise we get just getting to places we need to go. We love the easy and free parking and we love showing our sons that there are alternate ways beyond driving to get around town. And while all these reasons are why we ride, the truth — neither noble nor self-sacrificing — is that the primary reason we are family bike commuters is that it is just plain fun.