Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Back on the Bus

I wrote this back in March--when it was still winter jacket and fleecey headwear weather.

Parenting involves many sacrifices: sleepless nights, mountains of laundry, the invasion of primary colors. But the true measure of my dedication to my son is that I have been willing to get back on the bus, even for—shudder—short trips.

When my husband, a fellow cyclist, and I became parents, we dutifully parked our bikes in favor of slings, strollers, walks and busses. But as soon as Miguel’s neck could handle a helmet and Chicago’s potholes, we returned to our bike-dependent ways.

We expected Miguel to share our enthusiasm for the pedaling lifestyle. Alas, bus, not bike, was one of his first words. Given a choice, he picks four fat tires over two skinny ones every time.

He’s on to something. In many ways, hauling him by bike is no better for his development than sticking him in a car seat. While we exercise, he’s sitting. While we focus on traffic, he’s ignored. By contrast, transit journeys involve walking, talking and a huge, loud, interesting vehicle.

If we want Miguel, now 2 ½, to become self-propelled, we need to let him use his legs. So, we are slowing down and mixing up the modes. We bike to day care, but let him walk a few blocks back. We walk to a friend’s house and incorporate a bus on the return—even if only for two stops. For a trip downtown, we sprint ten blocks to the train, using the bike trailer turned jogger, and meander home at his pace.

Slowing down is not easy. But transportation choices with kids are about more than getting to destinations, they are about helping them become strong and independent. All too soon, Miguel will be pedaling to his own adventures. Until then, I am savoring holding his hand at the bus stop.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Yes, bikes belong, even at 8:30 pm on Kimball with my kid in a trailer

In all fairness, 87% of our biking journey today had a puppies and rainbow quality to it. Smiles and yielding: “No, you first” “No, you!”

Maybe it was the warm break in the rain, the baby leafed trees and Miguel’s cheerful yellow slicker that put a kind step into the traffic dance as I pedaled him in a trailer from day care to a friend’s house and back home--a good seven mile round trip journey.

The ride to Lisa’s was friendly and mostly on side streets because we could zig and zag from day care. The trip home after sunset was tense but manageable--a straight shot down “mid tier” Kimball with car and bus traffic liberated from rush hour.

We were so close to home when the positive vibe was broken: “You are going to get you’re a** run over” yelled a man in a maroon SUV. I eyed the just turned red light two blocks ahead and briefly accelerated, hoping to catch him for a talking to.

On my own, I am an assertive but polite cyclist, but I will chase down drivers when goaded with trash talk or in response to egregious violations of law or civility. (I pick these battles carefully—I make mistakes too.) Alone, I almost always catch someone at a red, unless they freak out and turn.

With Miguel, it’s so different. I am still polite, but the assertiveness is sharpened into a mix of extreme care and confidence. I come close to 360 degree, anticipatory vision, especially with the trailer. I make few mistakes. Maybe I need a big sign that says, “Relax, I know what I am doing.” When drivers spew the anti-bike rhetoric when I am with Miguel, I get angrier than usual. But when I am hauling 45 pounds of kid, trailer and care, I don’t usually have a chance to catch up and continue the conversation, which is probably for the best.

I did not catch tonight’s antagonist. If I had, I might have said:

“Hi! Is there a problem? We’re just trying to get home. Do you think my a** should be in a car instead, taking up more parking spaces, adding to traffic jams and slurping down petroleum? Or do you think my a** belongs on the bus, atrophying while my fingers tap impatiently at each slow, lurching stop? Or maybe you just think my a** should get out of your way, no matter what. Regardless, could you please use better language? My 2 ½ year old son is listening to everything we say.”

Miguel picks up on everything. Earlier in the evening, I had yelled, “Heads up, heads up, heads up” as a driver was getting out of his car without looking back. I try not to ride close to parked cars, but the door zone and travel lane can be a tight squeeze. I don’t like taking chances, or startling drivers, so I do yell in a firm way sometimes. Miguel has heard the heads up refrain before. Today he told me he didn’t like it. Of course he doesn’t. It’s the same tone I use with him when he gets too close to the stove or inexplicably puts a nickel in his mouth.

If I have to be so arch-backed vigilant, scanning, scanning, barking here, scowling there, should I just stop biking with him? I’ve already mixed transit in more than usual to honor Miguel’s need to walk and enjoy big machines. But biking is my main form of transportation! Sometimes it’s a question of either biking or staying home. I don’t want the answer to be get a car or go back to transit dependency. Sure, I understand why people drive and I love transit, too. I just want there to be room in the streets and in people’s hearts for me and my family to pedal quietly along when we need to. What’s so crazy about that?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

bike seat or trailer? Yes!

Like many parents who eagerly wait for the day their baby’s neck can handle both a helmeted head and potholes (doctors recommend 12 months), Michael and I debated: bike seat or trailer? One and a half years into our family biking adventure, we’ve learned that the answer is: “Yes!”

Disclaimer: For us, biking with Miguel is an easy choice. We don’t have a car, and are used to hauling all kinds of things by bike, from groceries to a washer and dryer set (which messed up the trailer hitch, but that's another story.) Our basement is easy to access, our foyer is large and we are the landlords of a bike-friendly building; we have the room and permission to stash our two-wheeled accoutrements where we please. We also only have one child. So, the biking-with-kid learning/logistics curve might not be as steep for us as for others.

Sometimes I worry that we paint too rosy a view of our bike-dependent lifestyle. It takes time, skill, patience, a sense of humor and a tolerance for Weather. But so do all forms of transportation. For example, I have the patience to spend a few minutes at a bike rack, puzzling through the “Ooops, I bought too many groceries” pannier challenge, but would claw my eyes out in a car circling for a spot in the Whole Foods parking lot. No way of getting around is perfect, which, to get back to what I started writing about, is why we use both a bike seat and trailer.

The bike seat gives Miguel a better view and is less cumbersome in traffic and when parked. It's our choice for shorter, fairer weather trips. Our model came with a highly engineered red poncho that fits over the helmet, kid and seat, so we do not fear summer cloudbursts.

I had been initially reluctant to use a seat, worried that the bike would tip over with Miguel in it. But so long as I have something to lean my frame against, getting him in and out is no problem. One downside is that it eliminates rear rack carrying capacity. We compensate with a front basket or pannier, and could hitch up one of our cargo trailers, but usually I just don’t plan to carry or buy a lot during bike seat outings. (Who wants to do big shopping trips with a 2 year old anyway??)

The trailer has been invaluable during the last two frigid, snowy winters and for longer journeys when we want Miguel to be able to take a nap. The rolling cocoon provides weather protection and room for snacks, books and toys while liberating the rear rack for carrying other gear. But it can be cumbersome to park and store.

Another challenge of trailers is that they extend behind you, which can make turning, going through intersections, even changing lanes a little nerve-wracking. You have to be hawkeyed about clearance and signal your intentions assertively. You get used it though, and drivers tend to give a wide berth.

Our trailer is just for one kid, so it has a narrow profile, which I like for urban commuting. But it does not have a "helmet well" in the back, so Miguel's head is pushed forward a bit by the back wall. This is a feature I would look for if buying a new trailer.

Michael and I have attachments for the seat and trailer, so it’s easy for us to switch off. For example, when Michael drops him off at day care, he leaves the trailer or bike seat there. That way I can pick him up (though I haven’t done that in a while—thanks, Michael!) We are grateful that our day care provider lets us and another biking family store our trailers in their gangway and the bike seats with all the other strollers.

I suspect that we’ll be biking a little less in the near future though. For while it’s a great choice for us, Miguel’s answer to bike seat or trailer is: “Bus!” or “Train!” And he’s right. While we’re pedaling, he’s sitting behind us. Our focus is more on traffic than on talking with him. By contrast, transit journeys involve walking, talking, observing, and, of course, a very exciting bus or train with big wheels, loud noises and interesting people. I want to say that I look forward to the day that he can ride a bike with us. . . but I don’t think I am quite ready for that level of independence! For now, I don’t mind slowing down and mixing up the modes (and modes within modes) a bit.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Humboldt Park Mountain

Being a winter cyclist means you’re always ready to pounce on a 30 degree day that’s gift-wrapped in six inches of still falling snow. This morning, Karen, Lisa, our toddlers and I didn’t have to waste time digging out gear or working up stamina for a sledding adventure in Humboldt Park.

Karen rolled up to our house around 10am, and helped me and Miguel hitch up his bike trailer while Hazel started dozing off in hers. There was something soporific in the air—Miguel was rubbing his eyes too--but we persevered knowing that an investment in Time Spent Getting Ruddy Cheeked Outside would make the rest of our day more pleasant.

The side streets were impassable so we kept to the snow calmed mains, 2 blocks east on Armitage, six blocks south on Kedzie. We skirted the edge of the park until we found what looked to be more an undulation than a hill, a white bulge barely noticeable against the park’s expanse and gray sky. “It’s smaller than I remember,” Karen observed. But other sledders were there, so we knew we were in the right-enough spot.

Before the kids came, a snowy night would sometimes end with crazy bike rides down, up and around the “Humboldt Park Mountain.” Perhaps it was the whiskey or the moonlight that exaggerated the contours. I am tempted to sigh and think, “Those were the days. . .,” but these are fine times too, just with different rhythms and more daylight. We’ve got no lack of capers ahead of us, so for a little while I don’t mind settling into the drift.

We trudged toward some poles to secure our bikes and left our bags in the trailers, figuring that anyone out in this weather would either be sledding too or hurrying home, not thieving. We joked about having brought diapers along. There was no way we were going to unbundle our kids in the middle of a snowstorm. Easier to just pedal home in an emergency.

While Karen closed up the trailer, Hazel stood still and wide eyed. Two feet tall in a rose snowsuit, she made the hill behind her look like a mountain again. Miguel, not used to his new boots, or walking in half a foot of snow, stumbled twice before I opted for efficiency, scooped him up and charged.

Once we all reached the top, Karen unfurled two thin, slick sheets of plastic, one neon green, the other neon orange. Miguel scrambled onto her lap and they made it about halfway down, a cacophony of arms and legs. One of the snow encrusted older kids, perhaps not trusting our maternal instincts (maybe because he had seen us pull up on bikes?), warned us about the fast sections, which I promptly explored with Hazel. We proceeded to have a good 10-15 minutes of sliding, spinning, snow eating chaos, which was amplified by the arrival of Lisa and Violet. They also helped the bikes almost outnumber the parked cars.

Miguel, being researched minded, quickly scouted the other sleds. “You don’t really need this right now. . . ” his quick hands would say as I scampered behind him, first needlessly apologizing (everyone there either had a two year old or a big kid who had once been a two year old), then marveling as he charmed one dad into a free ride back up the hill in his exersaucer-tuned-sled and another dad into lending us his fancy orange contraption, which ended up being a bust.

Our experiments suggest that the simple sheets of plastic Karen brought were the most fun (and easiest to carry by bike) and that toddlers only have about 20 minutes of sledding time in them. Once the cries of “again! again!” turned into just cries, we rolled up the sleds and rolled out, though by then poor Violet had changed her tears to a rebuke of leaving.

Once home, Miguel helped me shovel the sidewalk, which had accumulated 4 inches since Michael’s early morning scrapings.

And the Time Spent Getting Ruddy Cheeked Outside worked as planned: Miguel took to his nap quickly, happily and deeply, which allowed me this indulgent writing time.