The most striking difference between any U.S. city and those in nations with a thriving bike culture are the number of families on bikes. Visit Seattle or Salt Lake or St. Louis and you’re likely to see a bike share program, a dude track-standing in the intersection, a rack full of fixies. What you’re less likely to see are entire families on bikes, and this is unfortunate–not just families but for the health of cycling as a whole.
A recent opinion piece on Outside Online proclaimed, “Until the bike truly becomes part of the family, it will always remain on the fringes.” The article was shared over and over in all my favorite cycling groups on Facebook. We all agreed with it; of course it made sense, but why exactly?
I’d argue that there are two reasons that family cycling is so important to the growth and acceptance of a healthy bicycle culture in North America. First, is the fact that kids don’t come to us with any preconceived ideas on how we should get around. Most adults grew up being shuttled everywhere in a car; therefore, it is our default mode of transportation. Switching to bike commuting requires a determined choice to do so and a concerted effort to follow through on dark mornings and rainy days.
There are times when I’m mentally debating whether to bike or drive somewhere, perhaps leaning toward the perceived convenience of just heading there in the car. Suddenly, my son will appear, helmet on, ready to go. He’s grown up biking wherever we need to go–dinner, the library, the grocery store. Biking is his default mode. For this reason, it’s easier to convert young people into cycling disciples than a person that has spent five decades doing very well, thank you, in their Ford pickup.
The second reason that family cycling is so important is that it encourages, perhaps forces, improved bicycling infrastructure. In my pre-child years, I rode my bike to work daily, battling less than ideal traffic conditions without much complaint. Once I threw a child into the mix, however, my risk tolerance went way down. I suddenly became a vocal proponent of protected bike lanes and off-road paths.
Indeed, you can put any mother on a bicycle with her child and she’ll become an instant, and powerful proponent of improved infrastructure. Of course, the better the cycling infrastructure, the more families will believe bicycle commuting is a viable option. It is a self-reinforcing cycle.
Even if parents aren’t the ones introducing our next generation to cycling, others can. Take the phenomenal success of the North American Interscholastic Cycling Association (N.I.C.A). Over the last eight years, the high school mountain bike program has grown to 21 leagues and 14,000 participants. The biggest shocker of the program, however, isn’t that it has attracted kids into cycling, but that it has attracted the larger community to cycling. According to an article in Pinkbike, N.I.C.A has introduced entire families to the sport: “Many of these parents hadn’t been on a bike for years, and yet by virtue of their own children’s ambitions and growing love for this sport and community, a bit of an awakening took place, and continues to take place across the country as more of these events unfold.” Introduce kids to cycling, and society will follow.
Family cycling shouldn’t be delegated to a niche corner within the cycling industry. Getting kids on bikes isn’t the responsibility of parents alone. Anybody who loves cycling, anybody who cares about growing bicycling into a viable mode of transportation, anybody who wants to advocate for increased trail access for bikes needs to pay attention to our youth. More kids on bikes lead to more people on bikes; they are the key to a two-wheeled revolution.