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Ethical child transport from the New York Times & me

I know many of us transport our kids by bike through much of the year; many of my closest mama friends (and I) have done such shocking things as bike-while-heavily pregnant, tote a small baby around, put our children between our handlebars in a baby seat, or expose our young offspring to rain, wind and even, rarely, sun (ha) through miles of commuting. Many of you can remember a dozen or a hundred times you've heard another citizen of this city opine on your transportation choices. My favorite (or something) is when a woman yelled at me, "get those babies baptized!" (I had.) I've also had any number of angry men and women shouting about how "that's not safe!" I've been reminded loudly how I forgot to put a helmet back on a youngster after a stop (we stopped and put the helmet back on right away, me shaking from the vitriole of the FYI); I've been asked who's going to take care of the kids when I DIE FROM NOT WEARING A HELMET (I had a hat on, and forgot my helmet, and by the time I remembered it we were too far away from home).

After one of these exchanges I often spend the next 10 or 15 minutes of my ride composing a undeliverable response to those who question my parental responsibility, exposing the kids to the elements and the possibility of death-by-vehicle. My thesis usually looks like this: I believe not only in the superiority of this method of transportation -- which emits zero pounds of carbon per mile and has no regular monthly cost nor incremental cost, saving me thousands each year, and has an infinitesimal chance of seriously injuring any other humans than those aboard by its use -- but I believe in the power and imperative of living one's values. If I am so worried about the health of the planet that I toss and turn many nights, wondering if my grandchildren's Portland will be overrun by refugees from an unlivable California, I can hardly put them into a single-family vehicle (that I can't afford anyway) for the 13-and-some miles of daily commute.

There's a lot more, involving my own vivid fear I'll run into a pedestrian or another car every time I get behind a wheel, and the nausea that I seem to always suffer after driving. But last night, I was thrilled to see on another mama's Facebook stream a link to an official ethical scholar's general agreement with my thesis. The questioner, a Portland, Maine bicyclist with children aged four and one, wondered, "Is it O.K. to take the kids by bike when our admittedly safer, albeit not risk-free, car is available?"

Randy Cohen's answer had its usual twists and turns of humor and extreme examples. ("Different parents tolerate different levels of risk for their children. Some allow their kids to go rock climbing while on fire; others forbid them to leave the house unless they’re swaddled in Bubble Wrap.") But here's the important bit: "There is no universal and immutable scale for your ethical obligation here. But there is a better way to describe your duty: seek prudent, not utopian, transportation...  If you forswear bikes and travel with them only by car, you teach them to do likewise, promoting the sedentary lifestyle that contributes to obesity and other health problems, and you express acceptance of the environmental damage cars inflict even on nondrivers — two disheartening lessons."

I thought it an excellent answer and with his usual non-judgmental acceptance of most of our parental choices. Don't text while driving or biking; don't do either under the influence; wear helmets. If you really believe in biking, work in your community to support better infrastructure for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.

Now I have a bigger question, though: how do you communicate this to someone shouting at you on the street? I've been composing a PSA video on the topic for some time; independent filmmakers are encouraged to contact me immediately. In the interim, perhaps my usual; a sigh and a deflating of the shoulders; is the best response.


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In general, I drive. But I admire the bikers who can get it all done with their kids. With my old knee issues, I generally can't bike even myself for very long, let alone bike with my kids. That said, I think helmets are a good idea (obviously so do you). If someone happens to catch you on an off day and is rude enough to yell at you from a car, I think the best response is none. Don't stoop to their level of shouting at each other on the street. Honestly, shouting at a biker (or driver for that matter) isn't helpful. If you feel compelled to yell something back, how about, "Yelling at bikers while driving isn't safe either!"

I'd just shout, "Doin just fine on my own here thanks." In that PSA could you include how it is totally inappropriate to honk at a person on a bike when approaching them from behind for no apparent reason (except perhaps to scare the crap out of you so that you nearly wreck). I've had this happen twice; once by a car full of teenage girls who thought they were hilarious and another time by someone who thought they recognized me and wanted to honk hello. Both times my son was in the BoBike handlebar seat. Grrrr...

When someone shouts at me on the street I'm always more concerned about what my response will communicate to my children than to some total stranger who is frankly not listening anyway.

That being said, the ableism around this issue is depressing. I love when people who can afford certain things (organic food) or can do certain things (bike with their children) raise their privileged choices to the level of being ethically and morally "best" or "superior".

I'm poor and live in Parkrose (non-bike-friendly, non-trendy), but I still manage to bike myself and my kids around. So I don't think it's so much about ableism as the perception of ableism.

Anon, that is why I think the idea of "appropriate transport" is important. For some people in some situations-- folks who are physically unable to walk or bike, those whose jobs require them to make cross-town meetings all day long, those who carry a lot of cargo (though, bikes do pretty well on that score)-- THOSE people probably should be in private cars, going about their business as best they can. And wouldn't it be best for them if the rest of us, those of us with relatively short commutes, with relatively able bodies, weren't out there clogging up the roads? Slowing traffic, polluting the air, increasing asthma rates, endangering people using other modes, producing a sky-high road maintenance budget...

Imagine if, instead, the only people in cars and trucks were the people for whom that mode of transport really was a necessity? Wouldn't that be more fair, just, and ethical all around?

On a related note, I think that in the same way that Cohen suggests we have an ethical obligation to advocate for better, safer bike access in the places where we ride with our children, could it be that we (citizens, bike advocates, clever people, and the bike industry) have an obligation to develop enabling technologies so that the private car ISN'T the only sensible mode of transport for many people with disabilities. For many people, a bike equipped with electric assist can vastly widen their ability to travel long distances and haul cargo & kids. And for many others, all sorts of interesting developments in adaptive cycling make independent riding more possible. See http://www.borp.org/programs/Adaptive_Cycling.php for more on that.

I agree that it is important to be aware of our privileges and of the limitations of others. But I absolutely disagree that that makes Sarah's argument, or Cohen's, inherently ableist.

I always get comments about riding, and you know what I say to people - that at least I am responsible for my own actions when I am on my bike, and am not a risk to others, unlike the car drivers I see who turn one way whilst looking the other, send text messages whilst at the wheel, turn round to shout at the children in the back. I tell them that I am aware of the risks and do my best to limit them unlike someone in a big 4x4 who doesn't worry about crashing as their car is so reinforced (and would mangle my bike in two seconds flat). Perhaps these are the people that should be shouted at?

Most car-drivers are not even aware that "bikes belong on the road." Even so when riding with your kids. The best way I found is to educate drivers without saying a single word: I bought the sticker "Bikes Allowed to Use Full Lane" with "CHANGE LANES TO PASS" and stuck it to the back of my helmet or a plastic placard that I can transfer to any bike I rode...What I noticed is very significant change in driver behavior when I'm in front of them. They give me more space, don't honk at me anymore, no connotative comment yelled at me. these signs are spread all throughout any citiy but no one notices them unless if they're bike conscious....Another thing I noticed is that when I'm dressed classy (from the Tweed rides) car drivers take notice and give me me respect.

Stephanie -
I applaud you for being an aware bicyclist but I can't tell you how many near-accidents I've had trying to avoid bicyclists that were doing incredibly reckless things, whether it be running red lights or laughing hysterically while pushing their fellow cyclist-friend into traffic. Your comment implies that car drivers are not aware or responsible and that bicyclists are, which is highly inaccurate and biased.

I don't ride a bike for many reasons but I'm intensely aware of bicyclists and pedestrians around me. I've had bad days when my child was screaming in the backseat and 800 other things were pulling at me, it's true. But I've also been yelled at by bicyclists who have made illegal turns or darted in front of me without any warning, etc and decided because I am at the wheel of a car, it's my fault they are stupid.

We ALL need to be responsible and we ALL need to be respectful of ALL modes of transportation and if you can't or refuse to be, you shouldn't be on the road whether you're on a bike, in a car or on foot.

I want to expand anon's post though it is a bit a digression from the original topic. What bothers me are bikers who don't respect my rights as a pedestrian. I find that bikers constantly go through the pedestrian crossings not stopping for me (walking with a stroller). Sometimes they will stop on the crossing instead of stopping behind the crossing and expect me to go around them when I cross the street. When I cross the street and the cars have the all way stop sign, I can usually bet on them stopping for me (in my neighborhood anyway). But I can never be sure if a biker will stop for me. I also ride my bike, though mostly on weekends, so I am not just some biker hater.

I think it's great to introduce kids to all forms of transport and help them understand the options out there for them. And I think maximizing safety is important no matter how we go. I find it just as upsetting to see children being biked unsafely as I do seeing them roaming free in the car without a seatbelt/carseat. I do my part in spreading the word by just modeling it myself. I'm not one to get worked up by someone hollering at me as I'm riding so I tend to just ignore it. I learned long ago that I'd rather not spend my energy making everyone else do as I do. As long as I know what I'm doing is right for me, then I'm willing to let others go about their own day. If they really want to engage in a conversation, that's different.

As for a PSA, is your audience the biking community and how to do it safely? Or is it the non-biking community? Because if it's the former, you need to be sure people know things like don't bike with kidlet in a backpack or with the trailer unzipped (both major pet peeves of mine). If it's the latter, then I think you're focus should be more on laws and sharing the road.

I would agree with anon in regards to what are you communicating to your kids when you yell back at the driver? Do you need to stoop to that level and yell back? Is that really going to help matters? I still remember being terrified by my father's road rage episodes. I do not ever remember WHY he was yelling. I just remember being very scared at his anger. That said, I am a VERY friendly, respectful driver who very rarely gets angry at anyone on the road. I agree that we, as a society could be a lot more more respectful to everyone in general, not just on the roads. So bring on the PSA on biker/driver etiquette - we can always improve our manners!

We have always been a carfree family and it's a lifestyle that we have enjoyed in Chicago, rural Japan and Portland. I've never felt like I've been doing anything revolutionary, it something I genuinely enjoy. I'd say, in my biking life thus far, I get more smiles, than I do shouts. And I am a mother who rides, with the trailer unzipped! and with a baby in a simple Gerry backpack!! I am your pet peeve, Tracy. And I thank you for not hollering at me. I know where you are coming from, but I'm confident with the decision I make when I buckle the helmets on my kids and saddle up. And I think as vaporous as confidence is, that is what we all need when we take to the streets. And when my confidence is weak, I get off my bike and walk or take the bus. I hope car drivers would do a similar check-in with themselves before they get behind the wheel. And I think we would all benefit from simply making sure we have enough time to drive slow. That's the thing about towing a bunch of kids, we always take the long, slow way home.

Well, as I said, I don't spend my energy yelling at people about it, and, gemma, I'm guessing you are open to a conversation, and I promise to be respectful, but I have to ask why you ride with the baby in a pack? There are just so many ways that could go wrong. Keeping the trailer open is something a lot of people do. But, the screen prevents rocks from being kicked up by your tires, passing cars, etc, into your child. I have talked to many folks who didn't realize that is what it is for.

I guess these are the kinds of things I struggle with. I'm willing to take on the risk involved with putting bikes and cars on the same road because we cannot live in a bubble, but I follow the rules of the road and do everything I can to bike and drive safely. I can't prevent every accident from happening. I've rolled my trailer and crashed on my Xtracycle. Thankfully, in the trailer the little guy was strapped in and held in place when he landed upside down. On the Xtra, he was not strapped into a seat and was able to get up out of the road quickly and go stand on the sidewalk while I hoped the oncoming car saw me and stopped before hitting me because I was stuck in the chain. I grew up not using helmets, car seats, etc and I have lived to tell. But knowing the protections these safety devices offer us, I don't understand how their use can be disregarded.

Nope, I've had too many near misses with me as the driver and "the bike I didn't see" or "wasn't where it was supposed to be" to transport small children by bike. Car vs. human always ends up badly if there is any speed over 20 miles per hour involved. I'm not going to go as far as to condemn bike families but I wouldn't do it unless we could always be on slower streets or special bike paths.

I have a hard time w/ bikers who, for some reason feel like they're in Mayberry and think its all about them(totally unaware purposely of other cars, biking at a slower pace on a single lane street and clogging throad becausev by golly! They're bikers!), while endangering themselves (by not wearing helmets and running stop signs because they can get away with it) and their kids. They are similar to the poster above who arrogantly assume that anyone in an suv is irresponsible, and all bikers are the only ones who care about the environment. I was on airport way recently andthis biker dad had his 3 or 4 yr old on the back of his bike-not in any seat, and not strapped down in any way. The poor child was just holding on! We were stopped at a light and when the light turned green, i watched as the child was almost propelled off the back of the bike because he had stopped holding on while the dad was stopped. It was very hard for me to roll down my window and not say anything. I try to be tolerant, really i do. But situations like this make it very difficuly.

jln - doesn't sound like you're trying that hard to be tolerant, frankly.

"totally unaware purposely of other cars" - not sure how that's possible. if you rode near cars much, you'd know how hyperaware a cyclist tends to be.

"clogging throad" - maybe they're staying out of the door zone (safe) and figure that you won't suffer bodily injury by waiting a bit to pass safely, eh? or maybe they're every bit the arrogant jerk you think they are. in which case I'd rather have them on a bike than behind the wheel of a 2-ton motor vehicle, thank you very much.

as for that "poor child" (who I'm guessing might have been on an xtracycle?), "almost fell off the back of a bike" at as they started is hardly a chilling tale, or anything worth being an ass about. good onya for biting your tongue, in person if not online.

I'm not really interested in arguing any points in this conversation. If I spent my life considering how many things could go wrong, I would be a very unhappy woman. I doubt I would have been able to push three children out of my body, if I focused my energy on the harm that could befall any of us. I can't deny the fact, that shit hits the fan from time to time. Even in Mayberry. That's life. However, biking has taught me, as well as my children, some great life skills. Tools that will be useful to us when we encounter the shit. Rest assured, Tracy, that my family's safety is my top priority. You and I may differ in our approaches, but I think we are on the same side in this discussion. I'm sure we would have a lovely time propelling our bodies through the streets of Portland, via our own powerful bodies.

A couple of years ago, my neighbor was killed by a bus while riding his bike. That was the first time I really realized that riding a bike with cars and buses is serious business.

Just this past summer, a dad friend of mine was hit by a car after some sort of malfunction with his bike. This happened in Ladd's Addition, which is a very bikey place. He had serious brain injury and was not expected to recover, but miraculously did. He was in the hospital for months. Imagine what his family had to go through, wondering if he was going to live, trying to pay the bills. He was lucky the kids weren't with him, because he rode with them every day.

I think we should definitely work as a society to make the roads safer, but bicyclists need to take every safety precaution possible, especially when you have kids. I personally think proper helmets should be required for anyone riding with cars, and that children too young to ride themselves should be properly restrained.

The "if I had to worry about everything that could go wrong" attitude is really unnecessary and it shocks me. No one is saying that you should worry all the time, but you should face reality, deal with reality, and then go have a safe bike ride. Reality is that riding a bike with cars is dangerous, but that there are numerous precautions that you can take to make it safer.

Car accidents are the leading causes of death in children (http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/factsheets/childpas.htm). How many of us know someone who has been seriously injured or died in a car accident? Yet, do you still drive? Car accidents and deaths go under the radar because they happen so frequently.

I do bike with my kids; and there have been times when my son has forgotten his helmet at school (doors locked) when I pick him up from aftercare. In these cases, I give him my helmet so he is protected. Why don't we as parents give others the benefit of the doubt that we are making the best choices for our families; and chalk up these incidents to out of the ordinary? I have been in those same situations as Sarah where other bikers or drivers feel like they are doing their public service duty by lecturing me on safety. It doesn't feel good because the assumption is that we are being reckless. Maybe these are the same people that feel the need to tell you that you have a "bat in the cave" or spinach in your teeth or call DHS if they spot your child alone in your car in your driveway. Some people just feel more compelled to offer their opinion in any situation. I like the sticker idea...where can I get one?

Certainly safety is every parent's priority but have you ever driven somewhere only to find that you didn't engage the car seat correctly or one of your kids didn't have their seat belt on? I have and we are a family where we don't start the car unless everyone's seat belt is on.

Hau, you pretty much said what I was planning to. It seems that a challenge in these discussions is to see each other as individuals, rather than as blocs of thoughtless drivers or pompous cyclists.

I was recently on a school bus with a group on a service field trip to Sauvie Island. I was up front with the chatty bus driver who was going on and on about how cyclists have ruined Sauvie Island--they are so inconsiderate, they take up the road, they give her and her students the bird. I didn't doubt her, but wondered whether a few cases sullied the whole group for her. As an avid bike commuter myself, her attitude really bummed me out but I didn't have the nerve to speak up.

This morning I was biking to work and (as I always do) stopped at a stoplight. Another cyclist came up behind me, slowed briefly, and then pedaled through the red light. It was early; there were no cars coming from either direction, but I still wanted to holler after him--"hey! YOU give cyclists a bad name!"

I didn't engage either of these times, but all these kinds of confrontations and the discussions that emerge from always really make me sad. It's human nature to generalize, but like Hau said, let's try to cut each other some slack. I drive and bike. I am ultra careful around bikes while driving, but sometimes I genuinely don't see a cyclist and accidentally pass too closely. In this weather, I occasionally bike closer to the center of the road b/c of big piles of leaves and puddles--but I am not an inveterate road hog. Maybe that guy this morning was super late for something and figured he could, just once, run a red light. Let's all remember that (at least from my vantage) the majority of drivers, bikers, pedestrians are courteous, safety-minded, and truly in favor of "sharing the road." Giving each other the benefit of the doubt and acting *ourselves* the way we wish the rest of the world would seems like the best step forward, perhaps.

[Jeez. Sorry to get all preachy there in the end...]

Some people will comment on other people's choices, no matter what. Maybe it's your bike, or the way you change lanes in your car, or how many children you do (or don't) have, or maybe it's because you are an adult with punk rock hair...Who knows? Some people feel compelled to, literally, shout their judgements at you.

Being both a driver and a biker, I think you are statistically more likely to get comments while on a bike because you are simply going to be exposed to more people. Plus, someone in a car knows they will have your attention AND that you probably can't keep up with them.

FWIW, I also get a fair amount of comments when I'm walking.

I live in close-in NE PDX and very often share the road with cyclists while driving my car. They are
SOMETIMES unsafe (no reflectors or lights at night; riding side by side instead od single-file; etc.). However, "unsafe" is not the norm. And, even the unsafe ones get a positive nod in my head. Cyclists' scorecards have plenty of positive points for making the very responsible choice to ride and not drive. If they are doing something a bit annoying or imperfect, that does not detract enough from the overwhelmingly positive act of NOT driving. I say this as someone who bikes < 5% of my days. And this does also apply, in my head's computations, to those biking their kids around. All the more challenging for cyclists to do, and their kids will inherit a better and shall I say "safer" world for their efforts. I believe in climate change & cars -- with seats belts and all -- are not a safe bet longterm.

A bike on a road is a vehicle. Sometimes bikers and drivers forget this. I wouldn't get in my motorized vehicle and consciously drive unsafely. I feel the same about my bike. Yes, I've forgotten my helmet and turned around to get it. Just as if I forgot to buckle up the seat belt and fixed it as soon as I realized. If I'm further from home than I feel like I want to turn around, then I probably deserve someone to holler at me because I'm contributing to bad biker reputation and I'm being a little lazy because I don't want to ride back home. And I'm riding unsafely. Bottom line, my fault. Same as if I drive crazy and someone hollers at me, I guess. Sure, they don't know I usually ride safe, but at this moment in time they are seeing me be a bad rider. Their need to holler at me is their own issue, but I rarely get ruffled by it.

I think it's just as much as an ethical quandry to drive when you could easily ride, but that's just me. I think it's way unethical to do either unsafely, especially when you add kids to the mix.

I did want to add that I love how you are better able to engage with the community around you when biking and walking. The other day when I was biking downtown, a woman as she passed by commented on how she liked my helmet. I always seem to be seeing friends on my way to dropping off my son at school or on my commute to work or running errands. A wave "hello" or a nice conversation with fellow cyclists or pedestrians makes me smile; and it is the same interaction that my kids experience which adds another element to biking and walking which we seldom get when we drive. For the most part, I have far more positive experiences than I do negative.

I was toted around on a bike by my dad in the early to mid eighties in Madison, WI. Way before anyone bike commuted with a child. I would ride on his cross bar, perched between his body and handle bars. He would pick me up from some after school activity after work and peddle me home. Living in a one car house hold that my mom took to work and my dad rode his bike everyday to work, so his bike was the "second car". Even though I was young I can remember people saying things to me about riding with my dad and the looks from drivers in cars. I will say back then I knew I was different, there was no fellow biker with a child on the road, only us. My family was ahead of the time and I hope as more time passes the general population will see this as a norm and not some weird way to raise your kids. More children should be able to have a moment in their day to enjoy the peace of the world. The things I remember most about those bike rides is being with my dad and the meditative calm of the ride.

I thought of this post as I was driving in NE with my 4 kids yesterday. Years ago, when I had just one and two kids and we lived close-in, I commuted by bike daily. My husband still rides from NoPo to OHSU. Both of us have had close calls with vehicles and buses, including being run into by a pickup truck.

Distracted or aggressive or unskilled or elderly or impaired drivers are all dangerous. Yet, vehicles aren't the only danger to cyclists. Mushy, slick leaves raked into the bike lane and joggers who run in the bike lane and force bikes into traffic also pose problems.

As we drove yesterday at dusk during rush hour traffic, I noticed a dad riding with three little ones: one in a frame pack on his back and two on an extracycle. Two of the kids had helmets, dad and one kid did not. They did not have lights or reflective clothing.

While I respect that commuting by bike is a lifestyle choice (and one I admire!), I couldn't help but be horrified by the dangerous choices this father made. I didn't say anything, but OH MY, how I wanted to.

At what point do we begin acting like a village and work for the safety concerns of others rather than risk offending them? I would rather piss someone off and potentially help a child be safe than be silent and shake my head, waiting for papa to slip on slimy leaves, have to swerve into traffic to avoid a jogger or an unexpected car door opening, or stop suddenly and dump a child into traffic. Surely, kindness and diplomacy go a long way, but when you see something like that and recognize the risks involved, what actions are appropriate?

I don't like the bike trailer. .. I think it is unsafe. I think if my kid who was in a booster til she was menstruating (small exagerration) having my child at street-level covered by nylon seems unnecessarily foolhardy especially when you can mount seats on the upper parts of the bike.

I also had a carseat for years before I had a car so I don't buy the not enough time for safety thing.

Riding your kids around without a helmet is risky and not the best example, like smoking around your kids or feeding them Twinkies or drinking alot of bourbon. . .but that in and of itself doesn't make someone a bad parent or necessitate someone screaming at them. Like that changes anything.

People used to yell out car windows about the babysling back in 1995. I just thought they were stupid.

i love childrens and in this pic they ride bicycle it's lovely.

We need more education and advocacy, not just for those that drive but for bicyclists. Of course that would mean more funding but I'm talking about in a dream world. But I love living in a city where we can drive, bike, walk, and take public transit.
@ProtestMama-trailers are engineered and built with safety in mind. They are made to not roll if your bike is for some reason knocked over and your child is encased in a metal frame versus plastic. They are lower to the ground but this is why a blinking light on the back and the flag are good added safety options.

I would feel better about it if it was in a trailer than on a seat higher up on the bike. If we are honest about it one of the few things than happen to bicyclists is we fall down a bit more often than we like to admit.

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