My childless friend and I were waxing lyrical about the joys and freedoms of cycling the other day. The pub, the market, Uni, the gym, our mates’ place – we cycle everywhere. Armed with a backpack and a bit of muscle, it’s the perfect way to get around Melbourne. But we acknowledge that our days are numbered, once we have sprogs it will all have to come to an end. We’ll give up our freewheelin’ ways and pour all of our hard-earned dollars into a gas-guzzling wagon with 4 doors and, if we’re lucky, a cup holder. How else are we going to get the kids, and all the associated stuff that comes with them, to the grandparents’, to the park and back?
Three Generations, Colville-Andersen, Flickr
If you were born in the 70s or 80s and had hippy-esque parents, you probably got about in a bike seat attached to a carrier. A great way to get to kinder when you’re mini, but then you sprouted and your legs dangled down and your mum or dad wanted to store their bag in your seat. What if you want to carry more than one tot and its tote? Anne does. Her husband Tim has recently invested in a cargo bike for getting around with their 2 year old Matthew. It’s a regular bike, but slightly more elongated to accommodate a large compartment resembling a wheelbarrow. Originating in bike-friendly Denmark, the trend has spread to other cities where cycling is a common mode of transport: the States (okay, mostly Portland), Canada, the UK, Japan and here in Australia. Anne and Tim own a car, but trips to day-care were too short to drive and too long to walk. Is it safe? “Actually quite safe” Tim says, “(the bike) is so visible and cars tend to give plenty of room”. With limited public transport options, the family found themselves relying on the car for everything. Tim says the benefits of using the cargo bike are many: “A bit of physical activity and some fresh air. The boy loves looking around and taking it all in”. Gaye is another parent utilising her two wheels and a trailer to get her 2 kids around. She says “it’s very cheap compared to a car…we use a bike rain, hail, wind or shine”. Her main safety concern is the unpredictable behaviour of drivers, but says the only other problem has been getting a puncture on the way to day-care. And as for the kids themselves? “They sometimes fall asleep with their head in a weird position”, Gaye says. So pretty relaxed then. It’s also less stressful for her, and better for the environment.
So the benefits of carting the kids around by bike are many: it’s cheaper than driving, provides physical activity, is better for the environment and the kids enjoy it, which means you’re not trying to placate them with iPads, toys or treats while you’re stuck in traffic going no where. I ask Gary from Cargo Cycles in Collingwood if his bicycles are flying out the door. “It’s still a niche market,” he says. He’s seen his customer base grow over the years, but understands that it isn’t for everyone. He sells to businesses wanting to use cargo bikes to transport goods, but the majority of his customer base is families looking for a fun, easy way to get their kids from A to B. I ask him the same question that I asked Anne and Tim: Is it safe? Gary concedes, “It’s not a car with airbags, it’s a risk, a measured risk”. Many of his customers understand the risks however, and most have done a lot of research. Finally I ask Gary what stops more people from using cargo bikes, his immediate response: “Cycling infrastructure”. He praises the inner north of Melbourne and its great bike paths that can take you pretty much door to door, however without this infrastructure it’s a very different story.
Copenhagen Bikehaven, Franz-Michael Mellbin, Flickr
Poor cycling infrastructure is one of the major barriers to more people cycling in general, as found by multiple research studies here and overseas. When there are kids involved it only makes the barrier more difficult to break down. Separate designated cycle lanes are acknowledged as providing a safer environment for cyclists however is it simply a case of ‘build it and they will come’? Cycling still exists as a high-risk activity, one that some parents won’t want to involve their kids in until they are actively independent with wheels of their own. It is argued that to increase the attractiveness of cycling, there must be a decrease in the appeal of driving, which may be brought about by factors such as traffic congestion, disincentives in the form of additional charges, or the rising cost of fuel. Cars are a source of pride for a lot of Australians – while I lust after a Japanese step-through with a basket, bell and leather wine bottle holder, someone else will be coveting a Mercedes ML350. One is just $111,000 cheaper than the other.
So while the cargo bike may not replace the car completely, its use cuts down on costs associated with driving. Perhaps it’s a good weekend alternative, or you’re ready to seek out a new school route that utilises bike paths and quiet streets where you can cruise at an easy pace. When my future kids and I are ready for cargo life, I’ll be looking for the model with the cup holder.
Words by Maria McConkey