Much of your latest book, Bike Snob Abroad, is about the experience of riding with your family in Europe versus cycling here in the States. Did you have any bike revelations across the Atlantic?
What’s so mindblowing to an American about cycling with your kid in a place like Amsterdam is how absolutely normal it is, and because it’s normal lots of people do it and because lots of people do it it’s safe and easy. You get glimmers of that here in certain parts of the country, and in certain parts of New York, but for the most part we’re still really far from that level of normalcy. So coming home I was a little bit inspired and a little bit depressed. I was inspired because the city’s gotten a lot more bike friendly and that’s what makes riding with your kids possible. But I was depressed because it really puts the selfish, insane things drivers still do on a regular basis here into sharp relief. We’re so accepting of deadly driving, of huge cars bearing down on us in crosswalks, even here in New York which is the least car-dependent city in the country. So part of the book is about grappling with that and hoping one day we can get past that.
Has becoming a father changed your perspective on cycling?
On the prosaic side, it really made me fully appreciate the need for better infrastructure and that sort of thing. On the more emotional, intangible side, it’s great to be able to integrate cycling into yet another area of my life by bringing my son along with me. It’s such a great feeling to use a bike for family transportation, it’s really convenient, and there’s so much fun to be had, so I’d like it to become an easy choice for more people.
Have you faced any challenges when riding with your son in NYC?
Well, one challenge in the beginning was dealing with other people’s attitude towards it. You feel it when you’re out there sometimes. First you have real-life “concern trolls” who ask you if you’re worried about your child’s safety on the bike, or who tell you to “be careful,” with an undercurrent of disapproval. Then you have the people who are amused and delighted by the sight of a kid on a bike and need you to know it. Which is the opposite, and theoretically a nice thing, but oddly almost as annoying, because it’s kind of depressing that something so simple should be remarkable to anybody. So sometimes there’s this sense that you’re doing something that’s at best unusual, and at worst irresponsible, and so it’s no wonder so many people just assume that the “responsible” thing to do is put your kid in a minivan.
On the other hand, the biggest benefit to me when I started putting my kid on the bike were the infrastructure upgrades like protected bike lanes where you’re not under pressure to ride fast and where you can actually engage with your kid while riding. Certainly we need more of that. You should be able to travel all over the city on bike-specific infrastructure, just like you can drive all over the city on parkways and expressways. You can buy into the vehicular cycling, “same rights and responsibilities as cars” stuff when it’s just you out there, but when you start carrying a child on your bike it’s hard to deny that these are completely different vehicles with completely different needs.
You’ve left Brooklyn for greener pastures. What’s riding been like in the new neighborhood?
We’re in the Northwest Bronx now, and it is literally much greener up here (gratuitous statistic: Bronx is 25% parkland), which is great for riding bikes. We’ve got Van Cortlandt Park right out our back door, and from there we can just hop on the greenway and get to places like the Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo without riding in traffic, or else go north to the South County Trailway in Westchester. Getting to the Hudson River Greenway is also pretty convenient, so we’ll do family rides “downtown” to places like the Little Red Lighthouse and beyond. It does get hilly up here which can be a challenge on a heavily loaded bike, but the benefit of that is you’re not on a street grid and there’s less through-traffic, which makes for a mellower and prettier cycling experience.
I don’t feel the same attitude from people around here when I’m riding with my son for whatever reason (maybe I’m more relaxed, maybe it’s because he’s older now), but the big cargo bike does always get a lot of interest from parents at his preschool or the playground.
What do you think the future hold for kid's cycling technology?
Obviously, $2,000 "crabon" [That's Bike Snob speak for carbon] balance bikes are the future of childhood cycling.
The $2,000 carbon fiber Petit Pierre kids' balance bike gets the Bike Snob “Seal of Disapproval.”
Booshy balance bikes aside, what changes would you like to see happen by the time your son’s old enough to ride solo in the city?
My son’s already able to ride a bike by himself and he wants to ride it everywhere, so by the time he’s actually old enough to set off solo I’d love for him to have safer routes to school and places like that, and for there to be lots of other kids riding their bikes too. And I’d like drivers to do more than they do now to look out for them all.
Since starting the Bike Snob blog back in 2007, you’ve become one of the country’s most prominent voices on the (sometimes surreal) state of cycling. What’s your take in 2014?
I think the cyclist in 2014 has more infrastructure amenities, products and accessories to buy; clubs to join, and places to hang out than ever before, yet there’s been little to no change in terms of how we’re actually treated on the street by police and other road users. We have a lot of catching up to do there.
Citi Bike’s one-year anniversary is fast approaching. What’s your verdict?
I’m a big supporter of bike share, but I don’t use it nearly as much as I thought I would, since I’m not a very patient person and it seems like whenever I want a bike the docks are empty, and whenever I want to get rid of a bike I can’t find an empty dock. It seems to work out for a lot of people though, so I hope they continue to improve it.
Riding with a child through crowded city streets can be an intimidating prospect for many new parents. Any parting advice you’d like to offer moms and dads who’d like to try riding with their kids?
The most important thing is to be comfortable, confident, and competent on a bicycle yourself. If you’re a proficient city cyclist there’s no reason you can’t do it with your kid. Next is having a child-carrying setup that works for you both, whether it’s the kid up front or the kid in the rear and so forth, and possibly even investing in a family-friendly bike if all you have is that carbon road bike. A good bike shop is key if you’re uncertain equipment-wise. Then, of course, no matter how experienced you are on a bike, you’re going to be a little freaked out the first time you carry your precious young child on it. (The kid probably won’t be freaked out though, they’ll love it.) So take the time to get used to the whole thing with short, mellow outings to the park or the local playground. From there, it doesn’t take long for you both to get in the zone.
Finally, any “status children” in the works?
I dunno, maybe I’ll get a status cat first and see how it goes.
Read more of Bike Snob's trademark biting wit and wisdom in his latest book Bike Snob Abroad, as he examines why riding with a child is such a taboo, what it really means to be a bike-friendly country and ultimately shines a light on the growing pains that exist in any culture that asks smartphone-obsessed text-happy pedestrians, the two-wheeled, and the four-wheeled to share the road.
www.bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com — critiquing the entire culture of cycling one ill-conceived bike at a time.
All Images c/o Sara Goodman.