Gear Guide: Getting started biking with your family in LA
Full disclosure: I have a bias for Dutch bikes and accessories. Dutch people commute to work on bikes, carry multiple kids on bikes, and load all of their groceries on their bikes. They bike for transportation while most Americans only bike for recreation.
A video of Dutch people on bikes I found on Vimeo.
Since American bike shops are in the business of selling bikes to Americans, they overwhelmingly cater to the recreational cycling market. Also, most of their employees have never carried a child on a bike, so asking the average bike shop employee which bike accessories are best for family cycling is kind of like asking a Ferrari salesman which minivan you should buy. There are exceptions to this rule, so I try to throw sunshine on bike family centered shops like The Flying Pigeon on the Eastside and Aika on the Westside whenever I can. Nevertheless, Dutch people consume more "minivans" of cycling per capita than anywhere else in the world. I'm going to lean on their collective wisdom.
With two caveats:
1. The Netherlands is very flat.
2. The Dutch lock their bikes outside year round in fairly grim weather.
In practical terms, this means that Dutch bikes are built to be indestructible tanks. One advantage of having a "tank bike" is that they last forever and they're very easy to maintain. Dutch style bikes also often include very practical touches such as lights, internal gears, full chain guards (no grease can touch your clothes), strong rear racks, etc. The disadvantage of tanks on two wheels is that they are hard to pedal uphill. Add the weight of a kid(s) + accessories + groceries...and physics is not your friend.
If you plan on biking over the Santa Monica mountains with your child to take them to school, Dutch style bikes without electric assist will not work for you unless you are a masochist. But, if you live in one of the flatter portions of L.A. like between Downtown and Santa Monica, Dutch style bikes & accessories could be perfect for you. I live near the top of a pretty significant hill and I still ride a Dutch bike. I should add that grunting my way up that hill on a Dutch bike + groceries + kid is also how my three year old learned how to swear. So, take from that what you will.
In the flats, Dutch bikes are a dream. Until I rode a Dutch bike, I never understood how comfortable and useful a bike could be. Balloon tires, a relaxed, upright seating position, sprung saddle, and a steel frame makes for the plushest and smoothest of rides. They float like a luxury car over the bumps.
MY (VERY SUBJECTIVE) FAMILY BIKING GEAR RECOMMENDATIONS:
1. A bike with a step-through frame. Step-through frames make family biking easier because you don't have to stick one leg high up in the air like a Yoga instructor to climb onto your bike while simultaneously trying to keep the bike from tipping over with your child on it.
My son on our Workcycles Fr8. Notice the step-through frame, upright bars, wide tires, two-legged kickstand,
and Yepp Mini child seat.
2. Upright handle bars. YOUR #1 JOB IS TO BE SEEN. Let me repeat that. YOUR #1 JOB IS TO BE SEEN. Upright handlebars make you easier to see because you sit up taller in traffic. This also gives you a better view of the road. It is also easier to control a top heavy bike (like when a child is strapped to the top of it) from a more upright riding position. Drop bars are a no-no unless you are an expert rider, even then I would discourage it. Flat bars on mountain bikes and hybrids can still work, but upright bars are ideal.
As a bonus, bikes with upright handlebars are also far more comfortable for most people because there is virtually no wrist or neck strain from crouching forward. For parents on a budget, you don't need to buy a new bike to sit more upright. You can add northroad, half-moon, or albatross bars to many existing bikes to convert them into a more upright ride. Also, Craigslist often has great prices on Dutch bikes (double check the stolen bike index before purchasing one) or you can shop for new ones at The Flying Pigeon bike shop.
The only drawback to a more upright position is that you lose some leverage pedaling. Unless you're biking up a black diamond ski slope with a child on your bike (i.e. living in San Francisco), you will rarely miss this leverage. You will still curse the weight, but the leverage is less of a concern
3. The WIDEST tires your bike can accommodate. Yet another reason why I love Dutch bikes. They accommodate wide tires like these: Schwalbe Big Apple, Big Ben, or Marathons. Since there are many places in L.A. where it is best to ride on the sidewalk if you are carrying a child (which is totally legal BTW), and L.A. has really crappy sidewalks, wider tires are much less likely to get caught in a crack and the added contact patch will stop you quicker when you brake.
4. A kickstand with two legs. This is a MUST. See Ursus Jumbo and Hebie.
5. Serfas Thunderbolt or TL-60 for the front and back of your bike. YOUR #1 JOB IS TO BE SEEN. These lights pack a wallop even in daylight.
6. A "Child on Board" sign. If you have a rear-mounted seat this is not necessary, since drivers behind you can see the seat. In my experience, 99.9999999% of people behind steering wheels will drive much safer around you the moment they spot a kid on your bike. If you have a front-mounted child seat, your body blocks cars behind you from seeing your kid. Add a "child on board" and a daytime visible blinking red light. The drivers almost always adjust their behavior accordingly.
7. A loud bike bell. Since you'll be traveling on the occasional sidewalk, a friendly ring of the bell as you approach pedestrians makes them aware of your presence. Then, when you pass them (at a safe speed and distance) you can add an "excuse me" and a "thank you." It's illegal to ride a bike in the Netherlands without a bell. As always, when in doubt, ask, "What would Dutch people do?"
8. The child must legally be wearing a helmet.
9. A formidable lock. Not all locks are created equal. Many of them can be quickly defeated with a crow bar, hack saw, or hedge clippers. You want a lock that requires a power tool to defeat it. I prefer the Abus Bordo Granite X Plus 6500 folding lock. It has a very high anti-theft rating while folding into a more compact, portable package than other locks of equal strength. The other Abus lock I often see recommended is the Granite CityChain X-Plus 1060. Once again, there is no bike lock that can defeat a determined thief. Park your bike in an area that is well-lit and well-traveled to deter power tool wielding thieves.
10. Evidence that my bias may have a basis in reality. An article written in August of 2014 stated that after 23 MILLION bikeshare trips in the U.S., there had not been one fatality. All bikeshare bikes are heavy Dutch style bikes with upright handlebars, lights, wide tires, and step-through frames. 9.3 millions of those trips were in New York City traffic.
MY (VERY SUBJECTIVE) GUIDE TO CHILD SEATS:
This guide is written with the caveat that I know nothing about trailers. There was a family at my kid's pre-school that biked up a steep hill towing a trailer holding two kids every morning. So, it is possible to utilize a trailer for transport biking in L.A.
For parents with one child under 30 pounds and over 9 months old:
If you are starting with a kid who is at least 9 months old, able to sit upright and support his or her own neck while wearing a helmet on a bike, and you have room on your bike to put a child seat IN FRONT of you without your knees hitting the seat as you pedal, this option is 100%, mind-blowingly awesome.
(L) Yepp Mini (R) Bobike Mini
With a front-mounted seat, you get to experience the whole ride together with your child, point out things you see, sing songs, steal kisses at red lights, practice phonics by reading letters on street signs, count the flashing walk sign countdown backwards together, share the excitement over fire trucks, buses, and construction trucks - front-mounted seats are AMAZING. Not only that, according to an overwhelming cascade of child development research, all that interaction with your baby/toddler is GREAT for them.
On the practical side, front-mounted seats also place the child's center of gravity closer to the center of the bike, so your child's weight feels like it is "one" with the bike. In other words, It's much easier to handle a bike with a front-mounted seat than a rear-mounted seat. Also, since your kid may not be at an age where they can communicate what is going on with them, you are able to see them at all times. Which is great when you are cursed with a face swallowing helmet.
For parents whose bikes cannot accommodate a front-mounted seat or their only child is between 30 & 48 pounds:
If your bike CANNOT accommodate a front-mounted child seat or your kid is growing past the 30 pound front-mounted seat threshold, then a rear-mounted seat is still pretty great. The advantage of rear- mounted seats is that they last until the kid is up around 48 pounds. Well regarded brands are: Yepp, Bobike, and Qibbel.
Yepp has the largest dealer network. Bobike is also on this side of the pond although I'm unaware of any L.A. dealers. Qibbel does not have a North American distributor, but you can have them shipped from Europe. Henry Cutler, the founder of Workcycles, recommends the Qibbel.
Henry Cutler's expert opinion has not steered me wrong yet. In addition, he has an incredibly useful child seat chart here. Some of the chart is specifically referencing the bikes he manufactures (this is a website dedicated to selling his bikes), but the chart also includes useful information on children's ages for each model of seat. Whether or not you ride a Workcycles, his Facebook group and blog are very useful for people interested in biking with their families.
There are two kinds of rear mounted seats: Ones that mount on the downtube of your bike frame and ones that attach to the rear bike rack. Rear rack-mounted bike seats are preferable to downtube mounted seats because their center of gravity is lower, so the bike feels less tippy. It is unusual for bikes sold in America to have a rear rack that it robust enough to support the seat + the weight of the child although many bikes can accommodate after-market racks. If you have a rack and you are planning on purchasing a rack-mounted seat, be sure to double check the weight limit on your rear rack to ensure a rack-mounted seat is compatible.
If none of the above are available to you, a downtube mounted rear seat is your only option left. I started with a downtube mounted seat. They are better than nothing, but I don't recommend them. The higher center of gravity required me to struggle against the weight swinging on the back of the bike when walking the bike or riding at slow speeds. It wasn't dangerous, but it was stressful. Frame mounted rear seats should only be chosen when no other option is available.
A Downtube mounted Yepp Maxi on our Bike Friday Tandem Two'sday. Notice how there is a metal clamp attached to the back seat tube under the brown saddle. There is a rear rack on the bike, but it was not strong enough to support the weight of a kid. The downtube mount is supporting all of the Little Dictator's weight.
If you have one child over 48 pounds.
I am not an expert in this category, since my kid hasn't gotten there yet. If you have a Dutch style bike like my Workcycles Fr8 with a rear rack that can support far more than 48 lbs., you can mount these seats: Qibbel Jr. or Bobike Jr.
Other options are tandems. My personal fave is this Onderwater tandem:
There are also "trail-a-bike" accessories:
The "follow me" tandem coupling:
I simply don't have enough knowledge to give you an educated opinion on them, except that I would love an Onderwater Tandem.
For parents of multiple kids:
Unless you live in the flats and stay in the flats or you are a training for the Tour de France, you will need an electric cargo bike or a triple tandem (A tandem that seats three people). Electric cargo bikes are the price of a small used car, but they can also replace the second car for many families.
Check out Hum of the City for her expert reviews. Be aware that she lives in San Francisco and that her bikes REPLACED cars, so it is inevitable that her opinions are skewed toward carrying two children up the steepest streets in North America in any weather just like my opinion is skewed toward carrying only one kid in perfect weather on slightly hilly to flat Los Angeles streets.
After test riding an incredibly wide array of bikes, her family chose an electric assisted Larry vs. Harry Bullitt and an Xtracycle Edgerunner with Bionx electric assist. Other bikes that interest me, yet I have not ridden them are in no particular order: Los Angeles's very own boutique manufacturer CETMA Cargo bikes with Stoke Monkey assist, Urban Arrow, Workcycles Kr8 with electric assist, and Douze Cycles with electric assist.
Finally, if you are starting with a baby under nine months:
Your only option is a Bakfiet (Dutch for "Box bike") with a Maxi-Cosi adapter. First, you must own or purchase a Bakfiet (locally The Flying Pigeon carries them and CETMA also builds them). Then you must also purchase a Maxi-Cosi infant car seat (Maxi-Cosi is just another brand of car seat like Graco or Britax). Finally, you must purchase a Maxi-Cosi adapter that attaches to the box bike.
The infant car seat then latches onto the bike the same way it would to the backseat of a car. Online there seems to be a consensus around the idea that three months-ish is an appropriate age to put an infant in his or her car seat mounted to the box. I have never tried it, so I cannot confirm or deny what age is most appropriate. There is a breakdown of the product by a gentleman on Youtube to whom I have no connection:
***I would just like to reiterate that I accept no discounts, free stuff, no monetary gain in any way from the people or products I list above. I'm not even linking to stuff on Amazon to get a click-through commission because I like to support our local small businesses whenever possible.