“In my day, we walked a mile uphill both ways in the snow” is the ultimate cliche for cranky parents to compare themselves to kids these days. But walking and biking have huge benefits beyond the ability to complain later on.
Active transportation establishes lifelong healthy habits for life, builds relationships with neighbors, minimizes greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, and increases kids’ independence. While our society advertises a minivan as the ultimate family vehicle, it is actually possible to shift trips away from the car.
For example, this family of six does almost all our traveling by bike. One of my friends with three little kids doesn’t even own a car!
If you’re interested in making the shift, here are some tips to get you started:
Normalize and talk up modes of transportation other than the car
It’s sad but true – some people look down on those who don’t own a car, either by necessity or choice. Don’t let that bother you. Never talk about walking or biking as second-rate. Instead, talk it up with enthusiasm!
Little kids in particular see walking and biking as taking a special trip. My three-year-old has a meltdown when I’ve promised to walk and end up driving instead.
Introduce it when they’re young and get the right equipment
The earlier you introduce biking and walking, the more normal it is. But getting the right equipment is essential.
If you plan on mostly walking, get a stroller designed to handle bumpy and narrow sidewalks. An ideal one will have thick tires, three wheels instead of four, sturdy construction, and a good brake. It’s also useful if it folds up easily so you can bring it on a bus or put it in a corner of a busy restaurant. We have the Britax B-Agile, which we’ve loved for every one of the more than 100 miles we’ve put on it.
If you’re interested in biking, you can install a child seat on your bike or use a trailer. If the bike will be a true car replacement, cargo bikes and bakfiets (box bikes) are far more stable than regular seats and provide a more pleasant experience than trailers. In addition, see if there’s a Kidical Mass ride in your area. This nation-wide movement of community rides is dedicated to supporting and encouraging family biking.
Given that those first experiences will influence how likely your family is to try it again, make them pleasant. Don’t start with a two-mile walk on a blazing hot day or a seven-mile bike ride. Pick a short trip to somewhere fun, like an ice cream shop. As a kid, I regularly biked with my parents to a local sandwich shop, and those are some of my fondest childhood memories.
Enjoy the trip
One of the benefits of not driving places is that you can pay attention to your surroundings. Use a walk or bike ride to point out the beauty of flowers or clouds in the sky. Wave hi to your neighbors who are out gardening or mowing the lawn. If you live in a city, spend a little time window shopping.
Make multi-modal transportation safer in your neighborhood
Unfortunately, walking, biking, and taking public transit is simply not possible in all neighborhoods and cities. Many places have minimal infrastructure, like sidewalks or bike lanes, making it unsafe and uncomfortable to walk or bike.
If you have time, write to your town or county council to request an increase in support for multi-modal transportation. You can also support a local or national pedestrian or bicycle advocacy group, like Safe Routes to School.
Creating safe places to walk and bike is especially important because not everyone has a choice of whether or not to drive a car, including parents. More than half of bicycle trips are by people in the lowest 40 percent of income level.
Walking and biking for transportation are great ways to save money, get exercise, be outside, and spend time together as a family. With these tips, I hope that you’re able to raise kids who know how to get around on their own power.