Graduating from riding on the back of the bike is a big step for a kid. It’s a step most kids are keen to take and these days they’re doing it even earlier since ‘scoot bikes’ became popular. In our municipality of Ottawa (well, Ontario in general), we turn our head and pretend that kids won’t be interested in biking until they are 9 or 10. You know, a “safe age” to start. (Yes, we strap skate blades to their feet at age two, but that is normal.)
Ottawa bylaws aren’t very lenient when it comes to sidewalk cycling – not even children are supposed to ride their bikes on the walkway. (Sure, Toronto amended their by-law to allow small-wheeled children’s bikes on the sidewalk, but Ottawa… we like our vehicular cycling children. Or better yet, none at all.) Take the lane, Timmy!
So, how to you get your kid who weighs as much as 3 sacks of potatoes off your bike and riding their own bike in the city? As we all know, not every street has a bike lane or low amounts of traffic.
Not too small to ride
You let them ride on the sidewalk. Of course you do. Because kids like their bikes and they can only do loops so many times around the park or field before they want to “go somewhere” and “do something”. Despite being short, they can quickly become good at cycling from point A to B and sometimes C (if there’s a treat).
Find your nearest multi-use path
It’s easier to teach good riding skills in a low stress environment. The segregated multi-use pathways are ideal for learning skills: staying to the right of the line, keeping a straight line, not mowing over pedestrians, and bell ringing.
Pathways often have stop and yield signs, so you can practice recognizing (and obeying) signs.
But most of us can’t walk out of our house and ride on a separated pathway. And the MTO recommends that no child under 10 ride in traffic. So, maybe you decide to wait until Sunday and drive to an NCC parkway to enjoy Sunday Bike Days or maybe you just use the sidewalk in front of you. (Shhh!)
All about sidewalks
Sidewalk riding has its challenges. The first being pedestrians – it’s their space. So, being polite about sharing and passing slowly is key.
The second challenge is where should the parent ride. If your kid is in the early stages of biking solo, you can easily keep up by using a scooter or using your own bike as a scooter. How? Just keep a foot on a pedal and push with your other leg. Hop off and walk whenever you encounter someone walking. Even though it’s easier to ride your bike on the sidewalk behind the child, most parents I see don’t like to break the rules.
Find streets that don’t have parking beside the sidewalk
If you can, ride on the road while the child rides on the sidewalk. This works well if you have a stretch of roadway that has no parking. Once you get a row of parked cars between you and the kid, it makes riding harder for the child and you lose the nice social feeling of biking together.
Harder for the kid, you say? Smaller kids want to keep eye contact with you when riding, and once you’ve got parked cars between them and you, they tend to focus on seeing you rather than keeping their eyes ahead. Also, it’s just plain awkward.
One ways streets work well because it’s rare to have parking on both sides of the street.
Be kind and be respectful of others
People in Ottawa try their best to follow the road rules in an environment not designed for all-ages travel. The other week, I saw this super dad cycling with his kids to the multi-use pathway on Booth near the War Museum. Booth is hard enough to cycle on when you’re by yourself. The road surface is full of holes and the traffic can be intimidating. But this super dad, navigated around the potholes and the two kids tooted along on the sidewalk. Even though, there would have been plenty of space for him (or *cough* a proper cycletrack).
He only nipped onto the sidewalk to help the kids push the buttons and cross the road (ahem.. 5 lane highway).
A bump in the road… err… sidewalk
Soon enough, you’ll find that while sidewalk cycling keeps your child off the road, the surface of the sidewalks (at least in my area of town) have their own challenges. They’re lopsided, slopey and often have fairly large bumps where they meet the road at each corner. Soon enough, you and the child both figure out that the road has a better surface with no driveway dips to contend with.
Breaking the MTO’s suggestions… not the first time, probably not the last
If you’re confident in your child’s abilities to ride in a straight line and know when to stop, you’re probably ready to give riding on the road a try. Find a quiet, residential street where you can ride side by side. Sunday mornings work particularly well. I find it easier to stay on the left of the child and sort of “sheepdog” herd them along. This keeps them from drifting too far into the middle of the street.
This photo is from our first try riding off-sidewalk. Alden is five (clearly not age 10 as suggested by the MTO). He was very proud to be able to use the street and the bike lane on our errand to the Glebe.
The handbooks say that children lack certain abilities to quickly process the world around them, but I found Alden pretty quick to hop onto the sidewalk when he didn’t feel comfortable on the road even if there were no cars around. Kids really are like canaries in the coal mine for safe streets.
So, we made a little video about running some errands to the Glebe on our bikes.
All-ages, all abilities
Kids can become great at biking with practice, access to low traffic/low speed cycle friendly streets and segregated cycling infrastructure that supports a wide range of ages and abilities. Too often, our bike infrastructure is designed for determined adult vehicular cyclists.
It’s time to realize that telling kids not to start biking until they’re 10 is foolish. At our elementary school alone, even the junior area bike racks are full (kindergarten – grade 3). The school board and health departments promote the idea of having kids to walk and bike to school, but instead of being supported with safe all-ages cycling routes, parents are left to make up their own rules for how best to travel safely from point A to B.
I tweeted the above photo last week. It got a lot of activity – including retweets by the school board and local provincial election candidates. People love to the idea of kids being active and cycling.. until it comes to making space for them to do so.
And when infrastructure fails, pedestrians and cyclists work together to carve out safe spaces. Those well-worn paths by schools and parks are carved out from the feet and wheels of residents and their future voters. Is our city designed to support them now or in the future? I’m getting off topic. It’s been a long week.
Back to riding
Start with short distances, get to the park or splash pad. Work your way up to a bike ride to school. Attach a basket to your child’s bike and run an errand together. They love carrying stuff on their bikes.
If you are lucky enough to have neighbours who bike their kids to school, time your departure and leave together. Even a small group riding together will make your route feel safer.
Is it always easy? No, not always. Nothing about kids is ever very easy in the beginning. Keep at it. The more you bike together, the easier it gets. And some days… walk or take the bus. That’s ok too.
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