If you didn’t already know, American kids don’t ride their bikes to school nearly as frequently as they used to. According to the National Center for Safe Routes To School, in 1969, almost half of kids between the ages of 5-14 rode their bikes to school; by 2009, that was down to 13 percent. The trend isn’t improving, either, and according to the Federal Highway Administration, as of 2017, only around ten percent of kids from 5-17 rode or walked to school, with over half of them getting there by private motor vehicle.
Parents aren’t crazy about the idea of their kids riding to school either, and the top barriers they cite are traffic and safety concerns, as well as distance to the school. So we appear to be in a vicious cycle. On average, children now live farther from school than they used to—and so their parents drive them, which creates more traffic, as well as the danger that comes with it. Consequently, drop-off and pick-up has become a clusterfuck, as anyone who finds themselves near a school in the morning or afternoon can attest. Here in New York City, where I live, it’s so bad the schools chancellor flat-out refused to answer a reporter when asked about the issue, and the Department of Education subsequently escorted the reporter from the building.
There are numerous benefits to kids using bikes for transportation. For example, childhood obesity is a serious problem in this country, and bikes are a potential solution. As for us grown-ups, driving kids places sucks, and if your kid can ride a bike instead then that’s less hassle for you. So getting more kids on bikes is a rare opportunity to put the children first while simultaneously maximizing your own convenience. And that’s what you call a win-win!
The bikes available for kids today reflects cycling’s place as a recreational pursuit for them. These days you can get bikes for your kid that not too long ago were exotic even for adults: there are kid gravel bikes, kid fat bikes, kid track bikes, and kid full-suspension mountain bikes. Those specialty bikes aside, typical kid bikes from the big bike companies tend to be mountain bike-ish all-rounders, designed along similar lines as the casual (if boring) “hybrid” or “fitness” bikes that are marketed to adults. Besides these, affordable and durable BMX bikes abound. And of course there’s always the big box store if you child prefers bikes that pay homage to their favorite movie or comic book characters.
To be clear, the variety of kid bikes today is a good thing. When I was a kid, the apotheosis of the kid bike was still the Ross Apollo—compelling to be sure, and a fitting nod to the muscle cars of the era that were muscling American kids off the streets, but largely an exercise in form over function. Still, if kids today are going to use bikes to get places, they need ones designed to help them do that. As cool and fun and bulletproof as that BMX bike is, it’s not really up for the long haul—or arguably even the short haul, because you can’t really even sit down while riding it.
When my older son started riding to school in sixth grade, he did so on his BMX bike. Hills were a bit of an inconvenience; another problem was his backpack. He didn’t yet have a locker at school, and as any parent knows, backpacks have gotten really heavy—so heavy that researchers in New Zealand have identified them as a barrier to active transit. After awhile he switched to his road bike, which allowed him to downshift and sit down, but there was still the issue of the backpack, which was so heavy I was surprised his seatpost didn’t slip. I thought about a rack, or a basket, or panniers, but the sheer weight of the bag would have overwhelmed any of those (and thrown off the bike’s handling to boot), and splitting up the load across the bike and then putting it back in the backpack at school would have taken longer than the ride to school itself.
Then, in the spring of that year, the bike brand Woom sent us their NOW cargo bike to try. There are plenty of cargo bikes available for adults nowadays, and an Internet search for cargo bikes for kids will yield plenty of results about carrying your own kids in a cargo bike. But there’s very little about cargo bikes made for kids to ride on their own. The NOW 6, meant for kids aged ten-14, is a front-loading cargo bike with a 26-inch rear wheel and a 20-inch front wheel for stability. It has full fenders and an eight-speed twist-shift drivetrain. It has really good tires, too: Schwalbe Big Apples. (Typically on a kid bike you’d expect to have to upgrade to a tire like a Schwalbe Big Apple.) Perhaps best of all, it also has a Shutter Precision dynamo hub and front and rear LEDs–proper lights that let you see and be seen, as opposed to your standard-issue blinky.
I though maybe the small-wheel funny-bike look of the Woom NOW might put him off, or that other kids might laugh at it, but he was into it right away, and apparently kids today are more sophisticated than they were when I was his age because nobody gave him any crap. Finally, he was able to move the backpack onto the bike, where it sat securely and didn’t throw off the bike’s handling, He could shift and he had fenders for the rain. With a hub dynamo he could leave the lights on all the time, and I didn’t have to send him off with blinkies if I thought he might be out after dark. The thing was a true pack mule, yet nimble enough that he enjoyed riding it. It was exactly what he needed.
This is not to say the bike’s perfect. For example, cargo bikes spend a lot of time outside, and a hub gear and chain case would make the bike considerably more weatherproof—though these items probably also make it considerably more expensive. Leaving these off means Woom is able to sell a full-blown cargo bike for $849. Disc brakes are similarly fickle—when a bike has to sit out in wet weather the rotors get rusty and you’ve got to ride through a little grinding before it wears off. But these are minor quibbles, given how capable and convenient the bike is. Even kids who don’t ride to school need to be able to carry stuff sometimes, whether it’s a basketball, or a skateboard, or their cleats and soccer ball and other gear, or the shitload of candy the amassed from trick-or-treating. Sadly, all of us live in places where we can feel comfortable letting our kids ride around like that, but for those of us who do, the Woom is more than up to the task, and as of now is maybe even the only bike of its kind. Maybe, as more kids ride around, more towns and cities will make it easier for them to do so.
Of course, kids do grow out of bikes. They also change: now my son has a locker, and those hills don’t seem that big to him anymore, so he’s riding a track bike to school. But as I always say, if you’re concerned about spending money on a kid bike, you can simply amortize it by having more kids and passing it on down the line. Eventually it’ll pay for itself.