Riding bikes with twins

IN WHICH maybe four people in the world go ohhhhhh! once or twice, and the rest of you close the browser after two paragraphs.

MY SEVEN-YEAR-OLDS and I ride our bikes to school and the greenmarket. We’re not political about getting around on two wheels; we just like it. No matter how much we’re pissing each other off when we leave home, it’s smiles and hugs when we get where we’re going: It’s hard to stay pissy riding bikes with your kids (or your dad).

THE RULES


  1. Stay right.

  2. No racing.

  3. Watch out for the people, and go waaaaay around them.

  4. Look where you’re going, not down.

Come to think of it, #3 might work better as “No buzzing.” I’ll try it out this week.

There are also two locations where I stop them and say, “What are the rules?” That means the rules for those specific locations.

  • THE BUS STOP is forty feet from the subway entrance, on Broadway, and we’re usually through there at rush hour. People streaming from the crosswalk, from arriving buses, and toward the subway. (We live in a neighborhood that people leave in the morning.) The rule is: Go slow and watch out for the people.
  • ELWOOD STREET is a descent along a row of apartment buildings. The rule is: Stay left (this keeps children on bikes away from people exiting blind doorways) and stop at the end of the buildings, NOT at the end of the sidewalk. This is because if someone steps out from behind the building, they could get hit. On the second block of the descent, the rule becomes “Stop at the end of the red metal,” which is a railing against some vegetable bins.

Now that they’re better and safer riders than last year, I’ve started riding in the street while they’re on the sidewalk. Which allows the additional fun of little boys cackling and blowing past Daddy at T-intersections when he gets stuck at red lights.

THEY’RE AWESOME LITTLE bike guys, and they use bike club chatter correctly (“Bike up!” “Car back!” “Hold your line!” “Clear!”) and know lots of rules for responsible cycling in the city—

But it is easy for little monkeys to forget.

And for that reason, I find myself yelling too much, because all it takes is giving 30 seconds of my attention to the slowpoke, and the zippy one will be a couple of hundred yards ahead, doing something he’s not supposed to do. Like, on the greenway, he’ll be over on the left. I have no love of rules for their own sake, but if you’re a seven-year-old going the wrong way where giants are known to whiz around corners, you need your little butt moved to the right. Like, now. So there’s lots of STAY RIGHT! STAY RIGHT! THAT’S NOT THE RIGHT! STAY RIGHT! YOU’RE NOT STAYING RIGHT! GET OVER TO THE RIGHT! Which not only sounds like anger just because it’s YELLING, but starts feeling that way, too.

And then if he’s so far ahead he can’t hear me (or is ignoring me, not an unreasonable response to somebody who yells at you all the time), I have to leave the other one and go sprinting up there to correct his position.

And then I don’t know what’s going on behind me with the slowpoke.

I STILL HAVEN’T solved that particular problem—but when I learned that one of the boys’ teachers was making little books of rules with him, to help with his focusing, I asked whether they could start one about being a responsible cyclist, and I could review and adjust it to fit how we do things.

They did a great job with it together.

I always ride on the sidewalk.

Today he and I sat down in the dining room and added to it.

Except when we go on the greenway, or Daddy says to ride in the bike lane.

I didn’t coach him on the lane-marking diagrams, except to remind him what the sharrows on Dyckman Street look like. He doesn’t like sharrows, though, so he declined to include them.

None of us like sharrows.

CROSSING THE STREET

I check for cars before crossing a street.

STRICTLY SPEAKING, THIS caption isn’t true.

It’s Daddy’s job to check for cars. It’s a kid’s job to listen for what formation we’re going to cross in, get his bike positioned, and walk when it when Daddy says WALK ’EM. That all sounds like this:

“SCHOOLBUS! CHILD B IN FRONT!…AND…WALK ’EM!”

We walk our bikes in formation when we cross the street.

These formations are my main reason for this post.

Crossing a busy street with two kids and three bikes, the potential for a very fast cascade of errors is frightening. You can’t hold their hands, you can’t let go of your bike, the WALK signal is blinking and the livery cabs are creeping. You can’t stop in the crosswalk, and you can’t patiently explain anything.

Our basic crosswalk formation is SCHOOLBUS:

Schoolbus formation

We get more or less in formation while we’re waiting for the green, and no part of a bike is allowed in the street until I say WALK ’EM. If I have to skip a red/green cycle because somebody’s being sloppy with his front tire in the gutter, I do. We don’t go until it’s right.

When I say WALK ’EM, front boy keeps his front wheel lined up with Daddy’s. Back boy stays close behind him, not allowed to bonk tires.

Those are the only rules. It has to stay simple and unambiguous; we’re in a New York City crosswalk with the seconds ticking down.

Commands like “SPEED UP!” or “SLOW DOWN!” or “YOU THERE, THE ONE WITH THE HAT!” would be confusing—which boy am I talking to? To what degree are they supposed to execute the concept? Does a helmet count as a hat? Without exception, the wrong child will hear and follow the order—and now I’ve got two problems, and both boys are confused. So unless there’s an emergency, the only thing I need to say in the crosswalk is this:

“WHEEL CHECK!”

I have to say it a lot, because little monkeys have forgotten, but everybody knows what to do.

AN EXPLANATION HAS just been demanded for why there’s no trailer attached to the parent’s bike in that diagram.

If you would like, you may add a trailer.

THE OTHER TWO formations are used less often.

  • LINE FORMATION is all three front wheels aligned, and is really just for not making anybody take up the rear.
  • SINGLE FILE is for when the available space is too narrow for walking abreast—most recently when we had downed trees from storm winds.

THE DAD I had in my head, before I became a father, might have worked out if it hadn’t been twins. He listened more than he talked, he was available and patient, he probably dressed well. I’m not him. I bark orders and wear five-year-old clothing that sort of fits.

But as long as that’s what it is, these barked orders work pretty well.

15 Comments

Filed under Bicycling, BikeNYC, Bikes, Commuting, Family, Favorite, Kids, Safety

15 responses to “Riding bikes with twins

  1. Larry

    This makes so much sense, Keith. Hire yourself out to the Parks Department and teach parents who put no thought into their child’s bicycle safety. Ugh! The insanity of it all! You’re the best dad ever.

  2. Cyn Huddleston

    This is a big job X 2.

  3. Gordon Atkinson

    I enjoyed reading this, in part because I like the thorough way in which you do things an analyze them. The various formations, the diagrams, etc. And I know you’ve come across the thought that, of course it would be safer just to stay home. Never to leave, never to bike anywhere.

    Then the boys would become serial killers. And that would be bad. So you take the risks, minimize them as much as you can, and live with them.

    Hence the rules.

  4. A perfect demonstration of my parenting axiom that the harder thing is the easier thing.

    • Had I heeded that philosophy this morning, there would be one less wife with an ice pack on her ankle in the ER waiting room, one less road rash on the face of one child, and my keys wouldn’t be at the bottom of the elevator shaft.

      Long story, starting with the wrong mitten on the first day back to school.

      We’re good in crosswalks, though.

      • That sounds bad, Keith! Sometimes, no amount of planning or diagrams can foresee the lost mitten, key-gobbling elevators and, well, whatever caused the road rash and ankle injury.

        Hope everyone is OK.

  5. Thanks, Ray. We’re fine–but speaking of cascades, it was the kind you always want to pull off in a short story but never can, because there are too many coincidences. Fiction is way more orderly than life.

  6. Wonderful pictures and very well articulated. It’s amazing the creativity in a tough situation.

    Of course it is an impossible situation, no amount of vigilance will ever be enough. That as because of course in any transportation system the road is more important than the vehicle. Bicycles are pretty amazing at being versatile to work on all sorts of roads, but there is a limit. As Enrique Peñalosa said “We cannot continue to deceive ourselves thinking that to paint a little line on a road is a bike way. A bicycle way that is not safe for an 8-year old is not a bicycle way. ”

    My only problem with this article is that you say you are “not political” about cycling. Clearly you are, given your attention to detail and trying to work out how to get your kids through the city for yourself and other people. “Politics” just means people working together. (Partisan politics is only a small aspect of politics) It is inevitable. Own it. Be proud of your good work.

    Take care and take the lane! :-)

  7. I love this! I can completely relate to your love for cycling and only hope I can share my love of urban cycling with my own (they are currently 3 months old) twin boys. I am not planning on taking them out just yet, but was wondering what seat/carrier/trailer/ you used when they were smaller. It is surprisingly difficult to find something for twins and the expert advice would be appreciated.

    • Yeah, it’s hard to find bike solution for twin infants, unless you’ve got the money and enough for a bakfiets.

      I hauled them around in a Burley D’Lite for years, all over NYC. Even got my drivetrain modified to lower the gearing so I could get up this one hill with the trailer behind me.

      I figured I’d sell the trailer when they got their own bikes, but it turned out it was still useful, for hauling their bikes home after we all rode to school. This year they started third grade at a different school, and it’s closer, so the bike ride doesn’t make as much sense, and the trailer’s been folded up against the wall since September. But we sure got a lot of use out of it.

  8. Any chance you’d like to sell it? The price tag for a new one is pretty steep.

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