Handy tips for commuting with kids

School run, work commute… they're both better by bike!

For many people, the school run is part and parcel of the daily commute, so how do you manage cycling to work when you’ve got kids in the mix?

We spoke to lots of different parents with children of all ages to get their wise words and advice on how to manage the school run and the work commute by bike.

They shared their hard-won words of wisdom and experience about the bikes, products and kit they use, the lessons they've learned and their top tips for making it an efficient, but most of all fun, part of the day.

After all, it means more time with your children AND more time on the bike. What's not to love!?

Advice from other parents

Getting kids ready for nursery, playgroup or school can be tricky enough in the mornings, particularly when you also have to get yourself ready for work.

Clothes, breakfasts, packed lunches — adding helmets, jackets and bikes to the list can seem daunting and time consuming. 

Jennifer Purcell regularly commutes by bike, taking her two children to school before heading to work herself. She says the benefits are compelling and easily outweigh the logistical issues.

"It's such a good start to the day," Purcell tells BikeRadar. "Even if things have been frantic getting ready, and we've not left on time, we then all get to blow the cobwebs out and enjoy the ride down to school."

Fresh air, exercise, and more time spent together... what's not to like?
Fresh air, exercise, and more time spent together... what's not to like?

"The kids are also learning road etiquette and also how to behave on shared paths. It can be a bit terrifying when we hit the small road section, but Ryder is so proud whenever we negotiate the trickier junctions. Burning off that bit of energy in the morning also means we are more focussed when we get in to school and work. It's the best start to the day, for sure."

We also spoke to Jane Ewins, who is clearly passionate about family cycling, and feels there are several 'stages' to a family's bike commute progression.

"The joy of getting back on your bike using a single infant seat when your first child is born; when your toddler's balance bike changes from being a toy to a viable mode of transport but a challenge to blend with an adult riding too; second child comes along and suddenly you find yourself out and about with a baby strapped to you and a child riding like a racer on the footpaths. After a few more years both kids can ride with confidence but the older one is faster and the younger one races to keep up and this is when 'commuter riding' really started for us."

Cycling games

Rachel Fleming shared that her husband regularly commutes with their two children, aged five and three on a Helios tandem bike with a Yepp Maxi bike seat.

Don't fret if you're late. It happens

"He drops one at nursery, one at school and then carries on to work. Top tip: dress for the weather, with good quality waterproofs, and Merino balaclavas for under helmets in winter, as dry happy children make for a happy commute. My husband also tries to involve them and they chat about which way they will turn and gets them to do signals, or if they have time in the morning he'll let them choose the route, or allow them to play Pokemon Go on the way."

For kids that are feeling reluctant, making the commute a game is a great way of engaging them and getting them involved, a technique that Purcell uses regularly.

"Each day when we set out, the juniors decide what we're going to play," she says.  "Monday we could be Power Rangers, Tuesday we'll be Hiccup and Astrid flying our dragons down the hill, Wednesday we'll be superheroes racing to stop the baddies from destroying the school, Thursday could be a Tour de France stage and Friday could simply be an 'eye spy' day. On the way home we can chat about our days, sharing the good and the bad."

The website Cycle Sprog has a wealth of advice on products that will make your family commute more efficient and comfortable, and is well worth a read. Purcell also recommends the Family Cycling UK group on Facebook, and we're sure there are plenty of others out there where you'll be able to get advice and recommendations.

Choosing a route

Choosing a good, safe route is an important consideration for many parents considering commuting with their children, and although organisations like Sustrans in the UK have journey planners that will suggest quiet routes and even traffic-free paths, for a lot of parents the lack of a safe route is a serious barrier. 

However, with some preparation and planning there are ways of managing this for the majority of potential bike-commuting families.

Ewins' approach is to ride a fixed route every day. "[We] really learnt the details of the whole route. Youngest and slowest rides first, and we limit instructions and directions shouted from behind, and limit 'advice' given by older riders to younger riders."

Sarah Richer Dorman, who also commutes with her children adds that "They're used to being on the road and know to listen and stop when told to. The trick is always to have them in front of you, and to try out routes until they're familiar with them. And don't try this unless you know they will listen and respond to you!"

Don't forget to leave extra time, as managing the bikes and equipment of two, three or more cyclists is time consuming, but also try not to worry too much about being on time. It might help to talk to your workplace to arrange some flexibility on days you will be doing the commute with kids by bike. 

However, "Don't fret if you're late. It happens," says Purcell. "The joy of riding in is that you have that exercise, fresh air, and conversation time together. If it's all fraught then it's not fun for anyone."

Kit and equipment for commuting with children

With kids of different ages, a mixture of kit can work well like this cargo bike, child seat and tag-along combo
With kids of different ages, a mixture of kit can work well like this cargo bike, child seat and tag-along combo

There’s more and more product on the market than ever before for parents who want to cycle with their kids. From bike-mounted child seats to tow-along trailers to cargo bikes, there are setups to suit commutes of every kind and children of every age.

Here’s what a few of the parents we asked use, and it's very common to use more than one method to suit the different ages and sizes of children. 

Child seats

These can be fitted either on the rear of a bike on a specially fitted rear rack, on the frame in front of the main rider between the handlebars and the saddle, or right on the front of the bike. The most popular seats are the rear ones. 

To fit these, you'll usually need a bike that has lugs incorporated into the frame to attach the supports to. Often, these child seats will have the option to attach pannier bags below, so you can store jackets, schoolbags and packed lunches here while you ride. 

Ollie Craig is one parent that used this method: "I did the school run on a hybrid City bike with a bike seat until my daughter was five. Now she takes her scooter or bike (on the pavement and canal path) while I cycle with her."

Tandem

A tandem? For riding with kids? Yes, actually. They were a surprisingly popular choice among the parents we spoke to, and Jennifer Purcell regularly uses one for commuting that's fitted with two child seats, or a child seat and a tag-along. 

Tag-along or tow-alongs

Tag-alongs are devices that allow you to tow a child's bike behind you, usually attaching at the front of the smaller bike with a long metal pole to the seat stay of the adult bike. 

The advantages here are that the child will get some exercise and pedal (if they want to! They might end up letting you do all the work) and gets used to being on their own bike.

The disadvantages include having to continue to ride on with it once you've dropped the child at school, unless there is somewhere to park the bike and tag-along device. 

Rona Wightman is a fan of this method, and they are increasingly popular as they suit a wide variety of ages: "I had a child seat and then an Isla Rowntree trailerbike [aka tag-along]. The tagger lasted to age ten."

Her set up included a front rack with panniers while using the child seat, and now rear panniers with the trailer bike, which came with its own rack.

Trailer

Trailers and self contained seats for children designed to be towed along behind a bike, are great for babies, toddlers and younger kids.

Designed to be lightweight, the child is strapped in — a little like a pushchair — and has a nice view to look at while you ride along. 

If you've got a rough commute or want to go cross-country, you can find trailers that are robust enough to handle a little off-roading. 

Cargo bike

Increasingly popular, particularly in Europe, these are great for carrying. They can be bulky and not the most nimble, so while they are great for carrying one or two children plus bags, they may not be best suited to hilly commutes and those with limited storage space.

Some have a large storage box at the front or rear, others are designed to carry loads elsewhere on the frame. 

Jennifer Purcell has one as part of her two commute-and-school-run setups: "I'm in the fortunate position of having two bikes for 'family cycling'," she comments. "When Heidi and I are doing the school run, I like to ride the Surly Big Dummy which is a long wheel-based cargo bike. I have two rear seats on the back and can 'bag 'n' drag' [pop the front wheel in the pannier] Ryder's bike back up the hill in the side panniers. We live up a big hill and the Surly's gear range is much better suited to hauling heavy weights."

Riding as a group

If you're children are older and/or your route is quiet and safe enough, you can of course all set off on your own individual bikes. There are loads of benefits here, including children experiencing independence and responsibility.

Ideally, you'll need to be able to keep the bikes at school with the kids so you can ride home together afterwards. The downside here is that there's no option to give anyone a lift if they are feeling too tired to ride... unless you ride a bike with a child seat just in case. 

There are myriad combinations of bike plus accessories, so it's worth reading up on what would work for you, your family and your commute. 

Top tips for commuting with kids

After many trips, smiles, tears and the occasional unexpected downpour, here are the pearls of wisdom and hard-won experience that the parents we spoke to have to share:

  • Work out the best formation of bike plus accessories for you
  • Always bring rain jackets, even if it's not forecast
  • Use the commute to chat to each other
  • Play games as you go! Whether it’s role play or I Spy, games make the commute more fun and it becomes quality time spent with your family
  • Plan a route that you’re comfortable riding with kids. Many people prefer to avoid busy roads and opt for greenways and segregated cycle paths
  • You might find some specific training comes in handy for getting the hang of mounting and dismounting a bike with a child seat, for example
  • If you're trying a new set-up, go for a few practice rides to get a feel for how it all handles
  • When they first start school, they'll be very tired by the end of the week. Purcell suggests seats or tag-alongs and doing the hard work yourself on these days, as otherwise you may be dealing with grumpy kids!
  • Lleave an outfit at work with something to freshen up with — like wet wipes and some deodorant — if you don't have access to showers or are in a rush

Share your advice with other readers!

What set up to you use and recommend? What are the essential bits of kit that have made your bike-based school run and commute better? Share your tips, suggestions and ideas below.

  • Sponsored: UK readers — can you go the extra mile this summer? By running or cycling to work you can be a part of Red Bull’s UK-wide Million Mile Commute. Join the club in Strava to be eligible for a Red Bull sample kit to set you on your way. Don’t forget to share your commutes by tagging @RedBullUk and use #MillionMileCommute
Aoife Glass

Women's Cycling Editor
A mountain biker at heart, also drawn to the open road. Likes big long adventures in the mountains. Usually to be found in the Mendip Hills or the Somerset Levels in the UK. Passionate about women's cycling at all levels.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road
  • Preferred Terrain: Rocky, rough and a long way from anywhere.
  • Current Bikes: Liv Avail Advanced Pro 2015, Juliana Furtado 2013, Canyon Roadlite AL
  • Dream Bike: Juliana Roubion, Liv Avail Advanced SL
  • Beer of Choice: Red wine for the win!
  • Location: Weston Super Mare, Somerset, UK

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