Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A Chinatown honker, an interborough trip - and how city cycling betrays my kids' innocence

It wasn’t, in most respects, a particularly exceptional piece of abuse. The man leaned loudly on his horn, squeezed his vehicle through a narrow gap to my right, leant out his window and gestured towards the kerb. “You should be over to the side!” he shouted.
A clear incitement to driver rage
But the abuse felt different for one reason. I wasn’t riding last Saturday on my own, as I usually do, but with my wife, the Invisible Visible Girl, 12, and the Invisible Visible Boy, six. The driver was harassing two children who’d been given limited choice about whether to come with us. He threatened them, effectively, with being run over for turning left. It was one of several incidents of low-level harassment we suffered as we rode from home to a Hudson River playpark and back, more slowly and cautiously than I would on my own.

It felt – not for the first time – as if I was giving the children a harsh introduction to the hypocrisies of the adult world. They’ve heard at school and on television about how they should look after the environment and how cycling is a good way to do so. I’ve stressed to them the importance of responsible behaviour on the road. They’re led to believe that most adults want to protect children.

Instead, we faced some motorists who felt entitled to scare us off the roads by brute force. While we tried to keep to the rules of the road and respect others, we found motorists turning across our path, driving dangerously fast and generally treating their legal and moral obligations to other road users with contempt.
The Invisible Visible Boy and trailer bike:
it's OK; you're allowed to smile at us
The overall atmosphere even made me feel irritated about one of the positives of riding with children. After they’d done a double-take at my son’s trailer bike, many passersby would smile or even give us a thumbs-up, responding to the sense of joy and freedom that children seem to feel when cycling. In light of the other behaviour, the friendly gestures felt somehow irritatingly superficial.

It speaks volumes about quite how superb an experience cycling in a city with children can be that we still thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Part of the problem is that few parents in New York or many other big cities – including London, where we used to live – would even countenance undertaking a 12-mile, cross-city round-trip with two children by bike. I’ve read suggestions that parents who cycle with children in London should be prosecuted for child abuse. I remember one disapproving woman in London who saw me negotiating a junction in London (on foot, to reduce the danger) with my son and his trailer bike. “That’s so dangerous!” she said in a stage whisper.

The thought’s the logical extension of the common, mistaken notion that cyclist and pedestrian negligence causes crashes, while speeding, telephone-using motorists are the hapless agents of fate. Parents who cycle with their children are somehow meant to be the only living creatures on earth who don’t care if their progeny survive. The disapproving woman in London presumed she cared more about my son’s welfare than I did. Drivers’ behaviour around cycling families is unlikely to improve until they’ve had more practice encountering them.
The view from Pier 25: worth a few hassles to cycle there.

I'm carefully balancing the risks and rewards when I ride around with the children, however. I’m partly looking to the long term, when the likelihood is that a cycling habit will extend their life expectancy by far more than the risk of a crash will curtail it. I also undertake careful risk analyses. I thought carefully on Saturday about whether the roads would be quiet enough over a holiday weekend for the whole family to follow the route I take to work each day. We then headed a little further to Pier 25 on the Hudson.

The trip brought immediate benefits. As soon as we set off, I was being treated to a burbling stream of the boy’s observations on life and the passing city. When might he fit his older sister’s old bike? Were we in Chinatown yet? Were we out of Chinatown? Why was it called Chinatown? Which floor in that building was my office? My wife, following behind, had the pleasure of hearing the Invisible Visible Girl, riding her own bike, reflect on the shops along Prince St in SoHo.
I'm still a hero when I can fix the Invisible Visible Girl's
bike, if at no other time
It was as if the simple act of getting on our bicycles had wiped away the generation gap in perceptions and enthusiasms within the family. Cycling’s an activity for which many children feel an infectious enthusiasm. It lets adults – myself included – give free rein to their inner child. It’s one of the first activities where children exercise the adult responsibilities of getting about independently. It’s an activity where my modest mechanical expertise continues to give me hero status with my daughter, even as she draws close to becoming a teenager. I’m handing on to my children knowledge about bikes that I learnt from my father and that he learnt from his father before him.

Because of how the experience bonded and relaxed us, I felt guilty when I lapsed into my stressed adult self at a few points in the journey. I found myself gesticulating, exasperated hands aloft, as a truck overtook us then swung right across our path at Spring St and Broadway. I gestured frantically at motorists lining up at the scary intersection of W Houston and West St not to try dangerous overtaking moves. It always feels unfair when I let the children see the more anxious, stressed me of points in my workaday life, rather than the in-control daddy I try to give them.
The Invisible Visible Boy absorbs another family interest
Yet, after 45 minutes or so, we had reached the calm of the bike-only Hudson River Greenway for the short ride down to Pier 25. The boy splashed in the water to cool off from the 90F heat and humidity. The girl, who normally has her head in a book or her iPad, briefly tried out a climbing wall. We visited an old lighthouse tender moored by the pier, where the boy made my heart sing by taking a close interest in the triple-expansion steam engine. Looking up at the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, it felt a privilege to be on bikes in this spectacular city.

The incident with the honking driver – in Chinatown, as we returned to the Manhattan Bridge – detracted only a little from the day.

It was hard, nevertheless, not to feel wistful as we returned home that the experience could not be easier and more straightforward. While I’m prepared to take the boy most places in the city on a trailer bike behind mine, I’ve so far turned down his requests to be allowed to ride alongside us on the sidewalk on his own bike on short, local trips. The girl, older and more attuned to the risks of the roads, never much likes riding into Manhattan because of the challenges of the traffic and impatient drivers.

It would take relatively little improvement, I’m sure, to coax far more parents to get out their children’s bikes for family trips, rather than resort to the subway or a car. Even on Saturday, there were parts of the journey – on the Allen St protected bike lanes, on the Hudson Greenway, on the Manhattan Bridge – where I had no worries about the children’s safety. With further work, I might start feeling more confident about letting the boy ride on his own. With only minor improvements, I might start acknowledging on their own, friendly terms the thumbs up and smiles of well-meaning passersby.


  1. Sadly, as we both know, the motorists are far fewer and generally less aggressive on a pleasant Saturday morning. Perhaps the solution is to have all prospective motorists first demonstrate cycling competence before granting a learner permit. Walk a mile in my shoes, so to speak...

    1. Steve A,

      I've thought since I first learnt to ride - aged 10 - that motorists should have to ride a bike in traffic before getting their driver's licence. It would enormously improve the standard of driving, I'm sure.

      I also enjoyed your assumption that it was a Saturday morning. It shows I didn't give away quite how disorganised and slow to get moving our family is at weekends.

      All the best,


  2. I just have to say: Your kids are super cute.

    1. Ryan,

      Thank you. We're quietly pleased with them.


  3. Great post, perfectly expressing many of the feelings I have when my girls are out on rides with me. :)

  4. And despite the traffic what great memories you are creating for your children. Well done!

    1. Doug,

      Thank you.

      I went out at the weekend (on my own, since the family are now away) and deliberately had a positive experience, to counteract all this.

      I hope there'll be a post about that soon.



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