The Smallest New Yorkers Join the Pandemic Biking Surge

When Annie Weinstock began toting her two young children to day care and playgrounds on a cargo bike three years ago, she sometimes spotted one other family in her Brooklyn neighborhood riding a similar bike.

“We’d wave, because it seemed like such a strange thing,’’ said Ms. Weinstock, who lives in Carroll Gardens. Today, she added, “you see them all over the place, every day.”

Bikes of any kind carrying children on New York City streets were once a relatively rare sighting. But in many neighborhoods, children on the front and back of cycles zipping past traffic, or coasting alongside grown-ups, are becoming a routine part of rush hour bustle.

The availability of electric cargo bikes designed to hold passengers is one factor fueling the growth, said Ms. Weinstock, a transportation planner and director of programs at People-Oriented Cities, an urban planning advocacy group. The pedal-assist technology makes it easier and safer to haul children long distances and up hills.

The expansion of bike lanes in the city has also made cycling feel more accessible to families.

Then there is the coronavirus pandemic. Families avoiding public transportation and school buses while no longer commuting to work helped fast-track the use of bikes as family transportation, local bike shop owners said.

“A lot of mothers are trying to transport their children to school,” said Damon Victor, owner of Greenpath Electric Bikes in South Brooklyn. “I didn’t see it coming.”

Coraline and her brother Felix getting ready for school. Ms. Wiza started taking them to school on an e-bike to avoid publc transit.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

Another mother in the neighborhood convinced Ms. Wiza to use a bicycle to ferry her children. Ms. Wiza bought an e-bike on Craigslist for $,1200.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

In late 2020, Savannah Wiza and her husband were deliberating how to get their children, who were 4 and 7 at the time, from their home in Harlem to their elementary schools on the Upper West Side once schools resumed partial in-person learning.

The family was avoiding the subway and did not want to deal with the parking headaches that owning a car in the city brings. Riding scooters uphill was not working so they considered biking, an option that at first “terrified’’ Ms. Wiza.

But after listening to another neighborhood mother rave about biking with her children, the Wizas ended up buying an electric bike on Craigslist for $1,200.

Two years later the entire family is vaccinated and back on the subway, but their cargo e-bike continues to serve as de facto school bus.

“When it’s nice out, it’s wonderful,” said Ms. Wiza, who sometimes takes detours through Central Park.

As in many cities around the world, biking in New York surged during the pandemic as residents sought alternatives to public transportation.

Peter Brown and his son Kenzo on the bike path at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Mr. Brown takes his son to pre-school by bike.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

The city’s bike-share program, Citi Bike, recorded nearly 28 million rides last year, an increase of about 32 percent from the 21 million rides in 2019, before the pandemic.

No reliable bike ridership data is available that focuses on the age of riders or people riding together, making it difficult to gauge the popularity of parents carrying children on bikes.

But companies that manufacture bikes and local bike store owners say the uptick in New York seems undeniable. Biking as family transportation has “become a lot more mainstream,” said Chris Nolte, owner of Propel Bikes, which sells electric cargo bikes.

When he opened Propel in 2015 in Brooklyn, almost none of his customers were parents looking to carry children. Now they are a large share of his clientele, with e-bikes built to haul passengers accounting for 30 to 40 percent of sales, Mr. Nolte said.

Peter Kocher, the owner of another bike shop, Ride Brooklyn, said an uptick “in families using cycling for their transportation needs,” which began before the pandemic, had been turbocharged over the past two years.

And Rad Power Bikes, a large direct-to-consumer e-bike company based in Seattle, said one of the fastest growing models sold in New York was an electric cargo bike that can seat two children.

The growth in bicycling comes at a moment when transportation advocates and city officials are promoting alternative travel modes to address climate change and New York’s chronically gridlocked streets.

“Biking reduces carbon emissions and it doesn’t require the same amount of physical space or road maintenance that cars do,” said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University.

But for many parents the main appeal is often logistics.

Before the pandemic, Peter Brown, 45, had grown impatient navigating Brooklyn’s “sidewalks in crummy weather with a stroller.” A seasoned cyclist, he had long wanted to ride with his son Kenzo, 4, but his partner and Kenzo’s mother, Yuka Yamashita, was “nervous about putting him on a bike seat.”

Mr. Brown said his son’s mother had been nervous about taking their son on a bike, but a new preschool’s rules led to their new routine.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times
Mr. Brown often takes Kenzo on bike rides on the weekend to explore the city.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

Then Ms. Yamashita, a hospital psychiatric nurse, was reassigned to a wing where Covid patients were being treated.

Kenzo’s day care decided it was too risky to keep serving the family so his parents found a new preschool but it required children taking public transportation to change clothes when they got to the school.

Instead the family bought a child seat to attach to Mr. Brown’s bike and now he pedals Kenzo to school every day. His son loves riding and on some weekends the two explore the city by bike. In those moments, Mr. Brown said, “the background anxiety and stress kind of fade away.”

For some families, bicycling went from a solution to pandemic challenges to a way to forge closer bonds.

“It’s not just a way to get from point A to point B, it’s a form of exercising, and being outdoors, and enjoying being here, with your kids,” said Selam Czebotar, 39, who lives in Hell’s Kitchen and bikes with her husband and four children, who range in age from 4 to 10.

Biking also eliminates the need to lug strollers down subway stairs, or fold them when riding public buses to abide by transit agency rules. Travel to neighborhood play dates or the local pediatrician are far quicker on bike than on two feet.

Cycling opens up parts of the city that would otherwise require complicated maneuvering to reach, said Madeleine Novich, a professor at Manhattan College, who is known as CargoBikeMama to her nearly 3,500 followers on Instagram, where she documents her adventures as a stylish New York biking mother. “I’m a full-time working mom of three. I’m very protective of my time,” Ms. Novich said, adding that she loathes waiting for subways or buses. “Biking allows me ownership over my time.”

Still, like many other cyclists, parents say they have had close calls with cars on the city’s crowded streets. “It’s kind of the Wild West,’’ said Hilda Cohen, who lives in Brooklyn and has two teenage children.

During the pandemic, car ownership also increased in the city, a boom that has coincided with an increase in traffic deaths. Last year, 274 people were killed on city streets, the highest level since 2013, the year before the city launched its Vision Zero initiative to make streets safer.

Transportation advocates say a safe biking infrastructure has failed to keep pace with demand, but some believe a surge in families biking together could help address the issue.

“When it’s nice out, it’s wonderful,” said Ms. Wiza, who after dropping off her children at school while sometimes take a detour through Central Park.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

In the 1970s, parents in the Netherlands protesting children killed by cars helped transform Amsterdam into one of the world’s most bike-friendly cities.

“Having more parents as cyclists helps the movement of developing safer biking infrastructure,” Ms. Kaufman said.

New York City officials say they are accelerating plans to create safer spaces for cyclists of all ages.

“This administration recognizes the urgency to address traffic deaths and we’re committed to building better and safer bicycle lanes,” said Vin Barone, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation.

At Greenpath Electric Bikes, Mr. Victor continues to see a strong demand for electric bikes among customers who want to haul their children around even as the pandemic has eased.

“It’s the freedom of moving their children in and out of school easily, the freedom of getting to work on a bike, the freedom of bypassing parking, the freedom of bypassing the traffic,” Mr. Victor said.

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