Family biking: Front Seat vs Trailer vs Tag Along vs Cargo
Useful biking is one of the most important ways to profit greenly. It saves money, cuts pollution, and improves fitness and happiness. When kids enter the picture though biking as transport becomes more challenging. Even if you get past the initial fear of traffic, you're confronted with a myriad of ways to get your kids around by bike with wildly varying price points. Over the past 4 years I've managed to try most every type of kid hauling bike contraption and extensively researched the rest. In this post I'll reflect on my experiences to help other parents who are trying to figure out the best way to profit greenly by hauling their kids around by bike.
Front Handlebar Seat
The first way I carried a kid on a bike was with a $70 Bobike Mini front seat mounted on my handlebars. My main bike has mustache bars that keep my hands fairly wide and high so this worked great (narrow/low drop bars wouldn't work so well). I was a bit nervous putting my son in for the very first time, holding the handlebars with a death grip as my wife strapped him into the seat. Once he was in though the ride was really nice, and over years of riding with both him and later my daughter in this seat I never once came close to falling with it. This got me comfortable enough to not grasp the bike super tight whenever putting a kid in/out of the seat and I loved it.
The best part of a front seat is how your kid can see everything so clearly while riding with you. Both of my kids absolutely loved being in this seat and had plenty of laughs while riding with me. Because they're right there between your arms you can see what they're doing, talk with them, even give them a little hug with your elbows. Other road users see them too, which results in a lot of waves and smiles from passers by.
The most common annoyance with this seat was that I had to splay my knees a tiny bit to keep from knocking the back of it. Once I got used to riding like this it wasn't too big of a deal, but it must be far worse with those seats that mount over the top tube of the bike and I wouldn't recommend them. The other issue that came up when I started riding with my daughter in this seat is that she could actually reach down and adjust my bar end shifters while riding, putting me into a different gear! My son never did this, but my daughter thought it was hilarious. We eventually came to an understanding about it, but it was a surprise drawback to a front mounted seat that I didn't experience the first couple years I rode with it with my son. The biggest issue with front seats is that kids outgrow them pretty fast. My seat claimed to work till 3 years, but both my kids legs got too long for it just past 2 (me and my wife being over 6 feet may have contributed to this). Still, $70 for a ton of fun over 2 years seems like a good deal, and a great cheap way to test the waters on biking with your kid.
After the front seat, the next kid carrying contraption I tried was a bike trailer. I was riding with my son in the hot, desert environment of Tempe Arizona and I got afraid that on longer, hotter trips he might get too much sun in the front seat. My solution to this was to buy a used Trek GoBug trailer (now discontinued). This trailer had a built in sun shade and I also threw one of those little misting fans in the back to keep him cool. The trailer worked great for longer rides, but I still used the Bobike front seat for short trips because it was so much smaller and easier to maneuver with. The trailer did allow me to bring a bunch more stuff though, so it was great for taking trips to the pool or park with a bunch of toys, or even small kid bikes. Many people criticize trailers as not being visible enough to cars, but this was never an issue for us. We were lucky to be riding almost exclusively in bike lanes/paths though, because while Phoenix drivers aren't the most bike friendly, the bike infrastructure there is pretty great (we've also had no visibility issues with it in State College).
The particular trailer I bought also had the ability to turn into a jogging stroller, which seemed like a great feature but was executed poorly. The main issue was that the front wheel + supports were huge. They'd fill up nearly the entire trunk of the trailer, and when you put them on (which took like 5 minutes of fiddling) they'd make the trailer over 6 feet long. The front wheel was also fixed so turning this beast meant that you'd have to pop a wheelie. I biked it to a mall once with hopes of pushing my son around inside, and while I managed getting around it was so bad that I quietly declared "never again". If I was going to do it all over again I'd get a trailer with those fold down caster wheels like the Thule Chariot. Of course that trailer costs like $1,000 while mine was under $100 used, but I bet if you looked hard you can find a deal on a trailer with fold down caster wheels.
The other great feature of the trailer I bought was that it had 2 seats. That meant when my daughter came along there was room enough for both her and her brother. I even used its stroller feature to push them around town before her neck was strong enough to be pulled along in the trailer by a bike. I biked them both around in this for a little over a year, but then the kids started growing bigger. At 1 and 3 they could physically still fit in the trailer, but they were smushed up against each other (especially with winter coats on) and started fighting a lot. Getting 6 months older just made it even worse. I wish someone made a kids bike trailer with more room and a higher weight capacity, but it just doesn't exist. This eventually led me to my next child bike purchase, a tag along bike trailer.
Tag Along Trailer (aka tadpole)
I bought a tag along bike trailer to keep my kids more separated on rides and give my son more experience pedaling. The WeeRide Co-Pilot used to be just $75 on Amazon (now the price is up to $110, probably thanks to a global pandemic that has spurred a surge in biking). At 4 years old he barely fit on it, and I had to turn the handlebars around backwards to bring them a bit closer to his body, but he totally loved it. The feeling of helping pedal really brings him joy, and I think it helped him transition from his balance bike to a real pedal bike too. His balance bike experience also let me trust that he'd actually hold on to this tag along and not just fall off in the road randomly. With my daughter in the front handlebar seat this setup let me carry both kids around in one long bike train type setup (though parking and getting them out took a bit of balance).
The main issue with the tadpole I bought was how it connects to my seatpost. There's a connector piece of metal with 4 bolts that you tighten it around the seat post. The connector on the tag along slides into this and a quick release bolt goes through a side hole to secure it. This is easy enough to do, but the cheap model I had didn't have the side holes lined up perfectly. I'd shove the metal connecter all the way in and then have to slowly work it back (the fit is tight so it doesn't easily slide) to line up the holes and put the quick release clamp through. I figure a more expensive model wouldn't have this issue, but I solved it by cutting a wood spacer to the right size and taping it inside the connector on my seatpost. The other issue is that even though there's an articulating joint behind the connector it doesn't bend very far. Too tight a turn can torque the connector on your seat post to a new angle and it's annoying to turn it back. This happens even if I screw the bolts down super tight with an impact driver, and just seems like an issue with how this type of connector attaches.
A vast improvement on the cheap tadpole I bought is a more expensive model called the Weehoo. I'd originally considered buying this one, but decided against it as too expensive, then a few months ago a friend randomly gave us one that her kids had outgrown and it's been amazing. It has a metal cylinder that goes around the bike's whole seat post which totally avoids the problems I mentioned above. There's a black nylon bushing in this that lets it fit snugly on different size posts and rotate around freely as you turn. If you want to get really aggressive you can actually turn the bike over 90 degrees and ride a circle around the Weehoo pivoting it on it's tire. The Weehoo's recumbent sitting position is also an improvement as it allows you to strap the kids in. This means that I'm comfortable putting my wiggly 2 year old daughter back there when I would never be okay putting her on our more bike like tag along. The Weehoo we got is a tandem model too, so you can put both kids in it. It's even got its own little panniers, along with pockets on the sides of the seats for water/snacks and seat back pockets for toys. The long bike chain is enclosed in plastic to keep your kids safe and clean. Heck, they even sell little sunshades and weather enclosures for this thing, it's got it all!
The Weehoo is nearly perfect with only a couple small flaws. First, it's fairly unstable getting the kids in/out of it. This could be improved by adding a big double kickstand to the bike, or a 2nd kickstand on the Weehoo. Next, only the kid at the front can pedal so sometimes there can be fights over who gets to sit there (also the pedal straps there don't work great). Most importantly though there's not a ton of room for two longer legged kids on it. I expect my kids won't be able to both fit on the Weehoo anymore when they're 4 and 6, maybe even earlier. The good thing is that you can still hold one kid by just pushing the front seat further back and relegating the back seat to storage. I could see it lasting a single kid till 8 or older this way. This bike trailer has become my kids' favorite way of getting around so I can certainly see doing this, but I'd need my wife with me to pull kid 2 on the tag along. The need to be able to haul 2 big kids around is the same dilema I was confronting before we were given the Weehoo as my daughter outgrew her front seat, and is why I bought my cargo bike.
Rather than spending $500 on a Weehoo that my kids might outgrow in a few years I decided to spend $1700 on a used Madsen bucket bike which I hoped would last much longer. That was a bit over a year ago and looking back I'm mostly happy with my purchase. The great thing about the Madsen is that it can carry a ton. It has seating for 4 in the bucket and maxes out at 600 lbs of cargo. The most I've hauled with it was 500 lbs (car batteries, cinder blocks and me). This had me really wishing for e-assist, but the Madsen frame handled it no problem. I've thrown my wife and kids in the bucket at the same time for a short ride, but would not recommend that in general. The bucket on the back is also nice because the kids like to wave at the cars coming up on us. This is fun for them and seems to lead to less aggressive drivers.
One of my main concerns before buying the Madsen was whether it would be stable to carry so much weight on 2 wheels. After 1 year of riding I can say it definitely is. I'd originally been thinking of a cargo trike like the Virtue School Bus, but after test riding one and feeling how a trike tilts on uneven ground I decided it wouldn't work for me. The Madsen has been able to handle the uneven bike paths of my town with aplomb and even though it's big it's narrow enough for another bike to pass it without off-roading. It can also handle fast speeds a lot better than a trike too. The trike I tested felt super wobbly at 15 mph and would need to be even slower to turn a corner. The Madsen turns fine no matter how fast it's going and while its gearing maxes out around 20 mph but I've gotten near 30 on downhills with no issues (FYI: I do brake to keep it slower when my kids are in it for safety). Conversely on steep uphills I can go into the lowest gear and spin along around 3 mph just fine. This is just barely faster than walking, but you more than make up for this on the flats and downhills (and if time is really an issue you can get e-assist to speed you up). A trike would be more stable at this super low speed, but it'd take even more strength to get up a hill. The real only balance issues I've had are when my 2 year old leans hard from one side to the other to look at something, but this hasn't tipped us yet and I don't think it will.
The seating for 4 does give my kids more room to spread out, but at 2 and 4 they still fight sometimes. When this gets bad I wish I'd bought a bike with the cargo bucket in front of me (called a bakfiets), so I can see what the kids are doing. I had a similar feeling when my daughter threw not 1, but 2 water bottles out into the street to be flattened by cars. But, the buckets on most bakfiets are much smaller than on my Madsen so I wonder if that'd just lead to even more fighting? The other issue is that most bakfiets cost a lot more than my Madsen. An Urban Arrow can cost over $5k and a top of the line, fully loaded Riese and Muller Load 75 can cost over $10k. You can get a used Leaf for less! Obviously there are advantages to a bike that an electric car doesn't have like fitness, offroading, and ease of parking. Both of these premium bakfiets also have electric assist motors, and their flat cargo areas can hold some items that the Madsen can't, but the price is a huge difference and for me it just wasn't worth it (they're still cheaper than most SUVs though). Even if I add e-assist to my Madsen it'll be 1/2 to 1/4 the price of these bikes. And e-assist is definitely something to be considered. As I've written before an eBike can give you well over 1,000 MPGe and it will make a heavy cargo bike much easier for people who aren't athletes/masochists.
The hump in the Madsen bucket doesn't have to be wasted space either. I was able to mount my DIY GPS tracker and the battery pack for my LED bucket lights in the empty space under this hump (turns out an old takeout food container fits perfectly in the frame down there). This keeps these parts safe from both thieves and rain in a way that few other bikes can duplicate. The wheel lock of the Madsen along with its huge size and my GPS tracker means that I am comfortable just parking it anywhere which really adds to its ease of use. I can just roll right up next to the front door of any building and lock up the Madsen with no searching around for a bike rack that might not even exist.
One of my grand visions for the Madsen was that I'd use it to ferry other kids to and from school, playdates, etc., like a sustainable mini-van. Unfortunately Covid has put this dream on hold, but if it weren't for that I think this is something the Madsen can do that many smaller cargo bikes can't. Another great feature of this bike is the weather cover. I rode it to school pretty much every day last winter when there wasn't snow in the bike lanes (unfortunately, my town loves to plow snow into bike lanes) and the kids were never cold. Honestly, my kids are weird ice children who'd often request that the cover to lowered even when it was freezing out. With the cover up they're protected from the wind and the bucket warms up 5-10 F above the outside air. I even throw some blankets back there, but like I said my kids are strange ice beasts so they didn't use them much. The cover also keeps the kids dry in the rain, and shaded on sunny days (this is where its unzippable windows really shine). My only wishes for the cover are that it was easier to zip up the little black cover that goes over it when not in use, and that there was a clip to truly lock it in place when it's up. You pull a strap tight to hold the bottom of it down to the bucket, but there have been a few times when this has failed and the whole cover has flapped open while riding. Luckily this hasn't hurt anyone injuries, but it's definitely scary (I'm thinking of screwing 2 loops of metal into the bucket that carabiners can clip onto to prevent this).
In terms of negatives, the main issue with the Madsen is its weight. This thing weighs like 90 lbs empty, that's far more then 50-60 lbs of my touring bike and Weehoo combo. And while the Madsen carries that weight well, you definitely feel it. When I first got it I stopped doing weight lifting for a month or so because all my body could handle was adjusting to pedaling this giant thing around. I'm sure an e-assist would make this a non-issue but I'm focused on saving money/getting stronger right now. The other question is how long this bike will really be useful for my kids. It has the weight capacity to keep hauling them till they're teens, but how long will they really accept being ridden around in it? At 4 my son is already very proficient on his own bike and my daughter's going strong on her balance bike. Will they refuse the bucket at 6 and 8, what about 10 and 12? I think only time will tell on this, but my fingers are crossed.
If I had to do it all over again what would I buy?
Madsen purchase delay gain $1700 Used Madsen Cost - 6.24% 2018 SP500 ROI = $1593.92 total in 2018 + 28.88% 2019 SP500 ROI = $2054 total in 2019 - 15% capital gains tax = $301 gain - $70 Bobike front seat - $100 used GoBug - $70 WeeRide Tag Along = $61 gain from delaying Madsen purchase 2 years
So, having experienced all these different ways of transporting kids around what would I recommend to new parents just getting started? A common school of thought is that since a cargo bike can do everything you're better off just buying it first. My main recommendation is the opposite though, start cheap and go from there. The reason for this is that I factor in lost investment income/interest costs. The front seat, used trailer and tag along trailer I got were all tons of fun, very useful and essentially free. This is because keeping the $1700 I paid for the Madsen invested for 2 more years earned over $300 which is more than all of these things cost combined. Yes one of those years saw high stock gains, but even a lower 7% ROI would have paid for them and that isn't even factoring in resale price (I'm probably giving all my kid bike stuff away when done).
Hindsight makes the optimal spending path for getting my kids around quite clear now. The cheapest choice would have been to only buy a used Weehoo and nothing else. This would have let me bike my kids around from a very young age through today for just a few hundred bucks (I could have spent another hundred or so on shades/weather covers). But, starting out I had no idea how much my kids would love the Weehoo, how quickly they'd outgrow the front seat and trailer, or how COVID would prevent me from bringing their friends along in the Madsen. I'm still happy to have had time with my kids on the front seat, and the GoBug as a tandem stroller was useful when my daughter was too young to be on a bike. My big fat cargo bike is also still my favorite way to ride them around. Its huge storage capacity and the security of the wheel lock and DIY GPS on it are just awesome. I've also run a few trips with it that none of my other bikes could handle (though a Surly Bill or Bikes at Work trailer could handle such loads for less). In the end I hope this opens your eyes up to all the possible options for carrying your kids around and lets you realize that while you can spend a lot of money doing so you don't have to. Whatever you do though, don't forget that even a fancy cargo bike is far cheaper than the vast majority of cars. Biking your kids around will likely make you fitter, happier, and wealthier, the sooner you start doing it the sooner you too can profit greenly.
Incredibly janky port of comments from my old WordPress site:
2021-07-29 at 3:17 pm
Great article. Our daughter is two and we started riding last year with an Ibert we were given on my wife’s bike and a rear mounted seat we found for free but she outgrew them in a season. Now we have a Mac Ride seat that mounts between the handlebars and seat that we can switch between our bikes. We also have a couple bike trailers, one used we got years before she was born and the other a hand me down, that we mostly use for cargo but occasionally she asks to ride in them. We have been thinking about what’s next since we have so much fun riding with her in front, very helpful information here!
Incredibly janky port of comments from my old WordPress site:
2020-10-27 at 10:33 pm
Thanks for writing this awesome blog. We’ve done all this, including both single and double Chariots (used/clearance) with skis, as cargo for bike/backpacking, etc. We found that a sturdy double kickstand was essential for the front seat, which our kids also loved. We are looking at cargo e-bikes (and solar-powered heat pumps!) when we move from Alaska to the Sun Belt next year.