Biking has always been a big part of Todd Beernink's life. The Vancouver resident has worked as a bike courier, competed in cycling races and uses a bicycle as his main mode of transportation.
Then his son Tayo was born. Mr. Beemink wanted to start riding with his baby as soon as possible. "I would get so excited thinking about my son enjoying something I enjoy too," he says. But his in-laws weren't so excited. In fact, they were terrified.
To allay their concerns - and his own - Mr. Beernink reconfigured an old bike trailer to hold his son's car seat. He knew that most cycling safety sites warn against infants under one wearing helmets, since a baby's neck is too weak to support the weight. So he improvised and put toques and blankets around Tayo so that his head was cushioned and didn't have much room to move. It was his imperfect solution: All cyclists and passengers are required to wear a helmet under B.C. law.
By the age of three months, Tayo was hooked into his five-point harness in the car seat and fastened into the trailer. His father still vividly remembers their first ride together, in January.
"I rode so slow that my fingers froze because my heart rate was so low," he said. "There were dogs passing us.It took us an hour and a half to go five kilometres."
The ride was a success, and he's been cycling with Tayo since. But having been in a few accidents before he had a child, he's well aware that biking comes with risks. And given that, beyond city safety by-laws, there are no federal guidelines for cycling with kids, he and other parents are left to answer for themselves a critical question: How young is too young to bike with a baby on board?
One vocal opponent to parents riding with their babies is Pat Hines, founder and executive director of Safe Moves, a safety organization in the United States. In an online video, Ms. Hines flatly states: "There is no age when a child should go on a bicycle with a parent … Who would want to take a chance of the child falling? Even if you weren't in danger of being hit by a car, just a slip, the baby goes down and the baby would go down very hard."
Jennifer Gruden, a Toronto mother of two boys, shares Ms. Hines's fear of falling, especially since she was in a serious crash when she was 25. It took two years of physiotherapy to fully recover from the accident, caused by a dog rushing up and clipping her wheel . A doctor told her that if she hadn't been wearing a helmet, she would have cracked her skull.
So when she became a mother, Ms. Gruden decided against biking with her son Noah, now 5, until he was old enough to wear a helmet.
Ms. Gruden is now looking forward to biking with her second baby, who's six months old. This time around, though, she expects to try a bike trailer - generally considered the safest way to transport kids, since it's low to the ground in the case of a fall - rather than the front-facing bike seat that Noah rode in.
"It is a sliding scale for me," she says. "From zero to 12 months, it's not worth it to me to put him on a bike. From one to three, I think it's about picking the time and place and using a trailer. But after that, I feel that the risks turn around - if you're not as a family doing [physical]activities, then there are long-term health risk that are too easy to ignore."
But the health benefits of cycling are limited to safe roads, she says. Without bike lanes, Ms. Gruden said she would be too nervous to commute on busy roads with her sons. She admits that she probably wouldn't ride daily with her older son if they lived downtown.
Cycling advocate Todd Litman, Executive Director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, says many people overestimate the risk of riding with children. "There is no greater risk to biking with children than there is taking them in a car," says Mr. Litman, who rode a bike with his sons (now university-aged) when they were three weeks old.
Statistics Canada does not collect data on how many parents bike with their kids. But it does monitor cycling fatalities involving young children. According to StatsCan, no children aged zero to four died from being on a bike with their parents from 2001 to 2007.
That reassures Edmonton mom Sarah Chan, who rigged a platform on her Madsen cargo bike for her son Dexter's car seat when he was four months old."There is a whole culture of fear around parenting, and it doesn't begin or end with a bike," says Ms. Chan. "If parents are careful on their bikes, it isn't that dangerous. It's actually fun."
Especially for Dexter who, now age two, sits up in her cargo bucket, pointing and waving to passers-by. And much to his mom's delight, he copies her hand signals when they're out in traffic.