Mission Kidical: Family bikers gather to inform, inspire and of course, ride

Originally published in Bicycle Times #38, our family-themed issue

Words: Adam Newman
Photos: Russ Roca and Adam Newman

For Katie Proctor, the director of the Portland Kidical Mass “chapter,” her love affair with family biking began even before she had a family. A journalism student at the University of Oregon, she interviewed her future husband for a story about sustainable business practices. He told her to look into Burley, maker of kids trailers, which was based in Eugene, Oregon, at the time.

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“He gave me this catalog and all of the models in the catalog were Burley employees. Their families would get together and do these big shoots with all their products. And I looked at it—I was 19 years old—and I was like, ‘That’s us. That’s going to be us. I’m going to marry you, we’re going to have babies, we’re going to get a Burley and that’s going to be our life.’”

Fast forward a few years and it all came true. Proctor would find her and her family living car-free in Portland, getting around on a mix of tandem bikes and trail-a-bikes (sometimes together). When the local Kidical Mass chapter was in need of leadership, she didn’t hesitate to step in and begin planning the monthly rides for kids and families.

Founded by Shane MacRhodes in Eugene in 2008, Kidical Mass is more of a movement than an organization. As the Safe Routes to School director in the transportation department of the local school district, MacRhodes wanted to host a family-friendly ride inspired by the famed Critical Mass rides. At the time MacRhodes didn’t even have kids of his own, but now he rides regularly with his daughter and twin sons. “Now communities around the country are holding their own, at times and places that work best for them,” he said. “It will be interesting to see the movement grow and our rides change a little bit.”

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Each city that hosts Kidical Mass events has evolved the concept differently. There is no central leadership structure or schedule and the events can vary from city to city. For example, in Portland where large groups of cyclists are a regular occurrence, it’s sometimes necessary to block intersections (known as “corking”) so all the riders can pass through, but the rides in Eugene would never do so. In some cities the rides are on public streets and in others they stick to bike paths.

The group rides are an opportunity for both parents and kids to make new connections in the community. Parents can check out other families’ bikes and sometimes take them for a test ride, while some kids have friends they only know through biking, Proctor said. “When they were babies it was fun because they were chillin’—happy on the bike and it was a chance to get out and be with other adults who had kids. It was very much about having that interaction but also about sharing gear ideas, what’s working for you, test ride each others’ bikes, that sort of stuff,” she said. “In 2009, 2010 there was a lot less gear commercially available, so it was like ‘What hack have you done?’ and ‘How does your hack work?’ ‘How can we make a better hack?’ And also just the support when we are all doing this crazy thing that seems less crazy now, I think, because of the rides.”

Showing people that riding bikes as a family isn’t crazy is part of the mission. Kidical Mass isn’t an advocacy movement, per se, most of the participants agree, but being an active presence in the community can show others that it’s safe and fun. “It’s fun and advocacy all wrapped into one,” MacRhodes said. “What I was advocating for before was pretty much the same but now it’s coming from a whole different viewpoint because I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about my daughter who’s 6 and by the time she’s 10 I want her to be able to ride around the whole city by herself.”

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“You sort of fall into advocacy if you’re a family biker,” said Madi Carlson of Seattle. “It’s really hard to make that jump [to family biking]. Friends and knowledgeable people and the whole safety in numbers thing made a huge difference.”

Like Proctor, Carlson was fascinated with the idea of family biking before she even started a family. “My mother is from the Netherlands, so I grew up every few years going to visit my relatives there and seeing everyone on bikes. My uncle rode his bike to work in a three-piece suit and when my cousins started having babies they put them on bikes. I saw that and thought when I have babies I’m going to do this, too.”

And she did. Now Carlson runs a website, familyride.us, where she shares tips, tricks and experiences for families on two wheels. “I love showing people sneaky routes to get to places that maybe they don’t know about,” she said. “The more you ride, the more routes you learn and streets to avoid and I also know the flattest routes to get to any part of town.”

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Flat-routing is big in the Kidical Mass movement. “I double the ride times on Google Maps,” said Kath Youell of Portland, who prides herself on knowing the flattest route from A to B. After moving into the city from the suburbs and ditching the car in favor of a bakfiets bike, she had to adjust her family’s lifestyle a bit and she had to keep reminding herself it was worth it. “You can do this. Cargo biking is fun. Slow transportation is fine, just like slow food. That’s the kind of stuff that goes through my head as we are passed by joggers and passed by people on little bikes.”

Transporting her 10-year-old, special-needs son to school is in many ways easier by bike because they aren’t tied to a specific bus schedule and can make stops easily along the way. “A really big thing to me is modeling for Evan that you don’t need to have a personal vehicle to do whatever it is you need to do,” she said.

Teaching kids that cycling is fun, safe and worth continuing beyond their childhood years was the foundation for creating the Kidical Mass rides in the first place, MacRhodes said. “Our goal as parents is to build independence into our children and cycling is an important part of that. I think most people will remember the freedom they felt as kids when they started riding, [and we’re] trying to rediscover that again and help families rediscover that again.”

Learn more: kidicalmass.org

Also in this kid- and family-focused issue of Bicycle Times was a story about bike touring around the world with a toddler, including tips on how to plan and pack for your youngest travel partner. Read it here.


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