I was about seven years old, in our driveway. My bike’s training wheels barely touched the ground anymore so my father helped me take them off. A few shaky starts later, I was flying! Soon, my sister and I rode daily around the neighborhood, our first taste of unsupervised play outside our home. We stopped by the sari-sari store for drinks and snacks, using the money we saved from our school allowances. Some days we stopped to pick gravel out of skinned knees after a fall, and walked our bikes home in tears. But some days the weather was gorgeous so we biked up the hill next to our street, and for a few glorious seconds going downhill, we were free, the sun warm in our faces, the wind in our hair.
Years later, getting to high school took over an hour each way by car, and we got home exhausted with piles of homework still undone. In college, the roads around my school are wide and fast, and taking a bike to class never even occurred to me. My bike sat forgotten somewhere in my parents’ garage.
Even more years later, I became a mother to two young daughters. Motherhood, as beautiful as it is, made things like quick trips with friends, and spontaneous nights out, all but a distant memory. And then a pandemic completely confined us to a one-bedroom apartment in the city. My husband suggested that I buy a small folding bike to help with errands since public transportation was suspended for infection control. I did, and after a few wobbly starts, I was flying again! I come home from errands feeling accomplished, alive and free – a feeling that’s hard to come by as a mother to small children during a pandemic.
That sense of freedom from being on a bike is nothing new especially to women. When bicycles were new technology in the 1800s, women quickly latched on to them as a way to get around, independent of husbands and fathers who previously had almost complete control of their mobility. With a bicycle, a woman could meet up with a friend, or do a quick errand at a store, or even just take some time alone with her thoughts. Later, the suffragettes used them to spread their message of women’s emancipation. And here we are, two centuries later, finding bikes as precious as our ancestors did.
It could have stopped there but there was something else for me that made cycling better: my children.
When my daughters were babies, they went everywhere with me. I have a small assortment of child carriers, which were sometimes my only way to get housework and errands done. It was easy and even fun to swing one child on my back, and hold the other’s hand to make a quick trip to a store. Sometimes, I even carried both of them. For an urban mom with a couple of jobs, it was often the best way to get quality time together. We would stop to sit at a park bench and spot cats, or pick flowers, or buy an ice cream or drink on the way.
This kind of time together was sorely lacking in lockdown. At home, my attention is pulled in a hundred different directions every second, and it’s hard to stop and smell those roses, unlike when we walk together outside.
There are many places in the world where parents take their children out safely on bikes, so I started there. I looked up Dutch bakfiets (box-bikes), longtail cargo bikes, bikes with child seats, and bikes with batteries to make hauling weight a little less daunting. It is difficult to source these in the Philippines but there is one kind that is more readily available: the Japanese mamachari (literally, “mom’s bike”).
Conveniently, there are many second-hand mamacharis sold here as “Japan Surplus.” They are relatively affordable, and available in online marketplaces so we gave it a shot. Normally, there is space for a basket or a seat for a smaller child right over the front wheel between the handlebars, and luckily, the one I saw already had one. I added another seat in the rear for my preschooler. This is a common setup in Japan, where my bike must have begun its life as a child-transporter. I looked up more info on websites and watched videos about how to ride these bikes. It took some practice of course, but soon, I became confident enough with the bike and its quirks to load the kids up and take them on the road.
It was no surprise that they love it! There’s movement, fresh air, things to see, people to greet. Those first few rides though, turning back into our street immediately triggered tantrums from both ends of the bike, and occasionally still does. If they had their way, I might be pedaling them around forever, stopping only for flowers and drive-through windows!
At first, we rode circles around the neighborhood, waving to other cyclists and to dogs on their walks. Then we rode out a little further – to sit by the river and then the sea. Now, we run errands together again – pick up food, drop off laundry, bring gifts to friends. I am surprised at how it fits so perfectly into our life – replacing short commutes on public transit or in ride-share services. To be honest, it’s the best way to transport my kids right now – at a safe distance from other people, in the open air and at comfortable, leisurely speeds that let us experience our neighborhood in a way you never could from inside an insulated, tinted, four-wheeled box.
After my mamachari arrived, bike lanes started popping up around my city. Right now, they are not yet a fully connected or fully protected network, but it’s a start, and new lanes seem to be appearing every week. Bike lanes make us feel safer and they might soon start to attract more bike commuting families like us.
Also surprising was all the support. I started a blog and social media pages about biking with kids, because it’s something that should be a totally normal way to travel. I expected negative reactions, and there have been a few; I get more frequent messages from parents wanting to do the same. I get questions about our gear and our experiences. I get advice from parents who have already been riding bikes with their kids, mostly in Marikina, but also from other countries, parents who ride the bakfiets and cargo bikes I’ve only seen online. In many of the messages, we find a shared dream of a future with safer streets, more bikes, less pollution, and more open spaces.
And here’s the biggest surprise: it turns out it’s a lot easier to be optimistic about the future when you’re looking at it from behind the handlebars, and it isn’t just about the endorphins. Now, a bike is about more than just freedom – it’s about creation. With the weight of my daughters in the back and the front, pedaling is different — it’s heavier, it’s purposeful. These bikes are going to take us places, and if we do the work to create them, they’ll be places we’ll be proud to leave to our children. WWW
About the author:
It was motherhood that really opened Corinna Pettyjohn’s eyes to the inequality of transport and mobility in our cities. A teacher by profession, Corinna also chronicles her bike adventures with her children in her blog and photo account, Two Wheels, Three Hearts, hoping to show that there might just be more ways to move around the city than we think.