Our family cycling journey: can we go car free?

Andrew aged 9 and Joel aged 7 on the back of a Tern GSD

Meet Mike, our new bike. Named after the excerpt below from Dr Seuss’ One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. He’s a Tern GSD, a longtail cargo bike with electric pedal assist. As you can see we can fit at least two kids on the back, as well as various other cargo such as bags, shopping and kids’ bikes. We’ve been thinking about whether to buy one for a few months, and even once we’d made the decision there were a few hurdles in the way of actually getting one, but now he’s finally here! I thought I’d write a post about how we got to this point, and where we hope our family cycling journey will take us in the future.

I remember learning to ride a bike as a child; I don’t remember exactly what age, but I must have been at infant school. With my parents and brother, I did quite a lot of cycling for leisure – we always took bikes on camping holidays both in the UK and France. But cycling as a means of transport was never something I thought about…. until I got to know a boy who did it. I say a boy – he was 18, I was 19; he was a fresher and I was in my second year at the University of Nottingham. We met at church, somewhere I used to drive to because it was too far to walk from my house on the other side of campus, though it was only a short walk from his hall of residence. That boy turned out to be my future husband. 

Over the 4 years that we both lived in Nottingham, he cycled a lot, at a time when you didn’t see that many cyclists on the road. The hills were no issue since he was used to cycling in Plymouth, where he would also cycle miles to work and back for his holiday job. I mainly walked or got the bus, but did use my car at weekends and to travel back to my parents’ house in Coventry. Then Tom and I moved to Cambridge for my postgraduate studies, and for the first time we lived in a city where cycling was popular! His interest in sustainable transport really had chance to shine through there – he joined the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, and shared his views on local transport politics.

It was there too that I got in to cycling as a means of transport. I bought a fairly cheap ladies hybrid and used it daily for cycling to my classes and then later my offices for 3 and a half years, basically until I had severe pregnancy sickness with Andrew. I didn’t feel able to cycle in pregnancy, at first due to the sickness and then after a break I didn’t feel confident to start again with a bump on board, though heavily pregnant women cycling through Cambridge were a common sight. In fact all sorts of weird and wonderful things travelling through Cambridge on bikes/trikes were common sights, it was amazing! In the first year of Andrew’s life I did a lot of walking with the buggy – that’s how we got around, with the occasional bus trip, and the car was mostly used to get out of Cambridge. I didn’t feel the need to cycle with him, and by the time he was old enough for a child seat on the back of my bike, I was pregnant again with Joel – cue even more severe sickness. After he was born we got around town as before, this time with a sling plus single buggy combo. 

During the summer when Joel was about 9/10 months old, I started to think that a cargo bike which could fit both boys in, as I had seen so many people ride in Cambridge, would help us get around faster. The boys’ combined weight was starting to get more intense to push and carry for the miles of walking we did, and I couldn’t expect them to walk those distances for a while yet. I test rode a couple of different options – a Bakfiets bike and a Winther Kangaroo trike. There weren’t that many makes and models available, even in the cycling city of Cambridge, at that time 6 and a half years ago. So we made the decision that we’d buy the trike as I preferred that one. However, before we’d moved our money around to order it (I couldn’t find any second hand at the time), Tom got an interview in Birmingham, and he got the job. We’d been planning on moving back to the Midlands at some point for various reasons, but it all happened quite quickly in the end. Trike purchasing was put on hold until further notice. We lived with my parents in Coventry for 7 months (and Tom commuted by train), to allow us to sell our flat in Cambridge and buy a house here in Birmingham without a chain. 

About a year after my first thoughts on getting a cargo bike, we were settled in our new house in Birmingham – on a hill. Most of our daily routes turned out to be up and down hills, which just hadn’t been the case in flat Cambridge. Electric assist cargo bikes weren’t really a thing then; I didn’t come across them in my researching, and the technology was more expensive then anyway, so it probably wouldn’t have been financially feasible after the house move. So we gave up on the idea of a cargo bike. I still walked most places with the boys, or got public transport in to town. Then a year later Andrew started school, so we did school runs on foot and I only had Joel with me for groups and activities in the daytime. Tom of course commuted by bike, or sometimes walked.

We did ride to the park all together though for leisure at weekends. Andrew had learned to ride a pedal bike aged 3 whilst we were living in Coventry – he started on a balance bike aged 2 in Cambridge, where it was common to see them, and quickly took to a pedal bike because he’d mastered the balance already. I had a kids seat on the back of my bike for Joel, as cycling myself was the only way I could keep up properly with Andrew on his bike, I’m not a good jogger! I didn’t get on with the seat that well – it made the handling of my bike trickier, so I didn’t feel confident anywhere other than short rides on paths to the park. But Joel also picked up balance biking aged 2 and then pedal biking aged 3, so it wasn’t too long until they were both keen to ride.

Andrew’s (aged 2) balance bike parked up in the bike shed at our flat in Cambridge – where cycling was normal and loads of people had bikes.

And then I was pregnant again. Sadly this pregnancy ended in miscarriage, but before this happened we began researching cars because we knew ours wouldn’t fit three car seats across the back seat. We questioned whether we needed to buy one, because we didn’t use it much, mainly for days out of town and long distance trips to see family, or whether instead we could go car free, using public transport and occasionally hiring cars including the then new CoWheels hourly hire/car share company. Tom did some maths to work out rough costs of owning a car versus not owning a car, based on our needs at the time, and there wasn’t a lot in it if we could find the right car for us. Since we were only going to buy second hand, we needed to wait until something we liked and in budget came up for sale near enough to us anyway. Not long before I was pregnant with the twins one did come up, which was an “eco” model meaning tax is quite cheap, fuel economy quite good etc., so it swung the costs in favour of buying a car and we went for it.

I’m so glad we did! Our family unexpectedly went from 4 to 6, so an extra person to include in costs and an extra back seat needed. Thankfully we’d bought a 7-seater, but CoWheels don’t have one of these near us. When the twins were babies I certainly appreciated the times I did use the car, even if not loads; it did give me more freedom than without it. It was more about timings than anything else – when I had two school runs, groups at specific times, constant feeding of two babies, the twins’ differing nap patterns etc. to work around, the convenience of using the car to actually get out and do stuff sometimes was great, when walking or taking the bus would have taken too much time to fit everything in the day. Plus in the holidays when I had the four kids with me all day it was very useful. I’ll get back to bikes in a minute, but this was just to show that we’d seriously thought about going car free before, but it wasn’t quite right for us then.

So bikes…. in amongst the craziness of having baby twins in the family, the older boys still enjoyed riding bikes to the park every now and then. Tom would jog after them as I walked far behind with the twins in a wrap, or we’d take one twin each and the boys were under strict instructions to not go too far ahead. Neither option was great for all of us, and once the twins were over a year old we decided that we really needed to get us all on bikes to properly enjoy this family time together. At first I assumed we’d just get another child seat to go on Tom’s bike, but then I remembered double bike trailers were a thing, and this meant that one of us could more easily concentrate on helping Joel who, although physically could ride perfectly well, still struggled with thinking ahead and reacting to obstacles etc. So we got a trailer for Christmas just over a year ago. It’s been brilliant!

One of our first family bike rides with all 6 of us on bikes/trailer

We were able to get out most weekends as a family to one or two local parks that are reachable on paths all the way. The twins loved it in the trailer, and the boys really enjoyed being able to ride at a decent pace. Over the months their stamina and confidence grew, and Joel in particular came on a lot in terms of the skill of reacting to the world around him when cycling. By the summer holidays I felt able to take all four kids on my own to the most local park on bikes. This park is right next to school, so after the holidays I decided that I would try some school runs on bike. The boys thought this was absolutely amazing! They really enjoy having a purpose to a cycle ride, to get somewhere specific rather than just riding for leisure to the same old parks. We then found that we all had the confidence to go further as a family. So we looked up some routes from home using mainly paths, and found we could actually do some useful journeys – particularly to the opticians which has now become a running family joke because Joel manages to break his glasses so often *sigh* . 

I also tried cycling to a couple of our weekly toddler groups (we go to one every day except Wednesdays when my parents look after the twins whilst I work). These two I used the car for due to time constraints with school runs, post office runs, naps (or later not!) etc. One route was fine, if a bit of a struggle up the hill on the way home, but the other I couldn’t manage to tow the trailer on multiple hills. When we first got the trailer it was just about doable to tow it up the hill of our road coming back from the park, but over time this too started to get harder as the twins got heavier. And my bike has by now seen much better days – the gears have a mind of their own, sometimes they change when I click the shifter, sometimes they don’t, they keep me guessing! But Tom also agreed that even with his decent bike that’s less than a year old, it was getting harder to tow the trailer uphill.

My old hybrid bike plus trailer

I’m not sure exactly what first made me think of googling electric bikes, quite possibly it was a well targeted ad on social media since I’d mentioned cycling a few times in my posts. But soon my eyes were opened to a huge range of bikes out there that I didn’t know anything about. In my browsing of webshops, blogs etc. I also came across the various kinds of cargo bike that are now available in the UK, many with electric assist motors, and so many more than there were over 6 years previously when we’d first thought about getting one in Cambridge. It was also around this time that a friend (in Cambridge) added me to the Family Cycling UK Facebook group, which is such a great resource, and I learned even more from there about the vast number of options we had for transporting toddler twins, even with our hills. 

Once I’d done a lot of browsing myself, I chatted to Tom about the possibilities. I don’t think he could quite believe that I’d become so interested in researching bikes! He did some googling himself, because although he knows a fair amount about bikes, he knew very little about electric motors. We decided it would be a good idea to try to find somewhere local where we could go to talk to a human about electric bikes. At that point we still weren’t sure whether we were after a standard electric bike to tow the trailer, or an electric cargo bike. I found some online recommendations for Trikes and Bikes in Sutton Coldfield, as a bike shop who knew their stuff on electrics. The grandparents kindly volunteered to look after the kids one Saturday afternoon in November so we could get the (direct) train over there. It was well worth the trip, and we came back knowing much more clearly what we were looking at in terms of motors. All we needed to mull over more was the type of ebike that best suited our needs now and in future. Of the various cargo bike styles, I was leaning most towards a longtail rather than a box bike/trike, because a downside of the trailer was how wide it makes the bike to ride, and on some routes we do this makes it tricky. There seemed to be 3 brands/models that fitted our requirements- the Tern GSD, the Bicicapace Justlong, and the Yuba Spicy Curry.

Then Tom broke his arm, and for 6 weeks we did no cycling as a whole family, although I continued to do it a couple of days a week for school runs and our Thursday group. A new bike was put on the back burner somewhat, until Christmas. 

A family friend helps out on a school cycle bus scheme near where my parents live, and she was talking to my mum about another twin mum who does it on a longtail electric cargo bike – the Tern GSD. When she offered that we could test ride it, I jumped at the chance! So we arranged a date in late December when we were staying with my parents. It was an amazing experience! I’ve never ridden an ebike before, but I didn’t find it hard to pick up. Basically it felt like someone else was pedalling with me, so when I gave the amount of power in a pedal push that I normally would, the bike went much further than I expected. On the flat I didn’t really need the motor, and Tom even turned it off (I didn’t dare fiddle with the screen), but on our hills I could just imagine how perfect this extra power would be. The kids all enjoyed sitting on the back, and there’s plenty of room for two of various sizes. Unlike most longtails, the Tern GSD isn’t actually any longer than a standard bike, they’ve just made the wheels smaller and the geometry of the frame different to give the “long tail”. Crucially the small wheels make the centre of gravity lower than a standard bike, and riding with even a nearly 9 year old on it felt so much more stable and easier to handle than it had ever been with a toddler on the back of my old bike.

Test riding the Tern GSD

 So we were sold on the idea of an electric longtail cargo bike. It’s a more expensive option than a regular ebike, but we feel this is an investment into our future transport use, because we think this gives us a really good chance of being in the position to not buy another car when ours gives up, whereas a regular ebike would be more about the here and now of towing a trailer with toddler twins, who will outgrow it in the next couple of years. Even a longtail ebike costs a heck of a lot less than an electric car, which is the only type of car that we’d want to consider now that a couple of 7-seater models exist. We can use the bike with all the kids – not at the same time obviously, but it would be handy to take an older boy or two further than they can reasonably cycle or if the logistics of taking their own bike would be tricky. We can use it for large shopping trips – currently Tom gets most of our food shopping little and often every day on his way home from work on his bike, but this gives us more flexibility. We’d still need to get the train to visit family, and probably hire a car for some days out, but if it’s just me and the kids we’d only need a 5-seater for that.

We just needed to decide which of the three longtails we’d go for, weighing up the various pros and cons of each. The second Sunday afternoon of January, whilst we were watching the kids have fun riding around a deserted car park, we concluded that the Tern GSD was the one. That’s mainly because we knew Trikes and Bikes was a Tern dealer, so we would have a local point of contact should we need to deal with any warranty claims. We’d already test ridden it, whereas with the other two we’d need a trip to London or Cambridge to try them out. We would have considered buying second hand, however these bikes very rarely come up and even if they do we’d need to travel a fair distance to collect. 

Tom set about mobilising all our savings – eek, that’s the scary part, this is a considerable leap of faith for us financially! He emailed the dealer to ask for a quote including the accessories that we needed to seat kids on it. A quick reply from them told us the price, but also that there wouldn’t be any new stock of the bikes arriving in the UK for them to order for us until June! Argh! Having made the decision, we were keen to get one sooner than that. I tried another dealer near where we’d test ridden, but they couldn’t help either, because they too didn’t keep any in stock. We could buy one online from various larger dealers across the country who do keep them in stock, but we would need to get it back to them to make any warranty claims, or get free parts posted to us and pay a local bike shop to fix it. I even emailed Tern, who passed my details on to the UK representative and in turn the distribution team, to whom I asked the question would it be possible for them to organise getting a GSD sitting in stock elsewhere in the country to Trikes and Bikes so we could buy it from them. The answer was no.

So we looked back to the other options, particularly the Bicicapace Justlong because it was significantly cheaper. Although we’d need to travel to test ride it, pay for delivery, and have a non-local point of contact for potential warranty claims, if it was cheaper in the first place then we were more prepared to do these things for this rather than the GSD. It was incredibly frustrating that it seemed impossible to buy a longtail cargo ebike in the West Midlands at that point in time. 

Just as we were mulling over our next move, to go and test ride the Justlong, we had a phone call from Trikes and Bikes. They made us a fabulous offer, which they didn’t have to – if we bought a stock GSD from elsewhere, they would still act as a local point of contact for any potential warranty claims. Although it’s a risk for them as a business, they believe it’s one worth taking, for the bigger picture of getting one of these fantastic bikes here in Birmingham, to promote the Tern brand, and to get a family out there using sustainable transport. I’m certain we will be turning heads with the bike, starting conversations and advocating for family cycling as a means of local transport. And anyway, they’re confident it’s a quality product and they probably won’t need to be involved. We were delighted to accept this offer, and bought a GSD online straight away. It was delivered a few days later to their unit in Sutton Coldfield. 

One thing we could sort out through Trikes and Bikes though is the set of accessories – a beach seat, foot plates and hand bars for the back, and a front rack. These were ordered for us as soon as the bike arrived, whilst we eagerly awaited news. Unfortunately these also had an unforeseen supply issue – I’m trusting that Tern have a better reputation for actual bikes compared to their supply and distribution system in this country. So we waited another 3 weeks for these to arrive and be fitted. But finally we got our hands on our very own longtail cargo ebike, with huge thanks to a brilliant local bike shop who couldn’t have been more helpful and on our wavelength. Tom went to pick it up on the train, though ended up cycling it half way back home along the canal towpath from town, because trains out of New Street along the line back home were suddenly all suspended – it got a fun maiden voyage and he was very impressed.

A first quick go on the new bike for the twins. We are aware that you shouldn’t leave them unattended when the bike is on the kickstand – my husband was just out of shot in front of the other bike and watching that they were sat still whilst I took the photo. I’m also going to make some skirt guards for the back wheel before they ride again.

So now we’re looking forward to using our lovely new bike. We will still keep the car for now, but ultimately we would love the bike (and some trains/buses/occasional hire cars) to replace it. At the moment we are so fed up of the general attitude around here that cars rule the roads. Every day I witness terrible, dangerous and illegal parking around school, which basically boils down to people’s lifestyles being so rushed and down to the wire that they can’t find the time to park just a 5 minute walk away in designated car parks that local organisations have allowed school to use. 5 minutes, that’s all. I have 4 kids, I get it, life is busy, but it’s 5 minutes. I very rarely sit in rush hour traffic jams but on the rare occasion I do, it really depresses me that there are just so many cars in this city. We want out! We want to be part of a change, a shift in attitude, we want to see the car brought down from its pedestal as THE way to get around. And we want our kids to grow up knowing that there are alternatives, which are far better for environment and health. Let’s do this!

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