As an “elder millennial” I grew up in the mid 90s and most all the kids I knew rode bikes. Between the ages of 6 and 12 we lived in the middle of nowhere and I typically only road my bike along a few mostly vacant dirt roads in our neighborhood. Around the time I turned 12 I was allowed to venture onto the paved road outside of the small dirt road community I grew up in, and it was certainly life changing. I felt that I could explore everywhere. The world was opened up to me. I was able to bike to the store, the ice cream shop, the beach, and a few friends houses. I had a new mountain bike that my parents got me for my birthday and I was FREE. Now, within a couple months I broke my wrist when I fell off my bike, but these things happen.
Shortly thereafter we moved into town. “Town” here is subjective, as it was a small town with a population of around 1,500 people. We lived within a half mile of a popular small inland lake, a video store, the grocery store, pizza hut, and a video rental store. We were about a mile from the town center. and we were surrounded by lightly travelled rural roads.
A couple years later I got really into inline skating and spent much more time doing that than biking, but the basics remained the same. I was outside, I was exploring, and I was in control of moving myself where I wanted or needed to go. I had freedom.
My children do not have this level of freedom.
My children are currently 20, 14, 11, and 10. So why don’t any of these kids have this freedom? (Note: my oldest never really got into biking and is obviously an adult now, so this article is mainly about the other 3 kids.)
- Overscheduled: All the kids go to government indoctrination camp, I mean K-12 schooling. Our 14 year old has a part time job and all the kids are in Boy Scouts / Cub Scouts. There is a lot going on. For most of my early teen years I had no scheduled after school activities or programs. I did cross country and Track starting at 15/16, but that was it.
- High speed internet, WIFI, and better games: (In my fake old man voice) Why back in my day if you were lucky you had a Nintendo 64, but even the best games could be beat in a matter of weeks and they cost a fortune! Todays games are so expansive and so many are free to play! I spent more than my fair share of time playing Zelda and Goldeneye, but compared to our kids, my video game time was fairly low.
- Not a bike friendly area: I love our house, but our little subdivision puts us in a difficult spot for biking. The main road that connects us to town is a massive 4 lane road with a 55 mile per hour speed limit, that is often ignored. This road also doesn’t have a shoulder for most of its span.
- Big Yard: We have a 3 acre yard that I have constructed a playground in. We have monkey bars, a gaga ball pit, a tree house, a basketball hoop, a pool, and a rock climbing wall. There is plenty of room for the kids to play football and soccer. I think having a big yard makes staying put easier. When I was a kid we had roughly a 1/3 of an acre lot.
- Fear Culture: Parents are more protective of their kids now in general, despite safety for children greatly improving over the last 50 years.
What makes biking easier?
In the mid to late 90s and early 2000s cell phones were not ubiquitous, and for teenagers they were very rare. I didn’t get my first cell phone until 2004 when I was 18, and it was a basic flip phone that kind of worked sometimes. Now our kids have smart phones that always work, can easily be tracked, and have real time GPS mapping. The cell phones our kids have greatly increase the safety of a bike ride.
What Our Plan For Free Range Biking Is:
My goal is to increase biking autonomy for the 3 younger kids. I would like for the oldest of the 3 to be able to go into Benton Harbor, neighboring St. Joseph, and the beach by himself. In roughly 18 months he will have a drivers license and since he is already working he will be able to purchase a car right away. This summer and next summer and really his only 2 “bike” summers.
For the younger two kids, I want to first get them able to bike to the park and to the store that are both about 1.5 miles from home. As a stretch goal I would also like to get them to be able to bike to their school and to the local community college. The road the school is on has traffic that drives fairly fast and there is no shoulder, so I would like to figure out a back roads path that minimizes time on this road. To get to the college requires crossing a busy road. Once again, taking a longer path could make this more feasible.
Decent, good working bikes: I recently purchased 3 new bikes for these kids which they received on Easter. Yes, bikes for Easter are a very big Easter present, however we can’t wait until birthdays because 2 of these kids don’t have birthdays until the end of the summer. I spent $100 on each bike, getting a 20″, 24″, and 26″ bike from Walmart. All 3 of these bikes we purchased assembled in the store. The 24″ and 26″ are both speed bikes. The 26″ bike was on sale from $130. The 26″ bike is very similar to this one on Amazon, which is currently $10 less.
I know the quality of discount Walmart bikes is not high, but it is likely higher than the bikes they are currently using that are all several years old and have weathered much use and abuse. They have also outgrown their current bikes. These will be “starter” adventuring bikes. Our 14 year old if he decides he wants something better can certainly buy his own bike. He could sell this one for probably around $60 to $80 and since he is earning around $200 a week with no expenses, could easily replace it with a much better one in short order if he desired.
As for the younger kids, it is what it is. Honestly, for a 20″ non speed bike, there isn’t much that can be defective or break on it, and a $100 20″ bike is probably much less likely to have issues than a $100 26″ speed bike. The middle kid is 11 and doesn’t have a steady source of income, but if needed we could coordinate a bike upgrade into his Birthday at the end of the summer in conjunction with savings from him working on our rental properties and mowing his grandma’s lawn.
Perfect is the enemy of done. If I were to get all the kids a high quality bike, we would be looking at spending $1,500 not $300 and the marginal utility for 5 times the cost would be extremely low. I know how these kids treat bikes, and for us, this is the best option. We will be donating most of their old bikes.
Here’s a great video of a guy comparing a $100 bike vs $1,000 bike vs a $7,000 bike. He compares all the bikes running the same course with same effort output and in the overall 18.8 mile course the $100 Walmart bike took 1 hour 11 minutes, the $1,000 bike took 1 hour and 4 minutes, and the $7,000 bike took 58 minutes. The 7 minute difference over 18 miles is relatively little compared to the real alternative which is walking. An average human walks at 3 miles per hour, which would result in 6 hours and 15 minutes.
So going from walking to a $100 bike reduced the travel time from 6 hours and 15 minutes to 1 hour and 11 minutes, a savings of 5 hours and 4 minutes. Spending 10 times as much money saves an additional 7 minutes. A cheap bike is WAY WAY WAY better than no bike, and the marginal utility of the more expensive bikes is only useful to a very small percentage of serious bikers.
Helmets: We have a large collection of helmets and will make sure all the kids have a properly fitting helmet, and label it for them so that they don’t get lost or mixed up. We will buy new ones if needed.
Rearview mirrors: I bought 3 Anti-glare rearview mirrors for their bikes off of Amazon for $10 each. I have never used a mirror while biking, but I think it is a useful tool, especially for beginners.
Bike Locks: Once they are taking their bikes to public places other than the park down the street, we will need to get bike locks for them. A Bike at the park is very likely to be safe, as it is usually completely empty, but if they bike to school or into town, a bike without a lock is an easy target. I plan to spend around $10 each on these.
Cell phone holders: A cell phone holder makes it easy to navigate Google maps while biking. These are roughly $10 to $15 each.
High Vis Vests: I plan to order these this weekend. A high vis vest greatly improves the safety of the rider, even during daylight hours. These are typically around $10 each.
Biking Safety Talks:
We’ve had several safety discussions covering the proper side of the road to travel on, attentiveness, stopping, waiting for traffic, visibility, signaling, roads to avoid, and what to do if we have a problem. I also make it a habit to talk about bike safety each time we see a biker on the road and discuss positive and negative behaviors.
Paired Parental Rides:
I have gone on a few rides with them and will continue until we have a high level of comfort for each specific ride. My goal is to slowly increase their range of travel as skill sets and comfort level increase.
Map Studying: Although they have Google maps, I want to ensure they know the area well. While driving and biking I have the kids tell me which way to turn in order to get to where we need to go. A smartphone makes it so you are never lost, but if the phone is lost, broken, not charged, or malfunctioning, I want them to know how to get home.
What do you think about our plans for free range biking? Do your kids go on unsupervised bike rides?