Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bike to Work Day and Stopped by a Cop

Today (well, last Thursday... now that I'm finally getting around to finishing this post), was "Bike to Work Day". For the past few years, the big kids have really looked forward to this day. They leave for school/work early, and Jeremy leads them on a circuitous route with lots of stops at "energizer stations" where there are breakfast treats and bike goodies. This year, I stopped (or went out of our way, really) to stop at a couple of "energizer stations" on the way to preschool drop-off with the three littles. We had bagels and juice and Odwalla bars and chatted with others about bikes-- including how riding a recumbent is likely similar to riding a bakfiets (possibly?). I also chatted with a woman riding a black, very Dutch bike. She explained she'd imported it from Europe. It fit right in with the bakfiets.

Here's Jeremy and the school kids heading out...

And me and the three littles a little while later...

Eating snacks at Apple headquarters...

After dropping Joey off at preschool, Jonah, Nat, and I headed on our bakfiets toward the local train station. We had the morning free and Jonah wanted to watch trains. It sounded good to me. A block from preschool, a police officer stopped us (or was waiting for us, really) and informed me that "what you are doing [riding my bakfiets with helmeted kids in it?] is totally illegal". Uh? That immediately put me on the defensive and I began pumping out questions (Why is a child in a rear bike seat legal, but not up front?, What laws was I breaking, exactly?, etc.).  I left with a "warning" (about doing what, I'm still not totally sure) and an index card with a few sections of vehicle code and municipal code to look up. I left the officer with my name, email, and the web address, since after extended discussion, she conceded that she had never seen such a bike and would get back to me (about the legality of what I was doing, I assumed). We went on our way to the train station, me feeling like some (very slow-moving) rebel outlaw.

Later that afternoon, the officer did email me back with sections of the California vehicle code she thought were "applicable" to me and my bike. The relevant codes, in her opinion-- with her emphasis-- were:

21204.  (a) A person operating a bicycle upon a highway shall not ride other than upon or astride a permanent and regular seat attached thereto, unless the bicycle was designed by the manufacturer to be ridden without a seat.
(b) An operator shall not allow a person riding as a passenger, and a person shall not ride as a passenger, on a bicycle upon a highway other than upon or astride a separate seat attached thereto. If the passenger is four years of age or younger, or weighs 40 pounds or less, the seat shall have adequate provision for retaining the passenger in place and for protecting the passenger from the moving parts of the bicycle.

So, I'd say that as long as the kids are buckled on the bench or into a carseat attached to the bike, I have nothing to fear. And... all the kids-- even the baby in the carseat-- must be wearing a helmet (that's a well-known California law)-- which they were, even though I can't see how a helmet would help a child securely fastened in a carseat. But that's a whole other topic to explore...

After a few days of reflection and still riding with the kids, I guess what unsettles me the most is the sense that my efforts to bicycle my young children around appeared to be unwelcome in my city. How about being stopped with the words, "I've never seen a bike like yours before. Can we discuss whether it is legal or not?"?. I assume my encounter is an isolated incident and in my email communication with the officer, her attitude seemed changed. She actually contacted our local chapter of SafeKids and discussed with them safety issues related to biking with children, as well as did a little research on her own. Even though I may or may not agree with the safety opinions she passed on to me, I appreciate her efforts and hope to somehow turn my negative experience into something more positive. (A show-and-tell with the bakfiets at the police station, anyone?) As I'm not usually an outspoken or a loud voice in political/social/advocacy issues, I'm not quite sure how to do this. But I'll see what I can do. Or maybe I could just convince all of my friends and neighbors to buy bakfietsen too... And then everyone would know what they were.

Alright, enough for tonight.


  1. I'm also a mama with bakfiets and feel so fortunate that we are in Portland. I would be flabbergasted if I was stopped by an officer here. I hadn't even seen a bakfiets until we moved here. We get lots of "cool bike" comments, but have never seen anything but a smile and a wave from police officers (and fire fighters).

    It's nice to "meet" you. My little neglected blog is at and I found you through a post on the Facebook group (R)Evolutions per Minute (

    1. I think I've heard your name before (on FamilyRide's blog, maybe?). Anyway, nice to "meet" you too. Portland sounds like a great city. From all the bike blog/news that comes from there, I have this (probably skewed) picture of it as some kind of biking mecca teeming with cargobikes of all sorts :)

  2. I had a very similar experience with that exact vehicle code. I also live in Northern CA - Sacramento - and was photographed on my Yuba with three of my kids. The picture was published in our local paper. A day later they published an editorial stating that I was breaking the law and used 21204 as evidence. Unfortunately the paper never published my reply which refuted the charge on all accounts. I have also had lawyers (who looked it up on their own) tell me it is not illegal. The code seems to be very clear and was written to include cargo bikes/bakefiets. I think that biking with kids just scares many people because so many have heard biking is dangerous. If you are in Sacramento I'd love to get together with you and ride - the more the merrier! You can check us out at

    1. Cool blog! Sorry to hear about the nasty experience with the photo in the paper. I was actually thinking today about older kids riding on rear bicycle racks and what constitutes a "seat" and what doesn't. My 7 y/o wanted to ride on the rack of the bakfiets today after the triple he was riding with my husband got a flat and we'd decided to just walk the triple home.... I said "no", partly because he'd add enough weight that I'd have a hard time starting at a few intersections, but also because I was paranoid about being in violation of vehicle code. We have no stoker bars, but there is a skirt guard and full chain case...

      Anyway, we're in the bay area, but visit the Sacramento area sometimes to see family-- sans bikes though :(

  3. Hello Kimberly! I'm so glad Stacy Bisker--another cargo bike mom/blogger--posted a link to your blog on the FB page for our cargo bike project, (R)Evolutions per Minute. So many moms in the group have reported similar experiences. (I got a $275 ticket for "not slowing sufficiently" at a T-intersection when making a right hand turn in my bakfiets. The cop made sure to add "AND you have CHILDREN in you BIKE.")
    Anyway, I am making a crowdsourced documentary about cargo bikes in the US--I am hoping we will experience a revolution of sorts in the next few years. You can watch the trailer and find more info here:
    I am asking folks to become co-directors by submitting video files of their cargo bike life via an upload widget on my site. I hope you will join us! Especially since you are obviously a pioneer in your town!
    You can join the FB group here:
    Happy riding! Hope to hear from you. Liz

    1. Hi Liz... OK, I definitely need to figure out the technical side and shoot and upload some video. I saw the documentary trailer a few months ago and have been inexcusably putting it off. Thanks for the nudge :)

  4. I am totally shocked to hear this! I can't imagine this happening in San Francisco (thanks, SF Bicycle Coalition). If you had been cited, I'd suggest taking it to court to contest, which would have been an education for that officer. But that's the reason you weren't, I suppose. How is a bakfiets any different, legally, than a trailer behind the bike?

    My suggestion would be to create a paper trail, much like the Sarah Gilbert/Burgerville incident.

    I'd write a letter to both the mayor and the chief of police: "I was shocked and saddened that I was stopped by an officer," followed by summary of the bakfiets and how it's considered the safest way to transport kids (a front trailer!), followed by blah-blah-blah obesity crisis, nature deficit disorder, "it is distressing that any city would actively campaign against healthy transportation, let alone a city we chose to live in based on its reputation for caring about the safety and well-being of children," blah-blah-blah contrary to federal principles guaranteeing safe routes to schools, etc. And send the same thing to the local paper as an op-ed/letter to the editor.

    And please cc it to Jason Serafino-Agar at SFBC Safe Routes to School, who is a very mellow guy but who, upon hearing this story, would probably do whatever his personal equivalent of blowing a fuse is and then alert the media and get you interviewed.

    [Blogger hates me for some reason but this is Dorie at Hum of the city, FYI.]

  5. Hey, thanks for all the tips. We're in Sunnyvale-- so a ways from San Francisco. I'm aiming first for a direct response from a police head honcho and I'll try the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition too, as well as our city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory committee. I'm really thinking this was an isolated incident... I've been riding the bakfiets with such a set-up since September or so, nearly every day. There's tons of cops that have seen me, I assume.

  6. Wow! As a fellow bakfiets-riding mama of two, I'm shocked to read this story and some of the comments! I waited until my baby was 11 months to put him in the bakkie though, because I worried about the helmet law and how using a car seat would be perceived. We bolted a WeeRide (front mount bike seat) to the bench and he wears a helmet. So far so good. I also did not realize my 4 year old was required to be strapped in. Guess I'll be enforcing that now!

    We are in Palo Alto and have never had issues with the police. I see more and more cargo bikes of all types, so hopefully these types of issues will get resolved.

    Just found your blog and am enjoying it! Thanks!

  7. Glad you're enjoying it... We haven't updated it for a while-- too busy riding our bikes:) I haven't had any problems with the police since this incident and was pretty happy with how my complaint was handled. I'm seeing more cargo bikes here too-- mostly longtails.