I live less than 300 metres from a large grocery shopping complex. Due to my lack of a driver's license, this proximity to the shops was of primary concern when we chose our house (right behind price!). Yet shortly after moving in, I realised that my dream of popping up at the shops to do the weekly re-stocking of groceries had turned into a nightmare for one reason - the kids.
In my dream, I had never bothered to work out the seemingly impossible logistics of transporting three small children (at the time, all under 5), four large bags of shopping and my own, increasingly lagging morale, for 300 metres. What had initially seemed a hop, skip and jump from the house was suddenly more daunting than a marathon. Finally, after yet another epic excursion with me trying in vain to strap babies to my body, toddler in pushchair, bags of groceries to said pushchair and still have a hand free to escort the five-year-old across the road, I decided to take action. With persistence, I came up with three possible solutions: the bike trailer, the bike wagon (bakfiets in Dutch) or a Radio Flyer-type pull wagon.
A bike trailer is a sort of cart that can be attached to nearly any standard adult bike. Most trailers can fit a maximum of two children and have a small "boot" area in the rear. Some models can be transformed into a three-wheeled pushchair as well, albeit a large and cumbersome one. Bike trailers have several advantages: they are reasonably priced (a dedicated eBay search can find new models costing around 200 euro including transport), they are (usually) easily removed from your bike when you aren't bringing the kids for a ride, they are a convenient method of transporting more than one child at a time and they are remarkably stable. Bike trailers are built so that even if the bike tips over, the trailer stays upright. They also provide shelter from the elements for the children - but unfortunately not the cyclist! Finally, they can be used with very young babies, provided you install a proper baby seat. Some models will accommodate a Maxi-Cosi-type seat, but there is usually room for only one of these. A more practical option is the baby-seat designed for cycling with a trailer. These are very popular in The Netherlands where they are called a "babyschaal" and common brands include the Melia, Weber and Chariot. Several online shops offer transport to Belgium.
However, there are some other considerations when deciding on a bike trailer. First, make sure the model you choose will fit through any doors you will need to pass through to get it from where you are storing it to the street! Even with the wheel guards removed, a bike trailer is wider than most things you are likely to try getting out of the front door. You will also want to make sure you have adequate space to store it; unlike a collapsible buggy, once it is constructed, you are unlikely to want to completely dismantle the contraption after each use. You will likely also want a basket and saddle bags for your bike; the "boot" space in a trailer is far from spacious. Safety is another concern. Although trailers are stable, they do "trail" behind the bike and the not-so-vigilant driver might not notice their presence. The best way to mitigate this is to attach a flag to the trailer and to swallow your pride and just walk the thing across the zebra crossing. And of course, strap a helmet on yourself and your passengers. Finally, even the lightest bike trailer can become agonisingly heavy when loaded with kilos of toddler, baby, shopping, nappy bag, etc. If you are serious about doing the shopping with a bike trailer, and you aren't in the running for “World's Strongest Parent,” make sure your bike has gears. And as you sweat your way up the hill, remind yourself how much money you are saving on gym memberships!
A bike wagon attached to the front of an adult bike is one way to avoid the risk of drivers not noticing the children they are dragging around. Most drivers are bound to see it coming, especially if you have invested in one of the attractive pioneer-style canopies to protect your urchins from the meteorological elements. But investment is the key word here. These wagons do not come cheap - expect to pay at least 500 euro. And because they are not as easily removed from the bike as a trailer, if you want to do any cycling without the wagon, you're going to need a second bike. Due to their impressive size, locking them up can be a logistical challenge. However, for all that, they ooze old-world charm. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a kid that didn't want a ride.
For those not inspired to join the "peloton" of urban-chic cyclist mommies, why not try a simple pull wagon? Sure, they can be a little large and unwieldy, but imagine the fun of trekking out to the shops with the kids able to hop in and out as often as their little hearts desire (or as often as mommy feels inclined to stop and wait for them to clamber in/out, again). And unlike the tipsy pushchair, you don't need to worry that your hoard of groceries (or whatever) is going to cause Junior to do a backflip the second you let go of the handlebars. Again, you're going to need space to store it, and it isn't the most practical option for the baby who can't sit unaided, but for those of us with toddlers and pre-schoolers ,it can add a dash of sanity to the chaos that is shopping with children.
In the end, I chose a bike trailer and invested in two special seats: one for the newborn baby (Melia Babyschaal 0-8 months) and one for the toddler (Melia Babyschaal 8-18 months). The seats were a pain to install, but once in, were sturdy and, what with their faux-sheepskin coverings, provided the itsy-bitsies with luxurious first-class travelling quarters. I use the trailer for nearly all distances under 6 km and within six months it had paid for itself with money saved on tram and bus tickets. And the best bit: I didn't feel guilty about that bar of chocolate - surely I'd earned it!