A one-day multimodal family bike tour

There are some terrifically inspiring recent writings about family bike touring out there. This is not one of them. Check out Lies we Tell our Children (or how to get kids to go bike touring) on Car Free Days and Elle of Tiny Helmets Big Bikes‘s amazing four-day bike tour with her son. And in the kid-free arena, The Path Less Pedaled is currently touring around Southern and Central California, making me homesick and sunsick. This little trip isn’t in their league, but I was duly inspired, and consequently our trek to a birthday party on Vashon Island (about 20 miles away) Saturday felt quite bike tour-ish.

When we first got the invite I toyed with idea of using Mr. Family Ride coming along as an excuse to use the car. There are plenty of truly car-free people out there with car-owning spouses. Davey Oil is in a Transportation Interfaith marriage. As is my friend, Merlin, the Transporation Nag. I don’t count myself in that awesome crowd, but I’m getting there. Then I had an even better idea of Mr. Family Ride driving the kids while I took my road bike separately. Maybe I could even check out the Vashon Island Bike Tree this way! And we’d bring the bike rack in the trunk in case it seemed a better idea for me to arrive home with the family rather than an hour and a half later (really, this was what I thought–no concern of being too tired or lazy to ride both ways).

In the end, Mr. Family Ride had to work all day so I opted for a multi-modal adventure. I can envision taking the cargo bike and riding 18 miles to the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal in the summer, but it’s just too cold to expect the kids to sit happily for over two hours, even with stops along the way. So we took the old mamabike and let the bus do much of the work: bike-bus-bike-ferry-bike. It was just a six-hour adventure, but I felt like we hit on a lot of the aspects of bike touring.

Riding with Victor

First up was the “meeting interesting people on tour” portion of the trip in which we ran into Victor on his new Yuba Mundo on the Fremont Bridge. We usually see him on Cargo Bike Rides, but our ride together felt like more of a Critical Mass as we took a lane on 5th through downtown. I usually stay on Westlake and ride between the streetcar rails, but Victor led us on a much nicer route:

Our educational pit stop was the Seattle Central Library. Book return with conveyor belt, escalator, potties, train and puppy books to check out, oh my!

As we headed two blocks to the bus stop, I saw a red RapidRide bus go by. I pointed it out to the boys and said the previous bus must have been very late. Upon arriving at the stop and checking the OneBusAway app, I discovered that our bus had been five minutes early. Doh! This is part of the reason I like simply biking everywhere: no timetable to abide by. The following bus was late, but it didn’t really matter since we’d already missed the ferry as I hadn’t thought to pad our time. When the next bus finally arrived, two of the three bike rack slots were already filled. I’ve never had to squeeze into the spot closest to the bus. It’s not easy! I guess I could have waited for the following bus given our new-found extra time, but it seemed wise to make some forward progress.

Two buses, neither of them ours

Extra time at the ferry terminal turned out to be a good thing–it wasn’t as straightforward for bicycles as at the main terminal, which we’ve used twice to go to Bainbridge Island. Cars filled the outbound lanes and we were directed to the pedestrian walkway to purchase tickets inside the waiting room. (When I say “directed to,” I mean I asked where I was supposed to ride and the car ticket issuer shrugged so I asked if I could ride on the walkway and she shrugged again.)

Never mind the grumpy kids--we made it to the ferry!

I ignored the BICYCLE STAGING AREA IS ACROSS THE DOCK sign and tucked my bike under the overhang because it was raining and there wasn’t a lot of pedestrian traffic.

Bicycle signage

The bicycle staging area was quite big (two car parking spots) and is probably bustling with activity during commute hours. Naturally, the rain picked up while we were waiting there, so we huddled next to the van while our ferry unloaded. Sometimes wind is good–the rain fell at an angle so we were somewhat shielded.

Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal bicycle staging area

We were the only bike on board. Apparently the yellow string is for securing one’s bike to the railing. I thought my lock would do a better job. A crew member was impressed by my centerstand, though I doubt it would keep the bike upright for the ferry ride sans bike lock support.

Aboard the ferry, note yellow tiedown rope

By the way, three sets of car-bound friends had also missed the previous ferry so we had some company on board :)

No bike cleats on the ferry

I know Vashon is hilly, but I didn’t know what to expect when I got off the ferry. Here’s what we got: a four-lane highway with tons of cars speeding up a hill with a tiny shoulder.

Scary street!

I almost called it a day and adjourned to the Mexican restaurant next to the ferry terminal entrance. It just didn’t strike me as a slow-bike-friendly road.

View of the Vashon Ferry Terminal from above

But the kids would have been very dismayed so we waited for all the cars to leave the ferry and then started up the hill. I stopped to rest part way up, but crossed over to the other side of the street to find a safe haven in a driveway.

Once up the hill, we got off the highway and were back in bike touring mode. We saw a cool train gate post, scary NO HUNTING signs, and an amazing variety of flora.


Most of us left the party at the same time, to catch the 3:50 ferry home. The first car backing down the driveway got stuck on a rock. I had plenty of room to get by, so go bikes! And with just a bit of pushing, the car came unstuck. Seems worth a mention.

Stuck car

Despite my not wanting to ride a family bike on Vashon again, the ferry terminal suggests there is a lot of biking here. There’s a rail covered in bike locks–I guess these are commuters who live on the island, ride to the ferry, leave their bikes behind, and then bus to the office on the other side?

So many bike locks. I'm not sure why.

I didn’t investigate the size of the backup rack, but there were two bikes at the front rack and apparently room for many more.

Bike signage on Vashon

The ped and bicycle staging area was exposed to the elements again. This one a small triangle between the two directions of traffic.

I liked the RapidRide stop we used once we got back to Fauntleroy–note the “3 min” indicating when the next bus would arrive. That jumped to “5 min” right after I took the picture, but it came soon enough.

RapidRide stop leaving Fauntleroy

During the five-mile bike ride home from downtown, my three-year old front passenger realized his legs were too squished. I realized this earlier, but didn’t want to point it out to him. I was worried his rain boot wouldn’t stay on unsecured so I had him drape a sock-clad foot over the handlebar and I rotated his seat a bit to give his other knee more room. That worked OK for a few blocks until his foot got too cold. So we put the boot back on and hoped it would stay put. (It did.)

It was a hard and tiring day, but very fun at the same time. Hey, just like a real bike tour! I’ve felt like we’re on the verge of outgrowing the old mamabike for a while, but given how today’s fun overrode the rough bits, I think I’ll look into getting a longer stem and make it work a bit longer.

And I’ll allow for early buses next time.

11 thoughts on “A one-day multimodal family bike tour

  1. The first time I ever biked across Vashon was as a college student on my bmx bike, heading home for Thanksgiving from UW. I couldn’t believe that hill from the ferry dock – massive and steep. In hindsight, I have NO IDEA how I biked across the island on that tiny bike. What’s more impressive that you even attempted that first hill, let alone conquered it with that rig and passengers. The hill at the south terminal (Tahlequah) is less steep but longer. All of that topography has kept me from trying a cargobike family ride on the island, but the roads really are quite safe.

  2. Hey Maddie, You’re definitely ready for a longer tour! You already have a good attitude and persistence: all you really need, the rest just comes naturally.

    Multi-modal trips to Vashon are so much more pleasant when you can take the water taxi. Boo that it only runs on weekdays.

    Good call to let the ferry traffic go. Once it clears out, the traffic on the island isn’t so bad. But that hill is a killer! Once we got passed by a jogger on our way up! So embarrassing.

    • Ug, getting passed by joggers never gets easier! Good to hear I can handle more–I just signed up for Streets & Beets…although I guess that’s a *ride* rather than a *tour* but it’s still more than I’ve biked…and I’m hoping to do it solo on a road bike!

  3. I used to bike up that in high school when my mom and I would take our annual trip to the hostel on the island. It was a GREAT place to take kids (they could sleep in either a wagon or a teepee), and it offered free breakfast! We would put our bikes on the bus (from Redmond, and then later from Fremont) and take the ferry over. I remember that hill…I think I may have said my longest string of curse-words ever going up it with only 3 gears at one point. Here’s a link to the hostel, which unfortunately closed this year :( http://www.vashonhostel.com/

  4. I’m *really* into multimodal, & need to share tips!

    Since you brought your mamabike, a hot one is that the #118/119 Metro come across on the ferry & head up that hill pretty quickly after arrival. If you pay for the ferry with an Orca card, it’s a free transfer!

    I’ve taken the S. Vashon (Point Defiance-Tahlequah) route to Tacoma, & the new boat “Salish” on that run, is a dream for bikes!

      • Gak, weekends! But, yes: Vashon has *got* to be the nicest way to bike to Tacoma, even with the hills, & the Sounder is SO GREAT they should really add more runs… (BD would totes fit, ez – but yr limited in travel times) I’m super down to talk deets, have I recommended the northwards direction of Sounder travel – ’cause you can look out the front window!?! SO COOL.

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