Monthly Archives: November 2011

Unhappiness

The last couple of weeks have been bad news for biking and bad news in general.

Bad news for biking was having my daughter’s child seat tip over and nearly slide her off into the street while we were crossing a six lane road over the weekend. That seat (the Co-Rider) has been removed for return to the manufacturer. The bike shop that installed it was skeptical from the beginning that it was stable, and I should have listened. Further updates on this experience when I am calmer about it.

Enjoying the Bobike Junior

She is fine and because I caught her she thought it was funny, but there have been some sleepless nights for me. We took her home on the Bobike Junior, which she loved; she’s too young to be really safe on that seat, but a Bobike Maxi, the seat of choice when we were in Europe, a seat that millions of Dutch children have ridden, many of whom are still alive, should be a good replacement.

That would be, of course, when I stop freaking out about the whole experience, and when the Bay Area is not experiencing severe wind advisories, promising gusts of up to 35mph, not that I have seen any yet. In the meantime we’ve retreated to four wheels for a spell–among other things, we lack a seat for my daughter. We still love biking, but we are less fearless.

 

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Filed under Bobike, Co-Rider, family biking, San Francisco

Random moments

1.

On Monday I took my son to school on the Bobike Junior. I am not the primary school drop-off parent. And we live at the top of a giant hill. This was my first run down it with him as a passenger, and as others have noted, there can be braking issues when you add kid-weight to a bike. So I overshot the line at a 4-way stop at the bottom by a couple of feet when I stopped. I’d say I’m not doing badly for a first-timer, but that’s me, Sally Sunshine.

The taxi driver coming up on the cross street stop looked angry and waved me on. Okey dokey. And as we went by, he pulled halfway into the intersection, the better to yell out the window, “It’s dangerous and stupid to ride with your kid on a bike!” Both my son and I burst out laughing (I swear I wasn’t even thinking of this poster at time). Like I’m going to take road safety advice from a cabbie!

Biking the boy to school

I don’t have much chance to walk on the wild side now that I’m a parent, so Monday, at least, I was living the dream. If only I’d had both kids on board! I could have made the roads safer for years to come when his head exploded.

I told another parent at Rosa Parks about what happened when we got to school. He said, “That always happens to me too! The first time I try something, no matter what it is, someone always says something obnoxious.” Augie, if you ever read this, you’re awesome.

Not that it’s needed, but this is just further confirmation of my long-standing belief that when people toss out  insults they’re holding up a dark mirror to reflect back the things they dislike and fear most about themselves. There was someone dangerous and stupid on the road that morning, and I think we both knew who it was. In the meantime, my son laughed all the way into the park. It was, overall, a pretty nice ride.

2.

Matt told me it was supposed to rain today, and as a new bicycle commuter, see above, my rain gear isn’t all that it could be. So I took the shuttle to work, and planned to take Muni to the SF Bicycle Coalition’s Biking Your Kids to School class. It is the first time they’ve offered it, and I’m so glad! There are some obvious first generation issues with the class (e.g. neither instructor had a child over the age of 2, awkward talk-amongst-yourselves moments, blank slides) but it’s part of their new family biking initiative, which couldn’t be more awesome. Seeing and recognizing their bikes (Xtracycle with stoker bars and Omafiets + Bobike Mini and Maxi) made me feel like I was not quite such an ignorant wretch. The one non-parent stopping by the class for some road tips said she had no idea what most of us were talking about most of the time–what’s a Bobike? what’s a stoker? It is very rare that I feel informed while discussing bicycling; granted, at your average SF hipster bike shop, I know more than the 20-something employees about child seats, but their attitude clearly communicates that that’s roughly equivalent to knowing more than they do about sewage treatment.  I think I visited 7 bike shops before we finally found a parent, two parents in fact, one Dutch (a shout out to Ocean Cyclery). Anyway, the weather today has been great, and oh my god, I resented taking the shuttle and bus today! Slow, crowded, boring! Of course, in Matt’s defense, now that I’m back at the office the skies look grim indeed.

Not to mention, the bus is cold. Whatever else I might say about the hills of San Francisco, I have yet to feel cold after climbing a few of them by bicycle, particularly my bicycle, which was not light to begin with, got into Workcycles territory with the addition of 2 child seats, and is easily the slowest thing on the road when I put both kids (75 pounds!) on board. Heck, usually it’s the slowest thing on the road without two kids on board.  As was discussed at the bike shop, it is very fortunate that I am not heavyset. My bike is rated to carry 300 pounds, and when you total up 130 pounds of me + 75 pounds of kids + 20 pounds of child seats + whatever else we’re carrying, well, I’m glad I found reviews from very large men who ride the same model claiming that the bike will, in fact, take the weight without complaint. And it does. Slowly.

Nonetheless I managed to get up the 16%? 18%? grade (really, really steep!) hill that goes up to our home on the first day I rode the bike with both kids on board; I have a great granny gear. And according to my sister, all women in our family have legs like French ponies, which aesthetically speaking leaves much to be desired but evidently has some practical advantages. However I have since found better routes; by going a few blocks out of my way, I can keep the grade ~8%, which is the kind of thing that I view as a big success, now that I have apparently completely lost my mind.

Nonetheless I am still pumped that I made it up that hill even once carrying 75+ pounds of kids without needing a walking break. Probably this is a greater testament to the gearing than to my personal strength but I still kind of wanted to find some guy wearing lycra and say, who’s living strong now? But I was too winded to speak. There were many of them in Golden Gate Park that day, loading up their bikes onto SUVs in the late afternoon as we meandered by, both kids eating Arizmendi pastries and laughing. These erstwhile riders looked at us like we were crazy, disbelief coming off them in visible waves. But why would anyone put a bike on a car when they could be riding in the Sunday sunshine?

3.

I really, really hate the only panniers we have found so far that fit on my rack after installing the Bobike Junior. Kid hauling is also cargo-hauling, and mine are small, linked together so they are a bear to install under the child seat, and are too floppy to hang straight and too stiff to hook to the bottom of the rack easily. Wrestling them on and off takes several minutes and is the least pleasant part of my biking day. But the footrests block most of the rack and so it’s hard to find any bags that work. I need some kind of rear rack extension? Does such a thing exist? The Oma-rider at SFBC has the same problem; the Maxi is too close to the seat to allow her to carry a messenger bag without smacking her son in the face, the footrests block her from hanging bags off the rack, the brake cables and Mini footrests make a front basket impractical. Surely we can’t be the only people who occasionally want to carry snacks and a water bottle as well as the kids.

[Update: I think I have figured this out. Or at least other people have, and I plan to free-ride on their good ideas.]

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Filed under Bobike, cargo, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

The hum of the city

Why the hum of the city? Snob alert: having lived overseas (exchange students, extended work exchanges), my husband and I were both skeptical about the ability of a short stay in any country to have much effect on people. Spending a year plus living in Paris was life-changing for us. My husband’s one-week college vacation in Mexico? Not so much. We ended up on a short stay in Europe with our kids because of a series of work-related coincidences; I had business in Copenhagen, my husband had business in Paris, the dates of both were flexible, and neither of us wanted to travel without our kids for a week (or stay at home as single parents while the other was away). So we doubled down and booked our trips back to back, spending the money we would almost certainly have spent on two weeks of extra child care, and then some (ugh), to fly our kids along with us.

In the apartment courtyard

We arrived in Copenhagen on a Sunday and so the absence of traffic was no surprise. The city was pretty much silent, except for the occasional bus roaring by and the hum of bicycle wheels going by on the pavement. We walked to our rental apartment after taking the train in from the airport because there were no cabs on a Sunday–carrying the two-year-old and our bags and more or less dragging our tired and cranky six-year-old. Thank goodness we’re light packers. The first unwelcome pedestrian surprise was that street lights are timed for bicycles, which meant we ended up with a long wait at every intersection.

On Monday I walked to the hospital. At that point, the absence of traffic WAS a surprise. Even in the middle of rush hour, the sound of the city was something close to… silence. I saw a car maybe once every few minutes, except on the busiest streets. Even then they were hugely outnumbered by bicycles. In San Francisco we live on the university campus, right on top of the hospital, and when we moved in getting used to the noise was challenging. All night long there are ambulances, all day long there is shuttle bus and Muni traffic, plus the usual garbage trucks, delivery trucks and the every day collection of people driving to work. Virtually everyone drives to the hospital–we drove there when I was in labor. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. But in Copenhagen there were basically no cars on the roads. The hospital parking lot had space for about 12 of them. And what I heard walking there was all the sounds of a city that are normally drowned out by the roar of engines. Sure, there were bicycles, bicycles, bicycles, but they are so quiet that we spent our first few days nearly jumping out of our skins when cyclists appeared out of nowhere, not really, but that’s how it seemed. We weren’t listening for the low whirr of wheels on the pavement. Now that I know to listen for the sounds of the city, I hear them in San Francisco, when traffic dies down or on quiet streets: people talking, the clink of glasses in cafes, the sounds of deliveries coming in at the door. Sounds like these make the city scale down, suddenly, to human level. Without the sounds of cars, a busy pedestrian street in San Francisco is like rural Main Street, but with much better food and more diversity.

So: the hum of the city. Our kids immediately took to the bicycles and tricycles strewn around the apartment courtyard; there was even a mini-box bike. We rented bicycles, and it’s a measure of how different cycling is in Copenhagen that renting bikes with child seats is no big deal, although it takes an extra day to install them. We got on the bikes and suddenly felt like we were a part of the city; everything was accessible. We went to the National Museum, the canals, and the center of the city. We biked out to see the Little Mermaid statue. Our kids nearly spent every minute of the rides screaming “whee!” and pounding on our backs or hugging us, at least until they fell asleep. And we could talk to them the whole time because our bicycles whizzed along at a low hum. We thought that a short stay in Copenhagen wouldn’t change our lives but it did. While we were there, we fell in love with the hum of the city, a sound we’d never really heard before. And we fell in love with bicycles.

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Filed under Copenhagen, family biking, traffic

You can bike here, but don’t bring your kids

What’s nice about biking in San Francisco? Almost everything except the hills. And the total absence of knowledge about family biking. Biking is for hipsters! And racers! But that attitude is hardly specific to San Francisco.

By almost any ranking, San Francisco makes the top 10 list of best cities for bicycling in the US, thanks to the hassle and expense of parking, mellow weather, smug environmentalism, and tireless efforts of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. My husband and I hadn’t biked since long before our kids were born, as our old bikes and virtually everything else we owned were casualties of our habit of picking up and moving overseas on a whim. Stuff-wise, we are a lean operation, and bikes are bulky. We were pedestrians and public transit users. But even we, in our relatively spaced-out states with respect to things with wheels, had noticed there were a lot of bicycles around when we moved back to San Francisco in 2006. Many of my colleagues at UCSF, even many senior faculty, bike commute by preference and the steady addition of bicycle lanes in the city is something I noticed even from the university shuttles. My sister and brother-in-law lived in San Francisco in part because they didn’t own a car, and they were dedicated bikers. None of these people, however, had the slightest clue about biking with children, and even my colleagues with young kids tended to bike commute to their jobs after driving the kids to preschool. Many of them had settled on this compromise after trying bike trailers, a bike commuting option that kids seem to find about as appealing as dental surgery.

The inevitable outcome of non-bikey travel overseas

Our attitude about life with kids and the need for cars was settled when our son was born in 2005. At the time we lived one block from the hospital, and assumed that the most obvious choice would be to have the baby and then walk home. But when we toured, the nurses insisted that no baby would be released except into a car seat that was installed in a car. “What if we don’t have a car?” “We’ll call you a cab.” Can pedestrians have babies? Evidently not. That particular hospital, Alta Bates in Berkeley, implied that this was a state law; we learned when my daughter was born at UCSF that it was not. UCSF welcomes pedestrian parents; we walked right out with our daughter in 2009, admittedly in an infant car seat per official rules. But once they saw she had a seat they didn’t care what happened next. Progress!

So despite our itinerant ways, once we had a baby we got a minivan, and we got used to it. It was okay. Parking a minivan in SF is hellish, and we walked when we could, but eh, whatever. It’s unbelievably easy to wrangle car seats into a minivan, and it made our newly-frequent diaper runs to Costco a breeze. No one we knew had any better ideas. My brother-in-law floated the idea every once in a while that we try putting our son in a bike trailer, but that sounded about as appealing as putting him in our car and towing it. Bikers in San Francisco didn’t seem particularly kid-friendly, either. Watching little kids learning to ride in the city’s bike lanes led me to believe that most adults on bikes viewed all children with the same tenderness and affection that the average business traveler reserved for crying children booked on their flights to Asia. And we didn’t own bikes, and there was nothing that we could buy off the shelf and ready-to-go that seemed even vaguely practical for kid-hauling, and so we wandered on cobbling together a life with one car, lots of buses, and a lot more walking than our kids wanted, and thus a lot more whining than we wanted. Until last summer we went to Copenhagen. We’re such a cliche!

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A San Francisco problem: hills

When we rented our bikes in Copenhagen, the agent could not have been more enthusiastic. He was delighted to add child seats to our rental bikes and told us about commuting with his own kids.

“Everyone should bike! Biking is wonderful! Where are you from?” he gushed.

“San Francisco.”

“I would never bike in San Francisco!”

Yes, our Copenhagen bike shop guy feared the hills of San Francisco, the 2nd hilliest city in the world, not to mention the wind. Looking at his box bike (used to ferry two kids each morning, a Christiania), this was no surprise. I have seen Dutch-style box bikes in San Francisco on occasion, predictably only on the flatter streets, but even so their riders looked miserable. Even the standard Copenhagen rental bikes, hulking black steel beasts with no gears, noticeably heavier with the addition of a child seat, let alone an actual child, wallowed like hippos on the laughably gentle slopes of the neighborhood park.

Good luck renting an adult helmet in Copenhagen

The kids, traveling effortlessly courtesy of their Bobike Maxis, were oblivious. As far as they were concerned, we had been holding out on them for years. They had always gotten sick in cars and they were tired of walking. They screamed with glee everywhere we went and hugged us from behind. Before this trip, the prospect of riding bikes with the kids seemed wildly impractical. When I thought of biking in San Francisco, I thought of hipsters on fixies yelling, “BREEDER!” as they whizzed past us on Critical Mass rides. Sure, we’d lived in cities for years, and we weren’t excited about driving, and particularly not about traffic and parking, but we were pedestrians.  But our kids killed our habit of long walks; once our son grew out of the stroller, it often seemed unlikely that we’d ever leave the house again.

But we had once been bike commuters, back in college. We were terrible bike commuters, of course, riding bikes we’d gotten in childhood without helmets or lights. That wasn’t going to fly as safety-conscious parents. But spurred by our kids’ enthusiasm, we were willing to change. Matt’s experience riding the N-Judah downtown every workday had already made him desperate to try biking.

(One of the many haiku honoring the N, courtesy of Muni Haiku:

Man smells of urine
Please don’t sit next to me guy
He always sits there.)

However SF hills are intimidating even without 30-75 pounds of kid cargo. Our attempts to find bikes that would let us haul our kids up those hills were initially pretty daunting. Family biking in the US is a total ghetto, and the response from most parents seems be either to make it solely a recreational activity or import a monster box bike from Europe. We had no interest in recreational biking, commuting without the kids would break their hearts, and it was pretty obvious that the 60 pound bikes we didn’t enjoy dragging up Copenhagen’s basically nonexistent hills wouldn’t serve on San Francisco’s seriously intense hills. In this situation, as in so many others, I assumed that the internet would save us. This was only partly true.

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Hajime

In the summer of 2011, we took the kids to Copenhagen. We rented bikes to get around. Everyone was doing it.

In less than an hour our kids decided they never wanted to travel any other way.

We came back to San Francisco and bought bikes.

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Filed under Copenhagen, family biking