Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Kona MinUte, six months later

Maiden voyage of the Kona MinUte + 3

[Update: Our Kona MinUte was stolen from a rack at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco on November 16, 2012.]

When we bought the MinUte, it did a lot of what we wanted, but not everything we wanted. Most importantly, it seemed to be a one-person bike. Only Matt could ride it. We had hoped for a bike that I could use to take our son to school when he was away. Eventually that spot was filled by the Breezer Uptown + Bobike Junior.

With hindsight, it was odd that I couldn’t ride his bike. I am only 1.5 inches shorter than Matt is (5’7.5″ v. 5’9″), and both of us have successfully ridden bikes owned by people far shorter and taller than each other, respectively. But the seat on the MinUte simply couldn’t be lowered to a point where I could reach the pedals. Once again my brother-in-law resolved the problem. When we were complaining about it on a ride with him, he looked at the bike, and noted that the seat wouldn’t lower because the shim holding the stoker bars onto the seat post was too long; it extended way beyond the height of the stoker attachment and blocked the seat from moving. “You just need to have the shim cut down,” he said. I have never doubted that we are mechanically inept, but still.

Our other issue with the MinUte was that our daughter couldn’t safely ride on the back without a child seat, and this model was new enough that installing one using the Xtracycle accessories would have required a lot of tinkering. But she recently turned three, and as other parents have noted, this is an age when many kids start being able to understand the need to hold on. She had also indicated in no uncertain terms that she wanted to try riding the MinUte deck, jumping proudly off staircase landings onto it before we developed the good sense to move the bike far, far away from anyplace above ground level.

So while Matt’s injured calf was keeping him off the bike anyway, we took the MinUte over to Everybody Bikes to ask them to cut down the shim. “Oh, sure,” they said. They’d had no idea we’d ever want to adjust the seat height for me. “Of course you could ride it.” It turns out that the stoker bars take up a lot of room on the seat post regardless, and even lowered all the way to the stoker attachment, the seat was a bit higher than I’d prefer while carrying kids. I like to be able to get a foot flat on the ground even while I’m on the seat, and I’m happy to give up pedaling power for that extra bit of safety. But even though the seat was higher than I wanted, after that adjustment I rode the MinUte all the way home solo. No problem. Okay, then.

Matt was headed on a two-week trip to Atlanta and Miami, and that seemed like the perfect time to try riding with both kids. So the next day I rode both kids down to the farmer’s market. I still wasn’t totally comfortable on the bike, but they thought it was an awesome ride, and aside from a brief scuffle over the handlebar grips, they enjoyed each other’s company. Matt griped that he didn’t have a bike anymore, “Mommy has all the bikes.” I assumed that that was the injury talking, as he had had no prior plans to check the bike through on his tour of the U.S. Southeast.

Not seen in this photo: scuffling over handlebar grips

My kids got sick while he was away, and a kid who won’t get off the toilet, put on shoes or take off pajamas is not a kid who will or should ride a bike. And there were a couple of days I had meetings across town where the only possibility of even arriving late after dropping off the kids meant I had to drive the car. But I did, eventually, haul both kids on the MinUte to my son’s school, then my daughter solo back to her preschool. It was awesome.

The MinUte rides like a normal bike even with almost 100 pounds of kids and their gear on the back deck. I only felt the extra weight when I was turning corners; it turns out you need way, way more turning radius than usual with that kind of load. To my astonishment, I did not feel it much on the hills. On the way up to Alamo Square with both kids on the back I didn’t even need to drop to first gear. This bike likes to climb. I wouldn’t have needed to drop to first gear on the way back up with only one kid, either, if someone who shall remain nameless hadn’t decided to take off a mitten and throw it into the middle of the road, which required some backtracking.

This raises another point worth mentioning: riding with a three-year-old, at least MY three-year-old, on the deck instead of a child seat is not all sunshine and roses. With her brother behind her to catch flung mittens and otherwise impose basic safety precautions, I was willing to ride at something approaching normal speeds. Once we dropped him off I was riding very slowly indeed. One of her preschool teachers is a big fan of superheroes and as a result we and random strangers have been hearing a lot of speeches along the lines of, “I’m NOT a little girl! I’m an AMAZON PRINCESS! I’m WONDER WOMAN!” I’ll admit that this is a little rude at times but it’s also so totally righteous I pretty much let it slide. Anyway, Amazon princesses apparently see no need to sit down while riding and strongly prefer to hot dog it while heading up or down hills. Whereas I  had no desire to return to the Emergency Department for the third time in a month, and spent most of the ride saying, “You need to sit down. Sit down, please. I’m not starting the bike again until you sit down.”

[Aside: I’ve noticed that superheroes, with the notable exception of Batman, are not big on driving. Admittedly they don’t ride bicycles either, but still, as role models go, it could be worse.]

In the shop for a brake adjustment. Again.

And this brings up a more serious issue. BikeRadar recently reviewed the MinUte, and although they were basically positive, they noted that the disc brakes that come with the bike are kind of junky, and we agree. They have failed on Matt once, with our son on the back, and now he has them adjusted monthly, and they always need it. He wants new hydraulic brakes way more than he wants an electric assist. If we’d known this in advance we would have asked for an upgrade on the brakes before we first picked up the bike. As cargo bikes go the MinUte is pretty inexpensive even with this extra cost. Still it bugs me that any cargo bike would come standard with crappy brakes. Maybe it would be less of an issue for people who weren’t dealing with the kinds of hills that we are. I wouldn’t know.

While we were having new brakes installed, we also would have gotten a wheel stabilizer for the front wheel (the little spring that keeps the front wheel from flopping). These are very inexpensive, but although they come standard on the Kona Ute, one was not included on the MinUte even though there are hookups. The bike is a little too tippy with kids on the back when the front wheel can swing around. Yeah, it’s fallen over. The kids are fine. We’re getting a wheel stabilizer.

The MinUte can really haul; it’s not up to the loads of a regular cargo bike, but we live in the city and we’re not making Costco runs or moving furniture. It can certainly carry a week’s worth of groceries plus a kid or two. It makes it harder to get up the hill home, but that’s why that first gear is so low.

But maybe you’re not up for that kind of trip. Can you put it on a bus bike rack instead? No, you cannot. Matt tried for over 10 minutes to get it on the university shuttle bus rack, infuriating two dozen medical students in the process, and failed. It’s short enough to fit in a shared office cubicle but it’s still a longtail, and that means it’s too long to ride the bus. [UPDATE: We were wrong! Yes, you can put it on a bus bike rack. But it's complicated. I posted an update explaining here.]

Look who’s back in the game

Matt has mixed feelings about the panniers. On the one hand they fit the bike perfectly, are totally waterproof, fold up beautifully when empty, and hold unbelievable amounts of stuff when full (and the kids’ legs just dangle over them). On the other hand, there’s no shoulder strap to carry them if you want to take them off the bike and they don’t look particularly professional when he brings them into the office. The tubes on the rear rack are thick enough that normal panniers won’t fit unless you can modify them somehow. Last week we saw a Ute outfitted with Xtracycle freeloaders, however, and I eyeballed while we were parked next to it that they’d fit on the MinUte as well.

Overall, six months after we bought, the MinUte is doing more than we had thought it could. And even though I only ride it while he’s away, Matt is so possessive of this bike that he thinks we should get a second one.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, Kona, reviews

Figuring out what safety means

Despite my best efforts, my daughter survives another weekend unscathed

A while ago we were riding around with the kids on the weekend, on the way home from a party with friends. One street was closed to cars for a block party, and we swung in to check it out. The kids were hoping for a bouncy house, no luck. But we did see a friend of my son’s from preschool and stopped to talk with his parents. When we last saw them they were miserable about their school lottery placement, but as often happens, they were able to transfer to a school they preferred mid-year, and they were feeling good.

A neighbor of theirs walked up to me, looked at my daughter in her child seat, and said, “My god, that’s totally unsafe!”

I looked over at his two sons, who had just begun whizzing wildly around on scooters, jumping sidewalks and nearly topping toddlers, all without the benefit of helmets, elbow pads, or knee pads. He looked over at them too.

“Ha ha,” he said after a moment. “I was just kidding.”

“Of course you were,” I replied.

There is reasonable evidence that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks (de Hartog et al 2010, Environmental Health Perspectives—open access), at least for the person doing the pedaling. The question of whether it’s safer for children isn’t directly addressed in that paper. But we know enough people who have had car accidents in which their children were hurt or killed that I no longer feel that cars are necessarily safe.

A practical city car, unless you have kids

I didn’t always feel this way. We have a minivan because when our son was born, continuing to drive him in our 2-door Honda Civic no longer seemed appropriate. Our struggles to get him into and out of the car seat were incredibly frustrating. At the time, we were living in the suburbs and always sharing the road with massive SUVs.  After my maternity leave ended, we had stumbled into a situation we’d never faced before: both of us were commuting by car. It was in many ways a difficult time for us. Although it ended well, with a move to San Francisco less than a year later, at which point we sold the Civic, the legacy of that period remains with us in the form of our minivan.

Just barely fits in our parking space

We bought a minivan when we wanted a new car because it was touted as a safe car for children. It was built from 2.2 tons of steel and had side curtain air bags. It felt like the right size in the suburbs; it was, in fact, a medium-sized car in that area. And it was much easier to get a car seat in a minivan than anything else on the road. But it is a wildly inappropriate car in the city; as one example, just to get it in our garage space, we have to flip in the side mirrors. And in this environment I no longer feel it is safe; the constant dings and scratches we pick up in parking garages and on sharp turns makes driving it feel like wearing a sombrero in a crowded bar.

Technically a Prius is a compact car

I would consider getting rid of a car entirely and seeing how relying on City Carshare worked out for us. Matt thinks this is insane. We do agree that it would make sense, in principle, to trade the minivan for something else. My inclination would be something cheap and small and used, one of the many style-free little cars one can buy for thousands less than the residual value of the minivan. This would lower the financial hit if wanted to put electric assists on our bicycles, which are now our primary means of transportation. Matt’s preference is a 2012 Prius, the plug-in hybrid version. There is no way that I would be willing to buy any new car now that I know what happens to cars in the city. Admittedly I’ve never been a fan of buying new cars anyway. And university housing is unlikely to agree to install a charging station no matter what we might want. Matt likes the idea of driving a Prius, particularly the low gas costs given how much he travels for business (these costs are reimbursed, but it takes a while, and that’s annoying on principle alone). Such a car would, it’s true, fit easily into our parking space. As we’re unable to agree, we continue to drag out the minivan when we want a car. It’s not a fuel efficient vehicle and although we now typically fill it up less than once a month, gas is expensive. But at least it’s paid for.

But the point: I no longer feel it is a safe vehicle. I’m not sure when this happened. But when I recently heard a colleague say she doesn’t feel safe driving with her kids in their small car, and will only put them in the minivan, my first reaction was disbelief. She lives in a very different situation and her kids spend a lot of time on the freeway, so upon reflection I realized why we felt so differently. I would have felt the same way a few years ago. But my worries about my kids now involve things like Nature Deficit Disorder. That’s why I send my son to nature camp on school holidays.

When I arrived at the library at 8am the bike racks were almost full (but those U-locks without bicycles are not reassuring)

As I’ve begun riding my bicycle more, I’ve noticed that my attitude toward driving has changed as well. I think on bicycle time and I almost never travel in rush-hour traffic, so I’m never in a hurry. By default I yield to almost everyone on the road, whether pedestrian, bicycle, or cross-traffic. Occasionally I get honked at for being unwilling to mow down some poor soul in a wheelchair who’s crossing at the crosswalk, but I can live with that. I often get appreciative waves from cyclists, which is nice, and reminds me I should do that more often when I’m on the bike myself. I don’t listen to music and neither of us let the kids yell in the back anymore. This is probably how we should have been driving all along. Despite all of this, I now feel that our car is often an unsafe (if sometimes necessary) way to travel. The shift in perspective is unnerving, but it also feels right.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

San Francisco destinations: Laurel Heights

My office, hulking over the landscape

The university where I work is sprawled across the city on multiple campuses. This has some up-sides: I can take one of the university shuttles to many locations in San Francisco, which is often handy, and they all have bike racks, so if I’m feeling lazy or especially traffic-phobic it’s easy enough to ride to a campus location near where I’m headed and use the bike for the last leg. It has some down-sides: my department is also spread across the city on various campuses, and so I can go months without seeing some of my co-workers, or for that matter, my department chair. And there are often days when I am expected to be at multiple campuses. On one terrible day I had non-negotiable meetings at five different campuses. I didn’t get a lot of work done that day.

On campus, headed up

My main work site is at Laurel Heights, which is a weird little neighborhood in San Francisco. Like most of my regular destinations in the city, it has the word “heights” in the name, and this word is not an affectation in San Francisco. Getting there involves some climbing, although it’s not as bad as where we live. Nobody offers an elevator option for bicycles in this neighborhood.

Laurel Heights is the site of a former cemetery, Laurel Hill Cemetery, which was surrounded by cemeteries in an area formerly known as “the silent city.” In San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, even the cemeteries were damaged, with shattered tombstones strewn about. In the next few decades, the cemeteries became run down and were viewed by local business owners as discouraging development and encouraging juvenile delinquency. To be fair, there had been advocacy to remove cemeteries from San Francisco since the 1880s, as they were viewed as health risks. In 1937, a ballot initiative, Proposition 43, passed. It allowed the city to move all the cemeteries (or more accurately, the remains interred in them) and open the land they’d been located on for development. Most of the bodies were transferred to Colma on the San Francisco Peninsula, City of the Dead, San Francisco’s necropolis. “It’s Great to Be Alive in Colma!” is the town’s actual motto.

Of their bones are houses made

Some of the rest of the bodies were victims of the time; remains from the Chinese Cemetery were wrapped in canvas and sent to China by Pacific Mail Steamer. I have a friend whose great-whatever-grandparents arrived in San Francisco after dynamiting the path of the railroads across North America, and whose family has lived in San Francisco ever since, only in his generation finally moving out of Chinatown. He is more native San Franciscan than anyone else I know. Doubtless some families like his found their dead relatives sent across the ocean.

Modernism in the city: a strip mall

As a result of all this, most of the neighborhood was developed long after the rest of the city, and it is an odd 1950s modernist enclave in a city famed primarily for its Victorian houses and their look-likes. The building I work in was built and then abandoned by Firemen’s Fund Insurance Company, and it may now be part of a medical center, but it still looks like an insurance company headquarters inside and out. It is huge and black and sprawling and can be seen looming over its neighbors from as far east as Nob Hill. Across the street is a huge Muni depot, always filled with hundreds of buses. Laurel Heights contains one of San Francisco’s few strip malls, although in keeping with the city’s style, the only national chain store there is a Starbucks, and it is anchored by two excellent independent grocery stores. I end up doing most of our grocery shopping on my lunch break, and I now have an extensive collection of panniers, insulated bags and cargo nets to haul everything home on the bike. This was complicated by finding bags that would fit on the rack under the child seats that I’m always swapping on and off, and is worthy of another post.

View from the cafeteria

I like working in Laurel Heights. Before we moved into university housing, we lived here as well. It is a very quiet corner of the city, and although it is on the wrong side of the fog line, it is less pounded by relentless fog than the Sunset (a misnomer if there ever was one; you’ll rarely see the sun in the Sunset). Unlike the campuses with hospitals, it is always quiet here. And although I wish we had a library on site, there are still many amenities. Like all medical center campuses, it offers a cafeteria serving cheap, healthy, and rather unappetizing food (I’m not sure why this is, but it’s been the case at every hospital I’ve ever worked, including the Panem Institute in Copenhagen and Cook County Hospital in Chicago). The Laurel Heights cafeteria has a nice view of the city. There is a child care center on site, and I was able to walk downstairs to visit and play with my daughter every day when she was enrolled there as an infant. And although this is one of the few campuses without a bike cage, bike parking options are more than respectable, although they get crowded fast. We have a lovely view of Golden Gate Bridge from the mail room.

Bike parking at 8:30 am

There are weird quirks about working here, some of which are annoying. The neighbors ferociously resisted the university moving to the site; I am told by my dentist, who’s been here forever, that there was suspicion that we would all be torturing monkeys and releasing strains of smallpox (I don’t know anyone who does either of these things). As a result, every window in the building is glued and bolted shut permanently, even though there are no wet labs on this site and the only viruses in the entire building are on the computers. It would be nice to be able to open a window.

Spot the dead bodies...

My office overlooks a small garden and parking lot. When an older colleague stopped by once, he laughed out loud at the view from my window.  He is a San Francisco native, born at UC Hospital long before it was converted to classrooms and offices or condemned. And he has been working at this campus since it opened, in a swank office with a drop-dead view of Golden Gate Bridge befitting his stature as the director of California’s Poison Control System. He told me that years ago, right outside my window, when they were repaving the parking lot, he suddenly saw a bulldozer stop dead and every worker swarm over to it like ants at a picnic. It turned out that the bulldozer had hit a tombstone.  They searched for some time but never found an associated body. But now I have yet another good reason not to drive to work.

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Filed under commuting, destinations, San Francisco

Thinking about electric assist

Okay on the flats, but for the hills we'll need more power

If I could name the #1 thing that makes parents we know in San Francisco who’ve never attempted family biking perk up and say they want to try, it is the words “electric assist.” The other week I said those words in passing to another mom at our daughter’s preschool who has almost no experience riding. She has now told me every day that I’ve seen her since that she is hounding her husband to shop for an electric bike for them when he returns from his current business trip.

Discussions about riding bikes in San Francisco always involve hills, to some extent. This is especially the case if you live, as we do, on a mountain. Mt. Sutro: it’s right there in the name. It burns us, Precious! We’ve learned to ride them, but these hills aren’t easy. If we lived higher up the mountain like some of our neighbors, I would be riding an electric bike right now. Nonetheless hills are at least consistent. Unlike the wind or the traffic, they are predictable. They aren’t going anywhere. I keep thinking that people can get used to anything, but there are destinations in the city we avoid unless we’re driving. And there are times we give up. Last weekend Matt couldn’t face the prospect of riding to the hardware store, which is halfway up the other side of our hill, leaving him the unenviable choice of riding up and down and back, or down and up and back, or driving. Despite the hell that is finding parking in that neighborhood, he drove.

It's easier on the way down

Our friends have a Big Dummy to take their kids to school, and they live on Lone Mountain. They take their kids, their groceries, and on occasion each other, up Lone Mountain. And they tell me they push that bike a lot. They are philosophical about it and call it upper body training. They are opposed to many electric assists for environmental reasons, but they are the exception. Our friends who live on Potrero Hill or nearer the top of Mt. Sutro have said they’d be riding their bicycles daily if they had any idea how to arrange an assist. I myself had no idea. But our kids are getting heavier, and I think it’s time to learn. The only other semi-practical option was suggested by my brother-in-law, who noted that Lance Armstrong became a much better hill climber after getting cancer and losing 20 pounds. I suppose that I could conceivably hack weight off my own frame for a year or so at the same rate my kids were gaining without losing much leg strength. But as a woman in America I really don’t need any more reasons to obsess about body weight, and this strategy would only work for so long anyway.

Option #1a: Buy a new electric bike. There is a new shop (and some established ones) in San Francisco dedicated to electric bikes. But when I look at their bike lines, they do not seem practical for family use. Most seem to lack basics like rear racks, and overall remind me of the Bikeyface cartoon about “ordinary black lace panty” bikes (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Perhaps one day this will change.  But the word on dedicated electric bikes is that the bikes themselves are often cheaply made. To keep the price point less terrifying, the money is in the motor.

Option #1b: Buy a new electric cargo bike. Both Kona and Yuba make electric cargo bikes, the Electric Ute and the El Mundo, respectively. These are obviously suited to family use, and they are both respectable manufacturers who primarily make bikes rather than slapping some bike components onto a motor. These bikes are expensive relative to the non-electric versions (all electric bikes are expensive) but they seem to offer some economies of scale; the electric versions cost less than it would cost to buy a non-electric version and add a comparable motor to it. If you’re looking for a new cargo bike, these seem like competitive options. However we have a cargo bike that we like, and living in the city makes us reluctant to commit to a really long bike like the Ute or the Mundo.

Option 2: Add a motor to the bike. This is the direction we’re leaning if we electrify: we have bikes we like right now, and if we wanted to upgrade/change bikes later, we could move the motor, potentially sparing ourselves the cost of upgrading more than once. But the market for add-on electric assists is massively confusing to me. Older reviews suggest that some manufacturers offered pedal assist (e.g. BionX, Stokemonkey) and some offered throttle assist (e.g. eZee, nearly everyone else). Not sure what’s up with the random capitalization by these manufacturers. What that means as I read it:

  • pedal assist motors make you stronger as you pedal, but won’t work unless you’re pedaling
  • throttle assists operate with a switch on the handlebars and move the bike along whether or not you’re pedaling.

But evidently this is moot now because primarily pedal-assist motors now offer the option of moving your bike whether or not you’re pedaling (BionX) and primarily throttle assist motors now offer what some are calling “the European option” of only working when you’re pedaling (eZee), a term which I can only assume refers to some legal restriction on electric assist bikes in Continental locales. As a bonus, the major brands all seem to offer head and tail lights that plug into the battery. Whoo hoo!

As a result I have started thinking about electric assists in the simplest possible terms for a total noob like me: front wheel, back wheel, and inbetween.

Front wheel motors

You can buy these all over the place, including on Amazon; eZee is apparently the market leader. The El Mundo uses an eZee motor; some models are evidently powerful enough to move a loaded cargo bike. An important caution: You shouldn’t put a front wheel motor on an aluminum front fork. It will break while you’re riding and fling you headfirst onto the ground. GOOD TO KNOW! This is mentioned occasionally on sources like online bicycle forums and on the websites of what appear to be reputable electric bike shops, but is not routinely mentioned in the advertising for these motors. The electric assist market is a Wild West indeed.

Costs for these motors seem to range from $400 or so for a low-power version with heavy batteries (not cargo-bike friendly) to $1500 or so for a high-torque version with lighter weight batteries. Installation not included, and given that people are evidently mounting them on aluminum forks on occasion, I would be inclined to find a reputable bike shop for installation even if I weren’t hopelessly unhandy. Who knows what else could go wrong?

The Kona has an aluminum fork: no front wheel motor on our MinUte. The Breezer has a steel front fork (the specs said “chromoly” which I had to look up, because in case it’s not totally clear by now, I’m clueless; another option is to see if a magnet sticks to your fork, if yes, your fork is steel). So we could put a front wheel motor on the Uptown.

Rear wheel motors

The market leader in rear wheel motors is apparently BionX. It is primarily a pedal assist motor, but the newer versions claim you can use it without pedaling if you want. The BionX motor comes in various powers, some suitable for cargo bikes and hills, others less so. BionX appears to be sort of the Apple of electric assists; expensive and incompatible with other systems, but stylish and easy to use. The newest versions have cool features like locking the rear wheel when you walk away with the console, making the bike more difficult to steal.  Reviews suggest that riding with the BionX is a lot of fun; you pick a level of assist (25% extra to 300% extra) and when you push down hard on the pedals, the battery sends out that much extra power to make riding easier. This would be super-handy at stop lights as well as on the hills. This motor only works on bicycles that use a derailleur on the rear rather than an internally geared hub.

Cost seems to range from $1000 for a system that might not move a loaded cargo bike uphill to $2000 for the top-of-the-line system with lots of torque and security features, installation not included.

My Breezer has an internally geared hub and I like it: no BionX for the Uptown. The Kona MinUte has a derailleur so we could put a rear wheel motor on it. How can you tell if you have an internally geared hub? It’s like true love; you already know.

Inbetween

Let’s say you have an aluminum front fork and an internally geared hub and no desire to buy a new bike. Or you are carrying very heavy loads. Apparently there are also motors called mid-drive motors that attach to the chain. They are recommended for cargo bikes because they have a lot of torque. The only two I have heard of are the EcoSpeed and the now-out-of-production Stokemonkey. The Stokemonkey, if it were possible to find one used, is pedal-assist only (a discussion of the pros and cons of this for one family, relative to the eZee kit, is here). And evidently really, really powerful; it took a loaded cargo bike up Russian Hill! That’s over a 30% grade.

Costs are heart-stopping even for electric assists. The EcoSpeed runs over $3k. Installation is evidently challenging. It’s not for the faint of heart, unless of course you live in Portland, where all these motors are made, and where presumably any bike mechanic could install one with their eyes closed in exchange for a pint of artisanal beer sold from a Metrofiets.

Should we get an electric assist? I don’t know. They’re expensive, and that’s daunting. But we’d probably ride a lot more, and that is worth something too. We fear the hills more and more as the kids grow. We are fortunate that there are at least bike shops in San Francisco that seem to specialize in electric motors. Both Big Swingin’ Cycles and The New Wheel will put a BionX on a bike, and Electric Bicycle Outlet will install an eZee kit. Maybe it’s time for us to actually visit one of them.

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Filed under cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

If you lived here, you’d be home now

An intrepid rider in the Tenderloin--she was moving very fast

Recently I read a fascinating piece on the evolution of pedestrian and traffic rights. There was, evidently, once a time when the road was reserved primarily for the use of street cars and pedestrians. Automobiles were an unwelcome intruder on this territory, mowing down children with the temerity to play in the street as they had for centuries. The article claimed that the automobile industry at the time responded to the resulting public outrage by literally rewriting the rules of road, creating the idea that pedestrians should be confined to crosswalks, and that anyone who dared use the roads as they always had was a rube. This was before my time.

I am recent convert to riding my bicycle but a lifelong pedestrian, as we almost all are, albeit some of us in much more limited doses. I live in a large city, so the “couch to garage to garage to store” experience is rarely an available option. But I have lived in the suburbs, although I found the experience confining. And even in suburbs designed around the car, people walk in traffic, if only through parking lots. People are, at root, pedestrians. My children learned to walk before they could speak.

Tandems and surreys and bicycles, oh my! A quiet Sunday in Golden Gate Park

It was difficult for me to imagine a road without the right of way for cars. San Francisco offers many weekends where the streets are closed to cars in Golden Gate Park and for Sunday Streets, but although these are entertaining, they are places and times when cars are entirely absent. (And despite people’s avowed affection for their own cars, these events are very, very popular.) I cannot imagine a city where cars were still there, but placed on an equal footing with other road users. I think I would like that world.

San Francisco does, however, have a place where pedestrians act as though they lived in that world. That place is the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin is a grim wasteland in the middle of San Francisco. It is not just possible but probable that you will see people on the sidewalk  shooting up while walking through, something that despite years of working with needle exchanges, I had rarely seen done without apology or restraint under the open air before moving to San Francisco. One evening when Matt and I were walking through the Tenderloin to a concert, a man walked up carrying a mattress, dropped it heavily on the ground in front of us, and then passed out on top of it. I have spent more time in the Tenderloin lately as part of my increased work with homeless shelters, which are packed into this part of the city as though they were kennels.

These pedestrians entered the intersection after the light turned green and crossed at their own measured pace

In the Tenderloin pedestrians largely treat traffic signals as optional, whether due to despair or to drugs. It’s rare that I’m willing to ride my bicycle in the Tenderloin (it would be stripped if I parked it), but I do walk there when I have meetings in the area and on occasion we drive through. And one thing you notice immediately is that drivers are typically more cautious, as a green light in the Tenderloin does not necessarily mean go. People wander out into the streets whenever they reach a corner whether or not the light is favorable, or to chat when the sidewalks get crowded. Cars tend to move very slowly. Admittedly some of them are looking to score. When I am driving through I move with the same slow caution, although I have no desire to purchase street drugs or sex. My caution is by no means universal—pedestrians are killed by drivers in this area frequently—but it is a different experience to drive and walk there than it is in other neighborhoods. Walking there is not necessarily better: the entire neighborhood reeks of waste, catcalls and propositions are inevitable, and the weight of human despair can be overwhelming. But the omnipresent threat of cars is somewhat lighter. Driving is fine as long as you’re not in a hurry. I have learned to accept this but people often freak out while driving through the Tenderloin, and these people usually want to leave in a hurry.

I do not think about the Tenderloin when I think about safe streets. Like everyone else who does not default to car travel, I imagine a world where drivers were at least prosecuted for killing pedestrians or cyclists, although most cities in the United States apparently feel that this is too much to ask. When I am ambitious I imagine San Francisco with an overlay of Copenhagen. I still miss the experience of moving through Copenhagen, which felt both liberating and safe. It was in many ways the friendliest place we have ever been, and I don’t doubt that that was related to the bicycles; most of the city felt scaled to people.  I like to imagine the city’s streets being quiet enough to hold a conversation with my son when we are walking through a crosswalk. San Francisco’s major streets are painfully noisy. I often imagine a night without the howl of car alarms or the blatting of motorcycle pipes. These are pleasant fantasies.

But in some ways, I realize that the Tenderloin represents a different approach to the same problem, an escalation of pedestrian demands for the right to safe streets. It is a terrifying thing to watch; in the inevitable cross-fire, a car might get dinged but the pedestrian is usually killed. Very few people would be willing to take the same risks unless they too had nothing to lose. I find my time in the Tenderloin increasingly fascinating because it reflects not only the needs of desperate people, but of the costs of transportation design that ignores actual residents entirely.

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Filed under San Francisco, traffic

Scofflaws

Driving to ride a bicycle. This makes no sense to me.

My commute to work and back is largely on a quiet bike lane, a broad road with surprisingly few cars and a large collection of bicycles. Based on the clothing choices of the riders and the crust of mirrors, panniers, and lights on the bikes, I presume these fellow road users are all headed to office and teaching jobs like mine. Even on the (slight) downhills, we all proceed at the measured pace that suggests that in all likelihood, none of us got a full night’s sleep, as is SOP in a household with children under the age of five.

Every once in a while, however, the smooth road, limited elevation changes, and infrequent traffic signals seem to draw a different kind of rider on our evening ride home, a type displaying substantially more ambition. The other day as I left my office I met with a pair of riders in the full lycra kit, riding bicycles that to my eyes looked as though they might collapse in a stiff wind. From the moment we converged they showed evidence of having arrived from a different planet, one without traffic signals. They blew through every stop sign without even slowing down or taking a break in their chit chat, even when other cars or bicycles were patiently waiting their turns. They paid only slightly more attention to red lights, slowing on occasion but otherwise treating them a polite suggestion to be aware of fast-moving traffic while crossing.

Traffic scofflaws, whether in cars or on bikes, annoy me (and everyone else). Even worse is when the people in question are as slow as I am, and this is pretty slow, as I am opposed to sweating when I can possibly avoid it. At the very least, if you are going to blow through red lights, you should have the decency to go fast enough that I’m not stuck behind you for over a mile. And I was in fact stuck behind these tiresome riders, who were riding side-by-side to prevent boring, law-abiding commuters from passing. What is it with lycra?

An outfit I cannot imagine wearing

There are, I’ll admit, a few lycra-clad riders who seem aware of the rules of the road. Occasionally on my ride home I will see a man in lycra who is 70 years old if he is a day, riding a bicycle that was evidently designed to go fast, although I have yet to see evidence of this actually happening. This lovely man is still having a bit of trouble with this bicycle, and it is painful at times to watch him stop carefully at every intersection, as clipping his shoes into and out of his pedals is not something he’s fully mastered yet. But I respect his effort and will ride more slowly than usual when I am behind him, as I figure he can use all the encouragement he can get, and being passed by a mom in dress clothes on a cargo bike with a kid on the back is probably something of a blow to the ego. So I usually wait until he’s having more trouble with the pedals than usual at a stop light to pass.

This is my kind of ride.

One of the advantages of riding around with major weight on my bike is that I have gotten much stronger, although I am slow. This pays off in a big way on the hills, especially on the occasions when I am riding without my kids. On the day I was stuck behind the annoying roadie couple, I was riding alone. And after a mile or so of mostly flat riding, we finally hit a real hill. The two of them split to crunch up it slowly on bicycles that weighed less than my pannier, standing in the pedals for leverage. So I passed them. Next time bring your “A” game, roadies.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Loaner bike: The Yuba Mundo v4 (hello, goodbye)

Two cargo bikes squeeze into a bike rack...

Last night the loaner Yuba Mundo went home to Marin. It was fun while it lasted. I had, until a couple of weeks ago, never ridden a real longtail before, and as I’ve mentioned, it takes some getting used to. Our friends who were used to riding a Surly Big Dummy liked it a lot. “It carries three kids and you don’t even notice! And it’s cheap!” They are, of course, very used to riding with two kids on the back. In fact they rarely do anything else. My brother-in-law hated the Mundo. “I hate this bike,” he said. It was unclear whether it was the bike itself or the experience of riding any kind of long bike with two kids on the back. With hindsight I lean toward the latter.

After riding it for two weeks, the Mundo grew on me. I conclude after this experience that big bikes have a significant learning curve. If you’re in the market for one, especially as a first bike, it’s something to consider. A case in point: I dropped the Mundo with both kids on it. In front of our local bike shop. The bike shop guys ran out in horror and offered us their shop Ute as a loaner to get home. It was mortifying. At first I thought it was just me, so it was reassuring to hear from Family Ride and A Simple Six that this is one of those things that just happens sometimes. The kids were unharmed although startled. I now put this experience in the same category as dropping the baby off the bed. When I was in grad school my advisor told those of us who were expecting that one day, a while after our kids were born, we would put them on the bed and they would roll off. “It happens to everyone,” he said. “I’m telling you now so you don’t beat yourself up about it. They’ll be fine.”

Fully loaded

I really liked having the ability to carry two kids and a load of groceries in San Francisco (and this is particularly appealing for younger kids who need child seats). It is pretty amazing. People who live in flat areas with no hills to speak of love their box bikes (bakfiets, Madsens), but almost everyone agrees that those bikes won’t climb real hills, and getting down them on the other side raises safety issues. San Francisco has real hills. The Mundo may be heavy, but it cranks up the hills; I never had to walk it. Based on our experience so far, I now believe that people who live in hilly terrain should buy bikes from companies based in the San Francisco Bay Area, or maybe Seattle.

(There is evidently one exception to the “box bikes won’t climb” rule, the custom Metrofiets. Down in SoCal, Bike Temecula is riding a Metrofiets with a BionX electric assist. Although that bike is unquestionably one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on two wheels, it is not cheap. A Metrofiets with kid seats costs $5k WITHOUT the electric assist [update: Metrofiets notes below that the price is just under $4k; Splendid Cycles lists the box with child seat as an add-on for $665 and a harness as an add-on for $100]. We could buy normal bikes with electric assists for everyone in our family for that kind of cash. Or a used car, were we so inclined, which we are not. Where we’d store any of those things is a different question entirely.)

There are things I would change about the Yuba Mundo. My personal pet peeve is dynamo lights; I think all family bikes should have them, and the Mundo does not (it’s not even an option). In San Francisco, the bike should be fitted with disc brakes (this is an option, and not an expensive one, either). The child seat mount would be infinitely better if it were possible to slide the seats forward and back, possibly on rails? I would have preferred the Peanut seat about 6 inches forward from where it was, because it leaned beyond the rear tire, which made the bike wag. And when I had only my daughter on board, I would have liked to slide it all the way forward, which would have made it much easier to get up steep hills and to talk to her.

There are also a lot of things to like about this bike just as it is. It can move major-league weight, way more even than other long tail bikes. And you don’t even feel it except at the starts and stops. This is pretty amazing, especially considering the weight of kids and their gear. My two kids together are ~80lbs stark naked, but outside the house they always have clothing on, and on any kind of trip we add in lunches and book bags and toys. The weight adds up fast, particularly if you want to stop and pick up groceries. (And if the weight gets out of hand as the kids get older, Yuba sells an electric version, the elMundo.) The Bread Basket was unnerving to ride with at first, but absolutely awesome. When it was loaded up I barely noticed riding over potholes or Muni tracks. Our son loved the soft seat cushion and wants one for the MinUte. And the bike acoustics are good; this may sound like an odd concern, but it’s useful to be able to hear the kid in the back. Our kids liked riding on this bike. They called it The Beast.

Yuba sometimes bills the Mundo as a minivan replacement, but I don’t quite agree with that. Minivans are plusher. The Mundo reminds me more of a pickup truck; stripped down but effective at moving stuff where you need to go. Yuba is like the Ikea of bicycle manufacturing, peeling off everything optional to keep the bike at a price point that does not make novice riders laugh in disbelief. As long-term recovering cheapskates (we’re so cheap that we bought our Ikea furniture on craigslist, given that the kids are going to trash it anyway), I like that there’s a cargo bike manufacturer with this business model.

In contrast, a bike like the Surly Big Dummy is more of a station wagon concept car, which can be customized to do anything you want, but only if you know what to ask for and can swallow the price. The minivan of bikes is the box bike.

Classic San Francisco pinch point

Would we get a Mundo? No, but that’s not a knock against it, but a statement about our lifestyle. We wouldn’t get a Mundo for the same reason we don’t have a back yard. We’ve made a choice to live in a large city, and that choice involves some compromises. We have, by city standards, amazing bicycle storage, but even we had to rearrange that space around the Mundo.  San Francisco has serious traffic, and maneuvering a big bike through it led to some frustrating moments; another bike would whiz through a pinch point in front of me, and I would realize I had to wait until it cleared. Parking the bike, even at bike racks, always involved a little jiggering around tight corners and other bikes—I was in that situation when the Mundo fell over. There is a lot of starting and stopping in the city, and that is difficult with a heavy bike. The Kona MinUte, we’ve realized, may represent the outside range of bikes that we can handle in San Francisco. I wasn’t surprised when the Yuba rep told me that most of their customers lived in inner-ring suburbs or smaller cities. That seems like this bike’s ideal stomping ground. The Costco run holds no fears for the Mundo.

We are lucky devils indeed to live in San Francisco, and being shut out of a few categories of bicycle seems like a small price to pay for the privilege. I’m glad we had the chance to try the Yuba Mundo, and although we won’t miss figuring out where to put it, all of us, especially the kids, will miss having the chance to ride it sometimes.

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Filed under cargo, family biking, reviews, Yuba Mundo