Monthly Archives: August 2012

Role models

On the first day of school our son asked to go by bike.

We have not been involved with family biking that long. One could argue that we make up for lost time with intensity. We have no car anymore, and we ride somewhere pretty much every day, although I know myself too well to track days or mileage, because that would inevitably lead to compulsion and madness. I learned that the hard way when my employer was handing out free pedometers. The day mine broke snapped me out of an obsession that had had me pacing around our bedroom at 11:59pm every night to break my steps record from each previous day.

Because I don’t track miles and I’m not riding a bike to get in shape, I am enjoying myself and so is everyone else. I realized that the other day when my kids found some old packing paper, spread it out into a makeshift course in the living room, and started racing each other using a ride-on hot wheels truck and a ride-on bumblebee. They called out, “I’m winning!” “No, I’m beating YOU! I turned on my electric assist!” “I’m pedaling faster than you!”

Our default rental car is now this plug-in hybrid (City Carshare is offering these at their lowest rate).

We have been in cars a lot in the last month: rides to the airport, rides to the train station, a week at my mom’s, a trip to Marin. We rented a car last week for one of our more intensive grocery runs, which involved refilling a gallon jug of olive oil and serious inroads into the bulk food bins. Altogether it’s worked to out about a dozen car days this month (although those were mostly clumped together while traveling, and astonishingly, all of them together still cost less than the lowest monthly tab of owning the minivan). This is apparently not enough driving to dislodge my kids’ new self-perception that riding a bike is what’s normal. On our trip to Marin, my daughter asked me whether it was possible to buy a car with electric assist that would make it go faster. I said that’s not really how electric cars work, and suggested that cars went fast enough already, but she remained unimpressed.

Although I’m not opposed to using a car occasionally, pretty obviously, not owning one has been liberating. When we drive I remember that being in a car kind of sucks: hello traffic, parking, and road rage. I definitely appreciate the increased range and time-savings over long distances (we won’t take BART to visit my in-laws again, it takes twice as long and is almost as expensive as renting a car), but altogether I’d rather be doing something else. My daughter’s preschool is closed this week, so on Monday we rode down to the Academy of Sciences, parked the bike at the (empty) rack by the front door, and walked right in. Watching other parents struggle out of their cars several blocks away or the subterranean parking lot, I thought, “I’m glad we’re not doing that anymore.”

Kids on bike racks: it never gets old.

But that’s just me. Our kids get to live this way because it makes our lives easier, not because they chose it, although they were the inspiration. My kids are simpatico with our vegetarianism (which I realize is hopelessly retro of us in this brave new world of “primal” eating). I wondered if they would resist life without a car. We don’t spend much time talking about more general reasons we might want to reduce driving, as our daughter is three and our son worries way too much about doing the right thing already. We do our thing, and we told them we will rent a car whenever they want. And it turns out that’s fine with them. They like riding the bike and taking the bus and walking; it means we can pay more attention to them.

I have these occasional terrifying moments as a parent when I realize that literally everything we do defines our children’s understanding of what is normal. We view life as easier and better not that we drive (much) less and so do they. I like that our transportation choices are now more closely aligned with other things we want in our lives: quieter streets, cleaner air, and streets designed for people. And we are not totally unaware of the environmental implications. Without getting too deeply into our world views here, we have a compost bin and we’ve been known to use it.

She came up with this all by herself, before I had the chance to show her Loop Frame Love, who pioneered the bike rack tunnel.

So it turns out I like being this kind of role model. I like being happy with my commute and I like that I can share it with my kids. I like saving money. I like feeling less tied to things. And I like watching my kids pretend that their toy trucks are really bicycles.

(A shout-out goes to the infinitely readable Davey Oil for inspiring some of these thoughts.)

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Filed under car-free, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

We tried it: Metrofiets

“I want to ride it! I want to ride it!”

Oregon has a few homegrown box bikes, or at least did once. CETMA makes two cargo bikes that can be rigged to carry kids, the Largo (long) and the Margo (not long). However CETMA is moving to California and going off line for a while. Joe Bike used to make Boxbikes and Shuttlebugs, but doesn’t anymore. I realize I need to write yet another post (in my nonexistent free time, these cargo bike write-ups take forever): Bikes we didn’t try and why. There is also Metrofiets, a custom box-bike that appears to be a bigger operation than the other two.

There was, evidently, some controversy when the Metrofiets first came out, with claims that it was a knockoff of the Bakfiets. I can only assume that anyone who believed this has never ridden both bicycles, because although they look similar, they are so wildly different to ride that it was almost unnerving to try them back-to-back as we did. On a Bakfiets your posture is very upright, and the handlebars have almost an ape-hanger feel to them. On a Metrofiets everything is reversed, so you sit upright but everything is way down low. I had a little Goldilocks moment: “That bike is toooo high. This bike is toooo low.” Actually there are advantages and disadvantages to both postures, but seriously: you might get confused about which bike is which in the shop, but you’ll never have any doubt which one you’re riding.

Hanging out in Metrofiets. My kids view box bikes as couches; they kick back, get a little reading in, just relax, basically.

The Metrofiets is a box-bike, meaning that the kids are in front like they would be if you were pushing a wheelbarrow. As I’ve mentioned before and will probably continue to blather about ad nauseum, having the kids in front is awesome. The Metrofiets is one of the longest box-bikes we tried, at 8’10”, which the lovely people at Clever Cycles helped me measure, and then, because none of us could believe the Metrofiets was almost a foot longer than a Bakfiets, we rolled them right next to each other to check. It is. The box is also a couple of inches wider.

The Metrofiets is an American bike: designed in Portland, made in the Pacific Northwest, and built using U.S. steel. The Metrofiets guys, whom I kept messaging but missing in person, are incredibly nice, and I love that they are building this bike. It is intended to be sportier than the traditional kid-hauler. Portland is not without hills, and in a wild departure from the Dutch oeuvre, they actually imagined that people riding a bike like this might want to go up and down some of them.

The Metrofiets is largely a custom bike, and that has pros and cons and also makes assessing it significantly more complicated. It is also a very pretty bike, and I don’t think I would feel comfortable leaving it outside overnight, and I would lock it up very securely at any time of day in a city. Most cargo bikes weigh a ton, and this one is no exception, so once again if you got this bike, you would want some kind of walk-in storage.

The pros of the Metrofiets:

  • The Metrofiets is a box bike that can climb hills, and it has disc brakes. Finally! Having the handlebars down low (at first there was a real bear-on-a-tricycle feel to it) meant we could lean up into an incline. It is a heavy bike and won’t be setting any land speed records, but it’s not going to feel like a death march. The bike we rode had an internally geared hub with a more limited range, so it wasn’t set up ideally for going up steep hills, and thus we only rode on pretty mild ones. However there is an option with a lot more gears on a derailleur and the potential was obvious. This bike was actually one we could ride in San Francisco with two kids on board.
  • The Metrofiets was designed with the expectation that people might want to put an electric assist on the bike, and a lot of people do. Although Clever Cycles does not sell assisted bikes (right now), and Splendid Cycles had not yet sold an assisted Metrofiets, assisted Metrofiets are fairly common (given that it’s an uncommon bike) and can be purchased either directly from the company or from Bay Area Cargo Bikes.
  • Kids love box bikes (and so do I). My kids liked this bike a lot. However the box has higher sides than the Bakfiets box and the kids sit much lower; neither kid could self-load into this box.
  • The Metrofiets offers a very big box. The version we rode wasn’t set up with seatbelts, but it did have a bench, and seeing my kids on it made me realize that this box could comfortably hold two older kids side-to-side with a lot of elbow room. Although I was concerned that I would not be able to handle a wide bike, given that I’d had trouble with wide longtails, having additional width in front was not an issue for me because I could see it (however, we did have some concern as to whether this bike would fit through our narrow basement door). Kids, odd-sized loads: all of these would be no problem.
  • The cargo space is very modular; although some people use this bike for hauling kids, there were lots of other ways to use it as well: Metrofiets bikes hold a beer bar, a talk show, a coffee cart, and so forth. People have an awful lot of fun with this bike.
  • Like other box bikes, there’s room behind the rider for a rack or child seat or a trailer-bike, adding to its hauling capability and making it possible to separate squabbling kids.
  • The Metrofiets moves pretty nimbly given that it’s really a gigantic bike. It has a 24” front wheel, unlike most other box bikes that put a 20” wheel near/under the box, which apparently increases the speed somewhat. The steering is pretty responsive, and so it turned much more tightly than seemed possible at first. That is not to say it turned on a dime.
  • The frame, although not a step-through, has a lot of room above the top tube for shorter riders. The bike we rode came with fenders and dynamo lights, the kinds of things that decrease the hassle of getting on the bike.
  • There is an optional rain/cold weather cover (which I’ve only seen in photos).
  • The Metrofiets is primarily sold as a custom bike, which means that you can ask the builders to make it into the bike you want. Color choices are infinite, obviously, but more than that, you could ask for a second bench seat to pile in more kids, lap belts only, five-point child restraints, a locking bench, a keg dispenser: whatever. None of these things are likely to be free, but if you know that you want something specific, you can almost certainly get it made for the bike.

The cons of the Metrofiets:

  • Like all front-loading box bikes the Metrofiets has linkage steering, meaning that the front wheel isn’t directly connected to the handlebars, but linked to them by a mechanism running under the box. Linkage steering is not intuitive and on this particular bike, even though I rode it after two days’ practice, it took a while before I was able to ride without weaving wildly across the street (please don’t let me dump the bike, please don’t let me dump the bike…) It’s harder to learn than a Bakfiets and easier to learn than a Bullitt (which: argh!) But it’s fun once it’s familiar.
  • Even after you get used to the linkage steering, the Metrofiets tends to wander during a ride. The word that came to mind for me was “noodly.” The steering was noodly. When I came back to Clever Cycles they said that that word comes up frequently in test rides of the Metrofiets. For me this was a negative, but it isn’t for everyone; Matt (as well as many other people who try it) liked it. He called it “fish-heading” (as opposed to fish-tailing) and he said he enjoyed the way the bike tracked slightly back and forth like a sine wave while he rode, as catching the wave eased the turns. For me it was just weird.
  • The Metrofiets is almost a foot longer than many box bikes and all of that extra length is in front of the rider. This can be unnerving at intersections, because we had to push the bike way out into the road to see oncoming traffic and whether it was okay to start after a stop (and a couple of times I guessed wrong). It was extremely unnerving at busy intersections with a kid in the box. I didn’t think that an extra ten inches would matter that much before I rode the bike, but after I did I realized it mattered a lot. This would probably not be an issue in the suburbs and probably isn’t even a big issue in Portland, but it would often be frustrating in San Francisco.
  • The center-stand on the Metrofiets was the worst of all the box bikes we tried. It is way under the front box and not really accessible unless you get off the bike, hold the handlebars, walk forward while balancing the loaded bike, and then stab underneath the box with one foot for it. I asked Clever Cycles whether I was doing it wrong, because it was so frustrating, and they said no, that’s how it works. The stand itself is a very thick bent wire. It is hard to push down and it is not always clear when it’s fully engaged so that it’s safe to let go of the bike. To start riding, you can’t push forward to disengage it, you have to walk to the side of the box, raise it, and after that get on the bike.
  • The box is all wood, even the bottom, and like the Madsen, that meant it echoed while we were riding, even with kids on board as sound dampeners. The box also lacked drainage holes (I’m guessing they’d drill some of those for free though).
  • Like all the front box bikes this bike is very wide, plus it’s extra-long, and that makes it hard to park in traditional bike racks or even non-traditional spots. And as mentioned this is a big bike you don’t want to lift. People do lift it, there’s a picture of someone holding a bike over his head on the Metrofiets website, but I can’t see that being a daily thing.
  • No chainguard. Seriously?

    Although the bike we were riding came with an internally geared hub and had a single front ring, there was no chain guard. WTF, Metrofiets? Again, this is a custom bike so adding anything is possible, but that was an odd omission given the collection of we-make-life-easier included accessories like lights and fenders.

  • Front box bikes are expensive. Custom bikes are expensive. The total damage when you add the two together is sobering. The bike we rode was priced at $4200, and we would want to add an electric assist to that, which would set us back at least another $1400-$2000 (probably the higher end, because heavier bikes need more powerful assists). Not to mention the anticipated extra costs for adding seat belts for the kids and some kind of noise dampener for the box. And a chain guard.
  • The Metrofiets is primarily sold as a custom bike, and that’s a con as well as a pro. You can ask it to be built into the bike you want, but a lot of people who aren’t experienced (family) riders won’t know what they want. If you want to start riding with your kids and still have questions like “Does my 5-year-old need a child seat or can she just sit on the rear deck of my longtail?” (Answer: put her on the deck with a pair of handlebars to grab off the rider’s seat; cheaper, more fun, will last longer), figuring out which options you might want on a custom bike is overwhelming. Xtracycle really nailed some of the issues involved with family biking when it started offering kits for different kinds of riding on their website (one child seat, two child seats, dog, groceries, surfboard, etc.) By the standards of people who order custom bikes, we ourselves are marginal. We know a lot of the things we want and my job description is “researcher” but we don’t have the years of experience with bicycles that we’d need to get the most out of a custom bike. I can’t see myself redesigning the kickstand, for example, even though I’d want a better one.

Gorgeous, but not necessarily making things easy.

So, the Metrofiets. It started out as one of the very few bikes we knew was a real possibility when we started investigating cargo bikes. Sight unseen, the Metrofiets was my brother-in-law’s pick for us. It could handle hills, could easily carry two kids (and much more), and could be assisted. Having a box bike would be a useful complement to our existing mid-tail bike, the Kona MinUte. And because we had just sold our car and gotten more than enough from that to cover buying this bike and then some, the eye-popping price wasn’t impossible. Yes, I realize that we’re incredibly fortunate.

On the other hand, we had some concerns about the bike that we didn’t expect: the Metrofiets is awfully long in front which makes it feel less safe at intersections, it would likely be the most difficult option to park away from home, we both disliked the kickstand, and the steering would take more getting used to than we’d hoped.  Although the width of the bike wasn’t an issue while riding, it might not fit through our basement door. (At some point I realized it would be possible to ride around with our garage door opener hooked to a bike. It would be weird, but feasible, not to mention kind of funny; then again, maybe less fun after the novelty wore off.) Finally, getting this bike would require us to make some decisions about customization that we didn’t feel fully qualified to make.

After riding the Metrofiets I wasn’t left with a strong sense that this was the bike for us, but we didn’t rule it out either.

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Filed under family biking, reviews

We tried it: Bakfiets

Matt and I both test-rode the Bakfiets. We had plenty of time, because our daughter had no interest in getting out of it.

One of the big advantages of going to Portland to try out a bunch of cargo bikes is the opportunity to test ride a lot of different box bikes. Box bikes, aka long johns, aka “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” are thick on the ground in Portland, with at least five different kinds, of which we tried riding four (Bakfiets, Bullitt, Metrofiets, and Winther Wallaroo, but we missed the Cetma Largo/Margo). The Bakfiets is the most storied of these, occupying the same place that in the world of box bikes that Kleenex occupies in the world of facial tissues. If people know only one kind of box bikes, they know Bakfiets. Heck, Bakfiets means box bike.

Box bikes put the load and the length in front, hence the wheelbarrow analogy, and this involves some mental adjustment, because you’re pushing the kids out in front at intersections. I found it easiest to think of riding box bikes like pushing a stroller. The length in the front of these bikes is in fact roughly comparable to the length of a stroller. As box bikes go, even the Bakfiets long (which is the one we tried) is on the shorter end, at 8 feet end to end. However, unlike a stroller, you can talk with your kids when you’re riding a box bike with them. I never really got the attraction of this until I actually tried it myself. Having the kids in the front of the bike is awesome.

The Bakfiets is a Dutch bike, with the traditional Dutch riding posture, which is bolt upright and gives an expansive view of the road. When I first got on the Bakfiets, I thought, “Whoa! This bike is tall!” Also traditionally Dutch is its design, which aims directly for indestructible without even a nod towards nimble or lightweight. The Bakfiets weighs about 90 pounds and is intended to live outdoors in the Netherlands. You can leave this bike outdoors in this country as well; weather won’t bother it. However bike theft insurance isn’t as developed in the US as it is much of Europe, so if that is a concern, you’d want to have some kind of walk-in storage for it, because no way would you want to haul this bike up or down any kind of stairs.

My two kids, ages 3.5 and almost-7, had plenty of room on a Bakfiets bench.

The Bakfiets’ indestructibility means that it has pretty nice components. That also means that this bike is not cheap. There is no free lunch in the world of cargo bikes. What you get for your money with a Bakfiets is kid-hauling capability and ease that no other bike we’ve ever ridden can match. However this bike was also designed for an environment where the only inclines are the dikes preventing the ocean from washing away the entire country, which no one has any reason to climb regularly. That means you’ll be hating life every time you hit a hill on a Bakfiets.

The pros of the Bakfiets:

  • Kids love this bike. Love it, love it, love it. Our kids loved all the front-loading box bikes we tried, as well as the trikes, but they loved the Bakfiets most of all. When we walked into Clever Cycles it was the first bike they wanted to try, and once they got in, they didn’t want to get out. The heights of seats inside different box bikes vary, but after generations of testing Bakfiets apparently has it just right. Flip the seats up and there’s plenty of room to nap. With two benches and two kids there’s room to split up fighting kids (and they’re in front where they can be supervised anyway). The only downside of the Bakfiets box from our perspective is that the sides are high enough that my daughter couldn’t self-load, and my son, who could, wanted us there for security.
  • The kickstand on the Bakfiets is incredibly stable. It has four resting points, and when it’s down, the bike is as solid as a building. It can be engaged and disengaged with one foot while you are on the bike and holding the handlebars, minimizing the risk of tipping the bike and dumping the kids. It locks up and down with a THUNK so there is no doubt whether it’s where you want it to be.
  • Like all box bikes, it comes with a box, which means that you can throw all kinds of stuff in there without worrying about does it fit, did I tie it down, did I remember the panniers, and so forth. The Bakfiets has a big box, too, and the seats fold up, meaning that without a kid on board it’s actually larger than the trunk of many cars, and since it’s open on the top, it’s actually a lot more accessible. What’s more, you can drop a car seat in this bike and haul infants.
  • Four kids in the box, one on a rear seat, and one on a Follow-Me tandem. Ride on, party bike! If you want to haul lots of kids, the Bakfiets has no equal.

    The back of the bike is like a normal bike, but because a Bakfiets is designed to carry serious weight, it can haul a lot more. That means that in addition to putting kids in the front box, you can stick a rear seat on the back, and/or a trailer-bike. The front box is supposed to hold up to three kids, but you can get four in there. That’s up to six kids on the bike, plus whatever cargo you can pack under the seats and on the rear rack. At which point you will move very slowly. But still! The bike can carry more kids than a minivan! And it’s a million times cooler.

  • The payoff to all that weight is stability while riding. It offers a slow and stately ride. In addition, the Bakfiets has minimal startup wobble, even heavily loaded. It is certainly possible to dump this bike, but I didn’t manage it, and I was dumping my kids at a pace that was really starting to bother me on this trip—this is a hazard when switching bikes every few hours, because each one has a learning curve.
  • The bike is designed to be grab-and-go for pretty much everyone. Everything you could want while riding is included. It has dynamo lights, an internally geared hub, a full chain guard, and fenders. The child seat and seat belts are built right into the box. The Bakfiets has a step-through frame that makes it accessible to riders of varying heights from very short to very tall. The box comes with a rubber (?) floor that keeps the box from echoing while the bike is moving. There are drainage holes in each corner.
  • The Bakfiets has a rain/cold weather cover. It is so effective that one mom who had previously ridden in a cold-weather climate said her kids rode inside the box in t-shirts in freezing weather, and sometimes complained of the heat. But this was no problem, as it turns out, because the cover can also be vented from the back when it gets too hot inside.

The cons of the Bakfiets:

  • All front box bikes have linkage steering. This involves a non-trivial learning curve. The wheel is way out in front, on the far end of the front box, and when you turn the handlebars, unlike a normal bike, the turn connects to the front wheel indirectly through the linkage. Family Ride told me that when she first got on a Bakfiets she ran it into a wall. I would have done the same thing myself if I hadn’t spent the previous two days figuring out linkage steering on other box bikes. (Don’t take a first test-ride of any cargo bike with the kids on board. Seriously.) That said, of all the box bikes we tried, the steering on the Bakfiets was by far the easiest to pick up. This is partially because unlike normal bikes, with these bikes you don’t really want to lean much into turns; this amplifies the turn and then the bike starts to oscillate until you hit something or fall over. But you sit up so high on a Bakfiets that it’s already difficult to lean much into turns. Anyway, when trying out a bike with linkage steering (a) try not to lean into turns, just move the handlebars, and (b) don’t look at the front wheel, look where you want to go. After a little while you get used to it, really.
  • A much bigger problem is hills. The first time I hit a short incline on the Bakfiets I automatically leaned over to push, at which point I hit my chest on the handlebars. There’s that upright posture again. This bike does not climb. Although it is technically possible to stand while riding on hills it doesn’t help much. Going uphill on this bike involves suffering, and I didn’t even try it on a steep hill. Granted, Portland has many more hills than Chicago or Sacramento, but Bakfiets riders that we met complained about the kinds of hills that denizens of San Francisco like us only even think about when our son is on his single-speed bike, and which I would otherwise classify as an-incline-not-really-a-hill. Moreover, the roller brakes standard on a Bakfiets (which would be difficult to replace) will not effectively slow a bike of this weight on a steep downhill. I’m not sure that any brakes would. No one who sells Bakfiets bikes was willing to even consider putting an electric assist on one for us. It can be done and it has been done, and it’s certainly an option for people who want to extend their range in flatter locales. But we were informed that if we put an assist on a Bakfiets where we live there would be no safe way to get back down the hills that we could then climb. “This bike isn’t for you,” said people whose livelihood is selling family bikes.
  • Like all cargo bikes with a box, this bike is wide and thus tough to park. I had also worried about riding with a box bike, after my experience feeling like the Yuba Mundo was too wide for San Francisco bike lanes. It turned out that that kind of width only bothers me when it’s behind me where I can’t see it. The Bakfiets has a wide box, but that never felt like a problem while riding, although it would be a tight squeeze through our narrow basement door (but possible).
  • The Bakfiets is in many ways a car replacement. This comes at a price. The Bakfiets we rode was listed at $3500 for black, $3750 for cream. That’s not out of line if it’s actually replacing a car, and by comparison to a car it’s actually pretty reasonable. But it’s not cheap, even for a cargo bike; you can buy an assisted Yuba elMundo, for example, for almost $1000 less, and it can do some of the same things while also going up many  hills. And you can stick a trailer on the back of a bike for far less than an elMundo, even if you decide to put an electric assist on that bike. And so forth. Cargo bikes tend to retain their value, so a Bakfiets will have decent resale value, but still, you’ve got to put down the money first (or get a bicycle loan) unless you find one used. And if you manage to find a used one it will still be expensive thanks to the fact that cargo bikes usually have good resale value.
  • Finally, the Bakfiets is so well-designed for hauling kids that it is almost single-use. There are cargo-conversion accessories, but I found it difficult to imagine wanting to ride this bike much after my kids were old enough to want to ride exclusively on their own bikes. Most of the longtails and some of the other box bikes seemed more versatile; I could imagine using them for other things long after the kids outgrew them. You would definitely get a lot of years out of this bike no matter what; you can stick a car seat in the box from birth and kids seem happy to ride in it until they’re nine or ten, and with a couple of years between kids that’s an awfully long run. But it’s not forever, and our youngest is already three years old.

What do you mean, it’s time to get out now?

Overall, I liked the Bakfiets a lot. Matt liked it less, mostly because of the upright posture, which does not appeal to him much. We are conditioned to think about hills all the time. But we both agreed that this bike was absolutely amazing for carrying children. And as far as our kids were concerned, when a Bakfiets was in sight, other bikes might as well not exist. They could be coaxed into investigating other box bikes and the trikes, and a tandem always gets their attention, but the longtails were dead to them. The Bakfiets is the family bike that other bikes aspire to be.

And of course we will not be buying one. Nobody in Portland wanted to sell us a Bakfiets, and the reason was obvious. Hills and older children are the sticking points of cargo bikes (and bikes with trailers); the Bakfiets handles older kids without a hitch, but it cannot handle the steep hills of San Francisco. However if you happen to live someplace where a Bakfiets is a plausible option, it is definitely worth a ride.

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Our hills are bigger than your hills

I don’t know why I even bothered to write a post about the hills in our neighborhood, which top out at a pathetic 25% grade, when it turns out that someone else had already measured the grades of San Francisco for me. Down at the other end of the city, near a certain electric bike shop, there are hills that laugh at junior-league slopes like Mt. Sutro.

The steepest street in San Francisco? 41% grade. That’s right. We broke the 40% mark. Unless you live here too, your city just got pwned.

Go ahead, tell me a bicycle with electric assist is cheating. I’ll see you at the top of Bradford Street. Or rather, I’ll see you FROM the top of Bradford Street.

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Filed under electric assist, San Francisco

Still more bicycles in Beijing

Matt’s visits to China have brought us some new perspective on the massive economic shifts in China. A recent photo he took attempted to show a multi-acre, $2 billion expanse of new solar panels, unsuccessfully–it stretches out to forever. Another showed a coal plant bigger than anything I’d ever imagined. In China there are no zoning issues, and they are agnostic about how they generate enough power to run the country. Relocate over a million people to build the world’s largest dam? Sure, why not?

“I’d rather cry in the back your BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle.” I suspect this is not a formula for lifelong happiness.

The rise in prosperity has been matched with a rise in ambitions. One sign of this is the rise of China’s new “material girls” whose mantra runs: “I’d rather cry in the back of your BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle.”

China had, at one point, a very deep bicycle culture, but it is fading in the face of the perception that cars are more prestigious. A couple of newspaper articles Matt brought back suggested that there was increasing awareness that a large-scale transportation shift from bicycles to cars was unsustainable in China, if only for its likely effects on traffic.

Just another commuter bike in Beijing

In the meantime, for many people riding electric bikes seems to be at least a short-term compromise. One of Matt’s colleagues uses this electric bike to commute and ride around the organizational campus in Beijing. Like all bikes Matt’s seen in China, this one has a generous cargo basket and an extra passenger seat. China is not exactly cutting-edge in the area of interesting family bikes, for the fairly obvious reason that families have one child apiece and a single child can be managed on almost any bike. However the back seat could be used either for carrying a child or a less-material adult.

This sign was posted outside Matt’s hotel in Beijing.

In the long term, if the government of China wants everyone to ride bicycles, that’s probably exactly what will happen. I have no idea whether this is any kind of national priority. It’s clear that alternative transportation is not a national priority in the US. However the advantage of living in a democracy is that change can spread from the bottom up.

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We tried it: Madsen

My kids didn’t want to ride a bike until they saw it and said, “Oh, okay, it’s a cool bike.”

The Madsen is unlike any other bike on the market I’ve ever seen. It is like a reverse box bike, with the box in the back instead of the front. A longbox rather than a longtail? The Madsen has been reviewed before, by more experienced riders than we are, and on a newer model to boot. But we got to try riding a (first generation) Madsen for a day or so thanks to the generosity of The Main Tank, who loaned hers to us during our stay in Seattle, so I thought I’d write about it anyway. And here’s a 2014 review of an assisted Madsen from a family of six!

Before we went on our trip, I sent a list of every cargo bike I could find to my brother-in-law, who then looked up all their specifications and told us which he thought we should seriously consider. He was fascinated by the box in back design of the Madsen. He was less impressed by the quality of the components. This is the way it is: less expensive cargo bikes have lower-quality parts. Whether that matters depends somewhat on the conditions in which you ride. San Francisco is hard on bikes, and so this is something that’s come to matter a lot to us. Like a lot of people where we live, we have spent a fair bit of money upgrading our original cargo bike, the Kona MinUte. Most of that went into replacing the brakes. We are tireless and tiresome evangelists on the subject of hydraulic disc brakes. If we got a Madsen it’s likely we’d end up spending a fair bit of money upgrading parts on it as well.

The Madsen is a fun bike to ride in certain conditions, it is inexpensive enough to be a good entry-level cargo bike, and riding it is much less hassle than hauling a trailer.

My son could self-load, my daughter could not.

The Madsen is a bike I had only ever seen in Seattle, although I recently learned one family has one in the East Bay and another family will soon be riding a Madsen with BionX in San Francisco courtesy of The New Wheel. Davey Oil pointed out not long ago that cities have certain family-bike personalities and he was dead on. Seattle has Madsens and Surly Big Dummies (at least 5 of each at the Seattle Cargo Bike Roll Call). Portland has child trailers, trailer-bikes, and box bikes: Bakfiets and Bullitt and Metrofiets. San Francisco has commuter bikes with child seats, trailer-bikes, family tandems, Xtracycles (even an Xtracycled family tandem), and in the last year, a spate of Yuba Mundos and elMundos. But you almost never see child trailers here.

The pros of the Madsen:

  • The Madsen’s rear box can hold four kids (!) with seatbelts on two benches. This exceeds even the recommended load in the box of a Bakfiets (although people have been known to put four kids, and then some, on a Bakfiets as well). If you only have two kids, they can sit across from each other and get some space if they are prone to fighting. In addition, forward-facing kids aren’t shoved into the butt or back of the rider, thanks to the length of the box. This is a minivan-replacement.
  • The box can also hold enough groceries to handle the needs of the once-a-week suburban family shopper, with few hassles about oddly-shaped items, balancing the load or packing it into bags. It’s like the trunk of a car: you can just toss everything in there. This is an advantage of all the box bikes and it is significant.
  • The Madsen bucket is integrated with the frame, so going downhill doesn’t mean being flung back and forth by the weight in the rear, unlike when riding a normal bike with a trailer. This was a relief. The Madsen also has a front disc brake, which makes going down hills safer.
  • Kids like riding in the Madsen, probably because the view is good. They sit up high enough to get a view and they’re not squashed against the rider.
  • The kickstand is very stable. It’s easy to load kids in and out of the box with it down.
  • The Madsen has a 20” rear wheel, which makes it an excellent candidate for adding a rear hub motor with high torque for climbing hills. When I talked with The New Wheel they said they were very excited about the potential of a Madsen with BionX in San Francisco. However if you do this, it would be a very good idea to upgrade the brakes to get back down the steep hills you would then be able to climb.
  • The step-through frame makes this bike very accessible to even the shortest of riders, and easy to ride in a skirt. The bike has both fenders and a chain guard, thankfully. You can add a front rack for cargo that you don’t want kids to handle.
  • The price is on the low end for cargo bikes, currently running $1,150 to $1,750 on their website, depending on how popular a color you choose. At the end of the year Madsen tends to have big sales on their bikes, and the price can drop to $1000.

The cons of the Madsen:

  • Not just for kids: Biking with Brad takes Family Ride for a spin

    The Madsen is a terrible climber, with only nine gears on a rear derailleur. It wallows. Riding this bike uphill was miserable. It was a relief that I rode it while Biking With Brad, who has a BionX assisted Big Dummy and is a very nimble rider, and who reached over and actually pushed us up a few of the steeper hills. Although this bike is a great candidate for electric assist, it’s unlikely to make it up any steep hills unassisted if something ever happens to the motor or battery.

  • A bike with a heavy load in the rear can be unstable while walking the bike, starting, and stopping. I dumped my kids twice, fortunately on grass both times (they’re fine), but it freaked them out and I had a little panic attack about hurting them and potentially damaging a bike that had been loaned to me.
  • The rear kickstand is a hassle to put up and down. It’s under the bucket, meaning you have to get off the loaded bike to engage it. After dropping the bike I had issues with this.
  • The Madsen I rode was very wobbly at low speeds, particularly while starting. The front tire did not track straight. Biking with Brad said that when he asked the Madsen makers about that, they said that some of their bikes were like that and some weren’t and they didn’t know why. Uh, okay.
  • The rear box is split across the center because the rear wheel runs underneath it. That means that the box is really more like two narrow boxes side by side. On the up side, no fighting over leg room by kids sitting next to each other. On the down side, they don’t have a ton of leg room left to fight over. Moreover, some larger bulky items that seem like they should fit in the box won’t really fit.
  • Like a bike trailer, the Madsen is easy to catch on corners and needs a lot of room to maneuver.
  • While riding, the box is really noisy, even with kids inside to dampen the echo somewhat.
  • There are no holes in the bottom of the box, which means that stuff can collect down there (falling leaves, garbage, water) that’s tough to get out without putting the bike on its side. If it were my bike I might drill holes in the bottom so I could hose it out and so that it wouldn’t flood in the rain, because…
  • Madsen has apparently been claiming for years that they’re planning to release some kind of rain cover, but no sign of it yet. Both trailers and other box bikes have covers for carrying kids in cold and wet conditions.

The Madsen got a lot of attention. One woman asked if we’d built it ourselves. Ha ha! No.

When I first looked at the Madsen it seemed to have many of the same pros and cons as a trailer, but riding it made me realize it’s actually very different. Compared with the mountain bike + trailer we tried, it was much harder to go uphill and much safer going downhill. The Madsen held twice as many kids, while the trailer was much less likely to tip. The trailer had better weather protection, but the Madsen was more fun for the kids on a sunny day because they could see more. A trailer is quieter. However if you like the color pink or buy at the end of the year, it is possible to buy a Madsen for less than the cost of a bike plus a trailer, assuming that you don’t already have a bike.

I felt no real desire to get a Madsen after trying it, although it was fun to ride for a while. It was too much of a struggle on the hills. I got the sense that a number of families in Seattle who started with Madsens eventually moved to Xtracycles or Big Dummies. I think the Madsen would be best for hauling kids who are younger than mine (ages 3.5 years and almost 7 years) in an area without significant hills. However, older kids and hills are the sticking points for most of the cargo bikes we tried, so this isn’t a complaint that’s specific to the Madsen. Overall, the ages of our kids and the local terrain make the Madsen a poor choice for us. So while this is clearly the right bike for some families, it’s wasn’t right for ours.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

They’re running out of bike racks at the farmers market.

We got up on Sunday to catch a 5:30am flight from Portland to San Francisco. The kids wore their pajamas for the whole trip. When we got home, we remembered that we’d left nothing in the fridge when we left but soy sauce, lemons, and ollalieberry jam. So even before napping, we headed to the farmers market (fortunately a Sunday market) and the grocery store to buy: everything.

Staying in Portland made us want to live in Portland. Matt loved the idea that we might actually buy a house, and I loved the idea that we might actually have a yard where we could garden. And there were all those bikes. We even saw a double trail-a-bike, something I had heard existed but never spotted in the wild. And all those clearly marked bike paths, that made it possible for newbies like us to get where we were going, eventually.

San Francisco greeted us with fog and temperatures in the mid-50sF (where they have remained). It was a culture shock to return to such a dense city, in both a good and a bad way. There are no unattached houses in our neighborhood and no front yards. It is impossible to grow tomatoes on this side of the fog line, and anything metal left outside grows rust and/or moss. But having such an easy walk to the farmers market and the grocery store was so nice. We always see friends there, and Sunday was no exception. Everyone admired our bike trailer/hand cart. In California, the produce is always local. And when we couldn’t bring ourselves to actually make dinner after making the week’s lunches, we walked across the street for sushi.

The last couple of family bikes after our late departure

San Francisco has more bikes now too, it turns out. This morning was our son’s first day of second grade. I can’t believe how much he’s grown! I ruined my street cred by renting a City CarShare to carry all our gear on the first day of school (I couldn’t get both it and my daughter there on the Brompton). But Matt rode with our son to school on the MinUte, joined by at least five new biking families! Three Yuba Mundos (at least one assisted), one Trail-Gator, one trailer. One mom asked, “Are you Hum of the city?” Well, whoa. Yes I am. My name is Dorie, by the way, and I need to update that About page.

Before we left on our trip, our kids begged to plant poppies. We found some pots and bought some seeds and prepared to console them when such sun-loving plants gave up before blooming. But when we returned, we found, to our enduring surprise, the first flower. We are glad to be home.

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco