Category Archives: advocacy

Game changer

It's more powerful than it appears.

It’s more powerful than it appears.

When we sold our car, I switched from a dumb phone to a smartphone. I wanted to be able to check bus schedules and arrange rental cars or rides easily, and for those purposes, the smartphone has performed admirably. I’ve also become one of those people who texts my husband from the bedroom while he’s in the kitchen. This is arguably less admirable, although I prefer to think of it as modeling a way to communicate without yelling. Goodness knows that message hasn’t taken yet with our kids.

Although I try not to make my attachment to the phone a 24/7 thing—I put it away at least one weekend day and am obligated to turn it off for almost all work meetings—I am more engaged with my phone than with any other device I’ve ever owned. I’m not unique in this. And in many cases this is a clear win for humanity: since the advent of camera phones, for example, reports of UFO sightings have pretty much disappeared, and that’s a mercy. Nevertheless, it’s been hard not to notice the increasingly vehement urging that people should put their phones down. In some cases this makes sense to me: I embarrass myself when I am checking the phone as my kids are talking to me. Bad parent!

I’m far less impressed with recent arguments that people should put their phones down while walking. If you don’t pay attention to traffic, the argument goes, you’ll be run over. The San Francisco police department had a whole campaign along these lines, and I found it offensive. Trust me, you can be run over while paying plenty of attention to traffic. I speak from experience. More to the point, though, no one should ever be run over in a crosswalk. Only reckless drivers pay so little attention that they run people over, and they can manage that whether you’re paying attention to the road, paying attention to your phone, or you’re a little kid crossing the street with the light while holding your dad’s hand. Pedestrians don’t kill themselves. Drivers kill them.

I am, in contrast to SFPD, a huge fan of people using their phones while walking. And the reason why became very clear recently while I was walking with my kids down Fillmore. A driver making a left turn slammed into a motorcycle, toppling it over and knocking its rider into the street. A dozen people with their phones in their hands began taking pictures the second it happened, and kept taking pictures and videos as the motorcycle rider staggered up and the car started to drive away. I didn’t have my phone out and so I watched the driver, who looked back at the motorcycle lying in the road, started to accelerate the heck out of there, and then noticed two people in the crosswalk filming his car and zooming in on his license plate. At that point, he decided to pull over after all. People walking with their phones out prevented a collision from becoming a hit-and-run that evening.

Something very similar happened when we were hit last year. Golden Gate Park is full of walkers, and they had their phones out, taking pictures, when they saw what had happened. There was also a sheriff’s deputy in the crosswalk who ran over to us yelling, “I’m a sheriff’s deputy!” so it’s hard to say whether the driver who ran us down was ever tempted to hit-and-run. However if he had been, we would have had recourse, because of all those people who ignored the advice to put their phones down.

When I see people walking and using their phones now, I am grateful. I feel that way even if they’re distracted and they sometimes walk into me. Bumping into me is annoying, true, but nothing that I don’t get already from my kids. More importantly, though, it’s a price I’m happy to pay because I know that the more phones that are out, the safer I am walking and riding on the streets. My smartphone is useful and fun and it makes my life easier. But it’s a game changer because it keeps people from getting away with murder.

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Filed under advocacy, San Francisco, traffic

Even yet more San Francisco family bikes

It’s been a while since I posted about some of the bikes we see around town, which is misleading because I see more family bikes every day. Red Bullitts are so thick on the ground that I think they might have their own gang. Who knew that going with a blue Bullitt would be so passé? And I’m still trying to get a picture of the CETMA I see near our son’s school sometimes, but the dad riding that bike is just too fast for me. In the meantime, there are others.

This Surly has the motor on the front wheel, along with the clever wheel lock.

This Surly has the motor on the front wheel, along with the clever wheel lock.

The most common family bike we see is an assisted longtail, like this one. The EdgeRunner made a big splash in SF, but there are also a lot of pre-EdgeRunner Xtracycle options running around the city. I liked this assisted Surly because I thought the front wheel lock was a clever addition. The family riding this bike parked it outside the Jewish Community Center while we were there for an event with only the wheel lock, so they didn’t need a rack. I thought that was tempting fate when I first looked at it, but realized that without the need for a rack, they could park right in front, in full view of the security guard standing at the door. The bike was still there after our 3-hour event, and I saw it parked there again a week later, so it was evidently safe enough.

Bakfiets short from My Dutch Bike, which I am discouraging my daughter from climbing into when this photo was taken

Bakfiets short from My Dutch Bike, which I am discouraging my daughter from climbing into when this photo was taken

This Bakfiets short belongs to our neighbor up the hill, and is well-known in the city because the owner works for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which is a totally awesome organization to which we donate an increasing amount of money every year. I am grateful for their tireless efforts to create world-class bicycle infrastructure here, and that infrastructure is a big part of the reason that I get the opportunity to photograph many awesome family bikes. Thank you, SFBC! I tell all my friends to join! The Stokemonkey (now back in production!) is a recent addition, which made it possible to ride up the hills around here with kids on board. I was surprised that she reported that it is kind of noisy, given that I had heard it was silent. But if it kills the hills, it’s probably worth it.

Cannondale tandem hanging out at work

Cannondale tandem hanging out at work

This Cannondale tandem appeared recently at the bike rack at my office. It’s been there every morning for the last few days at least. It looks like it might be set up for two adults, or maybe an older kid. I’m surprised it has so little carrying capacity—just one rack for two people? But maybe as kids get older you end up hauling less crap around as parents. That would be something, wouldn’t it? I like big bikes (and I cannot lie) but the prospect of being able to ride a lighter bike one day… I admit, this has some appeal.

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Filed under advocacy, Bullitt, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Mixed messages

Nearly every day on the bike I’m confronted with a mixed message. Most often, it’s the sign on a sidewalk curb cut that says “NO BICYCLES.” This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that bicycle RACKS are placed on sidewalks, typically a good distance away from the only access, which is that same curb cut. The signs don’t say “no bicycle riding on the sidewalk, not even to get to the bike rack” although that would be annoying enough. Nobody is ever forced to get out of their car and push it on foot to a parking place. The signs say “NO BICYCLES.” That means that there is often no legal way to lock a bicycle on a bicycle rack. (There may also be signs insisting that I not lock my bicycle to anything that I could reach from an area where bicycles are legally allowed.)

So I break the rules. If there aren’t people walking in the area, I ride right over that “NO BICYCLES” sign to the nearest rack to lock up. If there are people walking in the area, I usually get off and walk the bike to the rack. But in both cases I’m doing something I’ve been told I shouldn’t do.

There is no real space for bicycles, so when I’m riding my bike I’m constantly confronted with rules that contradict each other. As a result, at least once a day I have to make a decision about which rule I’m going to have to break so that I can follow a different rule.

When people complain that bicycle riders are “scofflaws” I think: how could riders be anything else? In San Francisco, I am legally forbidden from riding on the sidewalk, even though the sidewalk is the only place I can find a bicycle rack (or a meter). That’s before you even consider the road rules that drivers routinely ignore. In California, cars making a right turn across a bicycle lane are supposed to pull into the right lane near the corner, where the bike lane has dashed lines, before making a turn. If they are, as a result, stuck behind a bicycle that has reached the intersection first and is going straight: so be it. It is like being stuck behind a car going straight when you want to turn right. You have to wait for the car in front to go. When I’m on a bicycle, drivers assume that they can pull in front of me from the left lane and make a right turn on red, or block me from going straight on green, just because they’re in a car. It happens every single day. Some days I have had two cars make right turns on a red light in front of me at the same time, one from the right side (using an open parking spot) and one from the left side (using the car lane). Apparently bicycles don’t count as vehicles. Often drivers will start honking if there isn’t enough room for them to make a right turn on red light in front of me. I’m never sure what they want me to do, exactly. Maybe they want me to ride on the sidewalk. As a result, every day I have to worry that I’m going to be right-hooked at a dead stop.

The same drivers that I see doing these things, or rolling through stop signs without slowing, or stopping at red lights and checking for cross traffic and then cheerfully running right through them, insist that all bicycle riders should follow the rules of the road to the letter. Which rules? Should I risk being run over (again) by an angry driver to follow the rules of the road, or should I risk being run over (again) by an angry driver who’s insisting that I break the rules of the road? Decisions, decisions. PS: way to set a good example, guys.

When bicycle riders ask for separated infrastructure, they’re not asking for special privileges, they’re asking for clarification. For now it is simply impossible to do the “right” thing as a bicycle rider in the United States. That would be easy to change, and we’d all be a lot safer—everyone, whether traveling on foot, on a bike, or in a car or bus or train—if it did change.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco

The deceptively “empty” bike lane

New building with old exhibits.

New building with old exhibits.

This weekend we headed to the new Exploratorium. Because the Bullitt is in the shop with broken spokes (sigh), we took Muni.  That meant an unusual amount of walking for me, all the way from Embarcadero station to Pier 15 and back. It would have been a much better day to ride, both because the weather was outstanding and because the Embarcadero bike lanes had been expanded for the weekend due to the America’s Cup. And it would also have been a better day to ride because I still can’t walk very far on my bad leg so I passed out in exhaustion as soon as we got home. Such is life. I have no stamina.

Watching the traffic along the Embarcadero was fascinating, and because my kids are even slower and more easily distracted than I am, I had plenty of time to think about it.

One painted lane and one temporary lane with barriers

One painted lane and one temporary lane with barriers

A while ago I read a fantastic book, Human Transit, which talked about how irritated drivers can get seeing “empty” bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes during car traffic jams. The perceived emptiness of the BRT lanes leads solo drivers to complain that these lanes take away capacity for solo drivers for no good reason. But as Walker (the author) points out, the “empty” BRT lane typically allows a fully-loaded bus to pass at least every five minutes, carrying 50-100 passengers apiece. Drivers see BRT lanes as “empty” because they are stuck in place, but their perception is flawed. Taking away the BRT would trade an hourly throughput of 600-1200 (at worst) people on buses for an hourly throughput of a few dozen people in automobiles (at best). Having the lane clear enough that buses whiz through uninterrupted is what makes BRT work.

Of course, buses aren’t full all the time. However they are almost always full when traffic is backed up, and no driver cares how many buses are in a BRT lane if private auto traffic is moving quickly. If moving people around is the goal, then pretty much every street that ever has a full bus should have a protected BRT lane. At which point more people will want to ride the bus, which would further reduce private auto traffic: it’s a virtuous circle. Everybody wins! The city is now providing less traffic for solo drivers and quicker trips for transit riders. Yet because of the false perception that the lanes are always “empty” installing protected BRT lanes has been incredibly controversial.

Rider approaching and moving fast; cars stopped dead

Rider approaching and moving fast; cars stopped dead

I thought about this as I watched drivers in cars fume in traffic on the Embarcadero, glaring at the usually-for-cars lane that had been removed to make a two-way (mostly) protected bike lane. To people stuck in the abysmal auto traffic along the Embarcadero, the bike lane looked “empty.” Early in the morning, when we were there, a bike (or group of bikes) passed northbound roughly every ten seconds, though that’s an average—sometimes a minute would pass with no bikes, then there would be a handful, etc.

Weekend riders--bikes with trailer-bikes.

Weekend riders–bikes with trailer-bikes.

The bikes passed much faster than we could walk, but because of the traffic we were walking faster than the people in cars. In about a half-mile of watching northbound traffic, I saw cars reach stop lights, lurch forward into the next clump of traffic, then wait several light cycles to get to the front of the line, and then repeat. I estimate that about 30 cars got as far as we did in 20 minutes—the same cars I saw when we started our walk. In the same amount of time, a northbound bike passed every 10 seconds, so that one bike lane moved 120 bikes. Now if you assumed that all those cars were holding four people (you would be wrong, most were solo drivers), that would mean that at 9am on a Sunday a single “empty” bike lane was moving as many people as multiple lanes dedicated to private auto traffic. However the cars were mostly filled with 1-2 people, even on a weekend. Moreover, weekend bike riders tend to be more family-oriented, so probably a quarter of the bikes we saw were hauling 1-3 kids in addition to the rider (the 3-kid bike was a BionX Madsen!) So the comparison is really more like throughput of:

  • 50 people in cars using 3 lanes vs.
  • 150 people on bikes using 1 lane.

And this was early in the morning—on the way back I gave up trying to count bikes because there were so many more of them in the lane by lunchtime. Car traffic was, if anything, more abysmal.

This BionX Madsen was assisted by The New Wheel over a year ago and has its own Facebook page.

This BionX Madsen was assisted by The New Wheel over a year ago and has its own Facebook page.

The irony, of course, is that these incredibly desirable “empty” lanes are public. They’re available to anyone who wants to use them. All you have to do is get on a bus or a bike—and if I can carry my kids on a bike even with a gimpy leg, and a senior on an oxygen tank can ride a trike while hauling his oxygen tank, and a man with no legs can hand-wheel his way along the same path, I have to think that nearly anyone can manage one option or the other. Really, the only way to take away the freedom to travel uninterrupted is to give that “empty” lane to cars.

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Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

With or without me

My kids are evidently getting to be really fast on those scooters.

My kids are evidently getting to be really fast on those scooters.

I have been incapacitated for 12 weeks now, and it is really starting to chafe. Even though I can go into the office now (thanks to my new compression stocking) and that is fun, I find that I am irritable. I can only maintain a good attitude for so long. And when people tell me things like, “You should just be grateful that you’re alive! And that your son is okay!” I kind of want to punch them in the face. Yeah, sure, it could have been worse, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy that my entire summer was ruined and I can’t go out with my kids and that after three months I still have weeks to go before I can try walking again. Maybe I shouldn’t have weaned myself off all of those narcotics.

Going ice skating? Wear cashmere!

Going ice skating? Wear cashmere!

Then again: I have forgotten the entire month of May. Seriously, my son was asking me questions about some things that happened then, things in which evidently I had some involvement, and I had no memory of them whatsoever. I do remember that in June I bought my daughter an entire new wardrobe on eBay after my mom mentioned that a four-year-old probably shouldn’t be showing so much VPL or sporting crop tops. Normally I would go to the local consignment store and pick up stuff in her new size, but I couldn’t leave the house. Luckily for me, there are scads of amazing deals on eBay for people who have nothing but time. She’ll be spending the next year or so in secondhand cashmere. Nonetheless, thank goodness our son goes to a uniform school.

These are the appropriate costumes for 1-legged airplane rides on your parents' bed.

These are the appropriate costumes for 1-legged airplane rides on your parents’ bed.

There are things that I can do, although they are limited. Given that I can only use my left leg, and that university housing still hasn’t gotten around to putting grab bars in the bathroom despite our requests, I can do pistol squats on that leg until I fall asleep from boredom. That means, as I learned recently, that I can give my kids one-legged airplane rides in bed. That’s fun. And we can watch movies, when they’re into that. I can read them bedtime stories.  I can give them rides on the cool electric cart that I use at the grocery store (although the competition for those carts has been fierce lately). That’s about it.

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Great Highway's Sunday Streets last weekend. They saw lots of friends.

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Great Highway’s Sunday Streets last weekend. They saw lots of friends.

Matt takes them out to do all the fun things I wish I could do. They’ve been swimming at city pools and ice skating and last weekend, they went to Sunday Streets on the Bullitt with the Roland add+bike attached. Poor Matt is getting worn down by the constant attention the Bullitt draws, and sticking the Roland on the back only adds to the effect. That will be our commute vehicle next year, so with any luck it will get a little more familiar to people on our usual route.

We won't miss her old preschool, although we'll miss her old friends (nearly all of whom are leaving as well).

We won’t miss her old preschool, although we’ll miss her old friends (nearly all of whom are leaving as well).

Some good things have happened, although I get the news secondhand. Our daughter has finally started at her new preschool. After the for-profit takeover of her old preschool I would have been happy with anywhere that let her go to the bathroom when she needed to and anyplace where her teachers didn’t tell her than she was “wasting mommy and daddy’s money” when she didn’t listen and she wasn’t told to “turn and face the wall” any time that she talked to another kid in line. But her new preschool is apparently awesome even by standards much higher than our radically downsized ones. She looks forward to going and she’s surrounded by her future Rosa Parks classmates—it’s a Japanese immersion preschool and a feeder for the school.

On the other hand, if the San Francisco summer continues along these lines, skirts and shorts are a non-issue.

On the other hand, if the San Francisco summer continues along these lines, skirts and shorts are a non-issue.

I am also grateful for my colleagues, who make me happy every time I’m in the office that I work in academic medicine. I have scars on my right leg that look like a giant red zipper running from the ankle to above the knee, and they can’t stop telling me how great they look. Sure, they’re saying that because they’ve seen so much worse, but I don’t mind. One person told me it looked like a shaving accident. This is so far from the truth that when I reported it to Matt, he laughed so hard that he almost stopped breathing. But the person who said it was speaking the truth as he saw it, and that makes me feel okay about wearing skirts to work again one of these days.

The kids collected jellyfish at Ocean Beach over the weekend. I couldn't go.

The kids collected jellyfish at Ocean Beach over the weekend. I couldn’t go.

I have x-rays next week and if they look good I will get permission to start putting weight on my leg the week afterward. And according to my surgeon, who is also a bike commuter, if I can walk, I can ride. Sure, there’s the minor matter of what bike—I suspect I won’t have the strength to get the Brompton up our hill for a while, I know I don’t have the range of motion to get on the Kona because the top tube is so high and the stoker bars mean I can’t swing my leg around the back, and Matt sometimes needs the Bullitt so I can’t ride it every day. Maybe I could put an assist on the Brompton?

Thanks for the electric carts and the cargo bike parking, Rainbow.

Thanks for the electric carts and the cargo bike parking, Rainbow.

And one more piece of good news: just before I was hit, I wrote to Rainbow Grocery after a difficult Bullitt parking experience asking them if they’d reserve the end spots on their racks for cargo bikes and bikes with trailers. A friend of mine sent me a picture of the racks just the other day, and the new sign on them that gently requests that the big spaces be saved for big bikes. So life goes on, with or without me.

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Filed under advocacy, Bullitt, family biking, injury, San Francisco, trailer-bike

Things keep happening

At the San Francisco waste transfer station

At the San Francisco waste transfer station

There are tragedies that unfurl slowly, and there are short, sharp shocks. The shocks seem more painful; they can’t fade into the background of daily life.

I work in public health. At its root, public health is an effort to make sure that everyone dies safely in bed, surrounded by loved ones, rather than in disease, or in pain, or with life needlessly cut short. But I work at an academic medical center, too, and that means I am surrounded by my profession’s failures. People die of preventable causes, in ways that could be seen coming from years away. We soldier on.

I have rarely been tempted by the urge to live an exciting life. I like routine and find change challenging. I completely understand why wishing someone “may you live in interesting times” is viewed as a curse. I could not imagine being happy lurching from one new experience to the next; making a job I dislike bearable through taking time off from it, or making a home I loathed tolerable by leaving it on vacation. And so I try to make my ordinary life as agreeable as possible. I tweak around the margins. But these changes add up. Who would have thought we’d become a car-free family? Or cut our waste down to a little baggie each week? This is our new normal, and we like it.

Because I like my everyday life, it seems especially painful to watch other people’s normal ripped away. This is the terror of the short, sharp shock. And I always wonder: what is the appropriate response when normal becomes terrifying? When we are surrounded by destruction? And in the end I think we should do for ourselves what we do for our children. We try to preserve the familiar and comforting parts of life that are left. We soldier on.

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Filed under advocacy

More bike parking, please

Check it out! Six shiny new bike racks!

Check it out! Six shiny new bike racks!

Late last week I went to pick up my son at afterschool with some trepidation. The 5pm pickup is the most crowded at the bike racks, and this is often a nightmare. However thanks to the much-appreciated efforts of one of the afterschool staffers, we now have a passcode to enter a secured courtyard at the side of the building with its own bike rack. I have been parking there most days, even though it means a lot of extra walking around the building.

I was shocked when I rode up and saw a bona fide miracle: an empty bike rack in front of the building. I sped up before someone else could get there first. Then I looked again: there were five empty bike racks! They hadn’t been there when I walked by earlier in the day. And they were not placed against the bollards—bikes could be parked on both sides! Our son’s afterschool program had installed six new bike racks as promised. (And despite the fact that they’d been in place for only hours, they were already filling up—one family had gotten there before me and parked at the sixth rack already.)

Last year I successfully advocated to have a new bike rack installed at my office, which filled up immediately on installation. And now this year the internet has scored some outstanding cargo-bike friendly racks at our son’s afterschool program. They were filling up by the time I came back outside with my son. If you build them, they will come.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Bicycles and privilege

Sometimes The Onion says it best: there is a vocal contingent of people who claim that only privileged, able-bodied, middle class people ride bikes. I am usually dumbfounded when I hear this.

“We don’t need more bike lanes for trust-fund hipsters in San Francisco!” they fume. “Families can’t ride bikes! They need cars! We need to make it easier for families to drive in this city.”

When I tell them that I ride with my kids, as do many of the parents at our kids’ schools, they look aghast. “How can you risk your kids’ safety that way?” they say. “It’s not safe to ride a bike with kids in San Francisco.”

“I hope you’ll support more separated bike lanes, then,” I say. Then they stomp away.

This is an expensive bike, but it cost less than half of what we got when we sold our car.

This is an expensive bike, but it cost less than half of what we got when we sold our car.

I think it’s easy to confuse people who ride bikes with people who write about riding bikes. Am I privileged, able-bodied, and middle class? You betcha. But that’s basically what defines a blogger, not what defines a bike rider. If you look at blogs, everything from riding bikes to dumpster diving to gardening to worrying about money looks middle class. Talking about ourselves and our first-world problems is just what we privileged, able-bodied, middle class people do. It’s appalling, I know.

Who do I see riding bikes in San Francisco? I see families like ours, and road racers, and homeless guys carrying giant bags stuffed with aluminum cans on their shoulders, and men in suits going to work in the Financial District, and last week, a dad in a security guard uniform with his son balanced on a pillow over the top tube.  I see the man with no legs passing me when I ride along the Panhandle, and the grandfather with his oxygen tank in his trike on the Embarcadero. I’m least likely to see other moms with kids, but we’re out there too.

I like that when I ride my bike I’m part of a community that isn’t defined by privilege. I work with surgeons who complain about how poor they are, even though a first year surgeon at my university earns (much) more than my husband and I do together. They’re comparing themselves to investment bankers at their kids’ private schools and they feel poor. But riding around the city I see how lucky we are.

These are some of the ways parents like us get to school (at Rosa Parks Elementary).

These are some of the ways parents like us get to school (at Rosa Parks Elementary).

At our son’s school I was talking with a friend who just started riding her daughter to school last year. Like us, she sold her car when she bought a cargo bike. Unlike us, they are a one-income family, which is painfully difficult in San Francisco (except for investment bankers). “I’m so happy now,” she said. “We maxed out the credit card trying to maintain that car. For the last repair before we sold it, we had to pull money from the savings we’d managed to put away for our daughter. Now we’re paying off our debt and I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”  Matt and I both work, and we’re not that close to the edge. We’re lucky! But there’s no question that getting rid of our car made it easier to live in San Francisco, where even surgeons feel poor. Owning cars is expensive, and especially so in San Francisco. It’s not something you can afford if you’re not privileged.

Bicycles aren’t just for the middle class, or even just for the able-bodied. However, for now at least, they are still just for people willing to look at the world a little differently, whether by choice or by necessity. We chose to ride bikes when we could drive, and being able to make that choice is what makes us privileged.  But when we chose, we joined the legions of people who have no choice but to ride bikes or transit. When we ask for more support of alternative transportation, we’re asking to make their lives better too.

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

Worst bike parking award: Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

The racks get crowded even at 4pm, way before the pickup rush.

The racks get crowded even at 4pm, way before the pickup rush.

Bike parking throughout San Francisco is getting pretty crowded, especially compared to last year, and I can’t imagine how bad it’s going to get when the weather gets better. Sometimes I have to park the bike as far as a block away, which is trivial by comparison to how far we used to have to park our car, back in the driving days. But it annoys me even so because bike parking is easy and cheap to install (and also because I have become hopelessly lazy about walking).

There is plenty of space to install more of the terrible racks they have (kind of a worst-best alternative) but they haven't even done this.

There is plenty of space to install more of the terrible racks they have (kind of a worst-best alternative) but they haven’t even done this.

But there is bad bike parking and there is terrible bike parking, and the worst bike parking by far on my daily rounds is at my son’s after school program at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. It is the worst because it is a half-hearted attempt to put in bike parking that was horrifically slipshod, and it is the worst because despite multiple complaints from me and others in person, and in writing, plus a dedicated meeting I had with a building manager about it, they have done absolutely nothing to fix it. In Matt’s most recent discussion with the building staff yesterday afternoon, they said they weren’t planning to do anything about it either, because “we need that space for drop offs and pickups by car.”

These tree cages aren't even attached to anything, but there aren't any better alternatives.

These tree cages aren’t even attached to anything, but there aren’t any better alternatives.

The bike racks are pretty standard U-loops along the sidewalk. However they were installed smack up against bollards placed on the sidewalk, so it is only possible to use one side of the rack, because the bollards keep a bike from getting close enough to the other side. There are only a few racks, so given how many people arrive by bike, there are never enough spaces and people end up parking bikes to the cages protecting the trees. And there’s still not enough space. Even worse, the racks are so close-packed against other obstacles built into the street that it is virtually impossible to park a cargo bike there unless you get the one rack that isn’t smack against a bollard that allows for a bike wider than a fixie. The JCCSF at 5pm has bikes piled up outside with child seats, cargo bikes, and trailer-bikes, all ridden by parents like me who have chosen to ride with their kids instead of drive. Yet parking a bike outside the JCC is so difficult that trying to pick up my son on the Bullitt sends me into a fury every evening that I try it. I would retreat to a meter but there are no meters in the huge drop-off/pickup/bus zone outside the building.

By contrast, the after school program gives every family two cards to put in the car(s), whether you drive or not, that allow you to park a car for free for 15 minutes in their underground garage to pick up kids. They have a carefully orchestrated car pickup zone at the end of the day, complete with walkie-talkies, to make sure that parents who drive barely have to slow down to pick up their kids. Yet this pickup is so notorious for road rage that I get emails from the director of the after school program asking driving parents to please chill out and act like adults.

The JCCSF pays lip service to active transportation, like everyone else, but their bike racks tell the real story. I pick up my son there by bike because I go everywhere by bike, although I’m astonished that anyone else does. Yet they do. And given that there is such unmet demand, imagine how much less space they’d “need for drop offs and pickups by car” if they had some decent bike racks.

[Thank you, internet! We'd been asking JCCSF to install new bike racks for months, and were being blown off as recently as the day before I wrote this post. After posting, I got an email that very evening saying that they'll be installing 6 new custom bike racks that will hold 12 bikes. In addition, they're going to try letting parents have keycode access to a locked courtyard with an additional bike rack for preschool and after school drop-offs and pickups. We are thrilled! I know that some readers wrote to to JCCSF on our behalf and it is very much appreciated.]

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Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco

How to get a bike for free

One of these things is not like the other.

One of these things is not like the other.

Recently I visited San Francisco’s waste management center. My university is a shared governance institution (often more in name than in deed) so I am expected to do service. One of my appointments is to the campus-wide Sustainability Committee. I also had to pick a sub-committee, and I asked for Transportation, because I am all about the bikes. But everybody wanted Transportation and I’m pretty junior, so they put me on Zero Waste instead. Anyway, all members of the Zero Waste sub-committee were asked to take a tour of San Francisco’s waste management centers. My first field trip!

San Francisco’s waste management is run by Recology, one of the country’s largest employee-owned cooperatives. San Francisco diverts 80% of its waste from landfills, better than any other municipality in the US and most countries in the world. The city’s goal is to be zero-waste by 2020. The university, which is Recology’s 2nd largest account, is hanging in at 63%. San Francisco has reached this point by implementing aggressive recycling efforts (including prosecuting recycling poachers), creating a hugely successful composting program (in part by instituting a $1,000 minimum fine for throwing compostables in landfill bins), and to a certain extent, by taking advantage of a quirk in how diversion rates are calculated (albeit no more than other cities and countries do).

This is some of the art made from found materials at the transfer station.

This is some of the art made from found materials at the transfer station.

Our tour was absolutely fascinating. Recology does not allow photos of most of its operations, because there are apparently trade secrets in the world of waste management. I realize that the dump is not a traditional tourist attraction, but if you happen to be in San Francisco, it is definitely worth checking out.

Our visit started at the business office, where we picked up hard hats and met the sales staff. “I’m Maria,” said one woman who looked like a supermodel heading down the catwalk. “I handle the city accounts, and I’m a dumpster diver.” From there we headed to the recycling transfer station.

If you have seen Toy Story 3, the recycling transfer station will feel somewhat familiar. Trucks enter the building (1/3 of its power is generated by solar panels on the roof, because that is how Recology rolls) and dump recyclables onto the floor. From there they are moved by giant front loaders onto even more giant conveyer belts that sort out paper, plastics, metal and glass as they lift materials to the second floor. The Toy Story 3 feeling comes both from being surrounded by garbage and from feeling like a tiny mote in a giant machine. The amount of material being moved through the transfer station is simply mind-boggling. It was difficult to grasp its scale. On the second floor, the materials the machines could not handle are hand-sorted. Watching this process made me despair for humanity, as my fellow San Francisco residents seem unable to grasp the concept of what belongs in the recycling. Dozens of workers attempted to pick out plastic bags, clothing, plastic bottles of motor oil, ad infinitum, from paper destined for bundling and eventual recycling. It was impossible. They aim for 90% appropriate materials in the bales, we were told. That should be easier than it is. The relentless efforts of the hundreds of garbage-snatching seagulls didn’t help matters either.

Is artistic reuse recycling, upcycling, or something else entirely?

Is artistic reuse recycling, upcycling, or something else entirely?

Recycling is a tricky concept. Some things are recycled and some are only kind of recycled. Glass and metal containers and shards are melted down and turned into more glass and metal containers. Concrete is smashed into sand and turned into more concrete. Although the process is energy intensive, these are closed loops.  These products are recycled. Paper is kind of recycled. High quality paper, like office paper, is usually turned into low-quality paper, like paper bags. Low-quality paper is turned into even lower-quality paper, like tissues and toilet paper. The tissues can go into the compost, but the toilet paper goes to landfill by way of the sewer system. The more non-paper waste that gets mixed into the paper, the less likely it can be reclaimed for higher-quality recycled paper. Rigid plastic is down-cycled. Assuming it isn’t thrown away outright, it gets one more use; bottles turn into plastic lumber or carpet or fleece, but once these materials wear out, they all go to the landfill. And soft plastics all go directly to the landfill, although only after Recology workers spend six hours out of every 24 picking plastic bags out of the recycling machinery. Less than thirty minutes into the tour, I was completely convinced that I should never buy another item wrapped in soft plastic. This is surprisingly hard, even in San Francisco.

The university facilities representative leading our group was less sanguine about San Francisco’s 80% diversion rate. Diversion rates are calculated by weight, and San Francisco recycles a lot of concrete. By volume, the endless sea of plastic is a much bigger problem, and landfills, of course, are packed by size and not by weight. Other universities in California also claim diversion rates of 80% but only, he said, “because they tear down buildings or repave parking lots every year.” Construction and demolition, as well as aggressive composting at San Francisco’s many restaurants and parks, boosts the calculated diversion rate. He estimated, glumly, that San Francisco residents are recycling and composting at most 40% of the waste that they could. And that this is the best rate in the country.

More art from reclaimed waste

More art from reclaimed waste

From the recycling transfer station, we headed to the main facility, where household waste, compost and landfill waste are packed up for their eventual destinations. Recology served us a nice lunch on plates and silver diverted from landfill, showed us an upbeat little movie, and answered questions. I was not brazen enough to ask whether the food was dumpster-dived, but after seeing what people throw away in this city, I would not be surprised if it was. We had lots of questions. I learned that you can recycle (okay, down-cycle) dental floss containers because they are rigid plastic; removing the metal cutter is nice but not necessary. Dental floss itself, however, is uniformly made of plastic and messes with sorting machinery and should always go in the landfill bin. Toothpaste tubes, tetrapaks: landfill. The soft plastics “recycling” bins at grocery stores that supposedly send plastic bags to be turned into park benches? Our facilities representative reported that almost no store will say where they’re actually going, so they’re probably being sent straight to the landfill.

The most hated word at Recology turned out to be “biodegradable.” Nearly everything is biodegradable eventually, they said. But people think that means it can be composted. It cannot. “Compostable” is a legally binding term in the state of California; if an item says it is compostable and it’s not, the state will levy massive fines. Biodegradable is a weasel word intended to sidestep the law. So “biodegradable” materials and bioplastics: landfill. The plastic keeps the biological material from composting, and the biological material contaminates the plastic. That was depressing.

More art from the gallery

More art from the gallery

Much less depressing was the visit to the Artist in Residence program, where artists are sponsored to create projects out of whatever they can find on site. Much of the art was wildly impressive, and there are regular shows where it can be viewed, as well as an outdoor sculpture garden. Many of the other sites showed where visitors came to drop off household waste sorted through it; construction debris is sorted, furniture is donated to thrift stores, electronic waste and batteries are sorted by type. Recology was also pioneering Styrofoam recycling; clean packing materials were compressed into thin, heavy sticks that could be used for things like crown molding. The process is hopelessly expensive and energy-intensive so it’s more of a demonstration project than a feasible way to handle waste, but it was interesting. The inevitable seagulls were controlled by an on-site falconer who kept four hawks circling all day. Recology had tried bottle rockets, netting and dogs, but the hawks were the most effective. We did not get to tour the compost transfer station, probably the biggest success of the program; San Francisco’s compost is used by California wineries and farms. And I got to take some compost home to show my kids what putting food waste in the compost bin, which they do diligently, really meant. They were completely floored.

Our old seat cushion went to the Pit. Is there any alternative?

Our old seat cushion went to the Pit. Is there a better alternative?

Our last stop was The Pit. Everything that goes into a black bin in San Francisco is dumped, unsorted, into The Pit, shoveled into tractor-trailers, and trucked to the landfill. The Pit is huge. It runs 24 hours a day and seven days a week. There is a smell. Trucks enter at the top level and drop their loads. The sounds of breaking glass and the efforts of occasional seagulls to snatch food make it pretty clear that a lot of what’s in The Pit could be recycled or composted (efforts to assess it suggest that two-thirds of what’s in The Pit could be diverted). Bulldozers shovel the waste into waiting tractor-trailers below. The process never stops. It is difficult to describe the feeling of watching massive piles of trash build and be shoveled away, endlessly. It turns out that material in landfills does not biodegrade. Everything that goes into the landfill is forever. I will never look at a garbage can the same way again.

This is how we shop now.

This is how we shop now.

I see now why were asked, as part of our service on the Zero Waste sub-committee, to visit Recology. This is the best that the United States currently has to offer in terms of waste management, and that was sobering. At home, post-tour, we are now uncompromising in using cloth produce bags (we had always used cloth grocery bags) at the farmer’s market and we don’t shop at Trader Joe’s much anymore, because there’s almost nothing to buy there that’s not wrapped in plastic. We now buy milk and yogurt in glass, and everything else in bulk. But mostly, we are buying less, because everything we buy must eventually be handled somehow, and packaging is not free.  It is probably not a coincidence that this month’s grocery bill is half of last month’s.

I am familiar with life-changing experiences by now, and this one didn’t require a trip to Copenhagen. I only had to ride across town.

But I promised to tell how to get a bike for free. The answer is to work for Recology. One of the tour guides mentioned that he never had to take his own bike to site visits and lock it outside, because he could always pick out a nice bike from the garbage. Recology workers never have to worry about San Francisco’s rampant bike theft. He admitted that the last bike he picked up was better than his commuter bike, “way more gears for the hills.” It’s entirely possible that anyone could show up at the dump and ask for a bike.

This is our refrigerator post-tour. We are trying harder.

This is our refrigerator post-tour. We are trying harder. (The glass jars are sold by Cole Hardware in San Francisco for thrift store prices, luckily for us.)

At Recology they suggest people stop calling the things in bins “garbage.” A better word for the many unnecessary things we throw away is “waste.” And a free bike is the least of it.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco, zero waste