Category Archives: car-free

Recovery

On June 3rd I had my final surgery on the leg that was run over. On June 17th, one month ago, I went back to the surgeon’s office to have my staples and bandages removed, and get clearance to walk (and ride a bike) again. The staple removal was uneventful, although painful, and I walked out with permission to do almost everything I could do up until the moment I was hit last April.

This was my last surgical appointment, and it was not without its surprises. “You know, that was a really serious injury,” they said. “Last year we thought you might never walk again! And look at you now!”

WHOA. I understand why they didn’t mention that then, but it was a nauseating thing to hear.

Once again: this is the hardware that came out of my leg. Dang.

Once again: this is the hardware that came out of my leg. Dang.

Thanks to good luck and evidently, to clean living, I am walking better now that I was when all the hardware was still in my leg. People at work tell me that my gait is smoother, and they can’t tell I was ever hurt. The office is not the most challenging walking environment, it’s true, but it’s a good sign.

There are still some odds and ends to deal with. Running and jumping are out of the question for the rest of the year. I remain as weak as a kitten when walking up hills and stairs, although I get practice with that here in San Francisco whether I want it or not. I’m not thrilled about the 15 pounds I gained over the last year of reduced activity (but on the up side, now that I’m moving again I’ve already started losing that extra weight). My scars still look pretty grim. I know they’ll fade over time but even so I’ll be wearing long pants for the rest of the year, both because the scars are susceptible to sun damage and because I prefer to cover them given some of the looks I got last year. In the grand scheme of things these issues are pretty trivial, and none of them are permanent.

I want to ride my bicycle.

I want to ride my bicycle.

People still ask me if I was scared to get back on the bike. Honestly, after four months being almost completely immobilized last year, my stir-craziness outweighed any residual fear. I was over it. I couldn’t walk well for months after I was allowed to walk, but I learned pretty quickly that I could ride a bike almost as well as anyone, at least on the flats, and I had an electric assist for the hills. Riding a bike made me feel normal again. I’ll admit that I do still get anxious making left turns—I now make Copenhagen left turns almost all the time.

After several visits to the orthopedic institute, I also have some perspective that I didn’t have before. Basically every patient I saw there under the age of 80, other than me, had been injured in a car.

“My husband was driving when we were sideswiped…”

“I was driving my pickup…”

“Our car rolled over when it went off the road…”

These people were traumatized. They were, understandably, afraid to get back in their cars. They did it anyway, because they felt like they didn’t have a choice. And in some cases they were right, because that’s how the US is designed. But their fear was justified.

Still having fun

Still having fun

What I realized in all those hours racked up waiting to see the surgeon was this: Riding a bicycle isn’t dangerous. What’s dangerous is being around cars. Understanding the real risk involved in transportation has helped me think about how I want to travel most of the time. There are different ways to approach the real risk, the risk of “being around cars.”

One way is to try to wear armor, investing in strategies like driving a bigger car or riding the bus. Sometimes that works and sometimes you end up in the orthopedic institute like all those people I met in the waiting room. Or worse. When I was pregnant with my son, a driver rammed my car from behind while I was stopped at a red light and I spent the next month on bedrest to keep from miscarrying. The more time you spend being around cars, no matter how big the bubble you build around yourself, the greater the risk.

Where we ride

Where we ride

Another way to approach the risk of being around cars is to simply be around cars a lot less. Drivers can’t hit you if you’re hanging out in places cars can’t go. The first step is to cut back on riding in cars: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my surgeon commutes by bike. A lot of bicycle travel can be through parks, or on quiet streets, or (more recently) in protected bike lanes. In other cities people can legally ride on the sidewalk when cars feel too close or traffic is too fast—and in San Francisco, there are a few scary places where I too will ride on the sidewalk now, even though it’s illegal. Protected infrastructure and its near-equivalents are increasingly common, and they’re worth seeking out. It’s certainly possible to make riding a bicycle really dangerous by getting up close and personal with cars at every opportunity, but there’s no requirement to ride that way.

How we'll roll at Fiets of Parenthood

How we’ll roll at Fiets of Parenthood

I chose to be around cars a lot less. That includes staying out of cars when I can, even though it’s not practical for us to avoid them entirely. Active transportation has other rewards as well—I’m a lot healthier, and I healed better than anyone had expected when I was hurt. It’s also the fastest way to move through the city, and it’s always easy to find parking. The greatest reward of all, of course, is that it’s a fun way to get around. I understand now why people who love skiing or rock climbing or hang-gliding accept the very-real risks of their sports, and return from their injuries ready to start all over again. But biking is not like rock climbing—every study of bicycle commuting has found that I’ll live a longer and healthier life, statistically speaking, if I keep riding. And so I do.

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Filed under car-free, family biking, injury, traffic

How we roll

Riding the Brompton with a kid never gets old

Riding the Brompton with a kid never gets old

We have had some crazy weekends lately—as mentioned, we recently dragged ourselves over to Berkeley, and next week I’m flying north with the kids to see my mom while Matt goes to Australia on business—but most of the time, we keep it local. Usually weekends mean riding around doing whatever it is we want to do. Sometimes we take Muni downtown instead of the bikes. But as we learned at Santacon, riding bikes means never having to worry about traffic or street closures. We wander into whatever event is happening and wander out. There is always an event of some kind in San Francisco.

Painting flowers for the garden

Painting flowers for the garden

If it weren’t for the times we rent cars, we would have forgotten entirely what it was like to get stuck in traffic or be unable to find parking. We never have to pull over on the bikes to let one of the kids throw up into the gutter. When we see something interesting we stop and check it out. When we run into friends on the way we ride with them for a while and chat. We spend bupkis on transportation. It’s difficult to overstate how much of a difference all of this has made in the quality of our lives. The only downside is that occasionally we get cold or wet, unless we want to rent a car instead. This seems like a more than fair exchange.

She learned how to mix in white paint to make light colors.

She learned how to mix in white paint to make light colors.

Last Saturday was a garden fundraiser at Rosa Parks, so we rode over with the kids to paint flowers for the fence. There are so many biking families at Rosa Parks now that we are, I’ve recently learned, sort of our own gravitational force. We attract a few more families away from their cars every year. For this event the organizers put the entrance next to garden courtyard, expecting that there wouldn’t be space for all the bikes otherwise. That assumption was correct. The school finally got that extra bike corral rack in front of the building, in red because the district had run out of blue racks. It fills up too.

They're finally getting over the daylight savings switch, but they still get tired sometimes.

They’re finally getting over the daylight savings switch, but they still get tired sometimes.

On Sunday we wandered down to the farmers’ market and then down the street for brunch. Matt and our son rode out afterward to pop popcorn for a school fundraiser, then to the library and the grocery store (we won’t run out of milk THIS week). I made nettle pizza with our daughter for dinner and then the kids and I made tortillas. Movies were watched and books were read. Everyone got a nap at one point. It was the kind of weekend I had imagined when we first thought about having kids. They come more often now.

We sold our car almost two years ago. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long.

 

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Filed under Brompton, car-free, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Santacon and an Urban Arrow

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown's Ross Alley

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown’s Ross Alley

Our kids get the same present every birthday: an “All About Me” day, where they get to pick exactly what we do all day (within reason—we had to veto any activity that involves a plane flight).  Typically that ends up involving a lot of visits to places like ice cream shops, but they’re getting more creative over time. Our son recently turned 8, and last Saturday was his day. He wanted to go to Chinatown to visit the fortune cookie factory, to the Ferry Building for lunch and chocolates, and to spend the evening at Acrosports on the trampolines. No problem, kiddo.

The weekends before Christmas are always a challenging time to get around San Francisco, as there is a huge influx of shopping traffic. Something that never, ever gets old about commuting by bicycle: never having to care about how many other people are headed to the same place we’re going. So it didn’t matter that much that we’d forgotten that December 14th was also Santacon. We only realized when we’d gotten most of the way downtown and started seeing Santas drifting out onto the streets, even around 9am, which is an impressively early start for people who are planning to be up all night drinking.

So we went to Chinatown and the fortune cookie factory, which was far more interesting for our kids than I would have guessed. Probably the endless handouts of flat fortune cookies that were too stiff to fold didn’t hurt. Walking through Chinatown is a trip, because it is not that big and so packed with people that it is difficult to stay on the sidewalk, and yet we were, as usual, the only white people visible in any direction, not to mention the only people speaking English. A few blocks over, we crossed the street and presto—North Beach, and the signs in the windows were suddenly in the Roman alphabet and said things like “Sicilian salami” and “Espresso.” Our son wanted to top off his post-breakfast fortune cookie snack with a pre-lunch cannoli, so, okay, fine, there is no shortage of Italian bakeries in North Beach. From there we threaded back to Matt’s office for a bathroom break (carefully navigating around the North Beach strip clubs) and to lunch (and more dessert) at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building was even more packed than Chinatown.

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

After a post-lunch stop at the Sue Bierman Park children’s playground, we packed up and headed home over Nob Hill. Where we found: Santacon, in force. After lunch the Santas were all up and ready to party, and for much of our trip the sidewalks and streets were filled with them. I heard later from people who attempted to drive downtown on Saturday that the streets were immobilized for cars. A few blocks of this and my son asked, “So do Santas really like bars?” And I said, “These ones do.” There were Santas filling the streets all the way into Japantown and the Western Addition. They liked our bike.

Our new neighbors' new holiday display

Our new neighbors’ new holiday display

On the way back home we stopped by our new condo to see our new neighbors’ Christmas display, which rivals their awe-inspiring Halloween display. And right as we stopped, a woman next door to them wheeled out: AN URBAN ARROW! OMFG! The Urban Arrow I spotted at the Golden Gate Park tree lighting belongs to a family five doors over from our new home!

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

Based on what the mom told me, it could well the only Urban Arrow in the entire Bay Area. Apparently Rolling Orange in New York, the only US importer, gets only a dozen of these bikes each year, and most of them are pre-sold well in advance of their arrival. When our neighbors started looking for theirs there was only one bike in the shipment not already pre-sold, and they bought it. First impressions: no question, that bike is really, really big. It makes our Bullitt look like a Brompton. And the kids’ box is tricked out like an airport lounge. The neighbors have three kids, and that morning they also had things to do, so I couldn’t quiz the mom as mercilessly as I would have liked about her bike but I consoled myself: in a few months, we’ll be seeing them almost every day. Then on Sunday I learned that some of our other neighbors bought a Bullitt. We’re moving to the street of box bikes, whoo hoo!

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, destinations, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

The only thing we have to fear

In words of my husband: "Look! It's gimpy on her death machine."

In words of my husband: “Look! It’s gimpy on her death machine.”

I get a lot of questions about how I’m getting around after being hit by a car. The answer is that I mostly ride my bike. It’s a lot easier than walking, I can always park right in front of where I’m going which means less walking than if we drove, and we still don’t have a car anyway. This often surprises people. They assume that I’ve taken up driving. “You’re so brave!” they say, which sometimes sounds a bit like “You’re crazy!”

I would be lying if I said there aren’t moments when I am afraid. It comes up particularly at intersections when I want to turn left, because, duh, I was run over from behind at a stop sign while trying to turn left. I make a lot of Copenhagen left turns now. Cars coming up behind me make me really nervous still. But it’s getting better. My personal experience notwithstanding, getting run down from behind is statistically speaking the least likely way to get injured while riding a bicycle. I just have put the time in so that my emotions can catch up with what I know.

We still haven't really missed the minivan.

We still haven’t really missed the minivan.

I’d also be lying if I said we didn’t consider buying a car. There was a lot of driving to appointments when I was incapacitated, and we didn’t know when I’d be mobile again. However our flirtation with the idea of getting a car was pretty brief. With my right leg broken, I couldn’t drive any more than I could walk, and if someone else was going to drive me, I might as well take a shuttle or call for a ride. Moreover, I learned from my surgeon and other patients that the most common cause of my particular injury—a shattered leg—was getting T-boned in a car. I talked to people who’d been trapped in their cars for hours while being sawed out and were understandably phobic about ever getting into one again (at least the EMTs could scrape me off the street and set up a morphine drip right away). A lot of people have had this experience, and they didn’t exactly sell me on the safety of driving in lieu of biking. On top of that, cars are really expensive, and we had plenty of other things to spend money on at the time. And I wasn’t really feeling very car-friendly after being smashed by one either.

For the first month after my surgeries, I was supposed to stay in bed for 23 hours a day. For entertainment, I could use the continuous passive motion machine, which slowly bent my leg for me to improve my range of motion, up to eight hours a day. It was very boring. I was surprised to learn how serious my surgeon was about not just staying in bed, but staying at home. Even though the steel plate he put in my leg supported the bones, they were still in pieces, and he would have preferred that I never went outside at all. Even being bumped by someone passing me on the street could knock the bones out of alignment and require them to be reset, which would also restart the clock on how long I had to stay off my leg. Every time I fell down while using crutches, he wanted to take another x-ray to see if the bones had shifted. During that time I left the house at most once a week, to go grocery shopping. Matt drove a rental car over so I could shop while riding an electric cart.  As pathetic as that was, it was still a total thrill compared to anything else I had going on at the time.

I think a lot about this when people ask me now about the risks of getting hit again while on a bicycle, which people often do although it is the last thing I want to contemplate. If we were really concerned about injury above all else, we should never leave our couches. Even walking around our neighborhood risks injury, and I could avoid that by never leaving the house. But no one would suggest that it was a good idea to sit on the couch all day to avoid the risk of getting hurt by tripping on the sidewalk or bumping into someone. Even my surgeon wants me to walk around now, so my bones will regrow faster. Staying inside is risky in a different way—bodies were meant to move, and sitting around all day makes people unhealthy. Instead of sitting “safely” on the couch, we’re all advised to get out of the house and rack up at least 10,000 steps per day, broken sidewalks or no.

It’s this that I think about when I think about driving instead of riding a bike. On a per mile basis, yes, bicycling has higher injury rates than driving, but of course people go much further distances when driving. On a per hour basis the risk of injury is very similar. But driving a car is the physical equivalent of sitting on a couch, and our bodies were meant to move. When the risks of chronic disease are included, riding a bike is several times safer than driving, despite the higher risk of injury. Those injuries are the statistical equivalent of tripping on the sidewalk, and most of them are about as dangerous—most injuries sustained on a bicycle involve only the rider and are preventable. What happened to me was terrifying and dramatic and depressing (especially the part where I learned yesterday that my leg probably won’t be fully healed until early 2015, so I am basically all about assisted bikes from this point forward) but it was also anomalous.

Ride on.

Ride on.

By the time I was allowed to actually bear weight on my leg, I was so stir-crazy that I would have tried almost any activity, but walking was hard (it’s still hard). Luckily for me, our bicycles were waiting in the basement. I can’t walk at normal speeds yet, and I get tired quickly, but I can ride like anyone else. And although some days I have more trouble believing it than I should, I know there’s really nothing to fear. In the long term, riding a bicycle is still the safest way to get around.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, injury, San Francisco

A reliable bike

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

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Sunday Streets

The things that I write about on the blog are only a portion of what’s really happening. This is a problem inherent to life, I think: you get so busy living that there is only so much time to talk about it all. This can lead to some false perceptions. One that’s come up lately, I’ve realized, is the sense that the Bullitt spends a lot of time in the shop. That’s not really true. It’s just that the times it goes to the shop it really ticks me off. After almost a year the Bullitt has been impressively reliable, with only a couple of exceptions that are, frankly, the result of our ignorance.

The first exception relates to the gearing. I have an aversion to pinning up my pants to keep them from getting caught in the chain, although I’m getting over it. The standard setup on a Bullitt is a triple front ring, which is great for hauling up hills, but as many riders already know, is basically incompatible with a chain guard. So when we bought the Bullitt, we put an internally geared front hub on it, the FSA Metropolis Patterson crankset.

The Metropolis is unquestionably cool, and you won’t need to roll up your pants. Unfortunately, it is not built to withstand the kinds of loads and riding we do. It is very sensitive to people doing things, like, say, pedaling over a speed bump and smashing unexpectedly into a hidden pothole on the far side, or to a rider shifting down after hitting a quicker-than-expected red light with a fully loaded cargo bike and then pushing off on a steep uphill from a dead stop.  These are not what I would call conventional bicycle riding situations, unless of course you are a family living on a steep hill in San Francisco, in which case they’re like daily rituals. So we broke the Metropolis. Twice. After the second time, we replaced it with a triple front ring, which withstands anything we throw at it (and if it didn’t would be cheap and quick to fix anyway). That wasn’t particularly expensive, but it was very time-consuming.

I miss the Metropolis, because it shifted like a dream when it wasn’t broken and had a lot of range, but it was not to be. In the meantime, I’ve learned to embrace skinny pants. Sure, they may not be the most flattering look, but they don’t catch in bike chains and they are wonderful at compressing a broken leg that tends to swell up at the end of the day. Although maybe that’s just me.

Hanging out with the Rosa Parks bike fleet

Hanging out with part of the Rosa Parks bike fleet

The second exception came up pretty recently. The Bullitt went back to the shop for another time-consuming repair when we broke over a dozen spokes at once on the rear (BionX) wheel. This turns out to be a BionX and San Francisco-related thing (San Francisco is hard on bikes). The first time we didn’t realize what the issue was so we had the bike shop replace the spokes and re-true the rear wheel. The folks at The New Wheel were the ones who warned us that it would happen again unless we put a stronger rim and spokes on that rear wheel. One week later, we learned how right they were when three of the new spokes popped. That’s a lesson to all of us, yes? Go to the pros with your electric assist bike! So we took the Bullitt back to the shop and now we have a thicker rim and spokes and they are hanging in without incident. This was pretty cheap, but once again, time-consuming.

There have been other odds and ends, but they don’t affect our ability to ride the bike. Matt dropped the BionX controller and destroyed its display, which now looks like something out of a slasher film. It still works, though. One of the fiberglass poles holding the rain cover has split twice—the first time probably due to the combination of wind sheer and the kids messing with it, and the second time due to some drunk baseball fans snapping it in two. Splendid told us how to order spare fiberglass poles, which are now sitting in the garage for the next time it happens. I think they cost $15. If you happen to have obnoxious sports fans roaming your neighborhood, you too may want some spare poles.

The two big repairs represented several weeks in the shop taken together, and those messed with our lives. The Bullitt has become what our car used to be, and we use it almost every day. I wrote about those incidents because they were such an unpleasant shock—with the Bullitt our lives are pretty easy and without it they start to derail.

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

But it did not fail it when we needed it most. All last summer while I was bed-bound for 23 hours a day, Matt used it to carry both kids to school and preschool and summer camp. At the time, our daughter was still attending preschool on the top of Mt. Sutro, and our son’s summer camp was up one of the toughest hills we have ever had occasion to ride regularly (9th Avenue from Irving to Ortega, for locals reading along). And although there were days that we needed to call in friends for a carpool or a family member to walk someone home, mostly Matt managed all of that extremely grim summer solo. So how can I hold a crankset and some broken spokes against the Bullitt? Especially when I know they won’t happen again? Also, Matt is awesome.

We started this year knowing that there was trouble in the wind. The university decided to kick everyone out of faculty housing, our daughter’s preschool, disastrously, was taken over by a for-profit corporation, and the campus where I work was scheduled for closure with everyone on site told we would move “somewhere.” As bad as all of that was, we could not have predicted how much worse it would get when I was run down by a distracted driver in April. For a week we assumed that our car-free days were over. But with my right leg shattered it turned out that I couldn’t drive either, so here we are. I’m riding again and the Bullitt is still hauling the kids. I can’t yet do everything that I used to do, but the bus and rideshare make up the difference.

Thinking about future careers at preschool

Thinking about future careers at preschool

And in other ways, we seem to have turned the corner. In July our daughter started at a new preschool, a Japanese immersion program that is a feeder for Rosa Parks. She loves it so much we have to drag her home every evening. The office move keeps getting postponed another couple of years into the future. University housing can’t kick us out as long as I’m disabled, but we have other progress on that front as well. I am walking again, and people tell me my cane looks badass. We’ve been taking long weekends with the kids to try to make up for their having such a bummer of a summer–the other week we camped in a (handicapped accessible) yurt, and we’re headed to the coast this weekend. It’s been one hell of a year, and it’s not over yet.  But life is a little easier with a reliable bike.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, family biking, injury, San Francisco

Coming back to life

Shortly before I was hit, we marched in the Cherry Blossom Parade with our son's school.

Shortly before I was hit, we marched in the Cherry Blossom Parade with our son’s school.

This week, for the first time in two months, I headed back to the office. There’s a lot that I still can’t do, and among those things is going out two days in a row. Nonetheless, it is great to be out of the house and moving around.

The good news is that I am now more than halfway through the non-weight bearing weeks (assuming my x-rays continue to show bone regrowth). As soon I as can walk again in late July, my surgeon says I can ride a bike again as well.

I’ve now met a few people who’ve had similar injuries. I am really happy that all of them are walking again, and none with visible limps. There are evidently long term consequences: I will never be able to wear high heels again (whatever), I’m unlikely to get my full strength back (still hoping that this one is wrong), and I’ll get early-onset arthritis (which I’ll deal with when the time comes). It could have been worse.

Interestingly enough, I am the only person anyone knows of who’s been hurt this way on a bicycle. A couple of people got similar injuries on motorcycles, but the vast majority had their legs shattered while riding in cars. They have asked me whether I’m afraid to ride a bicycle again, because they themselves were afraid to get in their cars. This is a hard question to answer.

The photos of my leg are too gruesome to post, but my son had scrapes like these all over his right side.

The photos of my leg are too gruesome to post, but my son had scrapes like these all over the right side of his body.

I was rear ended by a driver who claims he did not see me or the stop sign a few feet in front of us–I was coming to a stop, while he’d evidently planned to whiz right through the intersection at 15 mph. This is pretty bad, and although it probably would have been less bad if we were in a car, part of the reason he was going only 15mph is because it was on a street with lots of pedestrians (one of whom was a sheriff’s deputy in the crosswalk) and a protected bike lane. I had only gotten out of that protected lane to make a left turn at the stop sign. If we were hurt in a car, statistically speaking, it would likely have been on a different kind of street at a much higher speed. The NHTSA estimates that the average American driver has a 30% chance of being in a serious car accident in their lifetimes. Those are terrible odds.

That said I suspect that I’ll be making Copenhagen left turns exclusively for a long time to come. The way that I was hurt was the least likely car-on-bike collision on the books, but the thought of stopping at an intersection in front of cars now makes me edgy.

A commuter bike with two Bobike seats, just like Family Ride! I'm still jealous.

A commuter bike with two Bobike seats, just like Family Ride! I’m still jealous.

I still would like to be back on a bike though. Most of my rare trips out now involve riding in a car or a bus (my right leg is the hurt one, so I can’t drive myself) and they’re fine, but it’s seeing other people riding bicycles that makes me wistful. Heck, I’d like to walk again. It has been so long that I wonder whether I will have forgotten how.

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Filed under car-free, injury, San Francisco

The year of the electric assist

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

Over winter break we noticed a lot more bicycles on the streets than there were at the same time last year. It’s now rare that I’m the only rider on the streets on my route, whatever route that might happen to be. Last week, riding from our son’s school to downtown, I was surrounded by so many other riders that in combination with being tailed by a bus, which blocked cars from potentially rear-ending any of us, I relaxed and started looking at other people’s bikes instead of focusing on traffic.

As is increasingly common, there was an assisted bike in the group, this one ridden by an older gentleman dressed up for work in the Financial District. He looked like the kind of person who wouldn’t be riding an unassisted bike. On most work days I look like that kind of person myself.

Spotted near work

Spotted near work

It is no accident that I pretty much stopped taking transit entirely when an assisted bike (the mamachari) entered our lives. We live on the top of one big hill and I work on top of another, and before that particular craigslist score there was always calculation involved in riding to work: “Am I going to have to look presentable today?” (I don’t have the patience or free time to carry a spare set of dress clothes and shower at the office, assuming that my office even had a shower, which it does not.) With an assisted bike that problem disappears. I can choose to work harder on the way home at the risk of sweating, and I often do. But I can also choose to use enough assist that I arrive at work with no more evidence of having ridden a bike than rosy cheeks and the complete absence of commuter rage. “Wait, what? You came here on a bike?” is the kind of thing I hear a lot these days.

It’s coming up on a year of electric assist for us, and there’s no question it’s been life-changing. Example: we sold our only car (30 Days of Biking is no challenge whatsoever this year).  To my surprise, because we’re about as fashionable as any other harried parents (which is to say: not at all) we appear to have been out in front on this issue. From what I’ve seen so far, 2013 is the year of the electric assist in San Francisco. Assisted bikes are everywhere; I spot them while riding around, while walking in our neighborhood, and there’s always at least one locked up nearby every time I stop to park my bike. Cargo bike riders who don’t have one typically say they want one, even if the need to carry a bike up a flight of stairs or the extra cost makes adding an assist unfeasible.

Look, there's another one

Look, there’s another one

I don’t ride much where it’s flat, but people who do seem to ride more with assisted bikes as well. The assist is like the cover on the Bullitt; in winter we could dress up our kids to ride without it, but it’s easier to get them out the door by skipping the cold weather gear and letting them cozy up under the cover. I could get myself out the door on an unassisted bike, and I have, but it’s a lot easier knowing that I can get a little help when the hills get steep or the wind gets fierce or when I’m tired at the end of the day. It’s also easier to take a bike knowing that I’m not going to walk into a meeting at work dripping with sweat. Unless I’m crossing the bay (and sometimes even then), it’s always easier to ride a bike now. And so that’s what we do.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, electric assist, San Francisco

Where the family bikes are

Family bikes like circus arts.

Family bikes like circus arts.

We tend to spot interesting bikes in the morning. I’m not sure why. I almost never get pictures because we’re booking to school, but last week was a particular doozy. One rainy morning I passed a recumbent bike that not only sported six poison-frog yellow Ortlieb panniers (with the rider in a matching jacket), but actual jingle bells. And almost every morning I also see some of San Francisco’s significant homeless contingent, or as I sometimes think of them, “self-supported locally-touring riders,” with each bike hauling not only a sleeping bag and a duffel bag but at least two full garbage bags of recycling. Matt found a generous collection of family bikes at the acrobatic center where he took our son this weekend.

Where I hit the motherlode (aside from our son’s school, of course) is Rainbow Grocery. Last Friday I took the day off after a particular grueling week; and instead of heading to work after school drop off I went to Rainbow. On the way in I saw our friends’ Big Dummy, probably because they joined us in car freedom last week, and together we checked out all the other family bikes locked up.

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

The first was one of the many ad hoc family bikes around the city. This bike was immediately familiar, though, because I’d already talked to the mom about her bike while we were riding on the Panhandle. I really liked the seat she’s screwed into the rack, which I’ve never seen before, and I would love to find another because it looks like the perfect addition to a midtail deck. Her kid is apparently still pretty small, but trustworthy enough to hold on to stoker bars. I asked her about footrests, because there aren’t any, and she said that she always keeps panniers with a kid on board, and her kid’s feet go inside. Personally I’d use a sturdier rear rack, but then again my kids are bigger.

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

The second bike that pulled up while I was there was a longtail I’d never seen before, a Fraser Pack Mule from Southern California. I asked the dad riding it and he said it was custom, purchased long before the Surly Big Dummy hit the market. I was really impressed by the integrated back support on the deck. And  although it is evidently usually a single-kid hauler he said that he sometimes carries both of his kids on this bike as well (as long as they’re not fighting, a caveat that’s all too familiar). They live on a hill, but he left the bike unassisted because he has to carry it upstairs to park it, and wasn’t sure he could handle hoisting another 20 pounds on top of an already heavy cargo bike. How cool is this bike?

Anyway, I think I need to figure out a way to get to Rainbow Grocery more often on weekday mornings.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Losing it

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven't slept.

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven’t slept.

Matt and I are lazy, middle-aged people who have overstuffed our lives. Ever since our son was born, my favorite hobby has been sleeping. We both work full-time jobs, Matt travels extensively for business, I travel somewhat less extensively for business, and we have two kids we adore whose demands swallow our weekends and evenings. This is not a complaint, because we chose these lives, like our jobs, and love our children. But it was not really a shock to find last year that we had started to pack on the pounds.

In 2012, Matt’s repeated trips to China with their endless banquet meals put him near his highest lifetime weight. Also in 2012, I gave up a serious diet Coke habit because it seemed wrong to rely so heavily on a fake food. I never developed a taste for coffee or tea, which means that I have been caffeine-free for over a year. Sadly for me, caffeine is an appetite suppressant. I developed a killer sweet tooth and predictably, gained weight as well. Neither of us was technically overweight, but we were starting to get uncomfortable.

Mirror in the bathroom

Mirror in the bathroom

We both began losing weight at the end of 2012, in part, I suspect, because the Bullitt entered our lives then. With a haul-anything assisted cargo bike we were both willing to attempt riding up hills we’d never tried before, and even with the assist, we were working hard. Plus, that bike is so fast already that it is endlessly tempting to engage in what the good people at Wheelha.us call “time travel,” where you leave late, crank up the assist, pedal like mad, and arrive early. If losing weight using an electric assist is “cheating,” then sign me up for more of that.

Then in January I took a day-long tour of the dump. I came back in shock, and we started trying to become a zero-waste household. (Thankfully, there are role models for a project like this.)

We shrink and they grow.

We shrink and they grow.

There is a lot of talk about the sustainability triple-bottom-line, which suggests that any ecological change will have economic and health effects as well. In our experience this is: true. We bought bikes and sold our only car and saved money and lost some weight and started hanging out with a bunch of cool people. We started trying to reduce our waste because I was horrified when I toured the dump, but we ended up saving money too. Our grocery bills are now less than the California food stamp allotment. We also eat out less than we used to, about once a week, because zero-waste is not compatible with takeout. On top of that, in the last two months both Matt and I have dropped to the lowest adult weights of our lives. Our son, after two years without putting on a pound, finally started gaining weight, and both kids have grown a couple of inches. Everyone in our household needs new pants now. We look like hobos.

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in a quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in an old quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

Saving money and losing weight (or in our kids’ case, growing like steroidal weeds) weren’t exactly in our plans, but these are definitely welcome developments. Yippee! So here we are. Our zero-waste effort is like riding our bikes in that there is this unexpected triple-bottom-line, and that surprisingly, it’s made life more fun. It’s unlike riding bikes in that, well, these two things have pretty much nothing else in common as far as I can tell. Yet although we started riding bikes for fun and we started reducing our waste out of dismay, in both cases we ended up in the same place. And both changes have made life better.

[Coming up eventually, because I have been asked: The zero-waste “diet”]

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, San Francisco, zero waste

To Panhandle or not to Panhandle

Who wouldn't want to ride in Golden Gate Park?

Who wouldn’t want to ride in Golden Gate Park?

On the western side of San Francisco there are many excellent bike lanes through Golden Gate Park, which stretches nearly half the length of the city. Even outside the park to the north and south the streets are pretty quiet (with a few exceptions), so it is very easy to get around by bike as long as you don’t mind the hills. Which whatever, where besides the Mission are there are not hills in this city.

Transitioning from the park to the Panhandle

Transitioning from the park to the Panhandle

At the edge of the park the Panhandle begins. The Panhandle is a one-block-wide, ¾ mile long stretch of greenway, and it extends even further east. A nightmarish three blocks at the far edge of the Panhandle then drop you into the Wiggle, and from there bike lanes, some protected, run all the way to the eastern edge of the city and San Francisco Bay. (Protected bike lanes for those three blocks of Oak Street have been in the works for some time and postponed repeatedly.)

Unfortunately the streets on either side of the Panhandle, Fell and Oak, are basically freeways in the middle of the city, and noisy. There is a break in the middle for the death highway of Masonic Avenue, which even with a dedicated bike signal is not the most fun street to cross. Supposedly Masonic is a designated bike route. Ha ha.

There is a lot of foot traffic on the shared-use path.

There is a lot of foot traffic on the shared-use path.

There are two paths on the Panhandle: the southern path along Oak is a pedestrian-only path, and the northern path along Fell is shared-use. For reasons that mystify me, runners and walkers mostly shun the southern path and so there are always multitudes wandering idly among the bikes. And there are always off-leash dogs. A couple of weeks ago I slowed when one came close, but not fast enough because it suddenly jumped right into my path, knocking me and my son to the ground. My son fell under the bike and although he was unhurt, he was so upset that he burst into tears. The dog ran off. Of course its owner was nowhere to be found.

Walkers blocking the Shrader Valve on the way out of the Panhandle

Walkers blocking the Shrader Valve on the way out of the Panhandle

So anyway, although the Panhandle has its appeal–no car traffic to contend with–it has some issues as a place to ride.

There is an alternative. Like all alternative routes in San Francisco, it is steeper. Heading east, Page Street runs above the southern edge of the Panhandle then drops down suddenly to join the Wiggle. In reverse, obviously, it goes up just as suddenly.  I know many riders who prefer Page Street to the Panhandle. They tend to be solo riders.

Recently, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we headed out for Mexican food (eating out contrary to ethnic expectations on holidays means never having to wait for a table). Because we were already south of the Panhandle we took Page, which we don’t normally ride. It was nice; there were multiple sidewalk sales, and families were sitting out on their front steps chatting with each other. Even though there are lots of stop signs to slow you down, it is a pleasant alternative to the Panhandle in the downhill direction.

After dinner we had the choice of following the Wiggle back or turning around and climbing up Page. Matt had both kids in the Bullitt and to my surprise he wanted to take the hill. As he headed up, a pickup truck going down the hill slowed, and the driver stuck his head out the window. “GIT IT, OLD MAN!” he cheered. “GIT IT, OLD MAN!” I laughed so hard I almost fell off my bike. Oh how I love San Francisco.

Git it, old man!

Git it, old man!

We made it back to Golden Gate Park with only the usual stares that the Bullitt draws from families walking on the street. I scratched Matt’s back at a stoplight and said, “Git it, old man.” He laughed. “He was supportive,” I said, “That’s what matters.”

“He was ACCURATE,” he replied. “Like I care. I’m fitter now than I ever was in my so-called prime.” And this is true. We have been married for 14 years, and by any historical standard Matt is smokin’.

I’m used to the Panhandle and its quirks. But I can see us taking Page more often in the future too. Git it, old man!

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