Category Archives: commuting

Our kids’ bikes: Torker Interurban 20” and Spawn Banshee 16”

The bike that started it all.

The balance bike that started it all.

As our kids have gotten older, they’ve moved into riding their own bikes, as one might expect. Our son started riding on our venerable Specialized Hotwalk balance bike, which this summer finally moved on to live with our next door neighbors and their 2-year-old.

Then (holy smokes he looks tiny!)

Then (holy smokes he looks tiny!)

He jumped from there to a Jamis Laser at age 5, which worked for a while, but not as long as we had hoped, mostly because it doesn’t have gears and we live in San Francisco. After about a year of his resisting riding because he had to walk up the hills, we switched him to the Torker Interurban (20”) from The New Wheel when he turned 6, which has multiple gears, and he’s been riding that ever since (we sold the Jamis to a family in a flatter locale). After spending part of a summer at the wonderful wheelkids bike camp, he had the stamina and knowledge to take to the streets whenever he’s inclined. That’s less often than we might like, but he’s getting there. The Torker is lightweight, and he’s a lean and scrawny kid. Between that a reasonably wide gear range, he has little trouble pedaling that bike up to Alamo Square and back down again on the way to school.

Now

Now

Fortunately for us, our son by age 6 had reached a height that put him in the realm of kids’ bikes that are not uniformly terrible. In contrast, we found it very difficult to find good bikes in the 16” wheel range for our daughter. Local shops sell Linus kids’ bikes, but they are too heavy for the hills our kids ride, and worse yet from our perspective, come with training wheels [but see the comments below: there is a new local company producing a great 16" bike, the Cleary Hedgehog, as of last month]. We didn’t stick our kids on balance bikes before they turned two years old so they could backslide when they got older to bikes designed to accommodate training wheels. All the 16” bikes we found also came with coaster brakes, which we wanted to avoid after our son’s hard experience. The coaster brakes in combination with a hand brake on his old Jamis confused him, “Hand? Feet? Hand? Feet?” and really slowed his ability to catch onto braking while riding. Plus we have heard more than one horror story about kids who had had their ankles caught in the cranks, and whose parents had to disassemble the bike to remove them. Our daughter stayed on the balance bike much longer than she probably should have as we looked for a better alternative.

She was really ripping along on that balance bike, though.

She was really ripping along on that balance bike, though.

At this point, I should probably mention a brand of kids’ bikes that have gotten a bit of a subculture following in the family bike community, and why we didn’t get one: Islabikes (pronounced “eye-lah”). Islabikes makes some very nice kids’ bikes, although their 16” model comes with coaster brakes, which we did not want. The coaster brakes made it easier for me to decide not to buy one. There is a reason that I was trying to avoid Islabikes. While I try not to climb onto my soapbox too much here, I am not a fan of the Islabikes business model, which is to sell exclusively by mail. We typically buy our bikes and accessories from local bike shops.

The reasons we shop locally (for a given definition of locally) are complicated, but I will outline one of them here. Probably the most common question I get from other people is where they can test-ride the interesting family bikes we have tried, whether they are cargo bikes or kids’ bikes. And well, if you want to live in a world that has lots of shops in which to test-ride bikes, or for that matter, any shops in which to test-ride bikes, you have to support the local shops by selling to them and buying from them. I realize, of course, that new bicycle brands have to start somewhere, and I remember the difficult line that Xtracycle walked before its dealer network was well-developed, when it sold products both through local bike shops and through its website. But Xtracycle has always cultivated relationships with local shops, and now appears to sell exclusively through its dealers. Yuba appears to be en route to the same transition.

Islabikes, on the other hand, has no relationships with local bike shops. It sells exclusively online and the last that I heard, had no plans to change that model. I had qualms about supporting a brand that chose to cut out the biggest supporters of the riding that we do: local family bike shops. They are few and far-between and it’s not a hugely profitable business. I want to give them all the help that I can, because they help us, and because I’d like to see them survive, and because I’d like more shops to realize that ours is a market that is worth cultivating. So we spend our money at family bike shops, and on occasion, I write up the great experiences we’ve had at these places. I’m way behind on the latter, but these days I’m behind on everything.

Trying out Islabikes in Portland

Trying out Islabikes in Portland

Finding a bike for our daughter, unfortunately, was looking as though it was going to be a “swallow hard and buy online” experience, though, because we couldn’t find a bike suited for our local conditions from a local shop. We considered an Islabike despite my reservations about the online-only sales and the coaster brakes (and about the fact that it only came in red; she didn’t want a red bike, her brother rides a red bike). Islabikes are in fact lovely bikes, viewed solely from a specifications perspective, as they are both lightweight and appropriately scaled. Our kids enjoyed test-riding them when we visited their factory at the post-Fiets of Parenthood party the company hosted in Portland this summer.

On the Spawn Banshee

On the Spawn Banshee

Fortune smiled on us, however, when I found a reference somewhere—I have forgotten where—to Spawn Cycles in Canada, which also sells excellent kids’ bikes. Better still, their 16” wheel bike, the Banshee, is sold with front and back hand brakes and no coaster brakes. They appeared pricier than other good kids’ bikes at first, but that was only until I realized that the prices were in Canadian dollars. Spawn Cycles sells its bikes online, which was good news for us given that they’re based in Canada. However the company is also developing a network of local bike shops that sell its products, exactly because it realizes that people want to be able to test-ride kids’ bikes. I liked the company’s attitude toward local bike shops and I liked the bikes. If we were going to buy a bike online, and it looked as though we were, I felt pretty decent about buying one from Spawn. And our daughter was thrilled to discover she could pick the color. Her new Banshee is pink. She was 5 years old when she started riding it, but could have managed it at age 4 if we’d found it sooner.

Spawn managed to get the bike to us within a few days, which I found impressive considering that it had to go through customs. Then we discovered that bikes purchased online, whatever the brand, come “some assembly required.” What can I say? We’d never bought a bike online before. Under normal circumstances the minor assembly work would have been no problem, but we had just moved into an ongoing remodel, and everything we owned in the way of bike tools was packed away… somewhere. Luckily, we share our building with a friendly guy who is really, really into bikes—and this is me saying that. He has a workshop set up in our shared garage for his own bikes, and volunteered to put our daughter’s bike together the same evening it arrived. Thanks again, neighbor! It took him about 15 minutes, but would probably have taken half as long if our daughter hadn’t been helping.

They rode those bikes everywhere at Camp Mather, even to the bathhouse 20 feet from our cabin.

They rode those bikes everywhere at Camp Mather, even to the bathhouse 20 feet from our cabin.

We were right about the hand brakes. It took our daughter a couple of weekday evenings to learn to ride her Banshee, and after a week, she could gracefully feather her brakes to slow her descent down even San Francisco hills. Her bike is so light that although it is a single speed, she occasionally outpaced teenagers on mountain bikes while riding up the hills at Camp Mather. Our daughter has never been much of a walker, always begging us to “Carry me!” Now she doesn’t have to be. These days when we head somewhere within a few blocks, we walk and she rides her bike. She’s still working on the skills she’ll need to ride in the street like her brother can, but in the meantime, it’s legal for kids to ride on the sidewalk. Between that and the Roland, which is giving her practice on the streets on the way to kindergarten, we’re slowly transitioning to a new kind of family biking, with everyone on their own bike.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco, trailer-bike

Yes, you can legally ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in San Francisco. Sometimes.

Recently, there was a bit of media kerfluffle about bicyclists! In San Francisco! Riding on the sidewalk! Which is illegal! Except that it turns out that it’s not necessarily illegal. In San Francisco, riding on the sidewalk is actually mostly illegal, but not completely. It’s worth knowing the rules.

I have ridden on the sidewalk in other cities, where it is legal to do so anywhere, and I will admit: when the roads are unsafe, which is often, it is a huge relief to be able to decide, “To heck with this. I’m taking the sidewalk.” I can’t think of a single US city that has a bike network that is complete enough that no one would ever feel endangered while riding on the existing bike “infrastructure.” In contrast, even five year olds feel safe riding bikes in Copenhagen. Ours did.

This is totally legit.

This is totally legit.

I get why San Francisco looks askance at bicycles on the sidewalk. There are a lot of people on foot in San Francisco, and the sidewalks can get crowded. What that really means is that the sidewalks should be wider, and there should be protected bike lanes, so there’s room for everyone to move safely, but this is not the world we live in yet. That said, since I was hit by a car, there are times and places when I look at the road, then look at the sidewalk, and decide it’s not worth the risk of being technically legal. So for example, on the half-block of California Street between Presidio and the driveway to my office, I often ride on the sidewalk. That’s because California Street is basically an urban freeway and there is not even a painted bike lane. I also feel completely justified riding on the sidewalk to get to a bike rack, because duh. If cars can cross the sidewalk to get into a garage then I can cross it to get to a designated bicycle parking spot.

There are a lot of places in San Francisco, however, where you don’t have to decide whether it’s safer to break the law, because there are times and places where it is perfectly legal to ride on the sidewalk. Here are the ones I know about.

  • You are a child. It is always legal to ride on the sidewalk if you are a little kid. I have heard conflicting reports about whether it is legal for a parent to accompany a child riding on the sidewalk. It is sort of a pointless exception if it’s only legal for unaccompanied kids to ride on the sidewalk, and parents are supposed to ride on the street, but I’ve long since given up expecting laws that relate to bicycles to make sense.
  • You are riding along the perimeter of the city (mostly). Starting along the Embarcadero at the eastern edge of the city, up north from there through Fishermans’ Wharf and Fort Mason, west along Marina Boulevard and into the Presidio through Crissy Field: it is legal to ride a bicycle along the sidewalk at the water’s edge anywhere here. These are designated bike routes and sometimes even marked (for example, a bike lane is marked on the pavement on the Crissy Field path, although the markings are usually covered with sand from the beach). West of there is a shared bicycle-pedestrian path all down the western edge of the city along the Great Highway. There are some parts of the city’s perimeter that I don’t know about. At the southeastern edge of the city in Bayview/Hunters Point we’ve never found an obvious path along the waterfront, and based on our experiences around India Basin, which seems to be blanketed in broken glass with cars parked blithely in the street and on the sidewalk, it wouldn’t be the most fun place to ride. On the other end of the income spectrum, there’s a little gap between the Presidio and the Great Highway at Sea Cliff. I doubt that it matters. The few times we’ve ridden around that neighborhood I felt perfectly safe riding on the street, as it seemed probable that the ample private security forces up there would immediately surround any car moving at more than about 15mph.
  • You are riding east-west through Golden Gate Park. Although there is now a parking-protected bike lane along part of JFK Drive, there are still metal plates set into the sidewalk all along JFK Drive indicating that it is a shared bicycle/pedestrian path. The same plates mark Kezar Drive and various points where bicycle/pedestrian paths enter the park from Fulton on the north side and Lincoln on the south side. The Panhandle, which stretches east of the park from Stanyan to Baker, also has a shared bicycle/pedestrian sidewalk on the north path.
  • You are riding along Mission Creek. I have never actually seen this marked anywhere, but local bike shops swore that it was a shared path.

I have heard that there are other places where it is demonstrably legal to ride on the sidewalk, such as a crossing under 101 where bicycles are instructed to take the sidewalk, but I have no personal experience. I know it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in the places listed above because I’ve ridden them, but I’ve hardly ridden everywhere in this city. Any other places where it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in San Francisco?

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Punk’d

When we went to visit my mom for spring break, we brought our rain gear. It rains a lot in Seattle. Unfortunately I lost my rain pants while I was there. That was a bummer—they’re great rain pants—but not a short-term crisis. It rarely rains in San Francisco after February, and never after March. And this is a drought year anyway. I figured that if they didn’t show up by October or so, I’d have to buy new gear, because an El Nino year is on the way. And I had already promised myself that next rainy season, I’d try a Cleverhood, but it wasn’t exactly on the top of my to-do list.

I also assumed that California’s weather system had better things to do than punk me, like empty out the state’s reservoirs. I was wrong.

This morning we woke up to rain. Of course it is welcome, because of the drought, but I was vaguely annoyed about my missing rain pants. Rain in San Francisco is like hills in San Francisco: hard and intense, although it comes and goes. But how bad could it be? I thought, with the casual ignorance of someone who has not gone outside in suspicious weather without wearing full rain gear since 2011.

Really, really bad, it turns out. By the time we’d gone a few blocks, my pants were soaked. By the time we hit the Panhandle, they had dripped an inch of water into each of my rain boots. And because the boots are waterproof, all that water just stayed there. By the time we dropped off our son, I was shivering. When I finally got to work, I had to empty my boots into the kitchen sink.

There will be no pictures with this post. I look like I was fished from a pond, and I’m walking around the office barefoot. I am just grateful that typically only one other person works in the office on Fridays.

When people say there is no bad weather, only bad gear, they are basically right. Until today I’ve loved riding in the rain. Super-cautious drivers, empty streets, respect or actual awe from my coworkers: what’s not to like? Having good gear is like having the right bike. It makes everything easier. With the Bullitt’s rain cover, the kids have never had complaints about riding in the rain either.

But without it, misery is never far away. This morning as I was sloshing through the halls, I thought, “This sucks. Maybe we should buy a golf cart.” This is the route to madness! I should buy some new rain gear. Preferably before 5pm. If only Instacart delivered clothing.

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Filed under commuting, San Francisco, Uncategorized

San Francisco problems: bike racks

It seems tasteless to complain about the limits of San Francisco’s bike racks, a real bicycle first-world problem. Many cities are still trying to increase the number of riders on the streets, and here I am frustrated with the fact that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find a place to park my bike. Part of the reason it’s irritating, though, is that it’s such an easy problem to fix. Bike racks are cheap, there’s plenty of room for them, and the city will install them on request (at no cost to the requestor), but you can end up waiting a long time. Demand is high.

Preschool parking at the street cleaning sign.

Preschool parking at the street cleaning sign.

Last year my problem was my son’s afterschool program, which is no longer a problem because they installed a bunch of new bike racks. This year I’m still waiting for the request placed at my daughter’s preschool to make its way to the top of the list. In the meantime, we juggle with other families on bikes to lock up to the street cleaning sign. Unfortunately one (non-biking) family has a really aggressive dog that they like to tie up to the same sign (because he’s too aggressive to be around kids at the preschool itself), and although I’ve asked them politely if they could tie him to a tree instead and they said okay, they sometimes forget. The dog will attack me and my bike, and my kids understandably run away screaming when they see him, which means I’m stuck waiting for that family to leave if they arrive first.

Every morning is a cargo bike roll call at Rosa Parks.

Every morning is a cargo bike roll call at Rosa Parks.

Our son’s school has lots of racks, but there are no longer enough to meet demand. The school district has found another large bike rack for us and is working on scheduling its installation, but it’s not there yet, so the school bike racks remain pretty packed. There are street cleaning bus zone signs we can lock to if necessary, but it will be nice to have another real rack.

Around our neighborhood and my office, there’s a different problem: non-bike competition.

A bike rack can't hold much more than one shopping cart.

A bike rack can’t hold much more than one shopping cart.

We live on Parnassus Heights and thus we are well above what’s referred to locally as “the shopping cart line,” but most of our local haunts are in the flats. The library, for example, has a pretty small bike rack anyway, and it’s often occupied by a stolen shopping cart filled with someone’s worldly goods. There is increasing evidence that homelessness is a problem that can be resolved pretty cheaply by giving homeless people places to live (relative to paying for the health care and jail costs of having people live on the streets). But in a city like San Francisco, which is reluctant build new housing even for billionaires, it does not surprise me that subsidized housing is scarce.

At work the bike racks are often occupied by motorcycles and scooters, despite multiple signs saying that this is not allowed, which also direct their riders to the designated motorcycle parking area. There’s usually room for bikes as well, but the motorcycle riders always take the spot closest to the door, and motorcycles are so big that walking around them means walking into a driving lane, and they smell awful, and it’s all just annoying.

Everyone, it seems, is beginning to discover what we’ve discovered: riding a bike is the easiest way to guarantee VIP parking wherever you go.  Even when I have to lock to a parking meter or a stop sign, it only takes one attempt to drive in the city again to make me realize how good we have it still.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

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

Winter riding, San Francisco style

My winter bicycling cred is nonexistent. There are families I know who ride in snow and ice and purchase things like studded tires. I live in California for a reason—I would rather tackle the mega-hills of San Francisco than deal with being cold or hot. When I got accepted to Berkeley for my PhD I was living in Boston, and I used to read the weather reports for San Francisco every morning, longingly. I’ve never looked back.

So when I learned that temperatures this week would be below freezing and that we might get snow, I was horrified. San Francisco, you hussy!

But I was not completely unprepared. Last year temperatures in the city dropped below freezing as well. (Thanks a lot, anthropogenic climate change.) As an adherent of the “no bad weather, only bad gear” school when it comes to rain, I decided to try the same approach for cold.

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Short sleeves under the canopy no matter what the weather

Most of the time when it’s cold the kids go into the Bullitt, because although I generally consider my children intelligent, when it comes to dressing for the weather they are complete idiots. “I don’t need my jacket! I’m too cold! Wah!” Repeat ad infinitum. The canopy on the Bullitt is advertised as a rain canopy, but it also blocks wind and warms up like a greenhouse with a kid or two inside. They wear jackets in there but only because it’s cold in the garage before they get in, and we give them a blanket, but mostly they use it to play peekaboo. Once I shoved my daughter under there in her pajamas with a blanket over her to get my son to school when Matt was away, and she slept the whole trip. I don’t think she even realized she was not in a bed (we get earthquakes here, the bouncing was a non-issue).

A trailer would work the same way, of course.

She's smiling under there but who can tell? Under the blanket: Muddy Buddy and rain boots.

She’s smiling under there but who can tell? Under the blanket: Muddy Buddy and rain boots.

However we do occasionally have to get the kids around in a child seat. This morning, alas, was one of those times. I took my daughter to preschool solo, and Matt had the Bullitt. What she wore: regular shirt and pants, because her preschool is well-heated. For kids’ outerwear, given that kids are not moving on the bike but have to deal with a lot of wind, I wanted both insulation and windproofing. So over that she got her Muddy Buddy, her ski jacket, her ski mittens, her rain boots, a fleece balaclava, and a stadium blanket that’s fleece on one side and waterproofed fabric on the other. Result: she said she was warm and kept asking me to take the blanket off. So when we got to preschool I took the blanket off.  “I’m too cold!!!” Quelle surprise.

This is an outrageously stupid look but the only thing that bothers me about it is that other parents can't see me smiling when they pass by and I worry that I'm coming off as rude.

This is an outrageously stupid look but the only thing that bothers me about it is that other parents can’t see me smiling when they pass by and I worry that I’m coming off as rude.

In serious cold I would add her ski goggles over the balaclava, but that hasn’t happened yet. I suspect this level of gear would serve a non-San Francisco kid in much more bracing temperatures. With all the waterproofing, it would shrug off sleet as well. Not that I would feel comfortable riding a bike up and down hills on sleet-covered streets.

Rain pants, rain boots. Not seen: dress pants, merino wool long underwear.

Rain pants, rain boots. Not seen: dress pants, merino wool long underwear.

And how did I dress today when it’s 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 Celsius, 272 Kelvin) in San Francisco? On the top: merino wool long underwear with a cashmere sweater over. On the bottom: merino wool long underwear and socks, with dress pants over them, and leather loafers. Outerwear: Long wool coat, cashmere scarf, silk balaclava, merino wool gloves, ski mittens, rain pants, and rain booties. The rain pants and rain booties are waterproof, so they also block all wind (that means I didn’t really need the long underwear for my legs, but the heat in my office is unpredictable so I wore them anyway). Is this total overkill? Absolutely. The result? I got overheated. I call that an unqualified success.

I am a total weather wimp, as mentioned, so I’m guessing that my ridiculous getup would keep a normal person comfortable at temperatures way below freezing. And everything that I don’t wear once I get to the office can be stuffed into my helmet when I get to work, so it’s space-efficient.

Ski mittens, not ski gloves.

Ski mittens, not gloves.

The insight to ditch biking gloves and jump directly to ski mittens comes from the many fine riding parents of Rosa Parks Elementary School. Thanks, guys.  I credit the family riders of Portland for the insight of wearing merino wool long underwear under everything, a tip I’ve passed on to my chronically cold mom, who is even more delighted than I am. Wearing rain gear in the cold is my personal innovation. I did it because I already had the rain gear, but as a windstopper the rain gear is unparalleled.

And that’s how I ride when it gets cold(ish) in San Francisco. I may look stupid, but I’m still having fun.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

We tried it: Ridekick cargo trailer

The Ridekick cargo trailer, unattached

The Ridekick cargo trailer (unattached) with Brompton

I was pretty impressed with the Ridekick child trailer, but it’s still a prototype so you can’t buy it yet. However I did recently get to try the Ridekick cargo trailer, which anyone can buy right now.

I originally started looking at an assisted trailer as a possible way of getting around the city when I was just back to weight-bearing and much weaker. I had hopes that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offered one of them as a membership benefit—they do have other trailers for members to use. But no such luck. However Ridekick was willing to drop one off and let us use it for a while, which was absolutely fabulous of them.

The appeal for me of an assisted trailer was that it was a temporary solution to my problems getting around by bike while I figured out how much strength I’d get back in the longer term. Other people, I suspect, are interested in an assisted trailer for different reasons. My sense after riding with both trailers and assisted trailers is that they are a product for people who need to haul loads sometimes. If you are riding with your kids every single day and rarely ride without them, it probably makes more sense to jump right to a cargo bike or assisted cargo bike. It is more fun to ride with the kids on the bike, in cities with a lot of traffic it feels safer to ride with the kids on the bike, and some of the logistical issues with the trailer, like the fact that it can be a pain to park, go away. But if money is tight or if there are a lot of pickup and drop-off swaps between parents, then a child trailer makes a lot of sense. And if you are hauling a bunch of tools or equipment every day then you don’t need me to tell you to consider a Bikes At Work trailer or a cargo trike or whatever.

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

If you’re looking at an (assisted) cargo trailer, maybe you have a fast and light bike but want to do major grocery shopping on the weekends, or have a long commute and want to bring a week’s worth of clean clothes on Monday and haul them back on Friday. For that kind of thing, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to add a rear rack, and a trailer will probably carry more anyway. Some people will view hauling an unassisted trailer as strength training and other people not so much. If not so much, the Ridekick cargo trailer is worth a look.

What I liked about the cargo trailer:

  • It made heavy loads disappear. One day I packed it up with over a dozen hardback library books and then bought milk and yogurt (in glass bottles) and some other groceries. Starting to pull a load like that in the trailer nearly yanked my little folding bike backwards, but a push from the assist made riding normal again. We live on a fairly substantial hill, yet I had no fears about making it home.
  • The Ridekick trailer works with any bike! I had never seriously considered putting an assist on my Brompton, as that would make it too heavy to carry, and I got a folding bike specifically for times I needed to actually take a bike places I couldn’t ride one. But putting the Ridekick trailer on the Brompton was no problem. I wish that these trailers were more available as rentals because they’re also a great way to try out riding with an assist—not being able to imagine what an assist feels like and to judge whether it is worth it seems to be a real sticking point for people who are considering one. I think that is very understandable given the price and hassle of installing electric assist on a bicycle.
  • This may be my personal issue, but riding with a cargo trailer made me feel more protected from traffic. When I started riding again I was still pretty jumpy when cars pulled up behind me, given that I had been run over from behind. Although it’s a very unlikely way to get hit on a bicycle statistically speaking, I needed time to get over my wariness. With a cargo trailer behind me I knew that it was pretty likely any car would be slowed down significantly by running over the trailer before it managed to get to me. If that had happened I would, of course, have felt pretty bad about destroying Ridekick’s trailer, but not THAT bad. (This concern in reverse, however, is one of my greatest reservations about riding with a child trailer.)
  • I have tried a throttle assist on bicycles (the Yuba elMundo) and it wasn’t my favorite, but I may not have given it enough time because the throttle assist on the Ridekick really grew on me. As a weaker rider it was really nice to feel like I could push the throttle to the max and get pulled up the hill when I needed that. The throttle itself is a push toggle and it’s quite sensitive. By pushing it lightly I could keep the assist low enough that I actually felt like my pedaling was adding something. In practice because I was trying to build strength I tended to max the assist when I was fading and catch my breath, then let it go and use the momentum the bike had gained to pedal part of the way on my own again. This got me up quite a few big hills that I couldn’t have done solo, let alone with a kid on board (I usually have a kid on board). I suspect that a lot of people could use the Ridekick this way: to build up strength. For regular use I still prefer a pedal assist but for occasional use the throttle makes a lot of sense.
  • By comparison to a decent assisted bicycle, the Ridekick cargo trailer is pretty cost-effective at $700. Yes, there are big box store style e-bikes that sell for $500 but they are junk—they have very limited range, weigh as much as boat anchors, and have batteries that will die within a few months and can’t be replaced. The Ridekick has a lot more useful life than that. It’s not useful in all the ways that an assisted bicycle would be, but for many people’s needs, an assisted bicycle would be overkill.

My reservations about the Ridekick:

  • Probably my biggest problem with the cargo trailer was that I had the chance to try the child trailer first. I liked the child trailer much better, even as a way to haul cargo. The cargo trailer is much smaller, capable of holding a couple of bags of groceries. The child trailer could haul a couple of bags of groceries AND two seven year olds, or several bags of groceries and one kid, or a giant pile of donations to Goodwill. I kept thinking of the cargo version as a single person’s trailer. It wasn’t right for the volume of stuff that I wanted to carry. I don’t think I’m the target market for this trailer.
  • All trailers, including the Ridekick, can be tricky to park. It’s actually a lot smaller than child trailers, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but at the racks at my office, for example, I had to scoot it around a little to make sure it wasn’t hanging out into the car parking places where it might get run over.
  • The battery is in the body of the trailer itself, which is fine and makes sense given that batteries are heavy, but unfortunately that means there is no way to tell how much charge is left without stopping to open the trailer. So I had a fair bit of range anxiety at the end of the day when I was riding with it. This turned out not to be justified at any point, because its range was actually pretty generous—I rack up about 10 miles up and down some major hills just going to and from work and dropping off and picking up a kid or two—and I never actually ran the battery down despite using it, especially at the beginning, pretty profligately. However I never knew how much power was left until I stopped riding, and that made me edgy. This was particularly the case because at the time my limp was so pronounced that I had a lot of trouble walking my bike up hills.
  • I did not like the attachment for the trailer. It screws on using a plate attached through the rear axle, which is pretty traditional for trailers. My sense was that it was both too easy and too hard to release. It was too easy because there after a couple of weeks the trailer fell off the bike while I was riding—in regular use, you need to tighten the screw regularly. FYI. It was too hard because if the screw was tightened appropriately, you needed tools to take it off. Given that the market for this trailer is almost certainly an occasional user, I felt like it should work like the Burley Travoy, which has a snap-in attachment that can be operated by hand. The wiring for the assist, interestingly, worked just that simply. To remove the assist wiring from the bike you only needed to pull out the plug, and to reattach it to push the plug back in. I wanted the trailer itself to attach and release that easily.
  • An issue that I suspect is more Ridekick’s problem than mine is that everyone who saw me seemed to think the trailer was homemade. People told me it was very cool and then asked me how I’d put it together, which ha ha. I suspect that the Ridekick cargo trailer would sell better if it looked a little more professional, somehow. This is the market that I’m pretty sure the Burley Travoy is targeting—the ride to work on Monday with a bunch of work clothes in the bag and return with the trailer full of dirty clothes on Friday set.  Or maybe the Ridekick just needs a bigger logo. In neon colors. I don’t know.

So the Ridekick cargo trailer: pretty cool although it’s not quite right for us (the child trailer, on the other hand, I want for traveling).

The Ridekick is the only assist I know of that you can use with a Brompton and still have the ability to lift the bike up by hand.

The Ridekick is the only assist I know of that you can use with a Brompton and still have the ability to lift the bike up by hand.

Probably the greatest thrill of riding with the Ridekick attached was being able to take my Brompton anywhere with a kid on board. Getting it up the hill where we live was simply impossible for me for most of last year, if not to this day. The commutes with the Brompton+Ridekick were some of the most memorable I’ve taken all year because I had such great conversations with my kids during those rides. On one trip home my son (almost 8 years old and still fitting on the Brompton front child seat!) relayed me the entire plot of a series of Avengers comic books, which although it did not really interest me at all, was exciting because he was so excited about it. On another trip my daughter taught me some of the Japanese songs she learned at preschool. I love carrying my kids on that seat more than any other bike seat, but the Brompton gets less use than I’d like because of the hill. With the Ridekick cargo trailer, I could carry them and all our stuff and not have to worry about any of that. “Make it go fast!” they yell when we got to a hill. And I could.

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco