Category Archives: Copenhagen

Yes, but…

They don't always fight.

They don’t always fight.

A couple of years ago we went to Copenhagen and rented bikes. The first day we rode with our children through the city was one of the best of our lives. They were single speed bikes and they were as heavy as boat anchors, and we got lost more than once, and it rained. I did not care. We could go anywhere we wanted, and the kids were screaming with joy and hugging us from their child seats behind us, and sometimes the sun came out, and it was glorious. We have had many memorable days with them since, and a surprising number of them were on our bikes, but that was the first. With the memory of that day and that feeling it seemed impossible not to return to San Francisco and buy bikes and ride them everywhere. Most days it is as good as we had hoped it would be, some days it sucks, and some days it is better than we could have imagined.

We stayed near these gardens, one of the few places no bikes were allowed.

We stayed near these gardens, one of the few places no bikes were allowed.

There are lots of reasons that people tell me it doesn’t make sense for them to ride bikes (not that I ask). I think of these now as the “yes, buts.” They are all the reasons that we didn’t think it made sense to ride our bikes before that day changed our lives. It’s too hard to ride with kids and groceries. San Francisco has too many steep hills (and we live on the side of a mountain). The city has too much car traffic to feel safe, and the roads are so terrible that they destroy bikes, and bike theft is rampant. For parents, there’s the loneliness of having so few families in San Francisco anyway, with even fewer of them on bikes. Yes but, yes but, yes but. Our reasons not to ride made perfect sense and they kept us in our car until that day in Copenhagen when suddenly they no longer mattered. We came home and we started saying: we can and we will. And we did.

Yes, but San Francisco has hills!

Yes, but San Francisco has hills!

I hear the “yes buts” all the time when we talk about our lives now. In San Francisco people say the same things that we used to say. When they come from people outside the city the things people say are different and yet they’re still the same. Yes, but you can ride your bikes everywhere because San Francisco has nice weather (after a fashion) and here it snows. Yes, but there are lots of bike lanes in San Francisco and there aren’t any here. Yes, but the drivers there are friendly to bikes (if sometimes clueless) and here they’re aggressive. Yes, but the city is so small that nothing is very far away. Yes, but you can live without a car because San Francisco has great public transit and two car share companies and all those ride share services.

Everyone’s life is different. There are families riding in hilly cities with worse weather and less bicycle infrastructure than San Francisco. There are families riding in smaller cities that go massive distances or face bigger challenges. There are families that deal with snow and aggressive drivers.

Walking is exhausting. Let's ride bikes instead.

Walking is exhausting. Let’s ride bikes instead.

Personally I don’t care if people want to drive everywhere, although I love having company when families join us on their bikes. I do have issues though, with the claim that our lives enjoy some magical convergence of necessary possibilities. There are things that make it easier for us to ride our bikes and we are grateful for them, and there are things that make it harder for us and we deal with them. There is a man in San Francisco who rides a tricycle up and down the Embarcadero with the oxygen tank he needs to breathe in the basket. I have been passed more than once on the Panhandle by a man with no legs, whose bike is powered by his arms. Who knows what’s really possible? We didn’t know until we tried.

Change feels hard and scary and unnecessary until something happens and it becomes impossible not to change. Before our children were born it seemed impossible to live without sleep for over a year, and after each of them was born we learned to live with it. It was unpleasant but it was possible and they were worth it and now we couldn’t imagine life without them.

Some changes are impossible to miss or to avoid. And some changes could slip away without grabbing onto them. We could have spent that time in Copenhagen and come home and despaired that San Francisco will never be anything like it–San Francisco, for example, will never be flat–and felt the loss of it at some level forever. Instead we came home and bought bikes, and less than a year later, sold our car. Standing over The Pit and watching garbage stream out of the city I could have returned to living and shopping the same way and pushing away a nagging sense of guilt. Instead we embraced zero-waste (which is a work in progress). And it has been… fun!

When I think of what I’m most grateful for about that trip, it is that it started to break me of the habit of saying, “Yes, but…” We tried something new to us that seemed crazy to everyone at the time and it worked. I’m still not really a big fan of change, but change and I are working it out. We can and we will, and we do.

11 Comments

Filed under Copenhagen, family biking, San Francisco, travel

Book review: Traffic; why we drive the way we do

This is a street designed for traffic.

I recently started reading paper books again, the kind found at the neighborhood library, rather than scanning the digital library and downloading books without having to leave the relative comfort of home. The paper library is still substantially more diverse than the digital library, with a much broader selection of non-fiction in particular, although admittedly it appears to offer less in the realm of evangelical romance novels (which are surprisingly difficult to identify based solely on title and cover art; this is why now I only download books that have gotten a good review somewhere, sometime).

Even though we rarely drive, it still really ticks me off that drivers park their cars right in our driveway, like, daily. Drivers who are really committed can even block the bikes.

While in this less ephemeral realm I picked up a copy of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, which is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in quite a while. For a long time I have accepted that getting on an airplane is the psychological equivalent of locking myself into a small prison cell, and I have prepared myself for flights accordingly. I drive more frequently than I fly (every week or so rather than every few months) but I hadn’t really thought before about how putting myself in a car is somewhat equivalent. I also only recently learned that cyclists call drivers “cagers,” which has a certain dark accuracy.

Riding a bike means never being stuck in traffic.

Vanderbilt discusses the many illusions of driving, including the expectation that early merging is more efficient than late merging, and the efforts of traffic engineers to reprogram people who resent late mergers and create traffic jams to force them out of merged lanes (I used to be one of these people). Even more fascinating was the illusion of queuing in traffic, where whichever lane you pick appears to be moving more slowly than all of the others. Ultimately, it turns out that they’re all moving at the same speed, but because everyone ends up waiting far longer than they end up passing—that’s what makes it heavy traffic—no one perceives the underlying equity.

This made me realize that one of the pleasures of cycling is never having to queue except at stop lights. Speaking as someone who cycled in Copenhagen, where bicycle traffic is thick, I can testify that this benefit is not an artifact of only having few riders on the road. Part of this is undoubtedly another counter-intuitive discovery by those who study traffic: slower speeds lead to faster movement; below certain speeds, there are no traffic jams. The rest is just inherent.

This is a street designed for people. Drivers complain that parklets are “too close to the road.”

It was particularly terrifying to read about just how awful most drivers are, which is something you can often ignore in the car because you’re busy being an awful driver yourself: trying to settle down kids, program acceptable music, talk to passengers, talk on the phone, or worse yet text. But I definitely notice it as a cyclist and pedestrian. Given that there is no feedback that all the dangerous things drivers do are dangerous until they actually hit something, why wouldn’t most drivers believe they’re doing a good job? Even when they do hit something, the fact that it doesn’t happen every day makes people believe the non-collision days are more meaningful. And my friends who work at power companies tell me that even people who hit utility poles argue that the pole was at fault (“It was too close to the curb!” or if seriously drunk, “The pole was in the road.”)

My husband is not a MAMIL

It was painfully familiar to read Vanderbilt’s discussion of how women end up creating and suffering in the worst traffic because of what is referred to as “serve passenger” driving. Taking the kids to school, picking up dry cleaning, doing the grocery shopping: these trips involve the most traffic—school pickup and dropoff zones are particularly notorious—because everyone needs to do them at the same time, and they are the least compatible with ride-sharing. And that’s before even mentioning parking. This is why there are dark jokes about the kinds of hardcore cyclists (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra, or MAMILs) who are able to commute the way they enjoy because their wives are doing all of the errands by car.

Doing errands by bike means never having to look for parking.

Although my husband handles his own dry cleaning and many other household tasks, he does far more business travel than I do, and when he’s away I do almost everything alone. This is part of the reason we’re in the market for a new family bike, and it’s part of the reason I get so annoyed that the market for bikes like these is so thin. I think there are more models of Trek Madone alone than there are family bikes of any brand. (I only recently learned that the Madone is a model of racing bike made by Trek that costs like $5k, and there are apparently a million versions, all of which sell like Big Gulps.)

My son will grow up riding his bicycle for transportation just like I did.

In my personal experience, when I transitioned to commuting primarily by bike I actually saved time, not to mention frustration, because I avoided so much traffic en route. In addition, as a working parent there is almost no other time to exercise. But it’s not possible to do these kinds of errands—picking up two kids at two different schools, etc., with a mountain bike or even a so-called commuter bike. You need something that can haul non-traditional cargo, like cartons of milk, kids themselves, and whatever fragile and emotionally significant popsicle-stick-and-cotton-ball art projects that they want to bring home unscathed.

At the end of this book, I understood why Vanderbilt apparently transitioned to riding a bicycle and public transit. I would have done the same thing if I hadn’t already. Public transit is unequivocally safer and the majority of research suggests cycling is as well (although people find this difficult to believe, or at least “not where I live!”–urban people insist they’d ride if they lived in the country where there’s less traffic, rural people insist they’d ride if they lived in the city where there are bike lanes, etc.) And either option is dramatically less grueling than driving.

When I was first hired at my university I went to a talk for junior faculty by a senior professor (who later won a Nobel Prize) about how to balance work and family. Although many of the things she did were not possible for me (e.g. having her first child at age 45—too late already!) her strongest advice was, “Kill your commute.” Do whatever it took to move close enough to work and school that almost all your time was spent doing something you valued (research, patient care, spending time with kids) rather than something you didn’t (driving, or more likely, sitting in traffic). And we took that advice. We moved from a large house in the suburbs to a small apartment in San Francisco that cost over 50% more per month, and my husband, after a long stint of unemployment and underemployment, found a new job within city limits. We slogged through the San Francisco public school lottery. (And we did all this before we had bikes. Between the hills of San Francisco and the absence of family bikes nationwide, cycling wasn’t an ambition for us at the time.) It was a long road, but our lives are infinitely better for it.

Streets can change. People can change.

Most people wouldn’t have to move and sell a car and change their jobs and their kids’ (pre)schools to change their commutes, as we did. And some of the best changes, which involve transforming streets themselves, are not individual decisions but collective decisions: removing parking, adding bike lanes, creating parklets, developing bike share programs, lowering speed limits, and narrowing roads. But having seen the result of changes like these, in our own lives in San Francisco and after visiting cities like Copenhagen and even Paris that have implemented them, those changes are most assuredly worth it. They scale cities back down to human size. Calming streets is really calming people. It takes the stress out of living.

8 Comments

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

The hum of the city

Why the hum of the city? Snob alert: having lived overseas (exchange students, extended work exchanges), my husband and I were both skeptical about the ability of a short stay in any country to have much effect on people. Spending a year plus living in Paris was life-changing for us. My husband’s one-week college vacation in Mexico? Not so much. We ended up on a short stay in Europe with our kids because of a series of work-related coincidences; I had business in Copenhagen, my husband had business in Paris, the dates of both were flexible, and neither of us wanted to travel without our kids for a week (or stay at home as single parents while the other was away). So we doubled down and booked our trips back to back, spending the money we would almost certainly have spent on two weeks of extra child care, and then some (ugh), to fly our kids along with us.

In the apartment courtyard

We arrived in Copenhagen on a Sunday and so the absence of traffic was no surprise. The city was pretty much silent, except for the occasional bus roaring by and the hum of bicycle wheels going by on the pavement. We walked to our rental apartment after taking the train in from the airport because there were no cabs on a Sunday–carrying the two-year-old and our bags and more or less dragging our tired and cranky six-year-old. Thank goodness we’re light packers. The first unwelcome pedestrian surprise was that street lights are timed for bicycles, which meant we ended up with a long wait at every intersection.

On Monday I walked to the hospital. At that point, the absence of traffic WAS a surprise. Even in the middle of rush hour, the sound of the city was something close to… silence. I saw a car maybe once every few minutes, except on the busiest streets. Even then they were hugely outnumbered by bicycles. In San Francisco we live on the university campus, right on top of the hospital, and when we moved in getting used to the noise was challenging. All night long there are ambulances, all day long there is shuttle bus and Muni traffic, plus the usual garbage trucks, delivery trucks and the every day collection of people driving to work. Virtually everyone drives to the hospital–we drove there when I was in labor. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. But in Copenhagen there were basically no cars on the roads. The hospital parking lot had space for about 12 of them. And what I heard walking there was all the sounds of a city that are normally drowned out by the roar of engines. Sure, there were bicycles, bicycles, bicycles, but they are so quiet that we spent our first few days nearly jumping out of our skins when cyclists appeared out of nowhere, not really, but that’s how it seemed. We weren’t listening for the low whirr of wheels on the pavement. Now that I know to listen for the sounds of the city, I hear them in San Francisco, when traffic dies down or on quiet streets: people talking, the clink of glasses in cafes, the sounds of deliveries coming in at the door. Sounds like these make the city scale down, suddenly, to human level. Without the sounds of cars, a busy pedestrian street in San Francisco is like rural Main Street, but with much better food and more diversity.

So: the hum of the city. Our kids immediately took to the bicycles and tricycles strewn around the apartment courtyard; there was even a mini-box bike. We rented bicycles, and it’s a measure of how different cycling is in Copenhagen that renting bikes with child seats is no big deal, although it takes an extra day to install them. We got on the bikes and suddenly felt like we were a part of the city; everything was accessible. We went to the National Museum, the canals, and the center of the city. We biked out to see the Little Mermaid statue. Our kids nearly spent every minute of the rides screaming “whee!” and pounding on our backs or hugging us, at least until they fell asleep. And we could talk to them the whole time because our bicycles whizzed along at a low hum. We thought that a short stay in Copenhagen wouldn’t change our lives but it did. While we were there, we fell in love with the hum of the city, a sound we’d never really heard before. And we fell in love with bicycles.

4 Comments

Filed under Copenhagen, family biking, traffic

A San Francisco problem: hills

When we rented our bikes in Copenhagen, the agent could not have been more enthusiastic. He was delighted to add child seats to our rental bikes and told us about commuting with his own kids.

“Everyone should bike! Biking is wonderful! Where are you from?” he gushed.

“San Francisco.”

“I would never bike in San Francisco!”

Yes, our Copenhagen bike shop guy feared the hills of San Francisco, the 2nd hilliest city in the world, not to mention the wind. Looking at his box bike (used to ferry two kids each morning, a Christiania), this was no surprise. I have seen Dutch-style box bikes in San Francisco on occasion, predictably only on the flatter streets, but even so their riders looked miserable. Even the standard Copenhagen rental bikes, hulking black steel beasts with no gears, noticeably heavier with the addition of a child seat, let alone an actual child, wallowed like hippos on the laughably gentle slopes of the neighborhood park.

Good luck renting an adult helmet in Copenhagen

The kids, traveling effortlessly courtesy of their Bobike Maxis, were oblivious. As far as they were concerned, we had been holding out on them for years. They had always gotten sick in cars and they were tired of walking. They screamed with glee everywhere we went and hugged us from behind. Before this trip, the prospect of riding bikes with the kids seemed wildly impractical. When I thought of biking in San Francisco, I thought of hipsters on fixies yelling, “BREEDER!” as they whizzed past us on Critical Mass rides. Sure, we’d lived in cities for years, and we weren’t excited about driving, and particularly not about traffic and parking, but we were pedestrians.  But our kids killed our habit of long walks; once our son grew out of the stroller, it often seemed unlikely that we’d ever leave the house again.

But we had once been bike commuters, back in college. We were terrible bike commuters, of course, riding bikes we’d gotten in childhood without helmets or lights. That wasn’t going to fly as safety-conscious parents. But spurred by our kids’ enthusiasm, we were willing to change. Matt’s experience riding the N-Judah downtown every workday had already made him desperate to try biking.

(One of the many haiku honoring the N, courtesy of Muni Haiku:

Man smells of urine
Please don’t sit next to me guy
He always sits there.)

However SF hills are intimidating even without 30-75 pounds of kid cargo. Our attempts to find bikes that would let us haul our kids up those hills were initially pretty daunting. Family biking in the US is a total ghetto, and the response from most parents seems be either to make it solely a recreational activity or import a monster box bike from Europe. We had no interest in recreational biking, commuting without the kids would break their hearts, and it was pretty obvious that the 60 pound bikes we didn’t enjoy dragging up Copenhagen’s basically nonexistent hills wouldn’t serve on San Francisco’s seriously intense hills. In this situation, as in so many others, I assumed that the internet would save us. This was only partly true.

2 Comments

Filed under Copenhagen, family biking, San Francisco

Hajime

In the summer of 2011, we took the kids to Copenhagen. We rented bikes to get around. Everyone was doing it.

In less than an hour our kids decided they never wanted to travel any other way.

We came back to San Francisco and bought bikes.

3 Comments

Filed under Copenhagen, family biking