Category Archives: San Francisco

Disaster Relief Trials this Sunday in San Francisco

The start of the Portland Disaster Relief Trials

The start of the Portland Disaster Relief Trials

This summer in Portland, we attended the combination Disaster Relief Trials (DRT) and Fiets of Parenthood. Both have always seemed to be more or less a Portland kind of thing in hypotheticals, although they turn out to be an everywhere kind of thing in actual natural disasters, like say, Hurricane Sandy. Something happens, and suddenly people can only get around on bikes.

In the meantime, why not practice? So for the last three years Portland (among other cities, but isn’t it always Portland?) has been running practice rounds, where people on cargo bikes (and in one case, a skateboard pulling a trailer) run around the city picking up water and supplies and hauling their bikes over obstacles. In the Portland 2014 DRT there was even an electric-assist class, and a “Replenish” class for families like us, who are not into extreme sports kinds of challenges and who are always dragging small humans around. San Francisco has reorganized this into slightly different classes, but they also have a family-friendly bent, with open, open team, citizen (read: family), citizen team, and e-assist classes. I like the team concept a lot.

I’m a bit late to be announcing this party—sorry, it’s been busy—but it’s definitely an event worth checking out if you are cargo bike-curious or already a fan.

Here’s the press release from Xtracycle, and a link to the event itself.

“Xtracycle is proud to be the presenting Sponsor for the 1st annual SF Disaster Relief Trials – 25 years and 2 days after the legendary Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.

This event is designed to simulate a ‘critical supplies run’ 4 days into a disaster – cargo bikes being the tool to help procure food, water, medicine and supplies for our families, friends and neighbors in need.

On October 19 at 11am, come to the Presidio (Main Post Lawn, Montgomery Street) to see what a cargo bike can do.  We will be commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake by displaying a fresh approach to citizen-led disaster relief.  Cargo bikes have the greatest power to affect relief in dense urban environments like San Francisco.

DRT SF is being organized by Scott Perkins, the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) leader for the Presidio Neighborhood.  Scott is a dyed-in-the-wool family cargo biker who is excited to show off cargo bikes to emergency managers and neighbors alike.

San Francisco’s NERT program was developed as a reaction to the 1989 LomaPrieta earthquake: a program to empower citizens to address local disaster recovery needs when first responders are fully absorbed by severe emergencies.  There are other fire department-facilitated citizen response teams throughout the country: elswhere known as NET or CERT or similar.  As the DRT movement is focused on promoting neighbor-to-neighbor assistance, these citizen-involvement programs might be one of the best in-roads for making cargo bikes a conventional response tool.  A DRT competiton will highlight the possibilities.”

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Filed under advocacy, events, Portland, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Two years on the Bullitt: still the awesomest

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

Our two-year anniversary of Bullitt-ownership was yesterday. I had ambitions to write a post last year about our first year of riding, but then Totcycle did it for me. I basically agree with everything he wrote, so why bother saying the same stuff over again? “The TL;DR version is that this is the finest automobile replacement bike setup in the whole wide world (for families and cities like mine), and a joy to ride for all involved.” I mean, that pretty much covers it. I have no way of assessing how far we’ve ridden on the bike (see below), but based on the mileage on our less-ridden bikes I would be shocked if it were anything less than 4,000 miles, and unsurprised if it were far more than that.

This setup never gets old, evidently.

This setup never gets old.

The specs on our bike ended up much like those of the Totcycle bike (but ours is blue): SLX 3×9, hydraulic disc brakes, standard LvH panels and seat. This is a lightweight and narrow setup that can go pretty much anywhere that a normal bike can go, which has a lot of value in a city of tight spaces. And although our climate is not rainy like Seattle’s, the rain cover is what sold our kids on the bike. It is a year-round greenhouse that protects them from cold and wind—this is San Francisco, so there’s not really that much cold, but there is definitely a lot of wind. One difference is that we added Supernova dynamo lights: to say we have zero regrets would be a massive understatement. That headlight is bright enough to effectively light a dark road in Golden Gate Park for the Bullitt and both kids’ bikes in front of it. We never worry about riding at night.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

I heard from someone a while back that he got the impression that the Bullitt was unreliable. This is so far from the truth that I laughed, but I suspect it is the hazard of occasional blogging—our life wanders on, and is punctuated by posts in which Something Happens. We did have a few hitches in the beginning, which related to stuff we stuck on the bike. Some of our accessory choices worked out well (the BionX assist, dynamo lights) and some did not (Patterson cranks). But the bike itself: bombproof. We love this bike. It changed our lives.

To get it out of the way, I’ll cover the things that went wrong first. They’re in three categories: (1) the Patterson cranks; (2) BionX; and (3) vandalism.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards. Lots of cars mean lots of damage.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards.

First, the Patterson: When I got the bike, I really wanted a chain guard to protect my work pants. These are tough to include on a bike that has multiple front chain rings. Instead, Splendid suggested trying out the FSA Metropolis Patterson two-speed internally geared crankset. For the time that it worked, this was an awesome addition. We loved it. Unfortunately it is not compatible with the conditions here. We broke it twice riding on crappy streets, in the “speed bump with a deep crack in the asphalt on the other side” scenario that is pretty much a daily experience for us. We know to slow down for these on our regular routes, but on unfamiliar streets it was easy to hit a surprise divot at speed while loaded down with 100 pounds of cargo. The Patterson crankset just couldn’t take that kind of abuse. After the second breakdown and time-consuming repair, we swapped it out for a standard front triple, which cheerfully swallows whatever San Francisco can throw at it.

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

In the meantime, I learned to embrace a more San Francisco style of dress anyway, most importantly the ubiquitous look of skinny pants paired with dressy shoes. I grew up in Seattle, where “cute shoes” meant Birkenstocks, Merrells, Doc Martens or something chunky with thick straps from the Keen oeuvre, the kinds of shoes that make San Franciscans wince and scream, “My eyes!” So this shift involved a learning curve for me. But I can testify that it is an extremely bicycle-friendly way to dress. (I doubt this is a coincidence.) Happily we put MKS Grip King pedals on the Bullitt, still my favorite pedals ever, and they make it easy to ride in even the most ridiculous shoes. (I’ve heard reports that the Grip Kings sometimes get slippery in the rain, but here in California, which is still being ravaged by the worst drought in state history, that hasn’t been a question I can answer one way or the other.)

Second, the BionX: Our maintenance issues with the BionX have involved the good, the bad, and the stupid.

The stupid is that over a six-month period Matt dropped two controllers and shattered them, which is why we have no idea how many miles we’ve ridden this bike. The controllers are not a cheap part to replace. The bike shop glued the third one into place on the handlebars, so it couldn’t be removed, and since then: problem solved. I recommend this strategy to the butter-fingered BionX users among us.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

The bad is that in the first year we owned the bike, we broke a dozen spokes on the rear wheel. Twice. I really wish BionX had indicated that on a cargo bike or in seriously hilly terrain, the rear wheel is going to need much thicker spokes. We only found this out after the second set of spokes broke, after complaining about it to The New Wheel. They knew immediately what our problem was, which is the advantage of having an e-assist focused local shop around. So on round 3, we replaced the spokes with monster ones, and again: problem solved. Not expensive, but definitely annoying. I have heard other people report the same problem. Probably best to ask for extra-thick spokes from the start.

The good is that we are evidently the luckiest family in family biking, because last week, the Bullitt’s battery died. It ran out of juice and stopped recognizing the charger. And at that point we had one week left on our original two-year warranty. We took it to The New Wheel, which told us that BionX would honor the warranty and almost certainly send us a brand-new battery. Score! In the meantime the shop gave us a loaner battery to use. So we ride on.

An early ride with many more to come

An early ride with many more to come

Last is the vandalism. While this is a hassle, it’s not specific to the Bullitt, and I guess it beats having a bike stolen outright, which is what happened with the MinUte. Once the saddle was stolen in Japantown. It made getting the bike home a total PITA. When Matt took our son to a Giants game, rowdy fans broke a support on the rain cover, which led to a week of relentless griping by the kids while we waited for a replacement. And then there is the problem of drivers treating the front bucket like a garbage can. One woman actually threw a coffee cup into it from her parked car as Matt was riding by. These days we keep the rain cover on almost all the time.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger where we live since we bought our bike.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger since we bought our bike.

And those are the problems we’ve had. They sum up to one bad decision on a crankset, one instance of poor communication from BionX about spokes, and two dropped controllers (sigh). Given that we were coming to full-time cargo biking cold, in terrain that is much more challenging than was typical for family biking at the time we started riding, I figure we’re doing reasonably well. Sure, it would have been great to have had more information about the spokes and so on, but in the meantime we’ve had two good years of riding. The rest of the time the Bullitt has spent in the shop has been basic maintenance: we replaced the chain this summer, and we take it in every six months or so to have the wires checked and the BionX software updated. Most recently, we had the speed at which the BionX kicks in lowered to 0.5kph from its original 2mph. That resolved one of our biggest complaints with the assist, which was difficult hill starts. They are no longer difficult.

The Bullitt+Roland

The Bullitt+Roland

We worried that the narrow box would be too narrow, but it lasted longer than we dared to hope. Of course our kids have gotten bigger, and now that they are almost-9 and 5, it is tough to squeeze them both in the box (although they are willing). We now use the trailer-bike almost all the time. Our daughter is still getting used to the pre-8am kindergarten start-time, so she will doze in the box on the way to school while our son rides the trailer-bike or his own bike, depending on his mood and what time we got out the door in the morning (he is not a fast rider). Having just one kid in the box has given us some new cargo capacity, and that’s been fun. We won’t haul them to school on the Bullitt forever, but for now it’s still a good kid-hauler.

So many ways to use a cargo bike

So many ways to use a cargo bike

I still adore shopping by Bullitt. We’ve rented cars with trunks that are smaller than that front bucket. We just throw stuff in (groceries, carpets that need to be cleaned, the cat carrier, the table tennis set—with both kids too) and go. I have carried three kids on the Bullitt and Matt has carried four, and that was without the trailer. Granted, I would not do this on steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that a BionX Bullitt will not handle, at least not yet. We hear that the new BionX D system will change that, and given how much use we still expect to get from the Bullitt, we will almost certainly upgrade to that system when it is released. In the meantime, even our two-year old system gets us where we need to go.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

We feared that getting rid of our car would involve sacrifices. We were surprised that it has not, really. We still rent cars for weekend trips sometimes, but we’re always relieved to drop them off again. I didn’t think our monthly transportation expenses were unreasonable three years ago, but they dropped substantially when we sold the car, and that helped us buy our condo last year. I assumed that bike commuting would take extra time, but we have been surprised again and again at how much time we save. With the assist on high I can cross town to pick up a sick kid faster than I have ever been able to drive, because I don’t have to worry about traffic. Although my injury last year messed with my fitness, in general over the last few years we’ve been in good shape, a big switch from the first couple of years of parenthood. And I was pleasantly surprised that once you learn to ride the Bullitt—I had issues with the learning to ride it part—it stays with you forever. I got back on it after four months bed-bound and it was like I had never stopped. Furthermore, to this day, the Bullitt remains the only box-bike I have ever ridden that I can refer to as “nimble” (and keep a straight face).

And a big shout-out still to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids' play area at their new shop!)

A big shout-out goes to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which first had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids’ play area at their new shop!)

We owe it all to the Bullitt. What can I say? It even made us homeowners in San Francisco. It was the right family bike. We bought it at a time when there wasn’t much advice about buying bikes like these to be found. It was Splendid Cycles in Portland that imagined Bullitts could be a real family bike in the United States, and we were lucky to find them and right to trust them. We were making our decision blind, and we hit the jackpot. I recognize a Bullitt isn’t right for everyone—some people are too short, some places are flat enough that the bakfiets is a better fit, and it costs a mint—but we have zero regrets. I know that our kids will age out of being carried on the Bullitt, and being pulled by it, but it’s hard to imagine our outgrowing this bike. There is always something more to haul.

 

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

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

A new bike in our fleet

It's also been a Muni-rific couple of weeks. Kids love trains.

It’s also been a Muni-rific couple of weeks. Kids love trains.

Summer is winding up, and it’s been fun. We’re having too much fun for me to write regular blog posts, anyway. I missed taking any vacation last summer, so this summer I’ve gobbled up three weeks in a row. We have been to Portland to Fiets of Parenthood, to Oakland for PedalFest, and to a different museum every day that we’ve been in San Francisco. On Saturday we are heading out of range of all electronics, except an archaic pay phone, to spend a week at San Francisco’s Camp Mather.

In honor of this upcoming trip, we finally bought our daughter a pedal bike. Kids at Camp Mather ride their bikes everywhere. She’s been old enough to ride on her own for a while, but I was frustrated by the difficulty of finding a 14” or 16” kid bike without coaster brakes. Coaster brakes delayed our son’s ability to stop on his own for months (Hand or feet? Hand or feet?) And I have heard enough horror stories about kids’ feet being caught in the cranks to last me a lifetime. She was getting big for the balance bike but we held out because we didn’t want her to hate riding. Our son, back in the day, tried to retreat back to the Hotwalk several times in frustration. He only really settled into riding on his own when we finally upgraded him from the Laser.

Check out those handlebars: front and rear brake! She can stop while eating a cupcake.

Check out those handlebars: front and rear brake! She can stop while eating a cupcake.

We finally found the right bike. Her new 16” bike has both a front and rear brake, but no coaster brakes, and it weighs 15 pounds. Our daughter got on it for the first time two weeks ago Friday and mastered riding it, as well as stopping on a dime, in less than 15 minutes. But she still couldn’t start on her own. So the next day we took her to Golden Gate Park for an hour, and she picked up the bike and rode on her own all the way back home. Sometimes she spins the pedals backwards for a bit starting up but it doesn’t stop her, obviously. Both kids have been tearing up the sidewalks around the neighborhood ever since. Last weekend she learned to ride moderate hills, feathering the brakes gently on the way down. Matt and I keep high-fiving each other for holding out for a bike without coaster brakes. I’ve been so busy following the kids around that I’ve barely had the chance to get on my own bike (adults are not allowed to ride on the sidewalk in San Francisco). The balance bike is dead to her.

I’ve focused mostly on cargo bikes but it’s probably time to write about the kids’ bikes as well. After we get back from Camp Mather, that is.

 

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Filed under family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco

We tried it: Urban Arrow

As promised, the lede in 6 words:

Like Bakfietsen? You’ll love Urban Arrows.

Check it out: Redwood City has Urban Arrows and sunshine, too.

Check it out: Redwood City has Urban Arrows and sunshine, too.

I have had a couple of recent conversations with cool bike people recently that brought up something that has been in the back of my mind for a while. My feeling is that the family biking market is still pretty nascent and as a result there are mostly two kinds of bikes out there.

On the one hand you have the macho bikes. The view of family biking by companies that make these bikes ranges from, at best, detached bemusement (e.g. Larry v. Harry, which developed some basic kid accessories like a child seat and rain cover, but has never seen any need to mention them on its website or anything), to disinterest (Kona—“oh, you can carry kids on a bike?”—and Brompton, which as a company seems unaware of the aftermarket Pere child seat), to outright hostility (e.g. Surly and its new kid-unfriendly Big Dummy deck, Trek and its no-kids-allowed Transport). But to their credit, these companies put a lot of effort into (relative) nimbleness. In the universe of cargo bikes, these bikes are lighter, have better parts, are fitted with gears that can handle hills, and are safer and easier to ride in challenging conditions, by which I mean any conditions other than a flat street on a sunny day. (Okay, I exaggerate. But still.) And these bikes can go fast. Relatively speaking.

On the other hand you have the land yachts. These bikes are definitely family-friendly. They offer awesome kid-carrying capacity (even for large families), provide multiple ways to haul stuff/other bicycles as well as kids, and often have user-friendly accessories like integrated lights, step-over frames, upright seat positions, rear wheel locks and internal hubs. On the other hand, they typically weigh a ton and have a limited gear range and weak stock brakes, making them a challenge to ride on anything but the mildest of hills. And they are slow, even in the let’s-face-it-cargo-bikes-are-tanks class. I include in this category Madsens, Bakfietsen, Yuba Mundos, and every tricycle and unassisted mamachari I have ever seen or ridden.

The cargo bike market reminds me a bit of the car market in the 1960s. You could buy a station wagon (so practical! so massive! so slow!) or you could buy a “sporty” car, and hope for the best as you stuck your kids in a homespun “car seat” or harnessed them to long straps above the rear seat that offered a non-trivial strangulation risk. My mom hauled us around in a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair for years in those harnesses, because my parents believed in buying older used cars and keeping them until they literally fell to pieces decades later.

There are exceptions, and I have ridden some. On the longtail side, Xtracycle’s EdgeRunner is both family-friendly and nimble. On the box bike side, Metrofiets customizes almost all the bikes they make, so they can be tailored to weird cargo and/or families large and small, plus they start out as more-than-decent hill climbers and can be turned into awesome ones.

And there is the Urban Arrow. Thanks to an integrated electric assist, Urban Arrow turns a bike that is completely land yacht in character into something with many of the capabilities of a macho bike.

Two big kids on a very generously-sized bench seat

Two big kids on a very generously-sized bench seat

The Urban Arrow is a hard bike to find, let alone to test-ride, and the only people we know who have one bought sight unseen. Fortunately for us, Motostrano in Redwood City imports them, and will allow test rides whenever it gets orders in, if you get on the wait list. Motostrano is an interesting shop. From the outside it’s all posters of scantily-clad women draped over motor scooters, which definitely gave me pause. On the inside it offers a huge selection of assisted and unassisted commuter bikes (plus other kinds of bikes that I don’t care about, FYI). And they had boxes and boxes of bike stickers that they handed over to my kids. Pasting those stickers all over their clothes and helmets completely obsessed both kids while we learned about the Urban Arrow, and made them happier than anything else they did all weekend. We were glad that we made the trip down, which was, frankly, a not-inconsiderable hassle.

What I like about the Urban Arrow

  • First, the Urban Arrow is a box bike. Not everyone loves a front-loading box bike, but I do. It’s easier to talk to the kids, it’s simple to protect them from bad weather, and the kid seating is elegant. It’s also much easier to walk front loaders than longtails because the weight is near the leverage of your arms. There is a reason that people think of—in the words of one family friend—“those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” when they think of family biking.
  • Footrest visible on the upper right, deck with drain holes, padded seat

    Foot cut-out visible on the upper right, deck with drain holes, padded seat

    The Urban Arrow’s child-hauling and commuting setup is unbelievably swank. The box is made of styrofoam [update: it's not styrofoam, it's expanded polypropylene, which is evidently better--see comment below] and forms a sort of roll cage in the event that you drop the bike. The manufacturer cut out step-holes in the front to make it easy for kids to climb into the bike, and the thick styrofoam serves as an arm rest on both sides. The bench seat, which had plenty of butt-room for my 8-year-old and 5-year old, is padded (there is an optional second bench seat if you have more kids than I do). The center stand has the same rock-solid design as the best-in-class bakfiets. The bottom plate has multiple holes for drainage. It has integrated front and rear lights and the wires run through the frame so they can’t be dislodged. The chain is enclosed, so you could easily ride this bike without incident while wearing palazzo pants. For that matter you could ride it in a maxi-skirt, because it also has a step-through frame. The battery sits unobtrusively under the bench seat. It comes with fenders and an Abus rear wheel lock. It shifts seamlessly using a Nuvinci n360 internal hub. Although the Urban Arrow normally comes with roller brakes, Motostrano automatically upgrades them to disc brakes. The bike we rode did not have a rear rack, but they are available.

  • This bike looks so classy. I felt like I should have dressed up to ride it. To me, a Bakfiets, with its wooden box, looks practical, but not exactly stylish, while our Bullitt looks fast and sleek. But the Urban Arrow looks… polished, to the extent you can say that about any cargo bike.
  • Considering all the features packed into it, the Urban Arrow feels shockingly light. I expect big bikes to be heavy bikes, and realistically, it is in fact a heavy bike, tipping the scales at 99lbs/45kg. However people who ride Bakfietsen tell me their bikes as weigh about that much, and that’s without an electric assist. Both the aluminum frame and the styrofoam box are shaving a lot of heft from this bike, and with cargo bikes that’s all to the good, especially given that most people are going to throw at least twice the weight of the bike itself in the box, and then push it around.
  • The Bosch motor--note that while there's an occasional visibly wire, most of the wiring is run through the frame.

    The Bosch motor–note that while there’s an occasional visibly wire, most of the wiring is run through the frame.

    The Bosch electric assist is a fully-integrated mid-drive. It is also fully enclosed, so there are fewer worries about loose wiring, and it’s designed to work with the bike’s gearing. Mid-drive assists are powerful, although not silent. As usual with this kind of assist, I noticed a slight clanking as the chain ran through the motor, but it wasn’t offensive. The Bosch is a pedal-assist in the legal sense; turn it on and the bike just sits there, but as soon as you turn the pedals, the assist is immediately there. It won’t start without you making a (mild) effort. The controller offers three speeds, and the feeling of the assist ranges from “slight tailwind” at the lowest setting to “strong tailwind” at the highest.

  • Not everyone loves this, but it has a super-upright posture, for a great view of traffic. And it’s virtually impossible to slouch. My mom would always hassle me when I was growing up to “sit up straight!” My mom wants you to ride this bike.
  • At $5400, this is a competitively-priced assisted box bike, although I certainly would not call it cheap. An unassisted Bakfiets is now running about $3750. An assisted EdgeRunner longtail, comparably accessorized for hauling kids, would run $4700 in San Francisco. That price difference is not trivial, but it’s not outrageous either.

What I don’t like about the Urban Arrow

  • The Urban Arrow is a really big bike. Matt and I both rode it, and we realized quickly that it would not be a practical commuting bike for us in San Francisco. Matt was vehement that he would never even consider riding it on Market Street, which has a semi-random bike lane layout and many, many people competing for space in it. It would be more of a ride-in-the-park bike for us. And it is big in both dimensions—width and length. Size was a deal-killer for us when we test-rode a Metrofiets as well, and it’s a large part of the reason we’ve been hauling 2 kids (and sometimes squeezing in more) by Bullitt for almost two years—the Bullitt is narrow. If we lived in a smaller city, or a place with wider streets, or rode different kinds of routes, we’d have no problem with an Urban Arrow.
  • On a related note, turning and parking the bike is a production. It is possible to make a big bike with a (relatively) tight turning radius. This is not that kind of big bike. It is probably impossible to make a front-loading box bike that is easy to park at a standard bike rack. We bought a front loader anyway, because the advantages outweighed the disadvantages from our perspective, but it can be frustrating. However if you live in a less theft-prone municipality that we do, you could just park it without using a rack by relying solely on the rear wheel lock.
  • All front loading box bikes are tricky to learn to ride, because of the linkage steering. We don’t have many issues with that after riding ours for a couple of years, but on a new-to-us model, we’ll still always wobble off the start. It seems safe to assume that it would be worse for someone who had never ridden this kind of bike before. The Urban Arrow has one advantage in this class, however, and that is that the box blocks the view of the front wheel (watching the front wheel is bad, it will confuse you and make you dump the bike).
  • I have no idea why that controller is sitting in the middle of the handlebars. Awkward.

    I have no idea why that controller is sitting in the middle of the handlebars. Awkward.

    I found the handlebar layout very odd and somewhat frustrating. The brake levers required a big stretch to reach and pull. I have large hands and long fingers—my ability to span a ninth is part of what made me a competent pianist and organ player in my youth—and so this is nothing I have ever experienced before. These parts could be swapped for smaller ones, but given that this is a bike marketed to both women and men, and women typically have smaller hands, I found it bizarre. In addition, the controller for the assist is located in the middle of the handlebars, instead of near one hand, so to turn it on or change the level of assist, we had to take one hand off and reach over. That’s annoying and it also feels like a safety risk. Even if the controller were moved closer to one hand [see comment below; this can be done], its design is such that it would be difficult to operate by thumb.

  • This is Matt, grimacing at Dutch geometry.

    This is Matt, grimacing at Dutch geometry.

    The Urban Arrow has what those in the bike business would call Dutch geometry, which basically means that you’re riding the bike in roughly the same position that you would be in while sitting in an office chair. I am comfortable riding this kind of setup but it is not something that Matt likes, and we share all the bikes, and so we must compromise.

  • Caveat: San Francisco-specific concern. Motostrano told us that the assist would not be able to handle San Francisco’s steepest hills, even unloaded, but could not specify what kinds of grades it could climb. We had hoped to figure it out by simply riding up some hills ourselves, but unfortunately for us, Redwood City is as flat as Kansas. Furthermore, the Dutch geometry makes it impossible to bear down and crank up a hill on your own power. That’s because your chest will whack the handlebars—which is what happened when I tried to go uphill while test riding a Bakfiets. Hauling up hills on your own power is supposed to be a non-issue, because the bike has an assist, except that we were told that the assist might not be sufficient where we ride. And then it would be an issue.
  • Speaking of hills, I found the brakes slow to respond. I assumed that it was just that particular bike and suggested to Motostrano that they tighten the brakes, but they said that they’d noticed it on all of the bikes they had built. They believed that it would settle after the bike had been ridden for a while. I would love to hear confirmation of that from someone who’s actually experienced it.
  • The Urban Arrow would be almost impossible to get up to higher speeds. For quite a while this is something that I didn’t care about at all. However as time passed and we became more confident on cargo bikes, the appeal of one that can rocket along (relatively speaking) on occasion grew. It is useful when, say, the kids lock themselves in the bathroom and we end up leaving 10 minutes later than planned. The assist is not designed for speed either, but rather for steady help in the background. A BionX, in contrast, will match your effort, so you can use it to start fast and build up speed quickly. (This is fun, although BionX systems have their downsides.) Some bikes are just always going to be on the slower end—that’s just how they’re made—and the Urban Arrow is one of them. If you’re not compulsive about getting places early, this may not rank as high on your list of concerns as it does on mine.
  • Last but not least, this bike is ridiculously elusive . There are only a few shops in the country importing them, and there is a lot of unmet demand, so getting an Urban Arrow almost always involves a deposit and a wait list. We have only seen two riding around San Francisco (which is one more than anyone I know in any other city has seen—except, I presume, Portland), and at least one of those was shipped from New York. Motostrano said they were able to get all the bikes they had ordered so far in a time period between 1-3 months, which is a big improvement over the waits I heard about last year, but is still non-trivial. And if you want to do a test-ride first, count on doubling that wait because whatever bike you test-ride will be a bike that’s already been sold.
See, a foothole--there are so many nice details like that on this bike.

See, a foothole–there are so many nice details like that on this bike.

So the Urban Arrow: not the right bike for us, but definitely a cool bike. It reminded both me and Matt of the Bakfiets, but upgraded. It was like a Bakfiets that had gone on a makeover show: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.

I find that people tend to have a sense of what they want in a bike, even if they can’t always articulate it. There are macho bike people and land yacht people. If you are the former, this isn’t the right bike for you (and you know that already). If you are the latter—assuming that you don’t live on Twin Peaks—it’s probably the most perfect cargo bike ever made.

 

 

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco

A series of family biking events, 2014 edition

There is a lot to do if you are interested in family biking, mostly in San Francisco but also beyond. Here’s everything I know about this summer so far in date order—and don’t miss the good stuff at the end.

July 13th (11am-4pm): Richmond Sunday Streets

We went to Richmond Sunday Streets last year—this was a great event for kids to ride their own bikes because it was car-free all the way from Golden Gate Park to Clement Street. We had no worries about cross-traffic for miles.

July 19th (11am-5pm): Fiets of Parenthood and the Disaster Relief Trials, Portland, Oregon

We are finally going to make it to Fiets of Parenthood, which will be held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on July 19th. Come to compete or to test out cool cargo bikes—Splendid Cycles claims they’ll have a Bullitt with the new extra-torquey BionX D system to try. There is also a new class in the Disaster Relief Trials, the non-competitive Replenish division, as well as the competitive classes competing for time (we are so not doing that). To participate in Replenish you have to haul a non-pedaling passenger (no tandems). Our California contingent will be easy to spot, as we’ll all be on child seat-equipped Bromptons. Go Grizzlies.

August 24th (11am-4pm): Mission Sunday Streets

Our first Mission Sunday Streets in 2012

Our first Mission Sunday Streets in 2012

Mission Sunday Streets is the first we ever attended and it’s always the most crowded, but it’s no less awesome for that. We usually hightail it to Dynamo Donuts first thing in the morning, then turn around and return at a more measured pace. Our bikes are easy to spot if you’re looking for us.

September 2nd (10am-11am): How would you make buying and using a cargo bike easier? A conversation with Vie Bikes at Koret Playground in Golden Gate Park (look for the sign near the Carousel)

Vie Bikes is a new company formed by three San Francisco cargo biking parents intent on making it easy as pie to find, buy and use the best cargo bikes on the market. Among other things, Vie will offer month-to-month leasing, and built-in quarterly service that comes to you. Vie is planning to launch in San Francisco in the coming months, and expand in to new cities thereafter. Stop by Koret Playground to talk with Vie’s founders, including long-time Hum of the City reader Kit Hodge. Vie is looking for feedback from both people who have cargo bikes and people looking for them regarding key aspects of our service.If you went through the process of shopping for a cargo bike again, what would you change?If you’re in the process now, what are you finding challenging? Be part of shaping a company that will transform cargo bike use across North America. RSVP to info@viebikes.com. Can’t make it but want to weigh in? E-mail info@viebikes.com with your thoughts. We’ve known Kit for a long time and were very excited about the idea of a cargo bike leasing company, which is both totally novel and totally cool. I hear there will be sample bikes to check out as well.

September 14th (11am-4pm): Western Addition Sunday Streets

Western Addition Sunday Streets 2013

Western Addition Sunday Streets 2013

Western Addition Sunday Streets is one of my favorites because a large section of it goes through neighborhoods rather than a major commercial strip. It’s also much less crowded because the route hauls people up over Alamo Square, so beware. We usually start at Chili Pies and Ice Cream and wander over toward Japantown.

The final two events are only relevant for Rosa Parks families, but if you are such a family (or you’d like to be eventually), please feel free to join our community even before school starts.

July 12th and August 16th (11am-1pm): Rosa Parks Incoming Kindergarten class family potlucks

Family bikes round up in the lower courtyard. Incoming kindergarteners can meet and play with each other and their future teachers. These are fun events—at the August potluck, classroom assignments should be out as well. We may miss the August potluck because of our Camp Mather trip, but we’re going to try to make it to both. Hope to see you there.

Happy riding this summer.

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Filed under Brompton, destinations, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Xtracycle