Category Archives: travel

A city without cars

vapstop

Waiting for the vaporetto

Over spring break we went to Europe. This was a long-delayed trip, in honor of our son’s request, years ago, to visit a city without cars. There are parts of multiple cities that are car-free, and we have visited some of these (including, on this trip, in Bordeaux and Paris), and there are a few car-free places that are more bucolic (like Mackinac Island in Michigan) but there is only really one city that has (virtually) no cars, and that city is Venice.

Venice is both an easy and a hard city to love. The easy part to love is the beauty and the incredible sense of safety and comfort that comes from being someplace that is truly car-free.

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Our kids acclimated almost immediately and after a week, it was an unpleasant shock to step off the water taxi to walk to Marco Polo airport and discover a crosswalk. They were not prepared for passing cars despite our warnings and tried to run across as they would have in Venice proper. Less appealing is that Venice has been loved almost to death. Venice hosts more tourists than it has permanent residents every day of the year, and it is packed with people, all of whom seem to be hauling wheeled suitcases (which are, incidentally, almost totally useless in a city that uses bridges with stairs to allow people cross canals every few meters). What’s more, the city is riddled with tourist traps and it can be a challenge to find services that normal people use, like grocery stores, laundromats, and pharmacies. Also, unlike in the rest of Italy, we ate some of the worst meals of our lives in Venice. We are as guilty of doing touristy things as the next family, of course: we took our first gondola ride while we were there, and it was awesome. I do not dismiss all things touristy out of hand.

This is a Venetian handtruck: pull it up the stairs and the load stays steady, then flip it around and bounce it down.

This is a Venetian handtruck: pull it up the stairs and the load stays steady, then flip it around and bounce it down.

I have become kind of obsessed with transportation over the last few years, so I was fascinated by how Venice worked. I took pictures of garbage boats and ambulance boats, and checked all the squares for the water cisterns, which historically were filled by filtered rainwater. You can still see the cache drains, although the cisterns have all been capped off and water is now piped. On the way out, though, sewage still drains right out into the canals, yeeargh. I digress. Goods and people in Venice move primarily by boat. For deliveries, one boat worker ties up the boat at the nearest dock to the destination, and the other grabs a hand truck to make deliveries. The hand trucks have two large wheels and two small wheels, so they can be dragged up steps on one side of each crossing bridge, and bounced back down on the other side, without tipping. I found the whole process fascinating to watch. Sometimes they cut out the middleman: we spotted more than one boat that served as a floating market.

Cement trucks on a barge! Words fail me.

Cement trucks on a barge! Words fail me.

The inability of Venice to handle any auto traffic whatsoever becomes surreal at times. We watched a barge pull up to a construction site carrying two cement trucks, which proceeded to mix and pour cement while tied up to the edge of the canal. It is patently ridiculous to use a truck to mix and pour cement in a car-free city, but this is pretty much the only way we have anymore to make large quantities of cement, so that’s what they did. It was moments like this that made me understand that what it really means to live in a completely car-dependent culture; I realized that certain things cannot be done any other way.

“Accessible” Venice, sometimes.

I spent a fair bit of time wondering whether the way that Venice worked could be exported to modern cities, given that is still the only car-free city in the world. And my conclusion was: sort of. One thing that makes Venice wonderful is the complete separation between different modes of transit, and this could and should be done everywhere. It is safe to walk anywhere (assuming you don’t walk right into a canal; this is Europe and governments don’t bother with safety rails) because the only motor traffic is in the water. In lieu of buses people ride the vaporetti, which honestly completely trump both buses and trains for unrelenting coolness. And unless they are on strike, they come every few minutes; it’s not like they’re going to get stuck in traffic. One thing that could never be exported is the relentless use of stairs, which makes the city totally inaccessible to the non-able bodied. The entire city is like Escher’s Relativity lithograph. There were occasional ramps, but only on the largest bridges, because most places there simply isn’t enough room for them. Riding bicycles is completely out of the question. We saw a few kids on scooters, but only those who had parents patient enough to carry them up and down the stairs every 100 steps or so. Strollers are basically nonexistent. Even so, I understand why people dream of living in Venice, despite the mostly-terrible food and the madding crowds and the near-impossibility of washing the clothes our kids threw up on during the plane ride. A car-free city is peaceful, and quiet, and beautiful. Even though the sewers dump right into the canals, the air is clean. We could let the kids run free. It was hard to leave and return to places where we always have to be alert, just to keep from being killed. After just a few hours in Venice it becomes clear that doesn’t have to be that way; we could redesign cities for people. And yet it is.

This is everywhere in Venice.

This is everywhere in Venice.

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Je suis revenue

Earlier this week we came back from a two-week trip to Europe. It had more drama than anyone had expected: for example, when we landed in Paris, our son passed out on the plane, so we ended up entering the EU through the airport urgent care center. (He is fine now.) However if you are going to have drama halfway around the world, I think it’s better to take care of it at the beginning rather than the end. Also, we got our own immigration agent so there was no waiting in line for passport control. That part was nice.

We first went to Venice, which as promised had no cars. As a city it is astonishing although it has been loved to death; it has 60,000 permanent residents and every day of the year, tourists outnumber them. Often it was hard to find what was left of the city under it all. Then we visited friends in Bordeaux, who have basically transitioned to a car-free life thanks to the city’s bike share system and its gorgeous new electric tram. While we were there I saw a Philippe Starck Pibal for the first time, which looks just as weird in real life as in photos, and charmingly has a map of Bordeaux on the deck. Another first I spotted was an assisted Nihola trike, ripping along far too fast to photograph in pancake-flat Bordeaux.

Our final stop was Paris. Paris is Paris, although it has changed dramatically since we lived there. One change we love is the Vélib’ bike share system, and the network of protected lanes being built for its riders. A change we didn’t love at all was that people have switched from riding scooters to riding motorcycles. The insane driving and relentless smoking remain the same. The exceptional food and culture are unchanged. I love Paris so much that I can forgive a lot.

Catching up has been exhausting, but we are back, and with the shift to warmer weather, bikes are out in force. Bike and Roll to School Day is coming up in a week, on April 24th. You’ll find us on the Panhandle, en route to Rosa Parks, and happy to be home again.

 

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The summer ends, the summer begins

Heading out on the first day of school, all of us on our own wheel(s)

Heading out on the first day of school, all of us on our own wheel(s)

In the middle of August, we headed up to San Francisco’s family camp in Yosemite, Camp Mather, to finish off the last week of summer before the kids started school. This year is a year of big changes, because our daughter just started kindergarten. For the first time ever, we have a single drop-off. And we have finally gotten both kids riding to school. Our daughter will be on the Roland add+bike for a while, because she has no traffic sense, but our son is on his own bike. This was a logistical challenge that took us a couple of years to solve, because he takes a bus from school to after-school and it lacks a bike rack, meaning we have to find a way to get his bike from school to after-school without him. It’s also a physical challenge, because his travel speed is approximately 3mph after a full day at school. However he’s building up stamina already.

Hanging out on the dock at Birch Lake

Hanging out on the dock at Birch Lake

But Camp Mather! Berkeley and San Jose also had family camps, but theirs burned down in the Rim Fire. Camp Mather was set up for workers building the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy, so there was water to save it. San Francisco families can enter the lottery in the spring for a weekly slot, in either a cabin or a tent site. There is no internet of any kind while you’re there, and the only connection to the outside world is an unreliable pay phone, possibly the last of its kind in California. Our stay at Camp Mather was the most disconnected we had been in years.

This is one side of the bike parking outside the dining hall.

This is one side of the bike parking outside the dining hall.

Even better from our perspective is that there is no driving at Camp Mather. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, rides bikes everywhere—to the dining hall, to the lake, to the pool, to the play fields, to the bath houses. There are no cars. The littlest kids ride piled up on rear racks and on blankets wrapped around their parents’ top tubes. The bigger kids go feral and ride off to play ping pong or develop talent show acts for hours at a time. Our daughter’s bike skills became truly extraordinary. If it weren’t for the annoyance of cars, she could ride anywhere in the city now. Her lightweight single speed was even able to overtake other kids’ geared mountain bikes on the (very minor) hills around camp.

Halfway to the lake with Brompton + Travoy and a ton of gear.

Halfway to the lake with Brompton + Travoy and a ton of gear.

I brought the Brompton and our Burley Travoy (have I mentioned that we’ve had a Travoy for a couple of years? Wonderful trailer, and yes, I should review that too). It was evidently the first Brompton anyone had ever seen at Camp Mather, but it was a great choice. Apparently I was inadvertently representing Cycle Chic roaming around camp in a sun hat, bikini and silk wrap skirt on the Brompton, as I got approving, “Looking awesome, momma!” hollas from other moms. The Travoy made it easy for me to haul our load of beach chairs, towels, lunches, and pool toys to the lake and back every day. I had the Pere chair for the rare occasions when our daughter didn’t ride her own bike, which only happened after dark, because we didn’t bring her lights.

DIY archery

DIY archery (they tie-dyed those shirts themselves)

Anyway, we had a lovely time, even though we had to drive up there. I was saddened to learn that a couple of decades ago, no one was allowed to drive at all—there was bus service to Camp Mather, and an area dedicated to families that biked in. All this is no more. I would have paid a lot to have someone drive us there in a bus. As vegetarians, we had some initial concerns about the food, which comes on a giant truck from Sysco, but we were basically fine, although we ate a lot of salad (Here is the Camp Mather menu). So we spent a great week relaxing at Camp Mather. We would do it again.

We returned to San Francisco and the start of school. But here the summer weather is just beginning, so in a way, we have a lot more summer yet to come. There is so much to tell, still.

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Around the world in 80 days

Things have been crazy, so my husband is picking up the slack for this week. (And if I’m really lucky my friend Nancy will also weigh in her recent trip to Cuba and the bikes there.) Enjoy!

Guest blogger Matt aka, the Bullitt pusher, here.  So, Dorie always asks me to take pictures of bikes whenever I travel and then sits on the photos for ages – understandably, since she wasn’t along for the journey, she doesn’t always know what to say about the images.  I thought I would pre-empt that here and inject my own narrative for once… thanks for letting me hog the mic, hon.

Grocery bag bike

Grocery bag bike

During this long, cold winter, I had the questionable pleasure of going back East several times, including a one day trip to lower Manhattan in the midst of a freezing rain and snow storm in mid-February.  One of the things you notice about bike culture in New York, especially in winter weather, is that it is predominantly a practical thing – working bikes deliver not just legal documents, but lots of ordinary goods – Chinese takeout, groceries, etc. — that people would drive to buy at stores in any less urban place with more ample parking – and where it’s not a half-hour trek through slush filled gutters to get some decent lobster chow mein.

If you ignore the thumbs up you can kind of see the t-shirt.

If you ignore the thumbs up you can kind of see the t-shirt.

While walking along, I happened upon a hipster bike shop in the Village, where I picked up T shirts for the kids and proclaimed the gospel of family biking to the bemused staff.

At the beginning of this month, I went to Australia for the first time for work, and visited three cities during a busy week – Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne – that have decidedly different infrastructure.

"Watch out for the bus on the right, dude."

“Watch out for the bus on the right, dude.”

Sydney, like New York, has an older, densely built up downtown.  While the weather was nice (April is late summer there), the bicyclists I saw clearly struggled with the narrow, one way streets and congested interchanges that are just ill-suited to bike commuting.

Note the "no pedestrians" sign (which I personally would appreciate having in the Golden Gate Park bike lanes.)

Note the “no pedestrians” sign (which I personally would appreciate having in the Golden Gate Park bike lanes.)

Only in the greenways along the central park section did I see dedicated (raised/separated) bike lanes that actually looked inviting… not unlike Central Park in New York (or the Panhandle/Golden Gate Park in SF), more of the bikers here appeared to be tourists or exercise cyclists, rather than hardcore commuters.

By contrast, Brisbane (a city of 2 million on Australia’s tropical Gold Coast) and Melbourne (a cultural hub and Sydney’s rival to the South) are both modern, planned cities, with wide, open thoroughfares,  and thriving commute bike cultures, as well as the omnipresent bike share.

The increasingly ubiquitous bike share of total awesomeness, in Melbourne

The increasingly ubiquitous bike share of total awesomeness, in Melbourne

Interestingly, both are river cities – whereas Sydney is a natural ocean harbor and commercial port.  I think this matters in terms of infrastructure, as well, as coastal waterfronts tend to box a city in – inhibiting sprawl and promoting upward urban development – whereas riverfronts create promenades, lower density development, and a longer, more linear pattern of urban/suburban connectedness that lends itself better to bicycles (here I think of our experiences in Portland, versus SF).

Matt was definitely in Sydney

Matt was definitely in Sydney

Finally, a word about non-bike culture, since I have the rare podium here on what is normally Dorie’s soap box.  As an opera buff, I was excited to take in a show outdoors at Sydney’s harbor steps on a stormy, overcast night – with the iconic opera house as backdrop.  The production of Madame Butterfly was not only dramatically and vocally compelling, but took full advantage of the setting – with real fireworks going off over the water during the wedding scene and ship borne cranes assembling the second-half set in full view of the audience during intermission… if only our real contractors could build a house that fast!  Ahem.

Anyway, it was a thrill to add a fifth continent to my resume of world travel (and great opera houses).  If I make it to Africa (or Antarctica), I promise you’ll hear about it here… but until then, this is Matt signing off.  “Dovunque al mondo, lo yankee vagabondo… “

 

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Destinations: Blue Heron Bikes

This is what you get when you go to Berkeley: wild turkeys.

This is what you get when you go to Berkeley: wild turkeys. It’s not safe crossing the Bay.

I’ve been disappointed for years now that San Francisco has no family/cargo bike shop. Things are certainly better than they were a couple of years ago, when we started looking for our 2-kid hauler, but shopping around for a family bike in the city still involves a lot of “around”: wandering from bike shop to bike shop, none of which are necessarily on the same transit lines (and none of which, pretty understandably, have any parking for cars.)

Welcome to Blue Heron. Let's ride some bikes!

Welcome to Blue Heron. Let’s ride some bikes!

Back in 2012, it was a no-brainer to tack a train ride to Portland for cargo bike shopping onto our summer trip to Seattle to visit my mom. At the time Portland had three cargo bike shops that seriously considered the needs of family riders. Last year, however, I started to hear from other families about Blue Heron Bikes in Berkeley, which opened shortly after we returned from Portland in 2012. They said it was a real family bike shop. They were right.

These people think of everything.

These people think of everything.

We didn’t make it over to Blue Heron until early 2014, but it was worth the wait. Having visited a few family bike shops already, we knew what to look for: kids’ bikes, cargo bikes, and a Lego table. Check, check, and check.  (Clever Cycles in Portland, which represents the pinnacle of family bike shops in the United States, also adds a large play space, inexpensive rentals of many of the bikes it sells, and FREE DIAPERS IN THE BATHROOM to that mix, but this is the result of years of practice.)

Hi, Rob!

Hi!

I no longer patronize bike shops that give me attitude—and anyone who’s walked into a typical bike shop with kids will know what I’m talking about here—so the other critical attribute of a family bike shop is being nice to anyone who walks in the door.  I’m no longer the best judge of that personally, given that my husband likes to walk into bike shops and announce, “This is my wife and she writes a blog about family biking!” However on our first visit to Blue Heron about half a dozen novice family bikers stopped by, and Rob (the owner) and his staff were lovely to all of them. Those poor families also had to endure us talking their ears off about the bikes they test-rode, but you can’t blame Blue Heron for that. Check Yelp for the many five-star reviews from people who showed up on other days.

The family bike corner

The family bike corner

What kind of bikes can you get at Blue Heron? Lots of bikes: they stock Bromptons, Bullitts (sent down from Splendid Cycles), EdgeRunners, and Yuba Mundos. I’ll admit that Bromptons aren’t usually considered family bikes, but that’s how we ride ours, and Emily Finch is now hauling four kids on a Brompton + Burley Travoy, so I think they qualify. Blue Heron also has some quirky stuff like a Japanese cargo bike that they’ve rigged with a rear child seat.  I haven’t ridden that bike, because I figured we’ve tried their patience enough. My kids wanted to ride all the bikes they had in front, and my son announced afterward that he wants a mountain bike. My daughter cried all the way home about our decision to not buy her the purple bike she rode while we were there, because “It’s near my birthday!”

Swoopy looking EdgeRunner

Swoopy looking EdgeRunner

The kids did not stop with the bikes in their own size. They also asked to ride the Bullitt with the large box, so we did, and I haven’t stopped hearing about how we should upgrade to that box since. And they also wanted to ride the EdgeRunner. The last EdgeRunner I had ridden was a pre-production model, but the 2014 EdgeRunner was significantly more awesome. We loved that bike. I haven’t stopped hearing about how we should get an EdgeRunner either. We’re going to try the assisted version next, and hopefully a Kinn Flyer and a Workcycles Fr8 too (more reviews!)

Although Blue Heron is located on the Ohlone Greenway in the flats, which makes for lovely test rides, Berkeley is not without hills, and they will also assist your family bike. They had BionX versions of a number of the cargo bikes they sell ready for test rides. Fortunately they didn’t have a BionX EdgeRunner in stock when we were there or we might not have escaped without buying another bike.

There's a largely unused parking lot behind the shop, great for kids' test rides

There’s a largely unused parking lot behind the shop, great for kids’ test rides

From my perspective, Blue Heron has only one dreadful, depressing flaw, and that is that it is in Berkeley. Getting to Berkeley is an all-day commitment for us, even now that our kids are older. However I understand why families in San Francisco are making the trek across the Bay. Getting a cargo bike from Berkeley to San Francisco is a real adventure—one dad took his new Bullitt on BART, which meant carrying it on the stairs, and another family rode theirs down to the ferry to get it home.  I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to that kind of adventure, but we’ve been there twice now and I have no doubt that we’ll return.

For us, a trip to Portland was the only way to compare the different possible bikes we could have bought. We wouldn’t have to make that same trip now. I’m glad we did go, of course, because if we hadn’t we would never had met the family biking crew in Portland, and we would have had to wait much longer to ride our bike. This is difficult and unpleasant to imagine. But if we were looking now, we’d start in Berkeley.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, Bullitt, destinations, family biking, travel, Xtracycle, Yuba Mundo

Return to Seattle: Snow day!

A couple of weeks ago I took a quick trip up to Seattle. I was technically there to present a poster, but given that it was an evening session, I got to sneak in lunch with my mom and some time with Family Ride before getting back on a plane the next day.

The conference was massive, but I learned enough from the discussants who stopped by that my poster was outdated by the time my session finished, which I count as a huge success, because (a) I learned something and (b) I didn’t have to carry the poster home. Win-win!

This is what winter looks like in Northern California.

This is what winter looks like in Northern California.

Madi had offered to bring me a bike, which was awesome in principle but seemed scary in practice, mostly because I am such a wimp about being cold and it was freezing in Seattle. Like: the temperatures were below freezing. Yeargh, are you kidding me? But after she towed a spare bike over on her iconic Big Dummy I couldn’t really skip the chance to take a ride. Also it would have been embarrassing to wimp out. Luckily I had thought to insulate myself to Michelin Man proportions, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. We rode down to the Washington Bikes Bike Love party, where I had occasion to remember that there are lots of people who ride bicycles without children perched on them. Their bikes looked fast.

And then we rode back to the hotel and while we were riding IT SNOWED. I RODE IN THE SNOW. It was, by riding in snow standards, totally pathetic, a few flakes rather than the mega-dump that hit Seattle just a couple of days later. But I suspect that I’ll never have occasion to ride in any kind of snow ever again, so this will have to do. Snow is pretty.

I plan to use this experience to build up all kinds of cold weather cred back here in San Francisco. Our local bike shop owner complains that half his customer base won’t even ride in the fog, which in this neighborhood means that they’re using alternative forms of transportation something like 350 days of the year. I ride in both fog and snow, because I am hardcore like that.

An infinite series of air kisses go to Madi, the best host in all of Seattle, for making me look so much tougher than I actually am, and to Jen at Loop Frame Love for reminding me that grudgingly riding in snow in Seattle is still the epitome of cool in California. I couldn’t have asked for better company. This was a very short trip, but I’ll be back. I’m taking the kids to see their grandmother for their spring break in the first week of April while their dad is in Australia. And I’ll be back for yet another conference, without the kids, from April 17-20. (This is a ridiculous number of trips to take to one city in three months, but I promised my mom I would visit her before my next surgery, applied to multiple conferences in Seattle to make sure that I could deliver, and then had papers accepted at all of them.)

Look out, Seattle family bikers: I know how to ride in snow. Now nothing can stop me from visiting the already-famous G&O Family Cyclery.

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Spring break

California uber alles

California uber alles

Last week, for our kids’ spring break, we headed to Monterey and Santa Cruz to visit the Aquarium and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. You don’t have to go too far south to get to better weather in the Bay Area. Probably we could have seen the sun just by heading east past the fog line, but our kids wanted to try salt water taffy. So why not south?

Dennis the Menace Park

Dennis the Menace Park

Monterey is a weird place, with a nice aquarium and beautiful scenery and not that much else.  When our kids tired of sea otters and the madding crowds, we headed to a playground we’d spotted on the way into town. It turned out to be Dennis the Menace Park, a truly unbelievable playground with everything up to and including a hedge maze.

Grocery store parking: giant beach cruisers

Grocery store parking: giant beach cruisers

From there we headed up to Santa Cruz. California is full of college towns like Santa Cruz, and virtually all of them are lovely, bike-friendly, and flat. Last year we visited Davis, which has the largest share of bike commuters of anyplace I have ever been in the US, and San Diego, which despite its serious car culture has many people hauling surfboards on bikes. Santa Cruz is also a beach town with lots of surfers, and I hadn’t seen so many beach cruisers since San Diego. Every time we visit, I want to move to these college towns, with their quiet streets filled with single-speed bicycles moving at a stately pace. It all feels so friendly and easy-going. Sure, there are drivers who go too fast in these places too, but despite the vast expanses of parking lots, I didn’t feel like they were cities owned by cars.

Santa Cruz beach boardwalk

Santa Cruz beach boardwalk

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk thrilled our kids, even though our daughter is still too little to go on any of the terrifying rides she wanted to try. Our son, who is now tall enough, remains uninterested in rides with names like “Tornado” so they both ended up trying every kiddie attraction. And while we were there, we ran into friends from Rosa Parks, who were visiting for the day, which was awesome.

The bike racks at the boardwalk were packed.

The bike racks at the boardwalk were packed.

Having come from San Francisco, we were traveling by City CarShare, but it was clear that many locals skipped the expensive car parking and came by bike. There is a railway converted to a multi-use path running along the beach, and the bike racks near the entrances were packed. Even the guys working at the car parking lots rode around on beach cruisers. Our kids loved the beach and were awed by all the ape-hanger handlebars on the bikes we saw. They asked if we could move to Santa Cruz. It’s a good thing we love the city too, fog and hills and traffic and all.

We’re not yet at the point where we’re ready to try bike touring with our kids, but it’s getting closer. When Matt went with our son to Tahoe to try snowboarding earlier in the week, they took the bus rather than deal with the nightmare of driving through ski traffic. Our kids love the train, especially the part where they get to run around. And our son has, unfortunately, developed a bad case of motion sickness that left him violently ill on the drive down and mostly ill on the drive back—it’s not a problem on a bus, but it is in a car. So while I’m okay with driving out of town now and again, having now tried other ways to travel, I’m finding I like them better. Maybe it’s time to figure out where the train (plus a couple of bikes) could take us.

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