Category Archives: travel

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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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.

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A weekend in the country

We stopped at Sonoma Train Town en route. Even the kids had a moment of disconnect about driving to the train.

We stopped at Sonoma Train Town en route. Even the kids had a moment of disconnect about driving to the train.

Last weekend we went to visit cousins in Santa Rosa while Matt and our son attended a martial arts tournament. It’s been a while since we left the city and it’s always interesting. All of our cousins shun life in the city, choosing instead to live in homes that range from exurban to aggressively rural. These particular cousins live way, way out in the country, which is a good fit for their interest in activities like developing their own orchard, building a deck larger than our entire living space (with integrated bocce court), keeping goats, and collecting rural-type things that I can’t identify and that must be explained to me. In turn, they stare in disbelief at the news that we no longer own a car. We like them very much.

However it is an unbelievable haul to get to their place. We rented a car, as they are nowhere near any kind of transit (when I asked for a transit route on Google maps the final step after four hours of proposed bus rides was: take a taxi for the last 20 miles) and riding a bike would be about a 12 hour trip each way in the unlikely event that the kids didn’t melt down, which they totally would.

We loved the quiet at their house, which sent us all packing to bed before 10pm. Our current place is great in many ways, but now that we are going to have to move anyway, we have been thinking a lot about what we want in a new place to live, and the main thing is quiet (although we are also looking for a neighborhood that does not have the word “mountain” or “heights” in its name). Our old apartment was in the back of its building and the only noise we ever heard was an occasional fog horn.  Now we live right on a street with five bus lines running down it, and we are next to the hospital, and all day and all night we hear the howling of ambulances and the WOOSH of bus air brakes and everyone gunning their engines to get up the steep hill and cars whizzing back down. I don’t even want to talk about the neighbors with the gongs. Surely they have a special place in hell reserved for them already. Anyway, we loved the quiet up there.

The entertainment value of dressing up in sparring props lasted less than an hour.

The entertainment value of dressing up in sparring props lasted less than an hour.

We didn’t love the time we had to spend in the car. It seemed like a 40 minute drive to get from any place in Santa Rosa to any other place (cousins’ house to martial arts tournament, martial arts tournament to farmers market for our daughter who rapidly lost patience with the competition, martial arts tournament to lunch, etc.) There are a lot of bikes in Santa Rosa, which is beautiful, sunny, and incredibly flat. But the distances seemed daunting. The riders who commuted despite them impressed me. One stopped by the side of our rental car (which was emblazoned with the City CarShare logo), very excited, to ask where we’d picked it up. When I told her we had come from San Francisco she was crushed. “I was afraid of that,” she said. “I wish they’d come up here!”

I like Santa Rosa, but we are used to living in the city, and it seemed empty to me (although the novelty of being able to park everywhere we took a car was amusing). Even the farmers market seemed small, as well as more crafts-oriented than food-oriented, which surprised me given that it’s an agricultural area. There was also a new-to-us hostility to organic food there. All of the market vendors were happy to report that they did not use pesticides and discuss their farming methods, but the Ron Paul yard signs and “Live free or die!” ethos apparently meant that getting certified by the government as organic was not high on their to-do list.

When we came home we were all sore from sitting for so long. I got on the bike to pick up some cheese and crackers and hummus (in our own glass jars, more to come on this topic), just to get moving again. Our local cheese shop is definitely not the kind of place to try to visit by car, as even when I’m on the bike I have to dodge double-parked cars all the way.  But there’s always bike parking right by the front door. It’s so cold in the city in February that my fingers always freeze, even under two pairs of gloves, but it’s still a pleasure to ride again, every time I go out.

We were happy to return to San Francisco, but we’ll be back to visit again. It was nice to get a good night’s sleep.

[Last but not least: Thank you, internet! We'd been asking JCCSF to install new bike racks for months, and were being blown off as recently as Tuesday. After Wednesday's post, I got an email that evening saying that they'll be installing 6 new custom bike racks that will hold 12 bikes. In addition, they're going to try letting parents have keycode access to a locked courtyard with an additional bike rack for preschool and after school drop-offs and pickups. We are thrilled! I know that some readers wrote to to JCCSF on our behalf and it is very much appreciated.]

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Bicycles in New York

This ridiculously hipster hotel is where Matt's company put him up. He called it the porno fantasy hunting lodge.

This ridiculously hipster hotel is where Matt’s company put him up. He called it the porno fantasy hunting lodge.

Matt spent last week in New York. While he was there, he remembered that what I always want is pictures of bicycles in new places.  There has been lots of discussion of New York City’s commitment to creating major-league cycling infrastructure. From Matt’s admittedly very short-term visitor’s perspective, they’ve been successful.

You too can ride the streets of New York.

You too can ride the streets of New York.

When we went to Copenhagen in 2011, we had no idea that it was one of the bicycling capitals of the world. Probably the only reason we even bothered to get on bikes at all was that bike rentals were advertised on literally every corner. And what a life-changer that turned out to be. To rent our bikes all we had to do was cross the street to the shop directly in front of our apartment and ask. We delayed even that for a while because we assumed they wouldn’t be able to put child seats on our bikes, which was silly in retrospect. We could have spared ourselves days of tedious walking just by asking. New York has enough of a cycling culture now that bike rentals were everywhere too. Alas, no bike share yet.

I have yet to see cycling infrastructure this good in San Francisco.

I have yet to see cycling infrastructure this good in San Francisco.

San Francisco has a separated cycle track in Golden Gate Park, but it’s not protected from cars by anything but paint. Neighbors also objected to painting the bike lane green to differentiate it from parking, claiming that it would look too obtrusive (in a park!) I like the lanes in the park anyway, but the protected lanes on Broadway in NYC make them look pathetic.

Bikes only; the rest of you can circle endlessly.

Bikes only; the rest of you can circle endlessly.

I rode to downtown San Francisco last Friday afternoon. It took less than 20 minutes door to door in the middle of Christmas shopping season, and I parked right in front of the building in the middle of Union Square. Ha ha! I made excellent time in part because for several blocks I was able to ride through intersections where right turns were signed as mandatory for everyone except buses, bicycles, and commercial vehicles. New York has evidently made the same decision to prioritize cycle traffic in the middle of town.

A "Do not enter" sign for bicycles is a new one for me too.

A “Do not enter” sign for bicycles is a new one for me too.

A different sign Matt found I’ve never seen in San Francisco: the “Bicycle Wrong Way” sign. I have some doubts about whether anyone pays the slightest attention to it, as I suspect no one here would. But it’s nice to be recognized as traffic, even if it is a don’t-go-here signal.

Nothing stops the angle grinder, except maybe the death penalty.

Nothing stops the angle grinder, except maybe the death penalty.

Some things are the same in both New York and San Francisco, however. Bike theft is rampant both places. New Yorkers, I’m sorry to say that not even a hardened chain will protect your bike from a guy with an angle grinder. We learned that the hard way.

New York City: it’s no São Paulo. It looks like a good place to ride a bike. I hope we get to try it sometime.

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Bicycles in Bellingham

August in Bellingham

We visited Bellingham, Washington, where I grew up, last August. It has changed dramatically since my childhood. I think it is at least twice as large as it used to be, just for starters. Although there was always a university there in my memory, it has grown larger too—what used to be gravel parking lots for commuter students have been taken over by campus buildings, and the student population now lives there year round.

The German bakery in Bellingham used this bike for deliveries. They imported it from Germany, where postal workers use them.

I rode my bike as a child in Bellingham, often for transportation, and as in many small towns at the time, this wasn’t considered unusual.  Our parents didn’t consider driving us around to be part of their responsibilities, and the city buses were irregular, so it was ride or walk, and we did both. This was well before the time that kids were supposed to wear helmets, so none of us ever did. We also didn’t lock our bikes, because there wasn’t any bike theft. And I never had lights on my bike either, because there was a curfew and kids weren’t allowed out after dark.

This lone wolf was riding in the bike lanes.

When we rented bikes in Bellingham last summer I could not believe how much had changed. I rode on streets as a child because that was what was available, and the streets were mostly quiet. On larger and busier streets that connected neighborhoods, there were bike lanes. I rode on those too.

The greenway markers tell you how to get from here to there.

Now there is no need for many of those bike lanes, because in the time I have been away, the city of Bellingham has built greenways that are completely separated from the streets. Even though they don’t cover the whole city, they go almost everywhere I wanted to be. The city has a fair number of hills, but none of them are very steep, and the extensive infrastructure meant that bike commuters were visible everywhere.

Bicycles and pedestrians only on this shopping plaza, which also hosts a farmers market

Riding the greenways, and the quiet streets, I realized that people in Bellingham have no reason whatsoever to own a car (although almost all of them do). There are paths and bike lanes to take people nearly everywhere in the main part of town with minimal exposure to cars. There is always bike parking at your destination.  Most of the interesting places to shop and visit are on dedicated pedestrian plazas—cars no, bike corrals yes. Admittedly many stores are a few blocks from the greenways, and it’s often necessary to ride on streets briefly, and of course my perspective on what constitutes serious traffic may be somewhat skewed. It still impressed me.

The bike shop on the greenway

What interested me most was how many stores, restaurants and housing developments were oriented toward the bicycle and pedestrian greenways instead of the streets where cars were allowed. As we rode closer to downtown, parallel to streets we had driven on earlier in the week, I realized that what I had thought were abandoned buildings or warehouses were instead a community bike shop, a strip of small restaurants and bars, and a bakery. Opposite them were condo buildings that opened onto the greenway from walking plazas.

This the return route from downtown; the bay is to the right.

Bellingham does not lack for natural beauty. It runs in a narrow strip between the water and the mountains. The greenways run along the water and through woods, and the buildings that pop up along the trail seem tucked into a world without roads. Even in terrible weather (and the weather was often terrible during our stay, either hot and muggy or cold and raining) riding those greenways felt like stepping into the Shire.

This part of the city can only be seen from the bike path.

Riding in Bellingham felt very bucolic, although it’s not perfect. From a car, it seems like many other small cities, even though there are a lot of bikes on the roads. There are strip malls and wide roads with speeding cars, and far too many crosswalks with lights too short to allow anyone to get across without sprinting. Yet when we got on the rental bikes I realized that there was a smaller second city built in parallel, inaccessible to cars and human-scaled. I have always visited Bellingham because my mom lives there, and had little other interest in the city. But now I have another reason to visit. I want to figure out how to export their infrastructure back to San Francisco.

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Still more bicycles in Beijing

Matt’s visits to China have brought us some new perspective on the massive economic shifts in China. A recent photo he took attempted to show a multi-acre, $2 billion expanse of new solar panels, unsuccessfully–it stretches out to forever. Another showed a coal plant bigger than anything I’d ever imagined. In China there are no zoning issues, and they are agnostic about how they generate enough power to run the country. Relocate over a million people to build the world’s largest dam? Sure, why not?

“I’d rather cry in the back your BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle.” I suspect this is not a formula for lifelong happiness.

The rise in prosperity has been matched with a rise in ambitions. One sign of this is the rise of China’s new “material girls” whose mantra runs: “I’d rather cry in the back of your BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle.”

China had, at one point, a very deep bicycle culture, but it is fading in the face of the perception that cars are more prestigious. A couple of newspaper articles Matt brought back suggested that there was increasing awareness that a large-scale transportation shift from bicycles to cars was unsustainable in China, if only for its likely effects on traffic.

Just another commuter bike in Beijing

In the meantime, for many people riding electric bikes seems to be at least a short-term compromise. One of Matt’s colleagues uses this electric bike to commute and ride around the organizational campus in Beijing. Like all bikes Matt’s seen in China, this one has a generous cargo basket and an extra passenger seat. China is not exactly cutting-edge in the area of interesting family bikes, for the fairly obvious reason that families have one child apiece and a single child can be managed on almost any bike. However the back seat could be used either for carrying a child or a less-material adult.

This sign was posted outside Matt’s hotel in Beijing.

In the long term, if the government of China wants everyone to ride bicycles, that’s probably exactly what will happen. I have no idea whether this is any kind of national priority. It’s clear that alternative transportation is not a national priority in the US. However the advantage of living in a democracy is that change can spread from the bottom up.

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We tried it: Christiania and Nihola cargo tricycles

Over a year after our return from Copenhagen, we finally got to ride a Christiania.

I knew coming in to our cargo bike test rides that we weren’t going to be buying a tricycle. If there is one thing that is fairly certain, it is that trikes can’t handle steep hills. But we wanted to try all the cargo options, if only to get a basis for comparison. Also, we had really, really wanted to rent a Christiania while we were in Copenhagen and no bike shop we found would let us.

One kid plus a backpack does not test the capacity of the Nihola.

In Portland, however, it was easy to test-ride a trike, because Emily Finch offered us the chance to use their family’s Christiania when she learned we were coming to Portland. How sweet is that? She herself rides a Bakfiets, but her husband got the Christiania when he was new to riding. While we were at it, we rented a Nihola from Clever Cycles (Clever Cycles is amazing). Matt and I each rode one for a few miles from the shop to the Hawthorne shopping district for lunch, then we switched off and headed back.

This is about as far forward as you want the weight in the cargo box to go.

Tricycles have a reputation for being more stable than bikes among new riders, which is only half-true. Trikes are statically stable and dynamically unstable (whereas bikes are statically unstable and dynamically stable). When trikes are stopped they rest on three wheels, like a footstool with three legs. For this reason you’ll never see a trike with a kickstand. They have a single hand brake with a parking latch, and coaster brakes. When trikes are moving, however, they are unstable. They sway and shimmy. My father-in-law, who is a physics professor at UC Berkeley, explained this to me as partially a function of the third wheel. All wheels have inherent lateral instability from the centripetal force of their movement. Add a third wheel and you increase that instability by 50% (my summary of his explanation elides a lot but is much shorter).

This guy with no legs whizzed by us on a hand-powered delta trike. Impressive and depressing at the same time.

Whether you will like a trike depends on whether you expect to be stopped or moving most of the time. It also depends on a lot on how fast you want to ride. We found that the top speed of a loaded tricycle was only slightly faster than brisk walking (although it was much less effort). Given this pace, it was tiring to think about taking it for a ride longer than a mile or two.

I would rule out a tricycle if facing any hill steeper than a speed bump. This isn’t because they are poor climbers, although they are, in fact, terrible climbers. I radically redefined my definition of a hill while riding these trikes to: any incline whatsoever. More distressing was that even in the fairly flat environs of southeast Portland, while going down mild hills in the Christiania at maybe 5 miles/hour, I experienced shimmy for the first time. And it scared the crap out of me. A shimmying bike starts to tremble uncontrollably and stops responding to attempts to steer, swinging wildly across the road. Slowing down the trike helps, but good luck getting much braking power from coaster brakes and a single hand brake. The Nihola handled the hills better. I would say it was roughly comparable to a very heavy bike with bad brakes.

The Nihola on the move

On the flats, however, a trike offers a pleasant and meandering ride. If you’re not in much of a hurry, it can be quite pleasant to putter along. The trikes came with chainguards and fenders but not lights. You never have to get out of the saddle at stops, which is a nice break if you do a lot of stop-and-go riding. Riding posture is bolt upright. Trikes are heavy and can carry a lot of weight, and you don’t really feel that (unless you’re going uphill, in which case you TOTALLY feel it, it’s like dragging an anchor). In a place like Chicago or Copenhagen, I can imagine that a trike could be an appealing option. They can, however, be slow to start at intersections after a full stop. At Clever Cycles they advised that we stand up on the pedals and use our body weight to get them started, and this was good advice.

Both the Nihola and Christiania are tadpole tricycles with two wheels and a cargo box in the front rather than delta tricycles with two wheels in the back. Our kids liked the trikes and couldn’t wait to ride them, but they couldn’t climb into them by themselves. Our son could almost make it into the Christiania trike, but it nearly fell forward from his weight when he tried. This was an unexpected downside of the tricycle experience. We had assumed that trikes were always stable while parked, but they can actually fall forward. After that we lifted both kids in ourselves, placing them toward the back of the cargo box, which was between all three wheels.

The front view from the Nihola

Both the Christiania and Nihola have seats for two children. The Christiania box is wider, with more elbow room. Given our kids’ sizes it was like sharing a love seat and they liked having that space. The Nihola is narrower but has a clear front, which improves the view for riders. There is arguably room for two more kids sitting on the floor in front of the seat, although this would be a very tight squeeze in the Nihola, and would probably lead to kicking and screaming in either trike on a long ride (but no one would take a cargo tricycle on a long ride). Both trikes offer rain canopies with a lot of headroom for kids as well. Having the kids in front is awesome. We have never had such great rides with them as we have with them in front. We could always hear what they’re saying and they could always hear us.

As one might expect, tricycles also need enormous amounts of space when parked, and reversing them involves something like 35-point turns.

Both tricycles are very wide, and as a result we stayed off busy streets with narrow bike lanes or sharrows, opting instead to follow some of Portland’s excellent neighborhood greenways on our trip. No way would I want to ride either trike in city traffic.

Both the Christiania and Nihola have internally geared hubs rather than a derailleur. Weirdly, they both shifted with a significant time lag, although it was more delayed on the Nihola than the Christiania. So we would shift gears, and I don’t know, the trike would think about that for a while? And then several seconds later the gears would change. It was strange and made going up hills (riding a tricycle on a hill of any kind TOTALLY SUCKS) even more unpleasant.

Riding the Christiania in the bike lane means using the entire bike lane.

The steering on the Christiania is bizarre and yet fun. There is a bar across the back of the cargo box and you shove it away from the upcoming turn to corner the bike (push left to go right). It takes a little getting used to at first but is very responsive. It feels kind of liberating to swing the bar from side to side. Whee! The steering on the Nihola uses regular handlebars, which made me realize immediately why the Christiania used the leverage of a wide bar across the box. It was difficult to get the Nihola to turn at all. At one point I took a speed bump a little too fast, rolled away to one side, and couldn’t straighten the trike before ramming into the curb. (Hitting a curb with a wheel isn’t dangerous, but it was annoying.)

The Christiania offers a lot of elbow room.

Overall, the Christiania was bigger and easier to steer, while the Nihola was marginally better on hills and has a neat clear front and thus a better view. However if I were forced to get one, I would pick the Christiania over the Nihola, because I would never take either tricycle anywhere that wasn’t flat anyway. These are very nice tricycles, and I’m delighted we had the chance to try them. For better or for worse, however, we live in a place where they are completely inappropriate, and we are unlikely to ever ride one again.

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