Tag Archives: 30daysofbiking

Things keep happening

At the San Francisco waste transfer station

At the San Francisco waste transfer station

There are tragedies that unfurl slowly, and there are short, sharp shocks. The shocks seem more painful; they can’t fade into the background of daily life.

I work in public health. At its root, public health is an effort to make sure that everyone dies safely in bed, surrounded by loved ones, rather than in disease, or in pain, or with life needlessly cut short. But I work at an academic medical center, too, and that means I am surrounded by my profession’s failures. People die of preventable causes, in ways that could be seen coming from years away. We soldier on.

I have rarely been tempted by the urge to live an exciting life. I like routine and find change challenging. I completely understand why wishing someone “may you live in interesting times” is viewed as a curse. I could not imagine being happy lurching from one new experience to the next; making a job I dislike bearable through taking time off from it, or making a home I loathed tolerable by leaving it on vacation. And so I try to make my ordinary life as agreeable as possible. I tweak around the margins. But these changes add up. Who would have thought we’d become a car-free family? Or cut our waste down to a little baggie each week? This is our new normal, and we like it.

Because I like my everyday life, it seems especially painful to watch other people’s normal ripped away. This is the terror of the short, sharp shock. And I always wonder: what is the appropriate response when normal becomes terrifying? When we are surrounded by destruction? And in the end I think we should do for ourselves what we do for our children. We try to preserve the familiar and comforting parts of life that are left. We soldier on.

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30 Days of Biking, and so on

Waiting for the splash at the Aquarium

Waiting for the splash at the Aquarium

Last week was spring break at my son’s school. I’d planned to stay home with the kids, which is just as well, because I got sick. Between that and a trip out of town, I didn’t ride a bike for a few days, which is as long as I can remember going without riding in the last year or so. But April is 30 Days of Biking, and this year I’d signed up early. I still owe Family Ride a thank you for turning me on to 30 Days of Biking, which I’ve done twice now, starting with the official April version and most recently with the bonus round in September.

The California Academy of Sciences installed cargo bike-friendly parking right in front. Mwah!

The California Academy of Sciences installed cargo bike-friendly parking right in front. Mwah!

On Sunday, although it was technically still March, we kicked things off with a morning visit to the California Academy of Sciences. When we came out we saw another family bike fleet parked next to ours, and I was even happier when I learned later that I’d guessed right as to whose it was. You don’t see a lot of Bakfietsen (short or long) in San Francisco, so maybe it was too easy, but I’m easily pleased. Like ours, it had a cover for the rain, which after a brief hiatus has returned to San Francisco. But kids in box bikes never need to fear the weather.

I didn’t really notice last year that 30 Days of Biking kicked off with April 1st, the day that you can trust nothing on the internet. This year for the first time we pranked our kids, offering them what Matt called “a new breakfast” which consisted of bowls of uncooked steel cut oats. Our son, who’d stayed up too late last night, looked confused. “Is this really edible?” he asked, as his sister gamely began eating it (she’s still too young!) When we said “April Fools!” he was delighted. I wish he were so cheerful every Monday.

Rain? What rain?

Rain? What rain?

It was pouring this morning, not the best official kick-off to 30 Days of Biking. It didn’t really matter. I had already upped my game this year, upgrading from $10 rain pants that leaked all last winter to $40 rain pants that are, perhaps unsurprisingly, four times better. My daughter was happy to have a chance to wear her Muddy Buddy to school, and I was happy to be back on the bike. This far 2013 has been a little stressful. But rain is probably the most I have to fear from this month’s rides, and I’m pretty sure I can handle it.

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San Francisco is hard on bikes

Our kids “borrowing” the toys in our Copenhagen apartment’s courtyard

I feel like I should subtitle this post, “why I get whiny about components.”

When we started riding our bikes in San Francisco we did not go by half-measures. We got bikes and we rode them pretty much every day as transportation. We hauled our kids to school and their activities and back, rode to work, and got groceries. It was fun! And we assumed that that was what bikes were FOR. That’s what comes of picking up bike riding in Copenhagen.

We realized pretty quickly that lots of bike manufacturers had different ideas about how we would ride. That’s because we kept breaking things on our bikes. At first we assumed we were doing something wrong. It seemed entirely plausible that we were just lousy riders after such a long hiatus. But our excellent bike shop assured us this was not the case. We were just riding a lot more, and in much more difficult conditions, than the people who built our bikes had expected. What do I mean by difficult conditions? San Francisco streets where we live and work are steep, poorly paved, and dirty.

I have written about my brake paranoia before. We spend a lot of time going down steep hills, and that puts serious wear on the brakes.  It is no accident that I go on (and on and on) about hydraulic disc brakes, which last and last and stop on a dime. We also spend a lot of time going up hills. When we rode rental bikes in Portland we could go for several minutes without shifting, but this never happens here at home. Once, while wandering though Ikea, I saw a piston pressing a carved wooden bottom into a chair, over and over again, supposedly to demonstrate the chair’s longevity. That is essentially equivalent to what we do to our gears.

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

The streets around San Francisco are also poorly maintained. Riding around my office and down the hill from home, the asphalt is so rough that it makes my bell ring as I bump over it. At first it was sort of annoying but also sort of funny. It became less funny when I realized that this was literally rattling parts off my bike. And the streets are dirty. At bike camp, my son was told to wash his bike at the end of the week, every week. We should do this, but we totally don’t. So our bikes look like crap a lot of the time, and all the grime doesn’t do the moving parts any favors either. And it is a rare day that I ride without having to dodge broken glass in the street.

So we learned to care about the components on our bikes. Most cargo bikes come with low to mid-range parts. High quality parts cost money, and my sense is that people already balk at the costs of cargo bikes, which unquestionably cost more than ordinary bikes. Plus a lot of people who take up riding bikes for transportation do so in conditions that are less extreme than ours. This makes sense to me: the barriers to entry are a lot lower in places without serious terrain to battle. And finally, most people who ride bikes in the United States do it as a supplement to car ownership, not to replace driving. They’re not riding every single day. Why not use cheaper parts? Most riders don’t need anything better than that.

The city brought goats in earlier this year to eat the garbage that had piled up around the bus depot across the street from my office. (I hate riding up this hill, incidentally.)

Yet over here in our stomping grounds things are different. Thus I find some bikes difficult to imagine owning because if I bought them, I would have to replace almost every part (or build up a bike from a frame, which exceeds my ambitions). This is essentially what happened with our Kona MinUte. It lists as a $1,000 bike. Thanks to our bike shop’s first year warranty, which replaced everything we broke, it is now really a $2,000 bike (and now we like it twice as much). In its first year, here is an incomplete list of what was replaced: brakes, pedals, shifters, chain, derailleur guide, tires, tubes, chain ring. And this is why we were told to buy a bike from a good local shop: we paid a fraction of the true cost of those upgrades. Even swapping out the crappy disc brakes with excellent hydraulic disc brakes was half-price. That’s because our shop called Kona and insisted that they give us a credit toward the upgrade. And although all of this was great, even better than great, these upgrades meant that the MinUte spent a lot of time in the shop the first year. That was frustrating given that it was supposed to be a daily commuter. It also meant there were some scary and annoying moments, like when the old brakes failed going down steep hills (twice!), or when one pedal snapped in half while riding, or when Matt got four flats in four days.

There was a time that I complained about having to invest so much more in a bike to get a comparable riding experience as people in other places, which reminded me of how much more we pay in rent to live in San Francisco than we would in other places. I am over it. We are lucky to be here, we both work and can afford the relatively trivial price of bike maintenance, and anyway we all have different burdens to bear. However when we went looking for a new bike, we knew that we were willing to pay up front to keep that bike out of the shop, not to mention to keep it from careening down a hill with no working brakes and two kids on board. Our new Bullitt came with outstanding components, and I haven’t regretted our decision to pay for that. In addition to being safer, it’s also more fun to ride a bike with better parts. The Bullitt will never drop a chain, and it shifts cleanly and without hesitation. And it’s never skidded past a stop sign at the bottom of a hill, even fully loaded.

These bikes can now handle whatever San Francisco can throw at them.

At times I have criticized bikes that I perceive to have middling parts because where I ride, it’s something that matters a lot. Should people in other places pay for higher quality parts? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how often they’ll be riding, how difficult the conditions are, and how much they care. The more you ride and the more hills, wet, and cold you face, the more likely it is that a low-maintenance bike with great parts will be worth the money. Where it’s flat, people often gravitate to Dutch bikes, which are built like tanks. But if riding a bike is a sometimes thing, or if you’re living in sunny Southern California, hitting a lower price point may be far more important than having a bike whose parts can weather all conditions.

But there isn’t a free lunch. One cargo bike may cost twice as much as another cargo bike, even though they look very similar. Cargo bikes aren’t sold based on sex appeal or brand names (because they have neither), so there is always a reason for a price difference. Sometimes that reason simply isn’t relevant to the local conditions or a family’s riding style, but it’s a real reason. And while there’s no wrong decision if it’s an informed decision, it is entirely possible to make a bad choice if you don’t know what you’re choosing. We bought a cheap cargo bike first because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t have to pay for that mistake because we bought it from a great shop. We got lucky.

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Filed under bike shops, car-free, family biking, San Francisco

30 days of biking, again

Two kids in a good mood can fit on a midtail.

Last April, 30 days of biking was a challenge. There were some late night trips around the block, and unnecessary errands after the kids went to bed (sure, why not get another carton of yogurt?) to ensure I rode a bike every single day. This September, in the bonus round, it was very easy. The difference? At the end of May, I bought the electric- assist mamachari on craigslist. And at the end of June, we sold our car. With no car to fall back on and an assisted bike to crank up the hills at the end of a long day at work (with a 2nd grader on the back), riding a bike every day was such an obvious choice that 30 days straight was no struggle at all.

My son riding the Bullitt’s top tube in Portland

This week my mom is staying with us while Matt is in Brazil. She was sitting by the front window when I left this morning. “In the last five minutes,” she said, “I’ve seen six bikes, three walkers, a bus and a shuttle bus pass, and only 12 cars.” She lives in a very bike-friendly community, but the share of transportation held by anything other than private cars is nonetheless very low. And although she lives on a hill too, the one we live on is steeper. “Do all those bikes have electric assist?” she asked. Most don’t, although that’s changing—as the kind of people riding bikes changes, the demand for assisted bikes increases. Not everyone wants to shower when they get to work, even if they could.

The Haight fire station has the best logo in the city–a Grateful Dead skull.

This morning I rode my bike to work too. San Francisco has begun its real summer, at last, after four months of fog and chill. The city’s surreal climate always leaves me bemused. It has warmed up just as the leaves start falling from the trees. I grew up with more conventional weather. I never know what to expect until I step outside, and as a result I’m always attentive, in that same strange way that traveling to a strange place keeps me alert. We’ve lived in the city for five years now, and it still surprises.

On the ride in I watched the round moon hanging low in the pale blue sky. In the park, today’s naked jogger was the kind of man who did not make naked jogging repellent. This was a rare and welcome change of pace. The day seemed brighter than usual with the fog burned off.

My son’s classmates fit three to a bike.

In many ways, despite our itinerant ways, we are deliberate people. By my standards, our decision to start riding bikes with our children was unplanned, and our decision to sell our car was outright whimsical. I have no regrets. In hindsight, these choices seem like the culmination of many decisions taken over the years. We moved into the city to be close to my work, and later Matt also found a job within city limits. We jumped into San Francisco’s public school lottery hoping our children would grow up taking field trips to the opera and symphony and being comfortable with many definitions of families. This year, my son and his entire 2nd grade class will be dancing with the San Francisco Ballet. I couldn’t ask for more. Years ago, if I had looked at our future lives, it would have seemed that the things we gave up—two cars, a yard, months of sunny days, desirable neighborhood schools, the chance to own a house—were sacrifices. Instead we have more than we ever could have imagined.

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What I learned in 30 days of biking

Brand new life

When we first had our son, our usual range of activities suddenly became very circumscribed. It was so intimidating to go out with a baby, and there was so much to remember to bring, that it felt like a huge triumph to load up the stroller and walk around the block. We were nervous that he would cry if we went to the library or a restaurant, so we didn’t go to the library or to restaurants. I didn’t like to feed him in public, so for quite a while we didn’t go any further than a half-hour’s walk to ensure we could be back home in time for him to eat or to take a nap.

As he got older, and we became more confident, we started to return to some of the places we’d known before, but even more than that, we began to discover new places to go. We walked to local bakeries and learned when the library offered story times. We remembered there were such things as children’s museums. We realized the value of parks with playgrounds.

Then we were four.

When our daughter was born, the same thing happened again, although to a lesser degree. We were once again limited by naptimes and although she wasn’t one to cry much, we had to relearn the places that were best for babies. Now that she is three, we have a range of places to take our kids that make sense for our lives. We have adjusted. We go out at least as much as we did before, but to different places and at different times.

It's a stealth cargo bike.

When we started transitioning to riding our bikes, there was that same sense at first of feeling constrained. The routes we traveled by car were not ideal for riding bikes, and there was this new effort involved in riding with cargo that made everything feel a little harder. I had to learn how to carry groceries on my bike. It took some time (and one disaster) to identify good child seats. We were figuring out everything. But this feeling of life changing in a new-scary-exciting way was familiar. I knew intellectually that it was temporary and that we would adjust.

Every weekday morning, and it never gets old.

Signing up for 30 days of biking pushed me to make some of those adjustments. With a bike ride to fit in every day there was always pressure to go somewhere, and with two careers and two kids there isn’t time to take daily joyrides. I took Amtrak to Sacramento with a bike for a conference. I learned how to strap a pizza to my rear rack with my bungee net (and I got at least three days of rides in by ordering takeout pizza, which is typically a once a month occasion around here). I also learned how to strap a yoga mat to my rear rack with my bungee net and went to a yoga class at a studio I’d never visited before. I found a good bike route to our CSA pickup. I checked out small local grocery stores just a little too far for walking that have no parking for cars but offer generous bike parking—and it turns out that neighborhood shopping by bike is efficient, maybe more so than my usual method of shopping during lunch and carrying everything home after work. I finally raised my seat another inch, and found that I could usually get up hills in a higher gear. I stopped riding my brakes so much on the way back down those hills. I rode to work every weekday that I was in San Francisco, in the new JFK bike lanes, and found that my love for the Conservatory of Flowers has not faded even slightly in all these months. I found out that no amount of riding in stiff headwinds is enough to get used to it. I learned not to order Mexican on 4/20.

The camera flattens the hill up to work, but it feels flatter now as well.

There are some changes in the works around here. We have a trailer-bike coming for our son from Europe, purchased for a song on German eBay by a friend. There are new bikes to join our current collection. My son and I are signing up again this year for summer Japanese classes, which are offered on the eastern edge of town across the Wiggle. Although I am still intimidated by the prospect of taking our kids along the Oak and Fell arterials at any time of day, I feel ready to try riding that route with him again.

Let's take a ride!

Summer in San Francisco is marked by festivals, marathons and half-marathons, and parties that nearly shut down the city. For some time we’ve reacted either packing ourselves into public transit or staying home to avoid the hundreds of road closures and the crowds. Attending the Pride parade last year sent our kids into a tailspin of exhaustion, although it was awesome. But I learned on Easter weekend that riding our bikes changes everything. This summer we can make it anywhere in the city without getting caught in car traffic or being packed into trains or carrying our tired kids for miles. What I learned in 30 days of biking is that riding our bikes isn’t a constraint at all. Riding our bikes makes us free.

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, commuting, San Francisco, traffic

Catching my breath

Peas=pollen

It is allergy season and I have spent the last week exhausted. Single parenting, even with just one kid, means early mornings and late nights. Part of the reason I have felt so unwilling to go anywhere, I realized, is that I was constantly short of breath. It was unnerving. On the bike, feeling unable to breathe made even level streets feel impossible.

A little shortness of breath is a small price to pay for all of this

I have been here before so unlike the first time, I knew it would get better eventually. When I first found myself gasping for air in a California spring, I thought I might be dying, perhaps from a giant tumor on my lungs. That is because I was a hypochondriac. Longer term residents assured me it was spring pollen coupled with the lack of sleep inherent in having a newborn. That’s less exciting but turned out to be: true.

So when Matt got back on Saturday afternoon my goal was to catch up on sleep and in general take it easy. Neither of us wanted to drive anywhere, and Matt was tired of all forms of travel. However we needed to cook enough to make it through a week (we cook on weekends) and I hadn’t shopped for four people in two weeks.

How to park a balance bike

As a result, on Saturday I decided to ride my bike around to various neighborhood bodegas. I do most of our shopping at the grocery stores near work so I sometimes forget the quirkiness of the neighborhood joints. There is the place a block from home that sells outstanding coffee and top-shelf liquor, and another two a block downhill. One of the downhill shops is a dirty and odd-smelling market that has outrageously good prices on pretty much everything, including organic produce, if you don’t mind groceries pretty near their sell-by date. But unbeatable value! Across the street is a wildly expensive natural foods pocket, which ably serves the coconut water and primal snack bar needs of the neighborhood. None of them had what I wanted, so I rode down to the Haight Street Market a mile away. I had never been there before because it’s too far to walk and unbearable to drive—Haight Street is always packed with pedestrians, some sitting on stoops testing out the wares of the multiple head shops, and traffic backs up for blocks. But on a bike, there’s no problem. I parked right in front of the store (which is fantastic, I will return) and slipped easily through the crowds on the way home. I am always reminded on the weekends, when we slip out of our normal routine, how liberating it is to ride a bike in the city. Traffic jams and parking, which formerly frustrated us on a daily basis, become other people’s problems.

On the way to the races

Then on Sunday we walked around the corner to our neighbors’ block party. The neighbors on this street are cooler than the rest of us, and arrange to close off the street once a year. Then they drag out chairs, toys, and grills from their garages and backyards, throw them all into the middle of the street, and start making and handing out food, playing music, and running big wheel, scooter and balance bike races down the hill. My son’s martial arts studio does a show and the local fire station drives over and lets the kids climb on board the trucks. It is fantastic. It was pretty lame to get a bike ride by riding my bike literally around the corner to the block party, but I redeemed myself by running a quick errand a half-mile away partway through the afternoon.

Complete street

On Saturday morning I was still gasping for air most of the time. But by Sunday evening I was only slightly out of breath. Things are getting better.

Breaking boards!

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Running out of steam

Maybe I need a new hobby. Bike polo?

I don’t usually ride my bike every single day. That is, until this month, when I signed up for 30 days of biking. Commuting by bike is brilliant, as is running errands, but on the weekends we have usually just hoofed it around the neighborhood, unless we’re headed out of town. Today I talked to a neighbor, also a bike commuter, who said the same thing. There are compromises to be made when you live in San Francisco, but a huge advantage is being able to wind down on the weekends by going almost everywhere on foot.

So 30 days of biking is starting to wear on me toward the end of April. 6 out of 7 days on the bike seems reasonable and almost effortless. 7 out of 7 days on the bike has been a challenge. And it’s been a tough month in other ways—flooded basement, multiple tedious end-of-the-school-year committee meetings, and a conference out of town. Mentally, I want to stick a fork in 30 days of biking already. Today my daughter and I rode to pick up our CSA box and Chinese takeout. It would have been almost unbearable to make this trip by car (no parking, ugly traffic) and unpleasant on foot (exhausting, time-consuming) but mostly I just didn’t want to leave the house at all.

Part of the problem may be the advent of pollen season, which makes difficult to breathe even lying still in bed. It’s either that or I’m coming down with the killer flu that’s felled half my office and my son’s elementary school. Maybe getting an electric assist would take some of this edge off, because it’s the hills that are really killing me lately. Either way, at this point I think I might celebrate May 1st by taking the shuttle to work and back.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco