Tag Archives: Bellingham

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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Homesick for the north, homesick for the south

Our first trailer ride

From Bellingham to Seattle to Portland: we have arrived, and so excited to see daddy again. I haven’t had much chance to update while gamboling around the Pacific Northwest mostly solo with two kids, but I’ve also been constrained by the constant barrage of fun. I grew up in Seattle and Bellingham and I was overwhelmed by homesickness. They are both really good places to ride bikes with kids.

So eight family bikers lock up together…

We stayed with my mom and rented a bike and trailer (the kids loved their first trailer ride). Then we stayed with the always awesome Family Ride and rode a Madsen, her pink Big Dummy, and a MinUte. We went to a Seattle Summer Streets and got to see Jen of Loop-Frame Love again. At the Seattle Cargo Bike Road Call my kids rode in a Cetma cargo bike and a Bakfiets and got chauffeured by Davey Oil around Gas Works Park in an amazing electric-assist trike. My son got to ride a handful of kids’ bikes and learned how to shift gears! Then we took an Amtrak ride south from Seattle to Portland. It is a good way to travel with kids, especially given that they seated us near the bathroom, which made it easy to clean up various spills.

Barbecue in Portland

Matt, although he is a committed Californian, loves Portland. He arrived before we did and went grocery shopping for us. Seeing the rib joint nearby, with its “Try our new vegetarian fare!” sign was almost enough by itself to convince him Portland should be our new home. We have seen many, many family bikes, mostly of the traditional variety with child seats and trailers, but I’ve always liked child seats on bikes. I’m coming around to trailers as well, at least in flat cities with limited car traffic.

My kids were the ones chanting “Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak!” in car #9 for most of the ride down from Seattle. I apologize.

We’ll be here for a week trying out even more cargo bikes, not to mention cargo trikes. The kids are so excited to see their dad again after a week away that I might even have some time to write about all that’s happened (and to answer a bunch of questions I’ve been asked in the comments).  In the meantime I hope everyone else is having a week just as awesome.

And I almost forgot: I just found out that San Francisco will be holding its first Kidical Mass on September 28th! Thanks so much, MizShan! The ride will meet at 6pm at the fountain at the southeast corner of Justin Hermann Plaza and head to Dolores Park. We will be there!

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We are having fun yet

Hey! Hi! Howzitgoin?

Recumbent with cargo trailer and a Burley tandem. Love it!

We are on the first leg of our Pacific Northwest tour, which comes with limited bike riding. But there have been walks on the beach and farmers market visits and many interesting bikes sighted. We’ve seen child trailers galore (this is the right kind of town for them—limited traffic, wide bike lanes), a Bullitt with a plastic crate to haul a kid strapped on, trailer-bikes, recumbent bikes, and mountain and commuter bikes galore. Kids ride their own bikes a lot, even at very young ages. It’s not a big deal given that they don’t have to contend with city traffic or monster hills.

“I’ll pretend to cry, okay?”

We have been chauffeured by my mom in her car, mostly, given that we are here without bikes. But in an effort to experience the authentic traditions of family biking in these United States, we are scheduled to rent a bike with a child trailer. Okay, granted, a trailer is the only option available for a family bike ride in this town. Still it seems only fair to try riding the ways most families do in this country, so we have a basis for comparison.

The junior scientists will investigate this trailer thing.

I’ll be honest: my kids are nonplussed by this idea. They view trailers with a combination of fascinated disbelief and confused longing. They viewed the child care room at our gym the same way. Having never spent any time there (I only work out during my lunch hour at work, figuring that I spend enough time away from my kids when I’m being paid for it—I have no desire to ditch them during my free time), they viewed it as a destination of mysterious wonders. So one day we dropped them off at the Ikea kids’ playspace when we were visiting Berkeley so they could try out the whole drop-in child care experience. It is fair to say that when we returned the bloom was off the rose.

And we’re off!

My kids like climbing in bike trailers when we’re visiting a store that has some. They get along pretty well most of the time so I’m not too worried about their squeezing into a tight space for a short-term rental. But I’m curious what they’ll think of a trailer compared to bike seats. There’s no question that trailers are the most common child-carrying option for bicycles in the United States. I guess it’s a measure of our distance from the mainstream that even by the standards of outrageous family weirdness and deprivation—we have no car!—we are bizarre by the standards of families who bike everywhere. Our kids have never ridden in a bike trailer. Yet! But soon.

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Bellingham destinations: Kulshan Cycles

Surprise! We visited a bike shop in Bellingham! Unbelievable, right?

There are places in Bellingham that I recognize and places I don’t. It’s been about 20 years since I lived there, and like anywhere else it changes. From my jaded urban perspective many of these changes are improvements; it is possible, for example, to get a decent meal in a restaurant, if you aim squarely at the paper-napkin-but-the-heavy-kind level. With this target firmly in mind we headed one evening to a brewpub. We were not the only people who had this idea, it turned out, and the place was packed; even if the only patrons had been riders of the bicycles parked in front, they wouldn’t have been able to seat us. So they gave us a beeper and told us we could go anywhere within four blocks for the next hour. We took the kids outside because they were being raucous. It was the best decision we could have made, because a block away was Kulshan Cycles.

This is only 1/3 of the store.

Kulshan Cycles was a store that I did recognize. It turns out they’ve been in business in the same location for 37 years, longer than my family has lived in Bellingham. I had a vague memory of going in once before, but whatever I remember pales in comparison to reality. It was in some ways the strangest bike shop I’ve ever visited.

A display like this is always a good sign.

In San Francisco, bike shops specialize. There is a shop that sells only folding bikes, and a shop that only  does repairs, a couple that sell only electric bikes, and about a bazillion that specialize in either mountain bikes or fixies. Bellingham is not big enough to have specialty bike stores. Instead, it has Kulshan, which does absolutely everything. I know just enough about bikes now that I was blown away by the diversity.

We had to drag them off these bikes, literally.

My kids ran to the kids’ bike section. The display bikes in various sizes made the only practical use of training wheels I’ve ever seen—the store had attached them to boards so that kids could use them like stationary bikes. Mine spun on those bikes for about 40 minutes, and it was very easy to see which bike fit each kid. In the meantime I walked around their enormous store, increasingly impressed.

This Brompton featured my high school colors. Nice touch.

They sell Bromptons, and had a display Brompton that I could practice folding and unfolding. And speaking of the UK, they sell Pashleys, which I had only ever heard of before, as heavy 3-speed English bicycles are about as practical as Hummers in San Francisco. They’re not very practical in Bellingham either, which is hilly, but they had one just in case.

Well hello there.

They sell mountain bikes. They sell commuter bikes, and nice ones at that. And they sell many cargo bikes! An orange Batavus Personal Delivery, which I knew listed at over $1000 (later I checked: list is $1300) was on sale for $750! It’s also not a good climber, which perhaps explains the screaming deal. But if you are in the market for a Bat, I’m guessing that even with shipping it would be tough to beat this price. They had a Trek Transport, which I’d never seen in person before. They had nearly every Surly under the sun in stock, but had recently sold their Big Dummy.

Pretty commuter bikes

At this point I had started talking to the guys on the floor. One of them told me he had built his own Xtracycle-type bike the year before the FreeRadical came out, and had put a child seat for his son on it. Then he showed me the child seats they sold; a rack-mounted seat even cheaper than the Topeak (which I now think of as the finger-slicer). They stocked that particular seat because that was what had sold historically, but had ordered and installed Yepp seats for customers recently.

Unicycles: are they more or less practical than fixies? Discuss.

I told them I was blown away by the selection. “Oh, have you seen our overpriced fixies?” they laughed, pulling out a bike painted the same flat black color as cars that speed on country roads late at night with their headlights off. I know nothing about fixies except that they have no gears and that in San Francisco they are primarily ridden by people who hate children, but evidently this one was an exemplar of the genre, as it cost $3000. And this was at a bike shop willing to sell a Bat for almost half-off. In San Francisco I presume it would sell for $5000.

When I told them I was visiting from San Francisco, they asked if I had an electric assist on my cargo bike. Because it turns out that they also sell electric assists, primarily the BionX, and given the local topography, that market has been growing. They had a loaner Trek with a BionX in the back that they let customers use for a few days if they were thinking about electric bikes, and did I want to borrow it? It was very tempting, but that bike didn’t have child seats, and they’d need a day to put them on, and we didn’t have another day.

Trailers and child seats

Would they rent it to me on a future visit? They were willing to consider it. Will I be calling them to try to rent a bike the next time I’m headed to Bellingham? You bet. But if that doesn’t come through, it turns out that there are other shops that rent bikes in town: Fairhaven Bike & Ski (which is the same vintage as Kulshan, and also offers rental trailers), Jack’s Bicycles, and Fanatik, none of which I visited but all of which I will check out if necessary, because the next time we visit Bellingham, we’ll be rolling on two wheels.

My son wanted the Sumo wrestler horn. I told him he already had a horn.

In the meantime, Kulshan has unicycles. They have beach cruisers. They have Sumo bike horns. They have multiple child trailers, which make sense to use outside of major cities. They have t-shirts with bike-friendly messages in sizes down to infant. They had a balance bike displayed on a repair stand, and that made me laugh. The employees were clever and friendly and funny and happy to see kids in the store. I liked Kulshan Cycles. Not every small city has a bike shop like this, but all of them should.

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Life in a northern town

Back in the day, people in Bellingham lived in stumps. Totally not kidding.

Over spring break, while Matt was in China, I went to visit my mom in Bellingham, Washington, where I grew up. When I was a child, it was a pretty small place, mostly populated by bombed out Vietnam War veterans and hippies. I mean this literally. My high school geography teacher was deaf from his years in a bomber. We knew people who kept goats, and sometimes the goats lived with them inside.  We foraged for berries and clams a few blocks from our house. The town was, at the time, remote.

My kids loved finding bivalves on the beach

This has changed. It is now a destination of sorts, at least for retirees. The university has grown from a glorified teaching college to a desirable place to get an education statewide. There are restaurants without the word “shack” in their names. Parts of the city have expanded so dramatically that I get lost on the new roads leading to new developments with new schools. The beaches are lined with condos. There are people who actually commute from Bellingham to Seattle, although it is 90 minutes away by car without traffic. If some parts of the US are emptying out, other parts are filling up.

Bike racks outside a downtown restaurant

When I got older I became itinerant. Since I graduated from high school, I have never lived more than three years in one place. My mom has lived in Bellingham for 35 years.  We try to visit, but manage it only rarely. On this trip I realized that although I remembered how to get around the older parts of town, I had forgotten a lot about it. It is not an accident that this was the place I learned to ride my bike. Although it is hilly, it is a bicycle-friendly place, and then some.

Bike racks at the beach

Bicycle-friendly encompasses a lot of things. I regret that I was unable to get a picture of the most outlandish bicycle I saw, which was a tandem bicycle with a gas motor rigged in the stoker position that sounded like leaf blower, dragging a stripped trailer behind. Although I spotted (and heard and smelled) this bike three times in a single week, I missed a photo because it was always moving at about 25 mph in car traffic.  Less outlandish was the couple at my mom’s church with infant twin boys, who had commuted with them in a trailer almost since they were born. (Although trailers are a poor choice for kids in San Francisco, I would feel safe with my kids in a trailer in a small town.)

Life out of balance at the county museum

While I was in town I mostly drove, because my mom hasn’t ridden a bike in years, does not currently own a bike, and lives at the top of a hill far from public transit, which is pretty limited anyway. My mom has a Prius and after driving it for a week I decided that (a) I hate driving and (b) I hate driving a Prius, which has terrible sight lines and a weird turning radius, and made me feel even more like a road hazard than usual. And getting the kids into and out of the car was a huge hassle compared to loading a bike. Going to Seattle to visit Family Ride was a relief.

But I was pleased to see all the ways that Bellingham welcomes bikes for those who choose to ride them, and encourage people who are on the fence. There are ample bike lanes and extensive bike racks. Riding bikes is subsidized, more than in San Francisco. This would be a great place to live for a biking family. While I was there, the paper covered a local move by bicycle.

Full bike racks for a yoga class

Another example: while I was in town I took some yoga classes at a studio in town. They offered free mat rentals to anyone who arrived by bike, bus, or public transit, because “it’s harder to bring your own mat that way.” A lot of people took them up on that offer. The studio, 3 Oms, was a lovely place, although my limited time there meant I had a limited choice of classes, and ended up in some inappropriate ones. The intermediate class focusing on learning new postures I visited while my daughter was napping was learning Astavakrasana (“one of the easiest arm balance poses!”), or, in my case, not learning Astavakrasana. But this kind of support for alternative transit was not unusual; I saw it all over town.

Museum-1: nice ride

And again: when we visited the county museum, I spotted a lovely commuter bicycle by the entry desk. The woman working there told me that it was purchased by the city for employees to use for errands and lunches around town. The museum had only one, but the Department of Public Works, with more employees, had four, and so on. She said she used it frequently, and wished she could afford one of her own.

Museum-1 up close, with city seal

On closer look, I could spot the city logo. For obvious reasons, they did not bother to lock this bike up.

My kids love visiting Bellingham. This always surprises me a little, as there is not much to do, relative to the city, but they like skipping school and seeing their grandmother and picking up pinecones in the woods around her condo and occasionally going a day or two without eating any vegetables. Although in the past I’ve sometimes gotten bored during a week in Bellingham, I found I enjoyed myself too. And at the end of the week, I even found a place to rent a cargo bike with an electric assist. Next time we visit, we’ll be cruising around in style.

A variety of cargo bike choices

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