Tag Archives: bike commuting

Game changer

It's more powerful than it appears.

It’s more powerful than it appears.

When we sold our car, I switched from a dumb phone to a smartphone. I wanted to be able to check bus schedules and arrange rental cars or rides easily, and for those purposes, the smartphone has performed admirably. I’ve also become one of those people who texts my husband from the bedroom while he’s in the kitchen. This is arguably less admirable, although I prefer to think of it as modeling a way to communicate without yelling. Goodness knows that message hasn’t taken yet with our kids.

Although I try not to make my attachment to the phone a 24/7 thing—I put it away at least one weekend day and am obligated to turn it off for almost all work meetings—I am more engaged with my phone than with any other device I’ve ever owned. I’m not unique in this. And in many cases this is a clear win for humanity: since the advent of camera phones, for example, reports of UFO sightings have pretty much disappeared, and that’s a mercy. Nevertheless, it’s been hard not to notice the increasingly vehement urging that people should put their phones down. In some cases this makes sense to me: I embarrass myself when I am checking the phone as my kids are talking to me. Bad parent!

I’m far less impressed with recent arguments that people should put their phones down while walking. If you don’t pay attention to traffic, the argument goes, you’ll be run over. The San Francisco police department had a whole campaign along these lines, and I found it offensive. Trust me, you can be run over while paying plenty of attention to traffic. I speak from experience. More to the point, though, no one should ever be run over in a crosswalk. Only reckless drivers pay so little attention that they run people over, and they can manage that whether you’re paying attention to the road, paying attention to your phone, or you’re a little kid crossing the street with the light while holding your dad’s hand. Pedestrians don’t kill themselves. Drivers kill them.

I am, in contrast to SFPD, a huge fan of people using their phones while walking. And the reason why became very clear recently while I was walking with my kids down Fillmore. A driver making a left turn slammed into a motorcycle, toppling it over and knocking its rider into the street. A dozen people with their phones in their hands began taking pictures the second it happened, and kept taking pictures and videos as the motorcycle rider staggered up and the car started to drive away. I didn’t have my phone out and so I watched the driver, who looked back at the motorcycle lying in the road, started to accelerate the heck out of there, and then noticed two people in the crosswalk filming his car and zooming in on his license plate. At that point, he decided to pull over after all. People walking with their phones out prevented a collision from becoming a hit-and-run that evening.

Something very similar happened when we were hit last year. Golden Gate Park is full of walkers, and they had their phones out, taking pictures, when they saw what had happened. There was also a sheriff’s deputy in the crosswalk who ran over to us yelling, “I’m a sheriff’s deputy!” so it’s hard to say whether the driver who ran us down was ever tempted to hit-and-run. However if he had been, we would have had recourse, because of all those people who ignored the advice to put their phones down.

When I see people walking and using their phones now, I am grateful. I feel that way even if they’re distracted and they sometimes walk into me. Bumping into me is annoying, true, but nothing that I don’t get already from my kids. More importantly, though, it’s a price I’m happy to pay because I know that the more phones that are out, the safer I am walking and riding on the streets. My smartphone is useful and fun and it makes my life easier. But it’s a game changer because it keeps people from getting away with murder.

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Filed under advocacy, San Francisco, traffic

San Francisco problems: bike racks

It seems tasteless to complain about the limits of San Francisco’s bike racks, a real bicycle first-world problem. Many cities are still trying to increase the number of riders on the streets, and here I am frustrated with the fact that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find a place to park my bike. Part of the reason it’s irritating, though, is that it’s such an easy problem to fix. Bike racks are cheap, there’s plenty of room for them, and the city will install them on request (at no cost to the requestor), but you can end up waiting a long time. Demand is high.

Preschool parking at the street cleaning sign.

Preschool parking at the street cleaning sign.

Last year my problem was my son’s afterschool program, which is no longer a problem because they installed a bunch of new bike racks. This year I’m still waiting for the request placed at my daughter’s preschool to make its way to the top of the list. In the meantime, we juggle with other families on bikes to lock up to the street cleaning sign. Unfortunately one (non-biking) family has a really aggressive dog that they like to tie up to the same sign (because he’s too aggressive to be around kids at the preschool itself), and although I’ve asked them politely if they could tie him to a tree instead and they said okay, they sometimes forget. The dog will attack me and my bike, and my kids understandably run away screaming when they see him, which means I’m stuck waiting for that family to leave if they arrive first.

Every morning is a cargo bike roll call at Rosa Parks.

Every morning is a cargo bike roll call at Rosa Parks.

Our son’s school has lots of racks, but there are no longer enough to meet demand. The school district has found another large bike rack for us and is working on scheduling its installation, but it’s not there yet, so the school bike racks remain pretty packed. There are street cleaning bus zone signs we can lock to if necessary, but it will be nice to have another real rack.

Around our neighborhood and my office, there’s a different problem: non-bike competition.

A bike rack can't hold much more than one shopping cart.

A bike rack can’t hold much more than one shopping cart.

We live on Parnassus Heights and thus we are well above what’s referred to locally as “the shopping cart line,” but most of our local haunts are in the flats. The library, for example, has a pretty small bike rack anyway, and it’s often occupied by a stolen shopping cart filled with someone’s worldly goods. There is increasing evidence that homelessness is a problem that can be resolved pretty cheaply by giving homeless people places to live (relative to paying for the health care and jail costs of having people live on the streets). But in a city like San Francisco, which is reluctant build new housing even for billionaires, it does not surprise me that subsidized housing is scarce.

At work the bike racks are often occupied by motorcycles and scooters, despite multiple signs saying that this is not allowed, which also direct their riders to the designated motorcycle parking area. There’s usually room for bikes as well, but the motorcycle riders always take the spot closest to the door, and motorcycles are so big that walking around them means walking into a driving lane, and they smell awful, and it’s all just annoying.

Everyone, it seems, is beginning to discover what we’ve discovered: riding a bike is the easiest way to guarantee VIP parking wherever you go.  Even when I have to lock to a parking meter or a stop sign, it only takes one attempt to drive in the city again to make me realize how good we have it still.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Mixed messages

Nearly every day on the bike I’m confronted with a mixed message. Most often, it’s the sign on a sidewalk curb cut that says “NO BICYCLES.” This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that bicycle RACKS are placed on sidewalks, typically a good distance away from the only access, which is that same curb cut. The signs don’t say “no bicycle riding on the sidewalk, not even to get to the bike rack” although that would be annoying enough. Nobody is ever forced to get out of their car and push it on foot to a parking place. The signs say “NO BICYCLES.” That means that there is often no legal way to lock a bicycle on a bicycle rack. (There may also be signs insisting that I not lock my bicycle to anything that I could reach from an area where bicycles are legally allowed.)

So I break the rules. If there aren’t people walking in the area, I ride right over that “NO BICYCLES” sign to the nearest rack to lock up. If there are people walking in the area, I usually get off and walk the bike to the rack. But in both cases I’m doing something I’ve been told I shouldn’t do.

There is no real space for bicycles, so when I’m riding my bike I’m constantly confronted with rules that contradict each other. As a result, at least once a day I have to make a decision about which rule I’m going to have to break so that I can follow a different rule.

When people complain that bicycle riders are “scofflaws” I think: how could riders be anything else? In San Francisco, I am legally forbidden from riding on the sidewalk, even though the sidewalk is the only place I can find a bicycle rack (or a meter). That’s before you even consider the road rules that drivers routinely ignore. In California, cars making a right turn across a bicycle lane are supposed to pull into the right lane near the corner, where the bike lane has dashed lines, before making a turn. If they are, as a result, stuck behind a bicycle that has reached the intersection first and is going straight: so be it. It is like being stuck behind a car going straight when you want to turn right. You have to wait for the car in front to go. When I’m on a bicycle, drivers assume that they can pull in front of me from the left lane and make a right turn on red, or block me from going straight on green, just because they’re in a car. It happens every single day. Some days I have had two cars make right turns on a red light in front of me at the same time, one from the right side (using an open parking spot) and one from the left side (using the car lane). Apparently bicycles don’t count as vehicles. Often drivers will start honking if there isn’t enough room for them to make a right turn on red light in front of me. I’m never sure what they want me to do, exactly. Maybe they want me to ride on the sidewalk. As a result, every day I have to worry that I’m going to be right-hooked at a dead stop.

The same drivers that I see doing these things, or rolling through stop signs without slowing, or stopping at red lights and checking for cross traffic and then cheerfully running right through them, insist that all bicycle riders should follow the rules of the road to the letter. Which rules? Should I risk being run over (again) by an angry driver to follow the rules of the road, or should I risk being run over (again) by an angry driver who’s insisting that I break the rules of the road? Decisions, decisions. PS: way to set a good example, guys.

When bicycle riders ask for separated infrastructure, they’re not asking for special privileges, they’re asking for clarification. For now it is simply impossible to do the “right” thing as a bicycle rider in the United States. That would be easy to change, and we’d all be a lot safer—everyone, whether traveling on foot, on a bike, or in a car or bus or train—if it did change.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco

Winter riding, San Francisco style

My winter bicycling cred is nonexistent. There are families I know who ride in snow and ice and purchase things like studded tires. I live in California for a reason—I would rather tackle the mega-hills of San Francisco than deal with being cold or hot. When I got accepted to Berkeley for my PhD I was living in Boston, and I used to read the weather reports for San Francisco every morning, longingly. I’ve never looked back.

So when I learned that temperatures this week would be below freezing and that we might get snow, I was horrified. San Francisco, you hussy!

But I was not completely unprepared. Last year temperatures in the city dropped below freezing as well. (Thanks a lot, anthropogenic climate change.) As an adherent of the “no bad weather, only bad gear” school when it comes to rain, I decided to try the same approach for cold.

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Short sleeves under the canopy no matter what the weather

Most of the time when it’s cold the kids go into the Bullitt, because although I generally consider my children intelligent, when it comes to dressing for the weather they are complete idiots. “I don’t need my jacket! I’m too cold! Wah!” Repeat ad infinitum. The canopy on the Bullitt is advertised as a rain canopy, but it also blocks wind and warms up like a greenhouse with a kid or two inside. They wear jackets in there but only because it’s cold in the garage before they get in, and we give them a blanket, but mostly they use it to play peekaboo. Once I shoved my daughter under there in her pajamas with a blanket over her to get my son to school when Matt was away, and she slept the whole trip. I don’t think she even realized she was not in a bed (we get earthquakes here, the bouncing was a non-issue).

A trailer would work the same way, of course.

She's smiling under there but who can tell? Under the blanket: Muddy Buddy and rain boots.

She’s smiling under there but who can tell? Under the blanket: Muddy Buddy and rain boots.

However we do occasionally have to get the kids around in a child seat. This morning, alas, was one of those times. I took my daughter to preschool solo, and Matt had the Bullitt. What she wore: regular shirt and pants, because her preschool is well-heated. For kids’ outerwear, given that kids are not moving on the bike but have to deal with a lot of wind, I wanted both insulation and windproofing. So over that she got her Muddy Buddy, her ski jacket, her ski mittens, her rain boots, a fleece balaclava, and a stadium blanket that’s fleece on one side and waterproofed fabric on the other. Result: she said she was warm and kept asking me to take the blanket off. So when we got to preschool I took the blanket off.  “I’m too cold!!!” Quelle surprise.

This is an outrageously stupid look but the only thing that bothers me about it is that other parents can't see me smiling when they pass by and I worry that I'm coming off as rude.

This is an outrageously stupid look but the only thing that bothers me about it is that other parents can’t see me smiling when they pass by and I worry that I’m coming off as rude.

In serious cold I would add her ski goggles over the balaclava, but that hasn’t happened yet. I suspect this level of gear would serve a non-San Francisco kid in much more bracing temperatures. With all the waterproofing, it would shrug off sleet as well. Not that I would feel comfortable riding a bike up and down hills on sleet-covered streets.

Rain pants, rain boots. Not seen: dress pants, merino wool long underwear.

Rain pants, rain boots. Not seen: dress pants, merino wool long underwear.

And how did I dress today when it’s 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 Celsius, 272 Kelvin) in San Francisco? On the top: merino wool long underwear with a cashmere sweater over. On the bottom: merino wool long underwear and socks, with dress pants over them, and leather loafers. Outerwear: Long wool coat, cashmere scarf, silk balaclava, merino wool gloves, ski mittens, rain pants, and rain booties. The rain pants and rain booties are waterproof, so they also block all wind (that means I didn’t really need the long underwear for my legs, but the heat in my office is unpredictable so I wore them anyway). Is this total overkill? Absolutely. The result? I got overheated. I call that an unqualified success.

I am a total weather wimp, as mentioned, so I’m guessing that my ridiculous getup would keep a normal person comfortable at temperatures way below freezing. And everything that I don’t wear once I get to the office can be stuffed into my helmet when I get to work, so it’s space-efficient.

Ski mittens, not ski gloves.

Ski mittens, not gloves.

The insight to ditch biking gloves and jump directly to ski mittens comes from the many fine riding parents of Rosa Parks Elementary School. Thanks, guys.  I credit the family riders of Portland for the insight of wearing merino wool long underwear under everything, a tip I’ve passed on to my chronically cold mom, who is even more delighted than I am. Wearing rain gear in the cold is my personal innovation. I did it because I already had the rain gear, but as a windstopper the rain gear is unparalleled.

And that’s how I ride when it gets cold(ish) in San Francisco. I may look stupid, but I’m still having fun.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Growing up

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

We love having the Bullitt to haul our kids (and a lot of other stuff) around San Francisco, and I continue to be impressed that we can squeeze a 4-year-old and an 8-year-old into the standard front box with minimal squabbling. And with the rain canopy they never get cold or wet. Sometimes we don’t even bother to put on their shoes. However I began to wonder after a while whether riding in the box was possibly too appealing.  We got our son a geared bike for his birthday last year (a Torker Interurban, more on this bike later) when we realized that trying to get a single speed bike up the hills around our neighborhood was making him hate riding. For several months it seemed like we had waited too long. In combination with his general neophobia, he mostly ignored the new bike and asked to ride in the Bullitt instead. Our daughter loves her balance bike but was too short to get on the trailer bike or a decent pedal bike.

Ultimately I decided not to worry about it. I figured they’d want to ride more on their own eventually, probably when temperatures crept up in the spring, at which point we’d also have moved downhill. I find the riders who pull up next to us and shout “you should make them pedal!” beyond tiresome. Getting up to Parnassus Heights is no joke for strong and experienced riders, even with an assist, let alone little kids. How about I don’t tell you that you look stupid in lycra hotpants, and you don’t tell me how to get my kids up an 18% grade, mmmkay?

Weekend grocery shopping with scooter

Weekend grocery shopping with scooter

And yet. To my surprise, over the last month, both kids have decided that they want to ride on their own. Our daughter’s legs finally got long enough that she could hop aboard the Roland and actually turn the pedals (a side effect of getting a German trailer-bike that I hadn’t considered is that Germans are crazy-tall). Our son flipped a switch in his head one day and decided to try riding his scooter to the library, and realized almost immediately that scooters are much slower than bicycles. The next day he wanted to ride his bike instead.

Heading out on the Torker Interurban

Heading out on the Torker Interurban

So now on weekends we are a family caravan. Our son rides his own bike, and our daughter rides the trailer-bike hitched onto the Bullitt. Sure, she hasn’t yet completely mastered the idea that you want to move the pedals forward while going forward, but she can give a noticeable assist when she does remember. Our son, with much encouragement, finally realized that shifting into a low gear to go up hills is neither difficult nor shameful, and he is chugging up some pretty impressive grades. Aside from some trouble with braking on steep downhills (which I completely understand because I’ve been there) he is a capable and safe rider. The front box is now available for friends or groceries or library books, or we can put one of our kids and/or the little bike in there if the ride gets too long or cold or hilly.

It's hard to see, but Matt has a 4 year old and 2 year old in the front box as well as our daughter on the trailer-bike.

It’s hard to see, but Matt has a 4 year old and 2 year old in the front box as well as our daughter on the trailer-bike.

I expect that there will be some backsliding into the comfort of the Bullitt box when winter digs in, but I can see the future from here. We still have some logistics to work out, because the bus that takes our son to his afterschool program does not have bike racks (yet! In the meantime I have contemplated getting him a Brompton.) Sometime next year we’ll have moved to the bottom of the hill, and the prospect of getting home after a long ride will not seem nearly as daunting to them. And once we live on a quiet and flat street, our daughter can practice riding a pedal bike near home. I worried once that we’d have to coax them into riding, but they started when they were ready.

Eventually we won’t have to carry them at all. But we’ll keep the Bullitt, of course. I love that bike, and I hear that teenage boys eat a lot of groceries.

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Filed under Bullitt, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike

Grace

This is how our kids figured out bikes, in Copenhagen.

This is how our kids figured out bikes, in Copenhagen.

I remember my grandfather teaching me to ride a bike. There were tricycles at preschool that everyone rode, and my parents had gotten me a banana yellow Schwinn with training wheels—balance bikes were nothing anyone had heard of in suburban Seattle at the time—but I was afraid of falling down on a bike with only two wheels. Our parents rode bicycles, carrying us through the neighborhood in their front baskets or perched on a top tube, but didn’t have the time or patience to teach us to ride. My grandfather took the training wheels off my bike while visiting one summer, and ran up and down the driveway with me, holding onto the seat. After a while I realized he was running up and down with me and not holding onto the seat. Then I fell down.  By the end of the day I was riding by myself. For years afterward I never really thought about my riding skills again.

Velib, the Parisian bike share, only appeared after we lived there--sometimes I think how much sooner I could have gotten back on a bike.

Velib, the Parisian bike share, only appeared after we lived there–sometimes I think how much sooner I could have gotten back on a bike.

I grew up riding that bicycle and later, a 10-speed, to visit friends and parks. But like most of my friends, when I was old enough to drive I started taking many of those trips by car. After a while the only people I met on bicycles were the friends, like me, who’d kept their bicycles lying around. After I graduated from college I bought a car and left the bike in my mom’s garage. The car, along with almost everything else I owned, eventually got sold in one of the frequent moves around the country and the world. It became easier to rely on public transportation and my own feet, which were always with me no matter how skimpy the luggage allowance.

We rented bikes just to get to this museum, and what a great decision that was.

We rented bikes just to get to this museum, and what a great decision that was.

We had children and another car, a minivan, before I got back on a bike again during a visit to Copenhagen. It had been years, and climbing back on a rental bike with my daughter strapped into a seat on the back took some nerve. I was wobbly and nervous, but the infrastructure in Copenhagen is designed for that. My primary goal was not to fall down, and I managed that and more. By the end of that day I wanted to ride a bicycle everywhere with our kids, even the hills of San Francisco, and even though I was anything but graceful on that bike.

Once our kids discovered bicycles they wouldn't get off.

Once our kids discovered bicycles they wouldn’t get off.

Coming back to riding a bicycle after a long hiatus was humbling. Getting better at something, unfortunately, usually implies that you start out being really bad at it. Most of the families we meet on bikes are made up of people who never stopped riding. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched someone test-ride one of our bikes and envied how easily they swung on and off it and how neatly they turned. For a long time I was not one with the bike. I rarely stopped exactly where I’d intended to stop, I tangled up my legs while getting on and off, and I dropped my poor bike many times. Even worse, the stakes were higher for me than for other riders, because I often had a kid on the bike.

Once you start noticing, there are cool bikes everywhere.

Once you start noticing, there are cool bikes everywhere.

Over time I got more graceful. Now I stop where I mean to stop. I still get a little thrill every time I successfully dismount in motion and pull up right at a rack where I want to lock up, or swing up onto the bike as I push off. I lost a lot of riding skills when I was disabled and couldn’t ride, but I’m still a better rider than I was two years ago. Sure, I’m horrible on an unfamiliar bike, and starting from a stop is difficult with my bad leg. Sometimes I drop my bike when walking it because I forget to compensate for my limp (although I don’t feel too badly about dropping a bike that’s already been run over). But I know that the grace I developed will come back eventually.

I spent a lot of my life being unhappy with my body, which is evidently the price of being a woman in America. From puberty onward I didn’t like how I looked, and when we decided to have children I despised my body for the seemingly endless miscarriages. A year after my daughter was born I still weighed 50 pounds more than I had five years earlier. I was glad when I lost that weight but I still didn’t feel that my body was worth appreciating much. It took developing a skill to do that, and to my surprise the skill that finally felt worth developing was riding a bicycle with my kids on it.

I learned how to walk again on the anti-gravity treadmill, but I don't need it anymore.

I learned how to walk again on the anti-gravity treadmill, but I don’t need it anymore.

Then being run over changed everything again. I was mowed down with a few thousand pounds of steel six months ago and now I am walking again without a cane. Granted I have a limp, but still: go, body, go! No one can tell I was even injured when I’m riding a bike. Now the scars on my legs are more noteworthy than anything else about how I look, and I find that having made peace with those scars—which are healing pretty well—I can’t really get uptight about wearing skinny jeans or a swimsuit. I am bemused to find, in the last few months, that when I think about my body I only feel gratitude, because it healed. Even though I’m still clumsy, I find it pretty easy to get around now. I have all the grace I need, and I earn a little more back every day. I couldn’t ask for more.

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Filed under family biking, injury

We tried it: Ridekick cargo trailer

The Ridekick cargo trailer, unattached

The Ridekick cargo trailer (unattached) with Brompton

I was pretty impressed with the Ridekick child trailer, but it’s still a prototype so you can’t buy it yet. However I did recently get to try the Ridekick cargo trailer, which anyone can buy right now.

I originally started looking at an assisted trailer as a possible way of getting around the city when I was just back to weight-bearing and much weaker. I had hopes that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offered one of them as a membership benefit—they do have other trailers for members to use. But no such luck. However Ridekick was willing to drop one off and let us use it for a while, which was absolutely fabulous of them.

The appeal for me of an assisted trailer was that it was a temporary solution to my problems getting around by bike while I figured out how much strength I’d get back in the longer term. Other people, I suspect, are interested in an assisted trailer for different reasons. My sense after riding with both trailers and assisted trailers is that they are a product for people who need to haul loads sometimes. If you are riding with your kids every single day and rarely ride without them, it probably makes more sense to jump right to a cargo bike or assisted cargo bike. It is more fun to ride with the kids on the bike, in cities with a lot of traffic it feels safer to ride with the kids on the bike, and some of the logistical issues with the trailer, like the fact that it can be a pain to park, go away. But if money is tight or if there are a lot of pickup and drop-off swaps between parents, then a child trailer makes a lot of sense. And if you are hauling a bunch of tools or equipment every day then you don’t need me to tell you to consider a Bikes At Work trailer or a cargo trike or whatever.

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

If you’re looking at an (assisted) cargo trailer, maybe you have a fast and light bike but want to do major grocery shopping on the weekends, or have a long commute and want to bring a week’s worth of clean clothes on Monday and haul them back on Friday. For that kind of thing, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to add a rear rack, and a trailer will probably carry more anyway. Some people will view hauling an unassisted trailer as strength training and other people not so much. If not so much, the Ridekick cargo trailer is worth a look.

What I liked about the cargo trailer:

  • It made heavy loads disappear. One day I packed it up with over a dozen hardback library books and then bought milk and yogurt (in glass bottles) and some other groceries. Starting to pull a load like that in the trailer nearly yanked my little folding bike backwards, but a push from the assist made riding normal again. We live on a fairly substantial hill, yet I had no fears about making it home.
  • The Ridekick trailer works with any bike! I had never seriously considered putting an assist on my Brompton, as that would make it too heavy to carry, and I got a folding bike specifically for times I needed to actually take a bike places I couldn’t ride one. But putting the Ridekick trailer on the Brompton was no problem. I wish that these trailers were more available as rentals because they’re also a great way to try out riding with an assist—not being able to imagine what an assist feels like and to judge whether it is worth it seems to be a real sticking point for people who are considering one. I think that is very understandable given the price and hassle of installing electric assist on a bicycle.
  • This may be my personal issue, but riding with a cargo trailer made me feel more protected from traffic. When I started riding again I was still pretty jumpy when cars pulled up behind me, given that I had been run over from behind. Although it’s a very unlikely way to get hit on a bicycle statistically speaking, I needed time to get over my wariness. With a cargo trailer behind me I knew that it was pretty likely any car would be slowed down significantly by running over the trailer before it managed to get to me. If that had happened I would, of course, have felt pretty bad about destroying Ridekick’s trailer, but not THAT bad. (This concern in reverse, however, is one of my greatest reservations about riding with a child trailer.)
  • I have tried a throttle assist on bicycles (the Yuba elMundo) and it wasn’t my favorite, but I may not have given it enough time because the throttle assist on the Ridekick really grew on me. As a weaker rider it was really nice to feel like I could push the throttle to the max and get pulled up the hill when I needed that. The throttle itself is a push toggle and it’s quite sensitive. By pushing it lightly I could keep the assist low enough that I actually felt like my pedaling was adding something. In practice because I was trying to build strength I tended to max the assist when I was fading and catch my breath, then let it go and use the momentum the bike had gained to pedal part of the way on my own again. This got me up quite a few big hills that I couldn’t have done solo, let alone with a kid on board (I usually have a kid on board). I suspect that a lot of people could use the Ridekick this way: to build up strength. For regular use I still prefer a pedal assist but for occasional use the throttle makes a lot of sense.
  • By comparison to a decent assisted bicycle, the Ridekick cargo trailer is pretty cost-effective at $700. Yes, there are big box store style e-bikes that sell for $500 but they are junk—they have very limited range, weigh as much as boat anchors, and have batteries that will die within a few months and can’t be replaced. The Ridekick has a lot more useful life than that. It’s not useful in all the ways that an assisted bicycle would be, but for many people’s needs, an assisted bicycle would be overkill.

My reservations about the Ridekick:

  • Probably my biggest problem with the cargo trailer was that I had the chance to try the child trailer first. I liked the child trailer much better, even as a way to haul cargo. The cargo trailer is much smaller, capable of holding a couple of bags of groceries. The child trailer could haul a couple of bags of groceries AND two seven year olds, or several bags of groceries and one kid, or a giant pile of donations to Goodwill. I kept thinking of the cargo version as a single person’s trailer. It wasn’t right for the volume of stuff that I wanted to carry. I don’t think I’m the target market for this trailer.
  • All trailers, including the Ridekick, can be tricky to park. It’s actually a lot smaller than child trailers, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but at the racks at my office, for example, I had to scoot it around a little to make sure it wasn’t hanging out into the car parking places where it might get run over.
  • The battery is in the body of the trailer itself, which is fine and makes sense given that batteries are heavy, but unfortunately that means there is no way to tell how much charge is left without stopping to open the trailer. So I had a fair bit of range anxiety at the end of the day when I was riding with it. This turned out not to be justified at any point, because its range was actually pretty generous—I rack up about 10 miles up and down some major hills just going to and from work and dropping off and picking up a kid or two—and I never actually ran the battery down despite using it, especially at the beginning, pretty profligately. However I never knew how much power was left until I stopped riding, and that made me edgy. This was particularly the case because at the time my limp was so pronounced that I had a lot of trouble walking my bike up hills.
  • I did not like the attachment for the trailer. It screws on using a plate attached through the rear axle, which is pretty traditional for trailers. My sense was that it was both too easy and too hard to release. It was too easy because there after a couple of weeks the trailer fell off the bike while I was riding—in regular use, you need to tighten the screw regularly. FYI. It was too hard because if the screw was tightened appropriately, you needed tools to take it off. Given that the market for this trailer is almost certainly an occasional user, I felt like it should work like the Burley Travoy, which has a snap-in attachment that can be operated by hand. The wiring for the assist, interestingly, worked just that simply. To remove the assist wiring from the bike you only needed to pull out the plug, and to reattach it to push the plug back in. I wanted the trailer itself to attach and release that easily.
  • An issue that I suspect is more Ridekick’s problem than mine is that everyone who saw me seemed to think the trailer was homemade. People told me it was very cool and then asked me how I’d put it together, which ha ha. I suspect that the Ridekick cargo trailer would sell better if it looked a little more professional, somehow. This is the market that I’m pretty sure the Burley Travoy is targeting—the ride to work on Monday with a bunch of work clothes in the bag and return with the trailer full of dirty clothes on Friday set.  Or maybe the Ridekick just needs a bigger logo. In neon colors. I don’t know.

So the Ridekick cargo trailer: pretty cool although it’s not quite right for us (the child trailer, on the other hand, I want for traveling).

The Ridekick is the only assist I know of that you can use with a Brompton and still have the ability to lift the bike up by hand.

The Ridekick is the only assist I know of that you can use with a Brompton and still have the ability to lift the bike up by hand.

Probably the greatest thrill of riding with the Ridekick attached was being able to take my Brompton anywhere with a kid on board. Getting it up the hill where we live was simply impossible for me for most of last year, if not to this day. The commutes with the Brompton+Ridekick were some of the most memorable I’ve taken all year because I had such great conversations with my kids during those rides. On one trip home my son (almost 8 years old and still fitting on the Brompton front child seat!) relayed me the entire plot of a series of Avengers comic books, which although it did not really interest me at all, was exciting because he was so excited about it. On another trip my daughter taught me some of the Japanese songs she learned at preschool. I love carrying my kids on that seat more than any other bike seat, but the Brompton gets less use than I’d like because of the hill. With the Ridekick cargo trailer, I could carry them and all our stuff and not have to worry about any of that. “Make it go fast!” they yell when we got to a hill. And I could.

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco

The only thing we have to fear

In words of my husband: "Look! It's gimpy on her death machine."

In words of my husband: “Look! It’s gimpy on her death machine.”

I get a lot of questions about how I’m getting around after being hit by a car. The answer is that I mostly ride my bike. It’s a lot easier than walking, I can always park right in front of where I’m going which means less walking than if we drove, and we still don’t have a car anyway. This often surprises people. They assume that I’ve taken up driving. “You’re so brave!” they say, which sometimes sounds a bit like “You’re crazy!”

I would be lying if I said there aren’t moments when I am afraid. It comes up particularly at intersections when I want to turn left, because, duh, I was run over from behind at a stop sign while trying to turn left. I make a lot of Copenhagen left turns now. Cars coming up behind me make me really nervous still. But it’s getting better. My personal experience notwithstanding, getting run down from behind is statistically speaking the least likely way to get injured while riding a bicycle. I just have put the time in so that my emotions can catch up with what I know.

We still haven't really missed the minivan.

We still haven’t really missed the minivan.

I’d also be lying if I said we didn’t consider buying a car. There was a lot of driving to appointments when I was incapacitated, and we didn’t know when I’d be mobile again. However our flirtation with the idea of getting a car was pretty brief. With my right leg broken, I couldn’t drive any more than I could walk, and if someone else was going to drive me, I might as well take a shuttle or call for a ride. Moreover, I learned from my surgeon and other patients that the most common cause of my particular injury—a shattered leg—was getting T-boned in a car. I talked to people who’d been trapped in their cars for hours while being sawed out and were understandably phobic about ever getting into one again (at least the EMTs could scrape me off the street and set up a morphine drip right away). A lot of people have had this experience, and they didn’t exactly sell me on the safety of driving in lieu of biking. On top of that, cars are really expensive, and we had plenty of other things to spend money on at the time. And I wasn’t really feeling very car-friendly after being smashed by one either.

For the first month after my surgeries, I was supposed to stay in bed for 23 hours a day. For entertainment, I could use the continuous passive motion machine, which slowly bent my leg for me to improve my range of motion, up to eight hours a day. It was very boring. I was surprised to learn how serious my surgeon was about not just staying in bed, but staying at home. Even though the steel plate he put in my leg supported the bones, they were still in pieces, and he would have preferred that I never went outside at all. Even being bumped by someone passing me on the street could knock the bones out of alignment and require them to be reset, which would also restart the clock on how long I had to stay off my leg. Every time I fell down while using crutches, he wanted to take another x-ray to see if the bones had shifted. During that time I left the house at most once a week, to go grocery shopping. Matt drove a rental car over so I could shop while riding an electric cart.  As pathetic as that was, it was still a total thrill compared to anything else I had going on at the time.

I think a lot about this when people ask me now about the risks of getting hit again while on a bicycle, which people often do although it is the last thing I want to contemplate. If we were really concerned about injury above all else, we should never leave our couches. Even walking around our neighborhood risks injury, and I could avoid that by never leaving the house. But no one would suggest that it was a good idea to sit on the couch all day to avoid the risk of getting hurt by tripping on the sidewalk or bumping into someone. Even my surgeon wants me to walk around now, so my bones will regrow faster. Staying inside is risky in a different way—bodies were meant to move, and sitting around all day makes people unhealthy. Instead of sitting “safely” on the couch, we’re all advised to get out of the house and rack up at least 10,000 steps per day, broken sidewalks or no.

It’s this that I think about when I think about driving instead of riding a bike. On a per mile basis, yes, bicycling has higher injury rates than driving, but of course people go much further distances when driving. On a per hour basis the risk of injury is very similar. But driving a car is the physical equivalent of sitting on a couch, and our bodies were meant to move. When the risks of chronic disease are included, riding a bike is several times safer than driving, despite the higher risk of injury. Those injuries are the statistical equivalent of tripping on the sidewalk, and most of them are about as dangerous—most injuries sustained on a bicycle involve only the rider and are preventable. What happened to me was terrifying and dramatic and depressing (especially the part where I learned yesterday that my leg probably won’t be fully healed until early 2015, so I am basically all about assisted bikes from this point forward) but it was also anomalous.

Ride on.

Ride on.

By the time I was allowed to actually bear weight on my leg, I was so stir-crazy that I would have tried almost any activity, but walking was hard (it’s still hard). Luckily for me, our bicycles were waiting in the basement. I can’t walk at normal speeds yet, and I get tired quickly, but I can ride like anyone else. And although some days I have more trouble believing it than I should, I know there’s really nothing to fear. In the long term, riding a bicycle is still the safest way to get around.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, injury, San Francisco

Where’s your helmet, mom?

He can remember a stick and headlamp for a camping trip, but remembering jackets or a bike helmet: boring.

He can remember a stick and headlamp for a camping trip, but remembering jackets or a bike helmet: boring.

The other day when I picked up my son at his after school program, he ran over and started to hop aboard. “Where’s your helmet?” I asked. “Uh…” he said. “I guess I left it at school.”

This is not the first time that’s happened. Kids forget stuff. In the first year of kindergarten our son lost so many jackets we finally lost all patience and sent him to school in shirt sleeves in January (recall that we live in San Francisco: he was chilly but we’re not monsters). At that time, he was taking a school district bus to his after school program and they took all lost items to their central facility on the southeastern edge of the city. Those jackets were gone forever.

Our problems are compounded by the fact that his dad drops him off, and then he goes to an off-site after school program where I pick him up, but it happens even when we pick up our daughter, who stays in the same location all day but is missing one sock at pickup three days out of every five.

So what do we do when our kids forget their helmets? We take it on the chin. California has a helmet law for kids but not for adults, our kids have giant heads, and our helmets are adjustable. I give my son my helmet and I go bare. I don’t like doing this, AT ALL—I mean, I’m still recovering from being run over and I am basically still the world’s most paranoid bicycle rider—but it’s often the best of the available options. Some of our bikes fit on a bus bike rack, and we have done that once with a forgotten helmet, but it takes an extra half hour that we don’t always have.

As a parent, though, handing off your helmet to your kid for the ride home is a guaranteed ticket to heckling. People stop next to me and yell, “Where’s your helmet, mom?!? COME ON!” And I always reply wearily, “He left his helmet at school so I gave him my helmet.” And they say, “Oh.” But I know there are hundreds more people who say nothing right then but remain righteously indignant that there are parents! Who don’t wear helmets! Setting a bad example! On the streets! WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PARENTS!!! I see them at community meetings and they sure do fire up the internet.

We notice the world when walking to school too, like these carvings in Japantown.

We notice the world when walking to school too, like these carvings in Japantown.

Being on a bicycle sometimes means that you can’t hide from your surroundings. That’s often a good thing. I like riding a bike in part because we’re engaged with the world around us. I like being aware of the weather outside, even if that means wearing rain gear. But while parents in cars don’t have to reveal that they forced a screaming toddler into that car seat or that they forgot the booster seat for the friend who they promised to take home, on a bike there’s no way to keep the world from seeing, and a lot of people don’t shrink from sharing their opinions. I don’t care about it that much, but at the end of the day when I am already tired, the judgment can get old. I don’t peek in car windows and criticize other people for putting a five year old in the front without a car seat, so it would be nice to get a break on the days my son forgets his helmet.

We live in a country where it seems normal that a kid on a balance bike at Sunday Streets would wear a helmet. I would like that to change.

We live in a country where it seems normal that a kid on a balance bike at Sunday Streets–where there are no cars–would wear a helmet. I would like that to change.

It would of course be even better to live in a place with safe infrastructure like a network of protected bike lanes, and laws that protected vulnerable road users, and 15mph speed limits, so that we wouldn’t even need helmets. But who am I kidding.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, injury, San Francisco

The deceptively “empty” bike lane

New building with old exhibits.

New building with old exhibits.

This weekend we headed to the new Exploratorium. Because the Bullitt is in the shop with broken spokes (sigh), we took Muni.  That meant an unusual amount of walking for me, all the way from Embarcadero station to Pier 15 and back. It would have been a much better day to ride, both because the weather was outstanding and because the Embarcadero bike lanes had been expanded for the weekend due to the America’s Cup. And it would also have been a better day to ride because I still can’t walk very far on my bad leg so I passed out in exhaustion as soon as we got home. Such is life. I have no stamina.

Watching the traffic along the Embarcadero was fascinating, and because my kids are even slower and more easily distracted than I am, I had plenty of time to think about it.

One painted lane and one temporary lane with barriers

One painted lane and one temporary lane with barriers

A while ago I read a fantastic book, Human Transit, which talked about how irritated drivers can get seeing “empty” bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes during car traffic jams. The perceived emptiness of the BRT lanes leads solo drivers to complain that these lanes take away capacity for solo drivers for no good reason. But as Walker (the author) points out, the “empty” BRT lane typically allows a fully-loaded bus to pass at least every five minutes, carrying 50-100 passengers apiece. Drivers see BRT lanes as “empty” because they are stuck in place, but their perception is flawed. Taking away the BRT would trade an hourly throughput of 600-1200 (at worst) people on buses for an hourly throughput of a few dozen people in automobiles (at best). Having the lane clear enough that buses whiz through uninterrupted is what makes BRT work.

Of course, buses aren’t full all the time. However they are almost always full when traffic is backed up, and no driver cares how many buses are in a BRT lane if private auto traffic is moving quickly. If moving people around is the goal, then pretty much every street that ever has a full bus should have a protected BRT lane. At which point more people will want to ride the bus, which would further reduce private auto traffic: it’s a virtuous circle. Everybody wins! The city is now providing less traffic for solo drivers and quicker trips for transit riders. Yet because of the false perception that the lanes are always “empty” installing protected BRT lanes has been incredibly controversial.

Rider approaching and moving fast; cars stopped dead

Rider approaching and moving fast; cars stopped dead

I thought about this as I watched drivers in cars fume in traffic on the Embarcadero, glaring at the usually-for-cars lane that had been removed to make a two-way (mostly) protected bike lane. To people stuck in the abysmal auto traffic along the Embarcadero, the bike lane looked “empty.” Early in the morning, when we were there, a bike (or group of bikes) passed northbound roughly every ten seconds, though that’s an average—sometimes a minute would pass with no bikes, then there would be a handful, etc.

Weekend riders--bikes with trailer-bikes.

Weekend riders–bikes with trailer-bikes.

The bikes passed much faster than we could walk, but because of the traffic we were walking faster than the people in cars. In about a half-mile of watching northbound traffic, I saw cars reach stop lights, lurch forward into the next clump of traffic, then wait several light cycles to get to the front of the line, and then repeat. I estimate that about 30 cars got as far as we did in 20 minutes—the same cars I saw when we started our walk. In the same amount of time, a northbound bike passed every 10 seconds, so that one bike lane moved 120 bikes. Now if you assumed that all those cars were holding four people (you would be wrong, most were solo drivers), that would mean that at 9am on a Sunday a single “empty” bike lane was moving as many people as multiple lanes dedicated to private auto traffic. However the cars were mostly filled with 1-2 people, even on a weekend. Moreover, weekend bike riders tend to be more family-oriented, so probably a quarter of the bikes we saw were hauling 1-3 kids in addition to the rider (the 3-kid bike was a BionX Madsen!) So the comparison is really more like throughput of:

  • 50 people in cars using 3 lanes vs.
  • 150 people on bikes using 1 lane.

And this was early in the morning—on the way back I gave up trying to count bikes because there were so many more of them in the lane by lunchtime. Car traffic was, if anything, more abysmal.

This BionX Madsen was assisted by The New Wheel over a year ago and has its own Facebook page.

This BionX Madsen was assisted by The New Wheel over a year ago and has its own Facebook page.

The irony, of course, is that these incredibly desirable “empty” lanes are public. They’re available to anyone who wants to use them. All you have to do is get on a bus or a bike—and if I can carry my kids on a bike even with a gimpy leg, and a senior on an oxygen tank can ride a trike while hauling his oxygen tank, and a man with no legs can hand-wheel his way along the same path, I have to think that nearly anyone can manage one option or the other. Really, the only way to take away the freedom to travel uninterrupted is to give that “empty” lane to cars.

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Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco, traffic