Tag Archives: bike commuting

“Why do cargo bikes cost so much?”

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

I usually talk about bikes with people who already ride bikes, often cargo bikes, and they don’t freak out when they see the prices of cargo bikes. They may not like the idea of paying for a bike (who would? free is always better) but they understand.

That said, I also hear pretty regularly from people who haven’t purchased a bike since childhood, if ever, and their usual response to the idea that any bike, no matter what it can do, might cost more than $100, is, “It costs HOW much?!?” Followed by the usual, “I could buy a used car,” “I could buy a moped,” muttering and suspicions of profiteering. [Note: for exact numbers, check my many reviews; I always list a price or a range of prices. That said, in general you’re looking at somewhere between $1,500 for an unassisted cargo bike at the low end to $7,500 to a seriously tricked-out, kid-hauling, weather-proofed and assisted cargo bike at the high end, although, as always, devotees can figure out ways to spend more.] This came up again recently, and so I am finally writing about it.

So for those who haven’t purchased bicycles for a while, first things first: All bicycles cost more now than they did when we were kids. That’s inflation. For those of us living in San Francisco, well, the bicycles people ride here cost more than the cruisers students ride around on in college because San Francisco has hills, and if you want to ride your bike up a hill instead of walking it you need gears, and once you introduce gears you are in a whole new world of parts and engineering and labor. So while a new Linus single-speed starts at $400 (curse you, inflation), by the time you get up to 8 speeds a new Dutchi (with no racks or lights) will run more like $850. That only gets us about halfway to the price of a cargo bike at the low end, though. What’s going on?

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

The demands placed on a bike that carries one person and a backpack are very different from the demands placed on a bike that may carry 1-2 adults, 1-4 kids, a cartload of groceries, school backpacks, musical instruments, toys, games, beach tents, a mattress, a bookcase, and tow a trailer, sometimes ALL AT THE SAME TIME. All hail the cargo bike, the minivan slayer! What’s different? Well, if you’re riding that cargo bike unassisted you may well want a wider gear range, because it’s hard to pick up speed with those kinds of loads. More gears=higher costs. The frame has to be stronger, because a cargo bike with a 250-pound load limit (common on bikes intended to carry one person) is ridiculously inadequate. That requires both more materials (=higher costs) and in most cases, a redesign of the frame (=higher costs, engineers have to eat too). If you are carrying those kinds of loads, you’ll also need a different kind of wheel, one with more or thicker spokes to support the weight (=higher costs). If you’re carrying kids, then getting more frequent flats in exchange for thinner, lighter weight tires is a bad deal, so you will probably want heavy flat-resistant monster tires (=higher costs). If you are heading down a steep hill with a heavy load, you will want much better brakes than are common on single-person bicycles (=much higher costs, and worth every penny). You can of course save money by building a bike yourself, but the relevant parts will still cost more.

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

And then there is the assist. There are the mighty-calfed among us, who laugh merrily at the very idea of putting an assist on their bicycles. “Why I carry 300-pound loads of construction materials up the mighty hills of Chicago all the time!” they crow. “You lazy bums don’t need to waste your money on an electric assist! You need the exercise!” And then there are the rest of us, who may be coming to riding after a long layoff, or in the wake of an injury (cough, cough), or who simply don’t view riding around town with kids as a way to achieve Maximum Heart Rate. And even if none of those things applied, the people who “see no reason for an assist” typically have no clue what’s involved in family biking. Carrying 300 pounds or more is a very different proposition with live weight than it is with dead weight, because kids have a terrible habit of not staying where you put them, and on a moving bike, an active kid, let alone two fighting kids, can sometimes overcome your pedal power. Moreover people in flat cities often have little idea what I mean when I say San Francisco is hilly. Here’s a hint: if it’s not taller than you are, then around here we don’t call it a hill. When you ride with (or without) kids up and down the hills of San Francisco, an electric assist starts to look very appealing indeed. Alas, an electric assist is far from free.

The prices of electric assists are pretty easy to understand, because they work almost exactly like the prices of bikes: the more they can do, the more they cost. You can get a low-end electric assist for $500. This is often a great option for a single person who needs an occasional boost, and who doesn’t mind the larger size, greater weight, shorter lifespan, and environmental consequences of using a lead-acid battery. (Yes, they sell e-bikes at Walmart that cost $500 together; these are the kinds of assists they have, and as one might imagine, the bike itself terrible.) Prices go up from there. You’ll pay more for a pedal assist that works almost without you noticing than you will for a twist-throttle assist on the handlebars that may feel like it will give you carpal tunnel syndrome. More powerful batteries that can easily push a cargo bike cost more than the kind designed for bikes with less intense loads. More range for a longer ride also commands a higher price. On the high end, the BionX D that we have on our Bullitt retails for $2,500; regular readers will know we paid less because fortune smiled and our battery died a week before its warranty expired. Again, you can save money with a do-it-yourself assist, but the parts suitable for a cargo bike are still going to cost more than the parts suitable for a lighter bike.

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers' market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers’ market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

All of this is before we get to accessories. Racks and baskets and bags to carry kids and gear cost money. Anyone who has every purchased a car seat knows that child seats cost money. Lights cost money, and you’ll need them if you’re riding at night. If you’re riding a bike for transportation, you might find it worthwhile to add dynamo lights to your bicycle, as they are very bright yet unappealing to steal, and these cost more money than clip-on lights. Some front loaders come with rain covers, which cost even more money, but can extend the number of months you ride in the year. And after spending all that money on the bike, it’s also rare than people feel comfortable locking up with a cheap lock; tougher locks cost much more than the cable I locked up my bike with as a kid.

In summary, the price of cargo bikes goes up more or less in lockstep with the quality of the parts. That means that what you are buying as the price goes up is (a) greater safety, to some extent, as with the wheels and brakes. We came to cargo biking relatively early in the scheme of things, which means, like, 2011, and made various screw-ups with crappy brakes and non-Clydesdale wheels and so on. If I can no other good in this world, I would be thrilled if I could prevent someone else from making these same mistakes, which have the potential to make family biking seem scary instead of fun. You are also potentially buying (b) greater convenience, to some extent, as with less flat-prone tires and dynamo lights, and (c) more ability to handle difficult terrain, as with the gears and the assist.

Your circumstances and skills may save you money. If you live in territory that’s flat and/or you have one skinny kid, and/or you are already very fit, you can save money by not getting an assist, and by choosing less powerful brakes. If you know how to build a bike or have electrical skills, you can save money by doing some of the work yourself (that said, I have met only one person who built her own battery instead of buying it retail and she was an electrical engineer). You may conclude on reflection that you don’t need the carrying capacity of a cargo bike, and a child seat on the bike and/or a trailer is sufficient for your needs. They are all good options.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

So cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes to buy and always will be. However there is good news. First, as those hoping for a price break may already have discovered, they last basically forever, retain their value well, and sell quickly on the secondhand market. Second, the maintenance costs are pretty much bupkis. Even if you ran down the entire battery on your brand-new assisted cargo bike and recharged it from zero every night and rode so hard that you had to replace multiple parts on an annual basis and insured it like it was made of platinum, you would still be hard-pressed to spend more than a few hundred dollars a year once you bought it. Compared to the “cheap” used car or moped people sometimes mention as “equivalent,” which can run up those kinds of expenses annually on insurance alone or oil changes alone, let alone the cost of gas and regular maintenance, and which depreciate at a rate that is equivalent to financial hemorrhage, cargo bikes are cheap at twice the price. All the cost is upfront. That’s not trivial, which is why bike shops are increasingly working on the financial side to spread some of that cost over time. Alternatively, you could do what we did and finance your new cargo bike(s) by selling your car.

So our bikes save us money, but more importantly they save us time and stress. They also make me the only parent at my office who gets regular exercise. There have moments in the last few years when we thought we might have to buy a car again at some point, and the thought filled us with despair. There’s no way to put a price on any of that, but altogether these things are worth much more than we’ve spent. All things considered, a cargo bike is a screaming good deal.

 

7 Comments

Filed under car-free, commuting, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

We tried it: Butchers & Bicycles MK1-E

I am one of the worst people on earth to offer an objective opinion about a tricycle. We have tried them before and the experience was off-putting. My conclusion then was that trikes are great when stopped and terribly unstable in motion, which is just the opposite of bicycles, and also diametrically opposed to my transportation needs. There are lots of reasons that a tricycle could work for other people: for example, the Exploratorium has an XL Bakfiets that it wheels along the Embarcadero and sets up with little science exhibits for people walking by. This is a perfect use for a trike.

My family is not a museum, however, and I have had a chip on my shoulder about trikes since August of 2012. But a while back I started hearing about a different kind of trike, a tilting trike, which seemed to resolve one of my biggest issues with tricycles, namely that they are a bear to turn. The first Butchers & Bicycles promo trailer I saw did something I had previously thought was impossible: it made a tricycle look kind of badass. What’s more, there was an assisted version, which held the promise of allowing a tricycle to move at speeds approaching those of a bicycle and to go up hills, which were some of my other major issues with tricycles.

I was ready to get over years of tricycle-skepticism, so the weekend before we went to Europe, we rented an MK1-E from Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before is rolling out their family bike rental program in San Francisco, and presumably eventually the world, and which is amazing because it means that you don’t have to travel to another city (as we did) to try a bunch of different family bikes. And as is fitting for San Francisco terrain their rental bikes are all assisted, because second-hilliest-city-in-the-world-and-yes-it-gets-windy-here-too-blah-blah-blah. My take: the MK1-E would never have been right for us and it’s got some kinks to work out, but it could definitely be a good fit for other families. My six-word review?

MK1-E: first trike I’d ride twice.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

Some terminology: there are at least two kinds of tricycles. Some have two wheels in the front, and these are called tadpole trikes. Some have two wheels in the back, and these are called delta trikes. The MK1-E is a tadpole trike, which allows you to carry the kids in front.

What I liked about the MK1-E

  • The tilt-steering is amazing. Whee! Sure, it looks cool in the videos. Nonetheless I tried to assume nothing, because I have been fooled before. And anyway this is a Danish trike and Kierkegaard tells us to trust our own senses. However if you trust mine, I can attest that turning this trike is just as fun as it looks, and super-snappy as well. It makes tight turns, the kind of turns that seem unimaginable when looking at it. Because it’s quite short, I would even go so far as to call it nimble (for a cargo bike/trike).
    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Warning: this kind of agility does not come intuitively to the inexperienced rider. The usual rules for test-riding cargo bikes apply: do not be fooled by the fact that trikes are stable when stopped (years of test-riding cargo bikes and yet I was fooled). It takes some practice to get the hang of riding a tilting trike and I would suggest practicing with the box empty. I went around the block a couple of times and was then ready to haul some real weight. No problem. My squealing cargo enjoyed the tilting turns too.

  • The box is swank. Like a Bakfiets, the MK1-E allows the kids to sit straight upright with their legs at a 90 degree angle. Trikes are all height and width, unlike trailers or longtails. What’s more this trike, like a lot of the European kid-haulers, puts a lot of effort into their comfort. The bench seat is padded (and has a locked compartment inside) and there are three-point belts. The weather cover is unbelievably well-designed. It is tall enough that my 9-year-old didn’t bump his head and has waterproof zippers that allow you to
    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    open the front and the back for ventilation. The front door to the box is more like the door of the cabin we rented at Camp Mather than anything I had seen on a bike/trike before. Part of the reason I tried to ride with the kids in it at first is that they saw that box, dove in, and didn’t want to get out. And although my kids are a bit old for the target market at ages 6 and 9, they both fit just fine in there. There is a little box behind their heads as well, where the battery is stored (more about this later) and which has extra room for a small bag. If you took two kids shopping they’d end up with bags piled around them for sure, but you could probably add a shopping cart’s worth of stuff on top of those two kids that way.

  • The kids sit in front. I’ve waxed on about this many times before, so I’ll keep it brief: having kids in front is awesome, it’s easier to talk with them, it’s easier to break up fights if more than one kid is in there, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on, etc.
  • The MK1-E has a front stand. The trikes we’ve ridden in the past didn’t have parking technology. You stopped pedaling and (ideally) it stopped moving, the end. This raises some issues. First, good luck stopping on a hill, or even a mild slope. Second, with a tadpole trike, when the kids climb into the front of the box, it can tip forward and go into a nose stand. This kind of thing is disconcerting at best and dangerous at worst, and back in 2012 led to an “I’m not getting back in there” protest from my son. Apparently someone at Butchers & Bicycles had the same bad experience that we did, because there is a pedal that allows you deploy a super-stable 2-legged stand right at the front of the box. When the kids climb aboard the trike will not tip. To raise the stand, push the trike forward and up it goes.
  • The parts on this trike are really nice, suggesting that the manufacturers assumed that you might be riding in conditions that are not ideal (e.g. a flat, separated path with no cars, no other riders, no pedestrians, and no traffic signals—in other words, the kind of conditions shown in all cargo bike ads and never experienced by their actual riders). Yes, Virginia, there is a tricycle with hydraulic disc brakes, and it is called the MK1-E. The rest of the parts are in the same class. Butchers & Bicycles did not stint.
  • This trike is assisted, and the assist is a mid-drive, which tend to be powerful. It’s a fully-contained system and built into the trike. It comes on smoothly and is powerful enough to move this
    Here's the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    Here’s the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    trike, which is not light by any stretch of the imagination, up some meaningful hills. It is also almost completely silent, which I did not expect. The controller is intuitive, and placed next to the left grip where it’s easy to adjust. Using this assist with a fully-loaded trike on the flats or a mild incline is like flying; in the park, whizzing along, I felt like Batman. This is not an experience I associate with a lot of cargo bikes, our beloved Bullitt excepted. There’s something about going fast with a load in front that evokes it.

  • This trike is clearly built for commuting. It has the NuVinci n360 drivetrain, which I’m not sure I’ve discussed before, but which I’ve also tried on an Edgerunner. Basically it’s an internal hub with an infinite number of gears, which you adjust by turning the gear grip so that your little avatar bicycle in the view window on the handlebars appears to be riding on the flats or riding up a hill, to reflect the actual terrain around you. And then the gears do the thing without you having to worry about petty details like which number makes sense for this hill, because there are no numbers. It’s an internal hub, so you can shift while stopped. The chain is enclosed, and the MK1-E has daytime running lights, fenders, a bell and a rear rack: all the usual suspects.
  • Everything is adjustable. I started out with the seat down low, as I always do on test-rides, but this is not really necessary with a trike, so I popped it up; you can do this without tools because it has a little flip lever for just this purpose. However unlike a quick release, the seat post is not removable, so having this feature doesn’t increase the odds that someone will steal your saddle. The handlebars are also adjustable using a lever, just like on the Bullitt; a couple of blocks into my ride I was feeling a little cramped and then realized, hey, I can just raise the handlebars, so I did. I don’t know the official word on what size rider can handle this trike, but I suspect it’s a very wide range indeed. With the upright posture you have on a trike, the reach is not going to overwhelm the short, and the seat and handlebars can go way up for the tall.
  • The trike is very short, with respect to length. Next to the Bullitt, viewed from the side, it looked tiny. And yet it is still a real cargo… bike-like thing with wheels that I’m trying really hard to
    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    avoid calling a bike because it’s a trike. This is handy on turns and also could be useful in certain parking situations, where length is an issue. There are several questionably-placed bike racks in San Francisco that spring to mind.

  • No worries about stopping and dumping the kids. It won’t tip over if you don’t get a foot down, because it’s a trike, and trikes are stable when stopped. This is very hard to get used to if you are even an occasional bike rider. At red lights I kept trying to stabilize the MK1-E, which eventually I pictured kind of rolling its eyes at me.
  • As usual, a decent front-loader will set you back several grand: the MK1-E lists at $6200, while the unassisted version is a somewhat more palatable $4300. Seats, seat belts and rain hoods are extra.

What I didn’t like about the MK1-E

  • Tricycles are wide, like as wide as houses, and the MK1-E is no exception. This is the obvious tradeoff, of course, for being short and giving the kids lots of headroom (curse you, Euclidean geometry). The MK1-E owned the bike lane and sometimes even more. I wasn’t particularly worried about getting doored, because that front box would most
    Side by side, however, the Bullitt appears much smaller than the MK1-E.

    Side by side, however, the Bullitt is much narrower than the MK1-E.

    likely take out the distracted driver’s door and not even rattle the kids inside, but it did mean that there were times in traffic when I couldn’t pass like I normally do. When I rode it on and off the sidewalk to park, or in front of our house, I realized pretty quickly that my usual “go up through the curb cut” method was not working, because the trike is so wide that only one wheel could fit in the curb cut and the other one either slammed down or had to be wrenched up. The MK1-E made me a driveway-spotter, because I needed that kind of width. It was a little nerve-wracking getting it through the bollard-protected entrance path to Golden Gate Park the first time I tried. We chose a narrow bike for its maneuverability in San Francisco; this trike is far from that. If you’re used to riding with a trailer, the MK1-E would probably be an improvement, because the width is in front so you can see whether the load you’re trying to thread will fit, but if you’re used to a bike, it is definitely an adjustment. What’s more, there are lots of situations where a wide tricycle will be very difficult to park. Poorly placed bike racks are often too close to each other, or to nearby bollards or street lights, and that front box takes up a lot of room.

  • The battery does not fit tightly inside its compartment. What that meant was that when I went over a serious bump, it disconnected and the assist turned off. The first time it happened I thought I had overheated the assist going up the hill, and trying to go up the hill behind the Conservatory of Flowers on a big heavy trike unassisted is pretty much the opposite of fun. For the record I was bringing it like a boss up that hill while unassisted, albeit a slow and deliberate boss. However it is not really
    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    supposed to be possible to overheat a mid-drive assist (so far I have not been able to manage it, anyway). The guy from Vie realized what had happened when we swung back to grovel about breaking the trike in less than 20 minutes. He reconnected the battery and showed me how to do it as well. So okay, but then I went over the streetcar tracks, and it disconnected again, and then hit an asphalt crack, and it disconnected, and criminy. So I started thinking, “Maybe I could get a mini-bungee, and find a way to strap it down, I wonder if there are attachments…” And then I thought, “Wait a minute: shouldn’t a battery that stays put when you ride over a bump really be a given on an assisted trike?” Our BionX battery locks into place, and now I know it’s not just to keep it from being stolen. I’m sure that any of the shops carrying the MK1-E, which seem to be excellent, can kludge a fix for this issue, but this is actually the kind of screw-up that made me wonder a little about the build. Going over uneven pavement is a fact of life, so much so that it even happens sometimes in the cycling paradise that is Copenhagen. Maybe I am overly paranoid.

  • The assist [note: see comments below as this motor has since been upgraded]  is what I have begun to think of as “European-style” and that is my new shorthand for an assist that it is not necessarily ideal for the hard-riding conditions endemic to hilly cities on the west coast of the United States. It comes up gradually, and there is no boost button, so you can’t get a fast start at an intersection. It won’t give up on a hill, but when fully loaded on a steep hill you will be working really hard, and going really slowly. For the purposes of comparison, Matt and I hit some of the serious hills around our neighborhood (some of these go up to a 25% grade, although we stayed in the 12%-18% range), figuring that our bike and trike could take it, which for the record, they both could. I was carrying our daughter on the MK1-E and Matt was carrying our son (who is heavier) on the Bullitt, which we recently upgraded to the BionX D assist. And he skunked me every single time. We’d start out together and I would be working harder and harder as he peeled away, he’d reach the top at about the point that I got 2/3s of the way up. Then he’d wait for me, not even breathing hard, and I would be panting and ask to take a little break before we went up the next hill. For a while he thought it was funny, but eventually it became clear that the boys were getting bored of waiting around for me (“Are we done yet?”) To be fair: I am the weaker rider of the two of us. And also to be fair: the assist will not quit and strand you in the middle of the hill, which the old BionX would do sometimes when pushed to its limits (we have not yet reached the limits of the BionX D). But good grief, it was hard. It is no Stokemonkey.
  • While the assist won’t give up, I found that on the steepest hill we rode, the trike’s steering got away from me. The good news is that it’s very hard to dump a trike, so I didn’t. It was still unnerving. I wanted to see what
    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    the assist could do, so we headed up the hill to the kids’ old preschool, which is perched on the edge of Mt. Sutro and easily the steepest hill we’ve ever ridden on a daily basis. And as mentioned, it kept pumping out the power as I struggled up, but about halfway up the weight of my daughter got away from me, at which point the MK1-E did what I think of as “the trike thing” and dove for the curb. We drifted over and I walked it back down (no problem thanks to the hydraulic disc brakes). So… I’m not sure what to make of this. I suspect that I would get better with the handling over time; this was, after all, my first ride on this trike and it had been three years since I rode any other trike. Perhaps more relevantly, that’s a real nightmare of a hill, way outside the range of most people’s daily rides. So while I didn’t like it when it happened, it’s not ever going to be an issue for people living in places like Portland, or even the less outrageous neighborhoods of Seattle and San Francisco. However, that’s what will happen on the MK1-E at the limits of your strength and/or riding ability on a steep hill. Now I know. [Note: see the comments below, the MPF assist on this test bike has since been upgraded to the Bosch, which is both more powerful and noisier according to commenters.]

  • It weighs a ton. To the extent that I have any intuition on these things, it felt like it was on the heavier end of the family carrying bike/trike set. Some of that is because of all the lovely features that have been piled on (tradeoffs!) Some of it is probably the nature of the tricycle riding experience (seated upright, pushing a third wheel, etc.) I would love to try the Bosch mid-drive on a lighter bike to see how it handles the same hills, and get a fix on how much of the effort I needed to put out was simply a function of how much weight it was pushing.
  • Here I have to make my usual complaint that cargo bike (and trike) manufacturers seem to focus on either the front end and ignore the back or vice versa. The MK1-E has a rear rack that can hold panniers and I believe a Yepp seat, so it’s actually doing pretty well on that score, but because we have so much experience now with the more versatile racks on midtails and longtails, I would love to see a front-loading bike or trike that came standard with things like a towing rack. This is a minor quibble, but I keep mentioning it in the hope that one day the universe will respond

Things I am clueless about

  • We did not have occasion to test the battery power. I have no idea what kind of range this trike has while assisted.
  • This is a relatively new company and bicycle, so there’s not much to say yet about people’s experiences with it. Having excellent parts is a good sign with respect to potential longevity of the trike, however.

 

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

For reasons of width alone, we would never have seriously considered the MK1-E for ourselves. We are narrow-bike people all the way, because we live in San Francisco. However (assuming that the battery were firmly attached) I can imagine lots of places and situations that this trike would be a great choice. I was particularly impressed that it could fit two older kids so easily. And outside of the extreme situations I put it in, it is a lot of fun to ride. I’ve ridden a lot of family bikes now, and there are some I feel no great desire to ride again. But this trike? I would totally ride it again, as long as it wasn’t anywhere too steep.

 

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Filed under Copenhagen, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

People of the bicycle

I think this study was conducted on the day that I realized it was time to get some fenders on my bike.

I think this study was conducted on the day that I realized it was time to get some fenders on my bike.

This week we got a notice from school that the San Francisco Unified School District Commute Study results were out. I had a vague memory of this study when it was in the field, asking people about how they’d gotten to school, which unfortunately happened during one of the rare weeks when it actually rained. So I have good reason to suspect that the active transportation numbers are an underestimate. How did our kids’ school do?

  • Percentage of bicycle commuters in SFUSD overall: 1.5% (ouch!)
  • Percentage of bicycle commuters at Rosa Parks: 6.5%

Relatively speaking, it’s totally awesome; more than four times greater than the citywide average. Objectively speaking, well, we’re a long way from Copenhagen. However, our kids are in a citywide program, so there is reason to expect more driving, rather than less of it. Yet there is less driving—a lot less driving.

  • Percentage of car commuters in SFUSD overall: 56%
  • Percentage of car commuters at Rosa Parks: 48%

I have no idea what the car commuting percentages are like in less urban locales. I presume based on talking to people who live elsewhere that, outside the districts that still maintain a robust busing program, basically everyone drives. As SFUSD points out in its flyer, walking and biking to school can improve health and concentration. However from my perspective the bus is a great option as well—no need to park, it’s okay to drink a glass of wine, the kids sometimes don’t get as wet, you avoid having to climb steep hills or cross terrifying intersections unprotected, etc. My suspicion is that SFUSD is underselling the bus option because it cut most of its bus routes to save money. Nonetheless, people using passive transportation at Rosa Parks take a lot of buses. In fact the school soccer team is called the Rosa Parks Buses (best name ever). Rosa Parks and buses, it’s like a thing.

  • Percentage of bus commuters in SFUSD overall: 16%
  • Percentage of bus commuters at Rosa Parks: 24%

Don't even start with that "you can't carry [X] on a bike" nonsense.

Don’t even start with that “you can’t carry [X] on a bike” nonsense.

As mentioned, I suspect that overall this was an underestimate of the families using active transportation, but the relative numbers, given that our kids attend a citywide program, are enough to make the case that we are the people of the bicycle and the bus.

But perhaps you are, as yet, an aspiring San Francisco family biker, rather than an established one. And if you are like many of the people who email me, you may be wondering what bike to get. If so, have I got news for you. I mentioned a while back that Vie Bikes in San Francisco was planning a launch of a family bike rental program. Well, it’s here, with an impressive lineup that includes Bullitts, Boda Bodas, and the Butchers and Bicycles trikes. Apparently you need a promotion code if you want to book one; happily, anyone is welcome to use mine: HUMOFTHECITY001.

And last but not least, Sunday Streets is back in season, with the usual opener last weekend on the Embarcadero that we have not yet managed to attend in any year. On April 12th it’s in the Dogpatch while we are out of town, but we’re definitely eying May 10th in the Mission and June 14th in the Sunset (despite a date that all but guarantees maximum fog presence). Hope to see you there.

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Filed under bike share, car-free, commuting, destinations, family biking, San Francisco

Family bike shops that I like

I get asked questions about family biking a lot (Always welcome! Feel free to email! I will be painfully slow to respond, but it will happen eventually). One of the more common questions I get from people is where I think they should shop for bikes. This can be an awkward question to answer. There are thousands of bike shops and only one me. Admittedly there are far fewer family-oriented bike shops, but still. I live in San Francisco and mostly travel north from there, because that’s where my family lives. There’s no way that I could ever be truly objective, let alone offer advice to people in say, Minnesota.

That said, at least I have no conflicts of interest. I am a professor of public health and health policy at a university medical center with an extremely strict policy about any kind of giveaway that could be even vaguely construed as professionally-related. Although my primary work is in tobacco control, active transportation could easily be viewed as related to public health, because, well, it is in fact related to public health. Under the terms of my contract, I can’t be compensated for anything I say on this blog or accept any discounts or freebies (loaners are okay, but I have to give them back). So if nothing else it’s safe to say that my wildly subjective opinions are based solely on my wildly subjective experiences.

So anyway, below is a list of family-focused bike shops that I’ve liked and would visit again. It is a short list. First, as mentioned, I haven’t really visited THAT many bike shops, plus I only included shops that would actually call themselves family bike shops (which excludes our local bike shop). Second, I only listed places where we’ve made two or more purchases. My apologies to all the other family bike shops—I’m sure you’re great, but I have no way to know. Third, to the extent that you can trust anonymous reviews, they all get great reviews.

Shops are listed in order of their distance from my house. I admit that this is a totally useless organizing principle to anyone but me, but hey, it’s my blog.

Ocean Cyclery (1935 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Enablers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Not that I saw
  • Kids’ play area: No, but noodling around on kids’ bikes is encouraged
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Yuba (Mundo, Boda Boda)
  • Assisted bikes: Yes, BionX both for the Yubas and as an after-market addition
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, and a buyback program to help afford bigger bikes as kids grow!
  • Child seats: Yes, and a lot of expertise with them
  • What we bought there: My old Breezer, Bobike Maxi, Bobike Junior, accessories, service
  • Other: Ocean Avenue is a nice commercial strip with places to retreat when the kids get antsy, like the burrito shop next door. Transit access is excellent (it’s on the K line) and the former hippodrome around the corner is an outstanding place for test rides, especially for kids.

Ocean Cyclery is the first real family bike shop I ever visited, and they made it very easy to start biking for transportation. It is the shop where I often send people who ask me about different kinds of child seats, who want to buy bikes for their kids, and who tell me that they’re not sure they’re up for this “riding for transportation” thing that we’ve got going on but still want a bike, something inexpensive so they can ride with the kids on their new bikes in the park on weekends. Ocean has the widest selection I’ve seen in San Francisco of what I consider traditional family biking goods: child seats, trailers, and kids’ bikes. One Christmas they had a bike in the front window with a Bobike Mini on the front and a Bobike Maxi on the rear ready for test-rides, the only time I’ve ever seen such a thing in a bike shop. They offer a buyback program for kids’ bikes to make it easy to upgrade as your kids grow, and also have a great selection of bags and accessories. On the cargo bike side, they carry Yubas (assisted and unassisted). The owners, Jeff and Sabina, support the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and they are incredibly nice. As a bonus, Ocean has possibly the best location for test riding bicycles in all of San Francisco: it is a block away from the city’s former hippodrome, which is now a sleepy flat oval road surrounded by homes. Even little kids can safely try out bikes there. If you’re interested in family biking but not sure where to start, Ocean Cyclery is your bike shop.

 

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

The New Wheel (420 Cortland Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Curators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: No, but older kids will adore the tools and parts hung on every square inch of the bathroom walls; our son had to be forcibly extricated
  • Kids’ play area: No; however younger kids can play with kids’ bikes and older kids will gravitate to the shop’s iPad
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Xtracycle EdgeRunner
  • Assisted bikes: All their bikes are assisted, and they will put after-market BionX assists on other bikes
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, plus, unusually, a good selection of helmets for infants
  • Child seats: Yes, the Yepp rear seat
  • What we bought there: Our son’s Torker Interurban (20”), Xtracycle EdgeRunner, our daughter’s helmet, BionX upgrades, accessories, regular service visits
  • Other: Cortland Avenue is a quiet and increasingly upscale commercial strip so there are restaurants and shops, plus the Bernal Heights library about a block away if the kids lose patience. Getting there is a serious haul by bike but the 24 Muni line will drop you right in front of the shop.
The New Wheel is out at Sunday Streets offering test rides, FYI.

The New Wheel comes out to Sunday Streets to offer test rides of assisted bikes, FYI.

The New Wheel is a focused bike shop. They carry only electric-assist bikes (okay, and unassisted kids’ bikes—it’s illegal for kids to ride assisted bikes in California). They’re actually even more focused than that: they carry extremely reliable assisted bikes that anyone can ride. The whole electric assist market is still pretty nascent, and has only recently become more than a private enclave for the do-it-yourself set. For someone new to the idea of riding a bike, let alone riding an assisted bike, the obsessive hobbyist end of the market can feel completely overwhelming, to put it politely. It felt that way to me. The New Wheel is not set up like a traditional bike shop, with mystifying parts and accessories piled up on every surface. Instead they have bikes in front to test ride, and some reasonably identifiable accessories mixed in with actual art. It is a very non-threatening place for a new rider to visit. If you want an electric-assist bike, you should go to The New Wheel. Their expertise with assist systems is in a class of its own. Plus, they always have the most recent BionX software upgrades and know how to tweak the system to maximize the torque for hill-climbing. They also reset our BionX so that it kicked in at 0.5kph instead of 2mph, which has been a total game-changer for us. Many of their commuter bikes have mid-drive assists, some of which could probably scale anything short of a vertical wall. Also, they have the prettiest assisted bikes, with none of the hulking beasts that anchor (literally) the less expensive and less reliable end of the market. In keeping with the curated feel, they offer one family/cargo bike: the EdgeRunner (assisted, obviously), as well as one kids’ bike in each size. Everything in their shop promises years of trouble-free riding. Brett and Karen, the owners, are kind people who have immense patience with my wild ideas, and they are also big supporters of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Their service is top-notch, way beyond expectations (you can bring your unassisted bike here for service too). Because The New Wheel is an all-assisted bike shop, it is located in Bernal Heights, among the steepest hills in the city, including Bradford Street, with its 41% grade. That’s kind of inconvenient for me personally, but hey, why not?

 

There are so many bikes it's tough to get a good shot.

There are so many bikes it’s tough to get a good shot.

Blue Heron Bikes (1306 Gilman Street, Berkeley, California)

“The Aggregators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh, we didn’t visit the bathroom. Sorry.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a Lego table in the back corner, plus an extensive collection of kids’ bikes that they’re encouraged to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No, although you can sometimes use the deck of a Bullitt for this
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Surly, Xtracycle, Yuba, and more
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair
  • What we bought there: Brompton accessories
  • Other: Gilman Street is a small commercial strip with some options for food and entertainment. The shop is right on the Ohlone Trail and easily accessible from North Berkeley BART.
The Lego table

The Lego table

A question I get a lot: “I want to try a lot of different kinds of cargo bikes. Is it worth traveling to Blue Heron in Berkeley?” My answer: Yes. Yes it is. They have all the bikes. They have cargo bikes I’d never seen or heard of before, and after the years I’ve spent obsessing about cargo bikes this is a rare experience for me. So if you want to compare riding a Bullitt with a Brompton with an Xtracycle with a Yuba with an odd-looking longtail that just came off a container ship from Japan, all in both assisted and unassisted versions, well, now you know where to go. It’s pretty obvious that Berkeley real estate is less expensive than San Francisco real estate, because they also have piles of commuter bikes and dozens of different kids’ bikes. As a result, Blue Heron Bikes is the Bay Area’s one-stop family bike shop. Even better, it is located along the Ohlone Trail, a shared bicycle-pedestrian path that runs past the North Berkeley BART station, and it has a large flat paved area in the back, which allows safe test rides for all ages. The owner, Rob, is passionate about family biking and patient with families who come in and are understandably a little overwhelmed with all the options they find. I’ve now met more than one family who bought a Bullitt there and made an adventure out of getting it back to San Francisco by ferry or BART, carving out an ad hoc Silk Road for family bicycles. Nonetheless, I feel resentful that Blue Heron is located in Berkeley and not in San Francisco.

 

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Clever Cycles (900 SE Hawthorne Boulevard, Portland, Oregon)

“The Experts”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes, and diapers too. Like Ikea! But cooler.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a large corner with a couch, toys, and books, plus kids’ bikes out the wazoo to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes
  • Cargo bikes: Babboe, Bakfiets, Brompton, Metrofiets, Nihola, Surly, Workcycles, Xtracycle, Yuba, plus we spotted dark horses like the Kidztandem and Onderwater—seriously, it’s unreal
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and they developed and sell the Stokemonkey assist.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, yes, yes
  • What we bought there: rental bikes, accessories
  • Other: Hawthorne Boulevard is a commercial strip featuring distressingly fast car traffic with some options for food and entertainment (basically a nearby bar as I remember it). Head back onto the nearby quiet and leafy streets of Ladd’s Addition for test rides instead.
Why not a hot tub?

Why not a hot tub?

Clever Cycles is the drag queen of family bike shops: it’s faaaaaaabulous! Honestly it’s difficult to describe, let alone oversell, Clever Cycles’ raw, unadulterated family biking appeal. I say this even though the first time I walked in, the bike at the front door had a huge growler full of beer attached to it. Honestly this seemed a little off to me for a family bike shop, but that is only because I do not live in Portland. Portland is so beer-crazy that I assume local hospitals give it away to new parents in lieu of formula. Clever Cycles is a venerable institution in the world of family biking, as its owners were importing, designing, and selling family bicycles and electric assists before we even had children. There was clearly unmet demand back then, because the shop has expanded through its various incarnations to the point that it’s now gigantic, at least to my eyes. It does not look like any other bike shop. It looks more like a bike museum (admittedly I have only visited one bike museum, in Davis, California). In the front showroom the box bikes look almost petite, and the kids’ bikes are parked in long rows on oriental rugs. There is so much space that the mechanical parts of the shop are tucked away in back, with rows of even more bikes. Their accessories are so extensive that I would embarrass myself with the omissions if I tried to give details. However they were the first U.S. shop to discover and carry the Brompton child seat, back when the idea of carrying a kid on a Brompton sounded roughly as plausible as throwing a kid all the way to the moon. In the realm of family biking I suspect they have accumulated more firsts than even they can remember. Clever Cycles has the largest selection of rental bikes that I have ever seen, including Bromptons and family trikes. The shop also rents out portable hot tubs that it delivers to customers by bike, because this is Portland. I mean, obviously. Unusually, Clever Cycles sells some clothing too. My only frustration with Clever Cycles is that it is so well-suited to its locale (as it should be) that it is rather less well-suited to mine. Nonetheless, at least one owner is a former resident of San Francisco, and so even if their stock doesn’t reflect our issues—it’s hard to imagine a shop making a go of selling unassisted bakfietsen in San Francisco, although one shop tried and moved to Sausalito—they have the expertise to speak intelligently about them. Even some of the offhand comments they made back in 2012, when we first bought our Bullitt, turned out to be more prescient than I had hoped (they were skeptical about adding the Patterson). At some point I realized that I was not totally ignorant about family bikes anymore, but I know enough to know my limits. The people running Clever Cycles are experts.

 

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Splendid Cycles (407 SE Ivon Street, Portland, Oregon)

“The Visionaries”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh… once again we neglected to check the bathroom.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a corner with a bench and a basket of books and toys
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, plus the deck-of-a-Bullitt option
  • Cargo bikes: Bullitt, Butchers & Bicycles, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: No
  • Child seats: Yes, various options for the Bullitt and Yepp seats for the Xtracycle
  • What we bought there: our Bullitt, rental bikes, Bullitt parts and accessories
  • Other: Splendid Cycles is located on a weird little corner underneath the freeway and near some industrial/construction companies, which I offer as a warning because when we first got there, we thought we were in the wrong place. The shop is also directly adjacent to a lovely bike path that runs along the river. Portland, I sometimes find you kind of schizo. Who zones this way?
The kid zone

The kid zone

I first visited Splendid Cycles after we realized that we might actually be able to stop using our car in San Francisco if we had the right bike. The BionXed Big Dummy that they had available for test rides was the first assisted bike that I ever rode, and after hauling my extremely patient friend Todd on its deck up the hills around the shop I couldn’t stop grinning and thinking, “This could totally work!” Joel and Barb, the owners of Splendid, imagined a world full of crackpots like me and decided they could help make it happen. And so they did something that I would never have the courage to do: they opened a shop that sold only cargo bikes. And holy smokes, they were right: there really were a lot of crackpots like me out there. Splendid is best known for selling Bullitts (and in fact it serves as the source for all the Bullitts sold in the family bike shops we visit, as it imports them). But there are lots of good reasons to ride longtails as well, and Splendid had child seats on Big Dummies long before the EdgeRunner made its debut in less forward-thinking shops. They rent bikes as well, which is very helpful when learning to maneuver cargo bikes—in some cases (mine) there is a learning curve. I’m still awed by the sheer bravado involved in opening up a bike shop that doesn’t carry any “normal” bikes, but you’d never guess it was anything out of the ordinary from talking to Joel and Barb, who are down to earth and incredibly helpful and also know way more about cargo bikes than, like, everybody. When they started their shop cargo bikes were pretty much a boutique niche and everything was somewhat customized. The rain cover for the Bullitt was their development, and getting it made riding with our kids in all weather conditions completely unremarkable. Both the covers and the larger wooden boxes that hold more kids are accessories they developed with local Portland businesses. When we bought our Bullitt we had the option of getting a larger wooden box but declined in favor of the standard box both because we couldn’t get a rain cover for the wooden box and because we wanted a narrower bike. Not long after that, they’d developed rain covers for the larger wooden boxes and now they have 3-child Bullitt boxes and rain covers for those too. They are already selling Bullitts with the super-powered BionX D on them, which is not an option yet here in San Francisco, no matter how often I call. (One of the problems of being an early adopter is that now I’m always envious of the latest innovations.) They never stop coming up with new cool things, many of which are so popular that they stop being innovations. Then they put the only-slightly-less-cool older bikes on the incredible sale page of their website. Honestly, I didn’t really catch on to how impressive it all was at first because Joel and Barb are so mellow. They put their bike shop on an industrial corner and concentrate on the bikes rather than the bling. Splendid has all the right things without any unnecessary extras, and they are always coming up with more awesome ideas that make family biking (and the somewhat-less-interesting-to-me cargo biking) easier and more fun. Whenever there is discussion about adding bike lanes in San Francisco, there is always blowback from some people about how it’s only for hipsters, and that you can’t shop for groceries or carry kids on a bike. These people are wrong. Splendid Cycles is building a world where people can carry anything and everything on bikes.

 

The G&O logo is a family bike.

The G&O logo is a family bike.

G&O Family Cyclery (8417 Greenwood Avenue N, Seattle, Washington)

“The Tinkerers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a train table right in front, plus some balance bikes that kids can ride
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, stools by the counter (and the deck of a Bullitt), not to mention a La Leche League sticker in the front window
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Metrofiets, Soma Tradesman, Surly Big Dummy, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX, Bafang, or Stokemonkey kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Cleary bikes (all sizes), Soma BART
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair (in stock!)
  • What we bought there: Brompton parts and service, Xtracycle EdgeRunner accessories (frame-mounted front rack, Rolling Jackass center stand)
  • Other: Greenwood Avenue has great options for food and entertainment when the kids start to lose it, including the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company (formerly the Seattle outpost of 826 Valencia)
The train table

The train table

G&O stands for Tyler Gillies and Davey Oil, and while their shop is less than two years old, I knew Davey well before then, when he had his own blog, Riding on Roadways (now folded into the shop blog). I love G&O because it has and does all the things that people learn they want once they start riding around with kids. It’s a bike shop that grew out of family biking. Almost all the bike shops we visited when we first started riding talked about family biking as something extra, “oh yeah, we’ll do that when we have time, later.” In most cases, of course, later meant never, but even shops that pick up family biking sometimes do it half-heartedly. But not here! This is a shop that had a changing table in the bathroom and a La Leche League sticker on the front door the day that they opened, and that puts the kids’ play table right out in front with the bikes. You can tell when you walk in the door that no one is going to freak out about your trying out a Yepp seat by actually putting a kid in it, something that happened to us (twice, in fact). G&O has launch parties when customers come to pick up their new bikes. They make a point of keeping accessories in stock that don’t necessarily make money, like the Brompton child seat, because “why should you have to wait for us to order it?” You want obscure kid-hauling stuff, like a helmet sized for a toddler? They’ve got your back. Despite the huge increase in family biking lately, things like toddler helmets are in fact considered obscure, and cargo bikes don’t necessarily have all the things families want yet. I think of Davey and Tyler as tinkerers because I know that there is nothing you can dream up that they won’t try to make work, as long as it’s safe. When I visited their shop last year, they were installing a Yepp mini front seat on a giant mountain bike with a telescopic fork, and the whole rig was covered in mud. It was the weirdest combination I’d seen in a while, and I stopped dead and said, “Really?” And Tyler smiled and said, “It’s what they want.” That visit to G&O is also where I found the frame-mounted front rack that now graces my EdgeRunner (maybe grace is the wrong word there, I concede that it’s not pretty), when I test rode Davey’s own personal EdgeRunner, which has the same rack. G&O also tested the first true pedal-assist Stokemonkeys, and have put more kinds of assist systems on a Bullitt than I knew existed. And of course they’ll take care of non-family bikes too. Servicing family bikers is like building for accessibility—what’s good for people in wheelchairs is good for everybody, and what’s good for families on bikes is good for all riders. Seattle is lucky to have G&O.

 

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Filed under bike shops, car-free, cargo, destinations, electric assist, family biking, kids' bikes, Portland, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

3 years, can you believe it?

That's a cat carrier in our Bullitt. There's very little it can't haul.

That’s a cat carrier in our Bullitt. There’s very little it can’t haul.

So hey, November 2nd was the blog’s three-year anniversary. And I forgot it. Then the next week, I forgot that we were hosting our son’s birthday party. What can I say? I’m teaching a new class this term and apparently there no room for anything else in my brain.

There was a time when I wondered if I’d run out of material or bikes to review, but that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. Recently we’ve ridden a Bike Friday Haul-a-Day and a Kidztandem, and later this month I will be trying out a loaner Faraday Porteur (because one of these days I’ll be riding solo all the time). And I definitely have ambitions to try the Butchers & Bicycles MK1 tricycle, the first that has ever looked even vaguely appealing to me, the next time I’m in Portland, which for the record, will be in April 2015. San Francisco keeps building up bike lanes, my husband continues to wander around the world checking out bicycle culture on other continents, and we see more families join us on the road every month. So there’s still so much to say.

Over the years this site has evolved a lot. I’m certain that the only people who read at first were family members. Now I get interesting and useful comments on most posts, and hear from old friends near and far that they’re following along. Thanks everybody, for hanging in. I appreciate it.

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco, Uncategorized

Our new cargo bike: Hello, EdgeRunner

2 kids on deck with their feet in the bags and a stadium blanket. They're kind of wusses.

2 kids on deck with their feet in the bags and a stadium blanket. They’re kind of wusses.

People who see us around San Francisco may have already noticed that we have added a new cargo bike to our stable. Around when school started, we got an EdgeRunner. It’s fantastic.

I realize that we are in a fortunate position in being able to buy a second cargo bike outright. When we sold our minivan in 2012, we got enough money from it to buy two assisted cargo bikes. So we used about half of that money to buy the Bullitt, and we saved the rest for some vague future transportation need. At the time we weren’t sure whether we’d want to replace our car eventually, and figured the money we saved could be a nice down payment if it came to that. Two years later, we’ve found that we are just fine with renting cars for our very occasional driving trips, and have no desire to own one.

However we were feeling that it would be very helpful to have a second 2-kid capable cargo bike. The construction work in our garage smashed up the mamachari (RIP, mamachari), so we were suddenly down a bike. With two kids going to the same school for the first time this year, we were in the new position of wanting each parent to be able to pick up and drop off the kids together—before, we could split up because each of them was going to a different place at a different time. That was way more complicated, but it also meant that riding around on one-kid-hauling bikes wasn’t a big deal. Moreover, our son had become a strong enough rider that he was ready to go to school sometimes on his own bike. The problem with that was that the kids take a bus to their after-school program, and there are no bikes allowed on the bus. So if he was going to ride, we needed a way to get his bike from the drop-off at school to the pickup at after-school.

One option was to assist the Kona MinUte—because both kids are too heavy to haul around unassisted now—but it was a tight fit for two kids even when they were smaller, and left the question of how to haul our son’s bike unresolved. If you’re in the bike-on-bike-hauling business, your best bike is a longtail. We had taken enough test rides over the years to know that our favorite longtail, by a long shot, was the EdgeRunner. So around the time school started, we headed to The New Wheel to buy a BionX EdgeRunner. They were our bike shop of choice because they know so much about assists—anyone can take care of an unassisted bike, but having an electric assist-focused shop to maintain our bikes is an enormous luxury and it would be crazy not to take advantage of it. Also they are very nice. Even though we have to cross town and haul up serious hills to get there, which is not fun with kids when an assist is on the fritz, it is worth the effort.

This is Davey Oil's stoked EdgeRunner with the same massive front rack.

This is Davey Oil’s stoked EdgeRunner with the same massive front rack.

Because I’ve gotten particular about certain things over the last couple of years, we put some unusual accessories on the bike as well. I credit G&O Family Cyclery for these particular specs, which I tried and loved on one of the EdgeRunners I rode while visiting Seattle to compare the BionX to the Stokemonkey. Specifically, we added a frame-mounted front rack and Rolling Jackass (very regrettable name) center stand from Haulin’ Colin in Seattle. The front rack was a huge pain to install, given that no one in San Francisco had done it before, and almost made me wish I’d flown my bike to Seattle instead of having the rack put on locally. But the payoff was a massive front basket (I have a Wald Giant basket zip-tied to the rack) that is independent of the steering and absolutely rock-solid, and that has easily swallowed loads like: my work tote, both kids’ backpacks, a clarinet, and a bag of groceries, with room for more. Finally, the EdgeRunner’s tiny rear wheel meant that I was getting a much bigger boost from the assist, which in my still-weakened state, meant that this was going to be my primary ride for a while.

The transition to riding the EdgeRunner with both kids was not without its issues. Our son doesn’t ride his own bike every single day, because he tends to go at a maximum speed of 7mph, making even my normal pace look like road racing. When we leave home on the later end of normal, we have to stick him on the trailer-bike to make it to school on time, and that means I’ll end up carrying both kids home in the afternoon. Although both kids easily fit on the EdgeRunner’s deck, for the first two weeks sharing the deck they fought so relentlessly that I actually found myself yelling, “I can stop this bike right here!” I am happy to report that this was a short-term problem—they eventually settled down, and now they usually have pleasant conversations sitting face-to-face during the times that they share the deck. The only remaining annoyance is that our long-legged son will drag his feet on the ground sometimes, which acts as an unwelcome extra brake and does his shoes no favors. He’s getting better about this.

Loading up my son's bike for the tow.

Loading up my son’s bike for the tow.

There are compensations. The biggest is that when he does ride, it is laughably easy for me to tow his bike to work in the morning, and to his after school program in the afternoon before riding home. It has definitely reduced our load and is improving his stamina (and although he doesn’t like to admit it yet, he’s in a much better mood when he rides to school and back home). The bike can also haul unusual loads that were formerly pretty tricky. When I had to pick him up from school a couple of weeks ago because he’d gotten sick, I had no trouble towing the bike while he was nodding off on the deck. That kind of doubling-up has historically been the Bullitt’s weakness.

Our daughter is our primary deck-rider, though. The EdgeRunner deck has a bit more space for a kid than the Bullitt, but it is also uncovered. This has led to some complaints about having to experience weather, and some excitement. We have a Hooptie around the deck, and given our daughter’s personality, that was a smart move. She treats the deck as a combination small room and performance space, and kind of does what she feels like doing back there. Sometimes that’s lying down flat to take a nap. Sometimes that’s standing on the deck on one tiptoe while holding onto my shoulders. Sometimes that’s leaning waaaaaaaaay over to one side to check out something on the ground (at which point I once again feel a sense of gratitude for that low deck, because I can feel her doing it but it doesn’t dump the bike). The EdgeRunner is our mullet bike: business in front, party in the back. Our daughter has been a frequent flyer in the hospital emergency department since she was less than a year old, thanks to her try-everything attitude , which means that we have more experience assessing what constitutes a serious physical risk to her than we ever wanted. I’ve learned not to worry about her shenanigans, because her balance is excellent, she’s corralled by the Hooptie, our route consists of quiet streets and protected lanes, and I’m usually riding at (much) less than 10mph behind my son. However I definitely get a lot of drive-by parenting. I mean that literally. People in cars pull up next to us and tell me to tie her down, sometimes pointing to their own kids strapped in 5-point restraints in car seats as examples. I am already so over this. And I have begun to wonder, from a philosophical perspective, what it says about us as a society that our kids spend so much time literally tied down.

I digress.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now. These are the racks at my office.

Riding an EdgeRunner is also fun because it makes me to feel like I joined a club. Although it gets a lot of attention from people who don’t ride bikes, it is definitely the bike of choice among San Francisco parents (along with the Yuba Mundo). As one might expect, most of them are BionXed up as well. There are two EdgeRunners on the Panhandle riding to school most mornings, and I see a blue one just like mine almost every day, coming the opposite way on Post Street after I’ve dropped off the kids. There sometimes yet another EdgeRunner, with a Yepp seat, parked at the racks at my office. After a couple of years riding the Bullitt, which raises eyebrows wherever it goes and has tourists snapping photos, the relative obscurity of riding an EdgeRunner is a nice change of pace.

Most importantly, it does what we need it to do. The addition of the EdgeRunner means that Matt and I can each ride a cargo bike that can haul both kids, and/or their bikes, wherever we’re going. Even though the BionX is not the most powerful assist you can put on a bike, we have used it to get up the hills of Bernal Heights with both kids on the deck. That’s steeper than we ever hope to go on a daily basis. And with the regenerative braking it has crazy-range–I sometimes feel as though I’ve returned home with the same charge I had when I left.

We came late to having two big cargo bikes, but it’s been working well for us. Having two kids in the same school has allowed our schedules to ease enormously, and having two big bikes to haul them and their bikes around as needed makes it easier still. Our son may be slow when riding his own bike, but we’re still beating our old car commute times. I’ve heard a lot of people say that having a box-bike and a longtail is the perfect two-cargo bike situation. Based on our experience so far, I’d have to agree.

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, commuting, EdgeRunner, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Two years on the Bullitt: still the awesomest

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

Our two-year anniversary of Bullitt-ownership was yesterday. I had ambitions to write a post last year about our first year of riding, but then Totcycle did it for me. I basically agree with everything he wrote, so why bother saying the same stuff over again? “The TL;DR version is that this is the finest automobile replacement bike setup in the whole wide world (for families and cities like mine), and a joy to ride for all involved.” I mean, that pretty much covers it. I have no way of assessing how far we’ve ridden on the bike (see below), but based on the mileage on our less-ridden bikes I would be shocked if it were anything less than 4,000 miles, and unsurprised if it were far more than that.

This setup never gets old, evidently.

This setup never gets old.

The specs on our bike ended up much like those of the Totcycle bike (but ours is blue): SLX 3×9, hydraulic disc brakes, standard LvH panels and seat. This is a lightweight and narrow setup that can go pretty much anywhere that a normal bike can go, which has a lot of value in a city of tight spaces. And although our climate is not rainy like Seattle’s, the rain cover is what sold our kids on the bike. It is a year-round greenhouse that protects them from cold and wind—this is San Francisco, so there’s not really that much cold, but there is definitely a lot of wind. One difference is that we added Supernova dynamo lights: to say we have zero regrets would be a massive understatement. That headlight is bright enough to effectively light a dark road in Golden Gate Park for the Bullitt and both kids’ bikes in front of it. We never worry about riding at night.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

I heard from someone a while back that he got the impression that the Bullitt was unreliable. This is so far from the truth that I laughed, but I suspect it is the hazard of occasional blogging—our life wanders on, and is punctuated by posts in which Something Happens. We did have a few hitches in the beginning, which related to stuff we stuck on the bike. Some of our accessory choices worked out well (the BionX assist, dynamo lights) and some did not (Patterson cranks). But the bike itself: bombproof. We love this bike. It changed our lives.

To get it out of the way, I’ll cover the things that went wrong first. They’re in three categories: (1) the Patterson cranks; (2) BionX; and (3) vandalism.

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

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards.

First, the Patterson: When I got the bike, I really wanted a chain guard to protect my work pants. These are tough to include on a bike that has multiple front chain rings. Instead, Splendid suggested trying out the FSA Metropolis Patterson two-speed internally geared crankset. For the time that it worked, this was an awesome addition. We loved it. Unfortunately it is not compatible with the conditions here. We broke it twice riding on crappy streets, in the “speed bump with a deep crack in the asphalt on the other side” scenario that is pretty much a daily experience for us. We know to slow down for these on our regular routes, but on unfamiliar streets it was easy to hit a surprise divot at speed while loaded down with 100 pounds of cargo. The Patterson crankset just couldn’t take that kind of abuse. After the second breakdown and time-consuming repair, we swapped it out for a standard front triple, which cheerfully swallows whatever San Francisco can throw at it.

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

In the meantime, I learned to embrace a more San Francisco style of dress anyway, most importantly the ubiquitous look of skinny pants paired with dressy shoes. I grew up in Seattle, where “cute shoes” meant Birkenstocks, Merrells, Doc Martens or something chunky with thick straps from the Keen oeuvre, the kinds of shoes that make San Franciscans wince and scream, “My eyes!” So this shift involved a learning curve for me. But I can testify that it is an extremely bicycle-friendly way to dress. (I doubt this is a coincidence.) Happily we put MKS Grip King pedals on the Bullitt, still my favorite pedals ever, and they make it easy to ride in even the most ridiculous shoes. (I’ve heard reports that the Grip Kings sometimes get slippery in the rain, but here in California, which is still being ravaged by the worst drought in state history, that hasn’t been a question I can answer one way or the other.)

Second, the BionX: Our maintenance issues with the BionX have involved the good, the bad, and the stupid.

The stupid is that over a six-month period Matt dropped two controllers and shattered them, which is why we have no idea how many miles we’ve ridden this bike. The controllers are not a cheap part to replace. The bike shop glued the third one into place on the handlebars, so it couldn’t be removed, and since then: problem solved. I recommend this strategy to the butter-fingered BionX users among us.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

The bad is that in the first year we owned the bike, we broke a dozen spokes on the rear wheel. Twice. I really wish BionX had indicated that on a cargo bike or in seriously hilly terrain, the rear wheel is going to need much thicker spokes. We only found this out after the second set of spokes broke, after complaining about it to The New Wheel. They knew immediately what our problem was, which is the advantage of having an e-assist focused local shop around. So on round 3, we replaced the spokes with monster ones, and again: problem solved. Not expensive, but definitely annoying. I have heard other people report the same problem. Probably best to ask for extra-thick spokes from the start.

The good is that we are evidently the luckiest family in family biking, because last week, the Bullitt’s battery died. It ran out of juice and stopped recognizing the charger. And at that point we had one week left on our original two-year warranty. We took it to The New Wheel, which told us that BionX would honor the warranty and almost certainly send us a brand-new battery. Score! In the meantime the shop gave us a loaner battery to use. So we ride on.

An early ride with many more to come

An early ride with many more to come

Last is the vandalism. While this is a hassle, it’s not specific to the Bullitt, and I guess it beats having a bike stolen outright, which is what happened with the MinUte. Once the saddle was stolen in Japantown. It made getting the bike home a total PITA. When Matt took our son to a Giants game, rowdy fans broke a support on the rain cover, which led to a week of relentless griping by the kids while we waited for a replacement. And then there is the problem of drivers treating the front bucket like a garbage can. One woman actually threw a coffee cup into it from her parked car as Matt was riding by. These days we keep the rain cover on almost all the time.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger where we live since we bought our bike.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger since we bought our bike.

And those are the problems we’ve had. They sum up to one bad decision on a crankset, one instance of poor communication from BionX about spokes, and two dropped controllers (sigh). Given that we were coming to full-time cargo biking cold, in terrain that is much more challenging than was typical for family biking at the time we started riding, I figure we’re doing reasonably well. Sure, it would have been great to have had more information about the spokes and so on, but in the meantime we’ve had two good years of riding. The rest of the time the Bullitt has spent in the shop has been basic maintenance: we replaced the chain this summer, and we take it in every six months or so to have the wires checked and the BionX software updated. Most recently, we had the speed at which the BionX kicks in lowered to 0.5kph from its original 2mph. That resolved one of our biggest complaints with the assist, which was difficult hill starts. They are no longer difficult.

The Bullitt+Roland

The Bullitt+Roland

We worried that the narrow box would be too narrow, but it lasted longer than we dared to hope. Of course our kids have gotten bigger, and now that they are almost-9 and 5, it is tough to squeeze them both in the box (although they are willing). We now use the trailer-bike almost all the time. Our daughter is still getting used to the pre-8am kindergarten start-time, so she will doze in the box on the way to school while our son rides the trailer-bike or his own bike, depending on his mood and what time we got out the door in the morning (he is not a fast rider). Having just one kid in the box has given us some new cargo capacity, and that’s been fun. We won’t haul them to school on the Bullitt forever, but for now it’s still a good kid-hauler.

So many ways to use a cargo bike

So many ways to use a cargo bike

I still adore shopping by Bullitt. We’ve rented cars with trunks that are smaller than that front bucket. We just throw stuff in (groceries, carpets that need to be cleaned, the cat carrier, the table tennis set—with both kids too) and go. I have carried three kids on the Bullitt and Matt has carried four, and that was without the trailer. Granted, I would not do this on steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that a BionX Bullitt will not handle, at least not yet. We hear that the new BionX D system will change that, and given how much use we still expect to get from the Bullitt, we will almost certainly upgrade to that system when it is released. In the meantime, even our two-year old system gets us where we need to go.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

We feared that getting rid of our car would involve sacrifices. We were surprised that it has not, really. We still rent cars for weekend trips sometimes, but we’re always relieved to drop them off again. I didn’t think our monthly transportation expenses were unreasonable three years ago, but they dropped substantially when we sold the car, and that helped us buy our condo last year. I assumed that bike commuting would take extra time, but we have been surprised again and again at how much time we save. With the assist on high I can cross town to pick up a sick kid faster than I have ever been able to drive, because I don’t have to worry about traffic. Although my injury last year messed with my fitness, in general over the last few years we’ve been in good shape, a big switch from the first couple of years of parenthood. And I was pleasantly surprised that once you learn to ride the Bullitt—I had issues with the learning to ride it part—it stays with you forever. I got back on it after four months bed-bound and it was like I had never stopped. Furthermore, to this day, the Bullitt remains the only box-bike I have ever ridden that I can refer to as “nimble” (and keep a straight face).

And a big shout-out still to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids' play area at their new shop!)

A big shout-out goes to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which first had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids’ play area at their new shop!)

We owe it all to the Bullitt. What can I say? It even made us homeowners in San Francisco. It was the right family bike. We bought it at a time when there wasn’t much advice about buying bikes like these to be found. It was Splendid Cycles in Portland that imagined Bullitts could be a real family bike in the United States, and we were lucky to find them and right to trust them. We were making our decision blind, and we hit the jackpot. I recognize a Bullitt isn’t right for everyone—some people are too short, some places are flat enough that the bakfiets is a better fit, and it costs a mint—but we have zero regrets. I know that our kids will age out of being carried on the Bullitt, and being pulled by it, but it’s hard to imagine our outgrowing this bike. There is always something more to haul.

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike