Tag Archives: car free

A city without cars

vapstop

Waiting for the vaporetto

Over spring break we went to Europe. This was a long-delayed trip, in honor of our son’s request, years ago, to visit a city without cars. There are parts of multiple cities that are car-free, and we have visited some of these (including, on this trip, in Bordeaux and Paris), and there are a few car-free places that are more bucolic (like Mackinac Island in Michigan) but there is only really one city that has (virtually) no cars, and that city is Venice.

Venice is both an easy and a hard city to love. The easy part to love is the beauty and the incredible sense of safety and comfort that comes from being someplace that is truly car-free.

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Our kids acclimated almost immediately and after a week, it was an unpleasant shock to step off the water taxi to walk to Marco Polo airport and discover a crosswalk. They were not prepared for passing cars despite our warnings and tried to run across as they would have in Venice proper. Less appealing is that Venice has been loved almost to death. Venice hosts more tourists than it has permanent residents every day of the year, and it is packed with people, all of whom seem to be hauling wheeled suitcases (which are, incidentally, almost totally useless in a city that uses bridges with stairs to allow people cross canals every few meters). What’s more, the city is riddled with tourist traps and it can be a challenge to find services that normal people use, like grocery stores, laundromats, and pharmacies. Also, unlike in the rest of Italy, we ate some of the worst meals of our lives in Venice. We are as guilty of doing touristy things as the next family, of course: we took our first gondola ride while we were there, and it was awesome. I do not dismiss all things touristy out of hand.

This is a Venetian handtruck: pull it up the stairs and the load stays steady, then flip it around and bounce it down.

This is a Venetian handtruck: pull it up the stairs and the load stays steady, then flip it around and bounce it down.

I have become kind of obsessed with transportation over the last few years, so I was fascinated by how Venice worked. I took pictures of garbage boats and ambulance boats, and checked all the squares for the water cisterns, which historically were filled by filtered rainwater. You can still see the cache drains, although the cisterns have all been capped off and water is now piped. On the way out, though, sewage still drains right out into the canals, yeeargh. I digress. Goods and people in Venice move primarily by boat. For deliveries, one boat worker ties up the boat at the nearest dock to the destination, and the other grabs a hand truck to make deliveries. The hand trucks have two large wheels and two small wheels, so they can be dragged up steps on one side of each crossing bridge, and bounced back down on the other side, without tipping. I found the whole process fascinating to watch. Sometimes they cut out the middleman: we spotted more than one boat that served as a floating market.

Cement trucks on a barge! Words fail me.

Cement trucks on a barge! Words fail me.

The inability of Venice to handle any auto traffic whatsoever becomes surreal at times. We watched a barge pull up to a construction site carrying two cement trucks, which proceeded to mix and pour cement while tied up to the edge of the canal. It is patently ridiculous to use a truck to mix and pour cement in a car-free city, but this is pretty much the only way we have anymore to make large quantities of cement, so that’s what they did. It was moments like this that made me understand that what it really means to live in a completely car-dependent culture; I realized that certain things cannot be done any other way.

“Accessible” Venice, sometimes.

I spent a fair bit of time wondering whether the way that Venice worked could be exported to modern cities, given that is still the only car-free city in the world. And my conclusion was: sort of. One thing that makes Venice wonderful is the complete separation between different modes of transit, and this could and should be done everywhere. It is safe to walk anywhere (assuming you don’t walk right into a canal; this is Europe and governments don’t bother with safety rails) because the only motor traffic is in the water. In lieu of buses people ride the vaporetti, which honestly completely trump both buses and trains for unrelenting coolness. And unless they are on strike, they come every few minutes; it’s not like they’re going to get stuck in traffic. One thing that could never be exported is the relentless use of stairs, which makes the city totally inaccessible to the non-able bodied. The entire city is like Escher’s Relativity lithograph. There were occasional ramps, but only on the largest bridges, because most places there simply isn’t enough room for them. Riding bicycles is completely out of the question. We saw a few kids on scooters, but only those who had parents patient enough to carry them up and down the stairs every 100 steps or so. Strollers are basically nonexistent. Even so, I understand why people dream of living in Venice, despite the mostly-terrible food and the madding crowds and the near-impossibility of washing the clothes our kids threw up on during the plane ride. A car-free city is peaceful, and quiet, and beautiful. Even though the sewers dump right into the canals, the air is clean. We could let the kids run free. It was hard to leave and return to places where we always have to be alert, just to keep from being killed. After just a few hours in Venice it becomes clear that doesn’t have to be that way; we could redesign cities for people. And yet it is.

This is everywhere in Venice.

This is everywhere in Venice.

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Filed under car-free, destinations, travel

Hum of the city: Golden Gate Bridge

[Posts lately have been light and will continue to be for a few weeks: I broke my finger and it’s a bear to type right now. For those of you waiting to hear about the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day and the Faraday Porteur—sorry!]

The toll plaza without cars--it was eerie.

The toll plaza without cars–it was eerie.

Earlier this month, the Golden Gate Bridge was closed to car traffic for a weekend, for the first time ever. The reason for this was to install a new barrier between the north and south lanes. The old barrier, consisting of soft plastic poles, didn’t really keep drivers from running right into each other. As a result, a hard barrier was installed on the bridge (and it can be moved using zipper trucks; this process is wildly cool). You might think that this not-incredibly surprising news about soft plastic poles could be exported to design safer bike lanes, but so far, not so much.

The southern approach to the "closed" bridge

The southern approach to the “closed” bridge

The week before this happened, residents received multiple notices that the bridge “would be CLOSED.” Not true, it would only be closed to CARS. And this was an opportunity that we didn’t want to miss. We have tried to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge before, when our kids were stroller-age, and never made it past the first tower. The noise of passing cars was overwhelming, and they were so close to the sidewalk that the experience of walking was kind of scary. Historically, the bridge has only been closed to cars for a few hours at a time; an hour in 2012 for the 75th anniversary, 6 hours in 1987 for the 50th anniversary, but never before for a whole weekend. I doubt I’ll live to see it again.

He is a strong rider now.

He is a strong rider now.

Our son decided to ride by himself, even though the hills en route are non-trivial to say the least. He did fine. Once we got there things got a little more difficult. We were not the only people who had the idea of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge during the construction work. What’s more, the bridge administrators decided to close the west side bicycle lane that weekend. (They close the west side a lot, for reasons that have never been explained. Maybe they hate active transportation.) At any rate, it was crowded. The worst were the multiple lines of lycra-clad riders from Marin, who came in huge clumps and who made no effort to hide their fury that they were being forced to slow down for other users. “DON’T STOP!!!” one screamed from behind me when I slowed to avoid hitting a toddler who wandered in front of me. I heard a tourist say in disbelief, “Why are those bikers so angry?” Good question.

Little girl on a big bike, and an empty expanse where the cars usually go

Little girl on a big bike, and an empty expanse where the cars usually go

So it was a tough ride. We had towed our daughter’s bike there so that she could ride the bridge by herself, but she didn’t have the skills to navigate the crowds and had to go back on my bike. Our son was grouchy about having to deal with so many people at once. Our bikes are huge and earned us the lifetime enmity of pretty much every recreational rider in Marin County.

And yet. Despite all of the hassles, it was sort of magical to cross the bridge in silence, especially as we got further north and the crowds thinned out. Every once in a while a bus or a construction vehicle would go by, and the noise would echo loudly, overwhelming the sounds of birds flying by, and of people having conversations. Just one car could drown all those living noises out. Yet on every other day on the bridge there are thousands of them. Until that weekend, no could ever hear anything at normal volume on the bridge. The bridge constantly roars with passing engines.

Listening to the waves and the seagulls

Listening to the waves and the seagulls

I named this blog Hum of the city because I fell in love with the noises of a city when I heard them for the first time. It took a trip to Copenhagen, which redesigned itself to cut back dramatically on relentless car traffic, before I even knew they were there. Now that we’re back in San Francisco, I listen all the time, but I only hear them in snatches—during a light cycle that’s briefly red in every direction, on a residential street block party, on a car-free Sunday, or on a once-in-a-lifetime weekend, crossing Golden Gate Bridge.

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Filed under car-free, destinations, family biking, San Francisco

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

Recovery

On June 3rd I had my final surgery on the leg that was run over. On June 17th, one month ago, I went back to the surgeon’s office to have my staples and bandages removed, and get clearance to walk (and ride a bike) again. The staple removal was uneventful, although painful, and I walked out with permission to do almost everything I could do up until the moment I was hit last April.

This was my last surgical appointment, and it was not without its surprises. “You know, that was a really serious injury,” they said. “Last year we thought you might never walk again! And look at you now!”

WHOA. I understand why they didn’t mention that then, but it was a nauseating thing to hear.

Once again: this is the hardware that came out of my leg. Dang.

Once again: this is the hardware that came out of my leg. Dang.

Thanks to good luck and evidently, to clean living, I am walking better now that I was when all the hardware was still in my leg. People at work tell me that my gait is smoother, and they can’t tell I was ever hurt. The office is not the most challenging walking environment, it’s true, but it’s a good sign.

There are still some odds and ends to deal with. Running and jumping are out of the question for the rest of the year. I remain as weak as a kitten when walking up hills and stairs, although I get practice with that here in San Francisco whether I want it or not. I’m not thrilled about the 15 pounds I gained over the last year of reduced activity (but on the up side, now that I’m moving again I’ve already started losing that extra weight). My scars still look pretty grim. I know they’ll fade over time but even so I’ll be wearing long pants for the rest of the year, both because the scars are susceptible to sun damage and because I prefer to cover them given some of the looks I got last year. In the grand scheme of things these issues are pretty trivial, and none of them are permanent.

I want to ride my bicycle.

I want to ride my bicycle.

People still ask me if I was scared to get back on the bike. Honestly, after four months being almost completely immobilized last year, my stir-craziness outweighed any residual fear. I was over it. I couldn’t walk well for months after I was allowed to walk, but I learned pretty quickly that I could ride a bike almost as well as anyone, at least on the flats, and I had an electric assist for the hills. Riding a bike made me feel normal again. I’ll admit that I do still get anxious making left turns—I now make Copenhagen left turns almost all the time.

After several visits to the orthopedic institute, I also have some perspective that I didn’t have before. Basically every patient I saw there under the age of 80, other than me, had been injured in a car.

“My husband was driving when we were sideswiped…”

“I was driving my pickup…”

“Our car rolled over when it went off the road…”

These people were traumatized. They were, understandably, afraid to get back in their cars. They did it anyway, because they felt like they didn’t have a choice. And in some cases they were right, because that’s how the US is designed. But their fear was justified.

Still having fun

Still having fun

What I realized in all those hours racked up waiting to see the surgeon was this: Riding a bicycle isn’t dangerous. What’s dangerous is being around cars. Understanding the real risk involved in transportation has helped me think about how I want to travel most of the time. There are different ways to approach the real risk, the risk of “being around cars.”

One way is to try to wear armor, investing in strategies like driving a bigger car or riding the bus. Sometimes that works and sometimes you end up in the orthopedic institute like all those people I met in the waiting room. Or worse. When I was pregnant with my son, a driver rammed my car from behind while I was stopped at a red light and I spent the next month on bedrest to keep from miscarrying. The more time you spend being around cars, no matter how big the bubble you build around yourself, the greater the risk.

Where we ride

Where we ride

Another way to approach the risk of being around cars is to simply be around cars a lot less. Drivers can’t hit you if you’re hanging out in places cars can’t go. The first step is to cut back on riding in cars: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my surgeon commutes by bike. A lot of bicycle travel can be through parks, or on quiet streets, or (more recently) in protected bike lanes. In other cities people can legally ride on the sidewalk when cars feel too close or traffic is too fast—and in San Francisco, there are a few scary places where I too will ride on the sidewalk now, even though it’s illegal. Protected infrastructure and its near-equivalents are increasingly common, and they’re worth seeking out. It’s certainly possible to make riding a bicycle really dangerous by getting up close and personal with cars at every opportunity, but there’s no requirement to ride that way.

How we'll roll at Fiets of Parenthood

How we’ll roll at Fiets of Parenthood

I chose to be around cars a lot less. That includes staying out of cars when I can, even though it’s not practical for us to avoid them entirely. Active transportation has other rewards as well—I’m a lot healthier, and I healed better than anyone had expected when I was hurt. It’s also the fastest way to move through the city, and it’s always easy to find parking. The greatest reward of all, of course, is that it’s a fun way to get around. I understand now why people who love skiing or rock climbing or hang-gliding accept the very-real risks of their sports, and return from their injuries ready to start all over again. But biking is not like rock climbing—every study of bicycle commuting has found that I’ll live a longer and healthier life, statistically speaking, if I keep riding. And so I do.

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Filed under car-free, family biking, injury, traffic

How we roll

Riding the Brompton with a kid never gets old

Riding the Brompton with a kid never gets old

We have had some crazy weekends lately—as mentioned, we recently dragged ourselves over to Berkeley, and next week I’m flying north with the kids to see my mom while Matt goes to Australia on business—but most of the time, we keep it local. Usually weekends mean riding around doing whatever it is we want to do. Sometimes we take Muni downtown instead of the bikes. But as we learned at Santacon, riding bikes means never having to worry about traffic or street closures. We wander into whatever event is happening and wander out. There is always an event of some kind in San Francisco.

Painting flowers for the garden

Painting flowers for the garden

If it weren’t for the times we rent cars, we would have forgotten entirely what it was like to get stuck in traffic or be unable to find parking. We never have to pull over on the bikes to let one of the kids throw up into the gutter. When we see something interesting we stop and check it out. When we run into friends on the way we ride with them for a while and chat. We spend bupkis on transportation. It’s difficult to overstate how much of a difference all of this has made in the quality of our lives. The only downside is that occasionally we get cold or wet, unless we want to rent a car instead. This seems like a more than fair exchange.

She learned how to mix in white paint to make light colors.

She learned how to mix in white paint to make light colors.

Last Saturday was a garden fundraiser at Rosa Parks, so we rode over with the kids to paint flowers for the fence. There are so many biking families at Rosa Parks now that we are, I’ve recently learned, sort of our own gravitational force. We attract a few more families away from their cars every year. For this event the organizers put the entrance next to garden courtyard, expecting that there wouldn’t be space for all the bikes otherwise. That assumption was correct. The school finally got that extra bike corral rack in front of the building, in red because the district had run out of blue racks. It fills up too.

They're finally getting over the daylight savings switch, but they still get tired sometimes.

They’re finally getting over the daylight savings switch, but they still get tired sometimes.

On Sunday we wandered down to the farmers’ market and then down the street for brunch. Matt and our son rode out afterward to pop popcorn for a school fundraiser, then to the library and the grocery store (we won’t run out of milk THIS week). I made nettle pizza with our daughter for dinner and then the kids and I made tortillas. Movies were watched and books were read. Everyone got a nap at one point. It was the kind of weekend I had imagined when we first thought about having kids. They come more often now.

We sold our car almost two years ago. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long.

 

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Filed under Brompton, car-free, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Santacon and an Urban Arrow

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown's Ross Alley

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown’s Ross Alley

Our kids get the same present every birthday: an “All About Me” day, where they get to pick exactly what we do all day (within reason—we had to veto any activity that involves a plane flight).  Typically that ends up involving a lot of visits to places like ice cream shops, but they’re getting more creative over time. Our son recently turned 8, and last Saturday was his day. He wanted to go to Chinatown to visit the fortune cookie factory, to the Ferry Building for lunch and chocolates, and to spend the evening at Acrosports on the trampolines. No problem, kiddo.

The weekends before Christmas are always a challenging time to get around San Francisco, as there is a huge influx of shopping traffic. Something that never, ever gets old about commuting by bicycle: never having to care about how many other people are headed to the same place we’re going. So it didn’t matter that much that we’d forgotten that December 14th was also Santacon. We only realized when we’d gotten most of the way downtown and started seeing Santas drifting out onto the streets, even around 9am, which is an impressively early start for people who are planning to be up all night drinking.

So we went to Chinatown and the fortune cookie factory, which was far more interesting for our kids than I would have guessed. Probably the endless handouts of flat fortune cookies that were too stiff to fold didn’t hurt. Walking through Chinatown is a trip, because it is not that big and so packed with people that it is difficult to stay on the sidewalk, and yet we were, as usual, the only white people visible in any direction, not to mention the only people speaking English. A few blocks over, we crossed the street and presto—North Beach, and the signs in the windows were suddenly in the Roman alphabet and said things like “Sicilian salami” and “Espresso.” Our son wanted to top off his post-breakfast fortune cookie snack with a pre-lunch cannoli, so, okay, fine, there is no shortage of Italian bakeries in North Beach. From there we threaded back to Matt’s office for a bathroom break (carefully navigating around the North Beach strip clubs) and to lunch (and more dessert) at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building was even more packed than Chinatown.

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

After a post-lunch stop at the Sue Bierman Park children’s playground, we packed up and headed home over Nob Hill. Where we found: Santacon, in force. After lunch the Santas were all up and ready to party, and for much of our trip the sidewalks and streets were filled with them. I heard later from people who attempted to drive downtown on Saturday that the streets were immobilized for cars. A few blocks of this and my son asked, “So do Santas really like bars?” And I said, “These ones do.” There were Santas filling the streets all the way into Japantown and the Western Addition. They liked our bike.

Our new neighbors' new holiday display

Our new neighbors’ new holiday display

On the way back home we stopped by our new condo to see our new neighbors’ Christmas display, which rivals their awe-inspiring Halloween display. And right as we stopped, a woman next door to them wheeled out: AN URBAN ARROW! OMFG! The Urban Arrow I spotted at the Golden Gate Park tree lighting belongs to a family five doors over from our new home!

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

Based on what the mom told me, it could well the only Urban Arrow in the entire Bay Area. Apparently Rolling Orange in New York, the only US importer, gets only a dozen of these bikes each year, and most of them are pre-sold well in advance of their arrival. When our neighbors started looking for theirs there was only one bike in the shipment not already pre-sold, and they bought it. First impressions: no question, that bike is really, really big. It makes our Bullitt look like a Brompton. And the kids’ box is tricked out like an airport lounge. The neighbors have three kids, and that morning they also had things to do, so I couldn’t quiz the mom as mercilessly as I would have liked about her bike but I consoled myself: in a few months, we’ll be seeing them almost every day. Then on Sunday I learned that some of our other neighbors bought a Bullitt. We’re moving to the street of box bikes, whoo hoo!

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, destinations, family biking, San Francisco, traffic