We tried it: Riese & Müller Packster 60

The Packster 60

The Packster 60

Over the winter break, we got the chance to test ride one of the recent new entrants in the front-loading cargo bike market, the Packster. The New Wheel in San Francisco loaned it to us while the EdgeRunner was getting a tuneup. Thanks, New Wheel! This is the first front-loading cargo bike they’ve stocked. Back when we were shopping for a family bike, the front-loading options were pretty limited, at least in the United States: a Bakfiets.nl (inappropriate for San Francisco hills, as are all of its European knockoffs); a Metrofiets (fun bike, but oversized for our needs); and a Bullitt (what we ended up getting.) Since then, we’ve tried out new entrants like the Urban Arrow and not-exactly-bikes like the Butchers & Bicycles tricycle, and been unable to try some of the new ones like Douze. And there have been various now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t attempts to enter the market, which have permanently put me off reviewing bikes that are not yet in production. It’s still a pretty thin market.

The Packster 60 is one of two Packsters; there is also a Packster 80 (bigger,) and a similar model from the same company, which is higher-end and more expensive, called the Load.

Riese & Müller is a German company, and the bikes have Bosch assists, which are also German. The Jewish half of our family has been slow to make peace with German cars, and Bosch did not exactly win their hearts and minds during World War II either, however in the last decade or so there has been something of a rapprochement, enough of one, at least, that no one was scowling at the prospect of seeing their grandchildren on a German bike. Personally, while I have continued lust in my heart for the German postal and baker bikes, I have found most of the assisted bikes from Germany to be unsettlingly large and sort of overwhelming. Until last week, I guess I should say. My feelings about the Packster in six words: German engineering applied to a bicycle.

What I like about this bike:

  • In short: German engineering. This is a term that can mean different things to different people. One of the most obvious indications for us was when I was riding with the kids and my daughter complained that we were going “too fast.” And I thought, “What do you mean we’re going too fast, we’re going maybe 9-10mph.” Then I looked at the controller and realized we were actually booking along at about 17mph. It’s the German way. When I was an exchange student in high school my host father was driving on the Autobahn and I said something about how I thought people were allowed to drive faster, and his daughter looked over at me and said, “We’re going 180kph.” Which we were. I had mixed feelings about this for a while until I got back on the EdgeRunner and realized I didn’t feel the speed on the Packster because the bike is pretty impervious to external shocks. The suspension fork on the front wheel helps with that. It glides over rough pavement. The parts don’t rattle. The frame doesn’t twitch. Everything is stable. I never noticed the shifting or the pedals. We just rode, and the bike didn’t get in the way. It is subtle, but once you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to go back. I could spout a bunch of details about the quality of the parts, but why bother when that stuff is on the company’s website. The parts are awesome. Everything works better than you would expect. It’s great.
  • Here we are loaded up: two kids, groceries, and my stuff.

    Here we are loaded up: two kids, groceries, and my stuff.

    The front box is great, wide enough but not too wide. We still haul our two kids in the standard Bullitt box, which is narrower on rainy days. Four years ago I would not have imagined that this was possible with them now at the ages of 11 and 7 years, but what did I know? It can be done and it’s what they want. That said, there was way less drama about “get your ELBOW out of my FACE!” with both of them in the wider Packster box. And although I was initially concerned that the wider box would interfere with our ability to get through tight spaces, it’s not so wide that it limited our mobility much. Front loaders in general are fantastic because it’s easy to talk to the kids and see what they’re doing.

  • Quick release adjustment on the seat (there's a similar one on the handlebars)

    Quick release adjustment on the seat (there’s a similar one on the handlebars)

    The Packster has a number of features to help riders of various heights feel comfortable. These include a low step over (nice in general, necessary if you want to do something like put a child seat on a rear rack) and quick-release adjustable height handlebar stem and seat post.

  • NuVinci gearing on the right

    NuVinci gearing on the right

    The integrated NuVinci gearing and Bosch middrive assist work together seamlessly and go pretty much anywhere. (For some reason Bosch ranks its levels of assist from lowest to highest as “Eco,” “Tour,” “Sport,” and “Turbo” instead of the more logical 1-4 range. It is annoying and non-intuitive. Hindu-Arabic numerals were good enough for Brahmagupta so they’re good enough for me, and thus I will refer to the assist levels by numbers from here on out.) I’ve ridden an EdgeRunner with the infinite NuVinci + Bosch middrive assist before and didn’t have a good experience, probably because (I learned later) Xtracycle is shipping those bikes with a front cog that it is the wrong size for climbing. I have been informed by more than one person that swapping it (which many bike shops now do as a matter of course) makes a huge difference. And I thought that the Butchers & Bicycles trike I rode had that combo but it turned out to be a different assist. Anyway, this time I understood what the fuss was about. This combination makes for an incredibly smooth experience in which you can gear down and power up to go up hills, and gear up and power down on the way back down. Even with two kids on the bike I was able to shift down and stay at a level 2 assist to get up moderate hills without (a) slowing down enough that I worried about tipping or (b) feeling like I was going to pass out or (c) both. After that success, I took the Packster (unloaded) up our old preschool hill, a hill that has tacoed the rear wheels of at least two unassisted bikes hauling trailers, and that many assisted bikes have failed to scale. For that, I needed to use level 4 and gear way down, and it was not exactly effortless, but I could have done it with a kid on board, and Matt could do it with two kids. The Packster says: veni, vidi, vici.

  • Here's the box with seat cushions and restraints.

    Here’s the box with seat cushions and restraints.

    Do you have range anxiety when you think about riding an assisted bike, worrying that you’ll ride to one end of town and find you’re out of battery power? If so, this is the bike for you. The Riese & Müller front loaders can accept a second battery, meaning that whatever the normal range of the bike (typically 20-35 miles, depending on load and terrain), it can be doubled. That second battery isn’t free, of course, but for people with long commutes, or people like us who sometimes find ourselves riding distances beyond what we’d ever initially imagined, it could be worth it.

  • Do you worry about your pants catching in the chain? I used to until I realized that I could just wear skinny pants all the time. Matt and I both ride enough that we tear through the crotches of our pants pretty regularly, so it didn’t take long to resolve that problem. However the Packster has a belt drive, so I could probably wear palazzo pants if I owned this bike. Belt drives have other advantages as well: smooth operation, longevity, no rust and no need for lubrication (I could wear white palazzo pants), and reduced weight.
  • Front, with suspension and an outstanding light

    Front, with suspension and an outstanding light

    There are really great accessories, and most of them are included in the price of the bike. The wired front and rear lights are incredible. I don’t often have a chance to test ride bikes at night, but because this one stayed with us for about a week, I did, and the throw on the front light of the Packster is the best I’ve ever experienced; it lit up exactly the section of the road I needed to see to get around. The kickstand is sprung so that it’s easy to release down, and ranks in the stability range of the Bakfiets.nl, making it almost impossible to tip over, even when three or four kids swarm it. Because the stand uses an enclosed frame, you can also lock it to a ground puck through the kickstand—we recently started locking our bikes to floor pucks in the wake of several hot prowl thefts of cargo bikes from garages in our neighborhood. It has a rear wheel lock, which is of course totally inadequate as a primary lock here in San Francisco, but is enough in combination with another lock to discourage many bike thieves. The pedals and saddle are nothing special, but they’re perfectly adequate. If you are so inclined, you can add three-point restraints and a cushioned bench seat to the box (the bike I rode had these.) There is also a rain cover available. Although: no bell!

  • Locked to a floor anchor through the kickstand: this is cool.

    Locked to a floor anchor through the kickstand: this is cool.

    Thus far, the Packster is the only cargo bike I’ve ever been able to bunny hop onto a curb. I usually would never even attempt such a thing, but while I was riding the bike back to the shop, I got stuck behind two broken down buses, which had led to an epic traffic meltdown. After waiting a few minutes in the completely stopped car traffic, I figured I had nothing to lose by trying to drag the bike onto the sidewalk and walk it past the buses. I could barely believe it when the front wheel popped right up over the curb and glided up to the sidewalk. My bet is that this is related to the suspension on the front fork, but who cares why it works, the fact that it did work was totally awesome.

  • The Packster is surprisingly easy to park for a front loader. I was edgy when The New Wheel handed it off with a standard U-lock, which can be problematic for our other big bikes. However my cargo lock had gone with my bike to the shop for a tune-up, so I didn’t have a choice. While the Packster has a pretty hefty frame, the rear of the bike is pretty lean (the loaner had no rear rack, but I don’t think a standard rear rack would add any volume here,) so we had no trouble backing it into almost any rack or parking meter to lock up. The usual caveats apply about trying to lift it up a flight of stairs, though, meaning: no way. Yet combined with its ability to hop over curbs, the Packster is shockingly maneuverable for a long john.
  • This is a very clean look, and easy to operate as well.

    This is a very clean look, and easy to operate as well.

    It looks cool. Although I try not to get hung up on aesthetics, there is value to having a bike that I look at and say “I want to ride that.” I was particularly impressed by the way all the wiring has been corralled in front. In the past I have referred to the advice I once read to “buy the cool bike.” I think liking your bike is especially relevant for cargo bikes, which are sometimes kind of big and intimidating, and are used to haul loads that understandably may give people pause. In my case, that’s two squirming kids who are old enough to make their own fun, often by fighting with each other. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and my sense is that bikes with curvy frames seem friendlier than sharp-edged bikes like the Packster, but after years of drive-by parenting I’m actually not interested in looking any more approachable than I already do. Anyway, I found myself wanting to ride this bike.

What I don’t like about this bike:

Nice controller, oh look, we cracked it.

Nice controller, oh look, we cracked it.

Almost everything on the list of things that I didn’t like about the Packster could be summarized as first generation issues, meaning that they’re either aesthetic or correctable annoyances. One of the ones that hit us on the second day was the fact that this particular bike looks interesting enough, particularly loaded up, that people around us could be, frankly, jerks. When I was riding with the kids in Golden Gate Park I tried to ride to a bike rack to park, but was stopped by a guy standing in front of me on the street to “get a closer look at the bike.” I answered a couple of his questions, at which point he stopped talking and just stood there staring at us (as mentioned above: I’m already way too approachable.) Then I said, “I’d like to get to the racks over there!” He said, “Oh!” and stepped back, and then just as I started riding again, STEPPED RIGHT BACK OUT IN FRONT OF US. And because I am evidently way too nice a person I didn’t run him over, so instead we all went down. My kids started screaming, the guy immediately vaporized, and the controller cracked. I’m sorry, New Wheel. Anyway, I put this problem in the same category as vandalism and I hope anyone who happens to buy the bike will mow him down for me next time.  And generally: beware of looky-loos.

  • As always, I note that there is a learning curve for bikes with linkage steering. Don’t look at the front wheel, look at your destination. I can’t tell anymore how easy or hard it is to pick up the steering on a particular make or model, because once I mastered it on the Bullitt I had no trouble with any of the others. Some lucky souls pick it up right away, some people (me) struggle for a few days, and how quickly a person picks it up seems completely unrelated to experience riding other bikes, so who knows. The possibility of dropping the bike on a test ride is real and it’s something to keep in mind. I expect that owning a bike shop that sells front loaders offers a real challenge to one’s equanimity during test rides.
  • Similarly, the turning radius on all front loaders is pretty terrible, what with the long wheel base, and this bike is no exception. Tight U-turns are a thing of the past.
  • It may be hard to see, but this is too much reach.

    It may be hard to see, but this is too much reach.

    At several points while I was riding I wondered if Riese & Müller had a single woman test ride this bicycle before bringing it to market, or even a non-German person, by which I mean a smaller person. Although there are signals that it’s intended to be accessible to people of a range of heights, including the low step over height of the frame and the quick releases to adjust the seat and handlebar heights, one miss that stood out for me was the huge reach required to reach the brake levers. I felt uncomfortable going down steep hills for this reason and for a woman, I have long fingers; I could reach a tenth on the piano back in high school, an advantage that kept me playing far longer than my talent supported. Dialing that back to a shorter reach is something that any bike shop that wants to sell this bike to moms should probably do (and I know it can be done.) Similarly, the box is a sort of origami structure held together by what I assume (based on what my neighbor stores in our shared garage) is a motorcycle tie-down strap. The ratchet (cam?) that secures it is placed at the back left of the box. This is perfectly positioned for anyone who is swinging a leg over the top bar to hit their right foot on it as they dismount. Several times. Ouch. I presume that the (tall, German) men who designed the bike were always lifting their leg over the back of the bike to dismount so this never came up for them. I learned to pull back on the dismount after a while, but it kind of ticked me off.

  • So many times I hit that thing on the dismount

    So many times I hit that thing on the dismount

    While the kickstand is rock solid and goes down to support with a mere touch of the foot, it can be tricky to get back up. What’s supposed to happen is that you push the bike forward and it snaps up automatically. What actually happens depends on what type of surface happens to be under the bike. When we were on rough asphalt, the kickstand gripped enough that it popped right up. When we were on smooth cement, like on the sidewalk, it sort of dragged along and wouldn’t go up without riding for a while, or without me sticking a foot under it to nudge it before I got on. I suspect that applying some kind of grip tape on the bottom of the kickstand would provide enough friction to resolve this, but as is, it’s finicky.

  • Incredibly stiff and annoying rear wheel lock

    Incredibly stiff and annoying rear wheel lock

    Although the Packster mostly rides like a dream, the wheel lock and battery attachments are very stiff. I like having a rear wheel lock but I loathed trying to operate this one so much that I almost gave up on it. It was bizarre because the U-lock I was using was also made by Abus and was easy to operate. Yet only the fact that I did not actually own the bike combined with the high levels of bike theft in San Francisco made me endure messing with that wheel lock. The plug attachment for the battery is also persnickety and hard to connect. Similarly, the quick release adjustments on the handlebars and seat post, while awesome in principle, are not particularly intuitive or easy to operate. I felt a weird dissonance between the times that I was riding the bike (this bike is great!) and the times that I was getting on the bike, getting off the bike, or locking up the bike and charging it (this bike is so annoying!) Some of this may be the fact that it was just unboxed and not everything is working smoothly yet. My experience with the older Abus U-lock would support this hypothesis, however although the battery plug seems designed to be annoying.

  • Note that at this level, we were constantly doing a helmet v. handlebars contest

    Note that at this level, we were constantly doing a helmet v. handlebars contest

    While the bike itself sometimes assumes a tall rider, the accessories are sized for the littlest kids. We did not have the rain cover on the bike that I test rode, which is just as well, because I could tell just by looking at the photo that older kids like mine would not fit under it. My daughter’s attempt to try the three-point restraints left her laughing maniacally at how impossible it was. While my kids appreciated the width of the box, their legs were a bit cramped. The box is a bit shallower than we’re used to as well, so although it was possible to put both kids and a pile of groceries in the bike, we weren’t breaking any maximum load records. And because I didn’t figure out how to make height adjustments until I returned the bike (see above), the handlebars and brake levers struck their helmets when we were riding together. At the highest height point there’s clearance for tall kids (and short adults) but I couldn’t get it there when we had the bike. Overall, the length and width of the Packster 60 is roughly comparable to the Bullitt, but the standard box is shorter, shallower, and wider, although the Packster 80 would presumably be longer.

  • The model I rode was better sprung for riding unloaded than loaded, which was interesting. This is pretty nitpicky, because the ride is great regardless, however the handling improved when it was unloaded; in this it is unlike our Bullitt. When I returned the bike to The New Wheel they mentioned that Riese & Müller supply stiffer springs that could be installed in front that would probably reverse this, making the ride better loaded than unloaded. If I were planning to use this bike for heavy loads (and why get it if not?) I would want to make that switch.
  • The Bosch middrive assist is not silent. The higher levels of assist are extremely not silent. I had a boyfriend in college who later went to law school and after he graduated he took a job at a big firm and decided to buy an “affordable” sports car with his new salary, a Mazda Miata. As we still hung out at times, I rode with him in it occasionally and thus I had the opportunity to experience why it was an “affordable” sports car: the engine noise was like a chorus of howling demons. By comparison, the Bosch at level 4 I would classify as more like the whining of a moderately annoyed demon. For a bicycle, it’s pretty loud; relative to cars, it’s not offensive, but relative to other bicycles, it’s a Miata.
  • Occasionally, the general awesomeness of the ride was interrupted by a weird thunking sound from the gears on hill starts. It never persisted, and it didn’t happen often, but it was unnerving.
  • Last and certainly not least, this bike, like all front loaders, is pretty expensive. The version I rode is priced at $5900, which does include the lights and whatnot. However the kid accessories like the rain cover and so on are extra, as is a second battery; I can’t price those accessories as the bike just came out so I couldn’t find them listed.

Things I can only speculate about:

  • As always, with a new bike on the market, I can’t speak to reliability. That said, this is not a one-off manufacturer, the parts are all pretty high-end, and German engineering has a reputation for reliability, recent exceptions like Volkswagen notwithstanding. Personally I wouldn’t feel any real concern.
  • I’m not sure how well the Packster would handle a fully loaded start on a steep hill, although it is great starting from zero on moderate hills, and for those living outside of San Francisco, that’s probably more than enough. After I dumped the bike my kids were not eager to get back in the box for extended test rides, so the steepest hills I rode were all without them on board. Our usual bikes are BionX assisted, and we use the boost buttons to make the steep uphill starts. As a comparison I tried making a steep start from a dead stop with the assist dialed up to 4 and the gearing down low, and the Packster took off pretty fast. However where we live, I’d want to test ride it with the kids on board before I felt completely confident. If that’s relevant, The New Wheel has the Packster I rode sitting out in front and available for test rides at 420 Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights.

I realized how I felt about the Packster when I rode back to the shop to pick up the EdgeRunner and they wheeled it out. The EdgeRunner is super-practical and maneuverable, but I admit, although I am fond of it, it looked like a beat-up warthog next to the shiny new Packster, and also, I realized once I started riding it that it squeaks and rattles a bit at higher speeds. These are not things that I noticed about it before I rode the Packster.  It is unquestionably true that the abuse we put our bikes through is a big factor in that. Nonetheless, I curse my lost innocence.

We’re not in the market for a new cargo bike, and I am increasingly longing to return to the days of solo biking. So the question I ask myself when I test ride is more along of the lines of who it would best serve. It would serve a family like ours, it turns out. So I asked myself whether I would want it as a replacement for one of our cargo bikes in the (not unlikely, actually) event that one was stolen. It’s a close call. The Packster and Bullitt ride differently, both in appealing ways, however the Packster climbs more smoothly than our BionX assisted Bullitt (the middrive Bullitt may be different), can be upgraded to have double the range, is less expensive (assuming a single battery,) and the slightly wider box would probably eke out a year or so more of carrying two older kids at once. Thanks to the belt drive, I could wear wide-leg pants, should I ever be so inclined. I’d have to live with noise from the middrive on the hills, and plugging in the battery would irritate the crap out of me, but these seem like acceptable tradeoffs. The answer at this point, weirdly, comes down to the rain cover: our kids wouldn’t fit under the Packster’s rain cover. This is probably the closest miss ever for a bike I’ve test ridden. The rain cover would stop me from buying it, unless Riese & Müller come up with a better one. For families with smaller kids though, or hardier ones, it’s a fantastic choice.

 

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Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco

Christmas tree by bicycle, 6th year in a row

Hey. Hey there. I’ve spent a crushing term with an extra-heavy teaching and advising load, and spent all of my writing time working on papers and grant proposals, because that’s my real job. However it’s now December, I’m done teaching and have mostly caught up on papers, and don’t have another grant proposal due until February. It’s blogging time!

Decisions, decisions

Decisions, decisions

December has traditionally been the time of year that we head to the Christmas tree lot and draw stares as we load up a tree on our bicycle. Our son (11) is now old enough to be feeling some tween awkwardness at the prospect of rolling into the Christmas tree lot on bikes; our daughter (now 7) remains oblivious to all forms of peer pressure. Admittedly both kids express some interest in the question of what it might be like to carry a Christmas tree in car, as they have no memory of ever doing so. However when we arrived and discovered a long line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot (which we breezed past, per usual) our son concluded that our decision to bike was appropriate after all. And despite some unusual indecision from the kids this year about which tree to purchase and some contemplation of the (live) turkeys and rabbits, we still made it in and out of the lot faster than any of the drivers.

Tree loaded and ready to go

Tree loaded and ready to go

In this, our sixth year of hauling a Christmas tree by bike, the people at the lot have gotten used to us and we no longer raise eyebrows. We’ve learned we can roll the bike right up to the tree baler, which makes us popular because it means no one needs to carry the tree anywhere, let alone strap it to a car roof. I know that other families in the neighborhood bike their trees home too; thus far we’ve never met any of them at the lot, though.

We have pretty much settled on the Bullitt as our Christmas tree bike, after some experimentation in earlier years. Front loaders are laughably easy to load; just throw whatever in the bucket. Our tree was taller than we are, so we also used a couple of bungees to ensure it wouldn’t slide out on bumpy pavement. For this reason and many others, the Bullitt remains the most reliable vehicle we have ever owned.

Hey, neighbor!

Hey, neighbor!

When we first began carrying our tree by bike, it got us a lot of attention. Even last year, we got a bit of hooting and dropped jaws. This year was the first time that no one seemed to think we were doing anything odd, riding bikes around San Francisco with a Christmas tree and two kids. We see more and more families like ours every year. As we rode up to our building, our next door neighbor appeared on his own bike, on his way back from a trip to the grocery store. It was cool. Not everything gets better all the time, but it feels like occasionally, some things do get better.

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, family biking, San Francisco

Demand more

Spot the transformation cones in SF (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Spot the transformation cones in SF (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

We’ve ridden with our kids in San Francisco on a near-daily basis since 2011. Over the last five years, we’ve watched the number of family bikers like us skyrocket. Our Bullitt used to draw stares and dropped jaws because parents had never seen anything like it before. It still gets attention now, but it’s usually more along the lines of someone running over to say, “I’ve been thinking about getting that bike! Do you like it?” It is no longer unusual for us to go to a kid-oriented event or location (school, after-school, birthday party) and spot another bike like ours, or a comparable family rig. I recognize a number of families by their bikes that I don’t know by name, because we pass each other or travel together every morning.

Over the same period, bicycle infrastructure has improved, which is part of what draws families onto bikes, but the process has been painfully slow. Both Matt and I have attended multiple SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) meetings where we watched the agency propose fantastic infrastructure that was then watered down (“parking! parking! parking!”), or more typically, watched the agency propose pathetic infrastructure that was then watered down (“parking! parking! parking!”) We support the SFBC (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition) and they work hard to push the agency to build safe bicycle infrastructure. Yet the SFMTA seems to take a perverse pride in dragging its heels, so that the kinds of projects that other cities manage to roll out in a matter of weeks extend for years. In the meantime, riders keep dying.

Bike path crossing Lincoln at 3rd Avenue (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Bike path crossing Lincoln at 3rd Avenue (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

In the last couple of months, however, things have been getting noticeably safer on some of San Francisco’s most dangerous streets for bicycles. It is no thanks to the SFMTA. Instead, it’s the work of the SFMTrA, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transformation Authority, an anonymous group that on its own initiative, funded only by donations, has begun doing a fraction of the work that we should been have able to expect the SFMTA to do all these years. For example, in places where drivers routinely park in bike lanes, forcing riders into fast-moving traffic, it adds awareness cones or soft hit posts to mark the lane. Astonishingly, these work (at least while they last.) Drivers who apparently have no concerns at all with the prospect of running over my child on his bicycle will make every effort to avoid hitting an orange plastic cone.

Fell heading onto JFK (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Fell heading onto JFK (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

The SFMTA should be ashamed of its lack of progress on street safety. In the meantime, there are some unexpected new options. This morning I watched cars slow at the sight of the new soft hit posts protecting a particularly harrowing intersection we ride through frequently in Golden Gate Park. I was so grateful that when I got to work I made a donation to SFMTrA so they could buy more equipment. If you bike in San Francisco, you can work with them as well: you can follow them on Twitter (@SFMTrA) or go to their website to add dangerous intersections you’d like to see protected to their interactive map. And if you like what they do, you can donate to help them buy more cones and posts.

Other cities are transforming as well: you can follow and support @NYC_DOTr (New York), @PBOTrans (Portland), @SEA_DOTr (Seattle), or @STP_Fix (St. Paul.) If I’ve missed one, please feel free to post it in the comments. And if you don’t have a Transformation group where you live, maybe you could start one.

I am more optimistic about bicycle infrastructure in San Francisco than I’ve been in quite a while. I’ve decided it’s time to take SFMTrA’s advice, and #DemandMore.

(All street safety installation photos in this post are courtesy of SFMTrA)

 

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

How do you get your kids on their own bikes?

Our kids, at ages 7 and 10, were still riding on our big bikes at the end of 1st grade and 5th grade last year. It got awkward to carry them both, but it was still doable; that why we got big bikes. We like big bikes and we cannot lie. The kids’ commute is complicated by the fact that they both take a van from school to their after-school program, and the van does not have a bike rack. However there was no way we were going to give up their spots in the after-school program, given that it is both an exceptionally good program and literally across the street from my office. The van to after school does, however, have room in the back for a folding bike. As our son got older and tall enough, we offered him the Brompton to ride. We even considered an assisted Brompton, because he’s scrawny and San Francisco is hilly. Unfortunately we learned that the van driver can’t legally offer him assistance loading his bike, and the regular Brompton is already so heavy that he can barely lift it. However he preferred to ride on our bikes.

From here, in 2012

From here, in 2012

The older our kids have gotten, the more drive-by parents and ride-by parents have told us to “put those kids on their own bikes.” I flipped them the bird or ignored them, respectively. I am not into insisting that my kids turn into Mini-Mes (no matter how tempting that is) and I swore that I would never pressure my kids to ride their own bikes. They could ride if and when they were ready. We did however offer bribes: for active transportation, either walking or biking, we pay them 10 cents/mile. I anticipate that they will eventually ask for a better rate (I always encourage them to negotiate) but that’s still cheaper than paying for transit fares.

To this

To this

In August my son started middle school. The same options were on the table as in previous years: I could carry him to school on my bike or he could ride on his own. Also there was one new option: he could take the bus (or rather buses, given that the trip requires a transfer.) The first week he chose to ride on my bike. Then he decided that this was embarrassing and only little kids ride on the back of their parents’ bikes. Next he tried the bus. For the first couple of days we rode with him. This was not necessary, as it turns out that the bus at that time of day and in this part of town only carries students going to school; admittedly the younger kids ride with their parents. However thanks to this experience I did learn that a city bus full of middle school students reeks to eternity. It was weeks ago and I am still reeling from the experience. After a few trips he decided the bus wasn’t to his taste either. He wanted to try riding to school on his own bike. And since then that’s what he’s done, every day.

To this, in 2016. The Brompton is an all-ages bike.

To this, in 2016. The Brompton is an all-ages bike.

So here we are now, with a 6th grader who has chosen to ride his bike to school. We had to jigger the route to find a relatively flat trip because he’s still building up strength. He is still a slow rider and needs extra time on the hills and prefers that one of us shadow him. I am okay with all of these things. He says he likes the extra time he gets to sleep in when he rides his bike instead of taking the bus. He likes feeling independent. He says he wants to try riding completely solo soon. At this point, it seems like he’s going to keep riding, although there are no guarantees. Our daughter, now in 2nd grade, wants to start riding on her own too. So we may be getting another tag-along as a starter; she’s not big enough to ride a Brompton and there’s still that van ride she takes in the middle of the day.

When we started riding bikes everywhere, we did not know how things were going to go as our kids got older. We know families whose kids took to riding their own bikes and never looked back and have heard of families where the kids decided they didn’t like riding their bikes at all, so we kept our expectations low. Our kids are their own people and I know they will find their own way. I don’t always know why they choose to do what they do. At least for now, though, they’ve decided to continue riding with us. And although we try not to overreact and get mushy (at least not where they can see us,) we’re pretty thrilled.

 

 

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco

An ordinary life

I want to try the Tern Xtracycle for sure.

I want to try the Tern Xtracycle for sure.

I used to write posts more often. Part of that was novelty value. The switch from driving everywhere to biking everywhere was pretty exhilarating and there was a lot to learn. There still is, but despite the fact that I have ridden more cargo bikes than anyone else I know who does not run a bike shop (and some people who do) I’m no longer the best person to assess the handling of family bikes, mostly because my kids, at ages 10 (almost 11) and 7, are really heavy. I still do it though, just on a very extended schedule.

We also still carry our kids on the bikes, but it’s almost always one kid at a time. They’re moving to riding their own bikes and our son is now old enough to ride the bus to school on his own (well, buses: there’s a transfer), or at least as much “on his own” as it is to ride the same bus as 100 other middle school students. We still commute by bike, sometimes by bus. We rent a car when we need to cross the Bay Bridge as a family (no bikes allowed on the western span) or when we go camping in Central California, or whatever. We take cabs to the airport. We take the train when it’s an option, which is rare, unfortunately. We do not miss owning a car, and in related news, we like being homeowners in San Francisco.

We rode to the Japanese Tea Garden. Pro tip: don't try to drive to Golden Gate Park.

We rode to the Japanese Tea Garden. Pro tip: don’t try to drive to Golden Gate Park.

What people call “alternative transportation” is our ordinary life, and honestly, I kind of stopped paying attention after a while because it doesn’t seem remarkable. At least once a week, one of my colleagues stops at my office, and asks, “Did you bike to work today?” And I say, “Of course I biked today. I always ‘biked today.’”

Alternative transportation is not a bad term though, because it means that we have alternatives. We aren’t tied into getting places any particular way, or to a huge cost sink of a car. Looking for parking has long since become a foreign concept to me, and the biggest maintenance expense we have ever racked up on one of our cargo bikes was in the low three figures. And to this day, when I ride past the line of cars backed up at stop lights, or behind construction equipment, or in the endless wait for summer camp pickup, there is a part of me that thinks, “Suckers!” Obviously I have room for self-improvement.

We travel all kinds of ways, and I wish everyone could. Both Matt and I have aging parents who probably should not be driving, but they live on steep hills without transit on roads with a posted speed limit of 35mph, successfully designed to encourage drivers to take it to 50+mph (and they do), and there is definitely no 8-80 bicycle infrastructure; there aren’t even consistent sidewalks. Their only alternative to driving is to move. We know kids who grew up in places without transit or sidewalks, and to this day the thought of taking the bus terrifies them. Car culture doesn’t allow alternatives, and thus it traps people who are unable to drive, and similarly traps people who are able to drive into taking those who aren’t everywhere they need to go.

Our daughter has moved up to the Torker; our son has moved up to the Brompton.

Our daughter has moved up to the Torker; our son has moved up to the Brompton.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and here we are, hanging in in the new normal, proving that even carrying kids by bike can become unremarkable after a while. We see more families on the road with us every year; it makes the commute fun. When I was riding my daughter to summer camp earlier we saw another EdgeRunner with kids on it and she yelled, “One of us!” There are still plenty of people who haven’t tried it yet though. Every week, we get buttonholed by parents walking to their cars who say, “That bike looks awesome! Do you love it?” Yes. Yes we do. It’s still awesome.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, EdgeRunner, family biking, San Francisco

Stay these couriers

My mail carrier is an asshole.

My mail carrier is an asshole.

We live on a street in San Francisco that has unusually wide sidewalks, and, not coincidentally, unusually narrow lanes for cars. It is also a bike boulevard, and connects directly to two of the separated bike paths in Golden Gate Park. Thanks to the narrow lanes, cars find it difficult to pass each other and avoid cutting through our neighborhood. These things are all great for us, as it means we live on one of the quietest streets in San Francisco, despite the fact that the streetcar runs one block parallel to us and we never have to walk more than a block to get on transit.

The wide sidewalks apparently serve as an irresistible temptation to a certain type of driver, however. My neighbors and I have learned to call the city to ticket drivers who decide that in the absence of a sufficiently convenient street spot, why not park on the nice wide sidewalk? It is apparently the same offenders over and over again, because word like us has gotten around, and our block now stays pretty clear.

A few blocks over, however, it’s a different story. My arch-nemesis in the sidewalk parking wars is unfortunately our mail carrier. Despite personal requests, calls to the city, calls to USPS, tweets to USPS, and in-person complaints at our neighborhood post office, he is an inveterate and unapologetic sidewalk parker. Every day his truck blocks it, leaving me, my kids, neighbors pushing strollers, etc. to fend for ourselves in the street. He parks on the sidewalk even if there is an open parking space on the street right next to the truck. I loathe that guy.

Eventually I will prevail—if nothing else, he is older than I am and thus will retire before I die—but in the interim it’s infuriating.

Me, saying something forgettable at the cancer prevention meeting.

Me, saying something forgettable at the cancer prevention meeting.

Anyway, as a result of all this, I have mixed feelings about the US Postal Service. So earlier this week, when I attended a meeting addressing cancer prevention strategies held by the National Institutes of Health, I was vaguely depressed to realize it was being held at the Bolger Center in Potomac, Maryland, which it turns out is owned and operated as a retreat by, yes, the USPS. (The meeting itself caused me intellectual whiplash, which is another story altogether.)

This plant is brought to you by USPS.

This plant is brought to you by USPS.

The Bolger Center is extremely trippy in its own right. It contains a hotel, a conference center, a dining hall, and bar, and is set up like a college campus. It is labyrinthine and seriously confused multiple taxi drivers. Moreover literally everything on site, from the rooms right down to individual plants, was labeled with signs reading “USPS,” which frankly began to seem excessive. I was tempted to chase down to the squirrels and rabbits wandering around the lawn and woods to check them for tags as well, but they were too fast for me. Other than the 20-odd other attendees at the NIH meeting, the entire center was occupied by USPS middle managers on some kind of retreat. Perhaps recognizing the nature of their core constituency, the Bolger Center lacks sidewalks per se, although there are separated walkways, which are placed far away from the roads designed for cars.

Authentic mail bike: Now we're talking.

Authentic mail bike: Now we’re talking.

All that said, I did discover something new and interesting among the various mail-related paraphernalia posted in the hallways. At the entrance to one building is a display of a postal bike! The sign, which is too small to read in my photo, explains that the USPS bought bikes like these from military surplus in 1944 and used them and their equivalents to deliver mail as late as the 1990s. How cool are these bikes? Amazingly cool! Why on earth did they stop using them? I have an offer for you, USPS: bring back the bikes; in return, you’ll never have a complaint about sidewalk parking again.

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Filed under cargo, San Francisco, travel

Is it too good to be true?

Two kids on our Kona MinUte, not an everyday thing

Two kids on our Kona MinUte, not an everyday thing

Our path to all-bikes-all-the-time did not always run smoothly. At various points, we got crappy advice (I have refrained for years from listing “San Francisco Bike Shops That I Hate” by name so I won’t start now), and at other points, we were unwilling to listen to good advice. Probably the best example of the latter was the Co-Rider/Bike Tutor debacle. The idea of an inexpensive front child seat for older kids on a step-through frame seemed so promising that we wanted very much to believe it would work. Even though the quite reliable and well-informed owner of Ocean Cyclery was leery of this seat, he installed it for us. When it dumped my daughter in the middle of a ride into a busy street, we realized that reality didn’t always conform to what we wanted to happen. Another depressing example was our issues with the terrible brakes on the first-generation Kona MinUte, which kept failing on steep hills with a kid on board (I’ve been told that the brakes on newer models are better). Our local bike shop, for the record, advised upgrading to hydraulic disc brakes on the MinUte from the beginning. Thankfully our kids were never hurt, although we had some very close calls. We have gotten better about listening since then.

Ages 10 and 7 and they STILL squeeze into a standard Bullitt box

Ages 10 and 7 and they STILL squeeze into a standard Bullitt box

We started down the family biking road before there were many resources or options. Now we have two monster cargo bikes, a Bullitt and an Xtracycle EdgeRunner, which can handle whatever we throw at them. They were not cheap, although I maintain that they are a good value. Part of what we paid for was versatility, and part of what we paid for was safety: there is no question that these bikes were designed to do what we do with them, and both the manufacturers and the bike shops where we purchased the bikes are committed to quality. We learned the hard way that this is something that matters because it is what keeps our kids safe. There are national standards in the US that define what features make a car safe(r). These standards do not yet exist for bikes, and that means that finding an appropriate family bike remains a question of trust.

File under "questionable ideas"

File under “questionable ideas”

Even back in the early part of this decade, the prehistoric years of US cargo bikes, there were more and less expensive options, and rest assured that I desperately wanted to believe that the less expensive options would work for us. So when people I had come to trust told me that the bikes I liked were not suitable for San Francisco, and that ultimately a safe and reliable cargo bike would cost much more than I had imagined spending, it was a very difficult thing to hear. I suspect that the only reason we were able to accept it was that we had already had a couple of bad experiences that came from believing there was a way to do what we wanted at a price that we liked. And there was not. We had to decide whether we were willing to (a) make family biking a sometimes thing, (b) risk our own and our kids’ safety, or (c) spend a lot more money than we had hoped. The family biking equivalent of “fast, good, cheap: pick any two” is “versatile, safe, cheap: pick any two.” It’s easy to find an inexpensive bike that’s safe for recreational family riding (short distances, mellow terrain, no weather challenges), or an inexpensive bike that can be used in many situations if you don’t mind risking your life, or an expensive bike that’s safe for daily riding with kids (like every day commuting, especially in annoying terrain). But the Holy Grail of a family bike that is inexpensive, safe, and suitable for carrying kids every day? A bike like this does not exist (yet.) I wish it did.

The fact that cargo bikes are much more expensive than normal bikes is almost always the thing that makes people want desperately to believe in things that are too good to be true. I’ve written about why cargo bikes cost what they do before. Cargo bikes are not expensive because their manufacturers and the shops that sell them are making huge profits; they are not. In more than one case, I have learned that bike shops are run by people who have chosen to make less money than they could in order to make these bikes more accessible. They do it for love.

We've been seeing more and more bikes like ours around the city: Solidarity!

We’ve been seeing more and more bikes like ours around the city: Solidarity!

I have reviewed a lot of bikes on this site. I have avoided reviewing even more bikes. I haven’t mentioned it before, but some of those choices have to do with safety, because quite frankly we have made enough mistakes. I’m not always a huge fan of the bikes I review, but the fact that I write about them at all means that I believe that they are safe enough to ride for at least some kinds of families, even if they’re not a good fit for mine. Over the years, I’ve frequently gotten questions about whether I am going to review a bike that other families are interested in buying. In some cases I haven’t reviewed them because I haven’t seen them locally here in San Francisco, or in Seattle, where my mom lives and where we visit regularly, and thus I know nothing about them (one example: Douze.) In other cases it’s not ignorance that keeps me from writing a review. I have ridden certain bikes that I would not be willing to put my kids on, not even for a test ride. I have been warned off riding certain bikes by people that I trust and who know me well enough to advise that I would not be willing to put my kids on them, not even for a test ride.

The bikes that I avoid reviewing almost always promise the three-fer: they claim to be versatile, safe, and inexpensive. They are often sold direct to the consumer, without the intervening reality check of a bike shop. There is not much point in naming names on the internet, because the manufacturers never last very long. Eventually people realize that the bikes are either not really versatile or not really safe, though more often it’s the latter. In the interim, though, I never really know what to say about the inevitable excitement that accompanies each new cargo bike that promises all the things but that makes compromises that ensure that I will keep my kids from even coming near it. I know that in the absence of reviews, or in the presence of reviews written by people who don’t regularly ride cargo bikes (reviews based on test rides in which the rider did not carry cargo of any kind annoy me), that each new bike makes a wildly compelling promise. Many people are understandably eager to believe—I know that I was—and end up buying a bike that at best will disappoint them. Yet in the slightly-modified words of my beloved dissertation adviser, these bikes ultimately fall of their own weight. They are too good to be true.

(All that said, one of these days I will start checking my blog email again (sorry, it’s been a weird time), and yes, I’m willing to name names off the internet.)

Looking out over our neighborhood

Looking out over our neighborhood

If you are in the market for a family bike, there is no such thing as truly objective advice. Manufacturers and bike shops want to sell you bikes, and they’re pretty straight up about that. Periodicals rely on reviewers who often don’t ride with kids, and they make money from advertising bikes so they’re unlikely to say anything negative. Bike reviews by family bikers are typically written by people who test rode a few bikes, bought one of them, and really like it, which doesn’t provide much basis for comparison or offer a lot of insight into newer models. Speaking for myself, although I have ridden many bikes and am financially unconflicted because my job doesn’t let me make any money or even request discounts, I don’t have anything like the resources to review all the bikes on the market, I think everybody should ride bikes for transportation because it’s cool, I can’t speak to the reliability of any bike that I don’t actually own, and what’s more even on my best day I am wildly idiosyncratic, have kids who have grown out of peak family biking age, and live in a place with unconventional topography.

Who can you trust? A while back I decided to trust family bike shops. Although they definitely want to sell you bikes, they are informed enough to compare different types of bikes, and know a lot more than I do about manufacturing quirks and reliability, which are critical issues that go way beyond what anyone can learn on a test ride. I realize that not everyone has the luxury of living in the San Francisco Bay Area or Portland or Seattle, where good advice is at worst a trip across town away. Yet many of these shops are run by people who will send long emails or talk your ear off over the phone, even though they may not expect it to result in a sale. I took advantage of this long before we bought our first cargo bike. And I have learned that when they tell me something is too good to be true, even though I don’t want to believe it, they are right.

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Filed under cargo, family biking, reviews