Monthly Archives: April 2012

Protected bike lanes on JFK Drive

Most (not all) cars seem to understand the new lane markers

Recently San Francisco striped new separated bike lanes on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, which is a bicycle arterial through the western half of the city for commuters, including me. Thanks, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition! We take this route around the park with the kids on the weekends, but many more people take it east to the Panhandle on weekdays, and from there to the Wiggle and downtown. San Francisco is only 7×7 miles, so even people living at Ocean Beach can reasonably ride a bike all the way to work on this route, which is largely parkland, and now features protected bike lanes as well.

The new striping put two-way car traffic in the center of the road, with a parking lane to the side of each car travel lane. Then there is a buffer zone for car doors (so awesome!), a constant risk in the park, and a bicycle lane on the right at the edge of the road.

Am I a bicycle?

Figuring out the new system is apparently a struggle for some drivers. Although the bike lane is clearly marked, some people just can’t get over the idea of parking against the curb. This driver ignored all the cars appropriately parked in the strip to the left, not to mention an open parking space immediately to the left, in order to block the bike lane. It’s rare that I would advocate for a narrower bike lane, but maybe that might help this person get the point. Maybe not, though, as the car is parked right on top of a bike lane marker (an oppressed bicycle).

We don't need no stinkin' buffer zone

Still, having ridden these new lanes all week, I like them. Although I find it annoying that nearly all the cars park over the line so that they’re sitting in the door buffer zone to the right. Apparently drivers don’t really like being forced into moving car traffic when they’re stepping out of a parked car. The doorers now get to experience the consequences of dooring. Welcome to my world.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco

Preschool rider

This is the way we don't ride to preschool

For months our daughter has begged for a bike ride to preschool, and for just as long we have dismissed the idea as impractical. It is a smooth start up a slight incline, but once you turn the corner, the hill up to her school is extremely daunting. The usual nose-in parking by cars to prevent roll-aways, given the incline, implies that the hill is almost untouchable by anything but Tour riders (and not Tour de FU riders—totally NSFW) or electric bikes. Cars can make it, of course—but often parents park in a lower lot and take the freight elevator up. It’s not even fun to drive up that hill.

One preschooler on a Kona MinUte

But today when I was walking out the door, Matt came home from dropping off our son at nature camp for the furlough day. He had taken a new, hilly route back and was already pretty overheated. But he wasn’t too concerned about it because he is working from home today.

Headed up the shallow hill on the approach

As usual she asked for a ride on the MinUte and he said, “Why not?” So today she got her first ride to preschool on the bike. She had a blast. But Matt almost popped a wheelie with that much weight on the back on a steep hill. She may have been the first child ever to arrive at our preschool by bike. Maybe with some weight added in a front basket to balance the bike better we could try it again, though.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, Kona, San Francisco

Destinations: Splendid Cycles

Little shop, big idea

I really had no idea what to expect when I visited Splendid Cycles. You can’t tell much about a bike shop will be like from a website (assuming one exists), although you can get a sense of what they sell. And I liked what they were selling. Joel, one of the owners, seemed pretty nice when I emailed him (and turned out to be just as nice in person). Yet visiting the store made it clear how much I have been missing by relying on the internet to learn about cargo bikes.

The average bike shop I have visited tries to have something for everyone, and that often means aiming directly at the market of people who are thinking about getting a bike for the first time. But it is fairly difficult to hit the price point that novices think is reasonable for a new bike (as I’ve mentioned before, based on talking to non-riders, of which there are many up the hill in my neighborhood, that price is: $100). But almost all bike shops seem to have a few bikes near the front door in the $300 range or so, not too overwhelming for the perennially broke college student, but a pretty stripped-down machine by any measure. The other day while chasing down my daughter in a bike shop I overheard a family discussing why two bikes that to their eyes looked identical were priced at $350 and $700 respectively. Like me several months ago, they had no idea.

Ahearne Cycle Truck: not a kid-carrier, but hauls other cargo

However cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes. At their cheapest, new cargo bikes run about $1,000. The price difference reflects the fact that these bikes are capable of doing much more than carrying a student around campus. When you’re hauling real weight, on other places than the seat, everything has to be somewhat higher quality and differently designed, or you end up like my colleagues who tried to put child seats on their bikes and immediately broke all their spokes. And as cargo bikes become more capable, and as you add more accessories, like child seats and cargo bags, their prices rapidly rocket past that $1000 mark even for the least expensive models.

(As with everything else, handy people have more options. People who feel comfortable working on bikes can pick up bikes or trailers or Xtracycle FreeRadicals on craigslist and turn them into something greater than the sum of their parts. I admire their skill, but I’m not one of these people. And I would guess that in this I’m like most parents, unless by happy coincidence they happen to be bike mechanics or living with one.)

Big Dummy with BionX: definitely a family-friendly bike (also: seating for visitors, nice touch)

Which brings me to Splendid Cycles, because it is the only bike shop I’ve ever seen that is exclusively selling bikes that replace family cars, but that still retain most of the advantages of ordinary bicycles. For our lives right now, visiting Splendid Cycles was a revelation.  We don’t use our bikes just to noodle around the park on weekends (although that’s fun too), we use them to move ourselves and our stuff and our kids around town. I had always assumed that this required certain compromises: going more slowly, adding after-market accessories to make a Franken-bike, giving up going up and down hills, or being unable to get the bike inside if you live above ground floor. You can get a heavy Dutch bike if you live on the ground floor, in the flats, and don’t mind going slowly. Or you can cobble together family bikes from child seats and odds and ends like we’ve done and maneuver through traffic and actually make it up real hills, slowly, if you’re strong. Or you can go to Splendid Cycles and be blown away by seeing a dozen bikes that don’t require you to make those compromises.

Metrofiets cargo bikes

Splendid Cycles carries Metrofiets cargo bikes, which I had heard of but never seen in person before. As cool as they are, I realized immediately when I saw them that a Metrofiets would never fit through our narrow basement door. (Less than one minute in the shop and I’d already justified a trip across Portland.) The Winther Wallaroo looked even better for carrying kids, with outstanding seating, but had the same problem from my perspective: unlikely to make it into our basement. They carry Ahearne Cycle Trucks, which look pretty clever for carrying cargo but are not really designed to carry kids, so those aren’t our bikes either.

They had a Big Dummy, which is designed to haul kids, among other things, and another one of which I used to carry my own kids across Seattle a week later.

Bullitts, both with and without child seat

And rounding out the kid carriers, they had a bike I’d never seen before, the Bullitt. From the perspective of a city rider, this is probably the most interesting bike they sell. The Bullitt is narrow and lightweight; even with the child seat on it could probably be carried it up a flight of stairs. It can make it through traffic pinch points and climb hills. It is not perfect for our needs; the narrow child compartment probably limits its capacity to one of our (now older) kids. On the other hand, you could put a trailer-bike on the back (Joel’s great idea, not mine, he was full of them). It could be a great dad bike, but I can’t imagine riding it while pregnant; it does not have a step-through frame. But if you’re done having kids it would be something to consider.

Wallaroos, rigged for all-weather riding

Walking into Splendid Cycles opened an incredible sense of possibility; there were so many bikes we’d never imagined that could do what we wanted them to do. Our kids would have loved this shop; getting them out of a Wallaroo, once spotted, would be almost impossible. And to top it off, at Splendid Cycles they know a lot about electric assists, which make these bikes reasonable options for people who live on hills. I didn’t understand the strengths and limitations of the BionX and whether it could handle San Francisco elevations when I walked into Splendid Cycles. Now I do, and yes it can. Overall I learned more about both cargo bikes and electric assists in person at Splendid Cycles than I’d learned in hours of reading reviews. It was amazing to be able to talk to Joel, who wasn’t figuring this out as he went along like we’ve been; he’d already thought about what was involved in riding with kids or cargo in traffic and on hills and had put together a half-dozen bikes, which were sitting right there, with electric assists, to solve our kinds of problems.

This kind of expertise and fit for our needs comes at a price. And at one point that kind of price left me in shock, but I now realize that these bikes are worth it. They cost as much as the first car I drove, but that car was a junker, whereas these bikes are as reliable as bicycles can be.  Furthermore, the bikes are more practical for moving around the city than that car. These are true car replacements, except we’d never have to worry about parking again.

Thanks to Matt’s bike maintenance class, we’ve recently learned more about the compromises manufacturers have to make to get the price of cargo bikes down around $1,000 (crappy brakes, tires more likely to get flats, etc.), and we’re now spending money to upgrade the MinUte to become more like the bike we want. So in many cases it’s a choice between paying up front for quality or paying later for repairs and upgrades. There are legitimate reasons to choose one or the other, but it wasn’t a choice we realized we were making at the time.

From my perspective, Splendid Cycles isn’t a Portland destination so much as a destination in its own right. It would justify a trip to Portland by itself for the right family. I met a father from Eugene visiting the shop who’d decided just that. It was definitely worth visiting given that I was already in Portland.

Worth the trip

Joel pointed out that Oregon has no sales tax, and that having Splendid Cycles ship a bike somewhere would cost less than the sales tax in less enlightened locales. I am an employee of the state of California and thus feel guilty for even mentioning such a thing, but for less tormented souls, this is yet another reason to talk to Splendid Cycles about cargo bikes.

There are lots of reasons to be impressed by Portland’s bike culture, but its breadth still amazes me. I never imagined a bike shop like this could exist. Splendid Cycles has put all its chips on our kind of bicycles. It is a bet that the world will change to make space for many families like ours, and that one day hauling kids on bikes will be as unremarkable here in the US as it is in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I don’t think this will happen here while our kids are young enough to ride on our bikes, and I am envious that Portland can support a shop like this. I wish there was a Splendid Cycles in every city.

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Filed under bike shops, cargo, destinations, electric assist, family biking

Bicycles in Beijing

Rental tandems in the Huohai lake historic district

While I was riding around Portland and Seattle (more to come), Matt was in China for business. Because he knows I love bicycles, he took some pictures of the ones he saw while he was in Beijing. Most of Beijing is evidently terrifying by any mode of transit, and Matt claims that even standing still and breathing there feels risky. However a portion of the city, the Huohai lake historic district, is off-limits to cars and thus packed with bikes, bikes, bikes. He sent me these photos labeled “Copenhagen East.”

Little bike, big seat

In virtually all of the photos I’ve seen of bikes in China, riders have not shrunk from carrying passengers on bikes, even if said bikes were technically not designed for this purpose. The rear seat on this bicycle is disconcertingly far back on the rear wheel, which must make the bike itself fishtail like crazy. So I find it especially impressive, or alternatively crazy, that the rear seat is large enough that it could almost certainly carry a second adult. And that seat does not lack style. Compared to the sea of gray plastic child seats I see mounted on rear racks in this country, it is a nice change of pace for the child seat to outclass the bike.

Three-seat tandems, city-bike style

But if you really want to ride in style, you can rent a three-seater tandem. Compare these rides to the surreys you see in American parks: there is no comparison. I especially like that they come with fenders, chainguards, and front baskets, as though they were actually viable commuter vehicles, which seems pretty improbable. But it’s nice that that’s the assumption; tandems in this country seem primarily targeted to the road biking set. This is a shame given that kids love tandems.

Really basic bike shop: no walls, no ceiling

By contrast, the bike shops of the lake district are a lot more ad hoc. In Portland they put everything on cargo bikes, and I imagine that this is handy when you have a flat by the side of the road: rolling bike shop to the rescue! But in Beijing a bike shop is evidently a guy on the sidewalk. Despite having a lot less real estate at his disposal than even a tiny San Francisco bike shop, this guy has nonetheless provided customer seating. I thought that was a classy touch.

Maintenance lessons for the next generation

In keeping with the customer-focused theme, the owner of this open-air shop started giving a young customer a bike maintenance lesson while Matt was there snapping photos. I like that they’re working on another mama-bike–you can see it’s balanced on the child seat in the back, and has the usual commuter accessories: fenders, chainguard, front basket. The bikes in all of these photos probably sell for the equivalent of less than $100, and every single one of them is a more practical commuter than over 90% of the fixies I see in San Francisco’s Financial District. The US is a great country, but also crazy.

Soft and Lazy Restaurant, clearly catering to the tourist trade

Unlike me, Matt was not able to bail on many of his business obligations to ride bikes around a strange city, more’s the pity. So his impressions of actually riding a bicycle in Beijing will have to wait for another time–there will be at least two more extended trips this year, and I have faith that eventually he’ll make it out of the taxi. He said he came back feeling much like this perhaps-too-honestly-advertised restaurant. Chinglish: it’s funny because it’s true.

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Filed under bike shops, commuting, destinations, travel

I do, in fact, wear a helmet

It looked even less like a helmet when it was fitted wrong

I never really liked the look of helmets. But I never really liked the look of rain pants, either, and I wear those. When we rode bikes in Copenhagen, we didn’t wear helmets, mostly because we got blank stares from the bike shop owners when we asked about renting them (they did, however, have helmets for the kids to rent).

The blank stares reflected the fact that there is little reason to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle in Copenhagen, where there is extensive protected bicycle infrastructure and drivers know that hurting or killing someone who is not in a car would have consequences. Like losing a driver’s license. Pedestrians and bicycle riders in North America may now laugh bitterly.

So I was delighted to discover that there was a helmet I would not be depressed to wear, by a Danish company no less, the Yakkay. It costs a freaking fortune, compared to other helmets, but honestly, even expensive helmets are not that expensive compared to other things, like, say, a tank of gas these days. The Yakkay does not look like a helmet. It looks like a goofy hat (see also the Lazer CityZen). My kids call my Yakkay the hat-helmet. It has some advantages over a traditional helmet; one of them is that like a hat, it provides ample sun protection. It can also be difficult to fit correctly, which is a hassle and annoying for an expensive helmet, but not really a long term kind of problem.

My kids think my helmet looks goofy. I can't argue with that.

What I did not anticipate when I started wearing this helmet is the widespread perception by the rest of the world that I wasn’t wearing a helmet at all, and “the rest of the world” includes bike shop owners. I get lots of compliments on my “hat,” and occasionally, I get dirty looks or comments about how I should be wearing a helmet if I’m riding with my kids. This IS a helmet, I say, rapping my knuckles on it. “OH!” is the typical reply. “That’s COOL!” But I have begun to realize there are a lot of people who pass judgment without bothering to ask.

Why wear a helmet at all? My mother was surprised that this was actually a serious question. Of course bicycle riders should wear helmets, right? I don’t think it’s so clear-cut, but there are some reasons one could go either way.

Why not? It’s not clear whether helmets are really that protective, relative to the costs. There’s no such thing as a risk-free activity, and we all make choices that balance cost, safety, and convenience. People may drive (less safe) instead of riding the bus (more safe); people eat processed food (less safe) rather than preparing food themselves (more safe); people cross against the light in the crosswalk or fail to make a complete stop at stop signs. Some people find the cost of purchasing and the inconvenience of remembering to carry a helmet not worth the potential increase in safety. Bicycling simply isn’t that dangerous in most circumstances, and helmets don’t protect against many of the likely risks. A culture that demands helmets make bike share programs much more difficult, and creates the perception that riding a bike is a dangerous thing to do, rather than just another form of transportation. Pedestrians and drivers don’t wear helmets, despite the fact that in some circumstances their need for them may be greater. My colleagues at SF General joke darkly that pedestrians in the city probably should be wearing helmets, at least in certain neighborhoods.

Which brings me to the opposite question: why? The short answer to that question for me is that I don’t live in Copenhagen. In a city like San Francisco, where trauma physicians can make a serious argument that pedestrians should be wearing helmets to walk across the street, wearing a helmet while riding a bike starts to look pretty reasonable. I’m going faster than a pedestrian, so if I’m hit I’ll land harder, and I don’t have the same legal right-of-way.

Not that that necessarily matters. Recently, while riding the university shuttle, I watched the driver mosey between two parked trucks into an intersection only to stop dead just before mowing down a man in a wheelchair. “Oh my god!” he cried. “I didn’t even see him!” Seriously? Dude, it is your JOB to drive safely enough that you don’t mow down people in wheelchairs in the crosswalk. But “I didn’t even see him” is the driver’s equivalent of the “Get Out Of Jail Free” card in Monopoly. It works when mowing down pedestrians and wheelchairs and it works when mowing down bicyclists.

San Francisco, like a lot of cities, is undergoing a commuting shift. There are more bicycles on the road than there used to be, and there are, sadly, drivers who view that as an unacceptable imposition on the world that they were used to experiencing. With the protection of a two-ton vehicle, these drivers can express their opinions very dangerously indeed. That’s no reason to get off the road, but it does make me modify some of my choices. I don’t ride my bike on Masonic, for example, or any of the other streets in San Francisco that are widely recognized as high-speed arterials for driving. And I wear a helmet.

My son's helmet has flames on it, and he'll wear it everywhere he can.

There’s also the issue that although wearing helmets is optional (but encouraged) for adult riders in San Francisco, it is required for children. We are very fortunate that our children have never objected to wearing helmets, which is by no means a universal sentiment among the small. They like playing dress-up and we let them pick their own helmets (within their size range), and that helped. But part of the reason we’ve been so fortunate is that we ourselves wear helmets and have never given the impression that it’s an imposition or a hassle. It’s just something we do before we get on the bike, like checking the brakes or packing the lock. Many of the parents who have complained about their kids not wearing helmets admit that they themselves either don’t wear helmets or that they complain about it. We’d much rather wear helmets without complaint than risk not riding at all because our kids refuse to wear their helmets.

My daughter wears her helmet while practicing riding her balance bike in the basement, because it has pink hearts on it.

I do a lot more stupid things to fit in and smooth our daily lives than wearing a helmet when I ride a bike. My helmet is either cute or goofy, depending on whom you ask, and it keeps the sun off my face, and that makes wearing it even less of a burden. It provides some extra protection against accidents (just as a helmet would for a pedestrian or driver), and weighed against the marginal imposition it makes on my life, I choose to wear the helmet every time.

Other people make different choices based on their life circumstances, and I have zero problem with that. I don’t judge other riders for not wearing helmets, and I’ll defend their choice when it comes up in conversation with people whose knee-jerk response to seeing a bicycle rider without one is to call them crazy or stupid. That said, I won’t ride with adults who aren’t wearing helmets when I’m with my kids, as the idea that wearing helmets could be optional is a can of worms I am not ready to open with them.

So I have this crazy hat-helmet, and in the tempest in a teapot that is the question of whether bicycle riders should wear helmets or not, I now get to experience the moral high ground and various minor inconveniences of wearing a helmet as well as the opprobrium of people who think I’m setting a bad example for my kids and risking my own life by not wearing a helmet at all. It is not something I expected when I bought the Yakkay, but I can live with that too. Knowing what I know now, I will not, however, ever buy their kids’ model, even though I think it’s super-cute.

Helmets are also handy while picking dandelions in the park.

I think that there are much bigger problems to worry about in North American cycling than helmets or the lack of them. I find advocacy about helmets, whether pro or con, tiring. When cities in the US have the infrastructure to make cycling feel safer, like extensive protected bike lanes and stronger legal protections, I suspect that bicycle helmets will become a quaint relic of a more dangerous time, used only by certain specialists, much like chainmail.

Until that happens, my feeling is that arguing about whether or not to wear helmets is like arguing about whether a red fire truck is more visible than a neon green fire truck. Maybe one color will make drivers pull over more quickly and thus help get the truck to its destination a little more quickly, but a better use of everyone’s time would be preventing the fire in the first place.


Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, traffic