Monthly Archives: May 2012

Wine country weekend

Calistoga=hot springs+vineyards+palm trees

On Saturday I met my sister and we headed to the wine country for a long ride. This was my first attempt at driving somewhere to ride a bike. I’ll admit that it was a little overwhelming.

As things head into summer, the wine country gets more and more crowded. Napa in particular turns into a parking lot on the one highway rolling through it, as everyone is trying to go to the same places on a single road. I hadn’t been there in summer for years, not since a visit in graduate school with friends where we ended up sitting in traffic for four hours at the end of the day while watching cars pull over to disgorge visibly drunk passengers (and sometimes drivers) who threw up at the side of road. What is it with driving and vomiting?

Road closed (to cars): no problem!

But the wine country is pretty and it seemed like a nice way to spend a few hours with my sister without interruption. It took longer than I remembered to get up north, with all the traffic, but I didn’t mind much because the company was good. When we got to Calistoga, the road was closed. No problem! We headed away from the town center until it was easy to park, then rode our bikes back.

Walking around looking at muscle cars: this seemed weird.

It turned out that the road was closed for a classic/muscle car festival. The irony inherent in closing off the street so that people could walk around and look at cars amused me.

At any rate, by the time we finished lunch and started riding it was pretty late. But it was still extremely hot, around 90 degrees. Living in San Francisco, west of the fog line, I haven’t been within 10 degrees of that temperature in years. So I was moving pretty slowly.

One of Calistoga’s rare and pretty bike paths

To my surprise, the wine country does not offer much in the way of dedicated bike paths. So we mostly rode on the road, which offered a marked bike lane in the form of the road shoulder. Sometimes it was generous and sometimes it was narrow (like 8” wide along a rock wall). Mostly the pavement was smooth, but sometimes it was so rough it set my bell ringing. There were hills, the long and rolling kind, but that was fine. The heat was overwhelming for me, though.

My sister shows off one of the rare winery bike racks we spotted

And then there were the drivers. People go to the wine country to drink. And they drive from winery to winery. The inevitable result is drunk driving. I came to appreciate the sight of limos, as they were almost guaranteed to be driven by sober people, who obeyed the speed limit, did not honk at people on bicycles (or to be fair, other cars), or swerve unpredictably.

What, St. Helena? No bike racks?

My sister had planned a route of 22 miles, but we agreed after riding a little while that we should cut the ride short. We had stopped a couple of wineries by then, and one even had a bike rack. We had seen some entertaining and quintessentially California sights, like palm trees growing in the middle of vineyards. I had my first experience of hitting a head wind so strong that I had to pedal down a long hill, which I actually enjoyed because it cooled me off. From a bike, wineries look oddly out of scale, like Vegas-sized attractions, given that they’re meant to catch the attention of people whizzing by at 50 miles per hour. We headed to St. Helena to visit a bakery and chocolate shop and then turned back. Our shortcut ended up being 23 miles in total. Oops! Numb hands, numb seat.

My attempt to get a shot of the Silverado Trail sign

Would I go back to the wine country for a bike ride? Probably not, but it was still fun. Bike rides are always fun. And I liked having several uninterrupted hours of adult conversation with my sister. But it was too much driving for too little biking, and the drunk driving was unnerving. Next time I think we’ll ride around the city visiting wine bars.

Leave a comment

Filed under destinations, rides, travel

Do the Wiggle!

Here in San Francisco, we may not yet have the dedicated bikeways of cities like Portland. But we love the ones we do have, which is why the Wiggle now has its own jingle.

 

(Hat tip to wheelright.)

4 Comments

Filed under commuting, San Francisco

Bike to Work Day 2012

Bike to work, or bike for work

Last Thursday was San Francisco’s Bike to Work Day. I’m getting the sense that these events are regional, as this one seems Bay Area-specific. I suppose this facilitates business travelers with Bromptons getting more frequent opportunities to ride around different cities picking up swag.

Matt’s biking outfit on a no-suit day

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which sponsors Energizer stations in the morning, bike convoys to downtown for office workers and to Civic Center for advocates, and a party in the evening (who has the time?), urged everyone this year to dress up for Bike to Work Day to make it evident that it was possible to ride to work in office clothes. From my observation, this was a mixed success. “Dressing up” in San Francisco seems to evoke more of a Burning Man look than a business casual look. It’s superior to lycra, I suppose.

My biking outfit on an afternoon-meeting day

Matt and I work at offices where we are expected to hit at least the business casual level on most days. (Admittedly there are days at my office where people are wandering around in stretch pants and hoodies, but only in secured areas where patients can’t see them.) So Matt went with his usual dress shirt san tie look. I wore a standard blouse-plus-slacks ensemble as I was headed to the main hospital campus later for an afternoon meeting. Speaking only for myself, I was definitely in the top 10% of the riders I passed on the formal dress standard.

Riders at the Arguello Boulevard Energizer Station

The morning Energizer stations seem pretty well distributed along the main commute routes. Matt hit one along Market Street, and I ran into another on Arguello Boulevard, near the bicycle center of gravity created by Velo Rouge Café (SFBC discount partner, extensive bike racks) and the recently opened San Francyclo (an interesting new bike shop with a cute dog, worth discussing another time). My Energizer station was evincing a mellow vibe due to failed coffee delivery, but they were handing out bagels and fruit.

One wire tandem bicycle from the last China trip and two key chains from Bike to Work Day

And of course we got our swag bags. We hadn’t given this much thought in advance, but I was glad in hindsight that we had both picked up bags, as both kids wanted their own stickers and so forth. The biggest hits by far were the bicycle key chains. My son picked up his and immediately started trying to use the ring attached to it to lock his mini-bicycle to his napkin ring. Why yes, we do live in a city. When I recently offered my son a spare cable lock for his bicycle he looked at me like I was nuts and insisted on a U-lock. My son has lost dozens of jackets over the years, but his bike will remain secure anywhere short of the 24th Street BART station, where bike locks go to die.

Included in the swag were various things to read, and Matt and I were both thrilled and disappointed by the flyer for the Connecting the City crosstown bikeways plan. It was thrilling because it was awesome, and disappointing because the most-optimistic date of completion is 2020. Given the California state budget, that probably means never. I would love to be proven wrong.

A 2″ heel is a good height for a commuter ride; I wear these shoes a few times a week.

Were there more riders on the road? Where I ride, there seemed to be a few more, but not many. My commute route is a little atypical, however. I did see more riders walking their bikes up hills, which suggested they might be new to this. You learn to ride up hills pretty quickly in my neck of the woods.

I am now at the point where I’m riding to work nearly every day of the week. A year ago, who would have thought? So an official Bike to Work Day feels a little odd: every day is bike to work day. But a free banana is nice any morning of the year.

Leave a comment

Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco

Brompton M6R, with IT Chair

Brompton with IT Chair in Golden Gate Park

When I got the news of my promotion I bought a folding bike. But not just any folding bike: a Brompton. How come? Because it’s the only folding bike with a child seat, that’s how come. No bike will enter our lives for years to come unless it can haul the small.

I would advise the potential purchaser of a Brompton+IT Chair to be very sure that they are going to be okay with a lot of attention from strangers. And I do mean a LOT of attention. It’s not something that I was expecting. This setup stops traffic of all kinds. Jaws drop. People run over to see your bike. People in San Francisco are typically extremely cool in the face of the unusual. Piano bike? Sequined gold hot pants on a drag queen sashaying through the Financial District on a weekday afternoon? Bike Friday triple tandem? Naked people hiking through Golden Gate Park with fanny packs? Nothing worth noticing here! But people here gawk when they see me with my daughter on the Brompton, and yell, “COOL BIKE!”

The Brompton is both outrageously goofy and breathtakingly awesome. Even though I swear a blue streak at its makers every time I go up a steep hill (and I got the “San Francisco” gearing!), I love this bike. And although I was not really looking for practicality, this may actually be the most practical bicycle purchase a city rider could make: it’s a utility bike.

Brompton (with IT Chair) in a small shopping cart

I am sidestepping the fundamental question here, which is why I got a folding bike at all. Part of the answer is that it was cool and unlike any other bike, which fit with my desire to get a bike that could compete with a pretentious chair. But most of the answer is that it seemed like a great bike for riding in the grittier parts of the city and for taking on the road. It makes bike rides possible that weren’t possible before. I would never lock up my Breezer outside when I am visiting homeless shelters in the Tenderloin, but there’s been no problem bringing a folding bike inside to meetings. The Brompton also fits in a shopping cart at the grocery store, and when I don’t feel like locking it up, that’s exactly what I do with it. Moreover the Brompton is a clever travel bike. The Capitol Corridor Amtrak line that I took to Sacramento often runs out of bike spaces. Having been warned, I took the Brompton. The Amtrak folks recognized it instantly, but they do not count it as a bike. Later, when I hitched a ride in a friend’s car back to San Francisco, the Brompton fit in the trunk with plenty of room left over for our luggage. I may be taking an extended trip to Washington DC next year; if that happens, I will take the Brompton with me. If we lived in a small apartment again, this bike would easily fit in any random corner.

The Brompton tucked under a shuttle bus seat

The Brompton isn’t the cheapest folding bike you can buy, but it’s not the most expensive either. And this surprises me, because the incredible fold means you can put it almost anywhere. Most of the time mine hangs out in our non-functional fireplace, which it turns out is basically a Brompton-sized hole in the wall.

Home storage of the Brompton (with my sneakers for scale)

I ordered my Brompton from Warm Planet, which sells only folding bikes. They had never heard of the IT Chair before, but they didn’t have experience with any other child seats either. This may be the one bike shop that I forgive for this ignorance, as they primarily serve multi-modal commuters heading to CalTrain (they offer free bike valet parking every weekday). But they were bemused that such a thing existed, and impressed that it folded with the bike. The IT Chair had to be ordered from the UK after being hand-machined in Spain. It turns out that this takes a while, but it also takes a while to get a Brompton, so ultimately they arrived within a week of each other. This is good, because I refused on principle to pick up the bike without the child seat.

IT Chair, detached (2012 model: no folding footpegs)

The design of the IT Chair seems to have changed. Formerly it had folding footpegs, but my IT Chair does not. It makes folding the bike with the seat a little more tricky, and you have to get the sequence just right. It also is ridiculously, laughably expensive given that it is essentially just a piece of bent pipe. On the other hand, given the sporadic-at-best production line, IT Chairs apparently lose nearly zero value on resale, when the time comes that we can no longer use it. We were unable to find one used, but did find lots of desperate requests for them posted in the years when they weren’t being made.

Maiden voyage on the IT Chair

My daughter loves the IT Chair. Given the choice, she always asks to ride “mommy’s present bike.” She loves it because she can stand on the footpegs and ring (and ring and ring) the bell. I love it because a front seat is outrageously fun and makes conversation with her easy. My former experience with a front seat (the Co-Rider debacle) was not reassuring. But my brother-in-law assures me that design-wise, the IT Chair is bombproof, for all practical purposes an extension of the frame. To my surprise, he loved the Brompton, and proposed that we should get one for everyone in the family, once the kids are big enough, arguing that we could park four Bromptons in the space of one ordinary bike. In the meantime, my son has thus far refused to ride the IT Chair, as the design does not appeal to his cautious nature (no kid handlebars). But recently he realized that his reluctance meant that his sister has now ridden more bikes than he has, and evidently this will not stand.

Parked in my office on a rainy day, bag still attached

I was surprised at some of the ways that the Brompton excels. Its fenders are the best I’ve ever seen, so this is now my bike of choice for rainy day commutes. Assuming (correctly), that putting a kid on the bike would imply lots of things to carry, I also got the largest Brompton bag, the T-bag (an extremely poor choice of name). All the Brompton bags are frame-mounted, which means that they can haul massive amounts of weight. And although I find the bag sort of ugly, it is big enough to hold all four of our helmets when parked at the bike valet, plus a few jackets. With this kind of cargo space, plus the small footprint, the Brompton has also become our bike of choice for trips to the farmers’ market. It effortlessly manages a week’s worth of groceries, up to and including a half-flat of strawberries and Matt’s boxes of wine.

It doesn’t do everything well. Although there are people who take this bike on long trips, I prefer my Breezer for distances longer than a few miles, particularly given that my daughter likes to stand up on the footpegs while we’re riding. And then there are the hills. For mild to moderate inclines, the supposedly-designed-for-hills gearing I got is more than adequate, even pleasant, although the shifting itself is bizarre, as it switches between an internal hub and a derailleur, so every gear change involves both handlebars. When I hit a steep incline, however, it suddenly feels like I’m dragging a cinder block behind the bike. I’ll admit that this may be because I’m often hauling more weight at the front of the bike than it was really designed to carry when I put both a preschooler in the IT Chair and a week’s worth of groceries in the bag. (And it doesn’t help at all when that preschooler decides it would be fun to shift the gears randomly. This is a downside of the front seat. That and the endless bell ringing.) But it can be a problem even on days when I am relatively unladen. I appreciate that this problem may be unique to San Francisco. Let us say that this bike has made me stronger.

Brompton with IT Chair, folded up (I have become one of those people who folds and unfolds my bike for fun: I know, I know)

Getting a Brompton also involved the purchase of several pricey accessories. It’s a good thing that I was thinking of this as a “yay, I got a promotion” bike, because otherwise the total cost of all the extras could have ruined my mood. The IT Chair is the most obvious (price varies based on exchange rate at the time of order, assuming it’s in production), and the Brompton frame-mounted bags are expensive as well. It also turns out that it is difficult, if not impossible, to lock up a Brompton with a typical U-lock, and in San Francisco we do sometimes go places that are so small that even a folded Brompton is unwelcome. So on the recommendation of other folding bike owners I ended up getting a folding lock to go with my folding bike, the Abus Bordo Granit X-Plus. (However this lock is so fabulous that I ended up using it all the time. Matt asks to use it when we go out on rides together. So I can only really claim part of the price of this lock is specific to the Brompton.) On the other hand, the Ikea Dimpa bag that I sometimes use to carry it around was a steal at $4. Somebody at Ikea owns a Brompton.

Yet I would get this bike again in a heartbeat. It is surprisingly fun to ride, nimble and responsive. It is also fun to fold and unfold, and although it weighs are much as my daughter with all the accessories, it is fun to carry around. (I’m carrying my daughter around all the time anyway, so it’s not like a bike that weighs the same amount is a big deal.) It is safe in places where other bikes are not. It goes almost anywhere and stores almost anywhere. The Brompton may be the ultimate city bike. As a celebration of my promotion, it is infinitely better than a set of pretentious chairs.

The attention we get on the bike still surprises me a little, because riding it seems unremarkable to us now, but I find myself minding this less over time. The Brompton turns out to be the ultimate ambassador of family biking for people who’ve never thought of riding with kids before, which I find funny, because to me, my Brompton still looks like a clown bike. I think it seems less intimidating than a cargo bike; some moms see longtails and box-bikes and can’t imagine maneuvering them, but it is immediately obvious that any able-bodied person could handle a Brompton–and mine is usually hauling both a kid and two bags of groceries. (It could even haul two kids with a Trail-Gator, which another parent at our son’s school suggested.) And the Brompton, although it is by no means a cheap bike, costs less than a traditional cargo bike.

The Brompton is not my everyday bike, but I ride it every week. It proved to me that you should buy the cool bike. I keep it in the living room! And I smile every time I see it.

Update on the child seat from the manufacturer:

“About the website itchair.info it does no longer work; now, all our products are shown in www.milianparts.com

Still all our production is based in Europe –mainly in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain)- and the It-Chair is now called PERE (http://www.milianparts.com/en/products/pere/)”

31 Comments

Filed under Brompton, cargo, commuting, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco

One weekend, two ways

At the Ferry Building, getting our protest on

Last weekend we spent one day driving and one day riding.

We have not yet found a route to Saturday swim classes that feels safe enough to ride with the kids, so we have only ridden the five miles to the pool once. We keep talking about trying again, but change is hard, and the Fell/Oak connectors are terrifying, and the speeding trucks near Mission Bay are so daunting, even on a weekend morning before 9 am. And Matt had a large package at his office to pick up, and we were getting a mystery box and a flat of strawberries a few blocks from there. It was going to be quite a load. Once a week on Saturdays, we drive.

Outside Matt’s office

While we were downtown at Matt’s office we took the kids for Mexican for lunch at the Ferry Building, given that it was Cinco de Mayo and our son’s half-birthday. Every year we intend to go to Kodomo No Hi in Japantown to make carp flags as well, but three festivities in one day never work out.

Heirloom beans at the Ferry Plaza market

I had forgotten that the Ferry Building farmers’ market is on Saturdays, and it was worth a visit. Although the market primarily seems to sell prepared food, the selection of unusual vegetables and beans is impressive. This is not a cheap market. For value, the Alemany Market under the freeway is unbeatable. But the Ferry Building is worth checking out even so.

“Uppy me, daddy.”

It was hot in San Francisco all weekend (by which I mean mid-70sF). This was a multi-stop trip—gym garage, Matt’s office and the Ferry Building, mystery box drop site—and we rarely do this kind of thing driving. It is surprisingly exhausting to get in and out of the car over and over again. And this was true even though we enjoyed impressively good parking fortune.

Too exhausted to blow a dandelion

By the time we made it home in the early afternoon we were all fried. The kids watched Kiki’s Delivery Service and Matt managed to talk our daughter into a stroller ride to pick up the dry cleaning, but despite walking much of the route, after spending a morning driving we were through for the day.

Sunday Streets traffic

Sunday, however, was Mission Sunday Streets. We have been working on getting over our fear of the Fell/Oak connectors to the Wiggle. I still can’t imagine riding this route with the kids on weekdays; these two streets are like freeways through the city. But on weekends we can cut around Oak on the way there, while the heavy bike traffic on Fell Street on the way back, plus the new lane markers, make us feel less invisible.

This is a sharrow marker for the Wiggle. Subtle.

So we rode through the park and along the Panhandle then cut across to the Wiggle, crossing Market. Even from the other side of Market Street, we could see the evidence of Sunday Streets—blocked streets and a waves of pedestrians in the intersection. Every summer San Francisco closes off a neighborhood to car traffic on the first Sunday of the month. For three months in a row, Sunday Streets is in the Mission.

With my daughter on the Breezer at Mission Sunday Streets

It has been ages since we visited the Mission. When we drove around the city, it wasn’t worth it as the traffic is unbearable and it is impossible to park a car. Now that we mostly ride around the city, we have been blocked from this side of the city by our fear of the Fell/Oak connectors. We have been missing out.

The parklet at Four Barrel Coffee

I have complained that other cities have more impressive bike corrals than San Francisco. This is true, but I realize now that unlike much of the city, the Mission is putting up an impressive show. There were both regular bike corrals and corrals integrated into parklets, and parklets are thick on the ground in the Mission. One of the most impressive was outside Four Barrel Coffee, which sponsors the weekly parent coffee klatch at our son’s elementary school.

This band was a family ranging from toddler (on the drums) to grandparents.

Sunday Streets closes off much of Valencia then turns down 24th Street for several blocks. This part of town is thick with Mexicatessans, cafes, restaurants, and bike shops. We arrived early, before the line at the artisanal donut shop got too deep, and just as the live music was starting. We spotted our friends’ family triple tandem, and they invited us to see the capoeira demonstration that the mom was doing later. (I sometimes wonder why people who are demonstrably so much cooler than I am consent to hang out with me.) We loved Sunday Streets!

Mission bike corral, first thing in the morning

Riding back, the crowds were getting thicker and the day was warming up. I fear sunburn so much that I almost never go outside in the sun without long sleeves, but I forgot on Sunday. I won’t make that mistake again. Matt and our son eventually peeled off to a birthday party at the Yerba Buena Gardens, while my daughter and I took advantage of our unexpected foray to the Mission to stop at Rainbow and pick up obscure groceries.

Riding in bicycle traffic feels safer.

As we rode home, the contrast between the streets closed to car traffic, which were crowded and happy and mellow, and the streets with cars, which were crowded and fuming and irritable, could not have been more stark. I watched a police officer bang on a car window and yell at the driver that no matter how much of a hurry he was in, he was not allowed to mow down pedestrians and bikes. (I thanked her.)

Check out San Francisco’s first bike box!

I rode home with my daughter through the Wiggle and along Fell, and although the car traffic was daunting as usual, it was at least respectful. The Fell connector features what I believe is San Francisco’s only bike box, which allows entry to the dedicated bicycle left-turn lane that gets you into the marked bike lanes. From there we entered the safety of the Panhandle.

It’s a tight squeeze, but I can actually fit two panniers under the Bobike Maxi

Despite the fact that we had been riding for a few hours, we both wanted to keep going. So we stopped at a local grocery store for a popsicle for my daughter, who was getting hot, and at our local bakery after that to pick up some bread for dinner. Making multiple stops on the bicycle is so easy I kept trying to think up reasons to go somewhere else, but my daughter was worried that her popsicle would melt, so we headed up the hill toward home. Also I’d run out of pannier space—it’s a tight squeeze under her Bobike Maxi seat.

Two days, two different experiences, and the verdict: the bike is so much better. Three hours of errands by cars left us exhausted, while five hours roaming the city by bike left us hoping for more. We are ready to try the Saturday trip to swim class again.

We are ready to ride.

Even more, we realized that the Mission is accessible to us again. We can visit restaurants and shops we’d long since written off as out of range by riding our bikes. It was a long ride, but not unpleasant. Matt and I are now talking about a date night in the Mission the next time we have a sitter (admittedly this is probably a long way away), but we could also go during the day with our kids. And I think this is the goal of Sunday Streets. The city feels both bigger and smaller to me now. It is bigger because there is so much more we can do, and smaller because it is all suddenly within our reach.

Leave a comment

Filed under family biking, rides, San Francisco, traffic

Self promotion

Missing the point…

Have I mentioned that I am a professor at a medical center? I study health policy, specifically relating to preventable cancer risks (the big three being tobacco use, poor diet, and sedentary behavior). University faculty have an established career trajectory. After a certain number of years, your work is reviewed and you are either promoted or fired. Eventually everyone’s number comes up.

And so once a year, in early May, I end up with all of my coworkers in a windowless conference room all day, discussing each others’ activities and achievements while consuming immense quantities of caffeine, and then voting on who will be promoted. It is stressful and exhausting, but like Winston Churchill said: democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.

The university where I work, however, prefers the traditional academic Star Chamber method, so once the department makes a recommendation, candidates get to wait a year or longer, sometimes much longer, for the final verdict. And the university has, in the past, overturned departmental votes. All of this backstory is relevant to me because for over a year I have been in limbo. My university separates decisions about promotion from decisions about whether you get long-term job security (tenure). Thanks to some unusually bad timing on my part, I ended up having both questions under review simultaneously. My department voted for both, but the university kept its counsel.

This bike is too small.

Getting promoted is not a sure thing, and thus success is a cause for celebration. The traditional celebratory purchase by the successful candidate is a matched set of pretentious chairs. (Note: it is not necessary to be an alumna/us of a pretentious university to buy a pretentious chair.) I was recently informed, in writing, that my promotion was approved by the university. Hooray! I am not going to be fired! But here in the HotC household we are opposed to sedentary behavior. Tradition or not, I had no intention of buying chairs.

This bike is too big.

So I decided to buy a bike that cost the same amount instead. In any logical world, my celebratory purchase would be a cargo bike with an electric assist to haul both my kids up the ridiculous mountain we live on, which I have been dithering about for some time. However there were a few reasons to consider a different kind of bike. Most critically, I was still unable to decide what kind of cargo bike I really wanted. Another medium-tail? A long-tail? A box-bike? And I could still ride our existing cargo bike, the Kona MinUte, when Matt is away and I needed to haul both kids, even uphill. What’s more, an electric cargo bike would cost more than a set of pretentious chairs. And getting another cargo bike seemed contrary to the somewhat impractical spirit in which people buy pretentious chairs. Despite my opposition to the chairs themselves, I wanted to get into the spirit of things.

All this suggested that if I were going to get a bike, I should perhaps get a different kind of bike altogether. And so I did.

This… isn’t a bike at all.

(Last but not least: I still have another personnel action pending, for the equivalent of a lifetime appointment at this university. My mentor waited three years before getting word about her appointment, so I am not exactly holding my breath waiting for updates. The traditional celebratory purchase for people in this happy event is a house. Yet we are in the somewhat odd situation of not really wanting to buy a house, as we would be perfectly happy to remain in campus housing until we die. And so if I secure this outrageous good fortune at some future date, I will get a cargo bike—with electric assist—instead. Two new bikes would easily qualify as ridiculous excess. But then again, even two bikes are cheaper than a house, and Family Ride says you can never have too many. Who am I to argue with that kind of expertise?)

9 Comments

Filed under cargo, electric assist, family biking, Kona, San Francisco

Hello, Sacramento!

Catching the Amtrak shuttle bus to the train to Sacramento

Last month I went to Sacramento for a conference. Because it was right in the middle of 30 days of biking, I took my bike. This was more complicated than it should have been.

At the suggestion of a car-free colleague, I decided to take Amtrak, because Amtrak takes bikes, and it would be cheaper than renting a car that could take the bike and parking it (not that this necessarily mattered immensely, as this was business travel). The downside of this plan is that Amtrak does not actually go to San Francisco. Instead, you have to get to one of their pickup points, catch a free shuttle bus, then get driven across the bay to Emeryville. This takes an hour or so, which is, unfortunately, the same amount of time it takes to drive to Sacramento from San Francisco. Then it’s another 90 minutes on the train from Emeryville to Sacramento, assuming that the train arrives on time, which I am sorry to say it did not.

The whole experience was daunting. If I had known what I was getting into, I would have rented a car after all. Amtrak is a great option if you live in the East Bay, but in San Francisco, not so much.

When I mentioned to one of my coworkers I was planning to continue 30 days of biking in Sacramento, she asked, “Oh, so will you be riding one of the stationary bikes at the hotel gym?”

And I said, “Well, that would be the SMART thing to do, but instead I decided to take my bike on Amtrak.” [Head-smack!]

On the train: in for a penny, in for a pound

When you add in the hour-plus it took me to get across town on a university shuttle, with bike, just to get to the Amtrak shuttle bus stop, I was feeling like an idiot before I even left San Francisco. But I didn’t want to wallow. So I did the shuttle bus to train transfer and a few hours later, rode from the Amtrak station in Sacramento to the conference hotel. Sacramento is a fun place to ride, as it is resolutely level, and at 10pm, I was the only person on the (wide, smooth) roads.

I had hopes that I might be able to sneak out to the famed American River trail, which is evidently an incredible place to ride, or maybe even arrange to meet Tiny Helmets, but a look at the conference schedule made me realize I was doomed. Breakfast started at 7am each day, and every following minute was scripted until 8pm, at which point we were released to dinner. This conference was held by one of my funders, and it was clear in the first 30 minutes that they were paying attention to attendance. Alas, this wasn’t Portland.

I was so fried after the first day that heading to the hotel restaurant was the extent of my ambition. I ended up eating with the toxicologists, and they are a fun crew. They all worked in air pollution and talked about various exposure chambers they built, projects that involved sheet metal and blowtorches. Listening to their dinner conversation was like eavesdropping on Iron Man. Two of the moms swapped stories of how, when their children got lice, they broke out the microscopes (toxicologists evidently have home microscopes) so they could show their kids the nits that they had combed out. Even by the standards of the science crew I run with on a daily basis, this is extremely hard core.

Davis commuter: a bamboo-wrapped tall bike with an animal print seat and a pet carrier on the rear rack.

I got a couple of bike rides in by skipping 15 minutes of the poster sessions to take a quick turn around the convention center. I assumed from looking at local riders, and there were a fair number around, that taking a bike on the sidewalk was okay, but who knows for sure. I was unable to skip out for a ride when I gave my own poster on the last day. I had planned to make it up by riding my bike back to the Amtrak station, but when one of my toxicologist friends offered to drive me back to San Francisco, I figured it would be easier and faster to throw the bike in her car and ride somewhere when I got back.

It turned out that hitching a ride was absolutely worth it, because she wanted to know more about how I was bike commuting with our kids, and because we stopped in Davis for dinner. Davis is an amazing place for bikes, nearly Portland-esque, but even flatter, which of course means more wildly impractical and entertaining bikes. And I found a new biking-mom friend. Unfortunately she lives on the other side of the city.

Davis has bike corrals all over downtown. Get in the game, San Francisco.

This kind of business trip wasn’t the best case scenario for trying to travel with a bike, to say the least, but I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to keep a bike handy. The Sacramento hotel staff, just like the Portland hotel staff, was happy to store my bike in the bell room. Having the bike made getting to the hotel from the train station a breeze, and it was nice to stretch my legs after all the time on buses and trains. Getting to Sacramento and back was the tricky part. Transportation between cities isn’t really set up for people who want to ride a bike once they get somewhere. Amtrak makes it possible but inconvenient, and they won’t take cargo bikes. Driving a car is an option for some trips, but once you’re in a car, it’s extra work to drag a bike around. And it seems to sort of miss the point. Flying is nightmarish even without a bike in tow.

The problem of traveling with bikes is admittedly a specialized one, a real first-world problem. It was nice to read that A Simple Six is also thinking about this, as it suggests that if I am crazy, which seems entirely plausible, that at least I’ll have some company when I’m institutionalized.

6 Comments

Filed under travel

Taxis and bicycles

Oh look. A taxi parked on the sidewalk. Quelle surprise.

I have issues with taxis.

I am glad that taxis exist. They have bailed me out of more than one emergency “your kid is sick and you need to come right away” situation, as well as out of occasional public transit failures in multiple cities. I take cabs to the airport when I’m on business in other cities. The world would be a much more difficult place without them.

That said I kind of hate taxi drivers. They are often rude, and they frequently ignore the rules of the road. I never know, stepping into one, whether I will end up feeling like I’m on a death ride. And when I’m riding my bike, driver rudeness is the least of my worries. When I see a taxi on the road I immediately tense up, waiting for a swerve into the bike lane or a dooring or an unmarked turn into oncoming traffic.

This is the world's most loathsome bumper sticker.

San Francisco made my irritation with taxi drivers even more extreme last year, when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency allowed taxi drivers to officially occupy the bike lane, ostensibly to pick up passengers who were disabled. Over half the cabs in the city now sport the blue bumper stickers advertising this new liberty, which I have learned the hard way to read as: “I’m going to do whatever I want and you can’t stop me.” I have seen taxis with these bumper stickers parked on the sidewalk. A couple of weeks ago I watched a taxi with that bumper sticker swerve directly in front of me, at which point the passenger opened the door, leaned over, and vomited into the bike lane. No photo: this is a family biking blog. Parking in bike lanes is a given. Everyone does that. But taxis can’t get tickets for it anymore, and those blue stickers are like a “neener-neener-neener” right in my face every time I have to cut into traffic around a parked cab in my lane. I hate those bumper stickers. Thanks for nothing, Muni.

Objectively, I realize that taxis that do these things are the minority, but oh, what an annoying minority they are.

And then yesterday, when I was riding mid-afternoon to a meeting, I happened across two other bike riders on my route—a woman on a road bike and a man on a cruiser. These riders were casually blowing through red lights and stop signs, swerving through traffic and into crosswalks to avoid even the slightest loss of momentum, and all of this despite the fact that they were riding even more slowly than I was. And I ride pretty slowly on my way to an afternoon meeting in dress clothes, because I refuse to show up at a meeting sweaty. I get mistaken for a student often enough as it is.

Suddenly I thought, “Oh my god! These riders annoy everyone else on the road the way that taxis annoy me! And I am guilty by association!” These bicycle riders are the reason that pedestrians stop me in the street about once a week to thank me for my complete stop at every 4-way stop sign intersection. I am not kidding. Last week one person clapped.

Taxi drivers and bicycle riders: we are ugly bedfellows, all of us damned by association no matter how we behave. I cannot begin to imagine the cultural shift it would take to make me start trusting taxis to behave like even normal cars, and that is a not a very high standard. Which means it must be equally impossible for most drivers (and most people are drivers) to imagine bicyclists behaving like something other than spoiled children.

There are a lot of parents like me who would be willing to ride their bikes with their kids if it seemed like something respectable people did—I talk to these parents every week. They would never run a red light any more than I would: my kids are on the bike! But why would you want to start riding a bike if you hate bicycle riders who ignore the rules of the road? Those are the riders people see—how could they not? I hate those riders and I was actually riding a bike when I saw them. Who would want to start driving if it meant being scorned like a cab driver? I hate riding in the vicinity of cabs even though most of them are driven by responsible people.

How do you change an entire subculture of people behaving badly? Change the law or change the culture, but something would have to change. Right now, for both taxis and bicycles, there is a critical mass of scofflaws.

2 Comments

Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco, traffic

What I learned in 30 days of biking

Brand new life

When we first had our son, our usual range of activities suddenly became very circumscribed. It was so intimidating to go out with a baby, and there was so much to remember to bring, that it felt like a huge triumph to load up the stroller and walk around the block. We were nervous that he would cry if we went to the library or a restaurant, so we didn’t go to the library or to restaurants. I didn’t like to feed him in public, so for quite a while we didn’t go any further than a half-hour’s walk to ensure we could be back home in time for him to eat or to take a nap.

As he got older, and we became more confident, we started to return to some of the places we’d known before, but even more than that, we began to discover new places to go. We walked to local bakeries and learned when the library offered story times. We remembered there were such things as children’s museums. We realized the value of parks with playgrounds.

Then we were four.

When our daughter was born, the same thing happened again, although to a lesser degree. We were once again limited by naptimes and although she wasn’t one to cry much, we had to relearn the places that were best for babies. Now that she is three, we have a range of places to take our kids that make sense for our lives. We have adjusted. We go out at least as much as we did before, but to different places and at different times.

It's a stealth cargo bike.

When we started transitioning to riding our bikes, there was that same sense at first of feeling constrained. The routes we traveled by car were not ideal for riding bikes, and there was this new effort involved in riding with cargo that made everything feel a little harder. I had to learn how to carry groceries on my bike. It took some time (and one disaster) to identify good child seats. We were figuring out everything. But this feeling of life changing in a new-scary-exciting way was familiar. I knew intellectually that it was temporary and that we would adjust.

Every weekday morning, and it never gets old.

Signing up for 30 days of biking pushed me to make some of those adjustments. With a bike ride to fit in every day there was always pressure to go somewhere, and with two careers and two kids there isn’t time to take daily joyrides. I took Amtrak to Sacramento with a bike for a conference. I learned how to strap a pizza to my rear rack with my bungee net (and I got at least three days of rides in by ordering takeout pizza, which is typically a once a month occasion around here). I also learned how to strap a yoga mat to my rear rack with my bungee net and went to a yoga class at a studio I’d never visited before. I found a good bike route to our CSA pickup. I checked out small local grocery stores just a little too far for walking that have no parking for cars but offer generous bike parking—and it turns out that neighborhood shopping by bike is efficient, maybe more so than my usual method of shopping during lunch and carrying everything home after work. I finally raised my seat another inch, and found that I could usually get up hills in a higher gear. I stopped riding my brakes so much on the way back down those hills. I rode to work every weekday that I was in San Francisco, in the new JFK bike lanes, and found that my love for the Conservatory of Flowers has not faded even slightly in all these months. I found out that no amount of riding in stiff headwinds is enough to get used to it. I learned not to order Mexican on 4/20.

The camera flattens the hill up to work, but it feels flatter now as well.

There are some changes in the works around here. We have a trailer-bike coming for our son from Europe, purchased for a song on German eBay by a friend. There are new bikes to join our current collection. My son and I are signing up again this year for summer Japanese classes, which are offered on the eastern edge of town across the Wiggle. Although I am still intimidated by the prospect of taking our kids along the Oak and Fell arterials at any time of day, I feel ready to try riding that route with him again.

Let's take a ride!

Summer in San Francisco is marked by festivals, marathons and half-marathons, and parties that nearly shut down the city. For some time we’ve reacted either packing ourselves into public transit or staying home to avoid the hundreds of road closures and the crowds. Attending the Pride parade last year sent our kids into a tailspin of exhaustion, although it was awesome. But I learned on Easter weekend that riding our bikes changes everything. This summer we can make it anywhere in the city without getting caught in car traffic or being packed into trains or carrying our tired kids for miles. What I learned in 30 days of biking is that riding our bikes isn’t a constraint at all. Riding our bikes makes us free.

7 Comments

Filed under Breezer, cargo, commuting, San Francisco, traffic