Monthly Archives: May 2012

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.

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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?)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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