Monthly Archives: July 2012

Another one bites the dust

Oh mamachari, I can’t quit you.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the battery on the mamachari was getting a lot less range per charge. I use the motor pretty sparingly, only to go uphill, and while it used to go around the city several times without needing to be recharged, now it could go only once. And it was getting worse. I fully charged the battery one morning before taking my son to summer camp. On the way home, on the first hill, the battery gave out. So I rode home, up a mountain, with 50 pounds of my son on the back of an unassisted single-speed 65 pound bicycle. It was hell.

On Friday I charged up the battery to full and went to pick up my daughter. A half-block from home, the battery gave out. The mamachari’s assist is dead. RIP. Even the backup battery doesn’t work now, because it’s wired through the factory installed battery.

RIP, Bridgestone battery, You exceeded expectations.

This wasn’t completely unexpected. The woman who sold it to me told me the mamachari was six years old with all its original parts, and the bike was really cheap. We both knew the battery was on its last legs, and I have used it a lot over the last couple of months, more than I had planned. I’m mostly impressed that it lasted this long at all. It’s been used as an almost daily commuter by three families for six years, all of whom were carrying children, in the Berkeley Hills and on really steep hills in San Francisco. Most electric assist bicycles warranty the batteries for only two years. It had an amazing run.

I started thinking about whether I wanted to try to replace the battery on this bike when the range started to drop. I decided that I like the mamachari enough that the answer was yes. How to do that was the question. It is a Japanese bike, and parts for those aren’t exactly thick on the ground in the United States.

Luckily for me, there is Mama Bicycle in Japan. I learned a lot about mamacharis from his blog, and he recently posted that he has been looking for a way to export mamacharis overseas. If he can figure out a way to do it, I’m sure he will make a fortune. I know a dozen families in our preschool alone who would buy one. However shipping a heavy bike like a mamachari is problematic. But all I needed was a battery—that could be presumably be shipped as a normal parcel, assuming he was willing. And he was! Mama Bicycle is the best! If you’re in the market for a mamachari outside of Japan, he is your guy.

When I sent a photo of my bike, he identified the model on sight. Happily, Bridgestone sells replacement batteries for its bikes in Japan, and it’s legal to ship them to the US. Mamachari batteries aren’t cheap, even in Japan. But I can’t begrudge the cost given that the bike itself was. Moreover, if this replacement battery lasts as long as the first one did, the cost per month of my new battery will be equivalent to a couple of Muni rides each month. I ride the mamachari way more often than that. (Plus we are flush because we just sold the minivan, which makes it hard to begrudge the cost of a new battery to get the mamachari back online.)

Wanted: a bike to carry these two charmers

In the short to medium term, however, we’re in a bit of a bind bicycle-wise. The Breezer has been vetoed as a child carrier by our bike shop given the strain I’ve put on it already. The mamachari is out of commission until a new battery arrives from Japan, which I imagine will take quite a while by economy shipping. That means that all our bike riding is now on the Kona MinUte and the Brompton + IT Chair. The MinUte is great but it’s primarily Matt’s bike. The Brompton is what I’m riding now, and although it is still completely awesome, riding with a kid on board gets a little cramped on rides longer than a couple of miles. And while it’s not as bad going uphill as a mamachari with a dead battery (nothing else I’ve ever ridden is that bad) it’s not the greatest bike on steep inclines either. And even though the MinUte owns the hills, it gets a little cramped for two kids at once. There has been squabbling.

What we really need for the long term is an electric assist bike that one of us can use to carry both kids. And now that we have some ready cash on hand, that’s exactly what we intend to get. When our local bike shop told us we should stop using the Breezer as a child carrier and get a real cargo bike, we realized we needed a new strategy for the next school year. Our local bike shop doesn’t sell any cargo bike other than the Kona Ute and MinUte and never will. They suggested we find someplace that did.

We spotted this bike parked in the flowers at lunch while we were in the South Bay last week. Not a family bike, but it was so pretty there.

So next week, we are headed to Seattle and Portland and their many family bike shops to try out every cargo bike we can find (and if you’re a local, we’d love to meet you while we’re there! We’ll be attending both cities’ August Cargo Bike Roll Calls and the Portland Kidical Mass.) This isn’t the only reason we’re going: we’re also visiting my mom and we have friends in the area who’ve never met our kids. However the bike issue, in combination with the tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles Matt has racked up going to China for work, made the decision to head north pretty easy. With any luck, by the time that school starts we will have a family bike that can take all of us anywhere we want to go.


Filed under bike shops, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

New helmet

My son likes the outdoors too. And he likes climbing up the hidden waterfalls of Golden Gate Park. With his helmet. Safety first!

I’ve been commuting more with my son on the Brompton. This raised an unexpected issue. He’s tall enough that the top of his head touches my chin. I can see over him fine, and it’s certainly easy to make conversation. All of that is good. He is taller than his sister, and that makes pedaling around his legs more of a challenge, but that’s okay. And for some reason when he’s in front he’s more supportive on the hills. “You can make it, mommy! Keep pedaling!”

But there has been an unexpected downside to our commute. His helmet is one of those aero-style Giros that bumps out in the back, and has a sharp edge where the plastic decoration stops and the uncovered foam begins. When we rode together his helmet was cutting open my chin. My chin was bleeding because of my son’s helmet. It was the world’s most implausible bike injury.

We’re taking a trip soon and mailing our helmets in advance. Having a spare helmet was starting to sound like a good idea. Shopping for a helmet with a smooth back, which was my personal goal for his new helmet, was much harder. For some reason the aero-style with the back bump is all the rage in kids’ helmets locally. I had to go online, and that raised issues with fit. My son has a giant head. I picked stores with generous return policies (Amazon and Real Cyclist) and ended up using them as we worked our way up through the sizes that were supposed to fit him based on head circumference and did not. Eventually we found a Bern helmet that fit him in blue (he really wanted a blue helmet). It was an adult size small.

I love this helmet. It has never cut my chin. It’s as smooth as glass. I kissed it while we were riding on Friday, I was so grateful not to be gouged. I liked it so much I got one just like it for my spare helmet. Matchy matchy.

My son likes both his helmets. Specifically he likes having two helmets. Sometimes he wears them both in one day (not at the same time). As long as he wears the Bern while he’s riding the Brompton, that’s just fine.

1 Comment

Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Learning to love the outdoors

Check it out! It’s July in San Francisco! Wind and fog, check. Record low temperatures, check. We’re still having fun.

For most of my life I’ve considered myself an indoor sort of person. I viewed central heating as one of the greatest wonders of the modern age, and wished my parents used ours much more aggressively. And although I walked to school for most of my childhood, I rarely enjoyed it. In my dreams, there were enclosed, climate-controlled, clear tubes for pedestrians that would take me wherever I wanted to go.

When I moved to the Twin Cities in college I couldn’t have been more surprised to learn that such things actually existed, in the form of the Minneapolis skyway system. Who knew?

So anyway, for most of my life I enjoyed walking but hated being outdoors most of the time, which I admit is sort of schizo. This ambivalence hasn’t always led me to make the most healthful choices. When I was in the middle of writing my dissertation, I went for a few days without leaving the apartment at all, which was just as appalling as it sounds.

Last weekend we went to the coast to visit family, but forgot it would be even windier next to the Pacific Ocean. 60 degrees and a dust storm.

I’ve come around in the last few years, assisted by the resolutely temperate climate of San Francisco. It’s frequently foggy and windy, but rarely cold and never hot. Before we ever started riding bikes I walked to work through Golden Gate Park, which is time consuming but has no shortage of great views. We also live close enough to the park that I’ve often taken walks there in the evening after the kids went to bed when Matt was working late. After dark, it’s just me and the skunks.

I’ve been surprised to find that starting to ride our bikes around the city has done something I never expected: it’s made me want to be outside every day. There are days that I don’t ride a bike, often when we’re walking around the neighborhood instead. But I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to spend some time outdoors before noon.

Exploring the mini-woods the campus planted in lieu of giving us all backyards. My kids like being outside already. (This hill drains right into our basement, incidentally.)

I started riding thinking that the freedom of riding the bike, which to me mostly meant not being dependent on the bus schedule or stuck in traffic, was worth the extra time outdoors (and that it would be good for me anyway). I couldn’t have been more surprised to learn that all that extra time outdoors made me want to be outdoors even more.

1 Comment

Filed under commuting, San Francisco

It’s electric!

The bike in front is electric, and arrived just in time for the Electric Slide at Sunday Skate.

I’ve been seeing a lot more electric bicycles around San Francisco. I’ve been seeing a lot more bicycles, period, around San Francisco. Part of that is the season, of course, but there’s also this bicycle boom that everyone’s been talking about. San Francisco ridership has supposedly increased 71%. And every new bike lane that gets striped in this city (8th Street lanes just went in to rave reviews) makes this more likely to continue.

Just another July afternoon in San Francisco. They don’t call it Fog City for nothing.

When I look up some of the steeper hills in this town I often find the prospect of riding my bike daunting, at least when the kids are on board. Having grown up in the Seattle area, I’m rarely fazed by any local weather. (Our bike shop complains that many people give up riding at the first hint of fog. If I felt that way I’d ride maybe 15 days a year.)

Mild to moderate hills are okay too, although they grow less fun as I add live weight. But there are also the steep hills. And there are a lot of them. They are off-putting. This is especially true at the end of a long day at work, as the route home ranges from mildly uphill to steeply uphill most of the way back. On days that it feels like too much, sometimes I put the bike on the shuttle.

Occasionally I hear people say that unless you live or work on a steep hill, you can avoid riding the hills in San Francisco. My first thought is, “It’s more like live AND work on steep hills, actually.” My second thought is to wonder what they’re smoking and where I can get some. I suppose if you lived in the Mission and never went anywhere else but the Financial District that this could be true. My understanding is that this is, predictably, the chosen stomping ground of San Francisco’s fixie community. And it’s certainly possible if you drive everywhere that isn’t flat, but that isn’t really avoiding the hills, is it? If you have kids, there is the school commute unless you homeschool, and the museums and birthday parties regardless, and many people have been known to want to leave their immediate neighborhood occasionally as a matter of personal preference. Technically it’s POSSIBLE to live housebound, even with children, but it hardly seems worth it. I do not find it surprising that people who say that they avoided the hills in San Francisco are always people who used to live in San Francisco. There’s no point in paying city rents if you’re not going to go anywhere.

BionX: a handy upgrade for a pretty bike.

I now realize that I have come relatively late to the idea of electric assist in San Francisco, because I have been seeing assisted bikes everywhere this summer. Other people were smarter than we were, and simply paid upfront to enjoy the ride. On the way to work I’m sometimes passed by a relaxed gentleman in a suit and tie sitting bolt upright on his bike, peacefully meandering up the steepest part of the hill up as I turn off, panting, to take the longer, shallower incline. He confirmed when I asked, that yes, he rides a pedal-assist electric bicycle (it is silent, and he is a lot faster than I am, so it was hard to get a good look). “I love it!” he said. When I look at bikes parked at racks around the city now, there is usually at least one with a motor and battery. Some friends whose daughter attends a top-of-a-hill school recently started commuting on a trailer-bike attached to an e-bike. They plan to buy a second matched set when  their youngest starts kindergarten in August.

When we started down this road, I had little idea that there even was such a thing as an electric-assist bicycle. This is the problem with getting the inspiration to commute by bike while in Copenhagen. The more I talk to people we know, the more I realize that I am not the only one who didn’t realize there was a way to handle the steepest hills that didn’t involve being a Tour de France rider on a bike that weighs less than a newborn baby. But this is changing fast, and I suspect the realization that an electric-assist bicycle can easily move a family up to the top of Mt. Sutro or Potrero Hill will eventually become common knowledge.

I read a review of The New Wheel that said adding electric assist to a bicycle makes San Francisco as flat as Copenhagen.  I think this is true. Electric assist makes riding a bike in San Francisco accessible even to parents hauling kids, groceries, and gear. Many of the incentives to ride a bike in the city (extensive bike lanes, mild weather, a new bike share program, respectful drivers, horrific traffic, and wildly expensive auto parking) are already in hand or in progress. Even still, nearly every American city still has something missing that could turn bicycles from a lunatic fringe activity to a normal way to get around. In San Francisco, I’d put money on that something being electric assist.


Filed under commuting, electric assist, San Francisco

Need a Lyft?

We’ve been taking Muni to Japanese class on Sundays ever since the big bike breakdown during Pride. I had ambitions to ride this week, but the MinUte went to the shop for a derailleur adjustment yesterday (and I’ve been encouraged not to carry heavy loads like my son on the Breezer anymore). Muni is a convenient ride usually, but the N-Judah streetcar is closed for construction for much of the summer, including this weekend. The alternate routes are not so great. We took the bus to class on Sunday, but as usual, it took 20 minutes more than the N-Judah, I had to carry my son through much of the Financial District, he was exhausted by the time we arrived, and we ended up getting to class late anyway.

These fluffy pink mustaches identify Lyft cars, evidently.

just wrote that there were probably dozen other options to get around this city, so on the way home I decided to try one, sending ride requests to Homobiles, Lyft, and Sidecar. Sidecar didn’t have a car within range. Lyft and Homobiles both did, but Lyft got back to me first. Less than 10 minutes after we got out of class, Sam from Lyft swung by to take us home. I figured when I saw his car that that must be our ride. My son liked the mustache. (All the cars have pink mustaches. The drivers greet you with fist bumps. My first impression, that this service had a college student vibe, seems to have been on target.)

Sam, it turns out, moved to San Francisco last month from Oklahoma and is currently driving for Lyft as his full-time job. I was impressed that it was possible for him to make a decent living in a new city immediately upon arrival. Personally I wouldn’t have chosen a stick shift for driving around the city, and he says his leg gets pretty tired at the end of the day, but I assume it’s flatter in Oklahoma. He said that San Francisco was full of the nicest people he’d ever met, and I agree: I have lived in many cities (Boston, Chicago, Munich, Paris, Seattle, Minneapolis-St.Paul, etc.) and although the Twin Cities had a lot of Minnesota-nice, on most days San Francisco is the friendliest place I’ve ever been. Sam was a nice guy himself and a decent driver. He wants to keep driving even after getting a traditional office job, so if you call, maybe you can get a ride from him too.

Post-ride mustachioed photos are nearly obligatory. But: unbeatable value!

This was my first Lyft ride, and I’m considering this whole month as an experiment of sorts in figuring out the costs of car-free life, so I didn’t worry much about the fact that Lyft doesn’t give an estimated cost for the trip until the end of the ride. If it turned out to be exorbitant, well, lesson learned: I wouldn’t use Lyft again. Howver this was not a problem. Our trip was (roughly) from the Financial District to the Inner Sunset farmers market. The rates we’ve found:

  • Homobiles, at $1/minute, would have worked out to ~$20 (plus tip).
  • Sidecar suggested a donation of $22, had a driver been available, for the same trip in reverse.
  • A taxi ride for would be $32 (plus tip) according to the online fare calculator, assuming we could have found one, which is unlikely.
  • Muni fare is a much more economical $2.75 for adult+child, but would have taken an extra half hour.
  • Lyft’s charge for the same ride turned out, once we’d arrived, to be $12 (plus tip). Sold!

When we got home Matt said, “You’re back early! You must have gotten a ride back.” Yes we did. And I don’t doubt we’ll be getting occasional rides from Lyft again.


Filed under car-free, San Francisco

Transportation resources for car-free (and car-light) families, in San Francisco and beyond

When we sold our minivan, one of the things that made it easier not to replace it was the discovery of all kinds of new ways to get around the city without our own car. Realizing there were all these options that offered a safety net helped us finally make a decision. The resources below are so ridiculously exhaustive that we would be hard-pressed to use them all regularly, so we don’t. When we need to get somewhere, we primarily ride our bikes, walk, or take transit, in that order. Every once in a while, for a longer trip, we rent a car from City CarShare or Matt rents one from an agency for a business trip.  Everything else listed below fills in the occasional gaps. For example: my employer, as part of its commitment to reducing car commuting, will reimburse the cost of a ride home from work in the event that a non-driver has a sick kid or bicycle breakdown. I am willing to use some of the more expensive services I’ve listed in emergency situations because time is an issue, and because I know that I’ll be reimbursed. Other companies in San Francisco have similar programs, but they’re poorly advertised, so check with HR before you decide to smack me for being so lucky.

Overall, our bikes are the best transportation choice on most occasions: they are personal vehicles that we can use at our discretion, they’re largely immune to traffic, and we can always find parking. This is why it’s often faster to ride a bike than to drive in San Francisco. But there are occasions that these other options really shine, and they might work even better for other families, and they’re so interesting I thought they were worth documenting in this outrageously long post.

Some useful tools for the car-free family:

  • Cash: Transportation is one of the final holdouts of a cash economy, along with Chinese restaurants, cooperative bakeries, and gambling. I carry around more cash than in the past.
  • Credit card: That said, the majority of ride-sharing services don’t work unless you have a credit card on file.
  • Transit cards: The miserable days when we had to make sure we had two singles in order to ride Muni disappeared when we purchased Clipper cards.
  • Smartphone: I did not get a smartphone until last week, because I live in my own personal Dark Ages. But there is no question that it makes the car-free life easier. Now I can look up bike routes, the next bus, or schedule a car ride instantly. The BayTripper and PocketMuni apps are particularly helpful, as is Bikesy (the bike route mapper for Baytripper).
  • RideSafer travel vests or other portable car seats: We got RideSafer travel vests  as car seat replacements for our trip to Europe last year because they were light enough to meet luggage weight restrictions on European

    Using the RideSafer travel vests in our San Diego rental car.

    airlines. But they are incredibly handy for travel with kids; two fold up small enough to fit in a backpack with room to spare for snacks. Although the kids find them uncomfortable on long trips, they are perfect for short rides. They are pricey but we travel enough out of state that it was worth it to us (also, look for sales; we paid much less than the current price). The vests only work for older kids (arguably 2.5 years and up). However, when we traveled with our son as a baby, we took an infant car seat without the base with us—these styles of car seat all have instructions for installation by seatbelt. And after hearing the stories of such car seats releasing from their bases in collisions, I now suspect that he was safer that way. On occasions when we take longer drives with our kids (e.g. to the Monterey Bay Aquarium) we use regular folding car seats, which now spend most of their time in storage.

  • Folding cart/stroller: It’s nice to have a way to haul kids and/or groceries around. When our kids don’t want to ride a bike to the farmers’ market, we take the stroller and pile up purchases underneath, or we take a folding shopping cart (ours actually works as a cargo-only bike trailer as well).
  • Named non-owner auto insurance policy: If you don’t own a car, but drive, you can still buy auto insurance. We’re on the fence about whether to get a policy like this. It’s not necessary for a lot of car sharing services, which have great insurance (better than you could buy as an individual). But if you’re in a situation where you rent a lot, and have to use national rental agencies, it could be a good deal.

Just the basics (for the more interesting options, skip down to #8)

1. Feet

  • What they are: Look down.
  • When to use them: Local shopping and neighborhood restaurants, visiting local friends and attractions
  • How they work: If you’re able-bodied you know this already.
  • Pros: Good exercise; helps us learn about the neighborhood; we live in San Francisco so everything we need to live is within walking distance
  • Cons: Limited range (especially if kids are involved); limited ability to carry stuff; slow
  • What it costs: Free!
  • Good to know: We can walk further than we think we can, even when carrying a grumpy six-year-old uphill.
  • Personal experience: We like walking; early dates with my husband were long walks.

2. Bicycles (the practical kind, not the road racing/mountain biking kind)

  • What they are: Those things on two wheels most people learned to ride as kids; but if you didn’t, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition will teach you how to ride in a couple of hours.
  • When to use them: Virtually anytime, although in San Francisco it can be a little tricky to get outside city limits on bikes when heading east
  • How they work: Hop on and ride off
  • Pros: Good exercise; faster than cars in traffic; never worry about parking; some bikes can carry more than cars; kids love riding on bikes
  • Cons: Can take some practice to learn to ride in the street with cars; can fuel an obsession that becomes more expensive than planned (although way cheaper than a car) and unnerves friends and colleagues; theft is a problem in San Francisco (although a recent arrest has improved matters dramatically)
  • What it costs: Ranges dramatically, from $50 for a beater bike found on craigslist (quality unknown) to $3,500 for a snazzy new cargo bike, but without kids almost everyone will do fine walking out of the local bike shop on a $500 commuter, with kids ditto on a $1500 cargo bike. Any decent bike shop will let you test ride extensively before purchase. Electric assists for hills and heavy loads run $500-$5,000, but most reliable models run $1,000-$2,000. Maintenance and repair costs are bupkis, even for electric assist bikes, which recharge for pennies.
  • Good to know: If you’re hauling kids you probably need more bike than you think you do. Many people buy a first bike that’s inadequate for their needs and have to replace it (guilty as charged). But even the most wildly expensive cargo bike with electric assist costs less than the estimated cost of car ownership for a year. And also less than an amateur road bike.
  • Also good to know: If you fear breakdowns, you can buy nationwide bicycle roadside assistance from Better World Club.
  • Personal experience: This is our favorite way to get around.

3. Public transit (around here, primarily the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, aka Muni, but also systems around the bay for trips outside the city including BART, Cal Train, and Golden Gate Transit)

  • What it is: Buses, street cars, trains
  • When to use it: When it’s too far to walk; when the bike breaks down; when feeling lazy or when the hill situation or route is unclear in advance; when we have lots of time
  • How it works: Find a route using a trip planner (Baytripper app, 511 through Google Maps), head to the nearest stop, pay, and get on. In SF, the Pocket Muni smartphone app can identify how close the next bus (or whatever) is.
  • Pros: Inexpensive; accessible; nice views; riding historic streetcars and cable cars is a thrill; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, most of whom are kind
  • Cons: Horribly unreliable (Pocket Muni can help, but still); aging equipment that breaks down; dirty; the most useful routes are often incredibly crowded; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, some of whom are mean and/or insane
  • What it costs: In SF, $2 for adults, 75 cents for kids but cable car rides are $5; to go outside the city, costs vary but are still cheap. Fares are cash and exact change only unless you buy a Clipper card.
  • Good to know: Public transportation is like getting work done at a dental school: the price is right, there are no perks, the service is as promised but it takes a long time.
  • Personal experience: Very useful, but flawed (however I feel the same way about cars)

4. Taxis

  • What they are: Cars driving around that will take you wherever you want to go on a fare schedule negotiated with the city in advance
  • When to use them: Only when we’re desperate
  • How they work: Call in advance for a pickup and hope someone actually comes, hail one on the street and hope it actually stops
  • Pros: Only car service legally allowed to pick up street hails; gets you anywhere you want to go at a predictable price
  • Cons: San Francisco’s taxi fleet is notorious for poor availability, the willingness of dispatchers to lie about sending a taxi for a pickup, the unwillingness of drivers to pick up people that don’t look rich and well-groomed, etc. The cars themselves are often filthy and I say this as a Muni rider. Drivers pay little attention to traffic laws or speed limits. All taxis in San Francisco are supposed to take credit card payments but trying to pay that way can anger drivers enough that they threaten passengers and/or throw their belongings on the ground. This has happened to me.
  • What it costs: $3.50 at pickup then 55 cents per fifth of a mile or minute of wait time, plus tip
  • Good to know: You can do better, see below.
  • Personal experience: Primarily hellish, although there have been exceptions

5. City CarShare (see also: Zipcar)

  • What it is: A membership service for borrowing cars. These are parked around the city in reserved parking places.
  • When to use it: When we have a reason to drive somewhere.
  • How it works: Apply for membership and pay the fee; if you don’t drive like a maniac and have a valid credit card, you’re in. Once enrolled, members can reserve any car in the system online or by phone (there is a smartphone app for droid phones, but not yet for iOS). They send you a key fob in the mail; when your reservation begins, swipe it on the reader in the front window to unlock the car. At the end of the reservation, swipe the fob on the reader to check the car back in.
  • Pros: For occasional drivers who live or work near pods, it’s much cheaper than owning a car and more convenient. For complicated trips (hauling six kids, going to Ikea) there are pickup trucks and minivans to rent. For people who like cars, there are interesting vehicles to drive: Mini Coopers, Smart cars, electric cars.
  • Cons: Need to schedule trips in advance and be aware when the reservation is ending or there will be late fees. Cars must be dropped off at the pod of origin, so all trips must be round trips, and members are responsible for parking in the interim. Not all members are responsible about bringing vehicles back on time or refilling the gas tank, which can be a hassle (although people who don’t live near a university like we do report fewer problems of this nature). Car sharing can be expensive for frequent users. May not be worth joining if pods are far away (unless you have a Brompton!)
  • What it costs: We pay an annual membership fee plus a set rate when using a car ($1-$9/hour) plus a mileage fee (35 cents/mile). Each membership comes with a certain number of “day trips” allowing a 24-hour rental ($48-$70/day plus 10 cents/mile) and more day trips can be purchased for $12 each. Membership includes insurance, maintenance, roadside assistance, tolls, and gas (or charging if an electric vehicle). Fees are charged at the end of the month to a credit card on file.
  • Good to know: Car share services have reciprocal relationships with their counterparts in other cities. Zipcar is more expensive and has poorer insurance than local nonprofit options.
  • Personal experience: Good; historically we’ve rented through City CarShare once every couple of months, although this has now increased to 1-2 times/month.

6. Rental car agencies

  • What they are: An ad hoc service for borrowing cars
  • When to use them: Longer-term rentals or business/out-of-state travel
  • How they work: Call or book online to reserve a car, hope we get something like what we requested
  • Pros: Lots of different cars available; no extra charges for long trips
  • Cons:  Most agencies require customers to come to them but don’t provide rides, which can be inconvenient (exceptions: City Rent-A-Car in SF, Enterprise nationwide). Insurance and gas are the responsibility of the renter. Cars tend to be in poor condition (relative to car-share vehicles) and it is obvious that some people smoke in them. Rental agencies tend to dump gas guzzlers onto renters who book economy cars, which is a drag as the renter pays for gas.
  • What they cost: Varies, in SF usually ~$40/day on weekends or ~$400/week plus gas, insurance for an economy car; credit card payment required
  • Good to know: Local agencies like City Rent-A-Car typically have better prices, cars, and service than national chains; airport pickups involve substantial additional fees
  • Personal experience: Tolerable, used for business trips but only because Matt’s company makes the reservations

7. Limousines/livery cars

  • What they are: Private car service for passenger trips
  • When to use them: When scheduling a one-way trip in advance, e.g. to the airport, in which case they are almost as cheap as cabs or airport shuttles for a family of four but vastly more reliable (at least in San Francisco)
  • How it works: Call a dispatcher or book online, usually several hours in advance
  • Pros: Cars usually come when scheduled or earlier; cars are clean; drivers obey traffic laws
  • Cons: Some services are more reliable than others; expensive; with kids a portable car seat may be needed although some provide child seats on request
  • What it costs: $55-$65 for an airport ride regardless of the number of passengers; other pricing is hourly or zone-based and typically comparable to or slightly more expensive than a cab (we only use these for airport trips so I’m ignorant); credit card payment required, tips often included
  • Good to know: Dealing with individual companies is a thing of the past thanks to Uber; see below.
  • Personal experience: We decided it was worth the money to take limos to the airport after a couple of incidents where cabs and airport shuttles didn’t bother to show up.

Peer-to-peer and beyond (this is where things get interesting!)

8. Bike trailer loans: If you’re a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, you can reserve and borrow Burley Travoy or Bikes at Work trailers for heavy cargo loads. Included for no additional cost with membership! (no personal experience)

9. Bike rentals: City CarShare is rolling out an e-bike plus cargo trailer rental option late in 2012, rates to be determined. Most of the other bike rental options in San Francisco are geared to tourists, but might be useful for family visiting from out of town; check Yelp for deals. San Francisco universities have relationships with a local bike shop that allows students and other visitors to rent a Trek 7.3FX commuter bike for a day ($25), multiple days ($12.50/day), or a semester ($175), contact (no personal experience)

10. Employer and transit shuttles: Some employers and neighborhoods offer free shuttle service to various locations throughout the city. Amtrak also takes people across the bay for no charge. If you’re near the route, these are the best deals in the city. Technically I work for the state so although my employer’s shuttles are primarily for staff and patients, anyone can ride them—see also PresidiGo, SF City and County, Nordstrom. Driver quality is better than cabs but worse than limos. In San Francisco, check university websites or Yelp for details on shuttle rules and routes, or ask around. Personal experience: Excellent

11. Casual carpool/slugging

  • What it is: Some cities, like San Francisco and DC, have established ad hoc car pool locations for regular commuters. In the Bay Area, drivers pick up passengers in order to use the car pool lanes on the bridges into the city.
  • When to use it: When you want to get into the city more quickly and cheaply than you could alone and the routes and times make sense
  • How it works: Head to a pickup location as a driver/passenger, then pick-up the next two people in line/hop in the next car that pulls up. Drop off/get out at the drop-off site.
  • Pros: Cheap; fast
  • Cons: The etiquette around payment of carpool tolls has not yet been established for passengers (some drivers ask for a contribution). Some people freak out about the idea of getting into a stranger’s car, although this is mitigated by the fact that drivers typically pick up two passengers (women passengers often refuse to join a two-seater vehicle in the casual carpool line; I know I did when I was using casual carpool).  The routes and times don’t work for everyone.
  • What it costs: As a passenger, up to $1, but often free. Drivers pay normal commuting costs but a lower toll.
  • Good to know: It’s nice that such cooperative arrangements can spring up organically, isn’t it? Sure, it’s not everyone riding their bike or transit to work, but casual carpool gets lots of cars off the road and reduces traffic.
  • Personal experience: I rode casual carpool for several months when we lived in Berkeley and it was pleasant enough.

12. Zimride

  • What it is: A formalized casual carpool; drivers taking long trips or regular commutes post rides to potential passengers
  • When to use it: Long road trips in lieu of Greyhound; also, large employers use the service to arrange regular carpools
  • How it works: Check out the website for posted rides and dates; sign up if there’s one that works and arrange pick-up/drop-off with the driver
  • Pros: Cheaper than driving alone; less grungy than the bus; can get picked up somewhere near where you live
  • Cons: Somewhat complicated to arrange; some people freak out about getting into a stranger’s car; ride timing dependent on the driver
  • What it costs: Varies; check website but SF to LA seems to run ~$50 per passenger (by comparison Greyhound is $45-$65 for the same trip, plus the cost to get to the station)
  • Good to know: There’s definitely a college student vibe to this service. Lots of discussion of music; unlike casual carpool, don’t assume you’ll be listening to NPR on this ride.
  • Personal experience: Nada, although my employer runs all its carpools through Zimride, which suggests it is decent.

13. Sidecar/Lyft

  • What it is: Peer-to-peer donation-based ridesharing
  • When to use it: When we want a lift across town for less than the cost of a cab that’s quicker than public transit, or when we don’t want to stand on the bus
  • How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is and suggest a donation based on past community standards. If you accept, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. The donation is charged to your card on file.
  • Pros: Cheaper than a cab, faster than public transit
  • Cons: Mainly the usual freak-outs about getting into a stranger’s car, although drivers are screened, interviewed, and rated after every ride by the service and by their passengers (personally I’ve had much worse experiences in taxi cabs than I’ve ever had while ride sharing). Negotiating the suggested donation can be tricky if driver and passenger don’t agree. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat as suggested above.
  • What it costs: Varies, check the apps but seems to run approximately $1/minute; e.g. the community average for a trip from the Inner Sunset farmers’ market to the Financial District was $22, compared to an estimated taxi fare of $32 before tip
  • Good to know: Sidecar seems to have better coverage in San Francisco. Lyft is associated with the successful Zimride, but seems organized to primarily appeal to college students.
  • Personal experience: I looked up a ride with Sidecar recently when my sister’s rental car was hit and I thought I needed a quick way home; although I didn’t book, they said they had a car three minutes away and would get me home for $8. Further updates as events warrant. I suspect I’ll use this service eventually.

14. Homobiles: Moes gettin hoes where they needz to goez! [ho status optional]

  • What it is: A donation-based ride-sharing service for the LGBTIQQ community and friends in San Francisco. Homobiles was started after its founder heard too many stories of cab drivers in San Francisco refusing to stop in the Castro, or stopping and then soliciting passengers for sexual favors, or kicking same sex couples out for kissing in the car, or commenting negatively on bondage gear, or sharing unsavory opinions about the gay community, and so forth.
  • When to use it: When you want a cab but don’t want a cab driver
  • How it works: Text (or call) a request for a pick with your location, number of passengers, and any special requests to Homobiles at 415/574-5023. They’ll text back with your pickup time if they have a driver available (sometimes they don’t, but at least they’ll tell you) and off you go.
  • Pros: This is a donation-based service that wants people to feel safe, so they’ll give you a ride even if you can’t pay. No one will hassle you for looking queer, obviously. Some of their cars have bike racks.
  • Cons: Cash only. Sometimes there’s no driver available. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat. The name might freak out relatives from less urban locales.
  • What it costs: $1/minute anywhere in the city. $30 flat fee to San Francisco Airport (this may be our future airport shuttle!) Tips not included.
  • Good to know: Drivers will sell you a Homobiles t-shirt or hanky as a fundraiser (like every other ride sharing service, they’re being sued by SF taxi companies, but they’re they only one without venture capital backing).
  • Personal experience: Haven’t used it yet, but I’ve heard nothing but accolades.

15. Uber

  • What it is: A smartphone app-based booking service for limos
  • When to use it: When you don’t have the cash handy for Homobiles or they don’t have a driver available, or you really want to ride in a shiny black car with water bottles
  • How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is, what kinds of vehicles are available (for more than 4 people, request an SUV) and the fare. If you book, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. A tip is included and the bill is charged to your card, with an emailed receipt; this is a cash-free transaction.
  • Pros: Same as limousines/livery cars but with rock-solid reliability and enforcement of good driving behavior (passengers are asked to rank the driver after the ride). Uber prides itself on having cars available at all times, no matter what, even on New Year’s Eve or during Pride.
  • Cons: Expensive; taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat
  • What it costs:$8 base fare, plus $4.90/mile while moving and $1.25/minute in traffic; $15 minimum fare and $10 cancellation fee
  • Good to know: Uber has coupon codes for new members that give $10-$20 off your first ride.
  • Personal experience: None yet, seems pricey (but great reviews on Yelp). I tried to order ice cream for my kids on Uber’s ice cream truck day but they were too busy, which frankly runs contrary to their whole “we will get you a car no matter what” image. I’ll cut them some slack as it was the first time they tried that, but still, hmm.

16. Getaround/Relay Rides

  • What it is: Peer-to-peer carsharing
  • When to use it: Primarily when you want to rent a car for longer periods than are cost-effective using a car sharing service
  • How it works: This is a more informal version of traditional car share. People who have cars available that they don’t use regularly make them available to people who want to rent one. Rates are set by the car owner and listed on the website. When you join (you’ll need a Facebook account) you can pick from a list of available vehicles and request a reservation. Getaround lets you pick up certain cars using your smartphone and an ID reader, but both services default to meeting the car owner and handing over the key. Drive during the reservation window and then return the car as the owner requested. The service provides insurance but the renter is typically responsible for gas.
  • Pros: Typically cheaper than all-day rental using a car-sharing service; much better insurance for the car-free than traditional rental car agencies; often closer to home than other options; owners are usually more relaxed about late drop-offs than car share services are
  • Cons: Handing off keys can be a hassle for non-smartphone enabled cars; rates are somewhat unpredictable; limited availability in some neighborhoods
  • What it costs: Typically $6-$12/hour in San Francisco, with daily rates of $35-$60 (although Getaround’s rental Tesla is much more). Weekly rates are also available. Where we live it’s cheaper than traditional car-sharing for day trips and more expensive for hourly trips.
  • Good to know: Getaround has better coverage and some keyless entry cars in both San Francisco and Portland, which makes renting for short periods more appealing. Relay Rides is national. Car-light folks can rent out their cars.
  • Personal experience: My sister rented a car through Getaround when we took a weekend day trip and it was more exciting than we’d planned, but that wasn’t Getaround’s fault. $50 for the day, and unusually, gas was included. I would rent through Getaround again, especially for longer trips.

Other interesting options that San Francisco does not have yet, but that are available in other cities

17. Bike share

  • What it is: Short term city-sponsored bicycle rentals available from pods scattered in popular travel corridors
  • When to use it: When you have a short one-way trip that’s still too far to walk or would take too long
  • How it works: Typically you buy a membership card, then swipe it to release a bike from one of the locked racks. Ride it to your destination and check it in at a nearby rack. Short trips are free or nearly so and longer trips are expensive. If there’s no space at a given rack, you can get free minutes to ride it to the next closest rack and check the bike in there.
  • Pros: Inexpensive, easy, fun to ride
  • Cons: It might be hard to carry a large load. You probably can’t ride with kids.
  • What it costs: Varies; free to a few dollars.
  • Good to know: California has no helmet law for adults, so don’t let not having a helmet stop you from trying a bike if that’s what it takes.
  • Personal experience: None, unfortunately, but you can bet I’ll try it when San Francisco rolls out its bike share program, supposedly later in 2012. Or maybe 2013. Or maybe never. Sob.

18. Car2go

  • What it is: A short-term rental program for Smart cars run by Daimler
  • When to use it: When you want to drive one-way, alone or with one passenger
  • How it works: You sign up, pay the annual fee, and get a member card to check into cars (typical rules about not driving like a maniac apply here). Cars can be reserved in advance online or by phone, or just wander around until you see a Car2go car with a green light on the reader, wave your card, enter a PIN, and drive off. Park the car in any legal parking spot at your destination, but there’s no need to pay a meter; Daimler negotiates an annual parking fee for its cars with the city and pays it in advance. Members get a gas card with the car and receive credits for filling up if the tank is less than a quarter full.
  • Pros: Seems very useful for last-mile travel for people who don’t want to carry a folding bike; or for emergency sick-kid pickups—e.g. I could schedule a car pickup for us at school and use the time it takes the driver to get to school to drive myself over from work with Car2go
  • Cons: Limited availability; only an option in a few cities; Smart cars only hold two people and there’s no way to install a car seat
  • What it costs:  Rates are the cheapest combination of 35 cents/minute, $13/hour, $66/day (plus 45 cents/mile if you drive the car over 150 miles per day), plus tax.
  • Good to know: Car2go membership recently became transferable throughout the cities where it’s in operation: if you’re a Car2go member in Washington DC, you can also drive Car2go vehicles in San Diego.
  • Personal experience: None, because it isn’t available in San Francisco, unfortunately.

Available anywhere, but use with caution

19 and last on my list: Mooching

My personal feeling is that if I regularly feel the urge to mooch rides, then we’re not really ready to live without our own car. We had one car for over five years, and in that time I can count on my fingers the number of times we asked for a ride, hinted that we wanted one (particularly with kids in tow: who has a spare car seat anyway?), or asked to borrow a car. Given all of the options available to us now, if we start to find ourselves consistently begging rides, I suspect that would be a sign that we should buy a car again.

That said, I don’t see anything wrong with getting a ride occasionally, particularly when we’re traveling. We were very grateful when a friend offered us a lift late at night last year when we were in Paris and we faced a long train ride back carrying two sleepy kids. There are times that people make an unsolicited offer to drive me somewhere, like at work when everyone is headed to another campus for a department meeting. And in those cases I usually say yes because I enjoy their company. And on the occasions that I have a rental car, I’ll often ask people whether they want a lift where I’m going, for exactly the same reason.

Thanks for asking, and thanks for sharing the ride, friends!


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

Round, round, get around, I get around… First time car-sharing with Getaround

As part of my investigation into our transportation options now that we don’t own a car, I recently discovered Getaround, thanks to a referral from I Bike U Bike. Getaround is a San Francisco-based program where people who own cars can rent them to people who want a car for a while—rates are daily, weekly, or monthly. Someone asked me, “Oh, like Relay Rides?” I had to check what that was, but: yes. However Getaround seems to have better coverage in San Francisco, plus some cars that can be accessed without meeting the owner face-to-face.

I’ve developed a lot more flexibility in the last year.

Last weekend my sister and I took a day trip to a yoga retreat in Sebastopol. This was my big idea; I take yoga at noon at work and I like it. My sister does Crossfit. Ultimately I would say that although the retreat had its moments, and although I like yoga classes, I am probably not the yoga retreat type. Most importantly, it was a long time to spend away from my kids. There was also a bigger emphasis on woo than I had hoped. Yoga can get pretty heavy on the woo: qi, live harp music, discussion of sutras, detailing transformational experiences, chanting, “rebirth,” etc. This retreat was admittedly pretty low on that scale, going no further than seated meditation and breathing exercises. What can I say? I’m uptight, and I’m comfortable with myself that way.  My sister also tends to avoid the woo, but she was a good sport.

Anyway, my sister and brother-in-law don’t own a car, and neither do we anymore. She was going to rent one through Zipcar to get us to Sebastopol, but Zipcar charges almost $120 for an all-day rental! I suggested she try Getaround instead. She found a 2009 Jetta the same distance from her place as the local Zipcar pod, which she could rent for 24 hours, gas included, for $50. What’s more, Getaround has a much better insurance plan. I am foreshadowing.

My brother-in-law suggested this gas-powered kick scooter as a car alternative . Thankfully we can do better.

So we went to Sebastopol and back in this lovely car, which was immaculate, more so any other rental car I’d ever seen. My sister said the owner was fantastic, very mellow, and she liked the experience so much that she began wondering whether it was worth maintaining their Zipcar membership, given that Zipcar involves an annual membership fee, has higher rates, and requires them (for the sake of their sanity, not as a matter of policy) to maintain a named non-owner auto insurance policy.  (We belong to City CarShare, which is nonprofit and has lower rates and better insurance, plus I get an extra discount through my employer, but their coverage in her neighborhood is spotty and she doesn’t get my discount.)

When we returned to San Francisco, we stopped for dinner at a Mexican restaurant we’d both heard of but never visited. It was great. We were having a fantastic day, and left so she could drop me off to tuck the kids in at bedtime. When we walked out to the car, which she’d parked on the street, we saw a taxi stopped in front of it with flashers on and a bunch of people standing around taking photos with their smartphones. Why? There was a giant gouge on the side of the Getaround Jetta where the taxi driver had smashed into it.

“DAMMIT!” said my sister. “My very first Getaround rental! This guy is never going to rent to me again!”

Unlike many drivers in San Francisco who hit  parked cars, this one had stopped. It might have been because both his fares and a handful of passersby immediately stopped to start taking pictures, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, because he seemed pretty decent about the whole thing. But the incident began a whole cascade of phone calls, information exchanges, and smartphone photography.

My sister called the Jetta’s owner, who seemed surprisingly equable about having his car hit. I called Getaround, and although they didn’t answer, they called me right back, and then told my sister everything would be fine. Everyone took lots of photos. The cab driver called his insurance and they wanted my sister’s license and insurance information, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a Getaround insurance card right there in the glove box.

My sister notes that this vehicle is not authorized to enter the bike lane when necessary.

When the cab driver said he wanted their insurance adjuster to come out right then and there, I started thinking about other ways to get home before my kids passed out and my husband assumed that I’d died. Sidecar apparently had a ride available 3 minutes away, but just before I booked it, the insurance adjuster called to say that he was halfway around the world, and given that the Jetta could be driven, could everyone just deal with this on Monday morning? So that’s where we left things. My sister drove me home and headed back herself. We both kept laughing in disbelief. The car got hit the very first time she tried Getaround! Talk about bad luck.

That said, despite the collision, or rather even with the collision, the Getaround part of the day was great. Assuming that we’re both not permanently blacklisted, I would rent from them again, especially for a day trip. There are so many more options for the car-free in San Francisco now; I feel like our timing could not have been better.


Filed under car-free, San Francisco, travel

Spotted in Hayes Valley: The Faraday Porteur

New Hayes Valley parklet (not the park built on a closed street)

Although I don’t get much chance to socialize with adults given that we have two little kids, I try to meet my sister every once in a while. The last time, she suggested we meet in Hayes Valley, near Civic Center. I hadn’t been to Hayes Valley in a long time, and it turns out it’s a nice ride over. The entire neighborhood has been shifting in character from a seedy strip off the freeway to a shopping and dining destination. Part of that transition involved closing off a major street to car traffic, and building a park where the cars used to be. It was filled with families, even though Hayes Valley itself is more of a hipster neighborhood, packed with expensive housewares stores, wine shops, and expensive restaurants. It is a fantastic place to hang out, and I was not the only person who thought to ride my bike there: the racks and parking meters were packed.  It was one of the rare summer days in San Francisco that was not foggy and cold, and I pitied the drivers stuck in their cars, fuming as they searched for parking. That used to be me.

The Faraday Porteur

I met my sister at Propellor, which is kind of a hyper-local version of Design Within Reach. Propellor was an odd location to find a bicycle, other than the one I’d locked up outside, but a bicycle there was. It was, in fact, an electric bicycle, the Faraday Porteur, a creation of IDEO/Rock Lobster that was the Oregon Manifest People’s Choice winner. Oregon Manifest was a 2011 competition intended to encourage designers to create the ultimate utility bike. Given that hauling kids was not even a criterion in the Oregon Manifest, it was hard for me to take much of an interest. But although the Faraday reflects the goals of the Manifest rather than of many actual utility cyclists, it is an interesting bike nonetheless.

There are some issues that arise when attempting to market a bike in a modern housewares store. The main one is that the people staffing the store clearly had no idea what they had in their window, other than that it was an electric bike, and then only because it said so on the sign. I had a lot of questions, and they didn’t have a lot of answers. Eventually they found a brochure, and that helped. They are planning to sell the Faraday, which is actually going into production. With luck they’ll have someone in the store who can explain what it actually does by then. I’m interested to see how the whole sales process goes. They’re clearly reaching a market of people who would not normally spend a lot of time in bike stores. What will happen after one of them actually buys a bike is something of a mystery.

Front hub motor, apparently

The Faraday Porteur is clearly an effort to make utility bikes seem cool. I recognized from the front hub that it was an electric bicycle even without seeing the sign, but couldn’t spot the batteries. The brochure revealed that they were packed into the double top tube.  Although I think packing the batteries in the frame is a fantastic idea, I wonder about the choice to put them in a double top tube. You can forget about adding a rear child seat given that frame; you’d roundhouse your kid every time you got on the bike. Putting that much weight in the top tube seems like it would make the bike harder to balance, and my brother-in-law wondered what happened when someone needed to replace the battery. And the whole bike seemed designed for a sporty ride; there’s no way to ride upright on that frame. Maybe it’s meant to appeal to people who would otherwise ride fixies?

Those quibbles aside, there is a lot the Faraday gets right. The frame-mounted front rack comes off and on with one hand, and it is large enough to haul serious cargo. The mount for that rack has two headlights built into it, and the rear of the bike has an integrated taillight. They were very, very sweet. The electric assist (which is a pedal assist, but I got that from the website, not from the confused staff at the store) is beautifully integrated into the bike, looking exactly like a left-hand shifter. It’s not a particularly powerful assist, but for this kind of bike, I doubt it needs to be. And there is no question: this is a very pretty bike.

Pretty, but vague on the details

The Faraday got a lot of attention while we were there, from people who didn’t have my kinds of questions. Theirs were more along the lines of, “When will you have them in stock?” and, “How much will they cost?” The store couldn’t answer those questions either.

In a neighborhood like Hayes Valley, a bike built to carry a case of beer easily, rather than a kid, is right on target. The Faraday, which takes the brutality out of climbing the city’s hills and makes it possible to haul everything a single person could need,  was clearly making riding a bike seem practical to people who would never consider it otherwise. I hope they sell thousands of them, and that the next time I’m in Hayes Valley, I see them everywhere.

1 Comment

Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, San Francisco

San Francisco destinations: The New Wheel

This is actually quite an accurate depiction of what it’s like to ride an electric-assist bicycle in San Francisco.

A few weeks ago, we checked out a new bike shop in San Francisco, The New Wheel. The New Wheel is marketing itself to a particular niche in San Francisco, and I suspect they will be successful. They sell only electric pedal-assist bicycles.

For this trip I rounded up two other families from our daughter’s preschool to keep us company and so I could get the opinions of people who’d never ridden electric-assist bikes before. Preschool was the obvious place to recruit other families interested in electric-assist bikes; as Matt puts it, the building “looks down on us like a Tibetan monastery.” From asking around, we knew that other biking parents (okay, dads) had tried to haul kids up that hill in trailers and on bikes. Like us, they’d given up after a couple of tries.

Electric-assist bikes: interesting!

Cyclists in San Francisco do not give up easily. There is no avoiding the hills in this city, and there are a few intrepid riders who climb preschool hill every day solo. But not pulling a trailer, which one dad reported actually dragged him back down the hill while he was attempting to pedal up. I have discussed before the reasons that parents in the city don’t typically ride with trailers (can’t be seen in traffic, don’t fit in bike lanes): that’s another. Let’s not even discuss what it would be like back going down that same hill. In summary it would be fair to say that there is intense interest in electric-assist bikes in our preschool community.

So we all headed to The New Wheel one Sunday. It was fascinating. In a lot of ways, The New Wheel is not yet our kind of shop. Although they are interested in the family market, they are most strongly focused right now on pedal-assist bikes for commuters. They can attach a child seat or a trailer or a Burley Piccolo to their bikes, but they don’t offer cargo bikes. It turns out that there is a reason for this.

These are the kinds of bikes they sell.

What I learned from the owners at The New Wheel is that there is a wide range of reliability in electric assists for bicycles, and particularly in batteries. As they are focused not just on selling equipment but maintaining it, there is a very short list of systems that they felt were worth selling: BionX and Panasonic. BionX motors sit in the rear hub and respond to torque on the pedals; the harder you push, the more help you get. I’ve written about riding with the BionX before. The mid-drive motors attach to the chain, and add power throughout the gear range. These are stronger motors, but they are significantly more expensive and they work best when riders maintain a steady cadence. After trying one, I can attest that doing that involves a learning curve.

For the time being, this is the only kind of family bike that The New Wheel is selling.

Because they are very interested in the family market they had considered stocking the Yuba elMundo, which comes with the eZee assist. However they found that customers had so much trouble with eZee motors and batteries, which evidently have a nasty habit of cutting out in the middle of the hills where people need them most, that they are negotiating with Yuba to develop and sell a BionX-assisted Mundo instead. The trade-off for increased reliability, of course, is a higher price.

Having this discussion with them made it pretty clear that for our needs, a BionX system is probably our best choice. After-market mid-drive motors, although they themselves are great, evidently have some of the same battery issues that other systems do, namely that there are not many consistently good ones, and no one is currently making cargo bikes with the integrated Panasonic assists. So it would seem that BionX is the most reliable option for cargo bikes, unless you know a lot about batteries or get lucky.

All these bikes have the motor integrated into the design; the mid drive motors are placed inside a massive chain guard.

All of the bikes The New Wheel sells are built as electric-assist bicycles from the ground up, and they all come with integrated BionX motors (e.g. the Ohm line) or integrated Panasonic mid-drive motors (the German bikes). They felt both of these systems worked well on steep hills. The mid-drive motors were more useful for weaker riders. One of their customers, an older woman with a recent hip replacement, was using one of their mid-drive motor-assisted bikes to commute up to the top of the Berkeley hills every day. That is an extremely long and unforgiving grade.

Having already tried a BionX-assisted bike in Portland, I went out for a test ride with one of the preschool dads, Paul, on a mid-drive bike. He took an Ohm with a BionX assist. I was very curious about how it would feel to ride with the more powerful mid-drive motor. The New Wheel is conveniently located in Bernal Heights, next to some brutally steep slopes. After taking some time to figure out how our respective assists worked, we rode up and down the hills for a while. It was such a hoot!

When I rode with a BionX, I liked that it felt seamless with the pedaling and was almost completely silent. Other than feeling like I’d grown massively stronger, I barely noticed the BionX was there.

I rode the extremely girly “Emotion” bike. I’m not particularly proud, but this kind of marketing leaves something to be desired. Bad manufacturer; no cookie!

The mid-drive motor was different. It makes a slight rattling sound as the chain runs through the motor, which I found kind of annoying. It was hard to tell that it was more powerful, because the assist felt so subtle. I suspect for riders who are already used to going up hills, there may be less difference between the two systems until the cargo load gets quite substantial. And it was hard for me to maintain a steady cadence and pressure instead of reacting to the hill by gearing down and pushing harder, which meant that I wasn’t getting the greatest benefit from the system. As a result, Paul consistently passed me on the way uphill even though I had a stronger motor.

So although I liked riding up hills with the mid-drive motor, especially hills that I could barely move on by myself (I tried turning the assist off halfway up the hill a couple of times; it was unspeakably brutal), I didn’t like it any better than riding a BionX-assisted bike. Yet I suspect that I would feel very differently about these two systems if I were a novice rider. The owners of The New Wheel said that in fact they steer experienced riders to the BionX-assisted bikes like the Ohms, and novice riders to the mid-drives. I suspect that’s because if you have practice going up hills already, you’d have to relearn how to ride effectively with the mid-drive motors. Basically you have to convince yourself that neither the motor nor the hill is there, and just pedal blissfully on. In contrast, if you’re getting an electric bike in order to start riding a bike again, you don’t have to unlearn any existing hill-climbing habits. This information, by itself, was worth a trip to The New Wheel.

My son’s desire for this bike has not waned in the slightest.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that The New Wheel is really, truly committed to family biking, even if they don’t yet stock any real family-hauling bikes. The proof was in their children’s bikes, which were the nicest I have ever seen. The preschoolers could not stop riding their gorgeous balance bikes. Our son test-rode a beautiful 20” Torker (not listed on their website) and has been begging us ever since to trade in his Jamis for this bike. He is willing to put his entire saved allowance to the cause. This was, however, not even the nicest bike available; they do not currently stock, but they do sell, a German bike for kids that comes with an internally geared hub, dynamo lights, fenders, a double-kickstand, and a chain guard. They said they didn’t stock it because they assumed that no one would be willing spend that much money on a kid’s bike. I only wish The New Wheel had been in business when we bought our son’s bike last Christmas. It would have spared us a trip across the bay and he’d be on a better bike right now. At any rate, if you are looking for a child’s bike, I have never seen a higher-quality collection. And they also have very nice children’s helmets, and they know how to fit them, too.

The New Wheel: stop by and check it out!

If I were in the market for an electric-assist commuter bike to handle the steepest San Francisco hills, I would start at The New Wheel. It is a great shop with incredibly nice owners and they are impressively informed about electric assists. We will almost certainly return when it is time to buy another kid’s bike. My only regret is that they do not yet sell family-hauling cargo bikes that can handle steep hills. For that, you still have to go to Portland.


Filed under bike shops, destinations, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Yuba Mundo

One less minivan

The minivan goes to SoCal. Trucks on trucks! If only the kids had seen this.

Hey! Hi there! What’s new? There are some big changes here at the Hum household. Not only did I almost break a bike (although it’s back and usable now, I can hear it creaking if I go uphill loaded, so I don’t do that anymore—but give me time, maybe I can still manage to snap the frame in two!), we gave up our minivan last week.

Now we are a car-free family.

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that either.

Oh, the places we go: Golden Gate Park Carrousel

We had been talking about getting rid of the minivan for quite a while and replacing it with something more economy-sized that would be better for city driving. We bought the minivan new, in early 2006, and knew it was still worth a reasonable amount. In May we contacted our credit union, which has an auto-purchasing service (thank goodness, because we are lazy), and asked whether it would be possible to sell the minivan and use the proceeds to buy a smaller car. From the used car values we saw online, it seemed as though this could be a zero-cost transaction.

They said they would have no trouble selling the minivan, which was still worth a fair bit, even more than I’d expected—they shopped it around the state, found several dealers who wanted it, and had them bid for it. But their efforts to find us a used small car with good mileage were less successful. Everyone wanted cars like that, and the used market was almost nonexistent. The cars that they found had been driven to death and/or were priced nearly the same as new ones. They suggested that if we wanted to get a car in decent condition with good gas mileage, we’d be better off buying new, although they’d keep looking.

Oh, the places we go: The F Castro line streetcars, imported from Italy

I had no interest in buying a new car. We have learned in the past few years what happens to cars in San Francisco. The city is cruel to vehicles of all kinds. Multiple pieces of our minivan had been replaced when they were hit while it was parked. So we sat around and waited for updates.

Three weeks ago, we took the minivan in for an oil change. The shop noted that it was time for the 60,000 mile tune-up, which they estimated would cost $1,500 or so. We also received our insurance bill for the next six months, which was $600 (auto insurance in San Francisco is expensive). We were looking at spending over $2,000 to maintain a car that we drove maybe once a week, couldn’t park in our tiny space without flipping in the side mirrors just to get through the garage door, and didn’t even LIKE.

Oh, the places we go: The Children’s Playground at Sharon Meadow

At that point we began wondering it whether would make more sense to just sell it and use City CarShare and Muni until we found something we wanted to buy. The bus stop is 100 feet from our front door, the street car line is two blocks away, and there are three City CarShare pods within three blocks. We have bikes that we ride with our kids all the time. How bad could it be? We called the credit union and they said: sounds reasonable to us.

So two weeks ago we sent in the paperwork with the final mileage to sell the car. Last Friday, a dealer transporter showed up and drove it away on a truck. During these last two weeks, we began to wonder if we really wanted another car after all.

The first week was very hard, partly, I suspect, because the car was still sitting in the garage but we couldn’t drive it anywhere, having submitted the final mileage, the title and the registration. The kids knew it was going away and were confused that they couldn’t take a last ride. But that was the same week that I calculated what it was costing us to own a car that spent most of the time sitting in the garage, and it was sobering.

  • Insurance: $100/month
  • Gas: $50-$100/month (depending on business trips; the minivan had horrible mileage)
  • Maintenance and repairs: $100-$200/month
  • Depreciation: $200/month (given the price we paid on purchase and the price we were offered)

Oh, the places we go: my brother-in-law’s birthday dinner at StrEAT Food, south of Market

We bought the minivan for cash and so we never had interest payments, and by university policy, parking for one car is bundled into our rent. And yet an older, paid-off car that we drove only occasionally was costing us $400-$600 each month. That kind of money would pay for a lot of rental cars and taxi rides, more than I could imagine needing. And that was without even considering that we would walk away with a big windfall if we didn’t get another car.

After some discussion, we thought: well, it’s worth a shot. Even if we decide to get another car eventually, every month that we can put that off saves us ~$500, less whatever we spend on public transit, rental cars, and taxi rides. At a minimum, waiting a few months would fund a very nice family vacation.

And so here we are. With every day that passes the thought of getting another car seems less interesting. Despite some terrible bike karma in the last two weeks (broken bike, flat tires, you name it) everything is basically fine. We were planning to get another family bike anyway. We have found all kinds of cool new travel alternatives: car sharing, ride sharing, public and semi-public transit. All of them seem pretty appealing compared to buying a car that will sit unused in a garage most of the time. And even if we use them quite a lot (we haven’t), they are much, much cheaper than owning the car.

Oh, the places we go: Hayes Valley

There aren’t a lot of families who choose to go without a car if they can afford one, even in San Francisco. Most people insist it is impossible: Muni is unreliable at best, the hills are too intense for biking, taxi service is horrible, and car sharing services are too inconvenient or expensive. You hear the same stories, with different verses, when people talk about living without a car in suburban or rural areas: public transit is dreadful or nonexistent, riding bikes is too dangerous, everything is too far away, taxi service and car sharing are too expensive or too hard to find. Nearly everyone says families in America can’t survive without cars. Can they?

Oh, the places we go: “Look!” yells my daughter. “It’s my emergency room!”

A year ago, we were preparing for a trip to Copenhagen, a city we had no idea was full of bike commuters. If you had asked whether we could live without a car I would have said it was not possible. Not possible. How would we get our kids to school? How would we shop? It was hard enough with one car. What a difference a year makes.

How long will we last? Let’s find out.


Filed under car-free, family biking, San Francisco