Monthly Archives: August 2012

We tried it: Christiania and Nihola cargo tricycles

Over a year after our return from Copenhagen, we finally got to ride a Christiania.

I knew coming in to our cargo bike test rides that we weren’t going to be buying a tricycle. If there is one thing that is fairly certain, it is that trikes can’t handle steep hills. But we wanted to try all the cargo options, if only to get a basis for comparison. Also, we had really, really wanted to rent a Christiania while we were in Copenhagen and no bike shop we found would let us.

One kid plus a backpack does not test the capacity of the Nihola.

In Portland, however, it was easy to test-ride a trike, because Emily Finch offered us the chance to use their family’s Christiania when she learned we were coming to Portland. How sweet is that? She herself rides a Bakfiets, but her husband got the Christiania when he was new to riding. While we were at it, we rented a Nihola from Clever Cycles (Clever Cycles is amazing). Matt and I each rode one for a few miles from the shop to the Hawthorne shopping district for lunch, then we switched off and headed back.

This is about as far forward as you want the weight in the cargo box to go.

Tricycles have a reputation for being more stable than bikes among new riders, which is only half-true. Trikes are statically stable and dynamically unstable (whereas bikes are statically unstable and dynamically stable). When trikes are stopped they rest on three wheels, like a footstool with three legs. For this reason you’ll never see a trike with a kickstand. They have a single hand brake with a parking latch, and coaster brakes. When trikes are moving, however, they are unstable. They sway and shimmy. My father-in-law, who is a physics professor at UC Berkeley, explained this to me as partially a function of the third wheel. All wheels have inherent lateral instability from the centripetal force of their movement. Add a third wheel and you increase that instability by 50% (my summary of his explanation elides a lot but is much shorter).

This guy with no legs whizzed by us on a hand-powered delta trike. Impressive and depressing at the same time.

Whether you will like a trike depends on whether you expect to be stopped or moving most of the time. It also depends on a lot on how fast you want to ride. We found that the top speed of a loaded tricycle was only slightly faster than brisk walking (although it was much less effort). Given this pace, it was tiring to think about taking it for a ride longer than a mile or two.

I would rule out a tricycle if facing any hill steeper than a speed bump. This isn’t because they are poor climbers, although they are, in fact, terrible climbers. I radically redefined my definition of a hill while riding these trikes to: any incline whatsoever. More distressing was that even in the fairly flat environs of southeast Portland, while going down mild hills in the Christiania at maybe 5 miles/hour, I experienced shimmy for the first time. And it scared the crap out of me. A shimmying bike starts to tremble uncontrollably and stops responding to attempts to steer, swinging wildly across the road. Slowing down the trike helps, but good luck getting much braking power from coaster brakes and a single hand brake. The Nihola handled the hills better. I would say it was roughly comparable to a very heavy bike with bad brakes.

The Nihola on the move

On the flats, however, a trike offers a pleasant and meandering ride. If you’re not in much of a hurry, it can be quite pleasant to putter along. The trikes came with chainguards and fenders but not lights. You never have to get out of the saddle at stops, which is a nice break if you do a lot of stop-and-go riding. Riding posture is bolt upright. Trikes are heavy and can carry a lot of weight, and you don’t really feel that (unless you’re going uphill, in which case you TOTALLY feel it, it’s like dragging an anchor). In a place like Chicago or Copenhagen, I can imagine that a trike could be an appealing option. They can, however, be slow to start at intersections after a full stop. At Clever Cycles they advised that we stand up on the pedals and use our body weight to get them started, and this was good advice.

Both the Nihola and Christiania are tadpole tricycles with two wheels and a cargo box in the front rather than delta tricycles with two wheels in the back. Our kids liked the trikes and couldn’t wait to ride them, but they couldn’t climb into them by themselves. Our son could almost make it into the Christiania trike, but it nearly fell forward from his weight when he tried. This was an unexpected downside of the tricycle experience. We had assumed that trikes were always stable while parked, but they can actually fall forward. After that we lifted both kids in ourselves, placing them toward the back of the cargo box, which was between all three wheels.

The front view from the Nihola

Both the Christiania and Nihola have seats for two children. The Christiania box is wider, with more elbow room. Given our kids’ sizes it was like sharing a love seat and they liked having that space. The Nihola is narrower but has a clear front, which improves the view for riders. There is arguably room for two more kids sitting on the floor in front of the seat, although this would be a very tight squeeze in the Nihola, and would probably lead to kicking and screaming in either trike on a long ride (but no one would take a cargo tricycle on a long ride). Both trikes offer rain canopies with a lot of headroom for kids as well. Having the kids in front is awesome. We have never had such great rides with them as we have with them in front. We could always hear what they’re saying and they could always hear us.

As one might expect, tricycles also need enormous amounts of space when parked, and reversing them involves something like 35-point turns.

Both tricycles are very wide, and as a result we stayed off busy streets with narrow bike lanes or sharrows, opting instead to follow some of Portland’s excellent neighborhood greenways on our trip. No way would I want to ride either trike in city traffic.

Both the Christiania and Nihola have internally geared hubs rather than a derailleur. Weirdly, they both shifted with a significant time lag, although it was more delayed on the Nihola than the Christiania. So we would shift gears, and I don’t know, the trike would think about that for a while? And then several seconds later the gears would change. It was strange and made going up hills (riding a tricycle on a hill of any kind TOTALLY SUCKS) even more unpleasant.

Riding the Christiania in the bike lane means using the entire bike lane.

The steering on the Christiania is bizarre and yet fun. There is a bar across the back of the cargo box and you shove it away from the upcoming turn to corner the bike (push left to go right). It takes a little getting used to at first but is very responsive. It feels kind of liberating to swing the bar from side to side. Whee! The steering on the Nihola uses regular handlebars, which made me realize immediately why the Christiania used the leverage of a wide bar across the box. It was difficult to get the Nihola to turn at all. At one point I took a speed bump a little too fast, rolled away to one side, and couldn’t straighten the trike before ramming into the curb. (Hitting a curb with a wheel isn’t dangerous, but it was annoying.)

The Christiania offers a lot of elbow room.

Overall, the Christiania was bigger and easier to steer, while the Nihola was marginally better on hills and has a neat clear front and thus a better view. However if I were forced to get one, I would pick the Christiania over the Nihola, because I would never take either tricycle anywhere that wasn’t flat anyway. These are very nice tricycles, and I’m delighted we had the chance to try them. For better or for worse, however, we live in a place where they are completely inappropriate, and we are unlikely to ever ride one again.


Filed under cargo, family biking, reviews, travel

We tried it: Specialized Hardrock and a Burley Bee trailer

What’s this?

In our effort to try every cargo bike configuration we could get our hands on, we started out traditionally. While in Bellingham, we rented a mountain bike with a child trailer. My kids have ridden on many different cargo bikes now, plus a couple of bikes rigged as child haulers after the fact (Brompton with IT Chair, city bikes with child seats) but this was their first trip in an actual trailer, and my first time hauling them.

The Specialized Hardrock is a mountain bike. For the purpose of hauling a trailer around town, it was not everything I could have wished for: it had no kick stand, no chain guard, no fenders, no lights, and no bell. The brakes evoked a howling chorus of demons with their shrieking and the saddle was indistinguishable from an anvil.

The full rig

However, renters can’t be choosers and after riding the many gravel-strewn bike paths of Bellingham (which are BEAUTIFUL! Seriously, there is no reason to ever get in a car in Bellingham, it was amazing!) I came to appreciate the knobby tires and front suspension. The bike was very light, which made it an excellent climber, as well as easy to pick up when I had to drop it on the ground to stop riding because there was no tree or post to lean against. Also the pedals were okay, and the shifting was smooth.

While I have little basis for comparison, the Burley Bee, by comparison, seemed much better designed for our use. It helped that the shop had just replaced its rental trailer. Our ride was this particular Bee’s maiden voyage, and it was, as a result, spotless. Evidently the Bee is the entry-level Burley double trailer, but it seemed to have everything that we would want in a trailer, if we wanted a trailer, and I actually sort of do want one now.

Seemed cramped to me, but the kids had no problem with it.

My kids were fascinated by the Bee from the moment they saw it. Luckily my kids get along well so the fact that they were crammed in there pretty tightly was not a problem from their perspective until they’d been riding for almost three hours. During that time we took a few bakery, playground and farmers market breaks, plus multiple stops to put the cover on, take the cover off, put the cover on, take the cover off (they were yanking my chain). Anyway, by the end of the ride they were hitting each other and crying, but they lasted longer than I’d expected.

The pros of this setp:

  • A double trailer can fit two older kids (currently almost 7 years and 3.5 years) without too much squeezing. My son is older than the advised age range for trailers but skinny and tall.
  • It is very, very difficult to tip a trailer over and dump the kids on the ground. I did not manage to do it. Go me!
  • The kids adored the wind and rain screens, and could not stop talking about the potential of this particular rig to keep them from getting wet and cold in the winter. The trailer eliminated their primary concern about not having a car anymore. I thought that although the covers were tensioned with elastic rather than zippered they were well designed and quick to attach and remove. The design of the trailer itself was actually very clever, allowing me to add and remove the front covers without anything coming loose or flapping.
  • The Burley Bee has a junk drawer.

    The Burley Bee comes with a fairly large storage pocket behind the kids seats that can hold a couple of grocery bags, toys, garbage, souvenir rocks, jackets, etc. This was really handy and it appears to be waterproof.

  • There are storage pockets on one side of the kids to hold smaller items (but only on one side, which was a really bad design decision).
  • For quite a while my kids considered the ride an absolute blast, and entertained each other by singing songs and chatting.
  • The Burley trailer seemed quite well made, with strong seams and stiff fabric. Admittedly ours was brand new. The Bee trailer we were riding doesn’t offer a stroller-conversion option (this would never be needed for its purpose as a bike shop rental trailer) but some of the higher-end Burley models do.
  • It was simple to convert the trailer from carrying one kid to two kids. The belts allow two kids side by side, one kid on one side, or one kid in the center. Putting one kid to the side didn’t mess up the balance as far as I could tell.
  • This is the biggest hill we climbed in the trailer.

    Attached to a lightweight mountain bike, it was relatively easy to pull the fully-loaded (probably 120+ pounds counting trailer, kids and gear stuffed in the back pocket) trailer up a moderate hill—we went up a long slope connecting a multi-use path over the water back to city streets. The sign said it was a 10% grade, and the trip kicked my heart rate up but did not make me sweat.

The cons of this setup:

  • Attached to a lightweight mountain bike, it was at times terrifying going down hills with the trailer, especially on gravel. Once the weight of the trailer, which was pushing me, flung my bike back and forth like the end of a whip. I ended up aiming the bike toward a strong fence at the bottom to stop us—we slid up alongside where I grabbed it and almost toppled over. The kids cheered and asked to do it again because the trailer itself was very stable. However from my perspective this was a big downside. It might be less of an issue with a heavier bike, but I suspect in that case it would be much harder getting up hills.
  • There are pockets in the rear of the trailer compartment to fit helmets but they did not work well for either of my kids, who complained that their heads were pushed too far forward. If it were just my son, who is beyond the age/weight/size limit, I wouldn’t worry, but my daughter also complained, and she is in the appropriate age range. They also asked why they had to wear helmets given that they were in a trailer, when they don’t have to wear helmets in a pedi-cab. I didn’t have a good answer for that.
  • The kids are there but not all there, if that makes sense.

    It was not easy to talk with them while they were in the trailer. My kids are extremely chatty and I missed their conversation, although given that I was solo parenting there was also an element of relief to have some time when someone wasn’t saying, “Mommy! Mommy? MOMMY!” With a trailer you’re with your kids but not WITH your kids. It’s like having them in the next room.

  • The trailer turned like a semi, often caught on fence corners on the multi-use path, and parking it at normal bike racks when we stopped was a nightmare. Bike racks are currently designed for ordinary bikes and not cargo-anything, including trailers. Parking meters and signs are not any better. Even the narrowest double trailer is about 30” wide, and there are places that that just won’t fit.
  • Even though the Burley Bee was brand new, the fabric floor sagged somewhat when loaded. I suspect it would eventually catch on bumps. I have heard there are trailers with solid floors.
  • Eventually, kids crammed in a trailer will fight. At one point when we were with Family Ride in Seattle, her kids, who were in her trailer, began shrieking, “AAAAAAA! GET ME OUT NOW! AAAAAAA! GET ME OUT NOW! GET ME OUT NOW!” as we climbed up a hill. They were almost louder than passing cars, and it was difficult to extricate them on a busy street. I was riding her Big Dummy with only my daughter on board, so it was relatively easy to pop one kid out and drop him on the Dummy once we could pull over. But in a situation with only one adult it could have been very ugly. An experience like this can really make a person think hard about dropping a couple hundred dollars on a trailer, if that person is me.
  • “Stop. Please stop. I really don’t want to have to ask you again.”

    An older, taller kid like my son could reach forward with his feet while in the trailer and put them on the rear tire. This was a bad idea on several levels but it didn’t stop him. (It never does.)

  • The vast majority of the conversation with my kids consisted of their requests for me to stop and take the cover off, put the cover on, now just the wind screen but not the rain cover, now we want the rain cover, we want the covers off. Some of this was the novelty value and I’m sure it would wear off a little, but it got tiresome to keep stopping the bike.

So there are some downsides, particularly for our situation, which is admittedly atypical (we have no car, we live on the side of a mountain in a large city that has no neighborhood schools or school buses and thus we face a long commute with kids, etc.) And yet the trailer has some appeal. Mostly I see its value for traveling.

There are some downsides, but this setup is probably a lot cheaper and more versatile than a triple tandem with S&S couplers.

It is extremely hard to travel with a cargo bike. They aren’t allowed on trains, they often don’t fit on cars, and planes are out of the question. Trailers can usually be collapsed into a travel-friendly package. Most of the places we travel, like my mom’s, are places my kids could ride by themselves, except that it’s virtually impossible to rent kids’ bikes. Believe me, we have asked. With the Brompton and a trailer we could travel and not have to worry as much about renting a car or getting rides.

I can also see the value of a trailer for days that my kids would otherwise object to riding somewhere, particularly cold and rainy days. I would want to think hard about the routes we might take with a trailer, given the pounding it gave my rental bike going downhill, but with a heavier bike it could work very well for foul weather. And having the extra cargo capacity could be extremely useful.

Hey mountain bike, I haven’t forgotten that you made me look even more like a dork than usual.

So at this point I am seriously considering keeping an eye out for a used trailer. I can’t imagine it would be worth buying one new for the kinds of uses we’re considering. However if we could find one for the price of a week’s rental in Bellingham, I suspect it would be worth having around.


Filed under family biking, reviews, travel

Homesick for the north, homesick for the south

Our first trailer ride

From Bellingham to Seattle to Portland: we have arrived, and so excited to see daddy again. I haven’t had much chance to update while gamboling around the Pacific Northwest mostly solo with two kids, but I’ve also been constrained by the constant barrage of fun. I grew up in Seattle and Bellingham and I was overwhelmed by homesickness. They are both really good places to ride bikes with kids.

So eight family bikers lock up together…

We stayed with my mom and rented a bike and trailer (the kids loved their first trailer ride). Then we stayed with the always awesome Family Ride and rode a Madsen, her pink Big Dummy, and a MinUte. We went to a Seattle Summer Streets and got to see Jen of Loop-Frame Love again. At the Seattle Cargo Bike Road Call my kids rode in a Cetma cargo bike and a Bakfiets and got chauffeured by Davey Oil around Gas Works Park in an amazing electric-assist trike. My son got to ride a handful of kids’ bikes and learned how to shift gears! Then we took an Amtrak ride south from Seattle to Portland. It is a good way to travel with kids, especially given that they seated us near the bathroom, which made it easy to clean up various spills.

Barbecue in Portland

Matt, although he is a committed Californian, loves Portland. He arrived before we did and went grocery shopping for us. Seeing the rib joint nearby, with its “Try our new vegetarian fare!” sign was almost enough by itself to convince him Portland should be our new home. We have seen many, many family bikes, mostly of the traditional variety with child seats and trailers, but I’ve always liked child seats on bikes. I’m coming around to trailers as well, at least in flat cities with limited car traffic.

My kids were the ones chanting “Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak!” in car #9 for most of the ride down from Seattle. I apologize.

We’ll be here for a week trying out even more cargo bikes, not to mention cargo trikes. The kids are so excited to see their dad again after a week away that I might even have some time to write about all that’s happened (and to answer a bunch of questions I’ve been asked in the comments).  In the meantime I hope everyone else is having a week just as awesome.

And I almost forgot: I just found out that San Francisco will be holding its first Kidical Mass on September 28th! Thanks so much, MizShan! The ride will meet at 6pm at the fountain at the southeast corner of Justin Hermann Plaza and head to Dolores Park. We will be there!


Filed under family biking, San Francisco, travel

Uphill, downhill: the limits of cargo bikes

This what hills in Bellingham look like. A 10% grade according to the signs, not too bad, especially given the killer views.

I complain a lot about going up San Francisco hills. What can I say? It often sucks. Something I’ve only mentioned in passing, but that we think about quite a lot nonetheless, is going downhill. While going uphill is literally a pain in the legs (and chest, when gasping for air) it is not as dangerous as going downhill can be.

We carry our kids on our bikes, and we go down steep hills regularly. We learned quickly that loaded cargo bikes (and trailers) need extra time and distance to stop when going downhill. It can be deeply disconcerting to brake and brake and brake, and only slowly drift to a stop. At first there were occasions that we overshot the lines at stop signs and red lights, and we are cautious riders. At times we take less steep routes on the way down than we do on the way up. We learned good braking habits very quickly and have internalized them to the point that I often forget to mention them.

Although we are scrupulous about maintaining our brakes, they occasionally fail. We replace pads on the bikes with caliper brakes on a schedule that raises eyebrows among people from outside San Francisco—roughly once a month—and that meets with knowing sighs among friends who ride in the city. The stock disc brakes on the Kona MinUte failed repeatedly and were on an every-other-week maintenance schedule until our local bike shop finally lost patience, called Kona, and asked for a credit to upgrade us to hydraulic brakes. And they got us one, which made the upgrade expensive rather than wildly expensive. The new brakes are amazing, with unbelievable stopping power, and the MinUte now only needs a brake adjustment every other month. We never, ever skip this maintenance.

The other problem that can crop up going downhill, which mercifully we have never experienced, is shimmy, aka death wobble. This is when the bike starts shaking uncontrollably and violently while going down hills, and is the kind of thing that typically only road racers experience, because it usually happens at high speeds. But some bikes can also shimmy at lower speeds, say, the kind of speed that a loaded cargo bike would approach while rolling down a steep hill. Having a top tube apparently provides stability that helps reduce the risk of shimmy, which is why I’ve been encouraged to abandon step-through frames. Better brakes help too. But the risk can only be reduced, not eliminated.

As annoying as all of this can be, we have gotten used to it. However these issues arose again when we started calling around asking about family bikes we could test ride, and why there were so few electric assist cargo bikes designed to handle steep hills in the US. There aren’t many electric assist cargo bikes anyway. When you start asking about taking them up mountains, or adding an electric assist to a bike like a Bakfiets, bike shops often get very quiet. A few shops claimed that electric assists were only designed for mild hills and to go longer distances, not to haul heavy loads up steep hills. This is clearly not true, as there are electric assist cargo bikes all over Europe designed for hills: e.g. an assisted Workcycles FR8, an iBullitt, and according to the German bakery we visited in Bellingham, every delivery bike used in Germany. The whole situation was starting to tick me off. I could get strong enough to haul my kids on long distance rides (and I have). I cannot get strong enough to haul my kids up truly steep hills as they get heavier, and even if I wanted to, putting them on the back of the bike on a steep hill has sometimes led to the front wheel lifting off the ground. They’re not strong enough to ride uphill themselves, and there’s too much traffic for them to be safe even if they could. People who want to ride an extra couple of miles don’t need an electric assist like people who live on the top of steep hills do. WTF, bike manufacturers?

I give Portland family bike shops (and a couple of San Francisco bike shops, Everybody Bikes and The New Wheel) credit here because when I asked this they gave me honest answers. It is, evidently, not a huge problem to put an electric assist on a bike to get it up a steep hill. It can, however, be a huge problem getting the bike+cargo back down that same hill safely. We rolled our eyes a little when we heard that because we’re already going down those kinds of hills fully loaded, so no new news here. But manufacturers are apparently concerned about the limits of bicycle brakes going downhill. The brakes on many cargo bikes are not up to the task; as proof, there’s our experience with the MinUte.

Evidently manufacturers are also concerned about the liability they’d face if someone who wasn’t attuned to these problems had the worst happen going downhill on an assisted cargo bike. Personally I think that’s a copout. I know parents who’ve been pulled or pushed down hills by trailers, who’ve broken spokes or had rear wheels taco or screwed up frames and gearing carrying kids up and down steep hills (cough cough… me). They don’t sue the bike or trailer or wheel manufacturers. They start looking for a better cargo bike. But there are currently very few better bikes, at least in the US, and the ones that do exist have appeared in the last year or two. So most parents in our situation have either kludged something together or started driving.

A Big Dummy in Bellingham: it is no accident that you can spot this bike all over in hilly cities

At any rate, although we’ll be trying out a lot of family bikes over the next couple of weeks, we have been told in advance that many of them aren’t going to work for us. Xtracycle and assist a commuter bike? Wobbles and fishtails when loaded on steep hills. Bakfiets and trikes? The brakes can’t handle steep downhills and can’t be upgraded, and the bikes themselves are so heavy that better brakes might not work effectively even if they could be added. And so forth. Although we’ll be riding lots of bikes for our own edification, the list of plausible candidates that we could take home to the hills of San Francisco is actually very short, at least for now. I don’t like this, but I have to live with it.


Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, Uncategorized

We are having fun yet

Hey! Hi! Howzitgoin?

Recumbent with cargo trailer and a Burley tandem. Love it!

We are on the first leg of our Pacific Northwest tour, which comes with limited bike riding. But there have been walks on the beach and farmers market visits and many interesting bikes sighted. We’ve seen child trailers galore (this is the right kind of town for them—limited traffic, wide bike lanes), a Bullitt with a plastic crate to haul a kid strapped on, trailer-bikes, recumbent bikes, and mountain and commuter bikes galore. Kids ride their own bikes a lot, even at very young ages. It’s not a big deal given that they don’t have to contend with city traffic or monster hills.

“I’ll pretend to cry, okay?”

We have been chauffeured by my mom in her car, mostly, given that we are here without bikes. But in an effort to experience the authentic traditions of family biking in these United States, we are scheduled to rent a bike with a child trailer. Okay, granted, a trailer is the only option available for a family bike ride in this town. Still it seems only fair to try riding the ways most families do in this country, so we have a basis for comparison.

The junior scientists will investigate this trailer thing.

I’ll be honest: my kids are nonplussed by this idea. They view trailers with a combination of fascinated disbelief and confused longing. They viewed the child care room at our gym the same way. Having never spent any time there (I only work out during my lunch hour at work, figuring that I spend enough time away from my kids when I’m being paid for it—I have no desire to ditch them during my free time), they viewed it as a destination of mysterious wonders. So one day we dropped them off at the Ikea kids’ playspace when we were visiting Berkeley so they could try out the whole drop-in child care experience. It is fair to say that when we returned the bloom was off the rose.

And we’re off!

My kids like climbing in bike trailers when we’re visiting a store that has some. They get along pretty well most of the time so I’m not too worried about their squeezing into a tight space for a short-term rental. But I’m curious what they’ll think of a trailer compared to bike seats. There’s no question that trailers are the most common child-carrying option for bicycles in the United States. I guess it’s a measure of our distance from the mainstream that even by the standards of outrageous family weirdness and deprivation—we have no car!—we are bizarre by the standards of families who bike everywhere. Our kids have never ridden in a bike trailer. Yet! But soon.

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Filed under family biking, travel

North by northwest

Playing on the beach is on the agenda.

Tomorrow we are headed north to the Pacific Northwest. And by “we” I mean me and the kids, because my husband is going to China again (something to look forward to: even more bicycles in Beijing!) Whenever I can manage it, I like to visit my mom while he is away, because it keeps the adult: child ratio at 1:1, and because the kids always have a blast at her place. You’re the best, mom!

We had such a good time visiting Family Ride last time we were at my mom’s that we planned a stop in Seattle. Luckily for us, she was already planning a Cargo Bike Roll Call for August 11th, and so now we can attend—our first ever.

Although this is impressive, it is actually the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid.

And from there, we are going down to Portland to meet Matt after he flies back from China. When I was advised to stop using the Breezer as a kid-hauler, we had a bit of a mental kerfuffle about how to find a new cargo bike. We eventually decided that when Matt returned from China, we would all meet up in Portland, which has not one, not two, but THREE family bike shops that allow the kind of hard-core test riding that we want to do before making a decision. What’s more, after I went to Portland last spring and came back bouncing off the ceiling Matt decided he wanted to visit too. It’s arguably a waste of his frequent flyer miles, which could take us somewhere more exotic, but not changing time zones will be a relief.

The Brompton + IT Chair is a great short-hauler with an almost 2nd grader (but longer trips are a bit much).

Portland in August does not lack for cargo biking adventure. There will be a Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call when we’re in town on August 16th, and a Kidical Mass ride on August 18th. We’ll have just enough time to squeeze both in before heading home for the start of the new school year. We’ve packed our helmets and made our rental reservations. Excitement among the small is at explosive levels.

Updates here are likely to be sporadic at best over the next two weeks. But on our return, I will write up our impressions of the half-dozen or so cargo bikes we plan to ride. See you on the other side!


Filed under bike shops, family biking, travel

The costs of living without a car

In brief: they are significantly less than living with one.

We don’t even need to park the bike at our son’s summer camp. Matt just rides into the middle of the field to pick him up. The other kids were so jealous.

I wrote earlier about the monthly costs of keeping our minivan ($400-$600/month), but I realized I forgot one expense: parking. Parking for one car is included in our rent at home, and although the market value of that space is ~$250/month, we’re not allowed to rent it if we don’t use it so it’s a wash. But whenever we drove the minivan anywhere else, we almost always had to pay to park. Our weekday driving primarily came when Matt drove to work because he was going out of the city for business. However, even though he’s not normally a car commuter, if he stopped at the office before or after, paying for parking was his responsibility. Because hey, it was just his normal commute, right? The same was true for me. The cost of parking where we work is $15-$20 per day. It worked out to between $50-$100 per month, conservatively. Plus on the weekends we had to feed meters. So the cost of owning the car was really somewhere between $450-$700/month, depending on how much we drove. It shocks me just writing those numbers. And we owned the minivan outright, so no car payments in that calculation. (If you ignore depreciation and only count actual out-of-pocket expenses it was still $250-$500/month.)

A portion of our newfound savings, admittedly, went to a new helmet.

This is still better than when we were car commuting and paying $140/month for a campus parking permit on top of the occasional downtown parking. My god, that car was expensive! No wonder Uber is making a killing in San Francisco. I could take daily limo rides without running up a $600-$850 monthly tab (or $400-$650 ignoring depreciation again).

Anyway, now that Matt has to rent a car for his business trips, the company pays for parking the rental car at the office, because he obviously wouldn’t be driving a rental car on his regular commute. Ha. Ha ha.

My son, passed out on my lap on Muni. (The Brompton continues to reign supreme in practicality; there was only space on the bus bike rack for one more bike–my son’s.)

In this first car-free month I was curious how much alternative transportation would cost us. It was a weird month. Matt had a series of meetings in the South Bay, so got a rental car for one week through work. By coincidence that was the same week that his mother went in for brain surgery in Redwood City, so there was a lot of extra driving to see her on top of those meetings. And we took a long BART ride one weekend to visit her in Berkeley after she went home. What can I say? We worry. We had planned to rent a car (and will next time we go; the round trip on BART is 4+ hours) but the San Francisco Marathon shut down the city. The MinUte went back to the bike shop while the N-Judah line was under construction, so we tried out ride sharing one weekend. And our son had a week of bike camp across town when Matt was away, which given the need to carry his bike implied a couple of trips using car share as well–we tried it once on Muni but (a) it’s so slow that we were late and the camp called us wondering where he was and (b) he was exhausted all day after riding over from the bus stop. And then the mamachari died.

Coming out of the tunnel on BART

I realize that every month is unique in its own way, but ironically, we drove more in July without a car than in any of the previous three months when we actually owned one. However no one else we know has brain surgery plans and the N-Judah is back in business, so this was probably an expensive month by the standards of car-free life, although having our bike collection radically thinned isn’t helping. Overall I hope that the next few months are much less exciting regardless of cost. (Matt’s mom is fine, by the way, although her surgery would have been better timed around Halloween, when she could have gotten some serious mileage out of the staples ringing her scalp. Oh well, hindsight.)

So our transportation costs for the month (rounded up to whole numbers):

  • fares for extra Muni and BART rides: $44
  • City CarShare rentals, meter parking, and Lyft ride: $48
  • maintenance on the Kona MinUte (bent derailleur repair): $24
  • rental car through work (including parking): $0 for us!

The total damage (for a very heavy month of auto  travel by our  standards even without the rental car through work): $116. Seriously? And we actually drove more than usual? Well hello, college savings. Even if we didn’t own bikes and took car share, ride share and Muni everywhere, we’d still save money by not owning a car. I am still sideswiped by disbelief. No pun intended.


Filed under car-free, commuting, San Francisco