Monthly Archives: October 2012

Bicycles in Bellingham

August in Bellingham

We visited Bellingham, Washington, where I grew up, last August. It has changed dramatically since my childhood. I think it is at least twice as large as it used to be, just for starters. Although there was always a university there in my memory, it has grown larger too—what used to be gravel parking lots for commuter students have been taken over by campus buildings, and the student population now lives there year round.

The German bakery in Bellingham used this bike for deliveries. They imported it from Germany, where postal workers use them.

I rode my bike as a child in Bellingham, often for transportation, and as in many small towns at the time, this wasn’t considered unusual.  Our parents didn’t consider driving us around to be part of their responsibilities, and the city buses were irregular, so it was ride or walk, and we did both. This was well before the time that kids were supposed to wear helmets, so none of us ever did. We also didn’t lock our bikes, because there wasn’t any bike theft. And I never had lights on my bike either, because there was a curfew and kids weren’t allowed out after dark.

This lone wolf was riding in the bike lanes.

When we rented bikes in Bellingham last summer I could not believe how much had changed. I rode on streets as a child because that was what was available, and the streets were mostly quiet. On larger and busier streets that connected neighborhoods, there were bike lanes. I rode on those too.

The greenway markers tell you how to get from here to there.

Now there is no need for many of those bike lanes, because in the time I have been away, the city of Bellingham has built greenways that are completely separated from the streets. Even though they don’t cover the whole city, they go almost everywhere I wanted to be. The city has a fair number of hills, but none of them are very steep, and the extensive infrastructure meant that bike commuters were visible everywhere.

Bicycles and pedestrians only on this shopping plaza, which also hosts a farmers market

Riding the greenways, and the quiet streets, I realized that people in Bellingham have no reason whatsoever to own a car (although almost all of them do). There are paths and bike lanes to take people nearly everywhere in the main part of town with minimal exposure to cars. There is always bike parking at your destination.  Most of the interesting places to shop and visit are on dedicated pedestrian plazas—cars no, bike corrals yes. Admittedly many stores are a few blocks from the greenways, and it’s often necessary to ride on streets briefly, and of course my perspective on what constitutes serious traffic may be somewhat skewed. It still impressed me.

The bike shop on the greenway

What interested me most was how many stores, restaurants and housing developments were oriented toward the bicycle and pedestrian greenways instead of the streets where cars were allowed. As we rode closer to downtown, parallel to streets we had driven on earlier in the week, I realized that what I had thought were abandoned buildings or warehouses were instead a community bike shop, a strip of small restaurants and bars, and a bakery. Opposite them were condo buildings that opened onto the greenway from walking plazas.

This the return route from downtown; the bay is to the right.

Bellingham does not lack for natural beauty. It runs in a narrow strip between the water and the mountains. The greenways run along the water and through woods, and the buildings that pop up along the trail seem tucked into a world without roads. Even in terrible weather (and the weather was often terrible during our stay, either hot and muggy or cold and raining) riding those greenways felt like stepping into the Shire.

This part of the city can only be seen from the bike path.

Riding in Bellingham felt very bucolic, although it’s not perfect. From a car, it seems like many other small cities, even though there are a lot of bikes on the roads. There are strip malls and wide roads with speeding cars, and far too many crosswalks with lights too short to allow anyone to get across without sprinting. Yet when we got on the rental bikes I realized that there was a smaller second city built in parallel, inaccessible to cars and human-scaled. I have always visited Bellingham because my mom lives there, and had little other interest in the city. But now I have another reason to visit. I want to figure out how to export their infrastructure back to San Francisco.


Filed under commuting, travel

When car horns make a joyful noise

Spotted in the Financial District: this is probably the Bullitt we should have gotten.

My son was four years old when the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series. It was nothing that we had expected; at the time, their last World Series win had been in 1954. We like baseball as much as the next red-blooded American, but hadn’t given it a lot of attention except as a reason to take our son to the stadium on summer afternoons.

Everything changed that night in 2010. When the Giants won the Series, the city exploded. In San Francisco, a team of outcasts and misfits winning the World Series felt like more than a sports title. People swarmed out into the streets even up where we live. There were fireworks and car horns blasting all night.

Our son is almost seven now, old enough to watch the 2012 series and understand what was happening. Tearing him away from the games to eat dinner led to tantrums.

Last night as I was putting my daughter to bed, the fireworks and screaming began again. It didn’t wake her. But we knew the Giants had won the World Series again. I’m not usually a fan of car horns, but I didn’t mind them blasting last night. Our son will be a Giants fan forever.

So many ways to use a cargo bike

The Bullitt has been sporting a black balloon all weekend.  It may not come equipped with a celebratory horn, but it’s still fun. Last week I had to drop it off and travel on. So I stuck the Brompton in the box for the transition. Bike on bike: hotness!


Filed under Bullitt, San Francisco

Bicycles in São Paulo

Last month Matt went to São Paulo, Brazil. He always asks what he should bring back from these overseas trips, and I always say “pictures of bicycles.” (The kids ask for chocolate and foreign currency.) São Paulo is the largest city in Brazil and the 7th largest city in the world, home to 11 million people. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “The city, which is also colloquially known as “Sampa” or “Cidade da Garoa” (city of drizzle), is also known for its unreliable weather, the size of its helicopter fleet, its architecture, gastronomy, severe traffic congestion, and multitude of skyscrapers.”

The view of the street from everywhere in the city

Here’s what Matt wrote on arrival: “São Paulo is an extremely pedestrian (and bike) unfriendly place, with crushingly bad traffic at all hours as a result.  The joke running around the conference this morning was, ‘What time’s your flight? 9 pm?! Then, you’d better leave for the airport now!’ It’s so bad, even my dinky second tier business hotel has a helipad on the roof (and I could see a half dozen on other nearby rooftops).  It’s clearly a motor vehicle culture.

On my 40 minute rush hour walk, I passed 4 or 5 giant auto tire and rim shops, a deluxe two story Ducati dealership, several motor bike accessory stores, miles of tail lights, and exactly two moving bicycles… both commuters in work apparel with helmets riding on the sidewalk for safety.

Hope you weren’t planning a long ride.

I have not seen a single bike lane yet, though I’m told one exists on Ave Paulista, the main financial street.

Lots of lane splitting motorbikes everywhere, though, often riding their horns constantly.  Our bus driver remarked that one or two are killed every day!”

Here’s a bike lane he found later.

Ha ha ha ha! Yeah, it’s not funny. I’m laughing just to keep from crying here.

I have commented that I don’t feel particularly threatened by San Francisco car traffic. I wouldn’t feel so sanguine about riding a bike everywhere. After seeing Matt’s photos I can’t imagine riding a bike for transportation in São Paulo.

These bike share bikes would be perfect for commuting, but they never leave the city park.

However there are bicycles there. But like many parts of the United States, they’re apparently viewed exclusively as toys. People drive to the park, where they can rent bicycles. That’s because São Paulo, unlike U.S. cities, has had a bike share program since 2009. I’m torn between envy and despair–it’s a city with bike share, but there isn’t the slightest practical application for it.

Now that’s my kind of bike.

Here’s Matt, after finally finding someplace in a city of 11 million people where he actually wanted to spend some time. “I spent today in Ibirapuera, the Golden Gate Park of São Paulo. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and people were out in droves, jogging, biking, skating, etc.”  If you build it, they will come.

Beggars can’t be choosers seems to be the philosophy here.

Just like Golden Gate Park, there’s also this weird phenomenon where the city has built separated bike lanes where they’re least needed and that don’t go anywhere interesting. “In addition to separated bike lanes on the main walking paths, there was one area that seemed to be a bike only circuit path — not long enough for a ride but one father was teaching his young son to ride on it.” Like the parents of São Paulo, I like taking my kids to practice on trails like these, but how depressing it must be for the children there to learn to ride a bike only to discover they can’t go anywhere.

Some bike lanes are just another way to say, “Go away.”

There were a few other places with a little bit of bicycle infrastructure, but I get the sense it would be fair to call it ad hoc. “This ‘bike lane’ was in a pedestrian plaza — probably more to keep bikes away from peds than anything.  Even on a Sunday with lighter traffic, there were very few bikes in evidence on actual streets… A few on sidewalks, again (including one who was trying to pedal through a crowded market with shopping bags dangling from the handlebars).”

A view from the helipad

A view from Matt’s hotel’s helipad tells the story: this is a city that hasn’t thought much about transportation. Seriously thinking about transportation in a major city makes it apparent that a car-centric model is unsustainable. You can see that in São Paulo in the flight to helicopter commuting. But this is hardly more sustainable. Transportation planners tend to take trips to cities with a reputation for doing things right, like Amsterdam or Paris (which has removed tens of thousands of parking places in the last few years to make room for bike lanes). I’m sure that this is more appealing than visiting cities like São Paulo, where no one can go anywhere. But I suspect there would be a lot to learn nonetheless.

Riding our bikes to school started us down this road.

Transportation interests me because it is a necessary thing, like eating or sleeping. Except in the most extreme cases (like among the comatose), we all have to move around the world. For years I accepted that this experience would be tolerable at best. We would get in the car and drive, dealing with traffic and parking and road rage, because that was just the price of living. Sure, it could be nice to be out of the weather sometimes, but we still had to deal with that same weather once we got out of the car. And we paid several hundred dollars each month for this experience because we thought we had to.

I’m late to this party, but happy to be here now.

It is no overstatement to say that discovering that there was another way to move through the world changed our lives. I get on the bike and the trip is… fun! When I walk into work I’m not tired. I love our bikes. I can’t imagine going back.


Filed under commuting, traffic

Car-free role models

My son’s 2nd grade teacher rounds up the class.

I’ve liked all of my son’s teachers in elementary school. His kindergarten teacher taught reading so well that most of the class was above grade-level at the end of the year. The legacy of that is still visible in my son, who is currently obsessed with reading three books at a time and can only be dragged away for mealtimes when we literally pull them from his hands. His first grade teacher, who grew up in Japan and only moved to the US a few years ago, amused her class endlessly by having them correct her English spelling and grammar (which was difficult, as it is nearly perfect). But the most interesting teacher so far is his second grade teacher.

At Rosa Parks teachers make classroom assignments, and they accept parental requests. When my son finished first grade, our son asked for the first time that we request a particular teacher; he wanted the woman, not the man. When we talked to his first grade teacher, she was unconvinced, and so despite his request we left his placement to her judgment. Our son was disappointed in August to learn that he’d gotten his first male teacher. At the time, he knew his current teacher only as a large figure with a loud voice; he seemed scary. That impression lasted about an hour on the first day of school this year.

“We have that same taillight on our bikes!” says a girl in the class.

My son’s teacher is, in fact, a big guy with a booming voice, and he does not take an iota of crap from any of his students. He is also, to their delight, goofy. He wears sarongs and pink glitter nail polish and plays guitar in class. He reads them books way beyond their grade level and his default assumption is that they are capable and independent. The kids adore him. And although he commutes from Berkeley every day, he (along with his wife and daughter) is car-free. He takes BART across the bay and rides his bike from the station to school. He is by no means the only bike commuter at the school. However it means a lot to my son that his beloved teacher, like us, does not own a car. It makes him feel cutting-edge instead of deprived.

When people visiting from out of town see my son’s teacher for the first time they are intimidated by his size. Within a few minutes, when they start noticing details like the nail polish, and the way kids crowd around him, they grow envious. Is this what sending kids to school in San Francisco means, they ask, that your kids get teachers like this. And I suppose it does. I know that growing up in a small town I never had a teacher half as cool.

Living in San Francisco has other perks. “Guess where he’s from?” asked one parent early in the year. “The United States,” said another. “No, he’s not,” said the first. “Well, he’s from Texas,” said a third. “Exactly!” said the first.

Welcome to the real America.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, San Francisco

Getting used to life with a real cargo bike

Heading for the Presidio on the party bike

We’ve had the Bullitt for a week now. Riding an assisted Bullitt in Portland was mostly effortless. Riding an assisted Bullitt in San Francisco is not effortless. I’ve now got two kids and cargo on my bike most of the time and on serious hills, even with a boost from the BionX it’s: “Oh hello, lactic acid.” In San Francisco, riding a loaded, assisted cargo bike on steep hills is the parental equivalent of training for the Olympics, difficult but gratifying. I’m not yet up to carrying this kind of load every day. However with Matt at home for a month or so, I have time to build up strength by switching out to an alternate bike sometimes with just one kid on board. But it sure is fun on the days that we do take the Bullitt. And on the flats we are so freaking fast.

We had an unexpected chance to race a car this weekend. Matt’s parents came to meet us for dim sum, then wanted to go shopping with us in the Presidio, then came home to play with the kids. They drove over from Berkeley. We met them at the restaurant; they arrived late because although miraculously they found parking immediately, they had to walk over from their car. When we left the Outer Richmond, we headed off separately to the Presidio. Ultimately we leapfrogged with them through light Sunday traffic. We all got lost thanks to the road construction, but ended up turning into the parking lot at the exact same time. Then we split up and headed home. I assumed they’d get there first because we had to climb both the Presidio hill and Mt. Sutro, but once again, we arrived simultaneously. On a weekday (or a busier weekend), with more traffic on the streets, we would have beaten them handily.

I’m still not used to the attention that we get on the Bullitt. After several rounds of my son singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” I caved and bought a speaker that works with my phone. So now I am whizzing around the city with two kids on board who are blasting TMBG’s “Alphabet of Nations” and dancing along in the box. We are a traveling party-bike. Passing drivers stare so long that they drift out of their lanes as they go by. We hear groans of envy from parents pushing heavy strollers up San Francisco hills. Little kids chase our bike. It is a blast, but disconcerting. “AWESOME BIKE!” is what we hear most often. “Wow, all of us could fit in that bike,” is an occasional addition from groups of people waiting at bus stops.

Because the Bullitt is such a slim cargo bike, it still slips through narrow bike lanes and alongside traffic pinch points. When I am riding it, it is the best of all possible worlds. It carries as much as a car and travels at least as fast, but can speed past stopped traffic and park in an ordinary bike rack by the front door of any destination. It eats up the hills. Next week, I am taking this bike to Costco. (The San Francisco Costco is unlike its suburban siblings; it is a three-story parking garage occupying an entire city block, and the store itself is located in the center of the second floor, and thus it gets a fair amount of bike traffic.)

Running for the Bullitt

I expected that the Bullitt would substitute for trips that we normally took using City Carshare. Historically that’s meant shopping trips on the far side of a big hill or two that we couldn’t manage with two kids and cargo simultaneously, or trips out of the city. Realistically, we could have used City Carshare for all of the trips that the Bullitt is now handling indefinitely. Our occasional car rentals are usually pretty cheap, maybe $6-$20 per trip depending on length, and even at a once a week pace, it would be a very long time before the bike paid for itself using offsets from car share rentals. But the bike is more convenient. We no longer have to worry about when we go someplace; we’re not going to get stuck in traffic and we won’t have to circle to find parking. And it is so much fun to ride! One week in, when given the choice between City Carshare and the Bullitt, we all run to the bike.


Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Don’t you worry that it’s not safe to ride a bike with your kids?

Not trying to kill each other

Before we had our son, people tried to explain what it was like to have kids. It was impossible. They said it was like having your heart walking around outside your body. It’s not like that for me.

When I think about my children, I think about falling in love. You fall in love, and everything is passion. It’s like being cast in your own personal opera. Everything your beloved does is beautiful. Every fight is world-ending. It seems like the feeling will never end. But it does end. You get used to one another, and life fades into normalcy. You fight about the dishes and the world doesn’t stop turning. You settle down.

My son has ridden the Golden Gate Park carrousel since he was a year old.

When my son was born I fell in love the moment I first saw him. A minute before we’d been told he was dying. My daughter’s birth was the same thing all over again. I have two children because I couldn’t stop with just one. I have two children because that’s as much as I could bear. And for me, what’s different about loving my children is that I’ve never gotten used to them. It’s still passion. Everything they do is beautiful. Every fight makes me want to kill them.

Exploring the living maze at the Bay Area Discovery Museum

They insist that I sleep with them, and I’m worrying about that paper that absolutely must be finished tonight, and I try to get up and get back to the computer and they grab my hands and their palms are sweating. “I love you infinity, Mommy!” they whisper urgently.  “Don’t go!” And I stay.

I am across the room and they are fighting and I see where it is going but before I can get to them one is bleeding and the other is shrieking, “I didn’t do it!” and the world goes black, in that moment I am literally blinded by terror and rage.

It’s been almost seven years now. I haven’t gotten used to it. How could I? Every day they are different people. Every day I fall in love with them again. My heart isn’t walking around outside my body. My heart is right here in my chest, clenched tight as a fist.

Rest assured that my daughter was trying to jump off something when this picture was taken.

Do I worry about my kids? Sure. My daughter, who has never seen a vertical surface she didn’t want to scale and jump off, has been to the emergency department so many times that I have seriously considered making her one of those flip charts like they have at nuclear power plants: “It’s been X days without an accident!” (Fun fact: Matt and I took a tour of a nuclear power plant together, the first month we met.) Make it ten days in a row and you can have an ice cream cone, kiddo. Every photo taken of her at preschool is in motion. My son’s innate cautiousness used to worry me as well. I should be careful what I wish for.

Learning from his sister, my son locked himself inside the delivery box of a Bullitt.

Do I worry that it’s not safe to ride a bike with my kids? Well, there have been moments, but not really. There are always moments, on or off the bike. When I walked down the street with my son as a toddler he was fascinated with everything. He would run into the street when he saw something exciting—letters on a sewer plate, a shiny bottle cap. (Why are streets so dangerous that kids can’t make mistakes? Only drivers get to make mistakes?) I remember driving in a rental car on a suburban strip when my daughter figured out how to open her door, and so she did, right into traffic as we were moving and we screamed, and she screamed because we were screaming, and we tried to move over to the side of the road and get the damned door shut, and then we sat there in the stopped car, panting, wondering if we’d ever drive again.

Sitting in fire trucks is fun, but my kids have little interest in ordinary cars.

I don’t feel particularly threatened by city traffic on our bikes. People fear riding bikes because it’s unfamiliar, not because they’ve reviewed the evidence. Taken as a whole, public health research makes a strong argument for getting out of the car by any means necessary. And we are enjoying the ride. I don’t snap in frustration at my kids as I circle the streets endlessly, praying my son won’t get a tardy slip today because it’s street cleaning day and there is nowhere to park the damned car, there’s never parking in the city. I don’t get stuck in traffic and rack up late pickup fees as my daughter wonders why today she’s the very last one to be picked up at preschool. I don’t have to decompress from a stressful commute when we get home.

Can we take the Bullitt?

“Did you see that?” they ask me when we ride. Did you see that squirrel, did you see that dog, did you see the moon? Will you pick up that leaf for me? Will you carry my rock? Can we stop at the bakery, can we stop at the playground, can we stop at the library? Can we go to the beach? They have a new sense of direction. They know where we are. They ask: can we take 6th Avenue instead of 9th Avenue?  Can we go past the Japanese Tea Garden instead of along JFK Drive? And now I say: yes. Yes, I see it. Yes, I will. Yes, of course we can.


Filed under family biking, San Francisco

More money, less garbage

Our vision through the windshield: impaired

We sold our car about four months ago. Since then I have noticed two major changes in our lives. First, we have more money at the end of every month, which makes sense to me. Second, we now generate less weekly garbage, which I still don’t understand.

The more money thing is pretty nice. It is still new, and makes a happy little surprise at the end of the month. Where did all this money come from? Oh yeah.

Why yes, we can go out for ice cream again.

Given that we were already riding bikes and transit most of the time, transferring the remaining car trips into City Carshare rentals came with no real inconvenience. Sure, sometimes it would be easier to pick up a car downstairs in our garage than from the nearest car share pod. But it was much more hassle to figure out what to do with a car we owned at the end of every trip (Does it need gas? Do I have to pay for parking at work? Did someone hit it?) than it is now to just drop a car back in its pod. Plus, any car picked up at a university pod comes with a university parking pass. The other week I had to put gas in a City Carshare rental. It was the first time I’d been to a gas station in at least six months. “Wow,” I thought idly as I pulled in, “gas is $4.80/gallon now? Well, I don’t have to pay for it.” Then when I pulled out, someone nearly hit the car. “That would be a bummer,” I thought, “but City Carshare would pick me up.”

It was all very relaxing. With the cargo bike now in action, I suspect our car rentals will be even less common in the future, however.

How does a bike that can carry anything generate less trash?

I’m still mystified by why we generate less garbage. Back when our daughter was in diapers, our garbage can was full every week. After she joined the land of the toileted the can was usually about half full. However in the last few months it’s never been more than a quarter full. I might not have even noticed this if I Bike U Bike hadn’t mentioned the same thing, at which point I thought: huh. The recycling also dropped a little, at least until the last few weeks, when we’ve been blanketed with election-related flyers, which is thankfully temporary. There is slightly more compost.

I can’t figure out what changed. Why do we produce less garbage? But I suppose I don’t need to know the reason. The landfill is happy no matter what.


Filed under car-free, San Francisco