Monthly Archives: March 2013

Losing it

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven't slept.

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven’t slept.

Matt and I are lazy, middle-aged people who have overstuffed our lives. Ever since our son was born, my favorite hobby has been sleeping. We both work full-time jobs, Matt travels extensively for business, I travel somewhat less extensively for business, and we have two kids we adore whose demands swallow our weekends and evenings. This is not a complaint, because we chose these lives, like our jobs, and love our children. But it was not really a shock to find last year that we had started to pack on the pounds.

In 2012, Matt’s repeated trips to China with their endless banquet meals put him near his highest lifetime weight. Also in 2012, I gave up a serious diet Coke habit because it seemed wrong to rely so heavily on a fake food. I never developed a taste for coffee or tea, which means that I have been caffeine-free for over a year. Sadly for me, caffeine is an appetite suppressant. I developed a killer sweet tooth and predictably, gained weight as well. Neither of us was technically overweight, but we were starting to get uncomfortable.

Mirror in the bathroom

Mirror in the bathroom

We both began losing weight at the end of 2012, in part, I suspect, because the Bullitt entered our lives then. With a haul-anything assisted cargo bike we were both willing to attempt riding up hills we’d never tried before, and even with the assist, we were working hard. Plus, that bike is so fast already that it is endlessly tempting to engage in what the good people at call “time travel,” where you leave late, crank up the assist, pedal like mad, and arrive early. If losing weight using an electric assist is “cheating,” then sign me up for more of that.

Then in January I took a day-long tour of the dump. I came back in shock, and we started trying to become a zero-waste household. (Thankfully, there are role models for a project like this.)

We shrink and they grow.

We shrink and they grow.

There is a lot of talk about the sustainability triple-bottom-line, which suggests that any ecological change will have economic and health effects as well. In our experience this is: true. We bought bikes and sold our only car and saved money and lost some weight and started hanging out with a bunch of cool people. We started trying to reduce our waste because I was horrified when I toured the dump, but we ended up saving money too. Our grocery bills are now less than the California food stamp allotment. We also eat out less than we used to, about once a week, because zero-waste is not compatible with takeout. On top of that, in the last two months both Matt and I have dropped to the lowest adult weights of our lives. Our son, after two years without putting on a pound, finally started gaining weight, and both kids have grown a couple of inches. Everyone in our household needs new pants now. We look like hobos.

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in a quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in an old quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

Saving money and losing weight (or in our kids’ case, growing like steroidal weeds) weren’t exactly in our plans, but these are definitely welcome developments. Yippee! So here we are. Our zero-waste effort is like riding our bikes in that there is this unexpected triple-bottom-line, and that surprisingly, it’s made life more fun. It’s unlike riding bikes in that, well, these two things have pretty much nothing else in common as far as I can tell. Yet although we started riding bikes for fun and we started reducing our waste out of dismay, in both cases we ended up in the same place. And both changes have made life better.

[Coming up eventually, because I have been asked: The zero-waste “diet”]


Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, San Francisco, zero waste

More bike parking, please

Check it out! Six shiny new bike racks!

Check it out! Six shiny new bike racks!

Late last week I went to pick up my son at afterschool with some trepidation. The 5pm pickup is the most crowded at the bike racks, and this is often a nightmare. However thanks to the much-appreciated efforts of one of the afterschool staffers, we now have a passcode to enter a secured courtyard at the side of the building with its own bike rack. I have been parking there most days, even though it means a lot of extra walking around the building.

I was shocked when I rode up and saw a bona fide miracle: an empty bike rack in front of the building. I sped up before someone else could get there first. Then I looked again: there were five empty bike racks! They hadn’t been there when I walked by earlier in the day. And they were not placed against the bollards—bikes could be parked on both sides! Our son’s afterschool program had installed six new bike racks as promised. (And despite the fact that they’d been in place for only hours, they were already filling up—one family had gotten there before me and parked at the sixth rack already.)

Last year I successfully advocated to have a new bike rack installed at my office, which filled up immediately on installation. And now this year the internet has scored some outstanding cargo-bike friendly racks at our son’s afterschool program. They were filling up by the time I came back outside with my son. If you build them, they will come.


Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Am I paranoid enough?

When I rode into work the other day I saw a man lock up his bike then look thoughtfully at the bike next to him. When I came closer, he said, “This bike here is unlocked, and there’s a lock on the ground. I’m wondering whether they forgot to lock up?”

This is a tough one: what do you do? The lock looked as though it had its key in it. Should we lock up the bike and then bring the key to security?

Evidently a standard U-lock isn't enough to prevent bike theft in San Francisco.

Evidently a standard U-lock isn’t enough to prevent bike theft in San Francisco.

Then we took a closer look. What we’d seen wasn’t actually a key but a piece of the lock, which had been neatly cut, probably by an angle grinder. It was one of the locks that secures only one end of the U, rather than both, so once cut it pulled right open. That was unnerving. The bike racks at my office are generally pretty safe, in part because there is a security guard patrolling the area on foot. But apparently not that safe.

We’ve long since upgraded our locks from a standard U-lock to a Abus lock that secures both ends, and that is made out of stronger metal so it’s harder to cut through (and that costs a fortune). Our bikes also have frame locks, and they’re Pitlocked, and they’re registered with the San Francisco police. And they’re listed on our renters insurance in the event that they get stolen anyway. But on some days I wonder whether I’m paranoid enough.


Filed under commuting, San Francisco

To Panhandle or not to Panhandle

Who wouldn't want to ride in Golden Gate Park?

Who wouldn’t want to ride in Golden Gate Park?

On the western side of San Francisco there are many excellent bike lanes through Golden Gate Park, which stretches nearly half the length of the city. Even outside the park to the north and south the streets are pretty quiet (with a few exceptions), so it is very easy to get around by bike as long as you don’t mind the hills. Which whatever, where besides the Mission are there are not hills in this city.

Transitioning from the park to the Panhandle

Transitioning from the park to the Panhandle

At the edge of the park the Panhandle begins. The Panhandle is a one-block-wide, ¾ mile long stretch of greenway, and it extends even further east. A nightmarish three blocks at the far edge of the Panhandle then drop you into the Wiggle, and from there bike lanes, some protected, run all the way to the eastern edge of the city and San Francisco Bay. (Protected bike lanes for those three blocks of Oak Street have been in the works for some time and postponed repeatedly.)

Unfortunately the streets on either side of the Panhandle, Fell and Oak, are basically freeways in the middle of the city, and noisy. There is a break in the middle for the death highway of Masonic Avenue, which even with a dedicated bike signal is not the most fun street to cross. Supposedly Masonic is a designated bike route. Ha ha.

There is a lot of foot traffic on the shared-use path.

There is a lot of foot traffic on the shared-use path.

There are two paths on the Panhandle: the southern path along Oak is a pedestrian-only path, and the northern path along Fell is shared-use. For reasons that mystify me, runners and walkers mostly shun the southern path and so there are always multitudes wandering idly among the bikes. And there are always off-leash dogs. A couple of weeks ago I slowed when one came close, but not fast enough because it suddenly jumped right into my path, knocking me and my son to the ground. My son fell under the bike and although he was unhurt, he was so upset that he burst into tears. The dog ran off. Of course its owner was nowhere to be found.

Walkers blocking the Shrader Valve on the way out of the Panhandle

Walkers blocking the Shrader Valve on the way out of the Panhandle

So anyway, although the Panhandle has its appeal–no car traffic to contend with–it has some issues as a place to ride.

There is an alternative. Like all alternative routes in San Francisco, it is steeper. Heading east, Page Street runs above the southern edge of the Panhandle then drops down suddenly to join the Wiggle. In reverse, obviously, it goes up just as suddenly.  I know many riders who prefer Page Street to the Panhandle. They tend to be solo riders.

Recently, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we headed out for Mexican food (eating out contrary to ethnic expectations on holidays means never having to wait for a table). Because we were already south of the Panhandle we took Page, which we don’t normally ride. It was nice; there were multiple sidewalk sales, and families were sitting out on their front steps chatting with each other. Even though there are lots of stop signs to slow you down, it is a pleasant alternative to the Panhandle in the downhill direction.

After dinner we had the choice of following the Wiggle back or turning around and climbing up Page. Matt had both kids in the Bullitt and to my surprise he wanted to take the hill. As he headed up, a pickup truck going down the hill slowed, and the driver stuck his head out the window. “GIT IT, OLD MAN!” he cheered. “GIT IT, OLD MAN!” I laughed so hard I almost fell off my bike. Oh how I love San Francisco.

Git it, old man!

Git it, old man!

We made it back to Golden Gate Park with only the usual stares that the Bullitt draws from families walking on the street. I scratched Matt’s back at a stoplight and said, “Git it, old man.” He laughed. “He was supportive,” I said, “That’s what matters.”

“He was ACCURATE,” he replied. “Like I care. I’m fitter now than I ever was in my so-called prime.” And this is true. We have been married for 14 years, and by any historical standard Matt is smokin’.

I’m used to the Panhandle and its quirks. But I can see us taking Page more often in the future too. Git it, old man!


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

Turn that frown upside down

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

On Friday afternoon things were going terribly at work due solely to the machinations of campus IT, and not for the first time either. After a few hours of suffering I decided to do what everyone else in the office had already done and leave work early. I headed out to get the grocery shopping done, which in our brave new world of zero-waste is usually a pretty entertaining errand. But I was in a foul mood.

Even though I was on the Bullitt, which is a fun bike, the ride was not going well. It was windy and without kids in the bucket the rain cover kept catching the wind and threatening to tip the bike over. On my way down Post Street, there were cars parked in the bike lane roughly every 100 feet, pushing me out into traffic. My usual strategy when I see a car parked in the bike lane is to ring my bell, even though this is completely futile. I like to imagine my bell going: “WTF! WTF! WTF!” The drivers don’t even bother to look up from their phones but it makes me feel better.

Then thanks to yet another car in the bike lane I missed my turn and ended up winding back through the public housing projects south of Geary and their relentless, jarring speed bumps, which are short and sharp and which have sent the Bullitt to the shop with broken cranks once already. By the time I got back on route I was actually cursing to myself, and muttering: “CARS! I hate… CARS!”

I finally got to the Scott Street hill, which is a doozy, but whatever, I was on the Bullitt. To my surprise I saw a dad with his daughter on a trailer-bike preparing to head up that hill a few blocks ahead of me, which is no joke even when riding solo. I was impressed despite my bad mood. As I got closer, they slowed, and then he suddenly lost control and ran into a parked van, and both of them went over. Who among us hasn’t been there?

By the time I reached them they were back up, uninjured and walking up the steepest part of the hill. “Go, dad, go!” I said as I passed, because that kind of effort deserves some credit.

From the top of the hill on, it was all downhill and even though car traffic was backed up all the way through the Wiggle (why are there cars on the Wiggle?), and some of them blocked my big cargo bike temporarily, things got better at Rainbow Grocery. I discovered they have bulk Easter* candy wrapped in paper and foil, which is going to be helpful in a couple of weeks.

It ended up being a major shop but as usual the Bullitt swallowed it all, and as usual the Rainbow employee-owners staffing the parking lot made sure that cars didn’t mow me over when I headed out (many San Francisco grocery stores staff their auto parking lots to prevent the unspeakable mayhem that ensues if drivers are left to fend for themselves). Then I headed home, and thankfully it was a quiet ride. “Where’s the kid?” a guy asked me on Mission. “I’m on my way to get them,” I said.

Some other things that make me happy

Some other things that make me happy

According to the Bullitt’s computer I rode about 15 miles on Friday between the school drop-off and work and shopping and pickups. With all that riding my mood eventually improved, as it always does. I don’t really remember what I did on days like these before we started riding bikes. Probably I drank? Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker. And riding is cheaper therapy than either.

*We ceded Easter baskets last year when our son said he didn’t want to be Jewish anymore if he couldn’t have an Easter basket. Thanks to all the various holidays we now recognize/celebrate through his school (Oshugatsu Matsuri, Hinamatsuri, Cherry Blossom, Kodomo No Hi, Black History Month, Rosa Parks Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Holi, Diwali, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, etc. etc.) he sees no reason not to pick up any holiday from any tradition. Fortunately California Judaism is pretty flexible about this kind of thing.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, San Francisco

Hello there, ad hoc San Francisco family bike

Front top-tube seat with an electric assist: this is a San Francisco family bike.

Front top-tube seat with an electric assist: this is a San Francisco family bike.

Here’s a bike I’ve seen at after-school pickup before, one of the bikes that led me on a merry chase until I eventually discovered that top tube seats are an actual thing. This seat is jury-rigged but holds a first-grader in daily use. Although it’s hard to see, there’s a small electric assist on the front wheel—the battery is in the rear bag. That’s because that first-grader goes to one of the many San Francisco schools on the top of a big hill.

I know that not everyone likes the ad hoc family rigs, which are sometimes not the most safety-oriented bike setups (although this one looks perfectly legit to me). But not everyone comes to riding with kids with a lot of money to spend. I’m impressed by the ingenuity of these riders show; many of them have limited resources. This strikes me as a more formal version of the bike I saw ridden by a dad who had put his son sidesaddle on a pillow on the top tube of his bike. (There is a lot to be said for having a traditional diamond frame when putting together a child seat on the fly.)

It is perceived as charming when families ride this way in old movies. My parents used to ride with us in the front baskets of their bikes. That’s not something I’d do with my kids now, but then again I don’t have to; we have a great cargo bike. These bikes aren’t our bikes, but their riders are our people.


Filed under electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

Bicycles and privilege

Sometimes The Onion says it best: there is a vocal contingent of people who claim that only privileged, able-bodied, middle class people ride bikes. I am usually dumbfounded when I hear this.

“We don’t need more bike lanes for trust-fund hipsters in San Francisco!” they fume. “Families can’t ride bikes! They need cars! We need to make it easier for families to drive in this city.”

When I tell them that I ride with my kids, as do many of the parents at our kids’ schools, they look aghast. “How can you risk your kids’ safety that way?” they say. “It’s not safe to ride a bike with kids in San Francisco.”

“I hope you’ll support more separated bike lanes, then,” I say. Then they stomp away.

This is an expensive bike, but it cost less than half of what we got when we sold our car.

This is an expensive bike, but it cost less than half of what we got when we sold our car.

I think it’s easy to confuse people who ride bikes with people who write about riding bikes. Am I privileged, able-bodied, and middle class? You betcha. But that’s basically what defines a blogger, not what defines a bike rider. If you look at blogs, everything from riding bikes to dumpster diving to gardening to worrying about money looks middle class. Talking about ourselves and our first-world problems is just what we privileged, able-bodied, middle class people do. It’s appalling, I know.

Who do I see riding bikes in San Francisco? I see families like ours, and road racers, and homeless guys carrying giant bags stuffed with aluminum cans on their shoulders, and men in suits going to work in the Financial District, and last week, a dad in a security guard uniform with his son balanced on a pillow over the top tube.  I see the man with no legs passing me when I ride along the Panhandle, and the grandfather with his oxygen tank in his trike on the Embarcadero. I’m least likely to see other moms with kids, but we’re out there too.

I like that when I ride my bike I’m part of a community that isn’t defined by privilege. I work with surgeons who complain about how poor they are, even though a first year surgeon at my university earns (much) more than my husband and I do together. They’re comparing themselves to investment bankers at their kids’ private schools and they feel poor. But riding around the city I see how lucky we are.

These are some of the ways parents like us get to school (at Rosa Parks Elementary).

These are some of the ways parents like us get to school (at Rosa Parks Elementary).

At our son’s school I was talking with a friend who just started riding her daughter to school last year. Like us, she sold her car when she bought a cargo bike. Unlike us, they are a one-income family, which is painfully difficult in San Francisco (except for investment bankers). “I’m so happy now,” she said. “We maxed out the credit card trying to maintain that car. For the last repair before we sold it, we had to pull money from the savings we’d managed to put away for our daughter. Now we’re paying off our debt and I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”  Matt and I both work, and we’re not that close to the edge. We’re lucky! But there’s no question that getting rid of our car made it easier to live in San Francisco, where even surgeons feel poor. Owning cars is expensive, and especially so in San Francisco. It’s not something you can afford if you’re not privileged.

Bicycles aren’t just for the middle class, or even just for the able-bodied. However, for now at least, they are still just for people willing to look at the world a little differently, whether by choice or by necessity. We chose to ride bikes when we could drive, and being able to make that choice is what makes us privileged.  But when we chose, we joined the legions of people who have no choice but to ride bikes or transit. When we ask for more support of alternative transportation, we’re asking to make their lives better too.


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