Monthly Archives: April 2013


Last Sunday, while my son and I were riding in Golden Gate Park, we were rear ended by a car. The driver stopped, we have a police report, and our son was released from the ER that night. I have a shattered leg and will be hospitalized for some time. As much as I wish I could keep writing and riding, I’m going to have to take a break from both for a while. I hope to catch up in due time.


Filed under Uncategorized

Zero waste: Getting to zero

One of Matt's lunches: green onion pancakes, beans, orange

One of Matt’s lunches: green onion pancakes, beans, orange

I have mentioned, off and on, that in the wake of my visit to the dump we have been attempting to move our household toward zero waste. Apparently, like the biking, this is now a happening thing. (Since when am I tuned into the zeitgeist?) The City and County of San Francisco has the same zero waste goal, scheduled for 2020.

People approach zero waste in different ways. The easiest definition of zero-waste is to send nothing into the landfill. There is sometimes an assumption that substituting recyclable packaging is fine. I didn’t make that assumption. Evidently I like to make things difficult for myself.

This is a pretty typical haul from the cheese shop: hummus, salad cheese, crackers.

This is a pretty typical haul from the cheese shop: hummus, salad cheese, crackers.

I’ve since learned that we started somewhat ahead of the average American household. We swapped paper towels out for rags long ago and have always used cloth napkins and reusable lunch containers. But we now shop exclusively with cloth bags and our own glass jars, and we have become the kind of people who bring our own tableware to restaurants that use disposables. None of these changes was especially difficult, although it felt weird to do something different at first.

I go to the cafeteria once every two weeks, but my plate is recognized nonetheless.

I go to the cafeteria once every two weeks, but my plate is recognized nonetheless.

Zero waste efforts make you instantly recognizable. When I walk into the office cafeteria with my china plate, the sandwich guy immediately starts heating up falafel. When I go by the local cheese shop, the owner waves (“Look, it’s the woman who brings her own beeswax wrappers! On a bike!”) It can feel a little like the over-examined life. Mostly it’s good, though.

Sending as little as possible to the landfill (in San Francisco, the black bin) is a given in a zero waste household. Here in San Francisco, that means all soft plastics are basically out. Although Recology will take rigid plastics in the recycling bin, virtually all “recycled” rigid plastics are down-cycled—they get one more use as lumber or fleece then go directly to the landfill. So we don’t buy those either.

This was a week of landfill-bound waste last month, but it's dropped since then.

This was a week of landfill-bound waste last month, but it’s dropped since then.

Our progress on landfill-bound waste has been pretty dramatic; most weeks, it easily fits into one of the old quart-sized Ziploc bags I keep finding around the house even now. Most of what’s left is preschool foam sticker art (which is being very slowly phased out at our request) and medical waste (e.g. bandages the kids come home with, and my new waste-nemesis, dental floss).

Sustainable preschool art is a continuing battle.

Sustainable preschool art is a continuing battle.

After my visit to Recology, I also viewed recycling (the blue bin) as a last-resort option. Recycling is energy-intensive at best and involves massive transportation costs because most recycling on the west coast is sent to China. And although paper can be recycled a few times, it degrades to a lower quality product each time–printer paper to paper bags to toilet paper– then it goes to the landfill too. Glass and metal are really recycled, but expensive to melt and reform. But when there appear to be no other alternatives, glass, metal, and low-quality compostable paper are the types of packaging we choose.

Minimizing our recycling has been very hard. We both have office jobs, our kids come home with papers from school, and junk mail is horribly persistent. However we are definitely producing less: on a good week our recycling barely covers the bottom of the blue bin.

Happily, composting (the green bin) is universally acclaimed.  San Francisco has municipal compost pickup so we were already keeping food waste separated, but we started including odds and ends we hadn’t previously realized we could compost (e.g. hair, dryer lint, floor sweepings, waxed-paper butter wrappers). Food-soiled paper is compostable as well. We’re not yet at the point that I begrudge an occasional pizza box.

This is part of the "jar" section of Rainbow Grocery's bulk zone.

This is part of the “jar” section of Rainbow Grocery’s bulk zone: miso, tahini, nut butters, salsa.

However we don’t buy processed food because virtually none of it can be bought in bulk (this is evidently a quick way to lose weight). I find myself getting irritable when manufacturers expect me to take responsibility for dealing with their packaging or things they make that break. I wonder now why I once accepted the responsibility for disposing of whatever a retailer chose to throw at me. And it seems crazy, after only a few months, to buy something in a container that is used only once, to carry an item from one place to another, after which the container is put in a landfill until roughly the end of time. It is something I had never considered before this year, and now it seems like madness.

I'll say this, though: our fridge looks awesome.

I’ll say this, though: our fridge looks awesome.

Overall we’re getting pretty crunchy over here, which honestly has never been a personal aspiration. The homesteading, back-to-the-land ethos of traditional hippies appeals to an urbanist like me about as much as firewalking. So I have been surprised at the response of people when they see me shopping, which is largely fascination. I’m frequently quizzed: “How do you store greens?” (Answer: in a glass jar in the fridge, they keep for over a week that way. Berries, too.) The idea of reducing waste seems universally appealing. I’m not really sure why.

This is not something we can do all at once. The bathroom is still challenging—contact lens solution, toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss. Matt and the kids pick up a lot of disposable packaging when they go out solo. There is a lot of meal planning. It’s a change, and change can be hard. Even so I feel no urge to go back to the way we were.


Filed under San Francisco, zero waste

Things keep happening

At the San Francisco waste transfer station

At the San Francisco waste transfer station

There are tragedies that unfurl slowly, and there are short, sharp shocks. The shocks seem more painful; they can’t fade into the background of daily life.

I work in public health. At its root, public health is an effort to make sure that everyone dies safely in bed, surrounded by loved ones, rather than in disease, or in pain, or with life needlessly cut short. But I work at an academic medical center, too, and that means I am surrounded by my profession’s failures. People die of preventable causes, in ways that could be seen coming from years away. We soldier on.

I have rarely been tempted by the urge to live an exciting life. I like routine and find change challenging. I completely understand why wishing someone “may you live in interesting times” is viewed as a curse. I could not imagine being happy lurching from one new experience to the next; making a job I dislike bearable through taking time off from it, or making a home I loathed tolerable by leaving it on vacation. And so I try to make my ordinary life as agreeable as possible. I tweak around the margins. But these changes add up. Who would have thought we’d become a car-free family? Or cut our waste down to a little baggie each week? This is our new normal, and we like it.

Because I like my everyday life, it seems especially painful to watch other people’s normal ripped away. This is the terror of the short, sharp shock. And I always wonder: what is the appropriate response when normal becomes terrifying? When we are surrounded by destruction? And in the end I think we should do for ourselves what we do for our children. We try to preserve the familiar and comforting parts of life that are left. We soldier on.

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Filed under advocacy

Mission Sunday Streets 2013

We arrive at Sunday Streets. No more cover; it's spring in San Francisco.

We arrive at Sunday Streets. No more cover; it’s spring in San Francisco.

Last weekend we went to Sunday Streets again, and it was even more crowded than last year. Except right at the start, I think that the Mission site is so popular that walking the bike is no longer optional but required. It was still fun, however, with a caveat.

We went planning to meet another Bullitt family. Instead we met two! Even more amazing, although both rode red Bullitts, neither one of them was the one I recently spotted at our son’s after-school program (I asked).

This was the first red Bullitt.

This was the first red Bullitt.

We were late to Dynamo Donuts because we got caught in all the street traffic, which is okay, because halfway there we spotted our first red Bullitt. What’s more, it was another Bullitt from Splendid Cycles! (Matt has been complaining that we need a bigger Splendid sticker on our bike because people keep stopping him to ask where we got it. The little sticker under the seat is easy enough to spot if you know where to look, and of course I do, but strangers on the street, not so much.) It was great to meet this family.

I am getting the skinny about Bullitt #2.

I am getting the skinny about Bullitt #2.

When we got to Dynamo we met Jim, as planned, with his red Bullitt, plus an Xtracycle (formerly assisted, before the battery died), a Kona Ute, and eventually a music trike. For all the attention that one Bullitt gets, it pales in comparison to the attention that two Bullitts get. This red Bullitt came from Blue Heron in Berkeley, and to my astonishment he got it back to San Francisco on BART, by standing it on end in the elevators. I’m still impressed by this story.

A Kona Ute set up for kids

A Kona Ute set up for kids

Unfortunately by this time Matt, who had ridden the Bullitt because this trip would be his only riding for two weeks thanks to all his business travel, noticed that the front cranks, which had failed once before, were starting to creak again. By the time we navigated back to Mission, they stopped working almost entirely. Matt had to use the throttle on the BionX to get the bike home. Using the assist this way drains the battery fast, but we were lucky to have it. Now the Bullitt is back in the shop. Sigh. And I have to figure out a way to get both kids to their respective schools without a two-kid bike while Matt is away.

It's an organic cargo bike roll call.

It’s an organic cargo bike roll call.

This left me with two kids to get home solo. I crossed my fingers, loaded my daughter in the front basket (which is not rated for that kind of load, nor is it a comfortable way for her to ride) and rode home with them very, very carefully. The good news is that we made it.

And the other good news is that Mission Sunday Streets is pretty cool. Our kids were completely impressed by all the music, as were we. And the dancing. Check it out!


Filed under Bullitt, electric assist, family biking, rides, San Francisco

Sunday Streeeeeeeets!

People keep asking, so here's proof: you can fit 2 kids side by side in a Bullitt under the canopy. They are four and seven and were discussing Antarctica.

People keep asking, so here’s proof: you can fit 2 kids side by side in a Bullitt under the canopy. They are four and seven and were discussing Antarctica.

We missed the opening bell of Sunday Streets at the Embarcadero this year—and how is this year different from any other year? But thankfully someone—a special someone, specifically another Bullitt family—reminded me that Mission Sunday Streets is this month, so we are heading southeast to the Mission this weekend for Dynamo Donuts and cargo bike spotting. Hope to see many families there! (Learn from our mistakes: we now head out early before the crowds get so insane that we have to walk the bikes.)

This is a big weekend in family biking: in addition to Sunday Streets, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is holding a Playground to Playground Ride from Duboce Park to Golden Gate Park on Saturday (4/13, 10:30am). I think this is supposed to be kind of a sub rosa Kidical Mass (things that sound like Critical Mass have a mixed reputation among many in the city). I’ve been lobbying our kids to come on this ride as well but they’ve been balking, probably because there are no donuts involved.  But adults who also prefer their rides to involve food might want to check out the simultaneous Western Lands Dumpling Tour (also 4/13, 10:30am), which I would totally do if I were riding solo this weekend, but that never happens. Oh well. Maybe we’ll do our own dumpling not-tour at the local hole in the wall. Or maybe not, at least not until I break myself of the habit of checking restaurants’ health department scores.

OMG! Bullitt meets Bullitt!

OMG! Bullitt meets Bullitt!

The most exciting news for me this week was spotting another Bullitt bike set up for kid-hauling at our son’s after-school program. Which: !!!! The security guards were as excited as I was when I rolled up in a matching bike to the brand-new cargo bike-sized racks that the internet gave us. Thanks again, internet! I don’t know whose bike this is, but between that and the Clockwork Orange kid-hauler my sister keeps spotting downtown, and the two families I have now actually communicated with who have Bullitts, our ranks are growing. That’s without even counting the guy I spotted on the Panhandle hauling his dog in a Milk, and the pink Bullitt I’ve seen parked around the Mission that always seems to be loaded with furniture.

And we are outclassed again.

And we are outclassed again.

Last but not least, Matt reminded me why we often ride the Panhandle, still, instead of taking Page: because the bikes on the Panhandle are awesome. Why not haul your boat with your bike? Why not indeed?


Filed under family biking, rides, San Francisco

The year of the electric assist

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

Over winter break we noticed a lot more bicycles on the streets than there were at the same time last year. It’s now rare that I’m the only rider on the streets on my route, whatever route that might happen to be. Last week, riding from our son’s school to downtown, I was surrounded by so many other riders that in combination with being tailed by a bus, which blocked cars from potentially rear-ending any of us, I relaxed and started looking at other people’s bikes instead of focusing on traffic.

As is increasingly common, there was an assisted bike in the group, this one ridden by an older gentleman dressed up for work in the Financial District. He looked like the kind of person who wouldn’t be riding an unassisted bike. On most work days I look like that kind of person myself.

Spotted near work

Spotted near work

It is no accident that I pretty much stopped taking transit entirely when an assisted bike (the mamachari) entered our lives. We live on the top of one big hill and I work on top of another, and before that particular craigslist score there was always calculation involved in riding to work: “Am I going to have to look presentable today?” (I don’t have the patience or free time to carry a spare set of dress clothes and shower at the office, assuming that my office even had a shower, which it does not.) With an assisted bike that problem disappears. I can choose to work harder on the way home at the risk of sweating, and I often do. But I can also choose to use enough assist that I arrive at work with no more evidence of having ridden a bike than rosy cheeks and the complete absence of commuter rage. “Wait, what? You came here on a bike?” is the kind of thing I hear a lot these days.

It’s coming up on a year of electric assist for us, and there’s no question it’s been life-changing. Example: we sold our only car (30 Days of Biking is no challenge whatsoever this year).  To my surprise, because we’re about as fashionable as any other harried parents (which is to say: not at all) we appear to have been out in front on this issue. From what I’ve seen so far, 2013 is the year of the electric assist in San Francisco. Assisted bikes are everywhere; I spot them while riding around, while walking in our neighborhood, and there’s always at least one locked up nearby every time I stop to park my bike. Cargo bike riders who don’t have one typically say they want one, even if the need to carry a bike up a flight of stairs or the extra cost makes adding an assist unfeasible.

Look, there's another one

Look, there’s another one

I don’t ride much where it’s flat, but people who do seem to ride more with assisted bikes as well. The assist is like the cover on the Bullitt; in winter we could dress up our kids to ride without it, but it’s easier to get them out the door by skipping the cold weather gear and letting them cozy up under the cover. I could get myself out the door on an unassisted bike, and I have, but it’s a lot easier knowing that I can get a little help when the hills get steep or the wind gets fierce or when I’m tired at the end of the day. It’s also easier to take a bike knowing that I’m not going to walk into a meeting at work dripping with sweat. Unless I’m crossing the bay (and sometimes even then), it’s always easier to ride a bike now. And so that’s what we do.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, electric assist, San Francisco

Where the family bikes are

Family bikes like circus arts.

Family bikes like circus arts.

We tend to spot interesting bikes in the morning. I’m not sure why. I almost never get pictures because we’re booking to school, but last week was a particular doozy. One rainy morning I passed a recumbent bike that not only sported six poison-frog yellow Ortlieb panniers (with the rider in a matching jacket), but actual jingle bells. And almost every morning I also see some of San Francisco’s significant homeless contingent, or as I sometimes think of them, “self-supported locally-touring riders,” with each bike hauling not only a sleeping bag and a duffel bag but at least two full garbage bags of recycling. Matt found a generous collection of family bikes at the acrobatic center where he took our son this weekend.

Where I hit the motherlode (aside from our son’s school, of course) is Rainbow Grocery. Last Friday I took the day off after a particular grueling week; and instead of heading to work after school drop off I went to Rainbow. On the way in I saw our friends’ Big Dummy, probably because they joined us in car freedom last week, and together we checked out all the other family bikes locked up.

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

The first was one of the many ad hoc family bikes around the city. This bike was immediately familiar, though, because I’d already talked to the mom about her bike while we were riding on the Panhandle. I really liked the seat she’s screwed into the rack, which I’ve never seen before, and I would love to find another because it looks like the perfect addition to a midtail deck. Her kid is apparently still pretty small, but trustworthy enough to hold on to stoker bars. I asked her about footrests, because there aren’t any, and she said that she always keeps panniers with a kid on board, and her kid’s feet go inside. Personally I’d use a sturdier rear rack, but then again my kids are bigger.

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

The second bike that pulled up while I was there was a longtail I’d never seen before, a Fraser Pack Mule from Southern California. I asked the dad riding it and he said it was custom, purchased long before the Surly Big Dummy hit the market. I was really impressed by the integrated back support on the deck. And  although it is evidently usually a single-kid hauler he said that he sometimes carries both of his kids on this bike as well (as long as they’re not fighting, a caveat that’s all too familiar). They live on a hill, but he left the bike unassisted because he has to carry it upstairs to park it, and wasn’t sure he could handle hoisting another 20 pounds on top of an already heavy cargo bike. How cool is this bike?

Anyway, I think I need to figure out a way to get to Rainbow Grocery more often on weekday mornings.


Filed under car-free, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle