Monthly Archives: September 2013

Where’s your helmet, mom?

He can remember a stick and headlamp for a camping trip, but remembering jackets or a bike helmet: boring.

He can remember a stick and headlamp for a camping trip, but remembering jackets or a bike helmet: boring.

The other day when I picked up my son at his after school program, he ran over and started to hop aboard. “Where’s your helmet?” I asked. “Uh…” he said. “I guess I left it at school.”

This is not the first time that’s happened. Kids forget stuff. In the first year of kindergarten our son lost so many jackets we finally lost all patience and sent him to school in shirt sleeves in January (recall that we live in San Francisco: he was chilly but we’re not monsters). At that time, he was taking a school district bus to his after school program and they took all lost items to their central facility on the southeastern edge of the city. Those jackets were gone forever.

Our problems are compounded by the fact that his dad drops him off, and then he goes to an off-site after school program where I pick him up, but it happens even when we pick up our daughter, who stays in the same location all day but is missing one sock at pickup three days out of every five.

So what do we do when our kids forget their helmets? We take it on the chin. California has a helmet law for kids but not for adults, our kids have giant heads, and our helmets are adjustable. I give my son my helmet and I go bare. I don’t like doing this, AT ALL—I mean, I’m still recovering from being run over and I am basically still the world’s most paranoid bicycle rider—but it’s often the best of the available options. Some of our bikes fit on a bus bike rack, and we have done that once with a forgotten helmet, but it takes an extra half hour that we don’t always have.

As a parent, though, handing off your helmet to your kid for the ride home is a guaranteed ticket to heckling. People stop next to me and yell, “Where’s your helmet, mom?!? COME ON!” And I always reply wearily, “He left his helmet at school so I gave him my helmet.” And they say, “Oh.” But I know there are hundreds more people who say nothing right then but remain righteously indignant that there are parents! Who don’t wear helmets! Setting a bad example! On the streets! WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PARENTS!!! I see them at community meetings and they sure do fire up the internet.

We notice the world when walking to school too, like these carvings in Japantown.

We notice the world when walking to school too, like these carvings in Japantown.

Being on a bicycle sometimes means that you can’t hide from your surroundings. That’s often a good thing. I like riding a bike in part because we’re engaged with the world around us. I like being aware of the weather outside, even if that means wearing rain gear. But while parents in cars don’t have to reveal that they forced a screaming toddler into that car seat or that they forgot the booster seat for the friend who they promised to take home, on a bike there’s no way to keep the world from seeing, and a lot of people don’t shrink from sharing their opinions. I don’t care about it that much, but at the end of the day when I am already tired, the judgment can get old. I don’t peek in car windows and criticize other people for putting a five year old in the front without a car seat, so it would be nice to get a break on the days my son forgets his helmet.

We live in a country where it seems normal that a kid on a balance bike at Sunday Streets would wear a helmet. I would like that to change.

We live in a country where it seems normal that a kid on a balance bike at Sunday Streets–where there are no cars–would wear a helmet. I would like that to change.

It would of course be even better to live in a place with safe infrastructure like a network of protected bike lanes, and laws that protected vulnerable road users, and 15mph speed limits, so that we wouldn’t even need helmets. But who am I kidding.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, injury, San Francisco

The underrated Kona MinUte

The same bike, but different

The same bike, but different

Although I have some issues with our original cargo bike, the Kona MinUte, they are mostly along the lines of “this is a good bike that with a little bit more effort could have been a GREAT bike.” If I were a betting person, I would bet that the MinUte is a product that is only really loved by one person at Kona, which as a company seems to focus more on what another family biker once referred to as “the weed market.” I wish this were not the case, but in the meantime, Kona pioneered the first American midtail, and what a great idea that turned out to be.

So I was very disappointed to learn that Kona is discontinuing the MinUte at the end of 2013. I recommend the Yuba Boda Boda to parents looking for an assisted midtail in San Francisco (that’s mostly moms), with the usual caveat about Yuba’s lower-end parts. I recommend the MinUte to parents looking for an UNassisted midtail in San Francisco (that’s mostly dads), with the usual caveats about the MinUte’s historically horrible brakes. There a couple more midtails out there, but to date I have not yet ridden a Kinn Cascade Flyer, so I can’t comment on anything but its smokin’ good looks one way or the other. And the very sturdy Workcycles Fr8 is not appropriate for our hilly neighborhood, plus it is too heavy for bus bike racks on local transit, so it loses one of the key advantages of owning a midtail. On the other hand, if you live somewhere flat, the Fr8 is the only midtail specifically designed to haul three kids, one of whom can be in front, which is delightful.

Although it is not a company that is focused on the kid market, Kona does some things really, really well, and one of them is gearing. The MinUte is geared like a mountain bike, so yes indeed you can haul your 50+ pound kid up really steep grades on this bike. And with an aluminum frame, the weight of the bike isn’t fighting you all the way up those hills. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other cargo bike with the same weight+gearing advantage currently on the market. RIP, MinUte. If you’ve been thinking about getting one, you’d better hustle.

Rosa Parks family with a very stylish 2013 MinUte tricked out for kid-hauling

This very stylish 2013 MinUte belongs to a Rosa Parks family and is completely tricked out for kid-hauling

The things that irritate me about the MinUte would probably be irrelevant if the family cargo biking market hadn’t taken such great leaps in the last few years. Now you can buy a bike that comes with kid-carrying parts designed for the bike. Workcycles, Xtracycle, and Yuba will not let you down on this front, and that makes their bikes inherently more appealing for a parent picking up cargo biking. Getting a MinUte involves some kludging that feels a little old-school now. If you live near our bike shop, Everybody Bikes, or one like it, they’ll do that for you, because they’ve set up so many of these bikes already, but otherwise you’re on your own. Kona does not have a standard set of stoker bars for kids to hang on to, wheel skirts to keep feet from being trapped in the spokes, or pegs for foot rests. If you buy a MinUte from Everybody Bikes they’ll set up you up with all of these things on request, and it will look really good too, but that’s their initiative and not Kona’s.

But we live in a hilly neighborhood near this particular bike shop, so it’s not just us on a MinUte: we have neighbors with MinUtes as well, and one family joins us at Rosa Parks every morning—how cool is that? For parents with one kid or two widely spaced kids, a midtail is probably the best kind of cargo bike. Granted, you don’t really need a cargo bike with only one kid, but it can be handy—I find a midtail less unwieldy than a bike seat with an older child, plus you can carry more non-kid cargo. Matt likes the MinUte’s carrying capacity so much that he plans to keep riding it after our kids are on their own bikes. Assuming, that is, it is not stolen again after Kona stops making them, which would break our hearts.

And as mentioned, most midtails can go on a bus bike rack, or on Amtrak using their standard bike racks. Score! Lifting them up to a bus bike rack is not without its challenges—the MinUte, which is the lightest one I’ve tried to put on a bus, is definitely a lot of work to position, but eh, there are lots of heavy bikes in the world, and in my own personal case, my arms are not the weak link.

This neighbor DIYed a nice kid seat with a wooden back, which is drilled directly into the wooden deck.

This neighbor DIYed a nice kid seat with a wooden back, which is drilled directly into the wooden deck.

When we got the replacement MinUte, we learned that Kona had not ignored all of the issues that came up with the first year’s model. The MinUte now has a much nicer centerstand than before, only a fraction narrower than the best-in-class Ursus Jumbo at half the price. Kona now allows you to swap out the standard wooden deck for a plastic deck with holes predrilled to hold a Yepp seat. I’ve been told that the standard brakes are better. The bags are still not so great, but hey, they are included in the price of the bike, so it’s hard to complain too loudly about that. Again, it’s really more a good thing that could have been great.

We will miss being able to tell people where they can buy a MinUte like ours—although the Bullitt gets the most attention, all our bikes are kid-haulers, and as a result they all get noticed. I wish Kona were willing to jump into the family market wholeheartedly. The MinUte fills a niche for families in hilly cities and I’m not sure there’s another bike out there yet that can do the same thing. But Kona is discontinuing the MinUte, so I will have to hope there is something new in the works.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, Kona, Xtracycle, Yuba, Yuba Boda Boda

The deceptively “empty” bike lane

New building with old exhibits.

New building with old exhibits.

This weekend we headed to the new Exploratorium. Because the Bullitt is in the shop with broken spokes (sigh), we took Muni.  That meant an unusual amount of walking for me, all the way from Embarcadero station to Pier 15 and back. It would have been a much better day to ride, both because the weather was outstanding and because the Embarcadero bike lanes had been expanded for the weekend due to the America’s Cup. And it would also have been a better day to ride because I still can’t walk very far on my bad leg so I passed out in exhaustion as soon as we got home. Such is life. I have no stamina.

Watching the traffic along the Embarcadero was fascinating, and because my kids are even slower and more easily distracted than I am, I had plenty of time to think about it.

One painted lane and one temporary lane with barriers

One painted lane and one temporary lane with barriers

A while ago I read a fantastic book, Human Transit, which talked about how irritated drivers can get seeing “empty” bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes during car traffic jams. The perceived emptiness of the BRT lanes leads solo drivers to complain that these lanes take away capacity for solo drivers for no good reason. But as Walker (the author) points out, the “empty” BRT lane typically allows a fully-loaded bus to pass at least every five minutes, carrying 50-100 passengers apiece. Drivers see BRT lanes as “empty” because they are stuck in place, but their perception is flawed. Taking away the BRT would trade an hourly throughput of 600-1200 (at worst) people on buses for an hourly throughput of a few dozen people in automobiles (at best). Having the lane clear enough that buses whiz through uninterrupted is what makes BRT work.

Of course, buses aren’t full all the time. However they are almost always full when traffic is backed up, and no driver cares how many buses are in a BRT lane if private auto traffic is moving quickly. If moving people around is the goal, then pretty much every street that ever has a full bus should have a protected BRT lane. At which point more people will want to ride the bus, which would further reduce private auto traffic: it’s a virtuous circle. Everybody wins! The city is now providing less traffic for solo drivers and quicker trips for transit riders. Yet because of the false perception that the lanes are always “empty” installing protected BRT lanes has been incredibly controversial.

Rider approaching and moving fast; cars stopped dead

Rider approaching and moving fast; cars stopped dead

I thought about this as I watched drivers in cars fume in traffic on the Embarcadero, glaring at the usually-for-cars lane that had been removed to make a two-way (mostly) protected bike lane. To people stuck in the abysmal auto traffic along the Embarcadero, the bike lane looked “empty.” Early in the morning, when we were there, a bike (or group of bikes) passed northbound roughly every ten seconds, though that’s an average—sometimes a minute would pass with no bikes, then there would be a handful, etc.

Weekend riders--bikes with trailer-bikes.

Weekend riders–bikes with trailer-bikes.

The bikes passed much faster than we could walk, but because of the traffic we were walking faster than the people in cars. In about a half-mile of watching northbound traffic, I saw cars reach stop lights, lurch forward into the next clump of traffic, then wait several light cycles to get to the front of the line, and then repeat. I estimate that about 30 cars got as far as we did in 20 minutes—the same cars I saw when we started our walk. In the same amount of time, a northbound bike passed every 10 seconds, so that one bike lane moved 120 bikes. Now if you assumed that all those cars were holding four people (you would be wrong, most were solo drivers), that would mean that at 9am on a Sunday a single “empty” bike lane was moving as many people as multiple lanes dedicated to private auto traffic. However the cars were mostly filled with 1-2 people, even on a weekend. Moreover, weekend bike riders tend to be more family-oriented, so probably a quarter of the bikes we saw were hauling 1-3 kids in addition to the rider (the 3-kid bike was a BionX Madsen!) So the comparison is really more like throughput of:

  • 50 people in cars using 3 lanes vs.
  • 150 people on bikes using 1 lane.

And this was early in the morning—on the way back I gave up trying to count bikes because there were so many more of them in the lane by lunchtime. Car traffic was, if anything, more abysmal.

This BionX Madsen was assisted by The New Wheel over a year ago and has its own Facebook page.

This BionX Madsen was assisted by The New Wheel over a year ago and has its own Facebook page.

The irony, of course, is that these incredibly desirable “empty” lanes are public. They’re available to anyone who wants to use them. All you have to do is get on a bus or a bike—and if I can carry my kids on a bike even with a gimpy leg, and a senior on an oxygen tank can ride a trike while hauling his oxygen tank, and a man with no legs can hand-wheel his way along the same path, I have to think that nearly anyone can manage one option or the other. Really, the only way to take away the freedom to travel uninterrupted is to give that “empty” lane to cars.

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Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Tipping point

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

At some point I speculated that 2013 would be the year of the electric assist bicycle. Not to toot my own horn here, but I was so right. The other day we stopped at an intersection and the rider next to us said, “Hey! All three of us are on electric assist bikes!” When I went to return books at the library the other day, the other bike on the rack was assisted. When I’m on the main campus, which is on a hill that could charitably be called “non-trivial” it is like an e-bike showroom up there. I would guess that about a quarter of the bikes I see hauling up our hill these days are assisted. That is new as of this year.

I get stopped at the bike racks at work by people wanting to know how to find cheap e-bikes on craigslist. Although I am admittedly kind of the poster child for that, I would only recommend doing that if you are comfortable replacing the battery shortly afterward (which is something I had to do). Very few people flog assisted bikes on craigslist until the batteries are on their last legs, and batteries are the most expensive part to replace. Caveat emptor.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets--they must be doing a land office business.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets–they must be doing a land office business.

There is really no such thing as a super-cheap electric assist bike, unless of course you are comparing them to a car, in which case every single one of them is laughably cheap. And I and everyone else riding one can testify that an assisted bike will make driving in the city seem ridiculous. I mean, my leg is still really weak, and the most recent x-rays show that the bones look like they’ve been attacked with a chisel–it surprised me that this is considered to be great progress–and I walk with a cane, and I now have a handicapped parking sticker. However it is still typically easier for me to go anyplace within about three miles on a bike (granted, an assisted bike) because I can park so much closer that I don’t have to hobble nearly as far. Riding a bike doesn’t stress my leg like walking on it does. When I talk to normal people with assisted bikes they say that they never tackled various hills until they put assists on their bikes. Then once they did, they started riding everywhere instead of driving. That’s pretty much how it went for us.

San Francisco is the kind of city that is made for assisted bikes. There are, famously, a lot of hills. It’s the second hilliest city in the world, and this is not a competition that you want your city to win (or show or place). To pile on the injury, it’s also extremely windy.

Going up this hill into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Going up a hill like this into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Aside: I find it slightly annoying when people in flat cities claim that it’s hard to bike in their extremely flat city because of wind, or that a 10mph headwind is like a 14% grade. I ride up a 14% grade to our home every day and many of those days I ride into a 10mph or 20mph headwind AT THE SAME TIME. Riding into the wind is hard, but it’s not the same as riding up a hill. They’re both hard, but they’re a different kind of hard. The truth is that if you live somewhere flattish then it’s either easier or cheaper to ride bikes everywhere, so go ahead and cherish your good fortune.

Anyway, San Francisco: lots of hills, lots of wind, but also lots of great bicycle infrastructure. And we carry kids-as-cargo and groceries and library books and so on. Getting over ourselves and getting an assist was the smartest thing we’ve ever done, transportation-wise. In my current condition, I’m not sure I could ride in the city at all without one (and with the gimpy leg, walking the bike up hills is not a good option–I can do it, but the price is having to go back on my narcotics that evening). Our friends who have assisted their bikes will say the same thing: the assist is life-changing when you ride a bike for transportation. An assist makes driving not worth the bother. The sight of a bicycle being carried on an SUV now seems outrageously weird to me. Even if you’re hauling a racing bike, it would be cheaper and more fun to tow that baby on an assisted cargo bike.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

So for the people who keep asking me whether it’s worth paying so much to put an assist on a bike: if you’re already seriously considering it, then yes it is. And there are ways to make the cost less appalling up front; for example, The New Wheel in Bernal Heights will finance the purchase of an assisted bike or an after-market assist for an existing bike, plus they’re super-nice people.  Is it necessary? It is for me (at least for now), but it’s not for everybody. For people who are enjoying the ride unassisted, there’s no need. But if you can’t bring yourself to ride every day just yet even though you want to, and are wondering whether the assist will tip the scales: it will.

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Filed under electric assist, injury, San Francisco

Western Addition Sunday Streets 2013

Looking down at City Hall from Alamo Square--Postcard Row is hidden behind the tree on the right.

Looking down at City Hall from Alamo Square–Postcard Row is hidden behind the tree on the right.

We went back to Western Addition Sunday Streets yesterday, mostly, I will admit, so that we could eat pie. Unfortunately for me, my camera was acting up, so here is a list of bikes I photographed but that my camera ate:

(1)    A Zigo (a stroller attachment bike-trike thingy that never hit our radar because my brother-in-law threatened to break into our garage and throw it into Stow Lake if we ever seriously considered buying one)

(2)    A red Bike Friday triple tandem, ridden by a dad and two daughters—ARGH! It was so awesome, I swear.

(3)    A Bay Area Bike Share bike whizzing down the hill from Alamo Square. At least that image would be easy to replicate.

Instead I had to settle for panda shots and some other oddities.

In words of my husband: "Look! It's gimpy on her death machine." Thank you very much.

In words of my husband: “Look! It’s Gimpy on her death machine.” Thank you very much.

Western Addition Sunday Streets is a bit quieter than Mission Sunday Streets. Overall it’s on less commercial streets, although I’m sure that the big hill up and down from Alamo Square helps keep the crowds down too. My leg is still way less than 100% so I didn’t ride the whole route this year, just the western approach and downhill for one block on the eastern side. Then we turned around and headed back. And from there we went to pick up some yogurt (returning the deposit glass jar, natch). I’m not usually a Sunday shopper but evidently all our neighbors are. Hi neighbors!

What's not to like about family bikes?

What’s not to like about family bikes?

Although I didn’t get to keep my photos of the most impressive family bike rigs (curse that camera) there were a lot of traditional family bikes out. Bikes with trailer-bikes, bikes with child seat—all the usual stuff that I tend not to post very often, but that I like seeing, especially en masse. It’s nice to feel like we’re not completely alone out there.

This assisted elliptical bike-thingy was new to me.

This assisted elliptical bike-thingy was new to me.

Per usual, the Bullitt got more than its fair share of attention. It can be weird to be out with it, because the novelty of our bike makes people massively curious even on a day that things aren’t going well. We are not always the role models we would like to be. Luckily for us San Francisco parents seem to be buying Bullitts, so with luck there will be less pressure as time goes on.

First aid by bicycle

First aid by bicycle

Sunday Streets in the Western Addition is not quite as car-free as it is in some other locations. We were stopped by go-carts escorting local drivers occasionally, and some church traffic drove out of a parking lot last year—that was really distressing, because there were little kids playing in the street, which is sort of the point of Sunday Streets. However I was impressed to see that the official presence is more and more in the spirit of the event, including these bicycle-riding EMTs. Nice!

Pie is a good enough reason to hit the streets.

Pie is a good enough reason to hit the streets.

Still coming up this year: Sunday Streets in the Excelsior on September 29th (which is likely to be too much of a haul for us, or at least, for me), and the inaugural Sunday Streets in the Richmond on October 27th which will be linked with the normal Golden Gate Park street closures (wouldn’t miss it for the world!) Richmond Sunday Streets will run along Clement Street. Mmm, dim sum.

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Filed under bike share, Bullitt, destinations, family biking, rides, San Francisco

San Francisco vernacular

It’s only when I am with someone visiting from out of town that I remember that San Francisco has a definite vernacular architecture. People tend to think “Victorians” when they think of San Francisco, and most specifically, of Alamo Square’s Postcard Row (which we pass nearly every day en route to school). But although San Francisco is in fact filled with Victorians, what always seems to surprise people most is that almost none of them are single-family homes. This is a densely populated city, and what looks to suburbanites like a single family house from the outside is almost always a multi-unit building. It always seems to surprise visitors that that “house” they are admiring is in fact many homes. On the bike I always move at a slow enough speed to admire these homes, but lately I’ve been moving even more slowly so I get an eyeful.

Romeo flat on Beideman

Romeo flat on Beideman

I’ve never seen a Romeo flat anywhere but San Francisco, and even here they’re rare. Romeo flats are typically six units, two to a side on three floors, with open Juliet balconies between the floors. I pass this building on Beideman in the Western Addition when I’m riding with my daughter home from preschool. The Western Addition is considered to be kind of rundown but I like these pretty side streets. 49 Beideman in this building is actually listed for sale right now—2 bedrooms and 1 bath, 620sf, listed for $480,000, although it will undoubtedly sell for well above asking. Anyway, it’s a lovely building and next door to a pocket park, if you are in the market.

A Victorian with two units (at least) on Fulton

A Victorian with two units (at least) on Fulton

Much more typical are two-flats. Although this building is in the Western Addition on Fulton, our inner Sunset neighborhood is almost exclusively made up of two-flats, either like these or Marina-style that have a shared yard in the back, with large apartment buildings on the corners of each city block. Unfortunately I couldn’t photograph most of the more attractive versions of these buildings, which typically have trees in front of them that block a good picture.  The basement tends to have either a shared garage and storage or a shared garage and a studio apartment (often unpermitted). Thanks to this density, trick or treating is laughably easy in our neighborhood, despite the endless hills and stairs.

A three-flat building (three front doors) on Fulton

A three-flat building (three front doors) on Fulton

If the building has another story it’s a three-flat. The three flats with three front doors like this one are obviously multi-unit buildings once you look closely at the front porch, but it’s not uncommon for multi-unit buildings like these to have a shared front door. With a three-flat the first floor unit tends to be smaller than the other units, and we’ve met lots of families that use the space under the stairs as a kids’ bedroom. (There is a strong market in built-in bunk beds that can be squeezed in the Harry-Potter-bedroom-under-the-stairs in this town.) The premium on space is part of the reason it is rare to find families with more than two kids in San Francisco, unless the second pregnancy was twins.

Double doors on each side of this building, four flats

Double doors on each side of this building, four flats

With a slightly wider lot you can find four-unit and six-unit buildings, which are basically two-flat and three-flat buildings stuck together. I see a lot of these buildings in Lower Pacific Heights near my daughter’s preschool. This four-unit building is a particularly ugly version of the genre, but the prettier ones are hard to photograph because they typically have trees in front and a long flight of stairs up to the front doors.

Oddly, our street is one of the few that is made up of largely of single-unit buildings. The university converted all the houses it purchased on our street to clinics decades ago. Then when the neighborhood protested because of all the car traffic, the university turned the buildings back into housing. However approximately half of them were set up as student housing, with a shared common space and multiple rental bedrooms. Evidently you can cram more people into a building that way. These aren’t exactly single family homes, since they each contain at least a half dozen medical students, but technically they meet the definition.

It is no fun to live next to students, incidentally, even medical students. No matter how much homework I give them, they party all weekend well into the wee hours. It’s something about student culture. Even nice quiet professionals who go back to graduate school end up partying when they are students again. Every year we hope against hope in the fall when they return from their vacations that the ones with the gong have finally graduated—so far university police have not been able to identify which unit has the gong, to our despair. And despite the fact that fewer than 1% of physicians smoke, in their student years they smoke outside our building and leave butts all over the ground, which our kids are finally old enough not to put in their mouths, thankfully. They drive down the hill at breakneck speeds until the wee hours with the music blasting, or worse, sit in their cars outside our building and look completely shocked when we come out in our pajamas at 3:00am to say that we can in fact hear the thumping bass from three floors above. And to my everlasting regret, the university keeps all its housing units in good condition, and the most raucous parties always gravitate to the nicest space. Summer is always the nicest time of the year for us. Even though it is a violation of their leases to sublet their rooms in the summer, and even though every year someone gets kicked out for it, the students always sub-lease anyway, and the sub-lettors tend to be fearful and thus quiet. But I realize that it could be much worse. We could live next to undergraduates.

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