Monthly Archives: October 2013

Richmond Sunday Streets

On Arguello heading up to Clement Street

On Arguello heading up to Clement Street

Richmond Sunday Streets was last weekend, the last Sunday Streets of 2013. There’s a reason for that: it was cold. This didn’t seem to affect attendance much, but it made our kids grouchy and their noses run, so we didn’t stay as long as we might have otherwise.

For this event our son could ride his own bike without our having to keep an eye one him. Although most of the action was on Clement Street (aka Chinatown 2), Arguello was also closed from Golden Gate Park up to the start of Clement. In combination with the regular Sunday street closure in the park (and the fact that we live three blocks away) we rode the whole way without having to worry about cars except at a couple of intersections staffed by crossing guards. Even though it is always a bear climbing up Arguello into the park on the way home, it was worth it.

Spotted at Richmond Sunday Streets: skeleton bike

Spotted at Richmond Sunday Streets: skeleton bike

We used to live in the Inner Richmond, back when we were a one-kid family. We liked it then, although it eventually made sense to move closer to campus, but we’d like it even more now. Richmond Sunday Streets overlapped what is now a regular farmers market that takes over a few blocks of Clement Street every Sunday (now permitted to 2014). That didn’t exist when we lived nearby. And with Halloween coming up there were costumes as well. Even bike costumes!

Big Dummy with pirates--see what I mean? Costumes!

Big Dummy with pirates–see what I mean? Costumes!

We often see friends at Sunday Streets, and this was no exception—these days I’m starting to recognize bikes, at which point I stop to look for the people attached to them that I know should be around somewhere. As a bonus, we also got to meet a handful of new-to-us people with cool bikes. One family met us in Golden Gate Park to try out the Bullitt, even though they already own a pretty righteous Big Dummy. And I was reminded once again how much you can load on a Big Dummy, a trick that is evidently not exclusive to Family Ride.

Finally, I meet another triple tandem family.

Finally, I meet another triple tandem family.

People break out the big bikes for street closures. At Sunday Streets I’ve now spotted three different triple tandems—green, pink, and red—and this time we met the dad who rides the pink triple. He told me that he’d bought the frame used and built it up from there—he had no idea who manufactured it, but what a score.

On the way home we stopped at an intersection with a guy on a folding bike who told us our electric assist was “cheating.” I find this kind of thing pretty tiresome—since when are there competition rules in transportation cycling?—but Matt is more patient than I am. “We haul two kids up Parnassus Heights,” he said. “They should pedal on their own!” responded our critic. This is ludicrous—our son was on his bike that day, which is how we know that he can’t yet get up that hill on his own, even though he is a strong rider for his age. But after that this stranger told us that an assist was the right thing to do, and that he wanted one of his own. These moments make me wonder how much of the occasional grousing we hear about electric assist constituting “cheating” is simply envy.

How cool is this Bilenky?

How cool is this Bilenky?

But to sweeten the ride home, we met up with another cool cargo bike: a BionX Bilenky! I’ve seen a couple of Bilenky cargo bikes before, usually on the flats as the Bilenky front-loaders are not known as great climbers. But with a BionX it hardly matters. The rider told me that he lives above Buena Vista Park (for those unfamiliar with San Francisco, if there is a view, inevitably there is a steep hill associated with it). “I’m living the dream!” he told me.

This is the part of our new condo that doesn't need anything fixed.

This is the part of our new condo that doesn’t need to be fixed.

I’m now riding nearly every day, and walking without the cane. My limp gets a bit less noticeable every week. I keep meaning to write more, but I’ve been overwhelmed, mostly because (drum roll) we just bought a condo. Our new place is three blocks from our current rental, but every one of those blocks is downhill. And it is on a designated bike route, which means: a flat street. We’ll no longer need the assist just to get home. We won’t be able to move into the new place for months because it has… issues that need to be addressed (including the world’s most unusable kitchen). But we are counting the days.

And check out our new neighbors. I am so excited that we will be living down the street from these people.

And check out our new neighbors. I am so excited that we will be living down the street from these people.


Filed under Uncategorized

The only thing we have to fear

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

In words of my husband: “Look! It’s gimpy on her death machine.”

I get a lot of questions about how I’m getting around after being hit by a car. The answer is that I mostly ride my bike. It’s a lot easier than walking, I can always park right in front of where I’m going which means less walking than if we drove, and we still don’t have a car anyway. This often surprises people. They assume that I’ve taken up driving. “You’re so brave!” they say, which sometimes sounds a bit like “You’re crazy!”

I would be lying if I said there aren’t moments when I am afraid. It comes up particularly at intersections when I want to turn left, because, duh, I was run over from behind at a stop sign while trying to turn left. I make a lot of Copenhagen left turns now. Cars coming up behind me make me really nervous still. But it’s getting better. My personal experience notwithstanding, getting run down from behind is statistically speaking the least likely way to get injured while riding a bicycle. I just have put the time in so that my emotions can catch up with what I know.

We still haven't really missed the minivan.

We still haven’t really missed the minivan.

I’d also be lying if I said we didn’t consider buying a car. There was a lot of driving to appointments when I was incapacitated, and we didn’t know when I’d be mobile again. However our flirtation with the idea of getting a car was pretty brief. With my right leg broken, I couldn’t drive any more than I could walk, and if someone else was going to drive me, I might as well take a shuttle or call for a ride. Moreover, I learned from my surgeon and other patients that the most common cause of my particular injury—a shattered leg—was getting T-boned in a car. I talked to people who’d been trapped in their cars for hours while being sawed out and were understandably phobic about ever getting into one again (at least the EMTs could scrape me off the street and set up a morphine drip right away). A lot of people have had this experience, and they didn’t exactly sell me on the safety of driving in lieu of biking. On top of that, cars are really expensive, and we had plenty of other things to spend money on at the time. And I wasn’t really feeling very car-friendly after being smashed by one either.

For the first month after my surgeries, I was supposed to stay in bed for 23 hours a day. For entertainment, I could use the continuous passive motion machine, which slowly bent my leg for me to improve my range of motion, up to eight hours a day. It was very boring. I was surprised to learn how serious my surgeon was about not just staying in bed, but staying at home. Even though the steel plate he put in my leg supported the bones, they were still in pieces, and he would have preferred that I never went outside at all. Even being bumped by someone passing me on the street could knock the bones out of alignment and require them to be reset, which would also restart the clock on how long I had to stay off my leg. Every time I fell down while using crutches, he wanted to take another x-ray to see if the bones had shifted. During that time I left the house at most once a week, to go grocery shopping. Matt drove a rental car over so I could shop while riding an electric cart.  As pathetic as that was, it was still a total thrill compared to anything else I had going on at the time.

I think a lot about this when people ask me now about the risks of getting hit again while on a bicycle, which people often do although it is the last thing I want to contemplate. If we were really concerned about injury above all else, we should never leave our couches. Even walking around our neighborhood risks injury, and I could avoid that by never leaving the house. But no one would suggest that it was a good idea to sit on the couch all day to avoid the risk of getting hurt by tripping on the sidewalk or bumping into someone. Even my surgeon wants me to walk around now, so my bones will regrow faster. Staying inside is risky in a different way—bodies were meant to move, and sitting around all day makes people unhealthy. Instead of sitting “safely” on the couch, we’re all advised to get out of the house and rack up at least 10,000 steps per day, broken sidewalks or no.

It’s this that I think about when I think about driving instead of riding a bike. On a per mile basis, yes, bicycling has higher injury rates than driving, but of course people go much further distances when driving. On a per hour basis the risk of injury is very similar. But driving a car is the physical equivalent of sitting on a couch, and our bodies were meant to move. When the risks of chronic disease are included, riding a bike is several times safer than driving, despite the higher risk of injury. Those injuries are the statistical equivalent of tripping on the sidewalk, and most of them are about as dangerous—most injuries sustained on a bicycle involve only the rider and are preventable. What happened to me was terrifying and dramatic and depressing (especially the part where I learned yesterday that my leg probably won’t be fully healed until early 2015, so I am basically all about assisted bikes from this point forward) but it was also anomalous.

Ride on.

Ride on.

By the time I was allowed to actually bear weight on my leg, I was so stir-crazy that I would have tried almost any activity, but walking was hard (it’s still hard). Luckily for me, our bicycles were waiting in the basement. I can’t walk at normal speeds yet, and I get tired quickly, but I can ride like anyone else. And although some days I have more trouble believing it than I should, I know there’s really nothing to fear. In the long term, riding a bicycle is still the safest way to get around.


Filed under car-free, commuting, injury, San Francisco

Back to zero (waste)

The pantry

Our pantry (it feels weird to post a picture of our kitchen shelves)

Our zero-waste effort suffered some setbacks when I was injured. In general I’d argue that once it’s established, zero waste doesn’t require additional effort or time, and it’s certainly cheaper. The transition is a hassle—so if I were going to do it again I’d do it on a replacement basis, where when we ran out of one thing, we replaced it with a less wasteful alternative—but whatever weird stuff you do, once it’s familiar, acquires the easy grace of any other habit.

But Matt didn’t have the same shopping habits and haunts that I did when I was incapacitated. There was a lot of takeout, and although takeout pizza boxes are compostable, even our kids won’t eat pizza forever. Moreover, the in-home physical therapist who came to work with me twice a week brought a collection of disposable medical supplies (gloves, bandages, thermometer covers). And we certainly weren’t going to turn down any of the gifts of food or anything else people brought us, no matter how they were packaged. We were just grateful to have them.

The fridge (the empty shelf usually holds lunchbags)

Our fridge (the empty shelf usually holds lunchbags)

Now that I’m more of an independent person again, I’ve been slowly rebuilding the zero waste muscles along with the ones in my leg. Despite the setbacks, though there were two big gains. The first is that our daughter changed preschools to a Japanese immersion program. Although this preschool is crazy with the art projects (and with music and dance; it is totally awesome), unlike the old preschool they eschew stuff like foam stickers and stick primarily with recyclable materials. There is an occasional plastic bead necklace, but overall our weekly landfill haul no longer has a lot of art piling up.

Our cheese shop is delighted to use our containers for hummus, crackers and cheese. All we had to do was ask.

The local deli is delighted to use our containers for hummus, crackers and cheese. All we had to do was ask.

The second is that I discovered there is a way to recycle a limited amount of soft plastics in San Francisco. I have mixed feelings about plastics “recycling.” Even though I know better, it is easy to grow complacent about the fact that we can chuck a fair bit of plastic into the recycling bin. I know full well that it’s not really being recycled, but there are days when I’d prefer not to think about that. On the other hand, there are some things, like my contact lens solution bottles, for which there are no easy substitutes. I’m pretty sure that it’s better to down-cycle those plastic bottles into fleece than to throw them into a landfill. I try to be mindful and not go nuts with it.

In hindsight it astonishes me that we once used plastic bags at the farmers' market. They give you hefty (unannounced) discounts if you bring your own bags.

In hindsight it astonishes me that we once used plastic bags at the farmers’ market. They give hefty (unannounced) discounts if you bring your own bags.

So anyway, Cole Hardware in San Francisco recycles a small amount of soft plastics for members of their buyer club (free, and worth joining for the great coupons, which I used to build up our collection of pantry jars). There are restrictions in terms of amount and condition. Bags must be clean and free of food waste—otherwise they’d attract vermin—and you can only bring one small bagful per visit. I called and asked them about it, and they are sending them to the one place I’ve ever heard of that turns plastic bags into more plastic bags. That is an interesting business. Recycled plastic bags, despite being a more sustainable alternative than virgin plastic bags, are not very popular. Thanks to the many colors of bags that are sent for recycling, the end product is always a brown or grey plastic. Unfortunately people and businesses who buy plastic bags typically like them to be clear or white. Recycling is often one of those business concepts for which there is more supply than demand.

Weird bulk stuff is where Rainbow Grocery really shines. Nearby are things like bulk honey, vinegar and fresh pasta.

Weird bulk stuff (miso, tahini, almond butter) is where Rainbow Grocery really shines. Nearby are things like bulk honey, vinegar and fresh pasta.

I am no fan of soft plastics, but I’m glad that they’re doing this. We occasionally get packages wrapped in plastic, or buy something with a surprise plastic wrapper inside a paper or glass container, and being able to save those for our next visit to the hardware store feels better than just tossing them.

This is the bulk section at one of our local grocery stores (smaller than most of them, but useful in a pinch).

This is the bulk section at one of our local grocery stores. I had never really noticed it before this year.

At this point we have gotten most of the easy stuff under control. We shop in the bulk section with reusable grocery bags and jars and get most of our produce sticker-free at the farmers’ market. We compost what we can, recycle what we can, and with the help of the Cole Hardware soft plastics recycling program, have shrunk our landfill waste to whatever mystery-material junk our kids pick up at school or off the sidewalk, plus a few synthetic rubber bands. Food-related waste, it turns out, is pretty simple, and our kitchen has never been more uncluttered. Don’t buy takeout or processed foods, and when in doubt, have a salad. We put a pot of (bulk) beans in the oven every Saturday morning, throw every leftover vegetable in the fridge into a soup on Sunday night, and divide them both out over the week’s dinners. That right there is the reason zero waste is the world’s most effective diet, and also why it can be done on less money than a California family can get in food stamps. Unfortunately people who really live on food stamps rarely have the kinds of shopping options or resources to store fresh foods that we do. But given that we do, it seems ungracious not to use them.

This is part of Rainbow Grocery's bulk bath and body section, which definitely makes life easier.

This is part of Rainbow Grocery’s bulk bath and body section, which definitely makes life easier.

From that point things get harder, even though we buy used when we can. The bathroom is a thorn in my side. We buy soaps and shampoo and conditioner in bulk, but our kids come home with band-aids and we’re still tossing non-compostable dental floss. (I tried to buy a carton of compostable silk floss and got sent a carton of non-compostable non-silk floss. When I complained, the seller refunded our money and told us to keep the carton as an apology. So we are working our way through it.) There are recyclable and compostable toothbrushes and we use those. Tom’s of Maine will recycle their empty toothpaste tubes if you send them back, so we do that too. But there are still dribs and drabs of stuff that trickle through. We are at the point where we’d have to put in a lot more effort for incremental gains, and I wonder whether that is the best use of our time.

Lots of things are available in bulk, once you start looking for them.

Lots of things are available in bulk, once you start looking for them.

The fundamental problem is that we live in a society where waste is the default option. It requires a certain mental effort and thoughtfulness to push through that. When I do there’s usually a lower-cost and lower-effort option, which makes sense. (That could be said of many things, another obvious one being the ostensible point of this blog, which is technically about alternative transportation. But once down that rabbit hole one tends to drift a bit into other counter-cultural stuff–although not yet to Burning Man!) Waste is presented as the default option because it’s a way to sell more stuff. But we don’t have to play along.


Filed under San Francisco, zero waste

A reliable bike

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Great Highway's Sunday Streets last weekend. They saw lots of friends.

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Sunday Streets

The things that I write about on the blog are only a portion of what’s really happening. This is a problem inherent to life, I think: you get so busy living that there is only so much time to talk about it all. This can lead to some false perceptions. One that’s come up lately, I’ve realized, is the sense that the Bullitt spends a lot of time in the shop. That’s not really true. It’s just that the times it goes to the shop it really ticks me off. After almost a year the Bullitt has been impressively reliable, with only a couple of exceptions that are, frankly, the result of our ignorance.

The first exception relates to the gearing. I have an aversion to pinning up my pants to keep them from getting caught in the chain, although I’m getting over it. The standard setup on a Bullitt is a triple front ring, which is great for hauling up hills, but as many riders already know, is basically incompatible with a chain guard. So when we bought the Bullitt, we put an internally geared front hub on it, the FSA Metropolis Patterson crankset.

The Metropolis is unquestionably cool, and you won’t need to roll up your pants. Unfortunately, it is not built to withstand the kinds of loads and riding we do. It is very sensitive to people doing things, like, say, pedaling over a speed bump and smashing unexpectedly into a hidden pothole on the far side, or to a rider shifting down after hitting a quicker-than-expected red light with a fully loaded cargo bike and then pushing off on a steep uphill from a dead stop.  These are not what I would call conventional bicycle riding situations, unless of course you are a family living on a steep hill in San Francisco, in which case they’re like daily rituals. So we broke the Metropolis. Twice. After the second time, we replaced it with a triple front ring, which withstands anything we throw at it (and if it didn’t would be cheap and quick to fix anyway). That wasn’t particularly expensive, but it was very time-consuming.

I miss the Metropolis, because it shifted like a dream when it wasn’t broken and had a lot of range, but it was not to be. In the meantime, I’ve learned to embrace skinny pants. Sure, they may not be the most flattering look, but they don’t catch in bike chains and they are wonderful at compressing a broken leg that tends to swell up at the end of the day. Although maybe that’s just me.

Hanging out with the Rosa Parks bike fleet

Hanging out with part of the Rosa Parks bike fleet

The second exception came up pretty recently. The Bullitt went back to the shop for another time-consuming repair when we broke over a dozen spokes at once on the rear (BionX) wheel. This turns out to be a BionX and San Francisco-related thing (San Francisco is hard on bikes). The first time we didn’t realize what the issue was so we had the bike shop replace the spokes and re-true the rear wheel. The folks at The New Wheel were the ones who warned us that it would happen again unless we put a stronger rim and spokes on that rear wheel. One week later, we learned how right they were when three of the new spokes popped. That’s a lesson to all of us, yes? Go to the pros with your electric assist bike! So we took the Bullitt back to the shop and now we have a thicker rim and spokes and they are hanging in without incident. This was pretty cheap, but once again, time-consuming.

There have been other odds and ends, but they don’t affect our ability to ride the bike. Matt dropped the BionX controller and destroyed its display, which now looks like something out of a slasher film. It still works, though. One of the fiberglass poles holding the rain cover has split twice—the first time probably due to the combination of wind sheer and the kids messing with it, and the second time due to some drunk baseball fans snapping it in two. Splendid told us how to order spare fiberglass poles, which are now sitting in the garage for the next time it happens. I think they cost $15. If you happen to have obnoxious sports fans roaming your neighborhood, you too may want some spare poles.

The two big repairs represented several weeks in the shop taken together, and those messed with our lives. The Bullitt has become what our car used to be, and we use it almost every day. I wrote about those incidents because they were such an unpleasant shock—with the Bullitt our lives are pretty easy and without it they start to derail.

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

But it did not fail it when we needed it most. All last summer while I was bed-bound for 23 hours a day, Matt used it to carry both kids to school and preschool and summer camp. At the time, our daughter was still attending preschool on the top of Mt. Sutro, and our son’s summer camp was up one of the toughest hills we have ever had occasion to ride regularly (9th Avenue from Irving to Ortega, for locals reading along). And although there were days that we needed to call in friends for a carpool or a family member to walk someone home, mostly Matt managed all of that extremely grim summer solo. So how can I hold a crankset and some broken spokes against the Bullitt? Especially when I know they won’t happen again? Also, Matt is awesome.

We started this year knowing that there was trouble in the wind. The university decided to kick everyone out of faculty housing, our daughter’s preschool, disastrously, was taken over by a for-profit corporation, and the campus where I work was scheduled for closure with everyone on site told we would move “somewhere.” As bad as all of that was, we could not have predicted how much worse it would get when I was run down by a distracted driver in April. For a week we assumed that our car-free days were over. But with my right leg shattered it turned out that I couldn’t drive either, so here we are. I’m riding again and the Bullitt is still hauling the kids. I can’t yet do everything that I used to do, but the bus and rideshare make up the difference.

Thinking about future careers at preschool

Thinking about future careers at preschool

And in other ways, we seem to have turned the corner. In July our daughter started at a new preschool, a Japanese immersion program that is a feeder for Rosa Parks. She loves it so much we have to drag her home every evening. The office move keeps getting postponed another couple of years into the future. University housing can’t kick us out as long as I’m disabled, but we have other progress on that front as well. I am walking again, and people tell me my cane looks badass. We’ve been taking long weekends with the kids to try to make up for their having such a bummer of a summer–the other week we camped in a (handicapped accessible) yurt, and we’re headed to the coast this weekend. It’s been one hell of a year, and it’s not over yet.  But life is a little easier with a reliable bike.


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