Monthly Archives: March 2015

Things we’re all too young to know

I wonder why I remember some moments and not others. Obviously, going to Copenhagen made a big impression: without that trip, this blog wouldn’t exist. My memory stutters along, large gaps strung together with brief glimpses between like photographs, and short films that fade on either end into nothingness. I have taken my kids to parks more times than I can count, but I remember “going to the park” as the morning that my son, at less than two years old, wouldn’t sleep, so we walked over to play on the swings at 5am, and he sat on my lap on the big kid swings and laughed as the sun came up. “Going to the park” is also the afternoon my daughter ran off, barefoot, in a crowd at Golden Gate Park, leaving me searching for over half an hour until another mom spotted me looking panicked and carrying her shoes, and came over to ask if I was looking for a little girl. She had wandered over to the carrousel and was on her 10th free ride. She’d told the operator she’d lost her mommy, which was true, although it hadn’t exactly been unintentional. I remember we had ridden the Brompton that day.

I wonder why those particular events stuck in my memory rather than a hundred other times when my kids did more or less the same things. Why do I forget so much? The memories that are left take on the weight of all the other experiences I have forgotten, invested with more than they really contain. On reflection I think that they are times that I felt alive. I spend a lot of my time working in an office or sleeping. These things are not memorable because it feels as if nothing is happening. Time spent watching television blends into a slurry of sameness, and the driving parts of the road trips I’ve taken are largely, and happily, forgotten. I remember more of my bicycle commutes than I do of our old car commutes. I remember going to Disneyland as a child, but nothing of the drive there. The dark side of this forgetting is the expectation that the time drivers lose is truly forgettable, which turned out to be extremely untrue when one of them ran me down. I don’t know how to value the time that was lost, or the time that will be lost.

Four months ago, I learned that a friend from childhood (a lifelong non-smoker) had been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. Now that I work in cancer prevention, I know that there are cancers that are unlikely to kill you (endometrial, skin), and cancers that are likely to kill you pretty soon (liver, pancreas). And then there is lung cancer, probably the only cancer that can make people wish they’d been diagnosed with liver cancer instead.

With an old friend, the memories crowd each other even with all the things that I’ve forgotten. We were lab partners in high school chemistry, a subject in which she excelled and in which I definitely did not excel. She showed me how to see the phosphorescence in the bay, we drew cartoons of the ridiculous books we read, and we dated the same boy, sequentially and cheerfully. During summers in college I would come home after long bike rides to read emails she’d written from Costa Rica or Madagascar, and there are bits of knowledge I carry even now from them, like that countries that were once French colonies have less wildlife than their neighbors because the French ate everything. When we sailed in the afternoons in Birch Bay the water was so shallow that the sun baked it all afternoon until the bay became the world’s largest hot tub. In graduate school we hiked through the Berkeley Hills and shopped at the Davis farmers’ market. I visited her in Bodega Bay during the summer that she had to haul buckets of water every day to save the patches of wild strawberries that she studied for her dissertation. When she became a postdoc in the UK I learned that American PhDs were worth more than European doctorates, which turned out to be useful knowledge when I lived in France. She and her husband visited when my children were born, bringing fruit and cheese and crackers before I was even ready to leave the house. Her work changed over time, to tracking the viruses used in bioterrorism, so every few years the FBI would call me with more questions about our past as her security clearance grew more rarified. And so I remember more than I would otherwise, more than I could write about or share. But it never seemed to matter when I remembered and what I forgot, because there was always more time. Until suddenly, there wasn’t.

Even with so many memories there are some that return, again and again. I remember one summer afternoon, when we met at the park by the bay. I rode my bike, the red Nishiki 10-speed mixte that I rode everywhere then, and she rode hers. I locked up while she did aerial cartwheels on the grass. We walked to the beach and looked through the tide pools, dissected some of the dead wildlife, and considered checking out the body of a seal. We decided against it because we hadn’t brought gloves and it was starting to smell. We talked about everything and nothing.

What makes that memorable? Why does my mind keep returning to that afternoon? My red bike. A green cable lock. The fractal edge of a rocky beach. The sun in the sky. How does one memory hold so much weight? She says she is not afraid to die. I wish I remembered everything.

 

2 Comments

Filed under rides

People of the bicycle

I think this study was conducted on the day that I realized it was time to get some fenders on my bike.

I think this study was conducted on the day that I realized it was time to get some fenders on my bike.

This week we got a notice from school that the San Francisco Unified School District Commute Study results were out. I had a vague memory of this study when it was in the field, asking people about how they’d gotten to school, which unfortunately happened during one of the rare weeks when it actually rained. So I have good reason to suspect that the active transportation numbers are an underestimate. How did our kids’ school do?

  • Percentage of bicycle commuters in SFUSD overall: 1.5% (ouch!)
  • Percentage of bicycle commuters at Rosa Parks: 6.5%

Relatively speaking, it’s totally awesome; more than four times greater than the citywide average. Objectively speaking, well, we’re a long way from Copenhagen. However, our kids are in a citywide program, so there is reason to expect more driving, rather than less of it. Yet there is less driving—a lot less driving.

  • Percentage of car commuters in SFUSD overall: 56%
  • Percentage of car commuters at Rosa Parks: 48%

I have no idea what the car commuting percentages are like in less urban locales. I presume based on talking to people who live elsewhere that, outside the districts that still maintain a robust busing program, basically everyone drives. As SFUSD points out in its flyer, walking and biking to school can improve health and concentration. However from my perspective the bus is a great option as well—no need to park, it’s okay to drink a glass of wine, the kids sometimes don’t get as wet, you avoid having to climb steep hills or cross terrifying intersections unprotected, etc. My suspicion is that SFUSD is underselling the bus option because it cut most of its bus routes to save money. Nonetheless, people using passive transportation at Rosa Parks take a lot of buses. In fact the school soccer team is called the Rosa Parks Buses (best name ever). Rosa Parks and buses, it’s like a thing.

  • Percentage of bus commuters in SFUSD overall: 16%
  • Percentage of bus commuters at Rosa Parks: 24%

Don't even start with that "you can't carry [X] on a bike" nonsense.

Don’t even start with that “you can’t carry [X] on a bike” nonsense.

As mentioned, I suspect that overall this was an underestimate of the families using active transportation, but the relative numbers, given that our kids attend a citywide program, are enough to make the case that we are the people of the bicycle and the bus.

But perhaps you are, as yet, an aspiring San Francisco family biker, rather than an established one. And if you are like many of the people who email me, you may be wondering what bike to get. If so, have I got news for you. I mentioned a while back that Vie Bikes in San Francisco was planning a launch of a family bike rental program. Well, it’s here, with an impressive lineup that includes Bullitts, Boda Bodas, and the Butchers and Bicycles trikes. Apparently you need a promotion code if you want to book one; happily, anyone is welcome to use mine: HUMOFTHECITY001.

And last but not least, Sunday Streets is back in season, with the usual opener last weekend on the Embarcadero that we have not yet managed to attend in any year. On April 12th it’s in the Dogpatch while we are out of town, but we’re definitely eying May 10th in the Mission and June 14th in the Sunset (despite a date that all but guarantees maximum fog presence). Hope to see you there.

4 Comments

Filed under bike share, car-free, commuting, destinations, family biking, San Francisco

We tried it: Faraday Porteur

It's not just a bike, it's also a coat rack.

It’s not just a bike, it’s also a coat rack.

Our kids are getting older, and as a result, I can imagine something that was previously kind of unimaginable, which is riding a bike that’s not actually a cargo bike. Late in 2014, this dream drew a little closer to reality, because Faraday Bikes was offering its bikes for a week’s free test ride to anyone who asked. And I asked. Poor Matt ended up being the solo kid hauler for that week, as I gleefully rode through the city childfree. He was glad to see it go, but not me. I have seen the future.

The Faraday Porteur grew from a concept city-bike to a Kickstarter campaign to a real company, a journey that is as desirable as it is unlikely. The Porteur is an assisted bike, and I first saw it in 2012 in a furniture store, as the company had zero connections to actual bike shops at the time. Checking out a bike in a furniture store brought home the inherent difficulties involved in buying any bike, let alone an assisted bike, without local bike shop support. The woman selling sofas had no idea how the bike worked and had lost the brochure. It didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Now you can buy the Faraday Porteur in real bike shops, including locally at The New Wheel, which pretty much lives by the mission statement of selling not-crappy bikes. This does inspire confidence. Throughout it all, it has remained a bike unlike any other. Six word review?

Faraday Porteur: It’s the cool bike.

A long time ago, I was reading advice on what bike to buy. The article is now lost to the internet wayback machine, but it said that when you go looking for bikes, there is often the bike that you think that you should buy, because it’s the practical or affordable choice, and the bike that you want to buy, the cool bike, which is the bike you desire whether or not it’s practical or affordable. And the author said: “Buy the cool bike.” Why? Because you’ll ride the cool bike, and not leave it in the garage, wishing that you were on the cool bike. Your definition of a cool bike will change over time and in different circumstances. We are still in the stage of our lives where our Bullitt is the cool bike, although for most people, it might better be described as the “slack-jawed disbelief” bike. In general I think “buy the cool bike” is excellent advice. And I can say one thing for sure after a week on the Faraday Porteur: whatever its weaknesses (all bikes have weaknesses), EVERYONE thinks it’s the cool bike. Do I want this bike? Heck yes. I have lust in my heart for this bike. For my needs, it’s not yet perfect, but I am still in the kid-hauling years, so I figure they have time to work out the last few kinks for me. I know from talking to the company representatives when I dropped off the bike that some of the changes I would make are already in progress.

Charging in the garage.

Charging in the garage.

It is difficult to describe people’s reactions to this bike, but I will try. Like the Bullitt, the Faraday is not necessarily the best bike for shy people. For the week that I rode it, I was the most popular that I have ever been. I suddenly found my road-racing neighbor casually hanging out by the garage. Our block is surprisingly cargo-bike heavy, with an Urban Arrow to one side of us and a Frances on the other, but this particular neighbor, notwithstanding our mutual respect and fondness, views all our cargo bikes with what I would describe as fascinated horror. His interest is in road bikes, and he has lovingly rebuilt over a dozen of them, each of which cost more than our entire bike stable, and he rides them exclusively for athletic reasons. Yet every morning that I had the Faraday, he was there when I left home and arrived home, asking questions about it. “That is a really nice bike,” he’d say. On the last day that I had it, he took pictures. When I got to the office with the Faraday, I was far too paranoid to leave a loaner bike at the racks, so I rode up with it in the elevator and parked it in my office. And during that week, there were always, mysteriously, a half-dozen people who’d struck up conversations next to my office door around the time I came in and when I left, who also quizzed me about the bike. My more self-confident colleagues wandered into my office pretty much at will to ask questions about it. Heads turned when I was riding. When our cousins came down from the North Bay for the weekend, I had one of them try it and he yelled as he rode, “This is AWESOME! AWESOME!” I imagine this is something like your life if you are a supermodel. It would probably settle down in time, but it was absolutely fascinating. And yes, it was kind of gratifying.

Let’s be real: as a full-time cargo bike rider, I am biased to gush about any bike that is lighter than a Bakfiets, because for me, riding a normal bike is like suddenly losing 50 pounds, quite literally. However, I am not the only person who really, really likes this bike.

What I liked about the Faraday Porteur

  • The Faraday Porteur is beautiful, and I am as vulnerable to the allure of this bike as anyone else. Everything about it looks intentional. Even the wires match the frame. The handlebars support a controller for the assist
    Faraday pileup at the shop.

    Faraday pileup at the shop.

    as well as the usual collection of shifters and brakes and so on, yet it was the cleanest cockpit I have ever seen. Just looking down at it while riding was aesthetically gratifying. Yes, having a gorgeous bike is a luxury, and bikes don’t have to be lovely to be useful, but I can testify now that with a bike this beautiful and practical, I found myself making up useless errands to run so that I could ride it more often. “Sure, I checked the hold shelf at the library once today already, but I should check it again, because you never know.” I found myself dreaming up stuff like this despite the fact that we sold our car in 2012 and so we already ride our bikes everywhere all the time. I would cheerfully have ridden this bike all day long if I could have figured out a way to skip work and arrange child care.

  • The Faraday is extremely easy to ride, and intentionally so. The swept back handlebars are a comfortable width, the Brooks saddle (which is standard) is the choice of those who are picky about those things (I am not, but I like it too), and the gearing relies on a smooth-shifting internal hub that allows you to change gears even when stopped. I typically test-ride cargo bikes, and they all have learning curves to some extent, so maybe I’m overselling this, but it was just so fantastically simple.
  • This bike is both lightweight and balanced. This is probably my cargo bike experience talking again, but I could not get over how cool it was to be riding an assisted bike that I could pick up and carry up the stairs without a second thought. The balance of the bike makes this easier; the assist is on the front wheel and the internal gears are on the back wheel, so you can pick it up by the top tube(s) and it hangs evenly thanks to the equal weight on both wheels. This is not something that I have ever seen any other manufacturer of any bike worry about. It is one of the many thoughtful design features that made me think, “This is so obvious and yet no one has ever done it before.” Not everyone has the ambition to carry their bikes up the stairs, but being able to lift it up easily is also really handy for parking the bike in random places and tight racks that are normally completely out of the question for assisted and/or cargo bikes.
  • The ride is so smooth. Riding a bike in San Francisco comes with a certain amount of jostling, because many streets are poorly maintained. There are potholes galore, and riding over broken glass is a daily experience. On my normal routes, I now automatically hop out of the saddle at the worst points and even the kids know to brace themselves at certain intersections. Well, for one glorious week I said goodbye to all of that, because the Faraday eats potholes for breakfast. I was whizzing down McAllister through its endless ongoing construction one morning at full speed and barely even noticed the giant gaps in the asphalt. When I finally realized that I wasn’t getting bumped, I started aiming for them for a few blocks to prove the point to myself (sorry, Faraday, I’m sure that wasn’t great for the bike). God, it was awesome.
  • The electric assist, which is standard on the Faraday, is the smoothest assist that I have ever used. Also people don’t even notice it’s there unless you tell them. It is a pedal assist, and activated by torque, yet it feels different from traditional pedal assists because the motor is in front. What’s more, it is truly silent. The Faraday is frequently compared to Apple products, which is a fair comparison, because it doesn’t go in for a lot of unnecessary features: the assist controller is a physical toggle: Off/Low/High, and it shows a battery gauge, the end. You could use it blindfolded. When the assist is on, you feel like you are a superhero, but you can’t always feel it come on, because it never jerks, it just sort of slides into place as you’re moving along. I assume that they spent a lot of time developing this. It is another one of those thoughtfully engineered things that made me feel like the Faraday was almost a different species of bike.
  • This is an assisted bike, but you don’t need to use the assist. Typically an electric assist bike is carrying so much extra weight in the form of the battery and the motor that it can be unpleasant to ride without keeping the assist on at the lowest level. This is particularly true given that assisted bikes tend to be used to carry lots of stuff. However on the Faraday I found myself riding with the assist off most of the time. I flipped it on to go through big intersections and up hills, but kept it off when riding on flat streets or mild hills, because I didn’t need it. The Faraday staff wanted me to tell them, when the week was over, how much range I had been able to get out of the bike, and I was honestly unable to answer the question, because I spent so much time riding it with the assist off that I never ran down the battery before I made it home to recharge it, even after the couple of times when I forgot to plug it in overnight. I had range anxiety before I rode the bike, because the battery seems underpowered from the specs, but ultimately the issue never came up.
  • Although the Faraday is not billed as a cargo bike, it can easily carry a ton of stuff. Even back in 2012, when it was a Kickstarter campaign, it had a frame mounted front rack, so the steering wasn’t affected when you threw stuff in the basket. That front rack is still there, and it’s beautiful, bombproof, and laughably easy to take on and off. The only thing I would add to it is a matching cargo net, the best bicycle accessory ever, but mine sort of clashed with the white bike because it’s black. I was getting very picky about aesthetics after a week on this bike. They have a matching bungee cord for the front rack but a bungee cargo net is better. Faraday also offers a rear rack now, and if I were getting this bike, I would get neither or both, because putting just one of them on messes with the balance of the bike and makes it more of a hassle to carry. Who am I kidding, I would get both, the bike is plenty light enough to handle the weight and they’re so practical. The front rack can carry everything I needed in a workday. The rear rack would allow you to bring home a cart full of groceries as well.
  • This was my first experience riding a bike with a belt drive, and I am now a fan. No chain = no need for a chain guard. You can wear normal clothes and ride this bike.
  • The lights are integrated into the bike and they are always on when the bike is on, just like cars in Canada (and they stay on whether or not the assist is on). What’s more, if you decide to get the front rack, there is an option to mount the light on the front of it, so you can pile all kinds of stuff on the rack and still see where you are going. I found the lights to be plenty bright even for night riding on the unlighted paths of Golden Gate Park. This is a great commuter feature and much too rare, even on other assisted bikes.
  • The bike comes in different frame sizes, for those of many heights. At 5’7” I was, as usual, on the medium frame, but I have heard that people who are 5’4” can also ride that size, which suggests that the small frame may be suited to even the shortest among us. My road-racing neighbor, who is well over six feet tall, was really too tall to ride my medium frame bike, but I saw a similarly-sized rider at Faraday on a large frame.
  • How much does it cost? $3500. There aren’t really any options other than the front and rear racks that would change that price, and demand is such that it’s not likely to go on sale. For what Faraday is offering, which is an assisted bike made with exceptionally good parts, the price is reasonable. Yet like all assisted bikes that you would actually want to ride, it is definitely not cheap. (Unless you are used to buying expensive road bikes. Then you will laugh and tell me that it is a steal.)

What I didn’t like about the Faraday Porteur

  • I was terrified that it would be stolen. Seriously, I have never spent so much time worrying that I would lose a bike, and I don’t usually ride beater bikes. This bike is so appealing that the thought of leaving it at a bike rack gave me palpitations, and so I found myself making up errands only for situations where I could bring the bike inside or watch it from inside. I parked it my office most days, which doesn’t really bother anyone, but then I worried about it all through that week’s fire drill. Although, as mentioned, I have lust in my heart for this bike, one of my most serious reservations about the prospect of buying one is whether I would have the nerve to ride it and park it in many parts of this notoriously-bike-theft-prone city. This sounds kind of ridiculous as a downside (“I dislike that it’s so desirable”) but it’s a real issue.
  • In its current form, the Faraday is not a kid hauler. This is true even though with the new rear rack, it is entirely possible to put a Yepp Maxi on the back of the bike. However just because it is technically possible does
    Faraday with Yepp.

    Faraday with Yepp.

    not mean that it is a great idea. There are a number of issues that make riding with a Yepp Maxi kind of a non-starter. First is that the assist is really designed to haul one person (more on that below) and on steep hills, I suspect that it would be a struggle to carry a kid as well, even with the assist on high. Obviously for already-strong riders this isn’t an issue, but for many people it would be. Second is that the Porteur has a high horizontal top tube, so it’s designed to be mounted by swinging your leg over the back. With a Yepp seat on the back that’s impossible. I tried swinging my leg over the top tube as an experiment, which is how we get on and off our Bullitt and EdgeRunner, and it was, to say the least, not easy on this bike. The tube is just too high to make that move comfortable, and it kept clipping my shoe at the heel, which knocked me and the bike over a couple of times. With a kid strapped in the rear seat, that would be seriously scary. The Yepp Maxi actually having a kid in it raises a couple of other issues. Most annoyingly, the power button is placed right below the rider’s saddle, directly within reach of a Yepp-encased toddler’s hands. And the power button has a cool light that goes off and on when you press it. I don’t know any kid in the entire world who could resist turning the bike on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off as you rode, no matter how dramatically they were threatened. That makes having an assisted bike kind of pointless, and possibly dangerous. What’s more, the Yepp seat blocks the taillight, so riding with it at night would be a bad idea unless you clipped on an aftermarket light. It’s clear that the idea of adding a child seat is still very much in development at Faraday. They are developing a bike with a step-through frame that deals with a number of these issues at once. If I really wanted a Faraday as a kid-hauler I would wait for the step-through model or use a front seat (something like the Oxford Leco might work on this model).

  • The assist lacks pickup. This came up most often at intersections, when I really wanted a boost button. Honestly I didn’t feel that there was much difference between the low and high settings of the assist, so I would have preferred that the toggle be Off/On/Boost instead of Off/Low/High. And here is the San Francisco-specific concern: on steep hills, the assist felt underpowered, even with just me on the bike. I was very surprised, because this bike was designed in San Francisco, but on my first trip up Page Street (which I rode up from Market Street to Golden Gate Park, and which involves a surprising amount of elevation gain), I was working harder than I had expected I would. Honestly, I didn’t mind that much in the end, because it wasn’t overwhelming, and I appreciate having to work to go up hills sometimes. Exercise is healthy. However the assist is definitely not a hill-flattener. I was not particularly laden at the time, but if you added another 30-50 pounds of live child weight the effort involved would be even more noticeable. This for me is not a deal-breaker, but I definitely thought it was a missed opportunity.
  • The riding position on the Faraday is too aggressive for a commuter. The handlebars are too low. It was such a disappointment. When riding in the city it makes sense to be very upright, so you can see over the cars. That is why recumbent bikes in San Francisco are as rare as emeralds. Yet despite the swept back commuter style bars on the Faraday, I was hunched over riding this bike, like it was designed for a triathlon or something. A stem extender would be non-negotiable if I were going to ride this bike regularly (this is actually already in development for the step-through model at least, I saw it on the demo bike).
  • To my astonishment, I had occasion to test the fenders with more than my eyeballs, as I had this bike during the one week that it actually rained in San Francisco since forever. The rear fender is too short. I ended up with a stripe of mud on the back of my jacket to prove it (according to people in rainier locales, they are also too narrow). The fenders are bamboo, and beautiful, and this issue would probably never come up again for me personally, but if you live in a place where there is precipitation, you will want longer fenders.
  • Initially I blamed myself for this: I broke the kickstand, which is a Pletscher double. Then I found out that everyone who uses the Pletscher has broken theirs at least once. Some people have even broken multiple Pletschers. It’s a cool-looking kickstand, but given the quality of the rest of the parts, this bike should have something better. An Ursus Jumbo would be a much more solid choice.
  • Speaking of missed commuter opportunities, the Faraday has no bell. Yes, you can get an aftermarket bell, but on a bike where even the wires match the frame, not including a matching bell is a bizarre oversight. I really missed having a bell on a few occasions when I was nearly doored.
  • As mentioned above, the power button is poorly placed, as it is underneath the saddle. It’s horrible if you’re trying to carry a kid in back, who would mess with it, but it’s not great even if you’re not, as you have to dismount to turn the bike on if you forget to do it before you start riding. I did that a couple of times, as I was riding without the assist on so much of the time. I would realize that the lights weren’t on, or I’d hit a hill and suddenly, “Dang.”
  • The battery on the Faraday is enclosed in the down tube, so it can’t be removed for charging. For me personally it wasn’t a huge issue, because we ran outlets to our garage, and I just plugged it in there. If you keep your bike inside, which given the theft risk isn’t a bad idea and given the relatively light weight isn’t impossible to imagine, it’s also not a big deal. However there are several situations where this could be a real hassle. Moreover, the question of what to do when the battery needs to be replaced is unclear to me. The battery does have a two year warranty, which is about as good as it gets with assisted bikes. I would want to know more about this question before buying the bike.
  • Like all assisted bikes, at $3500, it is not cheap, even if it is a good value for the money.

This is not the time in my life when I would get a bike like the Faraday Porteur. However that time will come before too much longer, and I already want one. There are bikes that you ride, and even though they’re not perfect, you say, oh to heck with it, I want it anyway. I want to kick my kids off our bikes and get this bike. I loved the Faraday Porteur. It’s totally the cool bike.

15 Comments

Filed under commuting, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco