Category Archives: advocacy

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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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More bike parking, please

Check it out! Six shiny new bike racks!

Check it out! Six shiny new bike racks!

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

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

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


Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Bicycles and privilege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Worst bike parking award: Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

The racks get crowded even at 4pm, way before the pickup rush.

The racks get crowded even at 4pm, way before the pickup rush.

Bike parking throughout San Francisco is getting pretty crowded, especially compared to last year, and I can’t imagine how bad it’s going to get when the weather gets better. Sometimes I have to park the bike as far as a block away, which is trivial by comparison to how far we used to have to park our car, back in the driving days. But it annoys me even so because bike parking is easy and cheap to install (and also because I have become hopelessly lazy about walking).

There is plenty of space to install more of the terrible racks they have (kind of a worst-best alternative) but they haven't even done this.

There is plenty of space to install more of the terrible racks they have (kind of a worst-best alternative) but they haven’t even done this.

But there is bad bike parking and there is terrible bike parking, and the worst bike parking by far on my daily rounds is at my son’s after school program at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. It is the worst because it is a half-hearted attempt to put in bike parking that was horrifically slipshod, and it is the worst because despite multiple complaints from me and others in person, and in writing, plus a dedicated meeting I had with a building manager about it, they have done absolutely nothing to fix it. In Matt’s most recent discussion with the building staff yesterday afternoon, they said they weren’t planning to do anything about it either, because “we need that space for drop offs and pickups by car.”

These tree cages aren't even attached to anything, but there aren't any better alternatives.

These tree cages aren’t even attached to anything, but there aren’t any better alternatives.

The bike racks are pretty standard U-loops along the sidewalk. However they were installed smack up against bollards placed on the sidewalk, so it is only possible to use one side of the rack, because the bollards keep a bike from getting close enough to the other side. There are only a few racks, so given how many people arrive by bike, there are never enough spaces and people end up parking bikes to the cages protecting the trees. And there’s still not enough space. Even worse, the racks are so close-packed against other obstacles built into the street that it is virtually impossible to park a cargo bike there unless you get the one rack that isn’t smack against a bollard that allows for a bike wider than a fixie. The JCCSF at 5pm has bikes piled up outside with child seats, cargo bikes, and trailer-bikes, all ridden by parents like me who have chosen to ride with their kids instead of drive. Yet parking a bike outside the JCC is so difficult that trying to pick up my son on the Bullitt sends me into a fury every evening that I try it. I would retreat to a meter but there are no meters in the huge drop-off/pickup/bus zone outside the building.

By contrast, the after school program gives every family two cards to put in the car(s), whether you drive or not, that allow you to park a car for free for 15 minutes in their underground garage to pick up kids. They have a carefully orchestrated car pickup zone at the end of the day, complete with walkie-talkies, to make sure that parents who drive barely have to slow down to pick up their kids. Yet this pickup is so notorious for road rage that I get emails from the director of the after school program asking driving parents to please chill out and act like adults.

The JCCSF pays lip service to active transportation, like everyone else, but their bike racks tell the real story. I pick up my son there by bike because I go everywhere by bike, although I’m astonished that anyone else does. Yet they do. And given that there is such unmet demand, imagine how much less space they’d “need for drop offs and pickups by car” if they had some decent bike racks.

[Thank you, internet! We’d been asking JCCSF to install new bike racks for months, and were being blown off as recently as the day before I wrote this post. After posting, I got an email that very evening saying that they’ll be installing 6 new custom bike racks that will hold 12 bikes. In addition, they’re going to try letting parents have keycode access to a locked courtyard with an additional bike rack for preschool and after school drop-offs and pickups. We are thrilled! I know that some readers wrote to to JCCSF on our behalf and it is very much appreciated.]


Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco

How to get a bike for free

One of these things is not like the other.

One of these things is not like the other.

Recently I visited San Francisco’s waste management center. My university is a shared governance institution (often more in name than in deed) so I am expected to do service. One of my appointments is to the campus-wide Sustainability Committee. I also had to pick a sub-committee, and I asked for Transportation, because I am all about the bikes. But everybody wanted Transportation and I’m pretty junior, so they put me on Zero Waste instead. Anyway, all members of the Zero Waste sub-committee were asked to take a tour of San Francisco’s waste management centers. My first field trip!

San Francisco’s waste management is run by Recology, one of the country’s largest employee-owned cooperatives. San Francisco diverts 80% of its waste from landfills, better than any other municipality in the US and most countries in the world. The city’s goal is to be zero-waste by 2020. The university, which is Recology’s 2nd largest account, is hanging in at 63%. San Francisco has reached this point by implementing aggressive recycling efforts (including prosecuting recycling poachers), creating a hugely successful composting program (in part by instituting a $1,000 minimum fine for throwing compostables in landfill bins), and to a certain extent, by taking advantage of a quirk in how diversion rates are calculated (albeit no more than other cities and countries do).

This is some of the art made from found materials at the transfer station.

This is some of the art made from found materials at the transfer station.

Our tour was absolutely fascinating. Recology does not allow photos of most of its operations, because there are apparently trade secrets in the world of waste management. I realize that the dump is not a traditional tourist attraction, but if you happen to be in San Francisco, it is definitely worth checking out.

Our visit started at the business office, where we picked up hard hats and met the sales staff. “I’m Maria,” said one woman who looked like a supermodel heading down the catwalk. “I handle the city accounts, and I’m a dumpster diver.” From there we headed to the recycling transfer station.

If you have seen Toy Story 3, the recycling transfer station will feel somewhat familiar. Trucks enter the building (1/3 of its power is generated by solar panels on the roof, because that is how Recology rolls) and dump recyclables onto the floor. From there they are moved by giant front loaders onto even more giant conveyer belts that sort out paper, plastics, metal and glass as they lift materials to the second floor. The Toy Story 3 feeling comes both from being surrounded by garbage and from feeling like a tiny mote in a giant machine. The amount of material being moved through the transfer station is simply mind-boggling. It was difficult to grasp its scale. On the second floor, the materials the machines could not handle are hand-sorted. Watching this process made me despair for humanity, as my fellow San Francisco residents seem unable to grasp the concept of what belongs in the recycling. Dozens of workers attempted to pick out plastic bags, clothing, plastic bottles of motor oil, ad infinitum, from paper destined for bundling and eventual recycling. It was impossible. They aim for 90% appropriate materials in the bales, we were told. That should be easier than it is. The relentless efforts of the hundreds of garbage-snatching seagulls didn’t help matters either.

Is artistic reuse recycling, upcycling, or something else entirely?

Is artistic reuse recycling, upcycling, or something else entirely?

Recycling is a tricky concept. Some things are recycled and some are only kind of recycled. Glass and metal containers and shards are melted down and turned into more glass and metal containers. Concrete is smashed into sand and turned into more concrete. Although the process is energy intensive, these are closed loops.  These products are recycled. Paper is kind of recycled. High quality paper, like office paper, is usually turned into low-quality paper, like paper bags. Low-quality paper is turned into even lower-quality paper, like tissues and toilet paper. The tissues can go into the compost, but the toilet paper goes to landfill by way of the sewer system. The more non-paper waste that gets mixed into the paper, the less likely it can be reclaimed for higher-quality recycled paper. Rigid plastic is down-cycled. Assuming it isn’t thrown away outright, it gets one more use; bottles turn into plastic lumber or carpet or fleece, but once these materials wear out, they all go to the landfill. And soft plastics all go directly to the landfill, although only after Recology workers spend six hours out of every 24 picking plastic bags out of the recycling machinery. Less than thirty minutes into the tour, I was completely convinced that I should never buy another item wrapped in soft plastic. This is surprisingly hard, even in San Francisco.

The university facilities representative leading our group was less sanguine about San Francisco’s 80% diversion rate. Diversion rates are calculated by weight, and San Francisco recycles a lot of concrete. By volume, the endless sea of plastic is a much bigger problem, and landfills, of course, are packed by size and not by weight. Other universities in California also claim diversion rates of 80% but only, he said, “because they tear down buildings or repave parking lots every year.” Construction and demolition, as well as aggressive composting at San Francisco’s many restaurants and parks, boosts the calculated diversion rate. He estimated, glumly, that San Francisco residents are recycling and composting at most 40% of the waste that they could. And that this is the best rate in the country.

More art from reclaimed waste

More art from reclaimed waste

From the recycling transfer station, we headed to the main facility, where household waste, compost and landfill waste are packed up for their eventual destinations. Recology served us a nice lunch on plates and silver diverted from landfill, showed us an upbeat little movie, and answered questions. I was not brazen enough to ask whether the food was dumpster-dived, but after seeing what people throw away in this city, I would not be surprised if it was. We had lots of questions. I learned that you can recycle (okay, down-cycle) dental floss containers because they are rigid plastic; removing the metal cutter is nice but not necessary. Dental floss itself, however, is uniformly made of plastic and messes with sorting machinery and should always go in the landfill bin. Toothpaste tubes, tetrapaks: landfill. The soft plastics “recycling” bins at grocery stores that supposedly send plastic bags to be turned into park benches? Our facilities representative reported that almost no store will say where they’re actually going, so they’re probably being sent straight to the landfill.

The most hated word at Recology turned out to be “biodegradable.” Nearly everything is biodegradable eventually, they said. But people think that means it can be composted. It cannot. “Compostable” is a legally binding term in the state of California; if an item says it is compostable and it’s not, the state will levy massive fines. Biodegradable is a weasel word intended to sidestep the law. So “biodegradable” materials and bioplastics: landfill. The plastic keeps the biological material from composting, and the biological material contaminates the plastic. That was depressing.

More art from the gallery

More art from the gallery

Much less depressing was the visit to the Artist in Residence program, where artists are sponsored to create projects out of whatever they can find on site. Much of the art was wildly impressive, and there are regular shows where it can be viewed, as well as an outdoor sculpture garden. Many of the other sites showed where visitors came to drop off household waste sorted through it; construction debris is sorted, furniture is donated to thrift stores, electronic waste and batteries are sorted by type. Recology was also pioneering Styrofoam recycling; clean packing materials were compressed into thin, heavy sticks that could be used for things like crown molding. The process is hopelessly expensive and energy-intensive so it’s more of a demonstration project than a feasible way to handle waste, but it was interesting. The inevitable seagulls were controlled by an on-site falconer who kept four hawks circling all day. Recology had tried bottle rockets, netting and dogs, but the hawks were the most effective. We did not get to tour the compost transfer station, probably the biggest success of the program; San Francisco’s compost is used by California wineries and farms. And I got to take some compost home to show my kids what putting food waste in the compost bin, which they do diligently, really meant. They were completely floored.

Our old seat cushion went to the Pit. Is there any alternative?

Our old seat cushion went to the Pit. Is there a better alternative?

Our last stop was The Pit. Everything that goes into a black bin in San Francisco is dumped, unsorted, into The Pit, shoveled into tractor-trailers, and trucked to the landfill. The Pit is huge. It runs 24 hours a day and seven days a week. There is a smell. Trucks enter at the top level and drop their loads. The sounds of breaking glass and the efforts of occasional seagulls to snatch food make it pretty clear that a lot of what’s in The Pit could be recycled or composted (efforts to assess it suggest that two-thirds of what’s in The Pit could be diverted). Bulldozers shovel the waste into waiting tractor-trailers below. The process never stops. It is difficult to describe the feeling of watching massive piles of trash build and be shoveled away, endlessly. It turns out that material in landfills does not biodegrade. Everything that goes into the landfill is forever. I will never look at a garbage can the same way again.

This is how we shop now.

This is how we shop now.

I see now why were asked, as part of our service on the Zero Waste sub-committee, to visit Recology. This is the best that the United States currently has to offer in terms of waste management, and that was sobering. At home, post-tour, we are now uncompromising in using cloth produce bags (we had always used cloth grocery bags) at the farmer’s market and we don’t shop at Trader Joe’s much anymore, because there’s almost nothing to buy there that’s not wrapped in plastic. We now buy milk and yogurt in glass, and everything else in bulk. But mostly, we are buying less, because everything we buy must eventually be handled somehow, and packaging is not free.  It is probably not a coincidence that this month’s grocery bill is half of last month’s.

I am familiar with life-changing experiences by now, and this one didn’t require a trip to Copenhagen. I only had to ride across town.

But I promised to tell how to get a bike for free. The answer is to work for Recology. One of the tour guides mentioned that he never had to take his own bike to site visits and lock it outside, because he could always pick out a nice bike from the garbage. Recology workers never have to worry about San Francisco’s rampant bike theft. He admitted that the last bike he picked up was better than his commuter bike, “way more gears for the hills.” It’s entirely possible that anyone could show up at the dump and ask for a bike.

This is our refrigerator post-tour. We are trying harder.

This is our refrigerator post-tour. We are trying harder. (The glass jars are sold by Cole Hardware in San Francisco for thrift store prices, luckily for us.)

At Recology they suggest people stop calling the things in bins “garbage.” A better word for the many unnecessary things we throw away is “waste.” And a free bike is the least of it.


Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco, zero waste

The traffic problem

Blah blah blah hills in San Francisco blah blah blah

When we started riding with our kids in San Francisco, we faced two big issues: hills and traffic. Okay, there was also the wind. It’s really windy. I’ve gotten a lot stronger, though, and what’s more, an electric assist will resolve nearly any hill and wind problem. Soon we’ll have two assisted bikes. So I label those problems: solved.

This is the western approach to my office at Laurel Heights. There are a lot of tight squeezes en route.

The traffic issue was initially really intimidating. It is illegal for adults to ride bikes on sidewalks in the city, for good reason: there are lots of people walking on them. There are a lot of cars on the street. Cars in San Francisco pass really, really close. They are occasionally going much faster than we are, although that happens less often than you might think. Yet cars are big and heavy and could quite literally crush us like bugs. When I started riding there were occasional moments of sheer terror, like when I hit an unexpected stale green light while crossing an eight-lane intersection, and it cycled through yellow and on to red before I’d made it halfway across. There were times that cars turning next to me felt so close that I seriously thought they were going to mow me down, and I ran the bike up onto the curb.

Cars tend to hug the yellow line when passing bikes on my morning commute.

Yet there were only so many perceived near misses I could experience before recalibrating my definition of what was dangerous. San Francisco drivers don’t give anyone much space, but I know from talking to them that they are not trying to be intimidating. The roads are narrow and people in cars are used to passing other cars with only inches to spare. Cars get dinged up in the city as a matter of course because the standard approach to parallel parking in a small space is to back up until you hit the bumper of the car behind you, then move forward until you hit the bumper of the car in front of you, etc. City cars carry scrapes along their sides from tight merges. By the standard drivers apply to each other, you actually get a lot of room on a bike. After experiencing the first thousand close passes I simply couldn’t perceive them as life-threatening anymore. Would I prefer a three-foot passing rule? Heck yeah. But thanks to AAA and Governor Jerry Brown, that’s not going to happen anytime soon in California.

The Market Street bike lanes never lack for excitement.

We have adjusted. By the standards of people outside the city, I realize we must now look like psychotic bike messengers. I have no problem weaving through a two-foot gap alongside a line of stopped cars. Matt and I have both threaded through spaces much narrower than that with our kids on deck by heading to the right hand curb, leaning the bike a little, and pushing along with the curbside foot until we’ve passed, say, a broken-down bus whose driver is trying to reattach it to the overhead wires. Yet I don’t think of myself as particularly aggressive. I don’t run red lights, and I stop at stop signs. I’m not thrill-seeking; squeezing through pinch points is par for the course when riding on certain streets. Nor, for that matter, is anything I’ve done remarkable by the standards of San Francisco cycling, with or without kids involved.

Our son waits for the left turn signal to merge from the Wiggle to Fell Street on a recent Sunday. He was singing to himself when I took this picture.

Our kids have adjusted to city traffic even better than we have. My daughter occasionally taps on the windows of cars that pull up next to us at a stop, just to say hi. We’ve often held conversations with drivers and passengers at intersections; in many cases they’ve pulled up within a few inches specifically to talk to us: “Did you know your daughter is sleeping in the back?” “Where did you get that bike?” My son is unperturbed by traffic that I still find intimidating, and we have had to convince him not to do his tricks (“Look! I can put both feet off to one side!”) Kids are allowed to ride on the sidewalk, and because he’s aware that he tends to weave a little going up hills, he peels off our little peloton to the sidewalk when we head uphill so he has some room, and then slips back between us at the next curb cut when the ground levels out again. Along the Wiggle, there is a merge point where bike traffic is shunted across the travel lane into a dedicated bicycle left turn lane that runs in the middle of the road for a full block, and he cheerfully navigates this lane with cars rumbling by a few inches away on either side.

Our son learned to ride on these streets and sidewalks in our neighborhood.

Normal is what you’re used to, and after the first couple of months of riding I never thought about any of this until my mom came to town. I wanted her to have a chance to ride the mamachari, her first spin on an assisted bike, and one that was her size to boot. I figured we could ride a little on (what I perceive to be) our quiet neighborhood street, which is where my daughter rides her balance bike. No problem, right? She was worried about the traffic. “What traffic?” I asked. By traffic she meant there were cars. There were cars driving on our street, maybe 3-4 every minute on a quiet afternoon. I said we could walk down the hill to the park and ride there, in the parking-protected bike lanes. I didn’t realize when I made this offer that she meant she wanted to ride someplace with no cars at all. It turned out that by her standards even the Panhandle path, which is completely separated from cars, was too busy (and I didn’t even consider taking her there because the access points to the Panhandle are too heavily trafficked).

Usually I feel pretty good about these parking-protected bike lanes in Golden Gate Park (even though cars park overlapping the buffer zone).

So I took my mom down the hill, and she gamely got on the bike. And every time a car came within five feet of her, which was basically constantly, she was so frightened that she fell off. Even the parking-protected lanes freaked her out. She asked me to ride ahead. It turned out that this was because at every intersection, she dropped the bike when cars pulled up alongside. All of the drivers who saw this politely stopped, waited for her to get back on, then moved forward as she did, and of course she would fall off again as a result. When I figured out what was happening I felt like such a jerk. By that point my mom was drenched in fear-sweat and trembling and begged to walk the bikes home. She was terrified to ride in the city. She barely got a chance to try the assist. She liked it though. That was the only redeeming feature of the whole experience.

So hey, I’m a lousy kid! I sent my poor mom into a tailspin of terror. My only excuse is ignorance. I had no idea. I guess people really can get used to anything.

This is my normal route to work. Cars stop in the bike lane for school drop-offs; riders have to weave around. This registers as “annoying” now.

Whether people should have to get used to anything is a different question entirely. There is something deeply wrong with this city if its streets are terrifying to strangers, if they’re something that you have to get used to. And it’s not being on a bicycle that’s the issue: my mom won’t drive in San Francisco either. The result would be nearly the same: sure, she wouldn’t fall down behind the wheel of a car (yes, I’m a jerk) but she would still end up trembling and terrified. There is just so much going on. Drivers, particularly weekend drivers from out of town, get overwhelmed: on the way home from work on Friday night, I watched a distracted driver nearly roll his car over a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk (we talked after the oblivious driver had passed; he was shaken but fine). I can now spot suburban drivers out of their element pretty quickly and take evasive action, but why should this be necessary? A far better solution is many fewer cars moving much more slowly.

The Post Street bike route switches from sharrows to bike lanes. I see families riding this route fairly frequently on school drop-off mornings.

It may not sound like it reading this, but I feel much safer on a bike in difficult situations than I do in a car. I am not trapped in a lane. I can run up onto the curb or between parked cars if I feel threatened. In the worst case scenario, I can move onto the sidewalk and walk the bike. With rare exceptions, I do not travel on streets where traffic moves fast anymore, which inevitably merge with streets where traffic moves slowly, at which point there are collisions. We do rent cars occasionally, but I avoid it when I can because in a car, we are stuck in traffic. If a distracted driver becomes a threat, there is simply no place to go. Given that the current street design makes collisions inevitable, I’d rather be riding in a bus if we have to get involved. The bus always wins.

We ride on the Webster Street bike lanes to take our son to school. If our timing is good we meet other Rosa Parks families en route and make a bike train. If not, we wave to friends in cars.

Like everyone else I know who travels regularly by some mode other than a private car, I have always been a big fan of what advocate Gil Penalosa calls 8-80 streets: streets that feel safe to anyone from ages 8 to 80. Yet I never really understood what that meant until last week on a bike with my mom. I thought it meant things like the parking-protected lanes in Golden Gate Park where I like to ride with my kids, where they can bob and weave without risk of being run over. But those kinds of tricks with paint are the tiniest part of safe streets. In a parking protected bike lane my mom was still afraid. Riding with my kids, neither of whom is even eight years old yet, led me to underestimate the need for safer streets. My kids are fearless. They have adapted.

This is a safe street: on Sundays (and Saturdays from April to September), JFK Drive is closed to cars.

I realize now that safe streets are something else entirely. They would save us from ourselves. I’m glad I can navigate the streets of San Francisco as they are now on a bike, but I’m appalled that I didn’t remember that it was something I had to learn. If I hadn’t ridden with my mom last week, I would never have realized how much more change is needed.


Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Family Bike Day

I spotted this amazing red Onderwater right away. What a beauty!

There are some insanely awesome family bikes in San Francisco. Granted, to the best of my knowledge no one in the city is hauling seven kids on a Bakfiets (although I hear there are a couple of Bakfietsen in San Francisco, in the Mission). However the fabulously varied terrain of the city has led to all kinds of family bikes on the move. We saw many of them at the SFBC Family Bike Day last Saturday.

My kids’ lust for a tandem has not dimmed in the last year, so we were all very excited to see our second Onderwater family tandem, now roaming the streets of San Francisco. This bike is so cool. The dad who rode it had gotten it from My Dutch Bike, and said that having the kids in front made a world of difference in riding with them. This was their school commute bike. It was amazing.

This is the rare and elusive Joe Bike, now discontinued

Almost as obscure was the now-discontinued Joe Bike Boxbike, which was evidently purchased sight unseen two years ago and shipped to the city from Portland. Most of the family bikes, like ours, were basically bikes with a child seat slapped on the back: child seats are a cheap and effective way to get a kid from here to there, but they lack some style when stacked up next to the dedicated family haulers.

The Rosa Parks crew was also there in force, some with bikes and some looking for bikes. Over the course of the day, as bikes came and went, I must have seen a dozen orange Yuba Mundos; a couple were assisted, including the unstoppable BionX Mundo that we see most days on the way to school. I am continually impressed at the way that Yuba has hit a price/functionality point that is getting so many families on bikes.

The Metrofiets had it all.

In the One Family Bike to Rule Them All category was the Metrofiets that showed up later in the afternoon, complete with (now discontinued) Stokemonkey assist and Follow-Me tandem. Jaws dropped. There is nowhere that bike cannot go. It got so much attention that I realized it must be a real burden sometimes to ride a bike that is such a work of art. I get enough attention as it is just on the mamachari and the Brompton, which are pretty weird by themselves, but they aren’t in the same class.

My son was a little short for the blender bike, but pedaled on for the promise of smoothies.

The Family Bike Day was partly about showcasing family bikes, but it wasn’t just a roll call. The SFBC had brought a bike blender, and my son was so delighted that he made four smoothies on it, stopping only when he got so tired that he smashed his crotch on the top tube. That was a bad moment. There were classes on Biking While Pregnant (pro tip: raise your handlebars) and Biking with Toddlers (world’s easiest class to teach: “Let’s go look at all the bikes people brought”). At one point attendees were asked to organize by neighborhood as a way to make friends—alas, we were the only representatives of the Inner Sunset, so ultimately we formed an unofficial alliance with Rosa Parks parents from the Haight and the Presidio. My kids bought t-shirts and played in the grass.

Bike parking for prospective family riders

I ended up talking with a lot of the volunteers from SFBC, one of whom commented that it was frustrating that San Francisco was so far behind Portland in family biking. “Half the people here bought their bikes in Portland,” she sighed. “Uh, we just did the same thing,” I admitted. The reason why is pretty obvious: Portland has three bike shops targeting family biking, and San Francisco, well, doesn’t. We went into one bike shop that got annoyed when we tried to try out their demo child seat by putting my daughter into it (*cough* PUBLIC! *cough*) However I think that child-friendly bike shops are the result of the city becoming friendly to family biking rather than the cause of it. Several years ago, Portland started aggressively putting in bicycle infrastructure that felt safe enough to draw families. (Plus it’s mostly pretty flat. Yes, there are some hills in Portland, but not on the same scale.) If San Francisco continues on the same path, why wouldn’t the results be similar?

“I go so fast! Whee!” San Francisco still lacks routes that she could ride.

Even so I see many, many more families riding in the city than there were even a year ago. I see it at our son’s school: the kindergarten class has more regular riders than the entire school did last year. It’s still primarily dads that I see on the streets with kids, but at Rosa Parks it’s mostly moms. More families appear on the streets and more lanes go in that feel safe to ride with kids, and then even more parents think about riding themselves. I talk to these on-the-fence parents every week. They want to try riding with their kids one day a week. They want to figure out a route that is safe for kids. If they live on hills, they are thrilled to learn that there is such a thing as an electric assist.

I think my kids will be grown before this shift away from always driving with kids is complete. But I’m glad it’s happening. I can imagine how welcoming San Francisco could be with safe streets every day. We have traveled enough that I know what a city designed for people feels like. It would be worth the wait.


Filed under advocacy, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

Kidical Mass, Critical Mass

Getting to Critical Mass involved some serious traffic maneuvering. This bus was stopped completely, so we had to squeeze between it and the curb. And that is why I like narrow bikes.

It was a busy weekend for our bikes. On Friday, we attended San Francisco’s first Kidical Mass, which was an auxiliary of the 20th anniversary Critical Mass. We don’t live anywhere near the Financial District where the ride starts, plus we have little kids and almost never go out on Friday nights. As a result it had been years since we had any exposure to Critical Mass whatsoever, and we’d never ridden in one.

To make things more complicated, Matt had rented a car for a work meeting in the South Bay in the morning, had left late, and was caught in traffic returning to the city. He didn’t make it home until 40 minutes after we were supposed to leave. It is fair to say that his delay caused a modicum of tension in in the Hum household. If I had had the new cargo bike already, I would have taken both kids myself, but I had no way of doing that with our current bikes and I couldn’t take one kid and leave one home either. The list of things we could do if we had the new bike has reached the point where I now wonder a couple of times a week if waiting until October in exchange for free delivery was my best decision ever.

This woman had both a kid on the back and a dog in front!

So anyway, we got there late. Luckily for us, the ride started late too. Although many families had apparently left, pleading bedtimes, there were still a few people there with kids, and it was wonderful to meet them. I was particularly enamored of the family with stuffed animals zip tied to their helmets (who were understandably featured in all the local news coverage). The families riding in San Francisco are absolutely fabulous. Mostly I hang with the Rosa Parks parent crew, so I sometimes forget how many more people are out there.

This was a huge, huge ride, and as a result, there was about as much walking as there was riding. I was surprised at how philosophical many of the drivers caught in traffic were about the event. On some level, I suppose it is much like getting caught in traffic for any other event—game day, Occupy protest, whatever—just part of driving in the city. I am happy to have left this all far behind us.

Yes, there is a flaming broomstick on the back of that bike. It’s something to consider now that Jerry Brown has vetoed the 3-foot passing rule.

Although it was a new experience, and a slow ride, my daughter and I were having fun being around all the bikes, especially the unusual ones: tall bikes, conference bike, music bikes. We also saw a Yuba elMundo with two kids on board (not part of the Kidical Mass crew) stopped on the hill up Market Street because the motor had overheated. Unfortunately my son, who had spent the day running around for Undokai (Japanese Sports Day), was hungry, tired and frustrated and started crying and demanding to leave. We told him we would leave early and take him to a Mexican restaurant off the Wiggle on the way home, which improved his mood.

The conference bike had a little kid in the middle (a bad shot I realize).

And this is when the ride got funny. We peeled off from the main ride to the Market Street bike lanes heading west. “Where are all the bikes?” my daughter asked sadly. A few blocks later, the mass rushed into the lanes ahead of us. “Yay!” she said. We turned off from the ride and headed up another street. “Where are all the bikes?” A few minutes later, the mass rushed through the same street we turned onto. “Yay!” When we got onto the Wiggle, we rode for a few blocks on our own again, then whoosh! Critical Mass returned. We finally lost the ride for good when we headed directly up Page Street, which is far too steep for the fixie crew.

When we got home, my daughter was still missing all the bikes, and wondering at bedtime when they would come back. At the rate our ride was going, I think she expected them to show up in her room. But stuffed as she was on avocados and fried plantains, she fell asleep before she found out.

Our trip with the neighbors through Golden Gate Park seemed like a good potential Kidical Mass route.

I would love to try another Kidical Mass ride, independent of other rides on a more child-friendly schedule. We had a lovely ride with some neighbors on Labor Day in Golden Gate Park, which started with the kids running around at Koret Playground. From there were headed through the closed streets to the food trucks on the Music Concourse for ice cream and onward from there down JFK Drive. For kids on their bikes, practicing on streets closed to cars is very nice. Matt suggested that a future ride go along JFK all the way to the Park Chalet at Ocean Beach, which despite its horrific service and indifferent food has extensive bike parking, a huge open yard and seating, and interesting woods behind the yard where kids can play and parents can practice their free-range parenting skills. Any interest? If so, perhaps one of these upcoming Sundays could be another Kidical Mass.


Filed under advocacy, San Francisco, traffic, Yuba Mundo

Book review: Traffic; why we drive the way we do

This is a street designed for traffic.

I recently started reading paper books again, the kind found at the neighborhood library, rather than scanning the digital library and downloading books without having to leave the relative comfort of home. The paper library is still substantially more diverse than the digital library, with a much broader selection of non-fiction in particular, although admittedly it appears to offer less in the realm of evangelical romance novels (which are surprisingly difficult to identify based solely on title and cover art; this is why now I only download books that have gotten a good review somewhere, sometime).

Even though we rarely drive, it still really ticks me off that drivers park their cars right in our driveway, like, daily. Drivers who are really committed can even block the bikes.

While in this less ephemeral realm I picked up a copy of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, which is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in quite a while. For a long time I have accepted that getting on an airplane is the psychological equivalent of locking myself into a small prison cell, and I have prepared myself for flights accordingly. I drive more frequently than I fly (every week or so rather than every few months) but I hadn’t really thought before about how putting myself in a car is somewhat equivalent. I also only recently learned that cyclists call drivers “cagers,” which has a certain dark accuracy.

Riding a bike means never being stuck in traffic.

Vanderbilt discusses the many illusions of driving, including the expectation that early merging is more efficient than late merging, and the efforts of traffic engineers to reprogram people who resent late mergers and create traffic jams to force them out of merged lanes (I used to be one of these people). Even more fascinating was the illusion of queuing in traffic, where whichever lane you pick appears to be moving more slowly than all of the others. Ultimately, it turns out that they’re all moving at the same speed, but because everyone ends up waiting far longer than they end up passing—that’s what makes it heavy traffic—no one perceives the underlying equity.

This made me realize that one of the pleasures of cycling is never having to queue except at stop lights. Speaking as someone who cycled in Copenhagen, where bicycle traffic is thick, I can testify that this benefit is not an artifact of only having few riders on the road. Part of this is undoubtedly another counter-intuitive discovery by those who study traffic: slower speeds lead to faster movement; below certain speeds, there are no traffic jams. The rest is just inherent.

This is a street designed for people. Drivers complain that parklets are “too close to the road.”

It was particularly terrifying to read about just how awful most drivers are, which is something you can often ignore in the car because you’re busy being an awful driver yourself: trying to settle down kids, program acceptable music, talk to passengers, talk on the phone, or worse yet text. But I definitely notice it as a cyclist and pedestrian. Given that there is no feedback that all the dangerous things drivers do are dangerous until they actually hit something, why wouldn’t most drivers believe they’re doing a good job? Even when they do hit something, the fact that it doesn’t happen every day makes people believe the non-collision days are more meaningful. And my friends who work at power companies tell me that even people who hit utility poles argue that the pole was at fault (“It was too close to the curb!” or if seriously drunk, “The pole was in the road.”)

My husband is not a MAMIL

It was painfully familiar to read Vanderbilt’s discussion of how women end up creating and suffering in the worst traffic because of what is referred to as “serve passenger” driving. Taking the kids to school, picking up dry cleaning, doing the grocery shopping: these trips involve the most traffic—school pickup and dropoff zones are particularly notorious—because everyone needs to do them at the same time, and they are the least compatible with ride-sharing. And that’s before even mentioning parking. This is why there are dark jokes about the kinds of hardcore cyclists (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra, or MAMILs) who are able to commute the way they enjoy because their wives are doing all of the errands by car.

Doing errands by bike means never having to look for parking.

Although my husband handles his own dry cleaning and many other household tasks, he does far more business travel than I do, and when he’s away I do almost everything alone. This is part of the reason we’re in the market for a new family bike, and it’s part of the reason I get so annoyed that the market for bikes like these is so thin. I think there are more models of Trek Madone alone than there are family bikes of any brand. (I only recently learned that the Madone is a model of racing bike made by Trek that costs like $5k, and there are apparently a million versions, all of which sell like Big Gulps.)

My son will grow up riding his bicycle for transportation just like I did.

In my personal experience, when I transitioned to commuting primarily by bike I actually saved time, not to mention frustration, because I avoided so much traffic en route. In addition, as a working parent there is almost no other time to exercise. But it’s not possible to do these kinds of errands—picking up two kids at two different schools, etc., with a mountain bike or even a so-called commuter bike. You need something that can haul non-traditional cargo, like cartons of milk, kids themselves, and whatever fragile and emotionally significant popsicle-stick-and-cotton-ball art projects that they want to bring home unscathed.

At the end of this book, I understood why Vanderbilt apparently transitioned to riding a bicycle and public transit. I would have done the same thing if I hadn’t already. Public transit is unequivocally safer and the majority of research suggests cycling is as well (although people find this difficult to believe, or at least “not where I live!”–urban people insist they’d ride if they lived in the country where there’s less traffic, rural people insist they’d ride if they lived in the city where there are bike lanes, etc.) And either option is dramatically less grueling than driving.

When I was first hired at my university I went to a talk for junior faculty by a senior professor (who later won a Nobel Prize) about how to balance work and family. Although many of the things she did were not possible for me (e.g. having her first child at age 45—too late already!) her strongest advice was, “Kill your commute.” Do whatever it took to move close enough to work and school that almost all your time was spent doing something you valued (research, patient care, spending time with kids) rather than something you didn’t (driving, or more likely, sitting in traffic). And we took that advice. We moved from a large house in the suburbs to a small apartment in San Francisco that cost over 50% more per month, and my husband, after a long stint of unemployment and underemployment, found a new job within city limits. We slogged through the San Francisco public school lottery. (And we did all this before we had bikes. Between the hills of San Francisco and the absence of family bikes nationwide, cycling wasn’t an ambition for us at the time.) It was a long road, but our lives are infinitely better for it.

Streets can change. People can change.

Most people wouldn’t have to move and sell a car and change their jobs and their kids’ (pre)schools to change their commutes, as we did. And some of the best changes, which involve transforming streets themselves, are not individual decisions but collective decisions: removing parking, adding bike lanes, creating parklets, developing bike share programs, lowering speed limits, and narrowing roads. But having seen the result of changes like these, in our own lives in San Francisco and after visiting cities like Copenhagen and even Paris that have implemented them, those changes are most assuredly worth it. They scale cities back down to human size. Calming streets is really calming people. It takes the stress out of living.


Filed under advocacy, cargo, commuting, Copenhagen, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Getting in the game

The Exploratorium offers a chance to make a robot ride a bike. Why not people?

Something I hear more often than I expected is other bike riders saying they’re not really advocates for cycling. They claim that their advocacy is just to be out riding. I totally support people riding bikes, but it surprises me that so many people don’t want to advocate for cycling. The reasons people for not advocating for something they love strike me as not much different that the reasons people give for driving instead of riding their bikes. It’s not that it’s particularly hard to do either, although of course it’s easier to do the same things that we’ve always done. Weekend leisure riders who drive a car to work every day are definitely making a contribution by making riding bicycles look normal, and everyday bike commuters who avoid advocacy are doing the same, but I’ve always felt that if it’s something I love–and I do love riding my bicycle–why would I stop there?

It would take too much time, I don’t have the right bike, there are no showers at my office, there are hills, I drive a Prius instead.

It would take too much time, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s too hard, I ride my bike a lot instead.

Car-free Presidio: more like this, please.

Are they reasons or are they excuses? I’m not sure I’m one to judge, but I’m trying to do more. I figure that if I have the time to write a tweet I have the time to request a bike rack using the city’s online request form (my link is San Francisc0-specific, but Google pops up similar links for dozens of cities). If I have the time to write an email, let alone a blog post, I have the time to write a letter to the mayor and the head of Muni supporting the proposed separated Fell-Oak bike lanes. If I have the money to buy a new bike bell (or a new bike, cough cough), I have enough money to join the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and contribute to occasional fundraising drives. If I have the time to ask questions at the bike shop about my bike, I have the time to ask my credit union whether they could start making loans to get other people on bikes.

So I do all of these things, and occasionally things change for the better, and evidently this makes me an advocate. I am not in the league of A Simple Six, who is writing city bike plans and organizing community meetings and meeting with city officials one-on-one, or Family Ride and Tiny Helmets, who are starring in the local films and television news (and how cool is all of that?), but I once attended a hearing. Just like riding, I’m figuring it out as I go along. And although it’s not the same, I think that in its own way it’s just as rewarding as riding a bike.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, San Francisco