Category Archives: Bullitt

Christmas tree by bicycle, year nine

Hey, it’s another year gone by. We still pick up our Christmas tree by bicycle. This year’s was a bit over six feet tall (~180cm for the rest of the world), reflecting one of the biggest changes since I started writing back when the kids were little: they are not small anymore. When they first started expressing opinions about trees, it was no big deal that each wanted a tree “taller than I am.” Now that our son is 14 and our daughter is 10, it’s become evident that this idea, which seemed pretty harmless when they were in preschool, was not the most cost-effective long-term plan. I’ve still just a little bit taller than the teen, but it won’t be long before he’s looking down on me—physically, that is, not just figuratively.

Contemplation before loading the tree

After all this time I don’t have anything like the patience to do more than hit some highlights of the last few years, but in no particular order:

  • Our kids both transitioned to new schools: our son started high school this year, and our daughter moved to an elementary and middle school combined program. They’re both really happy. Our daughter’s school is in Chinatown and nowhere near where we live or I work, but happily pretty close to Matt’s office and also extremely transit-accessible. Unfortunately the bike infrastructure around there is dreadful, which leads to…
  • We got a new cargo bike, because the Bullitt has insufficient torque, insufficient battery power, and way too wide a profile to haul a bigger kid up and over Pac Heights and back home again. So Matt’s now riding a Tern GSD for that commute. So far so good. Obviously I haven’t reviewed any cargo bikes for a while, but I guess if you were desperate to know what bike I would buy in a market that’s completely changed, now you know. (We are well out of the years when it makes sense to haul kids by front-loader. Try a Riese & Mueller maybe?)
  • Work has been the biggest contributor to this blog’s increasingly infrequent updates: a few years ago the school voted to change its curriculum from a 4-year program with summer breaks to a 3-year program that is in session year-round. None of the other schools at the university has done this so it’s been a lot. I don’t know what I was thinking, but somehow in all the planning I didn’t consider that this meant I would be teaching in two completely different programs for three straight years, which is both confusing and overwhelming. We’re in the middle of that transition, so check back in June 2021, I guess.

    Riding rental bikes in Himeji

  • Other than that work is great. After my promotion last year I started getting a lot more invitations to teach overseas. So I spent a month in Japan in 2017 and again in 2019, and Japanese bicycle culture is awesome despite having very little of what I think of as good infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes (or really any bike lanes). Everyone bikes on the sidewalk and so did I. Everyone bikes everywhere, in fact, to the point that the campus bicycle parking is about the same size as the car parking—which obviously means a lot more bikes, given how much smaller they are. Drivers are very, very courteous so I got used to cruising around safely late at night (and then got rapidly un-used to that lovely feeling of safety on my return). I also got used to riding without a helmet, which it turns out really is much nicer than riding with one. Not only do people in Japan skip helmets, they don’t have seats for babies. They just carry them around in slings and backpacks and hop on and off their bikes. And then once kids start toddling around they ride in seats that are basically recliners with rain covers. By 2019 the majority of bicycles I saw were assisted, although not my junky university loaner, which is fine. Anyway: same planet, different worlds.

    University bicycle parking in Kobe

  • Other professional trips included: (1) a trip to Seoul, where people also ride bicycles mostly on the sidewalk, also without helmets, which increasingly seem like a “colony where the British dumped a lot of prisoners” affectation by world standards. However unlike Japan, where drivers are cautious and street parking is illegal, drivers in Seoul are terrifying and like Americans, unapologetically park on sidewalks. Seeing 7-Elevens sell individual glasses of wine, though—and they all did—was memorable. (2) I also visited Switzerland, where the thing about the trains running on time is absolutely true. Geneva has amazing public transit and is crammed with bicycles—like in Japan, these are mostly assisted, and not the little boost that Japanese bikes offer, but serious assists for serious hills. Even better than that was that in the middle of the city there was very little car traffic. My hotel was across the street from the main train station and a huge intersection and at 7:30am when I woke up I’d hear birds chirping over the faint whoosh of electric streetcars because it was so quiet. It was like that all day. Experiences like that were why I chose “hum of the city” as a name so I adored it.

    Separate bicycle path in Seoul

  • Lots of other stuff has happened but most of it was at best less than awesome and at worst terrible, so I will skip it.

One more thing: a question that comes up repeatedly from families with young kids is whether the kids will keep riding once they’re not cargo anymore. I have only two kids, so I can’t speak universally or anything, but our experience has been sort of mixed. Part of being a teenager is forging a new identity, and that means discarding things your parents like to do because that’s what you’re trying to change. Our son, now 14, gave up commuting to school on his own bike part of the way through 6th grade and hasn’t returned to regular riding. On the other hand, his rebellion against the hopelessly uncool bicycle is… riding transit and walking. And over time I’ve come to see the appeal for him: he can talk to friends (most of whom don’t have bicycles) and play games on his phone, and no one is bugging him to do anything in particular. From his perspective it has a lot going for it; it’s really just being chauffeured or wandering around without any sense of urgency or direct parental attention. So a couple of years ago we sent him to SF Rec and Parks Transit Camp and rolled with it (no pun intended). By contrast our daughter, now 10, is still essentially cargo, but nonetheless prefers riding a bicycle for now.

But there are, it turns out, some unique advantages to having an older kid who’s competent with public transportation and has given up riding a bicycle solo. The main one is that he’s capable of picking up his sister when we’re busy, and that is something that he could not do on a bicycle. That’s something that he started doing occasionally at 12 and it became a regular expectation at age 13. I only really thought about this recently when another parent—outside the city—mentioned that when their oldest reached 16 they’d finally be able to ferry around their siblings. As an official public health killjoy I would never, ever, ever allow a 16 year old child in my care to drive (or even ride as a passenger with a teen driver), because teenagers are phenomenally, hideously, appallingly bad drivers, and training and practice do not improve these outcomes at all. In fact a colleague of mine did a large study for Congress a few years ago showing that teen driver education increased collisions because it made it possible young people to drive earlier. Teen drivers can’t accurately assess risk, are easily distracted by passengers and music, text constantly even when they swear they don’t, are responsible for at least 80% of the car crashes in which they’re involved, are more likely than matched controls to use alcohol and other drugs, and have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections. The safest age to start driving is 25 (this is also a reasonable minimum age of legal access for alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, for similar reasons). The thought of actually encouraging a 16 year old to get a license so that they could drive around their siblings, who are like the biggest possible distraction because most siblings argue all the time, shocked me speechless. However. Once I got over that I realized that a kid who can confidently ride transit is far better, and so that’s what I say now: my oldest started getting his sister places a full four years earlier than any kid the same age who drives, and public transportation is one of the world’s safest ways to travel.

Riding Muni when they were much smaller

Maybe our son will return to riding a bicycle in college or beyond and maybe not. He hasn’t shown any interest in driving, despite the fact that I hate the idea of him doing it, which seems like it should make it more appealing, but there you go.

Back to the tree though: as the video shows, carrying big things by bicycle is also the best way to escape murderous auto traffic. Happy holidays, and may 2020 be kinder to all of us.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, San Francisco

Christmas tree by bicycle, our 7th consecutive year

Has it been a year? It kind of has.

One of the first cargo-type things we did with our first cargo bike, other than carry our own kids (typically one at a time), was to pick up a Christmas tree on it. It was only later that we added odds and ends like game tables and other people’s children (in value-pack combinations.)

It’s getting harder to take pictures of the kids.

This year we headed to the tree lot early, because I am heading out of town for a while to visit my mom, who has been ill. Our son is now 12, and has glumly resigned himself to the prospect of having to go to the tree lot in the company of his parents and younger sister, which he finds embarrassing. Our daughter (now 8) is still delighted by the prospect of running around looking at the turkeys and running through hay bales, which I have come to appreciate because I now have evidence that it will not last forever. On arrival, however, both kids were charmed by the usual collection of things on offer that kind of freak me out: trees flocked in neon colors and inflatable snow globes. Their demands to get a flocked tree this year got them my usual public health killjoy response: “no toxic flame retardants in the house!” Ho, ho, ho.

Loading up the tree

We are no longer the only people to ride to the lot, although I wouldn’t say that it is packed with bicycles. We are certainly no longer considered bizarre by the lot workers, who cheerfully heaved our tree into the bucket of the Bullitt, clearly pleased not to have to carry the tree out to the parking lot. However given that once again we ended up riding past a line of cars stretching back for two long blocks, it seems that most other people still haven’t figured out how much easier it is to ride. This remains one of the many household trips that I cannot fathom doing by car, because between the waiting to get into the lot and the strapping of the tree onto a car, the whole endeavor turns into a multi-hour process. We are not exactly decisive when it comes to picking out a tree, yet we still managed to ride away before some of the families waiting in cars had even reached the lot. That’s no way to live.

Heading home by longtail bike, with two kids on the back whose legs are really too long to sit together anymore, followed by a front loader carrying a Christmas tree, well, it seems that this is still the kind of thing that stops traffic—at least what little car traffic was moving. The other bicycle riders on the street, though, just waved. We all know what’s possible.

Heading home

Like last year, our return home this year coincided with the return of our next door neighbor, also on his bicycle, from grocery shopping. The world is changing fast, in some scary ways, yet some things stay the same. Sometimes that’s all I can ask.

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Christmas tree by bicycle, 6th year in a row

Hey. Hey there. I’ve spent a crushing term with an extra-heavy teaching and advising load, and spent all of my writing time working on papers and grant proposals, because that’s my real job. However it’s now December, I’m done teaching and have mostly caught up on papers, and don’t have another grant proposal due until February. It’s blogging time!

Decisions, decisions

Decisions, decisions

December has traditionally been the time of year that we head to the Christmas tree lot and draw stares as we load up a tree on our bicycle. Our son (11) is now old enough to be feeling some tween awkwardness at the prospect of rolling into the Christmas tree lot on bikes; our daughter (now 7) remains oblivious to all forms of peer pressure. Admittedly both kids express some interest in the question of what it might be like to carry a Christmas tree in car, as they have no memory of ever doing so. However when we arrived and discovered a long line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot (which we breezed past, per usual) our son concluded that our decision to bike was appropriate after all. And despite some unusual indecision from the kids this year about which tree to purchase and some contemplation of the (live) turkeys and rabbits, we still made it in and out of the lot faster than any of the drivers.

Tree loaded and ready to go

Tree loaded and ready to go

In this, our sixth year of hauling a Christmas tree by bike, the people at the lot have gotten used to us and we no longer raise eyebrows. We’ve learned we can roll the bike right up to the tree baler, which makes us popular because it means no one needs to carry the tree anywhere, let alone strap it to a car roof. I know that other families in the neighborhood bike their trees home too; thus far we’ve never met any of them at the lot, though.

We have pretty much settled on the Bullitt as our Christmas tree bike, after some experimentation in earlier years. Front loaders are laughably easy to load; just throw whatever in the bucket. Our tree was taller than we are, so we also used a couple of bungees to ensure it wouldn’t slide out on bumpy pavement. For this reason and many others, the Bullitt remains the most reliable vehicle we have ever owned.

Hey, neighbor!

Hey, neighbor!

When we first began carrying our tree by bike, it got us a lot of attention. Even last year, we got a bit of hooting and dropped jaws. This year was the first time that no one seemed to think we were doing anything odd, riding bikes around San Francisco with a Christmas tree and two kids. We see more and more families like ours every year. As we rode up to our building, our next door neighbor appeared on his own bike, on his way back from a trip to the grocery store. It was cool. Not everything gets better all the time, but it feels like occasionally, some things do get better.

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, family biking, San Francisco

Christmas tree by bicycle, 2015 (and the 5th year in a row)

Loading up...

Loading up…

It’s December, the time of year that we head to the Christmas tree lot and draw stares as we load up a tree on our bicycle. This is the fifth year in a row that we’ve done this. Given that there were earlier years when we didn’t bother to get a tree at all, our son (now 10) has only the vaguest memory of bringing a tree home with a car. Our daughter (now 6) has no memory of that at all.

Over the years we have tried various bikes to bring the tree home but honestly, this was just messing around, because we have a Bullitt, and it is the rare case when the Bullitt is not the best tool for the job. What can’t it do? I suppose it can’t literally fly, but beyond that, it’s got us covered. Anyway, we used the MinUte the first year because we didn’t yet have the Bullitt, and again another year after we’d foolishly lost a Bullitt part. It’s not that tricky; virtually any bike can carry a tree. However it’s cold in December, so ultimately the appeal of dropping the tree on the front, securing it with two bungee cords, and skedaddling on home has won out. It’s much faster than loading a tree on a car. The drivers who were loading up their trees at the same time that we were can attest to that (to their dismay).

See? Easy!

See? Easy!

This is the second year in our new place, and now our route to the Christmas tree lot is straight uphill. Our kids had ambitions to ride their own bikes last year, but having tried that particular hill once, preferred to be carried this year. They begged me to carry them both on the Brompton, and yes, even at their advanced ages I can still do that. However I was not excited about the idea of carrying them both up a steep hill on an unassisted bike so I made them ride the EdgeRunner.

Bringing a tree and two kids home by bicycle is still the kind of thing that will get a family noticed, even in San Francisco, where it is not completely outlandish. Every year I watch drivers in oncoming cars notice our little convoy: their cars slow, their heads swivel, and their mouths open. It is entertaining. I would rather be normal, of course, but until more people get in on this action, I’ll settle for being noticed.

They're getting taller

They’re getting taller

There was rain forecast last weekend—it has actually been raining, which is great—and the kids had swim classes at noon, so we had a narrow window to get this particular errand done. We’d never timed ourselves before, but this year we did, and it turns out that in less than 90 minutes, we had ridden to the lot, picked up a tree, brought it home, put it up in the living room, and decorated it. At various points I also made everyone stop for photos. In normal parental time units, this is something close to actual time travel. Ho, ho, ho.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, EdgeRunner, family biking, San Francisco, Uncategorized

Christmas tree by bicycle 2014

We were having camera trouble at the lot, so this mug-shot is the best we've got.

We were having camera trouble at the lot, so this mug-shot is the best we’ve got.

There was a time when we didn’t get a tree every year (because technically we’re a Jewish family, albeit a California-Jewish family affiliated with the Japanese-American community, so we celebrate holidays of the world on like a daily basis). However now that we go everywhere by bike, it’s an annual thing. And we’re getting better at it. This was the fourth year we went tree-shopping by bike, and every year the trees get taller, the loading time gets shorter, and the trip gets less precarious.

It's easy to park cars at the Christmas tree lot, but it's even easier to park bikes.

It’s easy to park cars at the Christmas tree lot, but it’s even easier to park bikes.

In the first year we picked up our tree by Kona MinUte, and in the second year we hauled the tree by Bullitt. We also forgot to take the cover off before leaving that year, and lost a critical part, so in year three we went back to the MinUte. And then this year we hauled by Bullitt again, remembering this time to take the cover off in advance. We’ve also moved since last year, so instead of going downhill then uphill again, it was all uphill on the way to the lot, and all downhill on the way back.

We don't normally ride on the sidewalk, but it made for a good photo.

We don’t normally ride on the sidewalk, but it made for a good photo.

Our bugaboo has always been that we have the lot nail on a stand for the tree, which makes the tree wide as well as tall. This year we were enough of a caravan that we were already all over the lane. So we dumped the tree sideways on top of the Bullitt’s bucket, snapped a couple of bungees to the side pins to hold it in place, and rode on home. No problem.

The EdgeRunner pinch-hit with some simultaneous bike- and kid-hauling

The EdgeRunner pinch-hit with some simultaneous bike- and kid-hauling

The big change this year is that instead of me carrying both kids home by Brompton (still totally possible) they wanted to ride their own bikes. Our son made it all the way to the lot. Our daughter made it about two blocks uphill before she lost the ability to climb any further on her little single-speed bike. We had expected this, so I had ridden the EdgeRunner. It only took a minute to pop her bike on the back and tow it once she gave up. Having both a boxbike and a longtail is awesome. It’s like having two minivans, with magical park-anywhere-and-avoid-all-traffic powers.

This year, we got a seven foot tree.

This year, we got a seven foot tree.

We don’t have to carry stuff by bicycle, of course. We have a car share membership, which my daughter announced to everyone in her kindergarten class during a field trip that passed by our house. So our decision to haul the tree by bike is a choice—we could drive if we wanted to, but where’s the fun in that? Nonetheless, when we got to the lot we spotted some friends from kindergarten there, and they were very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get the tree home. “Please, let us carry it home for you on our minivan,” they begged us.  I couldn’t be more grateful that we have the kind of school community where people volunteer to help. Still, this was our fourth year in a row of carrying trees on bicycles. We’ve totally got this.

There are people who’ve been hauling trees by bicycle longer, but it’s not a competition. Until next year, happy holidays!

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, EdgeRunner, family biking, San Francisco

Our new cargo bike: Hello, EdgeRunner

2 kids on deck with their feet in the bags and a stadium blanket. They're kind of wusses.

2 kids on deck with their feet in the bags and a stadium blanket. They’re kind of wusses.

People who see us around San Francisco may have already noticed that we have added a new cargo bike to our stable. Around when school started, we got an EdgeRunner. It’s fantastic.

I realize that we are in a fortunate position in being able to buy a second cargo bike outright. When we sold our minivan in 2012, we got enough money from it to buy two assisted cargo bikes. So we used about half of that money to buy the Bullitt, and we saved the rest for some vague future transportation need. At the time we weren’t sure whether we’d want to replace our car eventually, and figured the money we saved could be a nice down payment if it came to that. Two years later, we’ve found that we are just fine with renting cars for our very occasional driving trips, and have no desire to own one.

However we were feeling that it would be very helpful to have a second 2-kid capable cargo bike. The construction work in our garage smashed up the mamachari (RIP, mamachari), so we were suddenly down a bike. With two kids going to the same school for the first time this year, we were in the new position of wanting each parent to be able to pick up and drop off the kids together—before, we could split up because each of them was going to a different place at a different time. That was way more complicated, but it also meant that riding around on one-kid-hauling bikes wasn’t a big deal. Moreover, our son had become a strong enough rider that he was ready to go to school sometimes on his own bike. The problem with that was that the kids take a bus to their after-school program, and there are no bikes allowed on the bus. So if he was going to ride, we needed a way to get his bike from the drop-off at school to the pickup at after-school.

One option was to assist the Kona MinUte—because both kids are too heavy to haul around unassisted now—but it was a tight fit for two kids even when they were smaller, and left the question of how to haul our son’s bike unresolved. If you’re in the bike-on-bike-hauling business, your best bike is a longtail. We had taken enough test rides over the years to know that our favorite longtail, by a long shot, was the EdgeRunner. So around the time school started, we headed to The New Wheel to buy a BionX EdgeRunner. They were our bike shop of choice because they know so much about assists—anyone can take care of an unassisted bike, but having an electric assist-focused shop to maintain our bikes is an enormous luxury and it would be crazy not to take advantage of it. Also they are very nice. Even though we have to cross town and haul up serious hills to get there, which is not fun with kids when an assist is on the fritz, it is worth the effort.

This is Davey Oil's stoked EdgeRunner with the same massive front rack.

This is Davey Oil’s stoked EdgeRunner with the same massive front rack.

Because I’ve gotten particular about certain things over the last couple of years, we put some unusual accessories on the bike as well. I credit G&O Family Cyclery for these particular specs, which I tried and loved on one of the EdgeRunners I rode while visiting Seattle to compare the BionX to the Stokemonkey. Specifically, we added a frame-mounted front rack and Rolling Jackass (very regrettable name) center stand from Haulin’ Colin in Seattle. The front rack was a huge pain to install, given that no one in San Francisco had done it before, and almost made me wish I’d flown my bike to Seattle instead of having the rack put on locally. But the payoff was a massive front basket (I have a Wald Giant basket zip-tied to the rack) that is independent of the steering and absolutely rock-solid, and that has easily swallowed loads like: my work tote, both kids’ backpacks, a clarinet, and a bag of groceries, with room for more. Finally, the EdgeRunner’s tiny rear wheel meant that I was getting a much bigger boost from the assist, which in my still-weakened state, meant that this was going to be my primary ride for a while.

The transition to riding the EdgeRunner with both kids was not without its issues. Our son doesn’t ride his own bike every single day, because he tends to go at a maximum speed of 7mph, making even my normal pace look like road racing. When we leave home on the later end of normal, we have to stick him on the trailer-bike to make it to school on time, and that means I’ll end up carrying both kids home in the afternoon. Although both kids easily fit on the EdgeRunner’s deck, for the first two weeks sharing the deck they fought so relentlessly that I actually found myself yelling, “I can stop this bike right here!” I am happy to report that this was a short-term problem—they eventually settled down, and now they usually have pleasant conversations sitting face-to-face during the times that they share the deck. The only remaining annoyance is that our long-legged son will drag his feet on the ground sometimes, which acts as an unwelcome extra brake and does his shoes no favors. He’s getting better about this.

Loading up my son's bike for the tow.

Loading up my son’s bike for the tow.

There are compensations. The biggest is that when he does ride, it is laughably easy for me to tow his bike to work in the morning, and to his after school program in the afternoon before riding home. It has definitely reduced our load and is improving his stamina (and although he doesn’t like to admit it yet, he’s in a much better mood when he rides to school and back home). The bike can also haul unusual loads that were formerly pretty tricky. When I had to pick him up from school a couple of weeks ago because he’d gotten sick, I had no trouble towing the bike while he was nodding off on the deck. That kind of doubling-up has historically been the Bullitt’s weakness.

Our daughter is our primary deck-rider, though. The EdgeRunner deck has a bit more space for a kid than the Bullitt, but it is also uncovered. This has led to some complaints about having to experience weather, and some excitement. We have a Hooptie around the deck, and given our daughter’s personality, that was a smart move. She treats the deck as a combination small room and performance space, and kind of does what she feels like doing back there. Sometimes that’s lying down flat to take a nap. Sometimes that’s standing on the deck on one tiptoe while holding onto my shoulders. Sometimes that’s leaning waaaaaaaaay over to one side to check out something on the ground (at which point I once again feel a sense of gratitude for that low deck, because I can feel her doing it but it doesn’t dump the bike). The EdgeRunner is our mullet bike: business in front, party in the back. Our daughter has been a frequent flyer in the hospital emergency department since she was less than a year old, thanks to her try-everything attitude , which means that we have more experience assessing what constitutes a serious physical risk to her than we ever wanted. I’ve learned not to worry about her shenanigans, because her balance is excellent, she’s corralled by the Hooptie, our route consists of quiet streets and protected lanes, and I’m usually riding at (much) less than 10mph behind my son. However I definitely get a lot of drive-by parenting. I mean that literally. People in cars pull up next to us and tell me to tie her down, sometimes pointing to their own kids strapped in 5-point restraints in car seats as examples. I am already so over this. And I have begun to wonder, from a philosophical perspective, what it says about us as a society that our kids spend so much time literally tied down.

I digress.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now. These are the racks at my office.

Riding an EdgeRunner is also fun because it makes me to feel like I joined a club. Although it gets a lot of attention from people who don’t ride bikes, it is definitely the bike of choice among San Francisco parents (along with the Yuba Mundo). As one might expect, most of them are BionXed up as well. There are two EdgeRunners on the Panhandle riding to school most mornings, and I see a blue one just like mine almost every day, coming the opposite way on Post Street after I’ve dropped off the kids. There sometimes yet another EdgeRunner, with a Yepp seat, parked at the racks at my office. After a couple of years riding the Bullitt, which raises eyebrows wherever it goes and has tourists snapping photos, the relative obscurity of riding an EdgeRunner is a nice change of pace.

Most importantly, it does what we need it to do. The addition of the EdgeRunner means that Matt and I can each ride a cargo bike that can haul both kids, and/or their bikes, wherever we’re going. Even though the BionX is not the most powerful assist you can put on a bike, we have used it to get up the hills of Bernal Heights with both kids on the deck. That’s steeper than we ever hope to go on a daily basis. And with the regenerative braking it has crazy-range–I sometimes feel as though I’ve returned home with the same charge I had when I left.

We came late to having two big cargo bikes, but it’s been working well for us. Having two kids in the same school has allowed our schedules to ease enormously, and having two big bikes to haul them and their bikes around as needed makes it easier still. Our son may be slow when riding his own bike, but we’re still beating our old car commute times. I’ve heard a lot of people say that having a box-bike and a longtail is the perfect two-cargo bike situation. Based on our experience so far, I’d have to agree.

 

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

Two years on the Bullitt: still the awesomest

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

Our two-year anniversary of Bullitt-ownership was yesterday. I had ambitions to write a post last year about our first year of riding, but then Totcycle did it for me. I basically agree with everything he wrote, so why bother saying the same stuff over again? “The TL;DR version is that this is the finest automobile replacement bike setup in the whole wide world (for families and cities like mine), and a joy to ride for all involved.” I mean, that pretty much covers it. I have no way of assessing how far we’ve ridden on the bike (see below), but based on the mileage on our less-ridden bikes I would be shocked if it were anything less than 4,000 miles, and unsurprised if it were far more than that.

This setup never gets old, evidently.

This setup never gets old.

The specs on our bike ended up much like those of the Totcycle bike (but ours is blue): SLX 3×9, hydraulic disc brakes, standard LvH panels and seat. This is a lightweight and narrow setup that can go pretty much anywhere that a normal bike can go, which has a lot of value in a city of tight spaces. And although our climate is not rainy like Seattle’s, the rain cover is what sold our kids on the bike. It is a year-round greenhouse that protects them from cold and wind—this is San Francisco, so there’s not really that much cold, but there is definitely a lot of wind. One difference is that we added Supernova dynamo lights: to say we have zero regrets would be a massive understatement. That headlight is bright enough to effectively light a dark road in Golden Gate Park for the Bullitt and both kids’ bikes in front of it. We never worry about riding at night.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

I heard from someone a while back that he got the impression that the Bullitt was unreliable. This is so far from the truth that I laughed, but I suspect it is the hazard of occasional blogging—our life wanders on, and is punctuated by posts in which Something Happens. We did have a few hitches in the beginning, which related to stuff we stuck on the bike. Some of our accessory choices worked out well (the BionX assist, dynamo lights) and some did not (Patterson cranks). But the bike itself: bombproof. We love this bike. It changed our lives.

To get it out of the way, I’ll cover the things that went wrong first. They’re in three categories: (1) the Patterson cranks; (2) BionX; and (3) vandalism.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards. Lots of cars mean lots of damage.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards.

First, the Patterson: When I got the bike, I really wanted a chain guard to protect my work pants. These are tough to include on a bike that has multiple front chain rings. Instead, Splendid suggested trying out the FSA Metropolis Patterson two-speed internally geared crankset. For the time that it worked, this was an awesome addition. We loved it. Unfortunately it is not compatible with the conditions here. We broke it twice riding on crappy streets, in the “speed bump with a deep crack in the asphalt on the other side” scenario that is pretty much a daily experience for us. We know to slow down for these on our regular routes, but on unfamiliar streets it was easy to hit a surprise divot at speed while loaded down with 100 pounds of cargo. The Patterson crankset just couldn’t take that kind of abuse. After the second breakdown and time-consuming repair, we swapped it out for a standard front triple, which cheerfully swallows whatever San Francisco can throw at it.

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

In the meantime, I learned to embrace a more San Francisco style of dress anyway, most importantly the ubiquitous look of skinny pants paired with dressy shoes. I grew up in Seattle, where “cute shoes” meant Birkenstocks, Merrells, Doc Martens or something chunky with thick straps from the Keen oeuvre, the kinds of shoes that make San Franciscans wince and scream, “My eyes!” So this shift involved a learning curve for me. But I can testify that it is an extremely bicycle-friendly way to dress. (I doubt this is a coincidence.) Happily we put MKS Grip King pedals on the Bullitt, still my favorite pedals ever, and they make it easy to ride in even the most ridiculous shoes. (I’ve heard reports that the Grip Kings sometimes get slippery in the rain, but here in California, which is still being ravaged by the worst drought in state history, that hasn’t been a question I can answer one way or the other.)

Second, the BionX: Our maintenance issues with the BionX have involved the good, the bad, and the stupid.

The stupid is that over a six-month period Matt dropped two controllers and shattered them, which is why we have no idea how many miles we’ve ridden this bike. The controllers are not a cheap part to replace. The bike shop glued the third one into place on the handlebars, so it couldn’t be removed, and since then: problem solved. I recommend this strategy to the butter-fingered BionX users among us.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

The bad is that in the first year we owned the bike, we broke a dozen spokes on the rear wheel. Twice. I really wish BionX had indicated that on a cargo bike or in seriously hilly terrain, the rear wheel is going to need much thicker spokes. We only found this out after the second set of spokes broke, after complaining about it to The New Wheel. They knew immediately what our problem was, which is the advantage of having an e-assist focused local shop around. So on round 3, we replaced the spokes with monster ones, and again: problem solved. Not expensive, but definitely annoying. I have heard other people report the same problem. Probably best to ask for extra-thick spokes from the start.

The good is that we are evidently the luckiest family in family biking, because last week, the Bullitt’s battery died. It ran out of juice and stopped recognizing the charger. And at that point we had one week left on our original two-year warranty. We took it to The New Wheel, which told us that BionX would honor the warranty and almost certainly send us a brand-new battery. Score! In the meantime the shop gave us a loaner battery to use. So we ride on.

An early ride with many more to come

An early ride with many more to come

Last is the vandalism. While this is a hassle, it’s not specific to the Bullitt, and I guess it beats having a bike stolen outright, which is what happened with the MinUte. Once the saddle was stolen in Japantown. It made getting the bike home a total PITA. When Matt took our son to a Giants game, rowdy fans broke a support on the rain cover, which led to a week of relentless griping by the kids while we waited for a replacement. And then there is the problem of drivers treating the front bucket like a garbage can. One woman actually threw a coffee cup into it from her parked car as Matt was riding by. These days we keep the rain cover on almost all the time.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger where we live since we bought our bike.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger since we bought our bike.

And those are the problems we’ve had. They sum up to one bad decision on a crankset, one instance of poor communication from BionX about spokes, and two dropped controllers (sigh). Given that we were coming to full-time cargo biking cold, in terrain that is much more challenging than was typical for family biking at the time we started riding, I figure we’re doing reasonably well. Sure, it would have been great to have had more information about the spokes and so on, but in the meantime we’ve had two good years of riding. The rest of the time the Bullitt has spent in the shop has been basic maintenance: we replaced the chain this summer, and we take it in every six months or so to have the wires checked and the BionX software updated. Most recently, we had the speed at which the BionX kicks in lowered to 0.5kph from its original 2mph. That resolved one of our biggest complaints with the assist, which was difficult hill starts. They are no longer difficult.

The Bullitt+Roland

The Bullitt+Roland

We worried that the narrow box would be too narrow, but it lasted longer than we dared to hope. Of course our kids have gotten bigger, and now that they are almost-9 and 5, it is tough to squeeze them both in the box (although they are willing). We now use the trailer-bike almost all the time. Our daughter is still getting used to the pre-8am kindergarten start-time, so she will doze in the box on the way to school while our son rides the trailer-bike or his own bike, depending on his mood and what time we got out the door in the morning (he is not a fast rider). Having just one kid in the box has given us some new cargo capacity, and that’s been fun. We won’t haul them to school on the Bullitt forever, but for now it’s still a good kid-hauler.

So many ways to use a cargo bike

So many ways to use a cargo bike

I still adore shopping by Bullitt. We’ve rented cars with trunks that are smaller than that front bucket. We just throw stuff in (groceries, carpets that need to be cleaned, the cat carrier, the table tennis set—with both kids too) and go. I have carried three kids on the Bullitt and Matt has carried four, and that was without the trailer. Granted, I would not do this on steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that a BionX Bullitt will not handle, at least not yet. We hear that the new BionX D system will change that, and given how much use we still expect to get from the Bullitt, we will almost certainly upgrade to that system when it is released. In the meantime, even our two-year old system gets us where we need to go.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

We feared that getting rid of our car would involve sacrifices. We were surprised that it has not, really. We still rent cars for weekend trips sometimes, but we’re always relieved to drop them off again. I didn’t think our monthly transportation expenses were unreasonable three years ago, but they dropped substantially when we sold the car, and that helped us buy our condo last year. I assumed that bike commuting would take extra time, but we have been surprised again and again at how much time we save. With the assist on high I can cross town to pick up a sick kid faster than I have ever been able to drive, because I don’t have to worry about traffic. Although my injury last year messed with my fitness, in general over the last few years we’ve been in good shape, a big switch from the first couple of years of parenthood. And I was pleasantly surprised that once you learn to ride the Bullitt—I had issues with the learning to ride it part—it stays with you forever. I got back on it after four months bed-bound and it was like I had never stopped. Furthermore, to this day, the Bullitt remains the only box-bike I have ever ridden that I can refer to as “nimble” (and keep a straight face).

And a big shout-out still to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids' play area at their new shop!)

A big shout-out goes to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which first had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids’ play area at their new shop!)

We owe it all to the Bullitt. What can I say? It even made us homeowners in San Francisco. It was the right family bike. We bought it at a time when there wasn’t much advice about buying bikes like these to be found. It was Splendid Cycles in Portland that imagined Bullitts could be a real family bike in the United States, and we were lucky to find them and right to trust them. We were making our decision blind, and we hit the jackpot. I recognize a Bullitt isn’t right for everyone—some people are too short, some places are flat enough that the bakfiets is a better fit, and it costs a mint—but we have zero regrets. I know that our kids will age out of being carried on the Bullitt, and being pulled by it, but it’s hard to imagine our outgrowing this bike. There is always something more to haul.

 

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