Category Archives: car-free

An ordinary life

I want to try the Tern Xtracycle for sure.

I want to try the Tern Xtracycle for sure.

I used to write posts more often. Part of that was novelty value. The switch from driving everywhere to biking everywhere was pretty exhilarating and there was a lot to learn. There still is, but despite the fact that I have ridden more cargo bikes than anyone else I know who does not run a bike shop (and some people who do) I’m no longer the best person to assess the handling of family bikes, mostly because my kids, at ages 10 (almost 11) and 7, are really heavy. I still do it though, just on a very extended schedule.

We also still carry our kids on the bikes, but it’s almost always one kid at a time. They’re moving to riding their own bikes and our son is now old enough to ride the bus to school on his own (well, buses: there’s a transfer), or at least as much “on his own” as it is to ride the same bus as 100 other middle school students. We still commute by bike, sometimes by bus. We rent a car when we need to cross the Bay Bridge as a family (no bikes allowed on the western span) or when we go camping in Central California, or whatever. We take cabs to the airport. We take the train when it’s an option, which is rare, unfortunately. We do not miss owning a car, and in related news, we like being homeowners in San Francisco.

We rode to the Japanese Tea Garden. Pro tip: don't try to drive to Golden Gate Park.

We rode to the Japanese Tea Garden. Pro tip: don’t try to drive to Golden Gate Park.

What people call “alternative transportation” is our ordinary life, and honestly, I kind of stopped paying attention after a while because it doesn’t seem remarkable. At least once a week, one of my colleagues stops at my office, and asks, “Did you bike to work today?” And I say, “Of course I biked today. I always ‘biked today.’”

Alternative transportation is not a bad term though, because it means that we have alternatives. We aren’t tied into getting places any particular way, or to a huge cost sink of a car. Looking for parking has long since become a foreign concept to me, and the biggest maintenance expense we have ever racked up on one of our cargo bikes was in the low three figures. And to this day, when I ride past the line of cars backed up at stop lights, or behind construction equipment, or in the endless wait for summer camp pickup, there is a part of me that thinks, “Suckers!” Obviously I have room for self-improvement.

We travel all kinds of ways, and I wish everyone could. Both Matt and I have aging parents who probably should not be driving, but they live on steep hills without transit on roads with a posted speed limit of 35mph, successfully designed to encourage drivers to take it to 50+mph (and they do), and there is definitely no 8-80 bicycle infrastructure; there aren’t even consistent sidewalks. Their only alternative to driving is to move. We know kids who grew up in places without transit or sidewalks, and to this day the thought of taking the bus terrifies them. Car culture doesn’t allow alternatives, and thus it traps people who are unable to drive, and similarly traps people who are able to drive into taking those who aren’t everywhere they need to go.

Our daughter has moved up to the Torker; our son has moved up to the Brompton.

Our daughter has moved up to the Torker; our son has moved up to the Brompton.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and here we are, hanging in in the new normal, proving that even carrying kids by bike can become unremarkable after a while. We see more families on the road with us every year; it makes the commute fun. When I was riding my daughter to summer camp earlier we saw another EdgeRunner with kids on it and she yelled, “One of us!” There are still plenty of people who haven’t tried it yet though. Every week, we get buttonholed by parents walking to their cars who say, “That bike looks awesome! Do you love it?” Yes. Yes we do. It’s still awesome.


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

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

Loading up...

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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.


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

“Why do cargo bikes cost so much?”

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

I usually talk about bikes with people who already ride bikes, often cargo bikes, and they don’t freak out when they see the prices of cargo bikes. They may not like the idea of paying for a bike (who would? free is always better) but they understand.

That said, I also hear pretty regularly from people who haven’t purchased a bike since childhood, if ever, and their usual response to the idea that any bike, no matter what it can do, might cost more than $100, is, “It costs HOW much?!?” Followed by the usual, “I could buy a used car,” “I could buy a moped,” muttering and suspicions of profiteering. [Note: for exact numbers, check my many reviews; I always list a price or a range of prices. That said, in general you’re looking at somewhere between $1,500 for an unassisted cargo bike at the low end to $7,500 to a seriously tricked-out, kid-hauling, weather-proofed and assisted cargo bike at the high end, although, as always, devotees can figure out ways to spend more.] This came up again recently, and so I am finally writing about it.

So for those who haven’t purchased bicycles for a while, first things first: All bicycles cost more now than they did when we were kids. That’s inflation. For those of us living in San Francisco, well, the bicycles people ride here cost more than the cruisers students ride around on in college because San Francisco has hills, and if you want to ride your bike up a hill instead of walking it you need gears, and once you introduce gears you are in a whole new world of parts and engineering and labor. So while a new Linus single-speed starts at $400 (curse you, inflation), by the time you get up to 8 speeds a new Dutchi (with no racks or lights) will run more like $850. That only gets us about halfway to the price of a cargo bike at the low end, though. What’s going on?

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

The demands placed on a bike that carries one person and a backpack are very different from the demands placed on a bike that may carry 1-2 adults, 1-4 kids, a cartload of groceries, school backpacks, musical instruments, toys, games, beach tents, a mattress, a bookcase, and tow a trailer, sometimes ALL AT THE SAME TIME. All hail the cargo bike, the minivan slayer! What’s different? Well, if you’re riding that cargo bike unassisted you may well want a wider gear range, because it’s hard to pick up speed with those kinds of loads. More gears=higher costs. The frame has to be stronger, because a cargo bike with a 250-pound load limit (common on bikes intended to carry one person) is ridiculously inadequate. That requires both more materials (=higher costs) and in most cases, a redesign of the frame (=higher costs, engineers have to eat too). If you are carrying those kinds of loads, you’ll also need a different kind of wheel, one with more or thicker spokes to support the weight (=higher costs). If you’re carrying kids, then getting more frequent flats in exchange for thinner, lighter weight tires is a bad deal, so you will probably want heavy flat-resistant monster tires (=higher costs). If you are heading down a steep hill with a heavy load, you will want much better brakes than are common on single-person bicycles (=much higher costs, and worth every penny). You can of course save money by building a bike yourself, but the relevant parts will still cost more.

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

And then there is the assist. There are the mighty-calfed among us, who laugh merrily at the very idea of putting an assist on their bicycles. “Why I carry 300-pound loads of construction materials up the mighty hills of Chicago all the time!” they crow. “You lazy bums don’t need to waste your money on an electric assist! You need the exercise!” And then there are the rest of us, who may be coming to riding after a long layoff, or in the wake of an injury (cough, cough), or who simply don’t view riding around town with kids as a way to achieve Maximum Heart Rate. And even if none of those things applied, the people who “see no reason for an assist” typically have no clue what’s involved in family biking. Carrying 300 pounds or more is a very different proposition with live weight than it is with dead weight, because kids have a terrible habit of not staying where you put them, and on a moving bike, an active kid, let alone two fighting kids, can sometimes overcome your pedal power. Moreover people in flat cities often have little idea what I mean when I say San Francisco is hilly. Here’s a hint: if it’s not taller than you are, then around here we don’t call it a hill. When you ride with (or without) kids up and down the hills of San Francisco, an electric assist starts to look very appealing indeed. Alas, an electric assist is far from free.

The prices of electric assists are pretty easy to understand, because they work almost exactly like the prices of bikes: the more they can do, the more they cost. You can get a low-end electric assist for $500. This is often a great option for a single person who needs an occasional boost, and who doesn’t mind the larger size, greater weight, shorter lifespan, and environmental consequences of using a lead-acid battery. (Yes, they sell e-bikes at Walmart that cost $500 together; these are the kinds of assists they have, and as one might imagine, the bike itself terrible.) Prices go up from there. You’ll pay more for a pedal assist that works almost without you noticing than you will for a twist-throttle assist on the handlebars that may feel like it will give you carpal tunnel syndrome. More powerful batteries that can easily push a cargo bike cost more than the kind designed for bikes with less intense loads. More range for a longer ride also commands a higher price. On the high end, the BionX D that we have on our Bullitt retails for $2,500; regular readers will know we paid less because fortune smiled and our battery died a week before its warranty expired. Again, you can save money with a do-it-yourself assist, but the parts suitable for a cargo bike are still going to cost more than the parts suitable for a lighter bike.

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers' market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers’ market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

All of this is before we get to accessories. Racks and baskets and bags to carry kids and gear cost money. Anyone who has every purchased a car seat knows that child seats cost money. Lights cost money, and you’ll need them if you’re riding at night. If you’re riding a bike for transportation, you might find it worthwhile to add dynamo lights to your bicycle, as they are very bright yet unappealing to steal, and these cost more money than clip-on lights. Some front loaders come with rain covers, which cost even more money, but can extend the number of months you ride in the year. And after spending all that money on the bike, it’s also rare than people feel comfortable locking up with a cheap lock; tougher locks cost much more than the cable I locked up my bike with as a kid.

In summary, the price of cargo bikes goes up more or less in lockstep with the quality of the parts. That means that what you are buying as the price goes up is (a) greater safety, to some extent, as with the wheels and brakes. We came to cargo biking relatively early in the scheme of things, which means, like, 2011, and made various screw-ups with crappy brakes and non-Clydesdale wheels and so on. If I can no other good in this world, I would be thrilled if I could prevent someone else from making these same mistakes, which have the potential to make family biking seem scary instead of fun. You are also potentially buying (b) greater convenience, to some extent, as with less flat-prone tires and dynamo lights, and (c) more ability to handle difficult terrain, as with the gears and the assist.

Your circumstances and skills may save you money. If you live in territory that’s flat and/or you have one skinny kid, and/or you are already very fit, you can save money by not getting an assist, and by choosing less powerful brakes. If you know how to build a bike or have electrical skills, you can save money by doing some of the work yourself (that said, I have met only one person who built her own battery instead of buying it retail and she was an electrical engineer). You may conclude on reflection that you don’t need the carrying capacity of a cargo bike, and a child seat on the bike and/or a trailer is sufficient for your needs. They are all good options.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

So cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes to buy and always will be. However there is good news. First, as those hoping for a price break may already have discovered, they last basically forever, retain their value well, and sell quickly on the secondhand market. Second, the maintenance costs are pretty much bupkis. Even if you ran down the entire battery on your brand-new assisted cargo bike and recharged it from zero every night and rode so hard that you had to replace multiple parts on an annual basis and insured it like it was made of platinum, you would still be hard-pressed to spend more than a few hundred dollars a year once you bought it. Compared to the “cheap” used car or moped people sometimes mention as “equivalent,” which can run up those kinds of expenses annually on insurance alone or oil changes alone, let alone the cost of gas and regular maintenance, and which depreciate at a rate that is equivalent to financial hemorrhage, cargo bikes are cheap at twice the price. All the cost is upfront. That’s not trivial, which is why bike shops are increasingly working on the financial side to spread some of that cost over time. Alternatively, you could do what we did and finance your new cargo bike(s) by selling your car.

So our bikes save us money, but more importantly they save us time and stress. They also make me the only parent at my office who gets regular exercise. There have moments in the last few years when we thought we might have to buy a car again at some point, and the thought filled us with despair. There’s no way to put a price on any of that, but altogether these things are worth much more than we’ve spent. All things considered, a cargo bike is a screaming good deal.



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

We tried it: Burley Travoy


Our Burley Travoy, ready for the market

This may well be the most-delayed review I’ve ever written. We got a Burley Travoy for Christmas in 2011, and have used it regularly for 3.5 years. It is sort of a stealth accessory, because it’s not exclusively used on our bikes. It is a multipurpose urban hauler.

The Travoy made a bit of splash when it first came out several years ago, because it was the first trailer with an advertising campaign that suggested that people wearing suits might use it while biking to the office. Ride a bike to work in a suit? What kind of craziness is that? Although to be honest, even though I totally ride to work in dress clothes, the commute to work is one of the few things for which we’ve never used the Travoy. Anyway, since then it seems to have faded somewhat from the cargo hauling consciousness. There are reasons for that, but I think the Travoy is somewhat underappreciated, just like my favorite bicycle accessory of all time, the bungee net. Granted, it is many times more expensive than a bungee net, but in its defense, it can do a lot more. Six word review?

Burley Travoy: goes anywhere, hauls anything*

*except a box spring, the bête noire of all family bikers

What I like about the Travoy

  • It hauls anything. I mean, not ANYTHING, not a house or a car, because physics, but pretty much anything you might actually need to haul. Groceries and work supplies like laptops, duh, but
    This is how we got around at Camp Mather.

    This is how we got around at Camp Mather.

    that is just the beginning. There are photos all over the internet of people hauling bikes on Travoys, full-size bikes, not just Bromptons (which fit nicely). Boxes bigger than actual human beings are no problem, there are straps for that. I have been obsessing somewhat over disaster preparation ever since I took the SF Fire Department’s NERT (Neighborhood Emergency Response Team) training, and a Travoy would be worth its weight in platinum in any kind of post-disaster scenario. When we went to Camp Mather last summer, which is a car-free and sometimes off-road environment, I used the Travoy every day to ride from our cabin to the lake. It attached to the Brompton and typically carried: two umbrella chairs, a pop-up sun tent, multiple pool toys, books, sunscreen, 4 water/wine bottles, 4 bag lunches, 4 beach towels, 4 changes of clothes, and so forth, plus whatever random rocks and other crap my kids snuck in there when I wasn’t looking. We have a habit of pushing right to the edge of the 50 item checkout limit at the library, and we all have our own library cards. Although I suspect that the resulting loads fall somewhat beyond the Travoy’s official 60 pound (27 kilo) capacity, it has never had issues carrying them. I would probably not attempt larger furniture items, but who knows.

  • When I say it hauls anything: yes, that includes a kid. IMPORTANT: carrying your child on a Travoy will unquestionably void any express or implied manufacturer’s warranty, because Burley specifically tells you not to
    How to void your warranty (photo used with permission)

    How to void your warranty (photo used with permission)

    do that. But let’s face it, just like every other family biker, I push bicycles and bicycle accessories far, far beyond their suggested use cases. I was once cautious like every other newbie, but life happens, and one day you find yourself in a position where you need to carry a kid in the front basket or on a cargo trailer, and then it happens again, and sooner or later you realize that the universe is full of surprises and you might as well roll with them. So now I test upfront for all the stupid stuff I know I’m eventually going to do with the bike/accessories, rather than facing disappointment later on when I’m desperate. Would this be a good option for a daily commute? Absolutely not. Would I strap an infant car seat on the Travoy? Hell no. Can I imagine doing it when I had an unplanned kid pick up one day? Yes, I can. So anyway yes, this can be done, and yes, it will also almost certainly inspire some drive-by parenting, but then again, what doesn’t?

  • It attaches to nearly any bike. Longtail decks are a maybe (I have been told that it’s doable but would require either extreme handiness or the assistance of a local bike shop) and for obvious reasons it cannot be used in combination with a trailer or trailer-bike. The Travoy ships with a seat-post clip-in attachment; this is what we use on the Brompton. You can also buy a Burley clamp and attach it to a rear rack; this is how we had it set up on the Breezer.
  • The Travoy can be used as a hand cart. It is designed for this, as the bike attachment can be folded down, leaving a nice padded pull bar that is so comfortable to hold
    Fold down the bike attachment and you can push or pull it with this handle.

    Fold down the bike attachment and you can push or pull it with this handle.

    that our kids fight over who gets to pull it when it’s unloaded. Since we moved last year, this has become our primary use for the Travoy, because our new place is one block away from the farmers’ market. We used to ride to the market but given our new location we can walk there in roughly the same time it takes to get the bikes out of the garage. If you are city people, as we are, you have already seen people hauling their shopping around in folding metal hand carts, because in major cities only crazy people shop by car and trying to carry 3-4 bags of groceries in your arms or a backpack is excruciating. Anyway, you can buy cheap hand carts that break after a few months for $20 in Chinatown, or you can spring for $100 versions that will last for years. Or in our case, you can glance at the Travoy sitting next to the bikes and realize you already have a hand cart. Bonus: the big air-filled wheels mean that it can be dragged up staircases fully-loaded, something traditional folding hand carts resist strenuously.

  • There are bags and straps for various stuff-hauling scenarios, and the clip system that attaches them is very clever.
    A closeup of the clever clip for attaching bags (four per bag)

    A closeup of the clever clip for attaching bags (four per bag)

    It comes with a bag that can carry the folding Travoy or be attached to the unfolded trailer. Given our regular farmers’ market run, we eventually got the shopping bags; a small bag on top holds fragile items like berries and flowers, and a large bag on the bottom holds heavy stuff. Apparently these bags aren’t big sellers because we got them for like half-off, but they are great. There are travel bags that are somewhat more insulated for laptops or checked luggage, and waterproof roll-top bags for some reason, I don’t know why. You can use the two included straps to hold large boxes; bungees are also an option.

  • The Travoy folds up into a tiny package, which can be dropped into the included bag. This is especially nice for those of us who live in cities where real estate prices exceed $1000 per square foot, but it’s not unwelcome
    Push the button in the middle and the wheel pops off.

    Push the button in the middle and the wheel pops off.

    in any scenario. Bike storage can be a hassle, especially cargo bike storage. We have two kids, a ridiculously large garage, and we do not own a car, so bike storage is a no problem for us personally. However if we had one kid and lived in a tiny walk-up apartment with no garage or storage, as we did when we first came to San Francisco, the Brompton + Pere seat + Travoy combination would be a category-killer, because together they take up less space than a folding metal hand cart. Actually, as regular readers know, I have regularly carried two kids on our Brompton; one on the Pere seat and one standing on the rear deck. You could easily stick the whole kit behind the front door. Alternatively, our old landlord let people keep trailers and strollers in the building lobby. The folding mechanism is very clever, however it is definitely a two-handed operation only suitable for the able-bodied. Our son (9 years), for example, does not yet have the hand strength to push the side buttons in simultaneously to collapse each portion of the trailer; those with limited hand strength might need to find another trailer or leave it in the open position permanently. The buttons on each axle that pop the wheels off, on the other hand, are extremely easy to operate.

  • At less than 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) unloaded, the Travoy is light enough to carry anywhere. What’s more the fact that it leans over while in use gives it an extremely small footprint, and it’s narrower than the handlebars on our bikes. This is not a trailer that you have to worry about threading through traffic pinch points or the (sadly necessary) bollards blocking the entrances of multi-use paths to cars.
  • There are multiple grab points on the trailer in both the open and closed positions, as I alluded earlier. Flip down the bike attachment point and the Travoy becomes a hand cart (bags attached) or hand truck (bags
    The hand truck mode, no bags

    The hand truck mode, no bags

    detached). Fold it down at the center point and fold up the bottom plate and it can be carried in one hand like a briefcase.

  • The Travoy can be operated with flat tires. It is pathetic that I can testify to this, but in my defense, I know I’m not the only Travoy owner who sometimes forgets to pump up the tires. More than once I have found myself griping about the Travoy’s poor handling, only to discover when I got home that both tires were completely flat. Ignoring routine maintenance on this trailer will affect the handling, but it will still work.
  • Attaching and detaching this trailer on to and off of the bike is simple and secure. All you have to do is place the hole over the pin and drop it in. It is held in place by a spring-loaded arm, and having taken this trailer off road, I can report that it will not shake loose even under rough conditions. To release it, pull back the spring arm and lift up the attachment point. Because of the geometry, it is easy to lift the trailer off the attachment point even when fully loaded, because the tires hold all the weight. Easy peasy.

What I don’t like about the Travoy

  • The Burley Travoy is more over-accessorized than Batman. This is confusing and annoying. It comes with one bag, which you can store the folded trailer in, and pretty understandably, most people think that that is all that there is. However there are additional shopping bags and travel bags and waterproof bags, and at least the shopping bags are far better designed for carrying stuff than the included trailer bag. They are so much better designed, in fact, that I think that they should be included with the trailer. I see no point to the travel bags; other user reviews have noted that Burley is not a luggage manufacturer and that parts like the shoulder straps are uncomfortable. It would be more useful to be able to buy clips that allow you to attach any bag you already own to the Travoy, yet to the best of my knowledge these don’t exist. I have no idea what purpose the waterproof bags serve; I have yet to meet anyone who has one. Similarly, the Travoy comes with a couple of tie-down straps, and you can buy more tie-down straps, and it comes with a seat post attachment, but you can buy a rear rack clamp if you have a child seat or whatever on the bike and can’t reach the seat post from behind, and so on, and even trying to write all this stuff down gives me decision fatigue despite the fact that I am a researcher by inclination, training, and profession.
  • The kickstand is wretched. A friend calls it “the penis stick,” which, yes, it does resemble, noting that “you can’t use it as a leg.” With extended use, some people’s kickstands break off. Ours has remained attached, but it
    This kickstand is not entirely useless, but it is the weakest point on the whole trailer.

    This kickstand is not entirely useless, but it is the weakest point on the whole trailer.

    is unreliable, and will sometimes collapse unexpectedly when we try to balance the Travoy on it. Is it a deal-killer? No, it’s not the end of the world if the trailer tips over. Is it as annoying as heck? It definitely is. The kickstand would be bombproof if it were welded into position and didn’t fold away, like on every other folding hand cart in the known universe. Having the kickstand extended permanently wouldn’t really affect how small the trailer folds away so it’s basically another case of unnecessary “features.”

  • The trailer bag that is included with the Travoy, when it is attached to the trailer to carry groceries or whatever, tends to scrape against the wheels. That is because, unlike the shopping and luggage bags, the trailer bag has no rigid internal structure. If you drop three bunches of carrots in the bag, they fall right to the bottom and once the trailer is tilted back to be pulled, they often shift and rest on the edges of the wheels. This is part of the reason that I failed to notice the tires had gone flat so many times; when the trailer bag is filled on the Travoy, I learned to expect poor handling because of the wheel scraping. If you notice it, you can sometimes rearrange the bag’s contents around a little bit and get them off the wheels for the remainder of your trip. Since we moved to using the shopping bags almost exclusively, this is no longer a problem. However this solution requires buying extra bags.
  • Although the folding mechanism is clever, each folding point can be sticky. This seems to be somewhat random; sometimes they pop right into action, and sometimes you have to poke around for a while.
  • The trailer attachment point sticks sometimes, particularly on the Brompton, which holds the Travoy at a slightly different angle than Burley seems to have intended. The same issue would arise for short riders on properly-fitted bikes and for children. To attach and detach the trailer from the Brompton, I sometimes have to lift the bike a couple of inches off the ground.
  • Technically the Travoy can only carry 60 pounds (27 kilos). Given that we’ve owned ours long enough that any warranty has long since expired, I’m comfortable sharing the fact that in our experience, it can carry much more. Nevertheless, do this at your own risk. Similarly, Burley doesn’t really support people carrying anything but its designated bags on the Travoy, which underestimates its true capabilities.
  • The Travoy, yee-argh, it’s kind of expensive. Maybe this would feel less painful if you were already planning on dropping a Benjamin on a folding hand cart, but still. The current list price is $300, although it goes on sale sometimes (we bought ours years ago and paid a lot less than that; seeing the current price was an unpleasant shock). What’s more the Travoy is almost as hard to find used as a Brompton child seat, because it’s both useful and easy to store, so no one has any reason to get rid of one once they have it. It’s definitely an investment kind of accessory. We have no regrets because after all the years we’ve owned it, the cost is fully amortized plus it’s got years of use left, but you know, our kids’ bikes cost less than that. Plus there are the endless potential accessory purchases as well. On the other hand, as always, it’s cheaper than a car.

So the Burley Travoy: we like it and we’d get it again, despite the fact that figuring out the accessories gave me a headache and despite the annoyance of having it tip over sometimes. The Travoy folds up like origami and can haul virtually everything we need. We are moving out of the years when going somewhere with our kids requires dragging along an obscene quantity of stuff, so our use has declined, but it we still take weekly trips to the farmers’ market and the library, and as a result, our Travoy more than earns its keep.




Filed under Brompton, car-free, cargo, reviews

A city without cars


Waiting for the vaporetto

Over spring break we went to Europe. This was a long-delayed trip, in honor of our son’s request, years ago, to visit a city without cars. There are parts of multiple cities that are car-free, and we have visited some of these (including, on this trip, in Bordeaux and Paris), and there are a few car-free places that are more bucolic (like Mackinac Island in Michigan) but there is only really one city that has (virtually) no cars, and that city is Venice.

Venice is both an easy and a hard city to love. The easy part to love is the beauty and the incredible sense of safety and comfort that comes from being someplace that is truly car-free.

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Our kids acclimated almost immediately and after a week, it was an unpleasant shock to step off the water taxi to walk to Marco Polo airport and discover a crosswalk. They were not prepared for passing cars despite our warnings and tried to run across as they would have in Venice proper. Less appealing is that Venice has been loved almost to death. Venice hosts more tourists than it has permanent residents every day of the year, and it is packed with people, all of whom seem to be hauling wheeled suitcases (which are, incidentally, almost totally useless in a city that uses bridges with stairs to allow people cross canals every few meters). What’s more, the city is riddled with tourist traps and it can be a challenge to find services that normal people use, like grocery stores, laundromats, and pharmacies. Also, unlike in the rest of Italy, we ate some of the worst meals of our lives in Venice. We are as guilty of doing touristy things as the next family, of course: we took our first gondola ride while we were there, and it was awesome. I do not dismiss all things touristy out of hand.

This is a Venetian handtruck: pull it up the stairs and the load stays steady, then flip it around and bounce it down.

This is a Venetian handtruck: pull it up the stairs and the load stays steady, then flip it around and bounce it down.

I have become kind of obsessed with transportation over the last few years, so I was fascinated by how Venice worked. I took pictures of garbage boats and ambulance boats, and checked all the squares for the water cisterns, which historically were filled by filtered rainwater. You can still see the cache drains, although the cisterns have all been capped off and water is now piped. On the way out, though, sewage still drains right out into the canals, yeeargh. I digress. Goods and people in Venice move primarily by boat. For deliveries, one boat worker ties up the boat at the nearest dock to the destination, and the other grabs a hand truck to make deliveries. The hand trucks have two large wheels and two small wheels, so they can be dragged up steps on one side of each crossing bridge, and bounced back down on the other side, without tipping. I found the whole process fascinating to watch. Sometimes they cut out the middleman: we spotted more than one boat that served as a floating market.

Cement trucks on a barge! Words fail me.

Cement trucks on a barge! Words fail me.

The inability of Venice to handle any auto traffic whatsoever becomes surreal at times. We watched a barge pull up to a construction site carrying two cement trucks, which proceeded to mix and pour cement while tied up to the edge of the canal. It is patently ridiculous to use a truck to mix and pour cement in a car-free city, but this is pretty much the only way we have anymore to make large quantities of cement, so that’s what they did. It was moments like this that made me understand that what it really means to live in a completely car-dependent culture; I realized that certain things cannot be done any other way.

“Accessible” Venice, sometimes.

I spent a fair bit of time wondering whether the way that Venice worked could be exported to modern cities, given that is still the only car-free city in the world. And my conclusion was: sort of. One thing that makes Venice wonderful is the complete separation between different modes of transit, and this could and should be done everywhere. It is safe to walk anywhere (assuming you don’t walk right into a canal; this is Europe and governments don’t bother with safety rails) because the only motor traffic is in the water. In lieu of buses people ride the vaporetti, which honestly completely trump both buses and trains for unrelenting coolness. And unless they are on strike, they come every few minutes; it’s not like they’re going to get stuck in traffic. One thing that could never be exported is the relentless use of stairs, which makes the city totally inaccessible to the non-able bodied. The entire city is like Escher’s Relativity lithograph. There were occasional ramps, but only on the largest bridges, because most places there simply isn’t enough room for them. Riding bicycles is completely out of the question. We saw a few kids on scooters, but only those who had parents patient enough to carry them up and down the stairs every 100 steps or so. Strollers are basically nonexistent. Even so, I understand why people dream of living in Venice, despite the mostly-terrible food and the madding crowds and the near-impossibility of washing the clothes our kids threw up on during the plane ride. A car-free city is peaceful, and quiet, and beautiful. Even though the sewers dump right into the canals, the air is clean. We could let the kids run free. It was hard to leave and return to places where we always have to be alert, just to keep from being killed. After just a few hours in Venice it becomes clear that doesn’t have to be that way; we could redesign cities for people. And yet it is.

This is everywhere in Venice.

This is everywhere in Venice.

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Filed under car-free, destinations, travel

People of the bicycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Hum of the city: Golden Gate Bridge

[Posts lately have been light and will continue to be for a few weeks: I broke my finger and it’s a bear to type right now. For those of you waiting to hear about the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day and the Faraday Porteur—sorry!]

The toll plaza without cars--it was eerie.

The toll plaza without cars–it was eerie.

Earlier this month, the Golden Gate Bridge was closed to car traffic for a weekend, for the first time ever. The reason for this was to install a new barrier between the north and south lanes. The old barrier, consisting of soft plastic poles, didn’t really keep drivers from running right into each other. As a result, a hard barrier was installed on the bridge (and it can be moved using zipper trucks; this process is wildly cool). You might think that this not-incredibly surprising news about soft plastic poles could be exported to design safer bike lanes, but so far, not so much.

The southern approach to the "closed" bridge

The southern approach to the “closed” bridge

The week before this happened, residents received multiple notices that the bridge “would be CLOSED.” Not true, it would only be closed to CARS. And this was an opportunity that we didn’t want to miss. We have tried to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge before, when our kids were stroller-age, and never made it past the first tower. The noise of passing cars was overwhelming, and they were so close to the sidewalk that the experience of walking was kind of scary. Historically, the bridge has only been closed to cars for a few hours at a time; an hour in 2012 for the 75th anniversary, 6 hours in 1987 for the 50th anniversary, but never before for a whole weekend. I doubt I’ll live to see it again.

He is a strong rider now.

He is a strong rider now.

Our son decided to ride by himself, even though the hills en route are non-trivial to say the least. He did fine. Once we got there things got a little more difficult. We were not the only people who had the idea of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge during the construction work. What’s more, the bridge administrators decided to close the west side bicycle lane that weekend. (They close the west side a lot, for reasons that have never been explained. Maybe they hate active transportation.) At any rate, it was crowded. The worst were the multiple lines of lycra-clad riders from Marin, who came in huge clumps and who made no effort to hide their fury that they were being forced to slow down for other users. “DON’T STOP!!!” one screamed from behind me when I slowed to avoid hitting a toddler who wandered in front of me. I heard a tourist say in disbelief, “Why are those bikers so angry?” Good question.

Little girl on a big bike, and an empty expanse where the cars usually go

Little girl on a big bike, and an empty expanse where the cars usually go

So it was a tough ride. We had towed our daughter’s bike there so that she could ride the bridge by herself, but she didn’t have the skills to navigate the crowds and had to go back on my bike. Our son was grouchy about having to deal with so many people at once. Our bikes are huge and earned us the lifetime enmity of pretty much every recreational rider in Marin County.

And yet. Despite all of the hassles, it was sort of magical to cross the bridge in silence, especially as we got further north and the crowds thinned out. Every once in a while a bus or a construction vehicle would go by, and the noise would echo loudly, overwhelming the sounds of birds flying by, and of people having conversations. Just one car could drown all those living noises out. Yet on every other day on the bridge there are thousands of them. Until that weekend, no could ever hear anything at normal volume on the bridge. The bridge constantly roars with passing engines.

Listening to the waves and the seagulls

Listening to the waves and the seagulls

I named this blog Hum of the city because I fell in love with the noises of a city when I heard them for the first time. It took a trip to Copenhagen, which redesigned itself to cut back dramatically on relentless car traffic, before I even knew they were there. Now that we’re back in San Francisco, I listen all the time, but I only hear them in snatches—during a light cycle that’s briefly red in every direction, on a residential street block party, on a car-free Sunday, or on a once-in-a-lifetime weekend, crossing Golden Gate Bridge.


Filed under car-free, destinations, family biking, San Francisco