Category Archives: commuting

Demand more

Spot the transformation cones in SF (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Spot the transformation cones in SF (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

We’ve ridden with our kids in San Francisco on a near-daily basis since 2011. Over the last five years, we’ve watched the number of family bikers like us skyrocket. Our Bullitt used to draw stares and dropped jaws because parents had never seen anything like it before. It still gets attention now, but it’s usually more along the lines of someone running over to say, “I’ve been thinking about getting that bike! Do you like it?” It is no longer unusual for us to go to a kid-oriented event or location (school, after-school, birthday party) and spot another bike like ours, or a comparable family rig. I recognize a number of families by their bikes that I don’t know by name, because we pass each other or travel together every morning.

Over the same period, bicycle infrastructure has improved, which is part of what draws families onto bikes, but the process has been painfully slow. Both Matt and I have attended multiple SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) meetings where we watched the agency propose fantastic infrastructure that was then watered down (“parking! parking! parking!”), or more typically, watched the agency propose pathetic infrastructure that was then watered down (“parking! parking! parking!”) We support the SFBC (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition) and they work hard to push the agency to build safe bicycle infrastructure. Yet the SFMTA seems to take a perverse pride in dragging its heels, so that the kinds of projects that other cities manage to roll out in a matter of weeks extend for years. In the meantime, riders keep dying.

Bike path crossing Lincoln at 3rd Avenue (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Bike path crossing Lincoln at 3rd Avenue (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

In the last couple of months, however, things have been getting noticeably safer on some of San Francisco’s most dangerous streets for bicycles. It is no thanks to the SFMTA. Instead, it’s the work of the SFMTrA, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transformation Authority, an anonymous group that on its own initiative, funded only by donations, has begun doing a fraction of the work that we should been have able to expect the SFMTA to do all these years. For example, in places where drivers routinely park in bike lanes, forcing riders into fast-moving traffic, it adds awareness cones or soft hit posts to mark the lane. Astonishingly, these work (at least while they last.) Drivers who apparently have no concerns at all with the prospect of running over my child on his bicycle will make every effort to avoid hitting an orange plastic cone.

Fell heading onto JFK (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Fell heading onto JFK (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

The SFMTA should be ashamed of its lack of progress on street safety. In the meantime, there are some unexpected new options. This morning I watched cars slow at the sight of the new soft hit posts protecting a particularly harrowing intersection we ride through frequently in Golden Gate Park. I was so grateful that when I got to work I made a donation to SFMTrA so they could buy more equipment. If you bike in San Francisco, you can work with them as well: you can follow them on Twitter (@SFMTrA) or go to their website to add dangerous intersections you’d like to see protected to their interactive map. And if you like what they do, you can donate to help them buy more cones and posts.

Other cities are transforming as well: you can follow and support @NYC_DOTr (New York), @PBOTrans (Portland), @SEA_DOTr (Seattle), or @STP_Fix (St. Paul.) If I’ve missed one, please feel free to post it in the comments. And if you don’t have a Transformation group where you live, maybe you could start one.

I am more optimistic about bicycle infrastructure in San Francisco than I’ve been in quite a while. I’ve decided it’s time to take SFMTrA’s advice, and #DemandMore.

(All street safety installation photos in this post are courtesy of SFMTrA)

 

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

How do you get your kids on their own bikes?

Our kids, at ages 7 and 10, were still riding on our big bikes at the end of 1st grade and 5th grade last year. It got awkward to carry them both, but it was still doable; that why we got big bikes. We like big bikes and we cannot lie. The kids’ commute is complicated by the fact that they both take a van from school to their after-school program, and the van does not have a bike rack. However there was no way we were going to give up their spots in the after-school program, given that it is both an exceptionally good program and literally across the street from my office. The van to after school does, however, have room in the back for a folding bike. As our son got older and tall enough, we offered him the Brompton to ride. We even considered an assisted Brompton, because he’s scrawny and San Francisco is hilly. Unfortunately we learned that the van driver can’t legally offer him assistance loading his bike, and the regular Brompton is already so heavy that he can barely lift it. However he preferred to ride on our bikes.

From here, in 2012

From here, in 2012

The older our kids have gotten, the more drive-by parents and ride-by parents have told us to “put those kids on their own bikes.” I flipped them the bird or ignored them, respectively. I am not into insisting that my kids turn into Mini-Mes (no matter how tempting that is) and I swore that I would never pressure my kids to ride their own bikes. They could ride if and when they were ready. We did however offer bribes: for active transportation, either walking or biking, we pay them 10 cents/mile. I anticipate that they will eventually ask for a better rate (I always encourage them to negotiate) but that’s still cheaper than paying for transit fares.

To this

To this

In August my son started middle school. The same options were on the table as in previous years: I could carry him to school on my bike or he could ride on his own. Also there was one new option: he could take the bus (or rather buses, given that the trip requires a transfer.) The first week he chose to ride on my bike. Then he decided that this was embarrassing and only little kids ride on the back of their parents’ bikes. Next he tried the bus. For the first couple of days we rode with him. This was not necessary, as it turns out that the bus at that time of day and in this part of town only carries students going to school; admittedly the younger kids ride with their parents. However thanks to this experience I did learn that a city bus full of middle school students reeks to eternity. It was weeks ago and I am still reeling from the experience. After a few trips he decided the bus wasn’t to his taste either. He wanted to try riding to school on his own bike. And since then that’s what he’s done, every day.

To this, in 2016. The Brompton is an all-ages bike.

To this, in 2016. The Brompton is an all-ages bike.

So here we are now, with a 6th grader who has chosen to ride his bike to school. We had to jigger the route to find a relatively flat trip because he’s still building up strength. He is still a slow rider and needs extra time on the hills and prefers that one of us shadow him. I am okay with all of these things. He says he likes the extra time he gets to sleep in when he rides his bike instead of taking the bus. He likes feeling independent. He says he wants to try riding completely solo soon. At this point, it seems like he’s going to keep riding, although there are no guarantees. Our daughter, now in 2nd grade, wants to start riding on her own too. So we may be getting another tag-along as a starter; she’s not big enough to ride a Brompton and there’s still that van ride she takes in the middle of the day.

When we started riding bikes everywhere, we did not know how things were going to go as our kids got older. We know families whose kids took to riding their own bikes and never looked back and have heard of families where the kids decided they didn’t like riding their bikes at all, so we kept our expectations low. Our kids are their own people and I know they will find their own way. I don’t always know why they choose to do what they do. At least for now, though, they’ve decided to continue riding with us. And although we try not to overreact and get mushy (at least not where they can see us,) we’re pretty thrilled.

 

 

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco

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.

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

We tried it: Juiced Riders ODK U500

Well hello, long time no see. Both the world and I have been busy, in my case innocuously. I have a new fall class with about 120 students, and thus have missed multiple anniversaries that I try to mention. It’s been over three years since we sold our minivan and two years since we were able to buy our condo with the money we’ve saved. It’s been three years on the Bullitt and that’s still great, and a year on the EdgeRunner with no regrets. But I digress.

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

Over the summer we had a chance to try the Juiced Riders ODK U500, a newish midtail. Our midtail, the Kona MinUte, was our first cargo bike. Since then there have been other midtails released, including the Yuba Boda Boda and the Kinn Cascade Flyer, during which time the MinUte went in and out of production. The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day was a midtail in one incarnation, but according to Bike Friday has now stretched out to longtail length. At some point I realized the cleverly-designed but much-too-heavy-for-San-Francisco Workcycles Fr8 was also a midtail. However I think it is fair to say that the midtail category has not exactly been wildly innovative, as the best-case scenario is pretty much that manufacturers keep producing the same bike.

My daughter wondering why we couldn't stop taking pictures already

My daughter wondering why we couldn’t stop taking pictures already

What makes a midtail? In our experience it’s a bike with a rear deck that comfortably carries one kid on the deck. We have squeezed two smaller kids on the deck of the MinUte, because I’m not so good with “boundaries,” but I learned that if you do that kind of thing with any regularity There Will Be Blood, literally. With a very little kid the frame is sturdy enough to handle both a front seat and the kid on the rear deck, so carrying two kids is not impossible, but that will work only for a limited age range. Anyway, the ODK is a midtail by my reckoning because my two kids would not even consider the possibility of getting on the deck at the same time.

We tried the ODK while visiting Seattle and the always-amazing G&O Family Cyclery. My only regret was that Madi of Family Ride couldn’t come out with us, because I would love to have gotten her thoughts. Anyway, the ODK is unusual in a few ways. Most notably, it is sold only as an assisted bike. Since my reviews are way too long, here is my new obligatory six word review for those who don’t want all the blah-blah.

Juiced ODK: the assisted midtail slayer.

What I like about the ODK

  • The ODK is designed for cargo. A persistent complaint that I have had about midtails is that their decks tend to be really high,
    Pretty stable, even loaded

    Pretty stable, even loaded

    which makes them tippy, especially when hauling kids. That’s less of a big deal on a midtail than a longtail, because the deck is shorter so there’s less fishtailing effect. It’s less of a big deal for the tall than for the short, because the relative height is lower and thus more manageable. However it’s not trivial. I am not particularly short at 5’7” (170cm) yet I notice the tippiness of our MinUte, especially on corners, when it feels like the bike wants to roll over. The Boda Boda and the Cascade Flyer are built with the same high deck. The ODK shaves several inches off by using 20” wheels and the handling with cargo, especially moving human cargo, is noticeably improved as a result.

  • The ODK has a step-through frame. It’s a really low step-through as well, meaning that this bike can easily be ridden by the short or less-flexible. I went out on a test ride with Jen of Loop-Frame Love who pointed out that this would be a fantastic bike for seniors, and I agreed. However it’s also nice for people who have a kid sitting behind and thus cannot swing a leg around the back. The lower the top tube, the easier it is to get on and off.
  • The ODK has an extremely upright riding position. Not everyone likes this, but I do because it helps me see over traffic. With a kid (in this case my daughter) in the back, it also makes me feel less like I’m sticking my butt directly in her face, which seems gauche.
  • The parts on the ODK are formidable on even the cheapest model. Cargo bikes usually carry loads that strain parts to their limits, so the quality of the parts matters more than it might for solo riders. Hydraulic disc brakes are standard (Tektro Dorado for those who care about details like that) and it is immediately clear that they have the kind of stopping power that is appropriate for a fully loaded cargo bike. The shifting is smooth (3 speeds; this bike is assisted and not designed with a big gear range as a result) and the steering is easy. I have ridden enough bikes now that I can tell within a few seconds of getting on a bike whether the manufacturer is trying to save money by using cheap parts: Juiced Riders is not.
  • There are a lot of cool accessories that come with this bike, which I am happy to see is becoming more common for assisted and family bikes. It comes with fenders and a wired-in rear light. It offers a frame-mounted front basket, which is deep enough that not everything would need to be bungeed down.
  • Like all midtails, this bike is short enough lengthwise to be very maneuverable. The ODK is even more so than most midtails because it has 20” wheels, which allow tight cornering. The ODK is also fairly narrow. Overall, this makes it a very easy bike to park at the kinds of dreadful racks that grocery stores, movie theatres, and parking garages seem to have installed sometime in the 1960s and never replaced. The San Francisco standard bike rack, aka the parking meter, offers no challenge for the ODK; our Bullitt, as handy as it is, usually needs some coaxing to snuggle up to a meter.
  • The assist on the ODK, which uses a motor on the front wheel and a throttle on the handlebars is very, very powerful. I have
    At the top of the hill, Jen's turn

    At the top of the hill, Jen’s turn

    learned with some practice that you can add some pedaling power with throttle-assists, although this is not necessary, particularly with this motor. It did not even slow down on the steepest hill we could find in the surrounding neighborhood, which although it did not achieve San Francisco levels of aggression was nonetheless very respectable. As a devotee of pedal assists I have gotten used to contributing noticeable effort on my commutes, particularly when I’m carrying heavy loads like the kids. It was kind of intoxicating to relax and let the motor do the work, pedaling at roughly the level of effort I expended the last time I rode a beach cruiser on the boardwalk. I have seen ODKs on some disturbingly steep hills in San Francisco and now I know why. I don’t think there is much it could not handle, except maybe the 41% grade of Bradford Street in Bernal Heights.

  • The battery options are scaled to a level that allows you to use a lot of assist for a long time. This is a bike that’s intended to be used assisted most of the time; I have seen bikes like this before but they tend to have limited range. The three battery options provide ranges estimated from 40 miles at the low end to 100 miles at the high end. I typically slice estimated ranges in half given San Francisco’s topography; even after this those estimates are very respectable. I rode the model with the biggest battery, and despite my going up and down big hills a few times with my daughter, then having a friend do the same thing, the battery didn’t seem to drop a single bar.
  • The ODK is ridiculously, laughably affordable for an assisted cargo bike. The version with the smallest battery is $2200, and that includes the fenders and the rear light (the front basket is extra). Especially considering the quality of the parts, this is an unbeatable value. Upgrading to the biggest battery adds another $1000 to the price, and that’s still a good price relative to its competition.

What I don’t like about the ODK

  • When you put the kind of battery that can give you 40 or 100 miles of range (maybe) on a bike, you make it really, really heavy. The ODK is really, really heavy. To Juiced Riders’ credit, they are actually willing to report the weight of the bike; with the smallest battery it comes in at just shy of 70 pounds according to their specifications. The version with the biggest battery, which I rode, weighed so much that I couldn’t even lift it. This is not a bike that could be put on an overhead rack or a bus rack, even though it is short enough to fit. It is not a bike that you could carry up the stairs. It is a bike that is, shall we say, permanently wedded to the ground. If you don’t have street-level parking, this may not be a good choice. On the up side, the bike thieves that break into garages with pickup trucks around my neighborhood might very well end up leaving this bike behind rather than risk throwing their backs out. So there’s that.
  • Aesthetics are admittedly in the eye of the beholder. However to this beholder, the ODK is a punishingly ugly bike. This is not
    Eh. Looks aren't everything.

    Eh. Looks aren’t everything.

    the kind of bike that will draw compliments from strangers. The ODK is built for practicality and value and it shows. I hoped with time it would grow on me, and have a certain “so ugly it’s attractive” kind of appeal. I regret to report that this did not happen. Even almost six months after my first exposure and even though I genuinely like this bike, looking at the ODK hurts my eyes. Even the controller is unattractive.

  • The ODK has a twist throttle assist operated by hand, not a pedal assist that operates as you pedal, and throttle assists are the kind of manufacturing choice that makes me question how serious a company is about commuting. Even during the test ride, operating the throttle was starting to hurt my wrist. This is admittedly a personal preference, but it’s less personal than my aesthetic opinion, because I suspect that a long ride on this bike could become unpleasant. There is a “cruise control” option, which I am sure would be fine on an extended ride on a multi-use path, however my longer rides tend to be city rides with a lot of stop and go. This issue isn’t insurmountable, as the ODK is inexpensive enough for an assisted bike that a bike shop with the right experience could convert this to a pedal assist at a price that would still make the ODK a good value. However it would be far better if Juiced made pedal assist an option, even if it were a more expensive option. Not everyone lives near an experimentally-inclined electric bike shop, it would be more cost-effective if the manufacturer did it, and it would not risk voiding the warranty. And it would be better for commuters, particularly commuters with kids, for whom every available hand matters pretty much all the time.
  • The 20” wheels on the ODK make the ride a little bumpy and slow; this is a tradeoff for the low deck and maneuverability. Any speed you pick up on this bike will be coming from the assist, and you will care about the quality of the pavement.
  • The ODK is not really designed for carrying kids. Apparently the rack makes it possible to mount a Yepp Maxi, which is good.
    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    A bike I saw, however, although set up with Yuba accessories for an older kid (probably a better fit for my daughter, age 6), which were nonetheless a little limited; foot pegs and wheel skirts were not available, for example. (I have had some concerns in the past about the quality of some of Yuba’s parts, but I definitely appreciate that they are all-in on the kid-hauling accessories.) Like our Kona MinUte, setting up the Juiced ODK for kid hauling requires some hacking and creativity, probably from a bike shop with experience with the bike and with these kinds of accessories in stock.

  • The ODK’s standard one-sided kick stand is pretty much a joke for a bike that is supposed to haul cargo, as with any load that wasn’t perfectly balanced it’s likely to fall over, unless it were windy, in which case it would definitely fall over. Juiced offers a center stand option that I did not get to try. Like hydraulic disc brakes this is the kind of thing that should be standard on cargo bikes.
  • Like any assisted cargo bike, the price point on the ODK is a big jump for people who are used to solo unassisted bikes. It’s a good value for what it’s offering, but it’s still out of reach for many families.

Things I’m clueless about

  • Juiced Riders as a company is new to me so I can’t speak to the long-term reliability of this bike, or the support that the company will offer. It’s a good sign that it’s invested in high-quality parts, and that it seems to be working with shops that have a good reputation. However there’s no way to know for a while.

Overall, I was impressed with the ODK. The midtail bike market has been pretty stagnant in the last few years and the ODK offers a lot of significant improvements for people looking for an assisted cargo bike. The lower deck and step-through frame alone are long-overdue innovations for midtail bikes. Because of its weight, its throttle assist, and the limited accessories for kid-carrying, it won’t suit everyone’s needs. Nonetheless I’ve seen enough of them around San Francisco now that it looks like they suit a lot of families very well. Within a minute of riding it I thought “this is the midtail slayer” because even though it has some obvious limitations, it fixes so many of the problems I have had riding other midtails. It might be ugly, but it can really haul.

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Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle, Uncategorized, Yuba

“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.

 

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

In and out

How my kids see me lately, in compost form.

How my kids see me lately, in compost form. Mostly sleeping.

There are times when everything goes well, and times when it does not. In the last six months or so, things have been pretty quiet around our place, because I have been dealing with a persistent and annoying bout of anemia.

Having my leg smashed into shrapnel was my personal introduction to invisible disability, where I suddenly understood that not everyone who looked able-bodied and took the elevator up and down a single floor was being lazy. Dealing with anemia has been my personal introduction to chronic disease, and I can’t say I’m a big fan. I’ve found spoon theory is a pretty accurate depiction. Spoon theory proposes the analogy that every activity in life requires a spoon, and that when you are dealing with chronic disease you get only a limited supply of spoons. Once you run out of spoons you can’t do anything else for the rest of the day. So for example, last weekend we went sea kayaking with our kids. This was fun, but in exchange I had to stay in bed for the rest of the weekend.

As one might imagine, this kind of limited energy has put a crimp on our usual summer plans, which usually involve biking around the city all the time. Some days I can ride, and some days I find that I can’t. Things are getting better, and lately I have been riding more days than not. However I have been heavily triaging on all fronts. I haven’t fallen too far behind at work, however updates to the blog have been limited, it’s been months since I last checked my personal email, and so forth. Also I have been very grouchy, because seriously: who would want to live this way?

Fortunately for me, this turns out to be a curable condition. Less fortunately, it means that I have to have another surgery. Tomorrow. That’s right: three years in a row! I’m sure that’s not a world record, but it’s definitely a personal one. Nonetheless I’m grateful that this isn’t going to last forever, and that I have the chance to get better.

When we started riding with our kids, I took my strength and good health for granted. Riding up the hills of San Francisco was difficult but not impossible. I assumed that using an electric assist would make me lazy, not yet realizing that at certain times, it would be the only thing that allowed me to ride at all. In hindsight, this is all very humbling. And surprising: I would never have believed, five years ago, that it was possible to keep riding after getting run over, when I needed a cane just to walk, or when I needed to stop and catch my breath every few steps while going up a staircase. And yet I could ride through all of that. I have heard people say that there is no form of transportation more efficient than a bicycle. It is experiences like these that make me realize what that really means, and that somewhere there is a (possibly assisted) bicycle (or tricycle) suitable for everyone. Now all we need are more safe places to ride.

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

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.

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