Category Archives: electric assist

The year of the electric assist

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

Over winter break we noticed a lot more bicycles on the streets than there were at the same time last year. It’s now rare that I’m the only rider on the streets on my route, whatever route that might happen to be. Last week, riding from our son’s school to downtown, I was surrounded by so many other riders that in combination with being tailed by a bus, which blocked cars from potentially rear-ending any of us, I relaxed and started looking at other people’s bikes instead of focusing on traffic.

As is increasingly common, there was an assisted bike in the group, this one ridden by an older gentleman dressed up for work in the Financial District. He looked like the kind of person who wouldn’t be riding an unassisted bike. On most work days I look like that kind of person myself.

Spotted near work

Spotted near work

It is no accident that I pretty much stopped taking transit entirely when an assisted bike (the mamachari) entered our lives. We live on the top of one big hill and I work on top of another, and before that particular craigslist score there was always calculation involved in riding to work: “Am I going to have to look presentable today?” (I don’t have the patience or free time to carry a spare set of dress clothes and shower at the office, assuming that my office even had a shower, which it does not.) With an assisted bike that problem disappears. I can choose to work harder on the way home at the risk of sweating, and I often do. But I can also choose to use enough assist that I arrive at work with no more evidence of having ridden a bike than rosy cheeks and the complete absence of commuter rage. “Wait, what? You came here on a bike?” is the kind of thing I hear a lot these days.

It’s coming up on a year of electric assist for us, and there’s no question it’s been life-changing. Example: we sold our only car (30 Days of Biking is no challenge whatsoever this year).  To my surprise, because we’re about as fashionable as any other harried parents (which is to say: not at all) we appear to have been out in front on this issue. From what I’ve seen so far, 2013 is the year of the electric assist in San Francisco. Assisted bikes are everywhere; I spot them while riding around, while walking in our neighborhood, and there’s always at least one locked up nearby every time I stop to park my bike. Cargo bike riders who don’t have one typically say they want one, even if the need to carry a bike up a flight of stairs or the extra cost makes adding an assist unfeasible.

Look, there's another one

Look, there’s another one

I don’t ride much where it’s flat, but people who do seem to ride more with assisted bikes as well. The assist is like the cover on the Bullitt; in winter we could dress up our kids to ride without it, but it’s easier to get them out the door by skipping the cold weather gear and letting them cozy up under the cover. I could get myself out the door on an unassisted bike, and I have, but it’s a lot easier knowing that I can get a little help when the hills get steep or the wind gets fierce or when I’m tired at the end of the day. It’s also easier to take a bike knowing that I’m not going to walk into a meeting at work dripping with sweat. Unless I’m crossing the bay (and sometimes even then), it’s always easier to ride a bike now. And so that’s what we do.

1 Comment

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

Where the family bikes are

Family bikes like circus arts.

Family bikes like circus arts.

We tend to spot interesting bikes in the morning. I’m not sure why. I almost never get pictures because we’re booking to school, but last week was a particular doozy. One rainy morning I passed a recumbent bike that not only sported six poison-frog yellow Ortlieb panniers (with the rider in a matching jacket), but actual jingle bells. And almost every morning I also see some of San Francisco’s significant homeless contingent, or as I sometimes think of them, “self-supported locally-touring riders,” with each bike hauling not only a sleeping bag and a duffel bag but at least two full garbage bags of recycling. Matt found a generous collection of family bikes at the acrobatic center where he took our son this weekend.

Where I hit the motherlode (aside from our son’s school, of course) is Rainbow Grocery. Last Friday I took the day off after a particular grueling week; and instead of heading to work after school drop off I went to Rainbow. On the way in I saw our friends’ Big Dummy, probably because they joined us in car freedom last week, and together we checked out all the other family bikes locked up.

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

The first was one of the many ad hoc family bikes around the city. This bike was immediately familiar, though, because I’d already talked to the mom about her bike while we were riding on the Panhandle. I really liked the seat she’s screwed into the rack, which I’ve never seen before, and I would love to find another because it looks like the perfect addition to a midtail deck. Her kid is apparently still pretty small, but trustworthy enough to hold on to stoker bars. I asked her about footrests, because there aren’t any, and she said that she always keeps panniers with a kid on board, and her kid’s feet go inside. Personally I’d use a sturdier rear rack, but then again my kids are bigger.

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

The second bike that pulled up while I was there was a longtail I’d never seen before, a Fraser Pack Mule from Southern California. I asked the dad riding it and he said it was custom, purchased long before the Surly Big Dummy hit the market. I was really impressed by the integrated back support on the deck. And  although it is evidently usually a single-kid hauler he said that he sometimes carries both of his kids on this bike as well (as long as they’re not fighting, a caveat that’s all too familiar). They live on a hill, but he left the bike unassisted because he has to carry it upstairs to park it, and wasn’t sure he could handle hoisting another 20 pounds on top of an already heavy cargo bike. How cool is this bike?

Anyway, I think I need to figure out a way to get to Rainbow Grocery more often on weekday mornings.

3 Comments

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

These are the ways we ride to school, continued

EdgeRunner, Mundos, trailers, trailer-bikes

Rosa Parks parents rolling in: EdgeRunner, Mundos, Boda Boda, trailer, trailer-bikes

Last year I wrote about some of the bikes we saw at school drop-off. We have a new bike to take our kids to school (the Bullitt) but the big news for us this year was the group of new kindergarten parents on bikes. They outnumber all the rest of us put together. When we were first assigned to Rosa Parks in 2010 I never would have guessed that these families would be coming two years later.

This year’s kindergarten parents came riding multiple Yuba Mundos, and at least two of them are assisted (it’s still San Francisco). There is a bike with a trailer, a real rarity in San Francisco. There are a couple of bikes with trailer-bikes for kids, and an eBoda Boda. And joining them in 2013 is a brand new assisted Xtracycle EdgeRunner.

At the kindergarten end of the yard it's bike-central

At the kindergarten end of the yard it’s bike-central

I catch these parents sometimes when I’m riding up Webster from the south, and we make a little bike convoy. On occasion my son has reached over to the deck to zip up another kid’s open backpack while we talk. Parents and teachers in cars wave to us at stop lights, and we wave to families walking to school from the bus stop.

Bikes with yellow jackets

Bikes with yellow jackets

The kindergarten parents are such a cohesive crew that I am seriously considering replacing my beat-up, broken-zippered windbreaker with one of the day-glo yellow ones that they all seem to wear so that I can look like part of their posse. And historically I have not been a fan of day-glo yellow.

Hey, Boda Boda.

Hey, Boda Boda.

After drop-off I sometimes ride with another family whose route to preschool mirrors my route to work. On the rare occasions that I leave our son and head out before school starts, I have spotted Rosa Parks families coming down Post Street in the opposite direction as they head to school.

Some of the families with older kids are in transition. The third and fourth graders are moving to their own bikes, or sometimes a kid’s bike hitched to a parent’s bike with a TrailGator (there is still a lot of traffic in the city). Our son’s love of the Bullitt’s rain cover has temporarily postponed his desire to ride his own bike, at least while it’s cold and rainy, but I’m sure this will change as he sees more and more kids riding on their own.

Rain? What rain?

Rain? What rain?

Riding our kids to school on our bikes is still not typical, but at Rosa Parks it’s not exceptional either. The neighborhood infrastructure for bikes isn’t more than a bit of paint, but evidently this is enough. There are traditional bike lanes and sharrows on some of the streets near school, and drivers are used to looking out for bikes. Every morning there is a row of them parked along the fence at drop-off, in addition to the bikes like ours left at the actual racks.

All aboard!

All aboard!

I remember reading about families with in other cities with neighborhood schools that organized regular walks and rides to school and thinking, at the time, how unrealistic it seemed for San Francisco, with its citywide school lottery. I was sure that it would never happen here, with families coming from all directions and every neighborhood. But who really knows what creates enough critical mass to form a bike community? I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier.

3 Comments

Filed under destinations, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Xtracycle, Yuba Boda Boda, Yuba Mundo

Losing it

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven't slept.

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven’t slept.

Matt and I are lazy, middle-aged people who have overstuffed our lives. Ever since our son was born, my favorite hobby has been sleeping. We both work full-time jobs, Matt travels extensively for business, I travel somewhat less extensively for business, and we have two kids we adore whose demands swallow our weekends and evenings. This is not a complaint, because we chose these lives, like our jobs, and love our children. But it was not really a shock to find last year that we had started to pack on the pounds.

In 2012, Matt’s repeated trips to China with their endless banquet meals put him near his highest lifetime weight. Also in 2012, I gave up a serious diet Coke habit because it seemed wrong to rely so heavily on a fake food. I never developed a taste for coffee or tea, which means that I have been caffeine-free for over a year. Sadly for me, caffeine is an appetite suppressant. I developed a killer sweet tooth and predictably, gained weight as well. Neither of us was technically overweight, but we were starting to get uncomfortable.

Mirror in the bathroom

Mirror in the bathroom

We both began losing weight at the end of 2012, in part, I suspect, because the Bullitt entered our lives then. With a haul-anything assisted cargo bike we were both willing to attempt riding up hills we’d never tried before, and even with the assist, we were working hard. Plus, that bike is so fast already that it is endlessly tempting to engage in what the good people at Wheelha.us call “time travel,” where you leave late, crank up the assist, pedal like mad, and arrive early. If losing weight using an electric assist is “cheating,” then sign me up for more of that.

Then in January I took a day-long tour of the dump. I came back in shock, and we started trying to become a zero-waste household. (Thankfully, there are role models for a project like this.)

We shrink and they grow.

We shrink and they grow.

There is a lot of talk about the sustainability triple-bottom-line, which suggests that any ecological change will have economic and health effects as well. In our experience this is: true. We bought bikes and sold our only car and saved money and lost some weight and started hanging out with a bunch of cool people. We started trying to reduce our waste because I was horrified when I toured the dump, but we ended up saving money too. Our grocery bills are now less than the California food stamp allotment. We also eat out less than we used to, about once a week, because zero-waste is not compatible with takeout. On top of that, in the last two months both Matt and I have dropped to the lowest adult weights of our lives. Our son, after two years without putting on a pound, finally started gaining weight, and both kids have grown a couple of inches. Everyone in our household needs new pants now. We look like hobos.

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in a quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in an old quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

Saving money and losing weight (or in our kids’ case, growing like steroidal weeds) weren’t exactly in our plans, but these are definitely welcome developments. Yippee! So here we are. Our zero-waste effort is like riding our bikes in that there is this unexpected triple-bottom-line, and that surprisingly, it’s made life more fun. It’s unlike riding bikes in that, well, these two things have pretty much nothing else in common as far as I can tell. Yet although we started riding bikes for fun and we started reducing our waste out of dismay, in both cases we ended up in the same place. And both changes have made life better.

[Coming up eventually, because I have been asked: The zero-waste “diet”]

3 Comments

Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, San Francisco, zero waste

Turn that frown upside down

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

On Friday afternoon things were going terribly at work due solely to the machinations of campus IT, and not for the first time either. After a few hours of suffering I decided to do what everyone else in the office had already done and leave work early. I headed out to get the grocery shopping done, which in our brave new world of zero-waste is usually a pretty entertaining errand. But I was in a foul mood.

Even though I was on the Bullitt, which is a fun bike, the ride was not going well. It was windy and without kids in the bucket the rain cover kept catching the wind and threatening to tip the bike over. On my way down Post Street, there were cars parked in the bike lane roughly every 100 feet, pushing me out into traffic. My usual strategy when I see a car parked in the bike lane is to ring my bell, even though this is completely futile. I like to imagine my bell going: “WTF! WTF! WTF!” The drivers don’t even bother to look up from their phones but it makes me feel better.

Then thanks to yet another car in the bike lane I missed my turn and ended up winding back through the public housing projects south of Geary and their relentless, jarring speed bumps, which are short and sharp and which have sent the Bullitt to the shop with broken cranks once already. By the time I got back on route I was actually cursing to myself, and muttering: “CARS! I hate… CARS!”

I finally got to the Scott Street hill, which is a doozy, but whatever, I was on the Bullitt. To my surprise I saw a dad with his daughter on a trailer-bike preparing to head up that hill a few blocks ahead of me, which is no joke even when riding solo. I was impressed despite my bad mood. As I got closer, they slowed, and then he suddenly lost control and ran into a parked van, and both of them went over. Who among us hasn’t been there?

By the time I reached them they were back up, uninjured and walking up the steepest part of the hill. “Go, dad, go!” I said as I passed, because that kind of effort deserves some credit.

From the top of the hill on, it was all downhill and even though car traffic was backed up all the way through the Wiggle (why are there cars on the Wiggle?), and some of them blocked my big cargo bike temporarily, things got better at Rainbow Grocery. I discovered they have bulk Easter* candy wrapped in paper and foil, which is going to be helpful in a couple of weeks.

It ended up being a major shop but as usual the Bullitt swallowed it all, and as usual the Rainbow employee-owners staffing the parking lot made sure that cars didn’t mow me over when I headed out (many San Francisco grocery stores staff their auto parking lots to prevent the unspeakable mayhem that ensues if drivers are left to fend for themselves). Then I headed home, and thankfully it was a quiet ride. “Where’s the kid?” a guy asked me on Mission. “I’m on my way to get them,” I said.

Some other things that make me happy

Some other things that make me happy

According to the Bullitt’s computer I rode about 15 miles on Friday between the school drop-off and work and shopping and pickups. With all that riding my mood eventually improved, as it always does. I don’t really remember what I did on days like these before we started riding bikes. Probably I drank? Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker. And riding is cheaper therapy than either.

*We ceded Easter baskets last year when our son said he didn’t want to be Jewish anymore if he couldn’t have an Easter basket. Thanks to all the various holidays we now recognize/celebrate through his school (Oshugatsu Matsuri, Hinamatsuri, Cherry Blossom, Kodomo No Hi, Black History Month, Rosa Parks Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Holi, Diwali, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, etc. etc.) he sees no reason not to pick up any holiday from any tradition. Fortunately California Judaism is pretty flexible about this kind of thing.

1 Comment

Filed under car-free, electric assist, San Francisco

Hello there, ad hoc San Francisco family bike

Front top-tube seat with an electric assist: this is a San Francisco family bike.

Front top-tube seat with an electric assist: this is a San Francisco family bike.

Here’s a bike I’ve seen at after-school pickup before, one of the bikes that led me on a merry chase until I eventually discovered that top tube seats are an actual thing. This seat is jury-rigged but holds a first-grader in daily use. Although it’s hard to see, there’s a small electric assist on the front wheel—the battery is in the rear bag. That’s because that first-grader goes to one of the many San Francisco schools on the top of a big hill.

I know that not everyone likes the ad hoc family rigs, which are sometimes not the most safety-oriented bike setups (although this one looks perfectly legit to me). But not everyone comes to riding with kids with a lot of money to spend. I’m impressed by the ingenuity of these riders show; many of them have limited resources. This strikes me as a more formal version of the bike I saw ridden by a dad who had put his son sidesaddle on a pillow on the top tube of his bike. (There is a lot to be said for having a traditional diamond frame when putting together a child seat on the fly.)

It is perceived as charming when families ride this way in old movies. My parents used to ride with us in the front baskets of their bikes. That’s not something I’d do with my kids now, but then again I don’t have to; we have a great cargo bike. These bikes aren’t our bikes, but their riders are our people.

2 Comments

Filed under electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

One less fixie

Truthfully, the mamachari is better as a "ride right up to the farmers market stand and dump stuff in the baskets" bike.

Truthfully, the mamachari works best as a “ride right up to the farmers market stands and dump produce in the baskets” bike. I’ve got a reputation.

Last week Matt left the Bullitt in his office for a few days when he was away on business, so I ended up taking my son to school on the mamachari. Our kids prefer to be in the Bullitt for every trip so this never makes him happy. (I could go either way depending on the day: the Bullitt is faster, has more range, and carries more, plus there’s less whining, but then again it’s harder to park.)

No question that as rear child seats go, this one rocks.

No question that as rear child seats go, this one rocks.

On the Bullitt I’m used to a lot of attention by now—sometimes it verges into dangerous attention, as passing cars will slow and veer over when they see us—but to most people the mamachari just looks like an old bike (although parents are always asking me about the child seat). But on Friday on the Panhandle, at Masonic, another rider stopped to ask me about it. “Just how old is that bike?” he wanted to know. “I haven’t seen a Bridgestone sold in decades.” I think the idea of a decades-old bike with an electric assist was throwing him off.

I told him it was probably ten years old, but it came from Japan where Bridgestone was still selling new bikes. But I was completely distracted because his bike had a large “One Less Fixie” sticker on it even though the bike itself looked like a fixie. It was weirding me out. It was only when he grabbed onto a sign at a stop and spun the pedals backward without actually moving that I realized it was a single-speed non-fixie. As he rode ahead (everyone rides faster than I do when I’m carrying my son on the mamachari) I thought: a single speed bike advertising against fixies; now that’s really, really obscure.

2 Comments

Filed under Bullitt, commuting, electric assist, San Francisco

More family bikes of San Francisco

There is no shortage of "traditional" family bikes like this Xtracycle, though.

There is no shortage of “traditional” family bikes like this Xtracycle. This was the first Rolling Jackass center stand I’ve seen in San Francisco, though.

Riding a giant family bike around San Francisco can at times feel outlandish. I feel that way most often when I’m having trouble parking the Bullitt. There are also occasional moments when I have to stop on a hill and am unsure whether I’ll be able to successfully start again (this problem is not unique to the Bullitt but feels scarier with both kids on board). And then there is the general reaction when we’re out: it’s uniformly positive, but there’s no question that riding a bike like ours around is still unusual enough in San Francisco that we get a lot of attention. Fortunately we are not completely alone out there. In the last few weeks we’ve seen at least three other family bikes that are at least as interesting.

Stoked Metrofiets at Golden Gate Park

Stoked Metrofiets at Golden Gate Park

One family has been riding a Stokemonkeyed Metrofiets with a FollowMe tandem for far longer than we’ve had the Bullitt. With that Stokemonkey I don’t doubt they can climb tougher hills than we can. We saw them at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s family day, and again at Golden Gate Park the other weekend. Their bike is even wider and longer than ours is, and it hauls more too.

This bike wins the "most modifications" award.

This bike wins the “most modifications” award.

Last night we saw this incredible Burley tandem with kid-back cranks on the stoker seat, a Burley Piccolo trailer-bike, and a BionX assist like ours. The bike itself looked very familiar, but the last time we saw the family we know riding it, it didn’t have the BionX. We’re still not sure whether it was their bike with a recent upgrade to electric assist or another family’s bike—meaning that there are two Burley tandems like this in San Francisco, which is possible although perhaps not likely—but it’s an impressive setup.

When riding back from school on the Bullitt recently back I saw another long john headed the other way with two kids on board. I was talking with a friend while we were riding and almost missed it, and I definitely didn’t get a photo, but it looked like a Cetma Largo? Unlike our bike, theirs lacked a weather cover, and the kids looked cold.

Outside nearly any family-friendly venue in San Francisco you'll find bikes like ours.

Outside nearly any family-friendly venue in San Francisco you’ll find bikes like ours.

Riding our smaller bikes around the city, though, we have plenty of company. I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party last weekend, and the racks outside the playspace were all occupied; we weren’t even the only family to ride to the party. Trailer bikes, child seats: we see bikes rigged with these all over the city, sometimes so many that the places we ride don’t yet know how to handle them. We still often ride the smaller bikes to new destinations largely because we’re not always sure we’ll be able to find decent cargo bike parking on our first trip.

What is it?

What is it?

And then there are the bikes I can’t figure out. At school lately I’ve been seeing a motorized bike. It looks like a moped and it has a gas motor, but the pedals turn, so arguably it’s a bicycle. It looks as though it was designed to carry two passengers. Does something like this belong at a bike rack? I have no idea. But there’s no question that the city’s infrastructure lags far behind the people using it.

4 Comments

Filed under electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Xtracycle

Preschool EdgeRunner

Finally, another bike at preschool.

Finally, another bike at preschool.

This morning I saw the EdgeRunner I’d spotted last week parking next to my mamachari outside preschool as I was leaving. As the dad was unloading the bike and his son, Walking Mom came up the hill. Walking Mom is a friend from preschool who pushes her 3 and 5 year old five miles from home and up preschool hill in a double stroller every morning. Then she goes to work all day, and comes back in the evening to pick the boys up and walk them the five miles home. She is incredible. “We saw you going up the hill!” she yelled to the EdgeRunner dad , “That was AWESOME!”

When I talked to him he was still panting. “Well,” he said, “[gasp] we made it! [pant] I’m [wheeze] getting old.”

I sound exactly like that every morning.

“It’s just a really steep hill,” I said, “even with the assist.”

It's possible to ride up this part of the hill unassisted, but probably not with a four-year-old passenger.

It’s possible to ride up this part of the hill unassisted, but probably not with a four-year-old passenger.

Every morning I feel like that dad. I’m simultaneously grateful and vaguely disbelieving that we made it up preschool hill again, even with the assist, even after almost a year. Looking up the hill I’m never quite sure I’ll make it.

When I look at the assists on our bikes I feel so happy that they’ve made something possible that was previously impossible. Anyone who calls an electric assist cheating can meet me at the top of preschool hill.

4 Comments

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

Xtracycle erumpent

Another EdgeRunner!

Another EdgeRunner!

Last week I spotted the first EdgeRunner I’d seen in the wild. I did a double-take last weekend when I saw it again at the Botanical Gardens. Except that it had different stoker bars. Given that stoker bars aren’t an accessory that people swap out casually, I realized it was an almost-identical EdgeRunner. This bike has been available for what, a month? And I’ve already spotted two? Evidently I’m not the only person who found it appealing. I think this one is a Rosa Parks bike, as I either saw it again or there is a third (!) EdgeRunner in our usual haunts–yesterday morning when I got to school with my son there was yes, a black EdgeRunner parked in the school yard. What’s more, we had dinner with friends last weekend, and the mom, who is in the market for a new family bike, is coveting the EdgeRunner as well.

On Monday, when we were walking with Matt’s parents to brunch, we spotted another Xtracycled bike heading up the hill the other way. Although it was moving fast, I realized it was a Cargo Joe, the folding Xtracycle, and given the speed it was ascending Mt. Sutro and the low hum it made as it went, it was clearly an electric-assist folding cargo bike. We puzzled over that one for a moment, but realized that here in San Francisco, there are thousands of people living in apartment buildings that lack dedicated bike parking (or any kind of parking) but do have elevators. In a hilly city of small spaces, there is evidently a previously untapped market for an assisted folding cargo bike.

We have missed our Bullitt sorely the last few weeks that it has been in the shop.  With it, we don’t need to organize our lives around not having a car. Riding the bike is always better. But not everyone can manage the parking demands and expense of an assisted front-loading box bike, and in San Francisco, which has so few families, the advantages of the front loaders are less widely relevant anyway. As I watched that Cargo Joe glide smoothly to the top of the hill, I couldn’t help thinking that I was seeing the future.

4 Comments

Filed under car-free, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco, Xtracycle