Category Archives: traffic

Bicycles in São Paulo

Last month Matt went to São Paulo, Brazil. He always asks what he should bring back from these overseas trips, and I always say “pictures of bicycles.” (The kids ask for chocolate and foreign currency.) São Paulo is the largest city in Brazil and the 7th largest city in the world, home to 11 million people. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “The city, which is also colloquially known as “Sampa” or “Cidade da Garoa” (city of drizzle), is also known for its unreliable weather, the size of its helicopter fleet, its architecture, gastronomy, severe traffic congestion, and multitude of skyscrapers.”

The view of the street from everywhere in the city

Here’s what Matt wrote on arrival: “São Paulo is an extremely pedestrian (and bike) unfriendly place, with crushingly bad traffic at all hours as a result.  The joke running around the conference this morning was, ‘What time’s your flight? 9 pm?! Then, you’d better leave for the airport now!’ It’s so bad, even my dinky second tier business hotel has a helipad on the roof (and I could see a half dozen on other nearby rooftops).  It’s clearly a motor vehicle culture.

On my 40 minute rush hour walk, I passed 4 or 5 giant auto tire and rim shops, a deluxe two story Ducati dealership, several motor bike accessory stores, miles of tail lights, and exactly two moving bicycles… both commuters in work apparel with helmets riding on the sidewalk for safety.

Hope you weren’t planning a long ride.

I have not seen a single bike lane yet, though I’m told one exists on Ave Paulista, the main financial street.

Lots of lane splitting motorbikes everywhere, though, often riding their horns constantly.  Our bus driver remarked that one or two are killed every day!”

Here’s a bike lane he found later.

Ha ha ha ha! Yeah, it’s not funny. I’m laughing just to keep from crying here.

I have commented that I don’t feel particularly threatened by San Francisco car traffic. I wouldn’t feel so sanguine about riding a bike everywhere. After seeing Matt’s photos I can’t imagine riding a bike for transportation in São Paulo.

These bike share bikes would be perfect for commuting, but they never leave the city park.

However there are bicycles there. But like many parts of the United States, they’re apparently viewed exclusively as toys. People drive to the park, where they can rent bicycles. That’s because São Paulo, unlike U.S. cities, has had a bike share program since 2009. I’m torn between envy and despair–it’s a city with bike share, but there isn’t the slightest practical application for it.

Now that’s my kind of bike.

Here’s Matt, after finally finding someplace in a city of 11 million people where he actually wanted to spend some time. “I spent today in Ibirapuera, the Golden Gate Park of São Paulo. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and people were out in droves, jogging, biking, skating, etc.”  If you build it, they will come.

Beggars can’t be choosers seems to be the philosophy here.

Just like Golden Gate Park, there’s also this weird phenomenon where the city has built separated bike lanes where they’re least needed and that don’t go anywhere interesting. “In addition to separated bike lanes on the main walking paths, there was one area that seemed to be a bike only circuit path — not long enough for a ride but one father was teaching his young son to ride on it.” Like the parents of São Paulo, I like taking my kids to practice on trails like these, but how depressing it must be for the children there to learn to ride a bike only to discover they can’t go anywhere.

Some bike lanes are just another way to say, “Go away.”

There were a few other places with a little bit of bicycle infrastructure, but I get the sense it would be fair to call it ad hoc. “This ‘bike lane’ was in a pedestrian plaza — probably more to keep bikes away from peds than anything.  Even on a Sunday with lighter traffic, there were very few bikes in evidence on actual streets… A few on sidewalks, again (including one who was trying to pedal through a crowded market with shopping bags dangling from the handlebars).”

A view from the helipad

A view from Matt’s hotel’s helipad tells the story: this is a city that hasn’t thought much about transportation. Seriously thinking about transportation in a major city makes it apparent that a car-centric model is unsustainable. You can see that in São Paulo in the flight to helicopter commuting. But this is hardly more sustainable. Transportation planners tend to take trips to cities with a reputation for doing things right, like Amsterdam or Paris (which has removed tens of thousands of parking places in the last few years to make room for bike lanes). I’m sure that this is more appealing than visiting cities like São Paulo, where no one can go anywhere. But I suspect there would be a lot to learn nonetheless.

Riding our bikes to school started us down this road.

Transportation interests me because it is a necessary thing, like eating or sleeping. Except in the most extreme cases (like among the comatose), we all have to move around the world. For years I accepted that this experience would be tolerable at best. We would get in the car and drive, dealing with traffic and parking and road rage, because that was just the price of living. Sure, it could be nice to be out of the weather sometimes, but we still had to deal with that same weather once we got out of the car. And we paid several hundred dollars each month for this experience because we thought we had to.

I’m late to this party, but happy to be here now.

It is no overstatement to say that discovering that there was another way to move through the world changed our lives. I get on the bike and the trip is… fun! When I walk into work I’m not tired. I love our bikes. I can’t imagine going back.

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Filed under commuting, traffic

Getting used to life with a real cargo bike

Heading for the Presidio on the party bike

We’ve had the Bullitt for a week now. Riding an assisted Bullitt in Portland was mostly effortless. Riding an assisted Bullitt in San Francisco is not effortless. I’ve now got two kids and cargo on my bike most of the time and on serious hills, even with a boost from the BionX it’s: “Oh hello, lactic acid.” In San Francisco, riding a loaded, assisted cargo bike on steep hills is the parental equivalent of training for the Olympics, difficult but gratifying. I’m not yet up to carrying this kind of load every day. However with Matt at home for a month or so, I have time to build up strength by switching out to an alternate bike sometimes with just one kid on board. But it sure is fun on the days that we do take the Bullitt. And on the flats we are so freaking fast.

We had an unexpected chance to race a car this weekend. Matt’s parents came to meet us for dim sum, then wanted to go shopping with us in the Presidio, then came home to play with the kids. They drove over from Berkeley. We met them at the restaurant; they arrived late because although miraculously they found parking immediately, they had to walk over from their car. When we left the Outer Richmond, we headed off separately to the Presidio. Ultimately we leapfrogged with them through light Sunday traffic. We all got lost thanks to the road construction, but ended up turning into the parking lot at the exact same time. Then we split up and headed home. I assumed they’d get there first because we had to climb both the Presidio hill and Mt. Sutro, but once again, we arrived simultaneously. On a weekday (or a busier weekend), with more traffic on the streets, we would have beaten them handily.

I’m still not used to the attention that we get on the Bullitt. After several rounds of my son singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” I caved and bought a speaker that works with my phone. So now I am whizzing around the city with two kids on board who are blasting TMBG’s “Alphabet of Nations” and dancing along in the box. We are a traveling party-bike. Passing drivers stare so long that they drift out of their lanes as they go by. We hear groans of envy from parents pushing heavy strollers up San Francisco hills. Little kids chase our bike. It is a blast, but disconcerting. “AWESOME BIKE!” is what we hear most often. “Wow, all of us could fit in that bike,” is an occasional addition from groups of people waiting at bus stops.

Because the Bullitt is such a slim cargo bike, it still slips through narrow bike lanes and alongside traffic pinch points. When I am riding it, it is the best of all possible worlds. It carries as much as a car and travels at least as fast, but can speed past stopped traffic and park in an ordinary bike rack by the front door of any destination. It eats up the hills. Next week, I am taking this bike to Costco. (The San Francisco Costco is unlike its suburban siblings; it is a three-story parking garage occupying an entire city block, and the store itself is located in the center of the second floor, and thus it gets a fair amount of bike traffic.)

Running for the Bullitt

I expected that the Bullitt would substitute for trips that we normally took using City Carshare. Historically that’s meant shopping trips on the far side of a big hill or two that we couldn’t manage with two kids and cargo simultaneously, or trips out of the city. Realistically, we could have used City Carshare for all of the trips that the Bullitt is now handling indefinitely. Our occasional car rentals are usually pretty cheap, maybe $6-$20 per trip depending on length, and even at a once a week pace, it would be a very long time before the bike paid for itself using offsets from car share rentals. But the bike is more convenient. We no longer have to worry about when we go someplace; we’re not going to get stuck in traffic and we won’t have to circle to find parking. And it is so much fun to ride! One week in, when given the choice between City Carshare and the Bullitt, we all run to the bike.

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

You cannot run faster than a Bullitt

This weekend, the Bullitt arrived. We immediately took it out for an 11 mile ride with the kids. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  • After two months without riding a Bullitt I was nervous about my ability to pick it up again. I got the trick of steering it back in about 20 feet.
  • Even with the BionX, San Francisco hills are much steeper than Portland hills. Going up to Bernal Heights I did use the highest level of assist, and I would have been delighted if it went “to 11.”
  • Thank goodness we got the lightest cargo bike.
  • To my surprise, my kids decided to ride together in the box. It’s not all that roomy in there for two older kids, but they were happy. At one point my daughter even stretched out for a nap, although she did not actually nap.
  • The preferred entertainment for two kids in a Bullitt is singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” On a five mile ride, that song can stretch into negative numbers. Adding a sound system to this bike has been upgraded from “nice to have” to “critical need.”
  • An unexpected disadvantage of a low box is that the kids assume that they can reach out and pick up anything on the street that interests them while we are moving. We had to have a conversation about that.
  • It is impossible to overestimate how much attention a Bullitt will get on the streets of San Francisco. Lots of drivers pulled up right next to us to ask questions. “I love your bike!” said one.
  • Other bike riders will assume that a Bullitt belongs to a man, and ask my husband questions about it. In response, he will stare at them.
  • This bike can go anywhere in this city with two kids and whatever else we pick up along the way.

On the way back home, on the Panhandle, we spotted: another Bullitt! That was unexpected. It was a milk-white Bullitt (unassisted) with a kid box like mine, but the rider was carrying a big black dog. Given that there are no Bullitt dealers in San Francisco, we were both nonplussed. “Nice bike!” I said. “Yay, BULLITT!” he said. Based on his accent, I think he was Danish. The other riders on the path looked dumbfounded.

On Saturday night before the Bullitt arrived, we had to do a longer-distance errand at night with both kids, and given the distance and the fact that it was dark and our lack-of-a-two-kid-cargo-bike situation, we rented a Nissan Leaf from City Carshare for a little while. We were stuck in traffic for most of the trip. We couldn’t find parking. The kids got fussy. Matt and I were both struck by the fact that we used to do this EVERY SINGLE DAY. We were relieved to return that car. “Okay, that sucked,” said Matt.

Worth the wait

In light of this experience, I hesitate to call the Bullitt a car replacement, although that is arguably the closest equivalent. But the Bullitt is better. Within city limits, it is faster than a car, because it doesn’t get stuck in traffic. With rare exceptions, it can carry more than a car. It can park by the front door of any destination. Our kids enjoy the ride. It turns out we weren’t looking for a car replacement. What we wanted all along was a totally awesome cargo bike.

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

The traffic problem

Blah blah blah hills in San Francisco blah blah blah

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

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

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

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

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

The Market Street bike lanes never lack for excitement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under advocacy, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Kidical Mass, Critical Mass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under advocacy, San Francisco, traffic, Yuba Mundo

How wide is a bike lane?

What you see is not always what you get.

I was reading an article about bike lanes recently, which claimed that the newest bike lanes in San Francisco (on Kirkham Street) were 6 feet (183cm) wide, which is the new city standard.

It also claimed that most of the existing bike lanes in the city were 5 feet (152cm) wide, which I’ll admit, I thought was cracked. I ride in a lot of bike lanes in this city, and I would eat my helmet if they were all 5 feet wide. Time to take out the tape measure!

After stopping in various awkward places around my commute, I concluded that bike lanes are the opposite of trees: the older they are, the narrower they are.

  • On Arguello and Sacramento north of Golden Gate Park: 4 feet (122cm) travel width
  • New JFK bike lanes within Golden Gate Park: 5 feet (152cm) travel width
  • According to the article above, the new Kirkham bike lanes: 6 feet (183cm)–I didn’t measure

The protected bike lanes on JFK Drive rarely feel crowded.

My feeling is that the narrowest 4 foot lanes are by far the majority within San Francisco right now, although admittedly I don’t ride as much South of Market, and they’ve striped a lot of lanes down there in the last few years. If the lane has a marker reading “BIKE LANE” or a picture of an un-helmeted bike rider you’ve hit a 4 foot lane for sure, although some of them have been repainted with a helmeted rider. I would guess the odds of these lanes being restriped to a greater width are pretty slim. Most of the attention right now is rightly concentrated on creating new lanes and expanding the network.

Why does it matter? Two major reasons: car doors and traffic.

In the new JFK bike lanes, 5 feet of width is plenty: they’re right against the curb and cars park on the left, they’re protected from the door zone with a buffer zone, and so there is plenty of space for me to ride alongside my son, or for another rider to pass us.

In the 4 foot lanes in the city, and even some of the new 5 foot lanes things can get hairier.

At the dotted line, the cyclists move left and the cars turning right (if there were any) move to the right before heading into the intersection.

These lanes are primarily to the left of parked cars, and an opened door can easily cut the bike lane in half, giving a rider an effective width of a 2 foot (61cm) to 2.5 foot (76cm) travel lane. Dooring incidents are relatively low on weekdays as San Francisco drivers are conscious of bike commuters. Dooring incidents are rampant on weekends when out-of-towners drive into the city and leave their doors hanging open in the bike lanes for no apparent reason, maybe to air out their cars. It’s a mystery, and they get angry when we ask them, politely, to stop blocking traffic.

These lanes are also striped to merge at intersections, allowing cars to turn right and bicycles to move left, which is why San Francisco doesn’t have the right-hook issues that other cities do. As long as everyone signals it is a little complicated but works fine: when the line becomes dashed, turning cars move right and bikes pass them on the left to go to the front of the intersection. (Moving forward in the intersection is a safety move to prevent a car further back in queue from turning right in front of a bicycle moving straight, the dreaded right-hook.) But this merge dance results in cars blocking the right half of the bike lane: once again, the bike lane effectively narrows to half its width whenever a car is turning right. Cars can’t usually pull right up to the curb for a right turn as they would when parking, or they’d run over the corner and pedestrians, so they’re partially in the bike lane.

When a bus moves into the right lane for pickups or turns, it takes some guts (and a narrow bike) to move to the left as suggested when heading straight.

Why does this matter? Most bikes can effectively navigate a 2 foot bike lane, but cargo bikes like our Kona MinUte can be more problematic; the bags on the side hang out several inches when full, making the bike up to 25″ (65cm) wide. I prefer to keep them in the folded position while I’m riding even though they can hold less that way. Then the bike is 16″ (40cm) wide, which is no problem (or I can fill one but not the other.) Matt typically keeps both filled but is actively looking for a better replacement for the stock bags due to their width. Can you put FreeLoaders on a MinUte?

I also had real problems getting the Yuba Mundo through these pinch points when it was visiting. For a long time I couldn’t figure it out: long-tail bikes are basically the same width as other bikes and we were using the front Bread Basket for cargo, so we didn’t have the MinUte rear bag problem. Why was I feeling caught at intersections all of the time and forced to stop behind turning cars (blocking other bikes behind me)? I hated taking the lane from the bike lane when the kids were on deck; cargo bikes are slow to start when laden, and drivers understandably get a little annoyed when riders swing in and out of the bike lanes. And I was the only bike doing it.

I only recently realized that my issue was the Mundo’s Side Loaders. To keep heavy loads off the ground or carry bicycles or give kids a place to rest their feet, the Mundo has two bars sticking out from each side of the rear deck, so the frame’s total width is over 20” (51cm). If you add a pair of full GoGetter bags, the bike’s width increases to over 35” (90cm). I didn’t even have the GoGetter bags, and 20.5” isn’t that much wider than an ordinary bike, but it was changing the way I rode. And yet: I didn’t feel like the Bread Basket in front, at 19″ (48cm) was the problem, even though it was almost as wide. And Yuba notes that the Side Loaders are supposed to be no wider than the rider’s feet on the pedals. Was it just that I couldn’t see the wide load in back?

Why does it matter? We are trying to figure out a new family bike, and width is apparently an issue. Most family bikes and cargo bikes are much wider than an ordinary bike. My problem, even if it was just perceptual, was the same problem people have with child trailers in San Francisco: at 28”-32” (70-82cm) they’re often wider than the space available in the bike lane, and as a rider, you can’t see whether they’re going to make it through. We have an additional issue: no trailer on the market would fit through our narrow basement door, which when opened is just shy of 28″ wide.

Could I handle a wide bike in normal bike lanes, when I arrived at intersections where the lane is cut in half? Would it be easier if the load were in front where I could see it? These are San Francisco problems, but they’re real for us.

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Filed under commuting, San Francisco, traffic

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

This is a street designed for traffic.

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

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

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

Riding a bike means never being stuck in traffic.

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

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

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

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

My husband is not a MAMIL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Streets can change. People can change.

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

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

I didn’t kill the Breezer (phew), but even so

I had to walk the Breezer to the shop with my daughter in the backpack and the rear wheel seized up. It was exhausting.

So the good news is that I didn’t kill the internal hub on the Breezer. The bad news is that I have apparently been, entirely unintentionally, straining the bike well beyond its limits with the loads I’ve put on it. Our bike shop was concerned that the frame wasn’t meant to take that kind of weight and would eventually break. I have learned that this actually happens sometimes. Yeah. Oops. At a minimum they were sure I’d kill the hub eventually. The Breezer is a great commuter bike, but it has limits.

Here is the sobering summary from my brother-in-law: “You realize you carry more on your bikes sometimes than would fit in a SmartCar, right? I was just thinking yesterday that while you are not at all aggro, you may be the most aggressive cyclist I know in terms of what you are willing to try with your bike (you make full face mask downhillers look like wusses).”

He has obviously never met the mom who carries six kids and the shopping, and who makes my typical load look like a grocery bag full of paper towels. Admittedly she’s riding a bike designed for that.

My poor Breezer, asked to carry loads it was never meant to bear.

Anyway, there was, shall we say, strong advocacy from both our bike shop and family members that I should get a real cargo bike and stop trying to force my Franken-bike to do things it was never designed to do. Matt expressed similar concerns when he called from China. It is something that I had begun to suspect already, as I was trying to flag a cab in the Tenderloin and wondering whether I’d ever be able to ride the Breezer again.

Having proven that I’m up for riding fully-loaded through the seasons even on what is evidently a wholly inadequate bike, I am willing to consider bikes that are much more expensive than I would have a year ago as a primary bike. Also I learned what people pay for mountain and road bikes used only for entertainment value, which: whoa. For reasons of structural stability, I have been encouraged to learn to love the top tube. I’m also sure I want an electric assist.

Wanted: a cargo bike that can handle both hills and sand dunes

So we are now in the market for a new cargo bike. I’m not at all sure what kind. I was putting off another bike until finding out whether I’ll get the new position my department recommended, which is equivalent to my current position but with much more job security. At the last check-in, my department chair was optimistic that the university would offer a verdict “maybe even as soon as 2013.” Given that timeline and the fact that I thought the Breezer would carry two on child seat+trailer-bike for years to come, I wasn’t exactly scouring the market for its replacement. But circumstances conspire.

Two kids, now aged 3 and 6.5, too much traffic for them to commute solo, serious hills, a not-very-wide basement door (fortunately walk-in) and many pinch points and narrow bike lanes are the main issues we deal with when riding our bikes in San Francisco. I welcome any suggestions for bikes that could handle the challenge. Long, narrow, and assisted was one person’s summary of the best bike for me, and I suspect that’s right on.

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

More bicycles in Beijing

Matt is in China, and that can only mean it’s time for another update of bicycles in Beijing. Last time Matt went to the tourist bicycle center of Beijing and caught some righteous triple tandems. This trip’s theme is practical bicycles spotted on the road. These seem to involve two things: electric assists and passengers.

Bicycle, moving toward a scooter aesthetic

There is a wide range of electric bicycles, and while some of them are primarily for occasional assistance up the hills, in Beijing the bicycle part seems like the afterthought. This bike has pedals, but it’s moving more toward a scooter aesthetic. And those giant batteries have to be sealed lead acid, an environmental disaster.

Definitely more like a scooter than a bicycle

Going even further along the spectrum is this bike, which looks more like a moped than a bike, although those pedals do seem to turn, I presume for legal reasons. But credit where it’s due: this bike, like the other, can carry a passenger and has a dedicated front basket. These are not the overpowered machines lacking space for even a briefcase that litter San Francisco sidewalks. They’re meant to haul, not to look cute, and I’m guessing they’re a lot cheaper than the Vespas parked next door to us.

Carrying older kids on the bike is okay

And in Beijing, evidently, it’s normal to carry even older kids on the back of the bike. I sometimes regret that our kids will be on our bikes for so long, which reflects the traffic and hills of San Francisco, but I’m beginning to think that this is inevitable for people living in a city that doesn’t have extensive bicycle infrastructure (e.g. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Tokyo). Sure, it would be better if our kids had more independence, but you have to work with what you’ve got.

Riding with a baby in traffic

These moms make me think that the fears of riding in traffic are relative. I’ve gotten more confident riding in city traffic here, but riding in Beijing would probably give me a heart attack. And parents from smaller cities would probably have heart attacks here. We get used to the circumstances around us. It’s not like kids have never died in cars.

Pedaling a paddleboat is a kind of pedaling.

Matt still has yet to ride a bicycle in Beijing. But at least this time he’s pedaling.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, traffic, travel

SF Pride: another year, another disaster

Breezer and trailer-bike: seemed like a good idea, but it didn’t work out that way.

We have struggled with getting to the SF Pride Parade for years. One year we stupidly tried to drive there: it was a disaster. Last year we tried to take Muni instead: it was also a disaster. The trains are packed, and the route is a long way for kids to stand, and we couldn’t get a return train, so we ended up carrying the kids through the downtown crowds to find an alternate way home. This year I thought I had it figured out: we were going to ride the bike. We were meeting my in-laws downtown: they would watch my daughter while my son and I were in Japanese class, then we’d all walk over post-Dykes on Bikes to watch the parade (the noise of Dykes on Bikes freaks the kids out, and I’m not much of a fan of it either).

With a week’s worth of clothes and books to haul for my son, and his newfound desire to ride, the obvious choice for the trip was the Breezer with Bobike Maxi plus trailer-bike. I loaded up the front basket with my son’s stuff, piled on the kids, and within a block of home, realized that the tires needed a lot more air than they had to handle that kind of load. We turned around and went back. While I was getting the pump, the bike fell over. I’m not sure whether to blame the wheel stabilizer (which isn’t that stable even with the basket unloaded) or the kids for this one, but it turned out to be no ordinary fall.

By the time we hit the Panhandle, the Breezer was making a buzzing noise every time the wheels turned. When we investigated it appeared to be a bent fender. So I tried to whack it back into place with moderate success and we continued on. Everything seemed okay until we got to the Tenderloin, when the gears started grinding and the chain fell off. I don’t enjoy putting the kids on the sidewalk to watch drug deals while I futz with a bike, but I didn’t have a lot of options. Mother of the year! When I got the chain back on, I realized that the damage must have been much more severe than I’d realized—the gears kept grinding and it was hard to shift. But we had little choice at that point: the buses we passed had broken down, and we’d hit the street closures by that point anyway, so there was no other alternative.

Yet another electric bicycle spotted at Golden Gate Park: I wish I’d had one on Nob Hill.

We finally got to Japanese class (late) and afterward, were all so exhausted that we skipped the parade and went out to lunch. I thought about trying to get home another way, but there were no cabs available around the parade route and transit was much too packed to allow us to board with a bike and a trailer-bike (maybe not even without them). I figured that if I’d made it there I could ride home.

My in-laws told me the parade was now over, so I assumed we could ride down Market Street on the way home, which is mostly flat, sparing my gears. This turned out to be totally not true; the parade just keeps going. So I headed up Nob Hill. About halfway to the top the chain fell off. And fell off. And fell off. I ended up walking up the rest of the hill and back down, figuring that I could manage the downhill Polk Street bike lane. But by the time I got there, the rear wheel had completely seized up. I was in the middle of the Tenderloin with a broken bike and a preschooler who desperately wanted a nap. I needed a cab.

This was a bike-friendly cab: it had the new “don’t door the bicycles” window sticker.

Hailing a cab in the Tenderloin is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Hailing a cab in the Tenderloin during the Pride Parade was harder: every cab that passed was already carrying a fare. I also wanted an SUV cab big enough to haul the Breezer and trailer-bike if possible, because leaving them in the Tenderloin would mean that I’d probably never see them again. Two very nice older gentlemen who’d been hanging out on a stoop helped me, but it still took almost a half hour. I have never been happier to see a car than when an empty SUV cab finally stopped for us. The driver helped us load the bikes and agreed to ignore the fact that my daughter was going to have to ride without a car seat. I have never given anyone a bigger tip. “You’re a long way from home,” he said. “It’s not that far with a working bike,” I said, “But right now, it definitely is.”

I still have no idea what happened to the Breezer (I have an appointment at the bike shop tomorrow). My guess is that whatever it is will be expensive. I am trying not to think about that right now. Sunday made my brush with road rage last week feel like meandering through Golden Gate Park during a street closure. I have never been more miserable or exhausted on a bike ride. And I can’t help feeling disappointed by the Breezer. I worry that our needs for a bike (the ability to haul up to two kids plus cargo) are beyond its capabilities. It’s really a commuter bike and not a family bike.

This man was handing out leftover Pride parade balloons to all the kids. Very exciting!

I almost couldn’t bring myself leave home after all of that, but we’d agreed to meet our Big Dummy-riding friends from school for Sunday Skate in the late afternoon.  Once we got there, we had a great time. My daughter loves their youngest daughter, and we ended up riding to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The only downside of the whole evening was that everyone else was out on bikes as well, so the nearest parking was a half-block away. Oh, the humanity.

I sometimes think that the number of bikes I have now is a bit excessive but I’m reconsidering.  If I didn’t have another bike, I wouldn’t have even left the house that afternoon, let alone by bike, and I was glad that I did.

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, family biking, San Francisco, traffic, trailer-bike