Category Archives: travel

Bicycles in New York

This ridiculously hipster hotel is where Matt's company put him up. He called it the porno fantasy hunting lodge.

This ridiculously hipster hotel is where Matt’s company put him up. He called it the porno fantasy hunting lodge.

Matt spent last week in New York. While he was there, he remembered that what I always want is pictures of bicycles in new places.  There has been lots of discussion of New York City’s commitment to creating major-league cycling infrastructure. From Matt’s admittedly very short-term visitor’s perspective, they’ve been successful.

You too can ride the streets of New York.

You too can ride the streets of New York.

When we went to Copenhagen in 2011, we had no idea that it was one of the bicycling capitals of the world. Probably the only reason we even bothered to get on bikes at all was that bike rentals were advertised on literally every corner. And what a life-changer that turned out to be. To rent our bikes all we had to do was cross the street to the shop directly in front of our apartment and ask. We delayed even that for a while because we assumed they wouldn’t be able to put child seats on our bikes, which was silly in retrospect. We could have spared ourselves days of tedious walking just by asking. New York has enough of a cycling culture now that bike rentals were everywhere too. Alas, no bike share yet.

I have yet to see cycling infrastructure this good in San Francisco.

I have yet to see cycling infrastructure this good in San Francisco.

San Francisco has a separated cycle track in Golden Gate Park, but it’s not protected from cars by anything but paint. Neighbors also objected to painting the bike lane green to differentiate it from parking, claiming that it would look too obtrusive (in a park!) I like the lanes in the park anyway, but the protected lanes on Broadway in NYC make them look pathetic.

Bikes only; the rest of you can circle endlessly.

Bikes only; the rest of you can circle endlessly.

I rode to downtown San Francisco last Friday afternoon. It took less than 20 minutes door to door in the middle of Christmas shopping season, and I parked right in front of the building in the middle of Union Square. Ha ha! I made excellent time in part because for several blocks I was able to ride through intersections where right turns were signed as mandatory for everyone except buses, bicycles, and commercial vehicles. New York has evidently made the same decision to prioritize cycle traffic in the middle of town.

A "Do not enter" sign for bicycles is a new one for me too.

A “Do not enter” sign for bicycles is a new one for me too.

A different sign Matt found I’ve never seen in San Francisco: the “Bicycle Wrong Way” sign. I have some doubts about whether anyone pays the slightest attention to it, as I suspect no one here would. But it’s nice to be recognized as traffic, even if it is a don’t-go-here signal.

Nothing stops the angle grinder, except maybe the death penalty.

Nothing stops the angle grinder, except maybe the death penalty.

Some things are the same in both New York and San Francisco, however. Bike theft is rampant both places. New Yorkers, I’m sorry to say that not even a hardened chain will protect your bike from a guy with an angle grinder. We learned that the hard way.

New York City: it’s no São Paulo. It looks like a good place to ride a bike. I hope we get to try it sometime.

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Bicycles in Bellingham

August in Bellingham

We visited Bellingham, Washington, where I grew up, last August. It has changed dramatically since my childhood. I think it is at least twice as large as it used to be, just for starters. Although there was always a university there in my memory, it has grown larger too—what used to be gravel parking lots for commuter students have been taken over by campus buildings, and the student population now lives there year round.

The German bakery in Bellingham used this bike for deliveries. They imported it from Germany, where postal workers use them.

I rode my bike as a child in Bellingham, often for transportation, and as in many small towns at the time, this wasn’t considered unusual.  Our parents didn’t consider driving us around to be part of their responsibilities, and the city buses were irregular, so it was ride or walk, and we did both. This was well before the time that kids were supposed to wear helmets, so none of us ever did. We also didn’t lock our bikes, because there wasn’t any bike theft. And I never had lights on my bike either, because there was a curfew and kids weren’t allowed out after dark.

This lone wolf was riding in the bike lanes.

When we rented bikes in Bellingham last summer I could not believe how much had changed. I rode on streets as a child because that was what was available, and the streets were mostly quiet. On larger and busier streets that connected neighborhoods, there were bike lanes. I rode on those too.

The greenway markers tell you how to get from here to there.

Now there is no need for many of those bike lanes, because in the time I have been away, the city of Bellingham has built greenways that are completely separated from the streets. Even though they don’t cover the whole city, they go almost everywhere I wanted to be. The city has a fair number of hills, but none of them are very steep, and the extensive infrastructure meant that bike commuters were visible everywhere.

Bicycles and pedestrians only on this shopping plaza, which also hosts a farmers market

Riding the greenways, and the quiet streets, I realized that people in Bellingham have no reason whatsoever to own a car (although almost all of them do). There are paths and bike lanes to take people nearly everywhere in the main part of town with minimal exposure to cars. There is always bike parking at your destination.  Most of the interesting places to shop and visit are on dedicated pedestrian plazas—cars no, bike corrals yes. Admittedly many stores are a few blocks from the greenways, and it’s often necessary to ride on streets briefly, and of course my perspective on what constitutes serious traffic may be somewhat skewed. It still impressed me.

The bike shop on the greenway

What interested me most was how many stores, restaurants and housing developments were oriented toward the bicycle and pedestrian greenways instead of the streets where cars were allowed. As we rode closer to downtown, parallel to streets we had driven on earlier in the week, I realized that what I had thought were abandoned buildings or warehouses were instead a community bike shop, a strip of small restaurants and bars, and a bakery. Opposite them were condo buildings that opened onto the greenway from walking plazas.

This the return route from downtown; the bay is to the right.

Bellingham does not lack for natural beauty. It runs in a narrow strip between the water and the mountains. The greenways run along the water and through woods, and the buildings that pop up along the trail seem tucked into a world without roads. Even in terrible weather (and the weather was often terrible during our stay, either hot and muggy or cold and raining) riding those greenways felt like stepping into the Shire.

This part of the city can only be seen from the bike path.

Riding in Bellingham felt very bucolic, although it’s not perfect. From a car, it seems like many other small cities, even though there are a lot of bikes on the roads. There are strip malls and wide roads with speeding cars, and far too many crosswalks with lights too short to allow anyone to get across without sprinting. Yet when we got on the rental bikes I realized that there was a smaller second city built in parallel, inaccessible to cars and human-scaled. I have always visited Bellingham because my mom lives there, and had little other interest in the city. But now I have another reason to visit. I want to figure out how to export their infrastructure back to San Francisco.

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Still more bicycles in Beijing

Matt’s visits to China have brought us some new perspective on the massive economic shifts in China. A recent photo he took attempted to show a multi-acre, $2 billion expanse of new solar panels, unsuccessfully–it stretches out to forever. Another showed a coal plant bigger than anything I’d ever imagined. In China there are no zoning issues, and they are agnostic about how they generate enough power to run the country. Relocate over a million people to build the world’s largest dam? Sure, why not?

“I’d rather cry in the back your BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle.” I suspect this is not a formula for lifelong happiness.

The rise in prosperity has been matched with a rise in ambitions. One sign of this is the rise of China’s new “material girls” whose mantra runs: “I’d rather cry in the back of your BMW than laugh on the back of your bicycle.”

China had, at one point, a very deep bicycle culture, but it is fading in the face of the perception that cars are more prestigious. A couple of newspaper articles Matt brought back suggested that there was increasing awareness that a large-scale transportation shift from bicycles to cars was unsustainable in China, if only for its likely effects on traffic.

Just another commuter bike in Beijing

In the meantime, for many people riding electric bikes seems to be at least a short-term compromise. One of Matt’s colleagues uses this electric bike to commute and ride around the organizational campus in Beijing. Like all bikes Matt’s seen in China, this one has a generous cargo basket and an extra passenger seat. China is not exactly cutting-edge in the area of interesting family bikes, for the fairly obvious reason that families have one child apiece and a single child can be managed on almost any bike. However the back seat could be used either for carrying a child or a less-material adult.

This sign was posted outside Matt’s hotel in Beijing.

In the long term, if the government of China wants everyone to ride bicycles, that’s probably exactly what will happen. I have no idea whether this is any kind of national priority. It’s clear that alternative transportation is not a national priority in the US. However the advantage of living in a democracy is that change can spread from the bottom up.

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We tried it: Christiania and Nihola cargo tricycles

Over a year after our return from Copenhagen, we finally got to ride a Christiania.

I knew coming in to our cargo bike test rides that we weren’t going to be buying a tricycle. If there is one thing that is fairly certain, it is that trikes can’t handle steep hills. But we wanted to try all the cargo options, if only to get a basis for comparison. Also, we had really, really wanted to rent a Christiania while we were in Copenhagen and no bike shop we found would let us.

One kid plus a backpack does not test the capacity of the Nihola.

In Portland, however, it was easy to test-ride a trike, because Emily Finch offered us the chance to use their family’s Christiania when she learned we were coming to Portland. How sweet is that? She herself rides a Bakfiets, but her husband got the Christiania when he was new to riding. While we were at it, we rented a Nihola from Clever Cycles (Clever Cycles is amazing). Matt and I each rode one for a few miles from the shop to the Hawthorne shopping district for lunch, then we switched off and headed back.

This is about as far forward as you want the weight in the cargo box to go.

Tricycles have a reputation for being more stable than bikes among new riders, which is only half-true. Trikes are statically stable and dynamically unstable (whereas bikes are statically unstable and dynamically stable). When trikes are stopped they rest on three wheels, like a footstool with three legs. For this reason you’ll never see a trike with a kickstand. They have a single hand brake with a parking latch, and coaster brakes. When trikes are moving, however, they are unstable. They sway and shimmy. My father-in-law, who is a physics professor at UC Berkeley, explained this to me as partially a function of the third wheel. All wheels have inherent lateral instability from the centripetal force of their movement. Add a third wheel and you increase that instability by 50% (my summary of his explanation elides a lot but is much shorter).

This guy with no legs whizzed by us on a hand-powered delta trike. Impressive and depressing at the same time.

Whether you will like a trike depends on whether you expect to be stopped or moving most of the time. It also depends on a lot on how fast you want to ride. We found that the top speed of a loaded tricycle was only slightly faster than brisk walking (although it was much less effort). Given this pace, it was tiring to think about taking it for a ride longer than a mile or two.

I would rule out a tricycle if facing any hill steeper than a speed bump. This isn’t because they are poor climbers, although they are, in fact, terrible climbers. I radically redefined my definition of a hill while riding these trikes to: any incline whatsoever. More distressing was that even in the fairly flat environs of southeast Portland, while going down mild hills in the Christiania at maybe 5 miles/hour, I experienced shimmy for the first time. And it scared the crap out of me. A shimmying bike starts to tremble uncontrollably and stops responding to attempts to steer, swinging wildly across the road. Slowing down the trike helps, but good luck getting much braking power from coaster brakes and a single hand brake. The Nihola handled the hills better. I would say it was roughly comparable to a very heavy bike with bad brakes.

The Nihola on the move

On the flats, however, a trike offers a pleasant and meandering ride. If you’re not in much of a hurry, it can be quite pleasant to putter along. The trikes came with chainguards and fenders but not lights. You never have to get out of the saddle at stops, which is a nice break if you do a lot of stop-and-go riding. Riding posture is bolt upright. Trikes are heavy and can carry a lot of weight, and you don’t really feel that (unless you’re going uphill, in which case you TOTALLY feel it, it’s like dragging an anchor). In a place like Chicago or Copenhagen, I can imagine that a trike could be an appealing option. They can, however, be slow to start at intersections after a full stop. At Clever Cycles they advised that we stand up on the pedals and use our body weight to get them started, and this was good advice.

Both the Nihola and Christiania are tadpole tricycles with two wheels and a cargo box in the front rather than delta tricycles with two wheels in the back. Our kids liked the trikes and couldn’t wait to ride them, but they couldn’t climb into them by themselves. Our son could almost make it into the Christiania trike, but it nearly fell forward from his weight when he tried. This was an unexpected downside of the tricycle experience. We had assumed that trikes were always stable while parked, but they can actually fall forward. After that we lifted both kids in ourselves, placing them toward the back of the cargo box, which was between all three wheels.

The front view from the Nihola

Both the Christiania and Nihola have seats for two children. The Christiania box is wider, with more elbow room. Given our kids’ sizes it was like sharing a love seat and they liked having that space. The Nihola is narrower but has a clear front, which improves the view for riders. There is arguably room for two more kids sitting on the floor in front of the seat, although this would be a very tight squeeze in the Nihola, and would probably lead to kicking and screaming in either trike on a long ride (but no one would take a cargo tricycle on a long ride). Both trikes offer rain canopies with a lot of headroom for kids as well. Having the kids in front is awesome. We have never had such great rides with them as we have with them in front. We could always hear what they’re saying and they could always hear us.

As one might expect, tricycles also need enormous amounts of space when parked, and reversing them involves something like 35-point turns.

Both tricycles are very wide, and as a result we stayed off busy streets with narrow bike lanes or sharrows, opting instead to follow some of Portland’s excellent neighborhood greenways on our trip. No way would I want to ride either trike in city traffic.

Both the Christiania and Nihola have internally geared hubs rather than a derailleur. Weirdly, they both shifted with a significant time lag, although it was more delayed on the Nihola than the Christiania. So we would shift gears, and I don’t know, the trike would think about that for a while? And then several seconds later the gears would change. It was strange and made going up hills (riding a tricycle on a hill of any kind TOTALLY SUCKS) even more unpleasant.

Riding the Christiania in the bike lane means using the entire bike lane.

The steering on the Christiania is bizarre and yet fun. There is a bar across the back of the cargo box and you shove it away from the upcoming turn to corner the bike (push left to go right). It takes a little getting used to at first but is very responsive. It feels kind of liberating to swing the bar from side to side. Whee! The steering on the Nihola uses regular handlebars, which made me realize immediately why the Christiania used the leverage of a wide bar across the box. It was difficult to get the Nihola to turn at all. At one point I took a speed bump a little too fast, rolled away to one side, and couldn’t straighten the trike before ramming into the curb. (Hitting a curb with a wheel isn’t dangerous, but it was annoying.)

The Christiania offers a lot of elbow room.

Overall, the Christiania was bigger and easier to steer, while the Nihola was marginally better on hills and has a neat clear front and thus a better view. However if I were forced to get one, I would pick the Christiania over the Nihola, because I would never take either tricycle anywhere that wasn’t flat anyway. These are very nice tricycles, and I’m delighted we had the chance to try them. For better or for worse, however, we live in a place where they are completely inappropriate, and we are unlikely to ever ride one again.

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We tried it: Specialized Hardrock and a Burley Bee trailer

What’s this?

In our effort to try every cargo bike configuration we could get our hands on, we started out traditionally. While in Bellingham, we rented a mountain bike with a child trailer. My kids have ridden on many different cargo bikes now, plus a couple of bikes rigged as child haulers after the fact (Brompton with IT Chair, city bikes with child seats) but this was their first trip in an actual trailer, and my first time hauling them.

The Specialized Hardrock is a mountain bike. For the purpose of hauling a trailer around town, it was not everything I could have wished for: it had no kick stand, no chain guard, no fenders, no lights, and no bell. The brakes evoked a howling chorus of demons with their shrieking and the saddle was indistinguishable from an anvil.

The full rig

However, renters can’t be choosers and after riding the many gravel-strewn bike paths of Bellingham (which are BEAUTIFUL! Seriously, there is no reason to ever get in a car in Bellingham, it was amazing!) I came to appreciate the knobby tires and front suspension. The bike was very light, which made it an excellent climber, as well as easy to pick up when I had to drop it on the ground to stop riding because there was no tree or post to lean against. Also the pedals were okay, and the shifting was smooth.

While I have little basis for comparison, the Burley Bee, by comparison, seemed much better designed for our use. It helped that the shop had just replaced its rental trailer. Our ride was this particular Bee’s maiden voyage, and it was, as a result, spotless. Evidently the Bee is the entry-level Burley double trailer, but it seemed to have everything that we would want in a trailer, if we wanted a trailer, and I actually sort of do want one now.

Seemed cramped to me, but the kids had no problem with it.

My kids were fascinated by the Bee from the moment they saw it. Luckily my kids get along well so the fact that they were crammed in there pretty tightly was not a problem from their perspective until they’d been riding for almost three hours. During that time we took a few bakery, playground and farmers market breaks, plus multiple stops to put the cover on, take the cover off, put the cover on, take the cover off (they were yanking my chain). Anyway, by the end of the ride they were hitting each other and crying, but they lasted longer than I’d expected.

The pros of this setp:

  • A double trailer can fit two older kids (currently almost 7 years and 3.5 years) without too much squeezing. My son is older than the advised age range for trailers but skinny and tall.
  • It is very, very difficult to tip a trailer over and dump the kids on the ground. I did not manage to do it. Go me!
  • The kids adored the wind and rain screens, and could not stop talking about the potential of this particular rig to keep them from getting wet and cold in the winter. The trailer eliminated their primary concern about not having a car anymore. I thought that although the covers were tensioned with elastic rather than zippered they were well designed and quick to attach and remove. The design of the trailer itself was actually very clever, allowing me to add and remove the front covers without anything coming loose or flapping.
  • The Burley Bee has a junk drawer.

    The Burley Bee comes with a fairly large storage pocket behind the kids seats that can hold a couple of grocery bags, toys, garbage, souvenir rocks, jackets, etc. This was really handy and it appears to be waterproof.

  • There are storage pockets on one side of the kids to hold smaller items (but only on one side, which was a really bad design decision).
  • For quite a while my kids considered the ride an absolute blast, and entertained each other by singing songs and chatting.
  • The Burley trailer seemed quite well made, with strong seams and stiff fabric. Admittedly ours was brand new. The Bee trailer we were riding doesn’t offer a stroller-conversion option (this would never be needed for its purpose as a bike shop rental trailer) but some of the higher-end Burley models do.
  • It was simple to convert the trailer from carrying one kid to two kids. The belts allow two kids side by side, one kid on one side, or one kid in the center. Putting one kid to the side didn’t mess up the balance as far as I could tell.
  • This is the biggest hill we climbed in the trailer.

    Attached to a lightweight mountain bike, it was relatively easy to pull the fully-loaded (probably 120+ pounds counting trailer, kids and gear stuffed in the back pocket) trailer up a moderate hill—we went up a long slope connecting a multi-use path over the water back to city streets. The sign said it was a 10% grade, and the trip kicked my heart rate up but did not make me sweat.

The cons of this setup:

  • Attached to a lightweight mountain bike, it was at times terrifying going down hills with the trailer, especially on gravel. Once the weight of the trailer, which was pushing me, flung my bike back and forth like the end of a whip. I ended up aiming the bike toward a strong fence at the bottom to stop us—we slid up alongside where I grabbed it and almost toppled over. The kids cheered and asked to do it again because the trailer itself was very stable. However from my perspective this was a big downside. It might be less of an issue with a heavier bike, but I suspect in that case it would be much harder getting up hills.
  • There are pockets in the rear of the trailer compartment to fit helmets but they did not work well for either of my kids, who complained that their heads were pushed too far forward. If it were just my son, who is beyond the age/weight/size limit, I wouldn’t worry, but my daughter also complained, and she is in the appropriate age range. They also asked why they had to wear helmets given that they were in a trailer, when they don’t have to wear helmets in a pedi-cab. I didn’t have a good answer for that.
  • The kids are there but not all there, if that makes sense.

    It was not easy to talk with them while they were in the trailer. My kids are extremely chatty and I missed their conversation, although given that I was solo parenting there was also an element of relief to have some time when someone wasn’t saying, “Mommy! Mommy? MOMMY!” With a trailer you’re with your kids but not WITH your kids. It’s like having them in the next room.

  • The trailer turned like a semi, often caught on fence corners on the multi-use path, and parking it at normal bike racks when we stopped was a nightmare. Bike racks are currently designed for ordinary bikes and not cargo-anything, including trailers. Parking meters and signs are not any better. Even the narrowest double trailer is about 30” wide, and there are places that that just won’t fit.
  • Even though the Burley Bee was brand new, the fabric floor sagged somewhat when loaded. I suspect it would eventually catch on bumps. I have heard there are trailers with solid floors.
  • Eventually, kids crammed in a trailer will fight. At one point when we were with Family Ride in Seattle, her kids, who were in her trailer, began shrieking, “AAAAAAA! GET ME OUT NOW! AAAAAAA! GET ME OUT NOW! GET ME OUT NOW!” as we climbed up a hill. They were almost louder than passing cars, and it was difficult to extricate them on a busy street. I was riding her Big Dummy with only my daughter on board, so it was relatively easy to pop one kid out and drop him on the Dummy once we could pull over. But in a situation with only one adult it could have been very ugly. An experience like this can really make a person think hard about dropping a couple hundred dollars on a trailer, if that person is me.
  • “Stop. Please stop. I really don’t want to have to ask you again.”

    An older, taller kid like my son could reach forward with his feet while in the trailer and put them on the rear tire. This was a bad idea on several levels but it didn’t stop him. (It never does.)

  • The vast majority of the conversation with my kids consisted of their requests for me to stop and take the cover off, put the cover on, now just the wind screen but not the rain cover, now we want the rain cover, we want the covers off. Some of this was the novelty value and I’m sure it would wear off a little, but it got tiresome to keep stopping the bike.

So there are some downsides, particularly for our situation, which is admittedly atypical (we have no car, we live on the side of a mountain in a large city that has no neighborhood schools or school buses and thus we face a long commute with kids, etc.) And yet the trailer has some appeal. Mostly I see its value for traveling.

There are some downsides, but this setup is probably a lot cheaper and more versatile than a triple tandem with S&S couplers.

It is extremely hard to travel with a cargo bike. They aren’t allowed on trains, they often don’t fit on cars, and planes are out of the question. Trailers can usually be collapsed into a travel-friendly package. Most of the places we travel, like my mom’s, are places my kids could ride by themselves, except that it’s virtually impossible to rent kids’ bikes. Believe me, we have asked. With the Brompton and a trailer we could travel and not have to worry as much about renting a car or getting rides.

I can also see the value of a trailer for days that my kids would otherwise object to riding somewhere, particularly cold and rainy days. I would want to think hard about the routes we might take with a trailer, given the pounding it gave my rental bike going downhill, but with a heavier bike it could work very well for foul weather. And having the extra cargo capacity could be extremely useful.

Hey mountain bike, I haven’t forgotten that you made me look even more like a dork than usual.

So at this point I am seriously considering keeping an eye out for a used trailer. I can’t imagine it would be worth buying one new for the kinds of uses we’re considering. However if we could find one for the price of a week’s rental in Bellingham, I suspect it would be worth having around.

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Homesick for the north, homesick for the south

Our first trailer ride

From Bellingham to Seattle to Portland: we have arrived, and so excited to see daddy again. I haven’t had much chance to update while gamboling around the Pacific Northwest mostly solo with two kids, but I’ve also been constrained by the constant barrage of fun. I grew up in Seattle and Bellingham and I was overwhelmed by homesickness. They are both really good places to ride bikes with kids.

So eight family bikers lock up together…

We stayed with my mom and rented a bike and trailer (the kids loved their first trailer ride). Then we stayed with the always awesome Family Ride and rode a Madsen, her pink Big Dummy, and a MinUte. We went to a Seattle Summer Streets and got to see Jen of Loop-Frame Love again. At the Seattle Cargo Bike Road Call my kids rode in a Cetma cargo bike and a Bakfiets and got chauffeured by Davey Oil around Gas Works Park in an amazing electric-assist trike. My son got to ride a handful of kids’ bikes and learned how to shift gears! Then we took an Amtrak ride south from Seattle to Portland. It is a good way to travel with kids, especially given that they seated us near the bathroom, which made it easy to clean up various spills.

Barbecue in Portland

Matt, although he is a committed Californian, loves Portland. He arrived before we did and went grocery shopping for us. Seeing the rib joint nearby, with its “Try our new vegetarian fare!” sign was almost enough by itself to convince him Portland should be our new home. We have seen many, many family bikes, mostly of the traditional variety with child seats and trailers, but I’ve always liked child seats on bikes. I’m coming around to trailers as well, at least in flat cities with limited car traffic.

My kids were the ones chanting “Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak!” in car #9 for most of the ride down from Seattle. I apologize.

We’ll be here for a week trying out even more cargo bikes, not to mention cargo trikes. The kids are so excited to see their dad again after a week away that I might even have some time to write about all that’s happened (and to answer a bunch of questions I’ve been asked in the comments).  In the meantime I hope everyone else is having a week just as awesome.

And I almost forgot: I just found out that San Francisco will be holding its first Kidical Mass on September 28th! Thanks so much, MizShan! The ride will meet at 6pm at the fountain at the southeast corner of Justin Hermann Plaza and head to Dolores Park. We will be there!

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We are having fun yet

Hey! Hi! Howzitgoin?

Recumbent with cargo trailer and a Burley tandem. Love it!

We are on the first leg of our Pacific Northwest tour, which comes with limited bike riding. But there have been walks on the beach and farmers market visits and many interesting bikes sighted. We’ve seen child trailers galore (this is the right kind of town for them—limited traffic, wide bike lanes), a Bullitt with a plastic crate to haul a kid strapped on, trailer-bikes, recumbent bikes, and mountain and commuter bikes galore. Kids ride their own bikes a lot, even at very young ages. It’s not a big deal given that they don’t have to contend with city traffic or monster hills.

“I’ll pretend to cry, okay?”

We have been chauffeured by my mom in her car, mostly, given that we are here without bikes. But in an effort to experience the authentic traditions of family biking in these United States, we are scheduled to rent a bike with a child trailer. Okay, granted, a trailer is the only option available for a family bike ride in this town. Still it seems only fair to try riding the ways most families do in this country, so we have a basis for comparison.

The junior scientists will investigate this trailer thing.

I’ll be honest: my kids are nonplussed by this idea. They view trailers with a combination of fascinated disbelief and confused longing. They viewed the child care room at our gym the same way. Having never spent any time there (I only work out during my lunch hour at work, figuring that I spend enough time away from my kids when I’m being paid for it—I have no desire to ditch them during my free time), they viewed it as a destination of mysterious wonders. So one day we dropped them off at the Ikea kids’ playspace when we were visiting Berkeley so they could try out the whole drop-in child care experience. It is fair to say that when we returned the bloom was off the rose.

And we’re off!

My kids like climbing in bike trailers when we’re visiting a store that has some. They get along pretty well most of the time so I’m not too worried about their squeezing into a tight space for a short-term rental. But I’m curious what they’ll think of a trailer compared to bike seats. There’s no question that trailers are the most common child-carrying option for bicycles in the United States. I guess it’s a measure of our distance from the mainstream that even by the standards of outrageous family weirdness and deprivation—we have no car!—we are bizarre by the standards of families who bike everywhere. Our kids have never ridden in a bike trailer. Yet! But soon.

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North by northwest

Playing on the beach is on the agenda.

Tomorrow we are headed north to the Pacific Northwest. And by “we” I mean me and the kids, because my husband is going to China again (something to look forward to: even more bicycles in Beijing!) Whenever I can manage it, I like to visit my mom while he is away, because it keeps the adult: child ratio at 1:1, and because the kids always have a blast at her place. You’re the best, mom!

We had such a good time visiting Family Ride last time we were at my mom’s that we planned a stop in Seattle. Luckily for us, she was already planning a Cargo Bike Roll Call for August 11th, and so now we can attend—our first ever.

Although this is impressive, it is actually the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid.

And from there, we are going down to Portland to meet Matt after he flies back from China. When I was advised to stop using the Breezer as a kid-hauler, we had a bit of a mental kerfuffle about how to find a new cargo bike. We eventually decided that when Matt returned from China, we would all meet up in Portland, which has not one, not two, but THREE family bike shops that allow the kind of hard-core test riding that we want to do before making a decision. What’s more, after I went to Portland last spring and came back bouncing off the ceiling Matt decided he wanted to visit too. It’s arguably a waste of his frequent flyer miles, which could take us somewhere more exotic, but not changing time zones will be a relief.

The Brompton + IT Chair is a great short-hauler with an almost 2nd grader (but longer trips are a bit much).

Portland in August does not lack for cargo biking adventure. There will be a Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call when we’re in town on August 16th, and a Kidical Mass ride on August 18th. We’ll have just enough time to squeeze both in before heading home for the start of the new school year. We’ve packed our helmets and made our rental reservations. Excitement among the small is at explosive levels.

Updates here are likely to be sporadic at best over the next two weeks. But on our return, I will write up our impressions of the half-dozen or so cargo bikes we plan to ride. See you on the other side!

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Filed under bike shops, family biking, travel

Round, round, get around, I get around… First time car-sharing with Getaround

As part of my investigation into our transportation options now that we don’t own a car, I recently discovered Getaround, thanks to a referral from I Bike U Bike. Getaround is a San Francisco-based program where people who own cars can rent them to people who want a car for a while—rates are daily, weekly, or monthly. Someone asked me, “Oh, like Relay Rides?” I had to check what that was, but: yes. However Getaround seems to have better coverage in San Francisco, plus some cars that can be accessed without meeting the owner face-to-face.

I’ve developed a lot more flexibility in the last year.

Last weekend my sister and I took a day trip to a yoga retreat in Sebastopol. This was my big idea; I take yoga at noon at work and I like it. My sister does Crossfit. Ultimately I would say that although the retreat had its moments, and although I like yoga classes, I am probably not the yoga retreat type. Most importantly, it was a long time to spend away from my kids. There was also a bigger emphasis on woo than I had hoped. Yoga can get pretty heavy on the woo: qi, live harp music, discussion of sutras, detailing transformational experiences, chanting, “rebirth,” etc. This retreat was admittedly pretty low on that scale, going no further than seated meditation and breathing exercises. What can I say? I’m uptight, and I’m comfortable with myself that way.  My sister also tends to avoid the woo, but she was a good sport.

Anyway, my sister and brother-in-law don’t own a car, and neither do we anymore. She was going to rent one through Zipcar to get us to Sebastopol, but Zipcar charges almost $120 for an all-day rental! I suggested she try Getaround instead. She found a 2009 Jetta the same distance from her place as the local Zipcar pod, which she could rent for 24 hours, gas included, for $50. What’s more, Getaround has a much better insurance plan. I am foreshadowing.

My brother-in-law suggested this gas-powered kick scooter as a car alternative . Thankfully we can do better.

So we went to Sebastopol and back in this lovely car, which was immaculate, more so any other rental car I’d ever seen. My sister said the owner was fantastic, very mellow, and she liked the experience so much that she began wondering whether it was worth maintaining their Zipcar membership, given that Zipcar involves an annual membership fee, has higher rates, and requires them (for the sake of their sanity, not as a matter of policy) to maintain a named non-owner auto insurance policy.  (We belong to City CarShare, which is nonprofit and has lower rates and better insurance, plus I get an extra discount through my employer, but their coverage in her neighborhood is spotty and she doesn’t get my discount.)

When we returned to San Francisco, we stopped for dinner at a Mexican restaurant we’d both heard of but never visited. It was great. We were having a fantastic day, and left so she could drop me off to tuck the kids in at bedtime. When we walked out to the car, which she’d parked on the street, we saw a taxi stopped in front of it with flashers on and a bunch of people standing around taking photos with their smartphones. Why? There was a giant gouge on the side of the Getaround Jetta where the taxi driver had smashed into it.

“DAMMIT!” said my sister. “My very first Getaround rental! This guy is never going to rent to me again!”

Unlike many drivers in San Francisco who hit  parked cars, this one had stopped. It might have been because both his fares and a handful of passersby immediately stopped to start taking pictures, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, because he seemed pretty decent about the whole thing. But the incident began a whole cascade of phone calls, information exchanges, and smartphone photography.

My sister called the Jetta’s owner, who seemed surprisingly equable about having his car hit. I called Getaround, and although they didn’t answer, they called me right back, and then told my sister everything would be fine. Everyone took lots of photos. The cab driver called his insurance and they wanted my sister’s license and insurance information, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a Getaround insurance card right there in the glove box.

My sister notes that this vehicle is not authorized to enter the bike lane when necessary.

When the cab driver said he wanted their insurance adjuster to come out right then and there, I started thinking about other ways to get home before my kids passed out and my husband assumed that I’d died. Sidecar apparently had a ride available 3 minutes away, but just before I booked it, the insurance adjuster called to say that he was halfway around the world, and given that the Jetta could be driven, could everyone just deal with this on Monday morning? So that’s where we left things. My sister drove me home and headed back herself. We both kept laughing in disbelief. The car got hit the very first time she tried Getaround! Talk about bad luck.

That said, despite the collision, or rather even with the collision, the Getaround part of the day was great. Assuming that we’re both not permanently blacklisted, I would rent from them again, especially for a day trip. There are so many more options for the car-free in San Francisco now; I feel like our timing could not have been better.

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Filed under car-free, San Francisco, travel

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