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The city and the city

This is light traffic by the standards of a driving commute in San Francisco.

This is light traffic by the standards of a driving commute in San Francisco.

Today, thanks to a complicated sequence of planned afternoon events, I took the shuttle to work. I was surprised to realize that this is the first time I’ve ridden a bus instead of a bike in months.

The university shuttle, compared to Muni, is fairly palatial. You always get a seat, there are no stops between most destinations, and people are quiet. A lot of people work on the shuttle, but now that we drive so rarely, I’ve found that I, like the kids, tend to get a little carsick. So I looked out the windows instead, which helps.

The city that I saw on the shuttle is very different than the city I see on a bike. The bus got caught in traffic at one point, which was unnerving (San Francisco keeps postponing the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit lanes). And most of what I saw on the way to work was roads and cars, an endless expanse of gray asphalt and metal. It was unpleasant. The bus is high enough that I could look down on cars, which were filled, almost without exception, with drivers texting on their cell phones. I did not find that reassuring. And from my perspective, every car I saw, even the “compact” cars, was comically oversized for its typical load of one or two people. People on foot sprinted across major intersections. The city I traveled in today is filled with noise and fumes and traffic. It feels dangerous and unwelcoming.

At the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

At the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

I normally ride to work through Golden Gate Park and on back streets, and aside from a few transitions on major roads, the trip is quiet. I ride either in the park or on back streets lined with trees. My city is mostly filled with bird song and nature and brief conversations with people walking to work. “Please,” I say, “go ahead.”

No cars allowed

No cars allowed

I live in one place, but it contains two cities. I realize now why I haven’t ridden the shuttle in months. Why would I want to?

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The end of the world (or at least the end of the year)

I miss November.

I miss November.

It’s the end of the world. It’s the winter solstice. It’s the last day of school. And at the end of the day today, my office will turn off the heat until January 2013. It’s a giant hint that we shouldn’t be here, and after last year, when I had to come in anyway to work on a grant proposal, I’ve learned my lesson.

When the weather's better, they want to try riding with both of them on the tube (I don't, though).

When the weather’s better, they want to try riding with both of them on the tube (I don’t, though).

It hasn’t been the easiest December. It is often hard for me to get on the bike in the winter, even in temperate San Francisco. Temperatures have been lower than usual many days, and when it hasn’t been cold, it’s been pouring rain. Drivers are rushed and rude, passing too close and gunning though red lights. And in the afternoon and evening, there are delivery trucks blocking the bike lanes on every street and pushing me into traffic. The racks at the office these days hold only two bikes, mine and my friend Libby’s. For the first mile of any ride, I am always grouchy. The other day, for the first time in months, I thought “maybe I should just take the shuttle home.”

This is the Bullitt's Splendid canopy, worth every penny.

This is the Bullitt’s Splendid canopy, worth every penny.

But it gets better after that first mile. I have gear to handle the rain, and our kids are content under the Bullitt’s (awesome!) cover for the whole ride.  And other people make it easier. My friend Libby admired our dynamo lights when I left the office yesterday. On the Bullitt the other day I was fuming after my son and I were trapped behind two FedEx trucks, when another rider came up behind us. “I love your cargo bike!” he yelled. “It’s fantastic!” This morning, in the pouring rain, I saw Matt coming back from dropping off our son as I returned from dropping off our daughter, and we stopped to talk. One of my daughter’s preschool teachers walking to school stopped on the sidewalk next to us and shook her head. “You guys,” she said, “are so cool.” Who knew?

The fake snow at the Academy of Sciences is the only snow my kids have ever seen.

The fake snow at the Academy of Sciences is the only snow my kids have ever seen.

San Francisco is a big city, but on our bikes, it’s a small world. And it’s a friendly one. Thanks, everybody.

It can't be overstated how much kids love Engine Engine Engine.

It can’t be overstated how much kids love Engine Engine Engine.

There is so much I still mean to write about. What it was like to ride in Seattle and Portland (Families Ride again!), and both cities’ cargo bike roll calls (which were completely different); trying out new ride share services; how we set up our Bullitt; our son’s new bike and how he learned to use gears; how using the electric assist has made me a stronger rider; our trip to Davis and the World Cycling Hall of Fame; my battle to get more bike racks at our son’s afterschool program because the current ones are packed with family bikes. People have asked me to put together a summary of all the child seats we’ve tried; thanks to all those bike rentals, we’ve tried almost a dozen.  We have two friends who switched from driving to family biking just this month (in December! They rock!) San Francisco is adding bicycle infrastructure at such a rapid pace I can’t keep up. Next year, we hope to try our first cycle truck, a Workcycles Fr8, and a tandem or two.  And in April, when Golden Gate Park closes the streets to cars on Saturdays again, I’ve promised myself I’ll organize a Kidical Mass ride.

Another day at the Rosa Parks drop off, which has less and less room for all the bikes

Another day at the Rosa Parks drop off, which has less and less room for all the bikes

But it’s been a big year already, so for the rest of it, I think I’ll be taking a break from everything except family. If you’re in San Francisco, you might spot us at museums around the city over the next two weeks. Just look for the “one less minivan” stickers on the bikes parked by the front door.  And if you’re not in San Francisco, hope to catch you in 2013.

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Uphill, downhill: the limits of cargo bikes

This what hills in Bellingham look like. A 10% grade according to the signs, not too bad, especially given the killer views.

I complain a lot about going up San Francisco hills. What can I say? It often sucks. Something I’ve only mentioned in passing, but that we think about quite a lot nonetheless, is going downhill. While going uphill is literally a pain in the legs (and chest, when gasping for air) it is not as dangerous as going downhill can be.

We carry our kids on our bikes, and we go down steep hills regularly. We learned quickly that loaded cargo bikes (and trailers) need extra time and distance to stop when going downhill. It can be deeply disconcerting to brake and brake and brake, and only slowly drift to a stop. At first there were occasions that we overshot the lines at stop signs and red lights, and we are cautious riders. At times we take less steep routes on the way down than we do on the way up. We learned good braking habits very quickly and have internalized them to the point that I often forget to mention them.

Although we are scrupulous about maintaining our brakes, they occasionally fail. We replace pads on the bikes with caliper brakes on a schedule that raises eyebrows among people from outside San Francisco—roughly once a month—and that meets with knowing sighs among friends who ride in the city. The stock disc brakes on the Kona MinUte failed repeatedly and were on an every-other-week maintenance schedule until our local bike shop finally lost patience, called Kona, and asked for a credit to upgrade us to hydraulic brakes. And they got us one, which made the upgrade expensive rather than wildly expensive. The new brakes are amazing, with unbelievable stopping power, and the MinUte now only needs a brake adjustment every other month. We never, ever skip this maintenance.

The other problem that can crop up going downhill, which mercifully we have never experienced, is shimmy, aka death wobble. This is when the bike starts shaking uncontrollably and violently while going down hills, and is the kind of thing that typically only road racers experience, because it usually happens at high speeds. But some bikes can also shimmy at lower speeds, say, the kind of speed that a loaded cargo bike would approach while rolling down a steep hill. Having a top tube apparently provides stability that helps reduce the risk of shimmy, which is why I’ve been encouraged to abandon step-through frames. Better brakes help too. But the risk can only be reduced, not eliminated.

As annoying as all of this can be, we have gotten used to it. However these issues arose again when we started calling around asking about family bikes we could test ride, and why there were so few electric assist cargo bikes designed to handle steep hills in the US. There aren’t many electric assist cargo bikes anyway. When you start asking about taking them up mountains, or adding an electric assist to a bike like a Bakfiets, bike shops often get very quiet. A few shops claimed that electric assists were only designed for mild hills and to go longer distances, not to haul heavy loads up steep hills. This is clearly not true, as there are electric assist cargo bikes all over Europe designed for hills: e.g. an assisted Workcycles FR8, an iBullitt, and according to the German bakery we visited in Bellingham, every delivery bike used in Germany. The whole situation was starting to tick me off. I could get strong enough to haul my kids on long distance rides (and I have). I cannot get strong enough to haul my kids up truly steep hills as they get heavier, and even if I wanted to, putting them on the back of the bike on a steep hill has sometimes led to the front wheel lifting off the ground. They’re not strong enough to ride uphill themselves, and there’s too much traffic for them to be safe even if they could. People who want to ride an extra couple of miles don’t need an electric assist like people who live on the top of steep hills do. WTF, bike manufacturers?

I give Portland family bike shops (and a couple of San Francisco bike shops, Everybody Bikes and The New Wheel) credit here because when I asked this they gave me honest answers. It is, evidently, not a huge problem to put an electric assist on a bike to get it up a steep hill. It can, however, be a huge problem getting the bike+cargo back down that same hill safely. We rolled our eyes a little when we heard that because we’re already going down those kinds of hills fully loaded, so no new news here. But manufacturers are apparently concerned about the limits of bicycle brakes going downhill. The brakes on many cargo bikes are not up to the task; as proof, there’s our experience with the MinUte.

Evidently manufacturers are also concerned about the liability they’d face if someone who wasn’t attuned to these problems had the worst happen going downhill on an assisted cargo bike. Personally I think that’s a copout. I know parents who’ve been pulled or pushed down hills by trailers, who’ve broken spokes or had rear wheels taco or screwed up frames and gearing carrying kids up and down steep hills (cough cough… me). They don’t sue the bike or trailer or wheel manufacturers. They start looking for a better cargo bike. But there are currently very few better bikes, at least in the US, and the ones that do exist have appeared in the last year or two. So most parents in our situation have either kludged something together or started driving.

A Big Dummy in Bellingham: it is no accident that you can spot this bike all over in hilly cities

At any rate, although we’ll be trying out a lot of family bikes over the next couple of weeks, we have been told in advance that many of them aren’t going to work for us. Xtracycle and assist a commuter bike? Wobbles and fishtails when loaded on steep hills. Bakfiets and trikes? The brakes can’t handle steep downhills and can’t be upgraded, and the bikes themselves are so heavy that better brakes might not work effectively even if they could be added. And so forth. Although we’ll be riding lots of bikes for our own edification, the list of plausible candidates that we could take home to the hills of San Francisco is actually very short, at least for now. I don’t like this, but I have to live with it.


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Family bikes we have seen

I am getting a little better about taking pictures of interesting family bikes we see around the city. Some of them are ridden by people we know, and some of them seem to be just passing through. There are now more manufacturers in the US focused on creating bicycles that work for families–Xtracycle (almost everything) and Surly (Big Dummy), Kona (Ute and MinUte) Yuba (Mundo, elMundo, maybe the as-yet-unrevealed Boda Boda), Metrofiets, KidzTandem–but it’s not a hugely developed market, especially as kids get older. So people often work out their own strategies, and they’re sometimes even more interesting.

Purple tandem with a trailer-bike attachment

This isn’t the best photo, but this bike belongs to a family we know and is a tandem with a trailer-bike attached. The dad is a former mountain bike racer and we see them during member hours at the Academy of Sciences sometimes. Matt caught this picture of one of their many bikes during a party at a mutual friend’s house in the Presidio, although he didn’t see them riding it.

Two recumbents and a trailer at the Palace of Fine Arts

I think these two recumbent bicycle pirates were just passing through, because I’ve never seen them before or since. But these recumbents had a kid trailer (there was a small helmet inside and stuffed animals), and both bikes had an electric assist; one in the front hub and one in the rear hub. I didn’t find the riders but would have liked to ask them the difference. They had very large battery packs which supports my suspicion that they were only visiting San Francisco. Also they were recumbent bicycles, and I’ve never met anyone who liked riding those in city traffic. Yay, tail pipe exhaust. Woo hoo, unlikely to be seen by drivers.

Custom Bilenky kitted out for a family ride

Last but not least is the custom Bilenky I spotted at the Golden Gate Bridge anniversary party, with a child seat added to the rear rack. The dad who was riding it said he had gotten it before he was a parent, but with that much cargo space it seems reasonable enough to squeeze a child seat on somewhere. I have seen pictures of cargo bikes (and cargo scooters) with kids on the front deck, but his son was young and a rear seat is probably safer at that age.

I have a lead on another wild family bike, but no photos yet: to be continued, I hope.

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Life in a northern town

Back in the day, people in Bellingham lived in stumps. Totally not kidding.

Over spring break, while Matt was in China, I went to visit my mom in Bellingham, Washington, where I grew up. When I was a child, it was a pretty small place, mostly populated by bombed out Vietnam War veterans and hippies. I mean this literally. My high school geography teacher was deaf from his years in a bomber. We knew people who kept goats, and sometimes the goats lived with them inside.  We foraged for berries and clams a few blocks from our house. The town was, at the time, remote.

My kids loved finding bivalves on the beach

This has changed. It is now a destination of sorts, at least for retirees. The university has grown from a glorified teaching college to a desirable place to get an education statewide. There are restaurants without the word “shack” in their names. Parts of the city have expanded so dramatically that I get lost on the new roads leading to new developments with new schools. The beaches are lined with condos. There are people who actually commute from Bellingham to Seattle, although it is 90 minutes away by car without traffic. If some parts of the US are emptying out, other parts are filling up.

Bike racks outside a downtown restaurant

When I got older I became itinerant. Since I graduated from high school, I have never lived more than three years in one place. My mom has lived in Bellingham for 35 years.  We try to visit, but manage it only rarely. On this trip I realized that although I remembered how to get around the older parts of town, I had forgotten a lot about it. It is not an accident that this was the place I learned to ride my bike. Although it is hilly, it is a bicycle-friendly place, and then some.

Bike racks at the beach

Bicycle-friendly encompasses a lot of things. I regret that I was unable to get a picture of the most outlandish bicycle I saw, which was a tandem bicycle with a gas motor rigged in the stoker position that sounded like leaf blower, dragging a stripped trailer behind. Although I spotted (and heard and smelled) this bike three times in a single week, I missed a photo because it was always moving at about 25 mph in car traffic.  Less outlandish was the couple at my mom’s church with infant twin boys, who had commuted with them in a trailer almost since they were born. (Although trailers are a poor choice for kids in San Francisco, I would feel safe with my kids in a trailer in a small town.)

Life out of balance at the county museum

While I was in town I mostly drove, because my mom hasn’t ridden a bike in years, does not currently own a bike, and lives at the top of a hill far from public transit, which is pretty limited anyway. My mom has a Prius and after driving it for a week I decided that (a) I hate driving and (b) I hate driving a Prius, which has terrible sight lines and a weird turning radius, and made me feel even more like a road hazard than usual. And getting the kids into and out of the car was a huge hassle compared to loading a bike. Going to Seattle to visit Family Ride was a relief.

But I was pleased to see all the ways that Bellingham welcomes bikes for those who choose to ride them, and encourage people who are on the fence. There are ample bike lanes and extensive bike racks. Riding bikes is subsidized, more than in San Francisco. This would be a great place to live for a biking family. While I was there, the paper covered a local move by bicycle.

Full bike racks for a yoga class

Another example: while I was in town I took some yoga classes at a studio in town. They offered free mat rentals to anyone who arrived by bike, bus, or public transit, because “it’s harder to bring your own mat that way.” A lot of people took them up on that offer. The studio, 3 Oms, was a lovely place, although my limited time there meant I had a limited choice of classes, and ended up in some inappropriate ones. The intermediate class focusing on learning new postures I visited while my daughter was napping was learning Astavakrasana (“one of the easiest arm balance poses!”), or, in my case, not learning Astavakrasana. But this kind of support for alternative transit was not unusual; I saw it all over town.

Museum-1: nice ride

And again: when we visited the county museum, I spotted a lovely commuter bicycle by the entry desk. The woman working there told me that it was purchased by the city for employees to use for errands and lunches around town. The museum had only one, but the Department of Public Works, with more employees, had four, and so on. She said she used it frequently, and wished she could afford one of her own.

Museum-1 up close, with city seal

On closer look, I could spot the city logo. For obvious reasons, they did not bother to lock this bike up.

My kids love visiting Bellingham. This always surprises me a little, as there is not much to do, relative to the city, but they like skipping school and seeing their grandmother and picking up pinecones in the woods around her condo and occasionally going a day or two without eating any vegetables. Although in the past I’ve sometimes gotten bored during a week in Bellingham, I found I enjoyed myself too. And at the end of the week, I even found a place to rent a cargo bike with an electric assist. Next time we visit, we’ll be cruising around in style.

A variety of cargo bike choices


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At last, it rains

The untouchable Novara Stratus makes its debut

In November and December, expecting the winter rain to start at any time, we prepared for the season by buying cycling rain gear. At that point, for some reason, prices were amazing, which is the only reason we were even vaguely prepared. Our rain jackets were purchased for half off regular price, and waterproof pants were even cheaper; I think mine cost $10? My mom sewed rain pants with cartoons of angry dinosaurs on them for our son. He tried to wear them as pajamas but we had to nix that.

And then: nada.

We were beginning to think it was another drought year. December was warm and dry, great for riding, but leading us to fear a return to the days when restaurants wouldn’t bring a glass of water and people were encouraged not to water their driveways. Evidently in the Inland Empire and SoCal, people water their driveways. Watering lawns during daytime hours and washing cars were also discouraged. But also: watering driveways. I have lived in California now for years, off and on, and I still don’t understand this state.

I was starting to feel kind of stupid. It looked as though we’d dropped a lot of dosh and shopping effort on rain gear we wouldn’t need until next year, or in the event of a real multi-year drought, several years. We were preparing for real Northern California rain, too, not the endless drizzle of my Pacific Northwest childhood, but the insane barrel-of-water-dropped-on-your-head downpours that scared the daylights out of me when I first moved here. These kinds of rains left my waterproof shoes filled with water that was then impossible to remove and once led me to attempt to dry my soaking wet clothes on the (forbidden) space heater in my office. It turns out there’s a reason they tell you not to dry clothes on a space heater, who knew? My entire outfit ended up with giant brown-edged holes in it. People across the hall complained about the smell and sent the department manager to investigate. I skulked home in my gym clothes. It was a low moment.

This year the rains came late but seem eager to make up for lost time. And I smelled the sweet scent of victory over the elements. I rode to work in the pouring rain but with waterproof pants, jacket, and boots, I was feeling great. There are some extra issues to consider: I can’t see as well; giant puddles at the edge of the road mean taking the lane more often; braking is best done early and often. On the other hand, there are many fewer cars on the road, and they are slower and more considerate. And once I stripped off the rain pants and jacket, no one believed I had ridden to work.

Empty racks=rainy season

It turns out that it’s fun to ride in the rain with the right clothes and the right bike. I haven’t spent so much time outdoors in serious rain since we were kids visiting my grandparents and didn’t care about getting soaked in the local thunderstorms: they’d just hose us off in their laundry sink. For the last several years I was always scurrying from one covered place to another when it poured. But seeing the world in the rain is pretty. The city smells green. I had forgotten.

Matt checked in after taking our son to school geared up as I was, and sent his impressions:

“The ride this morning in the pouring rain was actually great… especially after 3 days of driving 4 hours a day! [Matt had to drop off and pick up both kids while I was away.] The investment in gear has totally paid off — rain jacket and pants, bike shoes, smart wool socks, thermal gloves — I was completely dry from neck to toe.  Only remaining gaps are a) goggles or some other solution to keep my glasses from fogging over (I just took them off eventually, but then the rain gets in your eyes); and b) a helmet cover (optional, but would be nice to have dry hair on days when I have to show up a little more dressed up and collected).

The boy loves his rain pants and boots so much, he insisted on keeping them on in the classroom.  With the balaclava, he’s even better covered than me on top.”

Riding in a San Francisco winter offers fewer challenges, I realize, than riding in other winter climates. It snows here about once every 30 years, if we’re lucky, and temperatures are unassuming. But it’s nice to conquer our little challenges even so. And of course we’ll always have the hills.


Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, Uncategorized