Tag Archives: car free

Losing it

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

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

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

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

Mirror in the bathroom

Mirror in the bathroom

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

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

We shrink and they grow.

We shrink and they grow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn that frown upside down

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other things that make me happy

Some other things that make me happy

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

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

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, San Francisco

Bicycles and privilege

Sometimes The Onion says it best: there is a vocal contingent of people who claim that only privileged, able-bodied, middle class people ride bikes. I am usually dumbfounded when I hear this.

“We don’t need more bike lanes for trust-fund hipsters in San Francisco!” they fume. “Families can’t ride bikes! They need cars! We need to make it easier for families to drive in this city.”

When I tell them that I ride with my kids, as do many of the parents at our kids’ schools, they look aghast. “How can you risk your kids’ safety that way?” they say. “It’s not safe to ride a bike with kids in San Francisco.”

“I hope you’ll support more separated bike lanes, then,” I say. Then they stomp away.

This is an expensive bike, but it cost less than half of what we got when we sold our car.

This is an expensive bike, but it cost less than half of what we got when we sold our car.

I think it’s easy to confuse people who ride bikes with people who write about riding bikes. Am I privileged, able-bodied, and middle class? You betcha. But that’s basically what defines a blogger, not what defines a bike rider. If you look at blogs, everything from riding bikes to dumpster diving to gardening to worrying about money looks middle class. Talking about ourselves and our first-world problems is just what we privileged, able-bodied, middle class people do. It’s appalling, I know.

Who do I see riding bikes in San Francisco? I see families like ours, and road racers, and homeless guys carrying giant bags stuffed with aluminum cans on their shoulders, and men in suits going to work in the Financial District, and last week, a dad in a security guard uniform with his son balanced on a pillow over the top tube.  I see the man with no legs passing me when I ride along the Panhandle, and the grandfather with his oxygen tank in his trike on the Embarcadero. I’m least likely to see other moms with kids, but we’re out there too.

I like that when I ride my bike I’m part of a community that isn’t defined by privilege. I work with surgeons who complain about how poor they are, even though a first year surgeon at my university earns (much) more than my husband and I do together. They’re comparing themselves to investment bankers at their kids’ private schools and they feel poor. But riding around the city I see how lucky we are.

These are some of the ways parents like us get to school (at Rosa Parks Elementary).

These are some of the ways parents like us get to school (at Rosa Parks Elementary).

At our son’s school I was talking with a friend who just started riding her daughter to school last year. Like us, she sold her car when she bought a cargo bike. Unlike us, they are a one-income family, which is painfully difficult in San Francisco (except for investment bankers). “I’m so happy now,” she said. “We maxed out the credit card trying to maintain that car. For the last repair before we sold it, we had to pull money from the savings we’d managed to put away for our daughter. Now we’re paying off our debt and I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”  Matt and I both work, and we’re not that close to the edge. We’re lucky! But there’s no question that getting rid of our car made it easier to live in San Francisco, where even surgeons feel poor. Owning cars is expensive, and especially so in San Francisco. It’s not something you can afford if you’re not privileged.

Bicycles aren’t just for the middle class, or even just for the able-bodied. However, for now at least, they are still just for people willing to look at the world a little differently, whether by choice or by necessity. We chose to ride bikes when we could drive, and being able to make that choice is what makes us privileged.  But when we chose, we joined the legions of people who have no choice but to ride bikes or transit. When we ask for more support of alternative transportation, we’re asking to make their lives better too.

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

Xtracycle erumpent

Another EdgeRunner!

Another EdgeRunner!

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

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

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

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

My Brompton gets schooled (2 kids on a folding bike, redux)

Here we go again.

Here we go again.

Over Christmas I started riding the Brompton occasionally with both kids on board. At the time, and again now, I noted that this almost certainly voided any manufacturer warranty and was nothing that I could in good conscience officially recommend, etc. etc.  I’m not sure how much it matters anyway, as the Brompton is not the cheapest folding bike, plus the IT Chair required to ride with a kid in front, which is awesome, is laughably expensive. We were only comfortable dropping that kind of dosh to celebrate my promotion last year. So this option is not likely to appeal to lots of people.

That's a rear child seat, a double front saddle, and a front cargo basket on a folding bike. Damn!

That’s a rear child seat, a double front saddle, and a front cargo basket on a folding bike. Whoa!

But it seems I’m not the only person to think about ways to squeeze a couple of kids on a folding bike. At my son’s after-school program, one parent is doing it on the cheap. I was awed when I saw this folding bike, which offers a way to haul a rider, two kids, and a fair amount of a cargo in the front basket, with even smaller wheels than the Brompton, and with parts that looked like they could easily be scored secondhand. I wouldn’t call the results pretty, but you know what? This bike could be put on a city bus and take up less room than a folded stroller, and I’m guessing the total rig would cost very little even if assembled brand new. Well played, mystery parent. Well played.

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Filed under Brompton, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco

Soldiering on

Destination unknown

Destination unknown

I have been feeling embattled over the last few weeks. Blah blah blah housing, blah blah blah office move. Our daughter’s preschool changed hands and for the last week, has been run by a for-profit corporation. (We are familiar with the company and did not have a good experience.) As a result of this transition, many of our friends from preschool are leaving the city over the next six months.

At one point I said, “Well, at least everyone’s healthy.” Jinx. Our son ended up in the emergency department, on oxygen, with a tentative diagnosis of pneumonia. It wasn’t pneumonia, and after a week at home he was feeling better, thank goodness.

Going in circles, for now.

Going in circles, for now

The weather has been colder as well. It makes it just that extra bit harder to get on the bike. But given that we’ve chosen to live without a car, we mostly do it anyway.  We just keep swimming, more or less literally last Thursday morning, when the rain was coming down so hard that the street turned white. But my rain gear is incrementally improving every season, and I got to work dry. By mid-morning it was sunny again.

So far the preschool situation is hanging fire. There are many new teachers who are stymied when we show up on the bike every morning, who cannot really believe yet that there are people who ride to school (admittedly the hill is a beast even with the assist). But nothing bad has happened yet.

This week I finally ended up meeting with my school’s dean. I wanted to know where things were going, professionally speaking. It was a very reassuring conversation. Among other things, it turns out that a dean is more powerful than the university housing office. Things are going to be okay.

What we sent to the landfill last week: medical waste from ER visit, birthday party odds and ends, random odds and ends, and a XL serving of smug.

This is the total of what we sent to the landfill last week: medical waste from ER visit, birthday party odds and ends, and an extra-large serving of smug.

We keep doing what we’re doing. We are buying no new plastic and thus producing much less garbage, and to my surprise this transition has been fairly painless. Our son is fervently on board, for reasons I haven’t really figured out. We’ll be rooting out odds and ends of pre-packaged things for some time yet, but using up what we already have is good preparation for our eventual move. Riding with my daughter to the cheese shop last week (which sells cheese and hummus and crackers in bulk and is delighted to put them in our containers and basically makes this whole endeavor far less onerous) I thought: oh my god, we are those people. I am riding my bike with my kid on board to buy self-consciously local food in reusable glass jars and cloth bags. It must look appallingly smug. What’s next, an annual pilgrimage to Burning Man?

But a synonym for “smug” is “contented.” We soldier on, and it feels like life coming into balance.

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

What we did on our winter vacation

There were enough other people at Muir Woods on Christmas Eve to get a family picture.

There were enough other people at Muir Woods on Christmas Eve to get a family picture.

There are some things we do every year over winter break. The main one is to go to Muir Woods on Christmas Eve. We rented all-electric Leaf this year (the trip up and down the mountainside is sobering even with the help of a motor) and had the unnerving experience of watching the “miles remaining” gauge tick away rapidly as the car grunted up the hills. Then we earned them all back as we coasted back down. This year half the road had washed out, and there were temporary stop signs where passing cars had to take turns, because one lane had crumbled away and dropped into the forest below. When we got to Muir Woods some of the trails were blocked by fallen trees due to all of the rain. But anything that discourages visitors is good from our perspective, and as usual it was quiet and peaceful, as long as listening to our kids yell, “Where are the beavers?!? Can I climb that stump?!?” fits your definition of peaceful.

It turns out that reindeer hate rain. Who knew?

It turns out that reindeer hate rain. Who knew? (at the California Academy of Sciences)

It would be an understatement to say that it rained the first week of our vacation. It poured. Trees fell over, and garbage cans rolled down the street. Astonishingly, our basement did not flood. When the kids got stir-crazy enough we finally packed them up and headed to the California Academy of Sciences, the closest indoor attraction to home. And thank goodness we sprung for the Bullitt rain cover last month. Matt rode the kids right up to the front door and dropped them off, and picked them up at the end of our visit the same way. We were soaked but they were completely dry. They could easily have done the whole trip in slippers. As we rode through the park, watching the wind make actual waves in the streets filled with rain and people walking back to their cars struggle to keep their umbrellas right side out, while our kids sung songs obliviously, we felt like parents of the year.

Our kids mostly ignored the view from the tower of the de Young museum.

Our kids mostly ignored the view from the tower of the de Young museum.

Eventually it stopped raining but it stayed cold. Happily the cover handles that as well. We packed up the kids for trips to the Children’s Creativity Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young museum, and parks, and most of the time they refused to even put on a sweater. At the same time, I was wearing two pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, and long underwear, and shivering. Matt had initially had second thoughts about getting a box bike rather than a longtail, but after the last two weeks, we’re both really glad we got the kind of bike that comes with a kid-cover.

The Children's Creativity Museum has its own carrousel.

The Children’s Creativity Museum has its own carrousel.

It can be hard to get on the bike when it gets cold. These days, however, because we don’t have a car sitting in the garage, if we want to go anywhere we’re going to get cold and/or wet no matter what. Most of the time, unless we’re leaving the city altogether, it’s easier to get on the bikes than to hike over to a car share pod. And we’re always glad when we ride. Matt and I took several trips downtown and beyond, beyond our usual stomping grounds, and it was good to be moving. Especially after a few days trapped indoors, even riding in a downpour so thick it’s impossible to see a block ahead seems appealing. At least, it does now that I have decent rain pants.

Check it out: we're all trend-setting and stuff.

Check it out: we’re all trend-setting and stuff.

We saw many more bikes on the road this year than we did the same time last year. But the biggest change was the massive increase in assisted bikes we’ve seen. I used to snap photos when I saw an electric assist in San Francisco. Now that I see at least one every day, even on the hills near home, it hardly seems worth the effort. We went electric in 2012, but for once it seems as though we were cutting edge. If we saw is any hint, it’s 2013 that will be the year of the electric assist.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, family biking, San Francisco

San Francisco is hard on bikes

Our kids “borrowing” the toys in our Copenhagen apartment’s courtyard

I feel like I should subtitle this post, “why I get whiny about components.”

When we started riding our bikes in San Francisco we did not go by half-measures. We got bikes and we rode them pretty much every day as transportation. We hauled our kids to school and their activities and back, rode to work, and got groceries. It was fun! And we assumed that that was what bikes were FOR. That’s what comes of picking up bike riding in Copenhagen.

We realized pretty quickly that lots of bike manufacturers had different ideas about how we would ride. That’s because we kept breaking things on our bikes. At first we assumed we were doing something wrong. It seemed entirely plausible that we were just lousy riders after such a long hiatus. But our excellent bike shop assured us this was not the case. We were just riding a lot more, and in much more difficult conditions, than the people who built our bikes had expected. What do I mean by difficult conditions? San Francisco streets where we live and work are steep, poorly paved, and dirty.

I have written about my brake paranoia before. We spend a lot of time going down steep hills, and that puts serious wear on the brakes.  It is no accident that I go on (and on and on) about hydraulic disc brakes, which last and last and stop on a dime. We also spend a lot of time going up hills. When we rode rental bikes in Portland we could go for several minutes without shifting, but this never happens here at home. Once, while wandering though Ikea, I saw a piston pressing a carved wooden bottom into a chair, over and over again, supposedly to demonstrate the chair’s longevity. That is essentially equivalent to what we do to our gears.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards. Lots of cars mean lots of damage.

The streets around San Francisco are also poorly maintained. Riding around my office and down the hill from home, the asphalt is so rough that it makes my bell ring as I bump over it. At first it was sort of annoying but also sort of funny. It became less funny when I realized that this was literally rattling parts off my bike. And the streets are dirty. At bike camp, my son was told to wash his bike at the end of the week, every week. We should do this, but we totally don’t. So our bikes look like crap a lot of the time, and all the grime doesn’t do the moving parts any favors either. And it is a rare day that I ride without having to dodge broken glass in the street.

So we learned to care about the components on our bikes. Most cargo bikes come with low to mid-range parts. High quality parts cost money, and my sense is that people already balk at the costs of cargo bikes, which unquestionably cost more than ordinary bikes. Plus a lot of people who take up riding bikes for transportation do so in conditions that are less extreme than ours. This makes sense to me: the barriers to entry are a lot lower in places without serious terrain to battle. And finally, most people who ride bikes in the United States do it as a supplement to car ownership, not to replace driving. They’re not riding every single day. Why not use cheaper parts? Most riders don’t need anything better than that.

The city brought goats in earlier this year to eat the garbage that had piled up around the bus depot across the street from my office. (I hate riding up this hill, incidentally.)

Yet over here in our stomping grounds things are different. Thus I find some bikes difficult to imagine owning because if I bought them, I would have to replace almost every part (or build up a bike from a frame, which exceeds my ambitions). This is essentially what happened with our Kona MinUte. It lists as a $1,000 bike. Thanks to our bike shop’s first year warranty, which replaced everything we broke, it is now really a $2,000 bike (and now we like it twice as much). In its first year, here is an incomplete list of what was replaced: brakes, pedals, shifters, chain, derailleur guide, tires, tubes, chain ring. And this is why we were told to buy a bike from a good local shop: we paid a fraction of the true cost of those upgrades. Even swapping out the crappy disc brakes with excellent hydraulic disc brakes was half-price. That’s because our shop called Kona and insisted that they give us a credit toward the upgrade. And although all of this was great, even better than great, these upgrades meant that the MinUte spent a lot of time in the shop the first year. That was frustrating given that it was supposed to be a daily commuter. It also meant there were some scary and annoying moments, like when the old brakes failed going down steep hills (twice!), or when one pedal snapped in half while riding, or when Matt got four flats in four days.

There was a time that I complained about having to invest so much more in a bike to get a comparable riding experience as people in other places, which reminded me of how much more we pay in rent to live in San Francisco than we would in other places. I am over it. We are lucky to be here, we both work and can afford the relatively trivial price of bike maintenance, and anyway we all have different burdens to bear. However when we went looking for a new bike, we knew that we were willing to pay up front to keep that bike out of the shop, not to mention to keep it from careening down a hill with no working brakes and two kids on board. Our new Bullitt came with outstanding components, and I haven’t regretted our decision to pay for that. In addition to being safer, it’s also more fun to ride a bike with better parts. The Bullitt will never drop a chain, and it shifts cleanly and without hesitation. And it’s never skidded past a stop sign at the bottom of a hill, even fully loaded.

These bikes can now handle whatever San Francisco can throw at them.

At times I have criticized bikes that I perceive to have middling parts because where I ride, it’s something that matters a lot. Should people in other places pay for higher quality parts? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how often they’ll be riding, how difficult the conditions are, and how much they care. The more you ride and the more hills, wet, and cold you face, the more likely it is that a low-maintenance bike with great parts will be worth the money. Where it’s flat, people often gravitate to Dutch bikes, which are built like tanks. But if riding a bike is a sometimes thing, or if you’re living in sunny Southern California, hitting a lower price point may be far more important than having a bike whose parts can weather all conditions.

But there isn’t a free lunch. One cargo bike may cost twice as much as another cargo bike, even though they look very similar. Cargo bikes aren’t sold based on sex appeal or brand names (because they have neither), so there is always a reason for a price difference. Sometimes that reason simply isn’t relevant to the local conditions or a family’s riding style, but it’s a real reason. And while there’s no wrong decision if it’s an informed decision, it is entirely possible to make a bad choice if you don’t know what you’re choosing. We bought a cheap cargo bike first because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t have to pay for that mistake because we bought it from a great shop. We got lucky.

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Filed under bike shops, car-free, family biking, San Francisco

Grocery shopping by bicycle

I consider grocery shopping to be one of least interesting things that I do by bicycle. Compared to figuring out a way to carry two kids simultaneously up and down steep hills, it’s not particularly challenging. I am always surprised to find out that the question of how I carry groceries is interesting to people. Even weirder to me, people who don’t ride bikes regularly typically assume that we must use car share to shop, because no way could we carry groceries on a bike. And I am thinking: dude, we did our shopping by bike even when we owned a car (as a California resident, I am legally required to use the word “dude” at least five times a day).

We live in San Francisco, which is not packed with the kind of giant supermarkets featured in suburban locales. Thus we are not once-a-week shoppers, because we pick up groceries here and there en route to other destinations. Last week, just as an exercise, we shopped entirely without the Bullitt, which can carry anything, figuring that most people do not have a cargo bike.

Trader Joe’s by bike basket: milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, box of wine, fruit, crackers, vanilla (plus my lunch bag)

General groceries: There is a Trader Joe’s a block from my office. There is no point in driving to this location, which is the busiest in the entire United States, and where the line to park stretches dozens of cars back at all hours. I usually walk to the Trader Joe’s once a week during my lunch break and pick up things like milk, yogurt, cheese, and pasta. The Trader Joe’s near my office does such a land-office business that its produce is actually okay, so I will also pick up organic fruit on sale.

This week’s farm share (carried in one MinUte pannier): apple pears, arugula, turnips, carrots, persimmons, bok choy, leeks, kale, potatoes

Farm share: Matt takes a martial arts class in our neighborhood on Thursday evenings. On the way home he detours a few blocks to pick up our farm share produce. He transfers the contents into a pannier for the ride home.

Farmers market: strawberries, kettle corn, carrots, apples, oranges, grapes, coffee cake

Farmers market: Our farm share doesn’t provide much fruit, but our kids eat a lot of it, so on Sunday mornings I go to the neighborhood farmers market. My son’s birthday party was this weekend so I bought a full flat of strawberries for the party instead of our usual half-flat. I also picked up four bags of kettle corn at a local grocery store because the boys watched a movie during the party and requested it.

A farm share + Rainbow trip by Kona MinUte: produce and bulk shopping in the panniers plus a 25 lb. box of apples strapped to the deck, no problem!

Odds and ends: We are vegetarians so we don’t buy meat. We also don’t usually buy things like cereal and bread because we make them.  However that means that every few months we need to make a trip to Rainbow Grocery for staples like flour, along with occasional bulk purchases of olive oil, salt, grains and beans. We also stop by Costco (which is across the street from Rainbow) on roughly the same schedule for things like compost bags, toilet paper, and the tissues that we donate to our son’s school.

Historically these stock-up trips have been by car share if we’re with both kids (or if Matt passes by the neighborhood while in a business-related car rental), or by bike if one of us was going solo. Matt’s Kona MinUte can carry anything we’ve ever bought at Rainbow and then some, and it’s not even a full-sized cargo bike. Lots of people shop at Costco with ordinary bikes.

Five pizzas for a kid’s birthday party in the Bullitt is also no problem.

Our future bulk shopping trips will almost certainly be by Bullitt, because it’s more fun and has zero marginal cost. We haven’t used car share since this bike rode into our lives in the middle of last month. For our son’s birthday party on Sunday, Matt took the Bullitt to pick up five pizzas. A load like that isn’t even a challenge for a bike like this.

If you get a real cargo bike your ambitions scale up accordingly. But even with just a midtail and our limited ambitions, we have carried a Christmas tree, two kids and their gear, each other, and the Brompton. A week or even a month’s worth of groceries barely ranks on this scale. Ride on, shoppers.

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Car-free role models

My son’s 2nd grade teacher rounds up the class.

I’ve liked all of my son’s teachers in elementary school. His kindergarten teacher taught reading so well that most of the class was above grade-level at the end of the year. The legacy of that is still visible in my son, who is currently obsessed with reading three books at a time and can only be dragged away for mealtimes when we literally pull them from his hands. His first grade teacher, who grew up in Japan and only moved to the US a few years ago, amused her class endlessly by having them correct her English spelling and grammar (which was difficult, as it is nearly perfect). But the most interesting teacher so far is his second grade teacher.

At Rosa Parks teachers make classroom assignments, and they accept parental requests. When my son finished first grade, our son asked for the first time that we request a particular teacher; he wanted the woman, not the man. When we talked to his first grade teacher, she was unconvinced, and so despite his request we left his placement to her judgment. Our son was disappointed in August to learn that he’d gotten his first male teacher. At the time, he knew his current teacher only as a large figure with a loud voice; he seemed scary. That impression lasted about an hour on the first day of school this year.

“We have that same taillight on our bikes!” says a girl in the class.

My son’s teacher is, in fact, a big guy with a booming voice, and he does not take an iota of crap from any of his students. He is also, to their delight, goofy. He wears sarongs and pink glitter nail polish and plays guitar in class. He reads them books way beyond their grade level and his default assumption is that they are capable and independent. The kids adore him. And although he commutes from Berkeley every day, he (along with his wife and daughter) is car-free. He takes BART across the bay and rides his bike from the station to school. He is by no means the only bike commuter at the school. However it means a lot to my son that his beloved teacher, like us, does not own a car. It makes him feel cutting-edge instead of deprived.

When people visiting from out of town see my son’s teacher for the first time they are intimidated by his size. Within a few minutes, when they start noticing details like the nail polish, and the way kids crowd around him, they grow envious. Is this what sending kids to school in San Francisco means, they ask, that your kids get teachers like this. And I suppose it does. I know that growing up in a small town I never had a teacher half as cool.

Living in San Francisco has other perks. “Guess where he’s from?” asked one parent early in the year. “The United States,” said another. “No, he’s not,” said the first. “Well, he’s from Texas,” said a third. “Exactly!” said the first.

Welcome to the real America.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, San Francisco