Tag Archives: travel

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Note that the kids don't necessarily bother to dress for the weather anymore.

Note that the kids don’t necessarily bother to dress for the weather anymore.

It’s been cold in San Francisco. Yesterday my kids found that a cup of water they’d left on the back deck had frozen. Since when does that happen? When I took them to school this morning they refused to get out from under the Bullitt’s canopy, which basically functions like a greenhouse (that Splendid canopy was worth every penny). After we dropped off my son, my daughter slept in the box all the way to preschool, and that is the kind of thing that definitely draws envious looks from other parents on bikes. But even with two pairs of gloves and the canopy covering my hands, they were freezing. At the Rosa Parks drop-off I talked with another parent and my son’s teacher about trying to find decent gloves for our rides to school–it is amazing how many parents are on bikes at school now. These are my people! Mighty mighty Dragons! Anyway Matt and I went to a sporting goods store a couple of weeks back and all their winter gloves and mittens were sold out already.

It could be worse. Matt is in upstate New York this work, where temperatures promise to be in the mid-teens. What’s more, he drew the short straw and is his group’s designated driver. Next week I’m heading to Atlanta, but I never get to go outside when I’m working in Atlanta, so I’ve stopped checking the weather for these trips. It’s all: airport to taxi to hotel to taxi to 16-hours-in-a-windowless-meeting-room, then reverse.

Like it or not, we're on the move.

Like it or not, we’re on the move.

But the biggest news around the HotC household is that everything is changing. We received notice last month that the cooperative university preschool my daughter attends was being sold off to a for-profit corporation. Much of our winter break was spent unsuccessfully searching for a new preschool. A couple of weeks ago I got notice that the university was selling off the campus where I work, although it lacked information about trivial details like where we’d all be moved when this happened. Then on Friday afternoon we were notified that the university is also clearing out the faculty housing where we live. Over a hundred tenants will be kicked out in July, and the rest, including us, will be kicked out next year. At least we’re in the second group, I guess.

In summary, it was not exactly a low-stress weekend. I’d like to know where I’m going to be working before we try to move house, and the preschool situation is too depressing to think about altogether. I realize that it’s not progress when everything stays the same, but this feels like a lot at once. At least I like my bike. When Matt’s away I spend almost two hours a day doing drop-offs and pickups on the Bullitt, and despite the cold it’s hard to stay frustrated on the bike (although lately there have been times that I’ve managed it). For this reasons, among others, updates are likely to be light-to-nonexistent over the next couple of weeks.

No way are we getting out from under here.

No way are we getting out from under here.

One thing for sure: we’ll be looking to live in a flatter neighborhood. Tips welcome.

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

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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Bicycles in São Paulo

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

The view of the street from everywhere in the city

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

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

Hope you weren’t planning a long ride.

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

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

Here’s a bike lane he found later.

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

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

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

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

Now that’s my kind of bike.

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

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

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

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

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

A view from the helipad

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

Riding our bikes to school started us down this road.

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

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

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

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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 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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Transportation resources for car-free (and car-light) families, in San Francisco and beyond

When we sold our minivan, one of the things that made it easier not to replace it was the discovery of all kinds of new ways to get around the city without our own car. Realizing there were all these options that offered a safety net helped us finally make a decision. The resources below are so ridiculously exhaustive that we would be hard-pressed to use them all regularly, so we don’t. When we need to get somewhere, we primarily ride our bikes, walk, or take transit, in that order. Every once in a while, for a longer trip, we rent a car from City CarShare or Matt rents one from an agency for a business trip.  Everything else listed below fills in the occasional gaps. For example: my employer, as part of its commitment to reducing car commuting, will reimburse the cost of a ride home from work in the event that a non-driver has a sick kid or bicycle breakdown. I am willing to use some of the more expensive services I’ve listed in emergency situations because time is an issue, and because I know that I’ll be reimbursed. Other companies in San Francisco have similar programs, but they’re poorly advertised, so check with HR before you decide to smack me for being so lucky.

Overall, our bikes are the best transportation choice on most occasions: they are personal vehicles that we can use at our discretion, they’re largely immune to traffic, and we can always find parking. This is why it’s often faster to ride a bike than to drive in San Francisco. But there are occasions that these other options really shine, and they might work even better for other families, and they’re so interesting I thought they were worth documenting in this outrageously long post.

Some useful tools for the car-free family:

  • Cash: Transportation is one of the final holdouts of a cash economy, along with Chinese restaurants, cooperative bakeries, and gambling. I carry around more cash than in the past.
  • Credit card: That said, the majority of ride-sharing services don’t work unless you have a credit card on file.
  • Transit cards: The miserable days when we had to make sure we had two singles in order to ride Muni disappeared when we purchased Clipper cards.
  • Smartphone: I did not get a smartphone until last week, because I live in my own personal Dark Ages. But there is no question that it makes the car-free life easier. Now I can look up bike routes, the next bus, or schedule a car ride instantly. The BayTripper and PocketMuni apps are particularly helpful, as is Bikesy (the bike route mapper for Baytripper).
  • RideSafer travel vests or other portable car seats: We got RideSafer travel vests  as car seat replacements for our trip to Europe last year because they were light enough to meet luggage weight restrictions on European

    Using the RideSafer travel vests in our San Diego rental car.

    airlines. But they are incredibly handy for travel with kids; two fold up small enough to fit in a backpack with room to spare for snacks. Although the kids find them uncomfortable on long trips, they are perfect for short rides. They are pricey but we travel enough out of state that it was worth it to us (also, look for sales; we paid much less than the current price). The vests only work for older kids (arguably 2.5 years and up). However, when we traveled with our son as a baby, we took an infant car seat without the base with us—these styles of car seat all have instructions for installation by seatbelt. And after hearing the stories of such car seats releasing from their bases in collisions, I now suspect that he was safer that way. On occasions when we take longer drives with our kids (e.g. to the Monterey Bay Aquarium) we use regular folding car seats, which now spend most of their time in storage.

  • Folding cart/stroller: It’s nice to have a way to haul kids and/or groceries around. When our kids don’t want to ride a bike to the farmers’ market, we take the stroller and pile up purchases underneath, or we take a folding shopping cart (ours actually works as a cargo-only bike trailer as well).
  • Named non-owner auto insurance policy: If you don’t own a car, but drive, you can still buy auto insurance. We’re on the fence about whether to get a policy like this. It’s not necessary for a lot of car sharing services, which have great insurance (better than you could buy as an individual). But if you’re in a situation where you rent a lot, and have to use national rental agencies, it could be a good deal.

Just the basics (for the more interesting options, skip down to #8)

1. Feet

  • What they are: Look down.
  • When to use them: Local shopping and neighborhood restaurants, visiting local friends and attractions
  • How they work: If you’re able-bodied you know this already.
  • Pros: Good exercise; helps us learn about the neighborhood; we live in San Francisco so everything we need to live is within walking distance
  • Cons: Limited range (especially if kids are involved); limited ability to carry stuff; slow
  • What it costs: Free!
  • Good to know: We can walk further than we think we can, even when carrying a grumpy six-year-old uphill.
  • Personal experience: We like walking; early dates with my husband were long walks.

2. Bicycles (the practical kind, not the road racing/mountain biking kind)

  • What they are: Those things on two wheels most people learned to ride as kids; but if you didn’t, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition will teach you how to ride in a couple of hours.
  • When to use them: Virtually anytime, although in San Francisco it can be a little tricky to get outside city limits on bikes when heading east
  • How they work: Hop on and ride off
  • Pros: Good exercise; faster than cars in traffic; never worry about parking; some bikes can carry more than cars; kids love riding on bikes
  • Cons: Can take some practice to learn to ride in the street with cars; can fuel an obsession that becomes more expensive than planned (although way cheaper than a car) and unnerves friends and colleagues; theft is a problem in San Francisco (although a recent arrest has improved matters dramatically)
  • What it costs: Ranges dramatically, from $50 for a beater bike found on craigslist (quality unknown) to $3,500 for a snazzy new cargo bike, but without kids almost everyone will do fine walking out of the local bike shop on a $500 commuter, with kids ditto on a $1500 cargo bike. Any decent bike shop will let you test ride extensively before purchase. Electric assists for hills and heavy loads run $500-$5,000, but most reliable models run $1,000-$2,000. Maintenance and repair costs are bupkis, even for electric assist bikes, which recharge for pennies.
  • Good to know: If you’re hauling kids you probably need more bike than you think you do. Many people buy a first bike that’s inadequate for their needs and have to replace it (guilty as charged). But even the most wildly expensive cargo bike with electric assist costs less than the estimated cost of car ownership for a year. And also less than an amateur road bike.
  • Also good to know: If you fear breakdowns, you can buy nationwide bicycle roadside assistance from Better World Club.
  • Personal experience: This is our favorite way to get around.

3. Public transit (around here, primarily the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, aka Muni, but also systems around the bay for trips outside the city including BART, Cal Train, and Golden Gate Transit)

  • What it is: Buses, street cars, trains
  • When to use it: When it’s too far to walk; when the bike breaks down; when feeling lazy or when the hill situation or route is unclear in advance; when we have lots of time
  • How it works: Find a route using a trip planner (Baytripper app, 511 through Google Maps), head to the nearest stop, pay, and get on. In SF, the Pocket Muni smartphone app can identify how close the next bus (or whatever) is.
  • Pros: Inexpensive; accessible; nice views; riding historic streetcars and cable cars is a thrill; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, most of whom are kind
  • Cons: Horribly unreliable (Pocket Muni can help, but still); aging equipment that breaks down; dirty; the most useful routes are often incredibly crowded; meet an incredibly diverse cross-section of city residents, some of whom are mean and/or insane
  • What it costs: In SF, $2 for adults, 75 cents for kids but cable car rides are $5; to go outside the city, costs vary but are still cheap. Fares are cash and exact change only unless you buy a Clipper card.
  • Good to know: Public transportation is like getting work done at a dental school: the price is right, there are no perks, the service is as promised but it takes a long time.
  • Personal experience: Very useful, but flawed (however I feel the same way about cars)

4. Taxis

  • What they are: Cars driving around that will take you wherever you want to go on a fare schedule negotiated with the city in advance
  • When to use them: Only when we’re desperate
  • How they work: Call in advance for a pickup and hope someone actually comes, hail one on the street and hope it actually stops
  • Pros: Only car service legally allowed to pick up street hails; gets you anywhere you want to go at a predictable price
  • Cons: San Francisco’s taxi fleet is notorious for poor availability, the willingness of dispatchers to lie about sending a taxi for a pickup, the unwillingness of drivers to pick up people that don’t look rich and well-groomed, etc. The cars themselves are often filthy and I say this as a Muni rider. Drivers pay little attention to traffic laws or speed limits. All taxis in San Francisco are supposed to take credit card payments but trying to pay that way can anger drivers enough that they threaten passengers and/or throw their belongings on the ground. This has happened to me.
  • What it costs: $3.50 at pickup then 55 cents per fifth of a mile or minute of wait time, plus tip
  • Good to know: You can do better, see below.
  • Personal experience: Primarily hellish, although there have been exceptions

5. City CarShare (see also: Zipcar)

  • What it is: A membership service for borrowing cars. These are parked around the city in reserved parking places.
  • When to use it: When we have a reason to drive somewhere.
  • How it works: Apply for membership and pay the fee; if you don’t drive like a maniac and have a valid credit card, you’re in. Once enrolled, members can reserve any car in the system online or by phone (there is a smartphone app for droid phones, but not yet for iOS). They send you a key fob in the mail; when your reservation begins, swipe it on the reader in the front window to unlock the car. At the end of the reservation, swipe the fob on the reader to check the car back in.
  • Pros: For occasional drivers who live or work near pods, it’s much cheaper than owning a car and more convenient. For complicated trips (hauling six kids, going to Ikea) there are pickup trucks and minivans to rent. For people who like cars, there are interesting vehicles to drive: Mini Coopers, Smart cars, electric cars.
  • Cons: Need to schedule trips in advance and be aware when the reservation is ending or there will be late fees. Cars must be dropped off at the pod of origin, so all trips must be round trips, and members are responsible for parking in the interim. Not all members are responsible about bringing vehicles back on time or refilling the gas tank, which can be a hassle (although people who don’t live near a university like we do report fewer problems of this nature). Car sharing can be expensive for frequent users. May not be worth joining if pods are far away (unless you have a Brompton!)
  • What it costs: We pay an annual membership fee plus a set rate when using a car ($1-$9/hour) plus a mileage fee (35 cents/mile). Each membership comes with a certain number of “day trips” allowing a 24-hour rental ($48-$70/day plus 10 cents/mile) and more day trips can be purchased for $12 each. Membership includes insurance, maintenance, roadside assistance, tolls, and gas (or charging if an electric vehicle). Fees are charged at the end of the month to a credit card on file.
  • Good to know: Car share services have reciprocal relationships with their counterparts in other cities. Zipcar is more expensive and has poorer insurance than local nonprofit options.
  • Personal experience: Good; historically we’ve rented through City CarShare once every couple of months, although this has now increased to 1-2 times/month.

6. Rental car agencies

  • What they are: An ad hoc service for borrowing cars
  • When to use them: Longer-term rentals or business/out-of-state travel
  • How they work: Call or book online to reserve a car, hope we get something like what we requested
  • Pros: Lots of different cars available; no extra charges for long trips
  • Cons:  Most agencies require customers to come to them but don’t provide rides, which can be inconvenient (exceptions: City Rent-A-Car in SF, Enterprise nationwide). Insurance and gas are the responsibility of the renter. Cars tend to be in poor condition (relative to car-share vehicles) and it is obvious that some people smoke in them. Rental agencies tend to dump gas guzzlers onto renters who book economy cars, which is a drag as the renter pays for gas.
  • What they cost: Varies, in SF usually ~$40/day on weekends or ~$400/week plus gas, insurance for an economy car; credit card payment required
  • Good to know: Local agencies like City Rent-A-Car typically have better prices, cars, and service than national chains; airport pickups involve substantial additional fees
  • Personal experience: Tolerable, used for business trips but only because Matt’s company makes the reservations

7. Limousines/livery cars

  • What they are: Private car service for passenger trips
  • When to use them: When scheduling a one-way trip in advance, e.g. to the airport, in which case they are almost as cheap as cabs or airport shuttles for a family of four but vastly more reliable (at least in San Francisco)
  • How it works: Call a dispatcher or book online, usually several hours in advance
  • Pros: Cars usually come when scheduled or earlier; cars are clean; drivers obey traffic laws
  • Cons: Some services are more reliable than others; expensive; with kids a portable car seat may be needed although some provide child seats on request
  • What it costs: $55-$65 for an airport ride regardless of the number of passengers; other pricing is hourly or zone-based and typically comparable to or slightly more expensive than a cab (we only use these for airport trips so I’m ignorant); credit card payment required, tips often included
  • Good to know: Dealing with individual companies is a thing of the past thanks to Uber; see below.
  • Personal experience: We decided it was worth the money to take limos to the airport after a couple of incidents where cabs and airport shuttles didn’t bother to show up.

Peer-to-peer and beyond (this is where things get interesting!)

8. Bike trailer loans: If you’re a member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, you can reserve and borrow Burley Travoy or Bikes at Work trailers for heavy cargo loads. Included for no additional cost with membership! (no personal experience)

9. Bike rentals: City CarShare is rolling out an e-bike plus cargo trailer rental option late in 2012, rates to be determined. Most of the other bike rental options in San Francisco are geared to tourists, but might be useful for family visiting from out of town; check Yelp for deals. San Francisco universities have relationships with a local bike shop that allows students and other visitors to rent a Trek 7.3FX commuter bike for a day ($25), multiple days ($12.50/day), or a semester ($175), contact milanal@lombardisports.com. (no personal experience)

10. Employer and transit shuttles: Some employers and neighborhoods offer free shuttle service to various locations throughout the city. Amtrak also takes people across the bay for no charge. If you’re near the route, these are the best deals in the city. Technically I work for the state so although my employer’s shuttles are primarily for staff and patients, anyone can ride them—see also PresidiGo, SF City and County, Nordstrom. Driver quality is better than cabs but worse than limos. In San Francisco, check university websites or Yelp for details on shuttle rules and routes, or ask around. Personal experience: Excellent

11. Casual carpool/slugging

  • What it is: Some cities, like San Francisco and DC, have established ad hoc car pool locations for regular commuters. In the Bay Area, drivers pick up passengers in order to use the car pool lanes on the bridges into the city.
  • When to use it: When you want to get into the city more quickly and cheaply than you could alone and the routes and times make sense
  • How it works: Head to a pickup location as a driver/passenger, then pick-up the next two people in line/hop in the next car that pulls up. Drop off/get out at the drop-off site.
  • Pros: Cheap; fast
  • Cons: The etiquette around payment of carpool tolls has not yet been established for passengers (some drivers ask for a contribution). Some people freak out about the idea of getting into a stranger’s car, although this is mitigated by the fact that drivers typically pick up two passengers (women passengers often refuse to join a two-seater vehicle in the casual carpool line; I know I did when I was using casual carpool).  The routes and times don’t work for everyone.
  • What it costs: As a passenger, up to $1, but often free. Drivers pay normal commuting costs but a lower toll.
  • Good to know: It’s nice that such cooperative arrangements can spring up organically, isn’t it? Sure, it’s not everyone riding their bike or transit to work, but casual carpool gets lots of cars off the road and reduces traffic.
  • Personal experience: I rode casual carpool for several months when we lived in Berkeley and it was pleasant enough.

12. Zimride

  • What it is: A formalized casual carpool; drivers taking long trips or regular commutes post rides to potential passengers
  • When to use it: Long road trips in lieu of Greyhound; also, large employers use the service to arrange regular carpools
  • How it works: Check out the website for posted rides and dates; sign up if there’s one that works and arrange pick-up/drop-off with the driver
  • Pros: Cheaper than driving alone; less grungy than the bus; can get picked up somewhere near where you live
  • Cons: Somewhat complicated to arrange; some people freak out about getting into a stranger’s car; ride timing dependent on the driver
  • What it costs: Varies; check website but SF to LA seems to run ~$50 per passenger (by comparison Greyhound is $45-$65 for the same trip, plus the cost to get to the station)
  • Good to know: There’s definitely a college student vibe to this service. Lots of discussion of music; unlike casual carpool, don’t assume you’ll be listening to NPR on this ride.
  • Personal experience: Nada, although my employer runs all its carpools through Zimride, which suggests it is decent.

13. Sidecar/Lyft

  • What it is: Peer-to-peer donation-based ridesharing
  • When to use it: When we want a lift across town for less than the cost of a cab that’s quicker than public transit, or when we don’t want to stand on the bus
  • How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is and suggest a donation based on past community standards. If you accept, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. The donation is charged to your card on file.
  • Pros: Cheaper than a cab, faster than public transit
  • Cons: Mainly the usual freak-outs about getting into a stranger’s car, although drivers are screened, interviewed, and rated after every ride by the service and by their passengers (personally I’ve had much worse experiences in taxi cabs than I’ve ever had while ride sharing). Negotiating the suggested donation can be tricky if driver and passenger don’t agree. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat as suggested above.
  • What it costs: Varies, check the apps but seems to run approximately $1/minute; e.g. the community average for a trip from the Inner Sunset farmers’ market to the Financial District was $22, compared to an estimated taxi fare of $32 before tip
  • Good to know: Sidecar seems to have better coverage in San Francisco. Lyft is associated with the successful Zimride, but seems organized to primarily appeal to college students.
  • Personal experience: I looked up a ride with Sidecar recently when my sister’s rental car was hit and I thought I needed a quick way home; although I didn’t book, they said they had a car three minutes away and would get me home for $8. Further updates as events warrant. I suspect I’ll use this service eventually.

14. Homobiles: Moes gettin hoes where they needz to goez! [ho status optional]

  • What it is: A donation-based ride-sharing service for the LGBTIQQ community and friends in San Francisco. Homobiles was started after its founder heard too many stories of cab drivers in San Francisco refusing to stop in the Castro, or stopping and then soliciting passengers for sexual favors, or kicking same sex couples out for kissing in the car, or commenting negatively on bondage gear, or sharing unsavory opinions about the gay community, and so forth.
  • When to use it: When you want a cab but don’t want a cab driver
  • How it works: Text (or call) a request for a pick with your location, number of passengers, and any special requests to Homobiles at 415/574-5023. They’ll text back with your pickup time if they have a driver available (sometimes they don’t, but at least they’ll tell you) and off you go.
  • Pros: This is a donation-based service that wants people to feel safe, so they’ll give you a ride even if you can’t pay. No one will hassle you for looking queer, obviously. Some of their cars have bike racks.
  • Cons: Cash only. Sometimes there’s no driver available. Taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat. The name might freak out relatives from less urban locales.
  • What it costs: $1/minute anywhere in the city. $30 flat fee to San Francisco Airport (this may be our future airport shuttle!) Tips not included.
  • Good to know: Drivers will sell you a Homobiles t-shirt or hanky as a fundraiser (like every other ride sharing service, they’re being sued by SF taxi companies, but they’re they only one without venture capital backing).
  • Personal experience: Haven’t used it yet, but I’ve heard nothing but accolades.

15. Uber

  • What it is: A smartphone app-based booking service for limos
  • When to use it: When you don’t have the cash handy for Homobiles or they don’t have a driver available, or you really want to ride in a shiny black car with water bottles
  • How it works: You need a smartphone. Download the app and create an account with your credit card information. When you want a ride, open the app and request one. It will tell you how far away the nearest driver is, what kinds of vehicles are available (for more than 4 people, request an SUV) and the fare. If you book, the driver will swing by within a few minutes and take you to your destination. A tip is included and the bill is charged to your card, with an emailed receipt; this is a cash-free transaction.
  • Pros: Same as limousines/livery cars but with rock-solid reliability and enforcement of good driving behavior (passengers are asked to rank the driver after the ride). Uber prides itself on having cars available at all times, no matter what, even on New Year’s Eve or during Pride.
  • Cons: Expensive; taking kids can be an issue if you don’t have a portable car seat
  • What it costs:$8 base fare, plus $4.90/mile while moving and $1.25/minute in traffic; $15 minimum fare and $10 cancellation fee
  • Good to know: Uber has coupon codes for new members that give $10-$20 off your first ride.
  • Personal experience: None yet, seems pricey (but great reviews on Yelp). I tried to order ice cream for my kids on Uber’s ice cream truck day but they were too busy, which frankly runs contrary to their whole “we will get you a car no matter what” image. I’ll cut them some slack as it was the first time they tried that, but still, hmm.

16. Getaround/Relay Rides

  • What it is: Peer-to-peer carsharing
  • When to use it: Primarily when you want to rent a car for longer periods than are cost-effective using a car sharing service
  • How it works: This is a more informal version of traditional car share. People who have cars available that they don’t use regularly make them available to people who want to rent one. Rates are set by the car owner and listed on the website. When you join (you’ll need a Facebook account) you can pick from a list of available vehicles and request a reservation. Getaround lets you pick up certain cars using your smartphone and an ID reader, but both services default to meeting the car owner and handing over the key. Drive during the reservation window and then return the car as the owner requested. The service provides insurance but the renter is typically responsible for gas.
  • Pros: Typically cheaper than all-day rental using a car-sharing service; much better insurance for the car-free than traditional rental car agencies; often closer to home than other options; owners are usually more relaxed about late drop-offs than car share services are
  • Cons: Handing off keys can be a hassle for non-smartphone enabled cars; rates are somewhat unpredictable; limited availability in some neighborhoods
  • What it costs: Typically $6-$12/hour in San Francisco, with daily rates of $35-$60 (although Getaround’s rental Tesla is much more). Weekly rates are also available. Where we live it’s cheaper than traditional car-sharing for day trips and more expensive for hourly trips.
  • Good to know: Getaround has better coverage and some keyless entry cars in both San Francisco and Portland, which makes renting for short periods more appealing. Relay Rides is national. Car-light folks can rent out their cars.
  • Personal experience: My sister rented a car through Getaround when we took a weekend day trip and it was more exciting than we’d planned, but that wasn’t Getaround’s fault. $50 for the day, and unusually, gas was included. I would rent through Getaround again, especially for longer trips.

Other interesting options that San Francisco does not have yet, but that are available in other cities

17. Bike share

  • What it is: Short term city-sponsored bicycle rentals available from pods scattered in popular travel corridors
  • When to use it: When you have a short one-way trip that’s still too far to walk or would take too long
  • How it works: Typically you buy a membership card, then swipe it to release a bike from one of the locked racks. Ride it to your destination and check it in at a nearby rack. Short trips are free or nearly so and longer trips are expensive. If there’s no space at a given rack, you can get free minutes to ride it to the next closest rack and check the bike in there.
  • Pros: Inexpensive, easy, fun to ride
  • Cons: It might be hard to carry a large load. You probably can’t ride with kids.
  • What it costs: Varies; free to a few dollars.
  • Good to know: California has no helmet law for adults, so don’t let not having a helmet stop you from trying a bike if that’s what it takes.
  • Personal experience: None, unfortunately, but you can bet I’ll try it when San Francisco rolls out its bike share program, supposedly later in 2012. Or maybe 2013. Or maybe never. Sob.

18. Car2go

  • What it is: A short-term rental program for Smart cars run by Daimler
  • When to use it: When you want to drive one-way, alone or with one passenger
  • How it works: You sign up, pay the annual fee, and get a member card to check into cars (typical rules about not driving like a maniac apply here). Cars can be reserved in advance online or by phone, or just wander around until you see a Car2go car with a green light on the reader, wave your card, enter a PIN, and drive off. Park the car in any legal parking spot at your destination, but there’s no need to pay a meter; Daimler negotiates an annual parking fee for its cars with the city and pays it in advance. Members get a gas card with the car and receive credits for filling up if the tank is less than a quarter full.
  • Pros: Seems very useful for last-mile travel for people who don’t want to carry a folding bike; or for emergency sick-kid pickups—e.g. I could schedule a car pickup for us at school and use the time it takes the driver to get to school to drive myself over from work with Car2go
  • Cons: Limited availability; only an option in a few cities; Smart cars only hold two people and there’s no way to install a car seat
  • What it costs:  Rates are the cheapest combination of 35 cents/minute, $13/hour, $66/day (plus 45 cents/mile if you drive the car over 150 miles per day), plus tax.
  • Good to know: Car2go membership recently became transferable throughout the cities where it’s in operation: if you’re a Car2go member in Washington DC, you can also drive Car2go vehicles in San Diego.
  • Personal experience: None, because it isn’t available in San Francisco, unfortunately.

Available anywhere, but use with caution

19 and last on my list: Mooching

My personal feeling is that if I regularly feel the urge to mooch rides, then we’re not really ready to live without our own car. We had one car for over five years, and in that time I can count on my fingers the number of times we asked for a ride, hinted that we wanted one (particularly with kids in tow: who has a spare car seat anyway?), or asked to borrow a car. Given all of the options available to us now, if we start to find ourselves consistently begging rides, I suspect that would be a sign that we should buy a car again.

That said, I don’t see anything wrong with getting a ride occasionally, particularly when we’re traveling. We were very grateful when a friend offered us a lift late at night last year when we were in Paris and we faced a long train ride back carrying two sleepy kids. There are times that people make an unsolicited offer to drive me somewhere, like at work when everyone is headed to another campus for a department meeting. And in those cases I usually say yes because I enjoy their company. And on the occasions that I have a rental car, I’ll often ask people whether they want a lift where I’m going, for exactly the same reason.

Thanks for asking, and thanks for sharing the ride, friends!

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

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

Maker Faire San Mateo

Being pulled in all directions at Maker Faire

Last weekend we went to Maker Faire in San Mateo. I had never heard of Maker Faire before last week, but it’s a big event that pops up around the country featuring, appropriately, people who make things and the things they make. These are mad scientist kinds of people. Legos, robots, hovercraft, steampunk: that kind of thing. And although May in San Mateo is pretty hot, there seemed to be a heavy emphasis on things that blew fire. My kids were enthralled.

This robot dragon shoots flames. Also there are couches inside.

I heard someone say that Maker Faire was Burning Man for capitalists. This seems like a reasonable enough description to me. There was the usual crafty emphasis on display with a swap tent and a fair number of handcrafted giveaways, like the circuit kit my son picked up, but there was an awful lot for sale as well. And where people are buying and selling tech, can overpriced junk food ever be far away? In this case, no it could not. At least there was decent beer.

More than a penny-farthing.

But enough about robots and beer. Luckily for us, it turns out that crafty people like bikes. Although I came in with no expectation other than that my kids would get to play with robots (robots that SHOOT FLAMES—righteous!) we were all impressed by the outrageous bikes at Maker Faire. We liked the Two Penny bike best, a combination bike made up of two penny-farthings welded together. It actually seemed far safer than the sum of its parts. (I only recently learned that the origin of “penny-farthing” was that these bikes looked like a penny and a farthing next to each other—little wheel, big wheel. Clever!)

There was a fun-bike mini-velodrome.

In addition to the Two Penny, the ship-bike, and various other random hodgepodges, all of which evidently could be ridden, there was an area for Cyclecide, where people could try out all kinds of random bikes, including one that hinged in the middle so it wobbled right and left while being ridden and another with odd-sized wheels that bounced the bike up and down like a lowrider. Plus tall bikes, kids’ bikes, side-by-side tandems, and a bunch of others, most of which I lack the imagination to understand or describe. The most impressive of these were entered into the figure-8 pedal-car/bike race, which evidently could get a little rough, as the commentators all seemed to be competitors who’d been sidelined after getting mowed down.

To infinity… and beyond!

My kids were violently opposed to the idea of riding any of the bikes made available for attendees (provided you signed a liability waiver). They wanted to make rockets from paper and blast them from the massive air compressor provided for this express purpose. Admittedly this was a pretty appealing alternative.

Do you have any idea how many bikes I could buy for the cost of one electric car? Too many, that’s how many.

Maker Faire is pretty obviously about promoting alternative transportation, what with the crazy bikes and the hovercraft. (More appealing to the masses, frankly, were the electric cars and motorcycles, not to mention the flaming robots. The bike area was relatively under-populated.) One of the ways this was encouraged was in materials describing how to get to Maker Faire, because the San Mateo fairground is not rich in auto parking, and prices for the parking that was available were high. For the ambitious (and childless) there was a bike train from San Francisco at an estimated time of 90 minutes each way, assuming a fast pace. Or you could bike from CalTrain. There was also free parking at Oracle, served by a bike route and a shuttle to the event. I tried both.

The boat-bike was cool, but I doubt that it actually floats.

Unfortunately there is work to be done on promoting alternative transportation that is practical, rather than cool but functionally useless. The shuttle was horrifically late, and there was no shade while we waited. The bike route was unmarked, and the instructions were terrible, so I ended up riding for quite some time on a pretty awful stretch of El Camino Real, a six-lane drag strip down the Peninsula, in the blazing sun, being buzzed and honked at by cars. Good times. A bike ride is a bike ride, and I try to take them as they come and enjoy the experience, but this particular trip made that more challenging than usual.

Maker Faire bike parking was packed, although not exactly valet parking. I always appreciate free attended bike parking, but the advertising was confusing.

Maker Faire also advertised free valet bicycle parking, which was a misnomer. They meant free attended bicycle parking, but there was no valet. Many cyclists accustomed to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition definition of valet bicycle parking (which means a person takes your bike, gives it and you matching tags, and parks it for you in a secured area until you come back and retrieve it) were given a lot of blowback from the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition members (who defined “valet” as “we’ll watch your bike after you lock it to a portable rack”) about not bringing their own locks. Free attended bike parking is more than fine, but calling it valet parking confused almost everyone. Moreover, although many kinds of wheeled transportation were allowed on the grounds of Maker Faire, security specifically excluded bicycles, even my little Brompton, which is smaller than most strollers, which were out in abundance. And the SVBC folks did not have any knowledge of the supposed bike routes to either the train stations or the parking lots suggested for cyclists willing to ride the last five miles, which is part of the reason I got dumped onto El Camino Real. Apparently SFBC has been spoiling me rotten, so that now I expect valets who are in fact valets and who can give decent directions.

Are you sure you want to push that button?

Overall Maker Faire was fun, but kind of overcrowded and ad hoc. I don’t know if we’ll go again. That said, if the bike people who came there, the Fun Bike Unicorn Club (FBUC), ever host their own event, we are totally there.

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Filed under Brompton, folding bicycle, traffic, travel