Friday, April 30, 2010


It was late, and dark.  Jasper was crying, and we'd already changed him, nursed him, and our attempts at cuddling and soothing were only delaying our arrival home.  Dave and I had switched bikes, so he was on the Yuba and I was on his single speed Surly Steamroller.  The Steamroller has only a front brake, which, as Uncle Sheldon wisely tells us, is adequate and safe-- if you're used to it.  I'm not used to it.

In the dark, the chill, the hurry, the stress, and accompanied by the soundtrack of a silent neighborhood pierced by our wailing child, we were zipping down a slight incline.  Dave, ahead of me, braked suddenly to soften the Yuba's ride over a speedbump.  I, surprised by his deceleration and assuming something more treacherous than a speedbump, slammed on the brakes (er, brake) to avoid hitting or passing him.  He continued on another block: apparently, it took me some time to yelp my distress.

In adrenaline-induced slow motion, I felt the bike stop.  I felt the rear wheel lift.  I felt my arms and my core tighten in response, and I felt the bike level off.  The rear wheel returned to the ground.  I even felt a brief moment of relief at my recovery.  Then, I fell over, hard.  And then I yelled, and Dave turned, and time began to move again.

I took the fall on my left knee and my left forearm.  There was definitely blood, and pain, and I'd knocked something out of alignment on the bike, but Jasper was still crying and we still needed to get home.  So I got back on and we started moving again.

This was the worst part.  With no ability to assess what damage I had done to myself or to Dave's bike, we passed the next few miles mostly in silence.  I realized we were out of hydrogen peroxide, and I wasn't sure where we stood on large bandages, either.  So I sent Dave home with Jasper and stopped at the store to pick up first aid supplies.

There, under the fluorescent lights, I examined my wounds.  Blood dripping down from an already-swollen knee, and some broad, but not deep, road rash on my arm.  Lost skin and embedded grit in both palms.  Bad, but not so bad.

At the register: "How's your evening, ma'am?"  I look at my purchases, at the blood, at the clerk.  "I've had better."  He looks at me, all seriousness and sincerity.  "Are you ok to get home?"  I tell him I am.  I check out.  I limp the few blocks home.

And then I'm a mom: still bloodied, I nurse Jasper and rock him while Dave goes outside to check out the wounded bike.  No big deal out there, a few quick adjustments and it's better.  No big deal inside, either: exhausted Jasper goes right to sleep.  And only then do I get to really look over my own damage, get into the shower, lick my wounds.

Over the next few days, I had to endure a fair amount of clucking worry.  "Bicycling is so dangerous, you know."  But I didn't learn the story's true moral until a week later, in Tacoma.

Another beautiful day.  Out walking with friends.  A new, smooth walking path.  Jasper in a moby wrap.  And I take a header.  Slipping from the side of the path, I grab the baby's head and hit the ground in a sideways roll.  I take the fall on my left forearm, again, and on my right knee.  There is a lot of blood; I strap a disposable diaper around my elbow to staunch the flow.  Jasper is unscathed.

So, the moral of the story?  Cycling is dangerous.  Really.  About as dangerous as a walk with friends on a sunny day.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


There's something really lovely about being ridiculously backlogged in a blog that is about active living.  "Get outside!" I say.  "Go ride your bike!"  And then I do, and then I eat, nurse, and sleep.  And then the blog gets neglected.  No apologies, but as I sit here and tickle Jasper and stretch my aching hamstrings, I'll try to tell you a story.

About a month ago, before Tacoma, we took advantage of some beautiful weather to have an adventure.  We could have just gone exploring, but we like trips with destinations (and needed an excuse to get it together) so we set our sights on that great Scandinavian edifice to the north, Ikea.

We actually started the morning with a smaller trip: out for brunch at Zell's, by F. H. Steinbart for some brewing equipment and some hop rhizomes, and then by the Urban Farm Store to pick up some seeds for the garden and contemplate tomato staking methods.  Before we headed home from there, we had to change the baby:


Next, I did some planting and some weeding, and then, later than we should have, we restocked the diaper bag, grabbed the cargo straps, and rolled out for Ikea.

Now, it is possible to get nearly all the way from our place to Ikea via off-street trails, but it adds a significant amount of milage to the trip-- increasing from 10 to 17 miles each way, or from a 20-mile to a 34-mile roundtrip.  So we opted to ride the first half of our adventure on bike boulevard, a trip that took us farther east than we'd ever biked in town before.

I was surprised by how rapidly the infrastructure deteriorates as you head east: roads badly in need of maintenance, poorly-designed crossings, and above all, an increase in scary large vehicles driven by people who either don't know or don't care about our right to the road.  But that said, it's still Portland, and we didn't have any particularly ugly run-ins on the trip.  And I was reminded of how much I love being in the parts of the city where you can see Mt. Hood:


We made it safely to the highway 205 bike path and headed north. We'd not yet been on that path, and were surprised to learn that while it looks pretty smooth on the maps, it in fact zigs and zags a bit, and is less well-labeled than one might hope for... and eventually, we missed our turn entirely and could see, but not seem to reach, the big blue-and-yellow box that was our destination.

We also found the Columbia River and a nice view of Mt. St. Helens, and so took some pictures before stopping to regroup, nurse, and get our bearings:

P1010925 P1010928

It was at this point that the previously-sleeping Jasper awoke and announced his need for immediate attention, and I snatched him up rather abruptly and took off down an embankment to nurse with some shelter from the highway noise. Dave creatively solved the problem of joining us without abandoning either bike on the trail:


After everyone had a snack and Jasper had his second outdoor diaper change of the day, we re-re-checked the map and figured out how to get from the river to Ikea, along a road that cut along the back edge of the airport.


We were the only bike there, but there was no shortage of bike parking should anyone, or a hundred anyones, suddenly decide to join us.



Creative bench placement:

Shopping carts impersonating bikes:

And with that, we locked up the bike and engaged in a bit of mainstream consumerism.

I try to be very specific about the stuff that we bring into the house.  I'm uncomfortable with the assumed disposable-ness of things, and I try to buy only what we need, and of a quality that will last.  I spend a lot of time on craigslist and in second-hand stores trying to buy the things we want used so that new materials don't need to go into them.


Sometimes, even a quasi-minimalist lifestyle needs stuff; with a baby in the house doubly so.  What did we pick up on our Ikea quest?  Mirror tiles, art, and a rug for Jasper's play spaces.  Some child-proofing gear for the toddling phase to come.  And some new canisters for the kitchen.  So: lots of glass, and some hefty cotton.  You know: dense, heavy things.

The bike was notably harder to move when we loaded and started back.  And a stiff headwind had blown up.

Jasper was fussy as we started home.  A change and nurse didn't fix it.


Singing loudly and continuously helped a bit, but was hard to sustain with the exertion.

I was really, really tired, and after a few miles Dave and I switched bikes so that he could haul for a bit and I could rest.  (Note to self: I am not a single speed sort of girl.)

Jasper continued to fuss and cry as his bedtime came and went, and the gathering darkness was also raising our stress level.

And then I crashed.  But that's a whole other story, really.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Thoughts (and data!) on car ownership costs

I've bummed a ride home (in a car! the beauty of commuting on a folding bike) a couple times this winter during exceptionally bad weather or late workdays when the siren call of a warm, faster commute pulled too strongly to ignore. The co-worker from whom I've accepted rides mentioned last week that she had calculated that as long as she continues to car pool with another co-worker of ours, their combined costs for the car commute are less than the cost of two annual transit passes, even with the passes partially subsidized by our employer at a rate of around 35%. This sort of argument is one I've heard before, a different aspect of the siren song of automobiles, and I had a feeling that in this case, as in many others, it was based on an incomplete calculation.

I know this because during the process of selling our car I wrote a maintenance record summary in a spreadsheet as a service to the new owner as well as for my own records (I also gave the new owner my file of all the receipts and reports). Combining these tabulated maintenance costs with records of our insurance and registration payments, depreciation based on the actual purchase and sale price of the car, and a reasonable guess at fuel costs (using recorded distance driven, measured fuel efficiency, and average fuel price), I made a realistic estimate of the total cost of owning that car for almost exactly 5 years.

Make/model: 2001 Ford Focus ZTS sedan, 4-cyl, EFI, 1.8L, FWD
Primary place of use: Upstate NY
Primary mode of use: 24-mile round trip year-round 6-day per week commute on country roads (4-years)
Other use: Occasional trips to nearby cities, 3 cross-continent road trips
Special equipment/costs: Excellent snow tires ($600/set, two sets), ~$2000 extra repair due to driving on salted roads.
Length of ownership: 5 years
Total distance driven: 52373 miles

Maintenance, repairs, and tires: $6685.51
Value depreciation: $6000
Fuel (28 MPG, $2.60/gal): $4863.21
Insurance (2 drivers): $2760
License & registration: $90

Total cost of ownership: $20398.72
Annual cost of ownership: $4079.743
Cost of ownership per mile: $0.39

The estimate is large. Much larger than most people realize and much larger than I had realized until I finally tabulated all the costs. This accounted for almost 10% of our household income, spent to have the use of a single car. This estimate is also conservative, it doesn't account foe a few oil changes that happened in other states and the receipts didn't get filed, and the estimate of average fuel price is undoubtedly low. Most of the time it was much closed to $3.00/gal. Note that the current reimbursement rate for mileage on a personally-owned vehicle is $0.50. When most people see such a rate they think of it as exceptionally high and think they're getting paid to drive, when in fact our costs for a small, inexpensive, relatively efficient car were almost 80% of this figure!

This isn't to say that we didn't get something for our money. By being able to commit to a car commute (a dubious decision in hindsight) we were able to buy a house in an area with we could afford. On the other hand, before we moved out of town (our first year of owning the car we lived in town in a rental and only used the car for grocery and errand) we only put about 4500 miles on the car, after that we put on almost 12000 annually. The difference between these numbers is almost exactly the length of our 6-day/week commute.

Making another reasonable estimate that half of the depreciation can be counted as mileage-based and half as time-based (a car that isn't driven doesn't lose value as quickly) while counting maintenance and fuel as purely mileage-based and insurance and registration and purely time-based, it comes out that about 71% of our costs were based on mileage and 29% were based on time-owned. This means that if we hadn't moved out of town our annual car costs would have been $2420 instead of $4080. The incremental cost of our commute was $1660 per year: 40% of our total cost of owning the car.

To me, this drove home the point that if you're going to own a car anyway and you carpool driving can be cheaper than an annual transit pass costing around $1000 per year per person. This is one of the financial traps of car ownership: the incremental cost of any extra usage is small enough that if you own a car it's hard to financially justify not using it. It's a pair of thrifty handcuffs, making the owners feel good about driving more. I consider this throwing good money after bad.

By using car rentals and car-sharing instead of owning our own car, we incur something very close to the actual per-trip cost of car ownership, but structured such that the overhead (the time-based costs) are paid on a usage basis. This shifts the thrift decision from saving money by driving more to saving money by driving less.

The financial incentive to not drive can't be entirely realized by not driving. It's realized by not owning a car. This is a huge psychological hurdle that can be difficult to get over, and there needs to be plenty of shared infrastructure in place to make it happen: good transit, convenient car-sharing, and walkable/bikeable everyday shopping were keys to getting over that hurdle for us. Once we had structured our lives to be able to take advantage of them, the financial decision to sell the car was easy.

As an aside, when I've succumbed to the offer of a ride home, traffic has always made it take longer than taking the train.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Paper Maps

Reflecting on paper maps.  Used to be, securing a paper map was a requisite part of trip planning.  One of the joys of leaving for a place I'd been before was digging through my store of maps for the relevant sheets.  Going somewhere new?  On arrival, find a shop and buy a map.

On the trips I've taken where I planned to travel by bike, I've made a point of securing the relevant bike map for the area: the ADC map for the Washington D. C. area and the Chicago municipal bike map allowed me to take work trips to those places and commute reliably by bike.

But lately I've been lax about getting paper maps.  I can look up where I'm going online, and have taken to travelling with lists of turn-by-turn directions for the places I need to get to, rather than with full maps of the places where I am.

This strategy is inferior for both practical and philosophical reasons.  Practical, because sometimes the point-to-point directions are inadequate.  Streets often close, my transcription is often imperfect, and Google has the unfortunate habit of, say, claiming that streets go through where they don't.  Plus, there is always the possibility of catastrophic user error, as was the case in Tacoma, where we searched for directions to Union Station rather than the Tacoma Amtrak Station, not realizing that the former was a historic building now used as a courthouse, and more than a mile from the station with, you know, trains.

Without a map, finding work-arounds is clumsy, slow, and more dangerous than it needs to be, leading us to choose obvious and clearly-signed auto-centric arterials over what are probably more bike-friendly streets just a few blocks away.

But there is a loss beyond the practical, a whole realm of experience that disappears with the paper map. When I get a new paper map, I spread it out on a bed or table, taking it all in at once.  I see what sorts of networks are available: are there off-street paths, bike lanes, traffic-calmed streets?  Is the biking infrastructure designed for someone moving fast or slow, more like a car or more like a pedestrian?  It allows me to contemplate not only where I have to go, but also where I might like to go.  It allows me to note landmarks and geography, as well as get a sense of how frequently I can expect to find a bike shop if I need one.

I am glad that there are online resources like the various online municipal bike maps, the excellent, the user-generated routes at and, and, bugs aside, the new bicycling directions at  But I need to return to the habit of doing what I can to secure proper paper maps.  They make travel safer, more efficient, and fundamentally more rich.  And I miss them.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Just a couple of weeks before Jasper entered our lives, my childhood best friend Alana announced her engagement. When we met, her dad was the new Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Salinas, where we grew up. Just before my wedding, her folks made the exciting move from Salinas to Tacoma, where her dad became the new rabbi (also at Temple Beth El). This past weekend, her family invited us along with some other family and friends to celebrate their engagement, and the beginning of Passover, at their home.

Because we like bikes, and like adventure, and like making things complicated, we decided to do the trip as car-free as possible. We booked spots for ourselves and our bikes on Amtrak.  Learning from Totcycle's recent misadventures we decided not to attempt to bring the Yuba, and instead got in touch with Matt from the Tacoma Bike Ranch to borrow the bike trailer that he had previously used to transport his youngest, Tula, when she was still carseat-bound.

The biggest challenges of the trip, it turns out, were the logistics of getting ourselves together and to the stations.  After quite a lot of deliberation, we concluded that the best way to get the two of us, all of our bags, two non-kid-enabled bikes, a carseat, and the baby to the train station was by bus.  But a series of mishaps and catastrophes preceded our Friday departure, and eventually we were standing in the living room, crying mom, crying baby, too many bags, and the last bus that could even reasonably promise getting to the train had left.

Unwilling to give up, we threw our Hail Mary pass: Dave secured the carseat to his porteur rack with an NRS strap, put the large pack containing most of our clothes on his back, and rode off as fast as he could to pick up our tickets and discuss baggage arrangements at the train station.  I took the baby in a wrap, three other bags draped around me, and walked my bike to the nearest bus stop to catch the next bus that would get me somewhere near the train station.

I got off about five blocks from the station, the driver kindly took my bike down from the front rack (having watched the ridiculous mess of me getting it up there in the first place), and I ran.  It was drizzling.  Downtown's homeless folks called supportive, pitying things after me as I made my way.  As I got to the station, Dave was at the doors waving me onward.  They had just announced the last call for boarding.  Dave ran the bikes down to the baggage car, while I got a ride with our bags on the baggage cart.  I was still wearing Jasper, who'd fallen asleep on the bus ride.  We checked bags and bikes and carseat train-side and collapsed into our seats, incredulous that we'd somehow made it.  After a bit, we headed to the cafe car, sat down with our first real food of the day and a couple of beers, and chatted with a musician bound for his home in Seattle.

Upon reaching Tacoma, we met Matt, who helped us with bikes and bags and carseat.  We strapped our seat into his trailer, facing forward, and loaded all but our most crucial bags onto his Xtracycled Karate Monkey to deliver to our B&B, by coincidence conveniently located a few blocks from his house.

And then we found the hill.  We'd been warned about the hill, and shrugged it off.  "Bah!  The Yuba weighs a hundred pounds, and the trailer will be lighter than that!  I've climbed Mt. Tabor!  No hill can defeat me!"  So, the Tacoma Amtrak station is at sea level, and the part of town we needed to get to is at about 400'.  You gain that elevation in about a mile.  It's just straight up.  We walked most of it.  On the sidewalk.  Oy.

Conclusion 1: Matt, and his family, are hardcore.  Conclusion 2: If I lived here, I'd ride a bike with some sort of electric assist.

Due to a series of unexpected changes, and some overly optimistic planning at the outset, we were running late.  The hill made us more late.  Matt took us to Tacoma's only dedicated bike path, which would get us nearly all the way to the synagogue, about five miles.  I was exhausted.  The baby needed changing, then feeding.  The path felt safe and was pretty smooth, but still ran along a freeway and so was loud and exhaust-filled.  It was getting dark, and cold, and it was Jasper's bedtime, and as we pulled in along a sound wall to sit on a bench, nurse Jasper and regroup, I was feeling pretty burnt out.

"I'm so glad we're here, doing this," says Dave.  I look up at him.  He's smiling at me.  And I realize I feel the same.  It's hard, and silly and stressful and scary and overcomplicated.  And still, a good place to be.  We discuss our options, and decide that we'll get to the synagogue and then our friends' house for dinner by bike, and then beg a ride back to the B&B in somebody's car.  Which, after some more riding and a little bit of getting lost, ended up being what we did.  And it was fine.

The next day, we hitched a ride back to our friends' by car, and returned to the B&B by bike.  It was a Saturday afternoon, there was very little traffic in the city, and while some of the bike facilities we encountered were a bit scary (hello, door-zone bike lane!) others were just downright pleasant (N 11th Ave is one of the nicest bike boulevards I've ever ridden on).

We stopped on the way at a Walgreens for some necessities we'd forgotten, and finding no bike parking decided that I'd hang out in the parking lot with the bikes, trailer, and baby, and Dave would run in.  Waiting there, I got the whole gamut of responses to our rig: everything from the angry woman muttering under her breath about irresponsible parenting to the minivan full of kids who jumped out shouting "Cool!"  Mostly, it was notable to *be* notable, where in Portland this setup would hardly draw a second glance.

Sunday we were meeting Matt and his wife Sara to ride over for some beers and food at The Hub, an adorable bike-themed restaurant affiliated with the Harmon Brewery.  The ride there was lovely, but while we were inside it turned quickly and radically wet, and we rode home in the sort of thunderstorm downpour that is virtually unheard of here in the PNW.

First it was cold and gross, and then, as the rain escalated and the thunder roared, it became amazing.  We could barely see.  There were almost no cars on the roads.  The water was pouring down the hills in sheets.  My shoes were filled with water.  Dave was roaring with laughter.  Jasper was shouting, I suspect not in distress but just to join all the noise around him.  The ride passed in a flash, so absorbing was the effort of moving through the overwhelming wet.  And then they were gone, and our clothes were in the dryer, and Jasper was napping, and we were so, so glad to have come.  Met new friends.  Decided to go by bike.

That evening, we walked over to the Tacoma Bike Ranch (i. e. Matt's Place) to see the stable in person.  We got to meet the kids and dogs of the household, and see their delightful Madsen rain cover.  It was good to be with our family biking brethren, and to get a small preview of what our tiniest cyclist has to look forward to.  The kids of the Bike Ranch were funny and articulate and whip-smart, all traits attributable to good parenting and, I think we can all agree, lots of fresh air and time on two wheels.

Monday, the bikes sat idle in anticipation of a long day's seder preparation and a late night of celebration and wine.  We had a wonderful day, and not riding was without question the right call.

Tuesday, we had more logistical wrangling.  Matt's schedule wouldn't let him join us to get to the station, so we dropped the trailer off at his house and then met Alana at the B&B to load her car with the carseat, the baby, and the luggage, and then planned to meet her at the station.  We had the wrong directions, and then, it turned out we'd mis-remembered the time of our train (and had therefore already missed it by several hours.)  But you know what?  It was all fine.  We got re-booked.  We made it work.  We were rained on getting to the bus to take us home, and people were mean to me about having the baby out in the wrap in the rain, and we were all ok in the end.

Would this trip have been easier if we hadn't taken the bikes?  Probably.  Would it have been as stressful?  Probably not.  But it wouldn't have been as interesting, either.  We know more now: about travelling with bikes, and with the kiddo, and about what it's like to bike in Tacoma, and about carrying the baby in a trailer (the subject of another post).  And while I may not make the same choices again, I'm glad we did it this way, this time.