Saturday, July 18, 2015

Folding Bikes Part I: The Social Bicycle

Folding Bike on the Bay Bridge
Folding Bike on the Bay Bridge
To be truly bike-centric, in the still car-centric U.S., you need a bike that can work with the dominant infrastructure despite its limitations.

A Return to Cycling Hit Roadblocks

A few years back, I revived a huge passion for cycling and bike advocacy. My goal was to really use the bike as my primary, if not exclusive, mode of transportation. However, it quickly became apparent that this was impossible for the following reasons.

Bridge Bike Lane not yet even halfway.
First, in the bay area where I live, the two most centrally located bridges cater only to cars:
  • The San Mateo Bridge has no way for bikes to cross. 
  • The Bay Bridge has half a bike lane that sits half finishedBART has scarce space for bikes at crucial times. 
Second, meeting friends out somewhere meant the bike or I got left behind if they travel to a second location.

Bike lanes often stop at overpasses.
Third, inevitably, some trips were untenable for rigid schedules:
Finally, even off the bridges, car-centric infrastructure is pervasive. Many places are still designed for drivers and no one else. Technically, you can ride it but at your peril.

Limits to Bus, Train, Or Friend

Some of these issues were mitigated by heavy use of bus and train, and by inspiring a number of friends and family to create a network of bike racks on our cars.

Friends with bike racks are few.
Bus bike racks fill up quick. 
Folding Bike on BART at rush hour
Folding fits well with rush hour
Even then, having the bike all the time wasn't full-proof the way your primary transport needs to be:
  • Few friends had racks. Even then, bikes on them would get "racked" when we forgot and entered a garage
  • The few bike racks on buses were often full. So cyclists must wait up to an hour for another one which also might be full.
  • Train systems had varying restrictions:
    • BART, at the time, had outright bans on bikes during rush hour: when cyclists needed it. They've since revoked this. Nevertheless, it is a real challenge getting a full size bike on board.
    • CalTrain restricts bikes to two "bike cars" that are stuffed during rush hour. So cyclists are bumped to the next train like with the bus.

PlanBike 1.0 Failed

All in all, in using a regular bike for all transport just didn't work in a vast car-centric metropolis. I could not count on:
  • safe roads to the destination
  • enough time or speed for the hills and distance
  • enough rack space on a bus
  • enough "bike car" space on a train
  • enough friends with car racks

Folding Flexibility To The Rescue

What to do? The answer turned out to be getting a folding bicycle.

Overcoming Folding Perception

Bike Friday Tikit in Geeky Splendor
Though the latest folding bikes are quite fast and elegant, many cyclists still view folding bikes as oddly-shaped, slow, and flimsy, contraptions.

If even cyclists felt that way, it was a question how these could appeal to the non-cyclists I am still hoping to inspire. Nevertheless, they seemed to solve many of the issues I was facing so I gave one a try.

Barring a few missteps (more on that in future installments), the decision has been a great success. 

The Catalyst for All Transport Modes

Folding Bikes in luggage Cars.
Folding bikes fill any gap in bus, train, plane, ferry, or car schedule while giving you full confidence you can keep them while you use alternate transport.

With a folding bike, you always have a ride on the other side of the bridge, road, mountain, or ocean, that is too dangerous or impractical for bikes.

They are the perfect catalyst to link all transport modes into a working solution. The only other transport mode that comes close to being this flexible are legs but legs are not nearly as fast.

The Ultimate Social Bicycle

Folding Bikes easily fit in cars.
Folding Bikes easily fit in cars.

With a folding bike, neither you nor your friends are left behind when you travel together, even if you used different transport modes to meet.

No matter what mode of transport you take as a group, the folding bike can fit. You are never bumped or banished from using any transportation resource.

For this reason, folding bikes are the ultimate social bicycle. They collaborate nicely with whatever transport your friends choose or with whatever safe/effective transport mode is available.

Welcome Inside Buses, Trains, Planes, Cars

Folding Bikes fly in a regular suitcase.
Once folded, your bike is welcome inside:
  • a bus
  • a train's luggage car
  • an Über or a friend's trunk
  • a water taxi or ferry
  • checked airplane luggage (for no additional fee)

Welcome Inside Buildings

Folding Bikes are welcome in stores.
Folding Bikes are welcome in stores.
Since a folding bike, once folded, is not much bigger than a stroller, another advantage is that it is often welcome inside:
  • coat check rooms
  • restaurants
  • stores
  • workplaces
  • small home closets

Added Security

Folding Bikes fit in tiny closets.
This ability to fit inside means the bike is less vulnerable to theft or vandalism at typically inadequate external bike storage. That is a huge relief to many cyclists.

Stealthy Performance

If all that weren't enough, folding bikes have evolved way beyond a mere contraption. They are now vehicles of considerable performance. 

40+ miles on a good Folding Bike is great.
50km+ on a good Folding Bike is great.
Although I still get teased for riding on a "toy", I've kept up with relatively fast peloton's of road bikes on 50km rides with no problem. After that, the heckling stops and the questioning starts about what they weigh (8.6kg - 13.6kg) and what they cost ($500-$5000).

Folding Is My New Normal

Folding Bike down Lombard Street
Now, folding bikes are all I ever ride. The performance and convenience are too hard for a regular bicycle to match. They even look cool once you get used to the small wheels. If you've encountered the same commuter cycling challenges I have,  they are worth a serious look.

Next time, I'll talk about which ones I got and why. There is a lot to consider.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cycling Treasure Island: Part II: A Tran's Bay Bike Shop

This little bike shop on Treasure Island is inspiring art and transgender pride while inspiring cyclists to enjoy the island even before the Bay Bridge bike lane opens.

Treasure Island, a former U.S. Navy base and World's Fair venue, has spectacular views of the Golden Gate, San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz, and the east bay. It also has artifacts from its grand past and eclectic future around every corner. If that weren't enough, it is flat as a pancake and has relatively calm or sparse car traffic, making it a perfect place to tour by bike.

There are already a number of carless options for getting there. More on that here. Although the bike lane on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge won't be completed for a few years yet, the island is ready for cycling now thanks to A Tran's Bay Bike Shop.

In January 2013, Tammy Powers, a Long Island-born life-long lover of bicycles, opened A Tran's Bay Bike Shop. It is nestled in the basement of Building One, the first building you see on the island.

Unique Bikes

Tammy is an authorized Fuji dealer. She's also got a fleet of new beach cruisers for sale or rent, as well as assorted others including folding bikes (that fit anyone in seconds).

However, the bikes that really catch your eye are the gorgeous vintage Schwinn cruisers from the 60s and 70s and the stretch chopper bicycle! These are just for rent but so fun. I rented all three for a party on the island and they were a huge hit, as evident from some of these pictures.

To keep them all rolling, Tammy carries tubes and tires for 650, 700, and 26" wheels.

Unique Space

The bike shop is unique simply by being the only one on this very unique island. However, the actual space the shop is in is truly cool. "I love, love, love the space I'm in, there is no other space for lease on this island that is closer to the Bay Bridge. After my first 18 months in business, I doubled the square footage of my shop.", Tammy says.

"I didn't exactly 'choose' this space. Originally T.I.D.A. (Treasure Island Development Authority) was showing me other spaces around the island, and I couldn't envision any of them being the right place. T.I.D.A. almost didn't even show me this space. They figured 'who would want some place below ground level in the back of a historic building', but when they showed it to me, I knew it was the one!", Tammy says.

Given its unique position in the back of Building One, it can be a little tricky to find. Tammy can't have a permanent sign out on the road so it is only there when the shop is open.

Nevertheless, the bike shop is easy to get to once you know where to go. The first right you can take once on the island is into the parking lot for the Treasure Island Bar & Grill and the Treasure Island Yacht Club.

That is also the best way to get to A Tran's Bay Bike Shop because the entrance to the basement of Building One is behind the Treasure Island Bar & Grill and Treasure Island Yacht Club. In fact, the folks in the restaurant are happy to give directions when asked.

Given its central location to the island in general and to where cyclists will eventually be spilling down from the new bike lane, the bike shop is perfectly positioned to help both present and future cyclists enjoy the island.

Unique Art

The bikes and the space aren't the only attraction at A Tran's Bay Bike Shop.  There's the art. Tammy, with the help of some local artists, has turned the cozy windowless space into a sprawling gallery of bold, colorful, art and artifacts.

On different walls there is:

  • the giant dragon similar to those found in Chinese New Year Dragon Dance
  • the giant peacock soaring over a banner of the official transgender flag
  • the psychedelic wall of geometric, scientific, and geographic icons stitched together with Van Gogh-esque pointillism
  • the excellent cartoon portrait of Tammy herself blazing along in flip-flops on a beach cruiser
The list goes on. Around every corner are really great giant works of art, some of which defy description.

There is also a great collection of Bric-à-brac such as:

  • the Buzz Lightyear and bunny pez dispensers
  • the photo of Robin Williams (avid cyclist)
  • the Maneki-neko (the beckoning aka waving cat)
  • the VW "Love" bus (based on a bus that really exists apparently)
All this stuff is waiting inside A Tran's Bay Bike to charm the heck out of anyone who enters.

Unique Owner

Tammy deeply appreciates how the artists can see what is not yet there. They have vision. So does Tammy. "I was simply visiting a friend on the island and while staring at the unfinished Bay Bridge, I had the epiphany of this island NEEDING a bike shop once the bike lane is finished.", she says. 

She can't wait for the new Bay Bridge bike lane to open. "My entire business plan is based upon the massive amount of people that will be arriving once that bike lane opens... you bet your begonias I'm looking forward to it happening", Tammy says. 

She also has a vision to be an example for transgender business owners. For her, the name on the bike shop says it all: "A Tran's Bay Bike Shop". Although she has other business names in mind for future projects, right now this one matters. 

"I've been into bikes since I was a kid, pulled apart my coaster brake when I was 10 or 11 just to understand how it worked.  I've worked at bicycle shops ever since I lived in Colorado...I am an excellent mechanic with superb customer service skills", Tammy says. 

Unfortunately, "few people want to hire 'us'", she says with frustration, referring to transgender folks. So she hired herself by starting this business. Small wonder Tammy wants it known this is a transgender-sponsored, transgender-run, enterprise. She expects to be hiring in the near future and transgender folks will most definitely be considered.

Like the island itself, A Tran's Bay Bike Shop is a charming oasis for cyclists, whether they have a bike in need of service or they are bike-less and suddenly inspired to ride. It is also so much more. Definitely, worth a visit.
Tammy in the shop
Stretch Chopper Bike

Tammy on one of the new Fuji Bikes

Front of Building One
Back of Building One
Tammy at the shop entrance

Vintage Schwinn Cruisers

Robin (a lover of bikes)

The Pez
VW Love Bus

The unfinished Bay Bridge Bike Lane
One of many great sunset views on TI
Last TI Bus Stop to San Francisco

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cycling Treasure Island Part I: Getting There Carless

Truly an island of visual treasures

Treasure Island, a former U.S. Navy base and World's Fair venue, has spectacular views of the Golden Gate, San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz, and the east bay. It also has artifacts from its grand past and eclectic future around every corner. If that weren't enough, it is flat as a pancake and has relatively calm or sparse car traffic, making it a perfect place to tour by bike. 

Unfortunately, there are few ways to get there. Currently, it is just boat or car/bus. Even coming by boat is tricky because there are not many places to dock and disembark.

Coming by car, of course, is well supported by the transportation infrastructure but often jam-packed when you most want to use it.

Bay Bridge bike lane with a catch (temporarily)

The new eastern span of the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge, which ends at the midway point (Treasure Island), was designed to help matters for the car-free. Included in its design is a separate bicycle/pedestrian lane along its southern edge.

Sadly, as of 2015, there is a major limitation to this new half of the Bay Bridge. Its beautiful new bike lane is on a collision course with the old span which is not yet demolished. Consequently, it ends mere feet from the delectable Treasure Island. No cycling to Treasure Island for now.


The incomplete Bay Bridge bike lane may stop you from cycling to the island for now. However, it cannot stop you from cycling on the island without a car.

Bus service in the U.S. is patchy. Some is quite good but many times folks write it off because of punctuality, reliability, and the generally long waits between each bus trip.

Bringing a bike on the bus brings the added challenge of finding a bus with empty bikes racks, or racks at all. Most buses only have two bike racks. In the bike-intensive bay area, those slots can often be full and you can get left behind. Regardless, PlanBike decided to give it a try.

Folding bike to the rescue

To mitigate the risk of not getting one of the bus's bike rack slots, a folding bike comes in very handy. If the racks are full, folding bikes can typically be folded and brought on board as luggage. In fact, this capability makes the folding bike an increasingly popular choice for cycling in urban settings.

If you truly want to go carless, the reality is you need to leverage other transportation infrastructure from time to time: to avoid dangerous freeways and span great distances fast.

The folding bike plays nicely with planes, trains, buses, and cars. It works perfectly for a bus/bike trip to Treasure Island.

The Treasure Island Muni bus experience

The SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) aka SF Muni runs a shuttle (the 108) to and from Treasure Island about every half hour, 24 hours a day. That's impressive in a town where the primary light rail services (BART and Caltrain) don't even run round the clock.

The 24 hour service is understandable for an island with a lot of residents that may not have a car but will eventually really need to get off or on the island any time of day.

On a Saturday afternoon in March, service worked well. Despite the 2:57 p.m. bus showing up at 3:07 p.m. and a car accident on the west span of the Bay Bridge, the bus ride was swift and peaceful. The trip took no more than 20 minutes and the time passed quickly because the ride was full of breathtaking views of its own.

As you come off the bridge and down the main road on the west side of the island, you already get a panoramic view of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate.

Once on the bike, you can circumnavigate the whole island in less than an hour but won't because there will be a winery, ship's cannon, marching band practice session, art show, or striking view that will grab your attention.

When you are ready to ride back, there is more than one stop where the same 108 line will pick you up. A word of advice: cycle to one of the bus stops before the last one on the west shore onramp. It will help you avoid cramming onto a jam-packed bus if it is a busy day. The bus back was more punctual but was indeed more crowded, as you might expect on a weekend afternoon.

Of course, a bus every 15 minutes, instead of every 30, would be great but overall the bus experience with bike was very nice. The round trip travel time from downtown San Francisco was 40 minutes. Pretty good for any travel mode.

When the new bike lane opens, it may become the more attractive way to visit Treasure Island by bicycle. 
Nevertheless, getting there carlessly is already quite painless, pleasant, and certainly worth the trip.