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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Adventures at 20mph on an Elby electric bicycle!

As most of you know, I ride my bike to work every day. Well, technically I bike for about 40 minutes a day before, between, and after two public bus rides totaling 1.5 hours. The buses get me over the hill to the coastal oasis of Santa Cruz and then up a big hill to UCSC. The first, hour-long trip is simply infeasible to bike in the mornings (okay yes there are some people who do it, but they are super heroes). But the second bus trip I take with my bike, the thirty minute one, is not impossible to bike. In fact, I've biked it more times than I can count over the past three years, but it is hard and sweaty and painful for average humans and doing that first thing in the morning takes mustering up some serious energy. So, I just take the bus.

But the other day, I pedaled up the hill to campus without barely breaking a sweat. I glided up it, enjoying the view and smiling. There was no pain. And I was going about 14 miles an hour while doing so. How is this possible? I was riding an Elby e-bike!


Those of you who follow e-bike industry news might be gasping, wondering, "But how did you get your hands on one? They aren't available until September 1st!" Yes, you are correct, diligent followers of awesome things like e-bikes. Lucky for me, I'm friends with this really cool guy named Greg who makes surfboard racks (among other cool bikey things like dog walkers!) through his business Moved by Bikes. Greg was approached by Elby to test out how to attach his surfboard racks on their new e-bikes. In exchange for his help figuring that out, he got his hands on an Elby before they're even released! He knows I'm a blogger who bikes everyday, so he asked if I wanted to take it for a spin. Well of course I said yes, and there you have it.


My first impressions included the following: it's sleek, well-designed (it has a smartly placed battery pack that sits along the frame), has a built in front light that you control on your right handlebar (above), four settings for electric assist, four settings for regenerative braking, and a design similar to bike share bikes in that it is one-size fits most able bodied people. The chain and various cables are all protected and hidden away. More statistics and basics about the bike are outlined on the Elby website here. The version Greg has is a one-speed, but they do also make 9-speed versions.

One feature in particular that I loved right away is that it has a great rack on the back for panniers. I took my heavy pannier off my road bike, filled with my laptop, jacket, u-lock, water bottle, coffee mug, and various papers. It fit perfectly on the Elby rack, and I didn't even notice it was there throughout the ride. As a bike commuter, having a good rack for panniers is key.


To test out the bike in various settings, I sped down the street toward West Cliff Drive, a scenic drive along the bay with both slow car traffic and a multi-use path with people, dogs, bikes, scooters, etc. I noticed very quickly that not having gears was challenging for me. I'm so used to pedaling fast, adjusting gears to fit the speed I'm traveling, and keeping my legs in motion unless I'm going down a hill. Being on flat land and maxing out at 20 mph with the assist with no way to change gears and keep pedaling was a lesson in patience for me. I kept having to remind myself that I was already going 20 mph, and I should just chill.

In addition to riding in the street with cars and sometimes going fast enough that they didn't even want to go around me, I also tried biking on the multi-use path to see if I felt safe using the assist with people, dogs, and small children all over the place. The brakes are really effective and turning was easy as I wove around people. The electric assist is slow enough when you first begin to pedal that I never felt like I was going to accidentally run someone over on the multi-use path. There were a few times when turning onto streets at corners that I pedaled too fast and went shooting into the intersection or turned faster than I meant, but I attribute those moments to me not being familiar with the bike's reaction to certain amounts of pedaling. For the most part, I felt completely comfortable in all kinds of traffic on the Elby.

After testing out flat ground, I decided to bike up Western Drive, a very steep and horrible road that UCSC students who live on the west side or have class at Long Marine Lab often ride up to campus. It's torturous at the base, and then it's somewhat flat, and then it tortures you again. It's great--if you like a workout and want to feel really good about your ability to accomplish anything while you sit in class on top of the hill, pouring sheets of sweat into your lecture hall chair.

But the other day I learned that Western Drive is even better when you don't feel the pain but rather glide easily up the hill at 16-17 miles an hour. Unlike being in a car, on an e-bike you can still feel the terrain and remember those points in the ride where you'd normally stop, try to inhale to your agonized lungs, and then painfully keep pedaling. But on an e-bike, you just get to smile wistfully while daydreaming about prior trips on plebian, non-electric bikes and feel grateful that you can only just barely feel some burning in your thighs. But just barely.


From Western I turned right onto High and took the main entrance road up to campus and then turned left onto Hagar Drive. Again, it was fascinating to experience the repetition of a motion along a path that's so familiar to me with but with ample air in my lungs and no pain. It felt too easy, but mostly it was really fun.

The one place on the ride where I felt incompetent and would need to practice if I used the Elby daily was crossing the bike/ped bridge over highway 1 at the end of High Street. You're supposed to walk your bike up the curvy path that leads up to the bridge, but I ride across this bridge four days a week, and because I know how to bike slowly without coming close to ever bumping into someone, I usually break the rules. I go very slowly, looking ahead for anyone coming around the curve. Sometimes I hop off the bike if someone else is coming and they're too close to me.

When I got to the base of the path up to the bridge with the Elby, I had slowed down significantly because there was a person on a bike and a pedestrian who had just entered the path ahead of me. I turned the assist off and tried pedaling, but the 55 lbs of weight was too much. I turned on assist a little and tried going up. It was fine until I began trying to slowly turn and brake and pedal and watch for pedestrians, and then I couldn't keep control of how much the bike was jumping ahead when I pedaled. I ended up getting off the bike and pushing it up the path, which was fine and was what the sign said I should do anyway. With a few more practice rides over the bridge, I think I would figure out a way to control the pedaling and assist and braking without feeling so jumpy.


Throughout the ride, I had fun surprising people (from a safe distance of course) on the path and in cars just how fast I could go with minimal energy input from me. As you pedal faster, the bike moves faster, and although sometimes there's a jolt of energy as you push harder, it felt very smooth for the most part. The real fun comes in when you hit the throttle button and don't have to pedal at all. That felt the most like cheating; although to be honest, throughout the entire test ride, I felt like a cheater. Here's the part of this review where I get philosophical about the concept of e-bikes in general: I am so familiar with what it feels like to actually pedal and propel one's self forward without electricity that as I passed other people on regular bikes, I felt guilty for not actually exerting full effort and imagined how they might be judging me for zipping along.

But then I thought about people who can't bike for medical reasons or who will just never get out on a bicycle unless it's electric assisted. I thought about how some people might live their whole lives commuting by car because they are concerned about being sweaty on their way to work. I thought of those who might fear being made fun of if they were to bike without electricity because they would feel slow. While I believe that many able bodied people in the world who haven't tried biking should do so in safe places to feel what it's like and maybe realize how awesome it is, I can see how some folks might really prefer an e-bike. They might replace their car trips with it in ways they'd never replace their car trips with regular bicycle trips. They might bike up hills with their e-bike that they would never try on a regular bike.

I realized that by feeling guilty and wondering if people were criticizing me, I was the one being critical. E-bikes are fun, get you places fast without breaking a sweat, make certain terrain and long distance trips more feasible with two wheels, and are simply another mode of transportation in addition to the many we have available to us: bikes, cars, buses, planes, scooters, etc. They aren't a be-all, end-all, but no form of transportation is (although I do believe that bicycles can solve many of our social and environmental problems). Each method of transportation has its limit, and when the regular bicycle reaches its limit for some folks (who can afford it), there are e-bikes. Certainly they aren't the most economically accessible products out there, but I do think it's awesome that well-designed, well-marketed e-bikes could get people out of their cars and into neighborhoods and city streetscapes on two wheels. Hopefully one day e-bikes like the Elby will be more affordable as more and more people turn to them as an alternative to short-distance car trips.

One more philosophical thought before I return to this review: The Elby isn't designed for folks with disabilities so its applicability is limited to the able bodied population of the world, but a quick Google search just now taught me that there are electric bicycles designed for people with a variety of disabilities. I have no idea if they are well-designed, but it's good to know they do exist somewhere. This topic warrants its own blog post (or its own blog, really), but folks with varying disabilities are often left out of bicycle advocacy conversations and programs. Bike share bicycles, for example, are designed like the Elby, for able bodied individuals who don't require accommodations. I know there are folks out there advocating to make bike share and bike advocacy more accessible to all people, and they inspire me to pay attention to ways in which we can do better to create accessible products and welcome spaces for all people.

In summary, I would highly recommend to anyone in the market for an e-bike (as well as folks considering a motorized scooter, new car, electric car, and basically anyone without mobility impairments who enjoys zipping along at 20 mph) that they test out an Elby bicycle. I had a blast zooming up familiar pain-inducing hills to awesome views without really breaking out in a sweat. As I mentioned above, for folks who are used to bicycling fast with gears, it might be worth looking into a 9 speed versus a single speed. It's great for carrying pannier bags on the back and it's the same size as regular bicycles so it should fit on bus front racks for those who bike/bus commute. To finish off this review, I'll leave you with a video that I took while riding the Elby up Western Drive in Santa Cruz (yes, I nearly crashed at the end but it was the pavement's fault and I saved myself from falling!):

video


Oh, and in case you're curious how the Urban Farms Community Bike Ride went that I led today, you can scroll through photos from the ride on Facebook here. It was really fun and we had an awesome turnout! So many thanks to everyone who made the ride possible, including Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, Garden to Table, Veggielution, Cowgirl Bike Courier, Spade & Plow Organics, and my fabulous planning and ride co-leadership team!


Thanks for reading!
Green Gal

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Raised bed gardening update

Two months ago, I shared photos and instructions about how we built a raised bed in our backyard. Since then, I've planted numerous seeds and transplants into the bed, including pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, sunflowers, watermelon, basil, and jalepeño peppers. We installed drip irrigation throughout the bed and draped some irrigation tubing into potted plants surrounding the bed, such as bell pepper, mint, strawberries, and another cucumber plant. It's turned into a lush urban jungle of plants out there, and I figured that those who don't follow my Facebook page would be curious to see what's been growing on!

Note: You can click on the photos for a larger view.

This was the bed shortly after planting seeds. I had a lot of other plants in pots around the edges.


I transplanted a few tomato plants that I purchased at different nurseries. Two of the plants are heirloom.
This is what the raised bed looked like in July, right before we left for a two week road trip to Portland, Seattle, and everywhere in between.

A bell pepper plant in a pot before we left for our trip.

We visited a lot of interesting places on our trip, including this treehouse near Seattle where we spent two nights! While we were away, my dad and sister visited our garden a couple times to make sure nothing was dying. 

This was what our garden looked like the day we returned from vacation! Amazing!
 We let this zucchini grow until it was 13'' long and 5'' wide! I plan on making stuffed zucchini with it tonight.

 So many leaves! I ended up cutting back at lot of the growth the other day (after this was taken) because many plants weren't getting enough sunlight.

 A cucumber and zucchini I picked last week.

 Another zucchini.

 The tall and happy corn!

The corn is actually producing an ear!

Strawberries

Tomatoes

 The sunflowers are starting to bloom!

 I cut back some of the vines and overgrowth this past weekend.




 Watermelon!

 Pumpkin

 Cucumber

 Mini pumpkin

 Strawberries are expanding beyond their small pot

 Young pumpkin, a view from the ground

 Jalapeño peppers


 The corn tassels turned red... I'm not sure if that's good or bad. I need to do some research...

 Now that we're home from vacation and not everything needs to be on the automatic drip irrigation, I planted some more seeds: arugula and cilantro.

 My lovely garden!


I will try to post more regular updates on here about the garden so that the posts aren't so lengthy with photos! You can always follow my latest updates and photos on my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/greenbeangal/

And if you live in the San Jose area and like biking, please join me and some friends this Saturday for a Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition-sponsored ride to urban farms and orchards! The ride is from 10am - 1pm and we'll be visiting Garden to Table's Taylor Street Farm, a historic orchard, Veggielution, and learning a whole lot about the history and current advocacy work related to San Jose urban agriculture! Details and free tickets available here.

Thanks for reading,
Green Gal

Friday, June 24, 2016

The inspiring motivation of community engagement

I'm filled to the brim with inspiration this afternoon after a delightful chat over coffee with my friend Cain at a cool little coffee shop in downtown San Jose called Social Policy (part of the Bellano "family of coffee lovers"). (If you live in SJ, you may have seen Cain cranking down the street on his red cargo bike hauling huge boxes of awesome stuff for Cowgirl Bike Courier!) We discussed an upcoming bike/art event he is planning, a bike-to-farms ride that I'm planning, San Jose bicycle news and issues, Viva Calle SJ promotion, and more. Last evening, I also connected with friends at my house to plan our bike-to-farms ride. We had a potluck feast of homemade, vegetarian yumminess, and then we identified next steps for turning our vision into a reality. And the night before last, I attended a bike coalition meeting where I saw plans for putting bidirectional contraflow lanes around the SJSU campus and heard the good news that the Willow Glen Road Diet has overall met its intended goals and will hopefully remain permanent. It's been a fun few days of seeing awesome people and working toward exciting projects in the San Jose community.

This morning, Cain remarked about how great it is to find other people in the community who care and are doing cool work, and I could not agree more. I don't know about you, but it can be easy for me to get stuck in a routine of working, eating, sleeping, and watching Netflix when I'm not connected with the inspiring work going on around me. Meeting people doing that work and finding meaningful ways to get involved is one of my favorite activities, and I've found that once I find the motivation to follow through with one project, I end up connecting with many other projects until eventually I'm doing meaningful work in my community on a regular basis. This happened in Santa Cruz for me after getting involved with the bicycle community there, and I can feel it starting to happen here in San Jose. Finally!

I find it motivating and exciting to be connecting with people like Cain in San Jose who are creating spaces for people to connect, have fun, ride bikes, celebrate creativity, and support tangible change for the betterment of the community.

After our coffee meeting, I asked Cain if there were any good parks nearby for reading. He pointed me in the direction of William Street Park, and on the way I biked around the San Jose State campus since I hadn't ever done that before and I'm considering applying to graduate school there. My parents also both attended SJSU (my dad for undergrad and his Masters degree, and my mom for her Masters degree) and my mom even worked there. It's silly to me that I'd never wandered around the campus before! The campus was very cool and William Street Park was delightful. I am grateful to now know about this little gem of greenery near downtown San Jose. Thanks, Cain!

 The quality of my phone camera is less than ideal, but this is one of the beautiful trees in William Street Park in San Jose.

As I sat at the park under the shade of a tree, I wrote a little bit. Here's a somewhat edited version of something I jotted down in my notebook:

When you follow a thread in your life, it often reveals a larger woven cloth connected to other people, history, and subjects. It is the concept that Muir referred to when he said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." What parts of the fabric of life are you picking out and tugging on, attuned to and engaged with? What are those threads connected to, and which threads have you avoided, thinking they weren't part of your cloth? Keep tugging and picking out new things to find where they lead, and don't worry about unraveling the cloth. The more we tug and pick and find the connections we didn't know existed before, we help to weave a stronger and more connected fabric of life.

Certainly I'll share more about all of the exciting projects I mentioned above once more details are ironed out and ready to share. If you're interested in getting involved with this kind of inspiring and fun work in San Jose, send me an email: greenbeangal@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!
Green Gal

Monday, June 13, 2016

Building a raised bed

A couple of weeks ago, we moved into our new place just down the way from our previous rental. We've been settling in, still sometimes discovering unpacked boxes hidden in our closets, and this weekend we turned our attention to the backyard.

When we moved, we brought almost all of our plants from the previous place with us since most of them were in pots. Seeing all of the plants in a big pile made me realize how many plants I really have! It took multiple car trips to get them to the new place, and when we unloaded them, we set them on some cement along the side of the house. I rearranged them over the last couple weeks and have been watering them, but because they're on cement, they dry out much more quickly than when the plants were sitting on dirt previously. I put some of them on plant saucers or greenhouse trays, but I wanted a solution that included dirt, and I also wanted to be able to grow corn and pumpkins. What to do?


Before we moved in, we had asked the landlord here if he would be okay with us removing part of the back lawn and putting in a garden. He told us to just let him know our plans, but he agreed that it would be a better use of space. We had also run the idea by our nextdoor neighbor (we live in a duplex), and she said it sounded good to her.

On Friday, I was planting and watering in the back when the landlord came by to trim some bushes in the front yard since he's our landscape gardener as well as landlord. I asked him what he thought about a raised bed in a section of the lawn, and he immediately agreed and encouraged me to plant tomatoes. So just like that, we had his approval and began dreaming up what we would plant there.

This is what the backyard looked like when we moved in (it's a photo from the Craigslist ad). The smaller section of lawn on the right is where we put the raised bed.

After visiting garage sales with my sister Jeune Gal on Saturday for the neighborhood-wide annual garage sale weekend, we headed over to Home Depot (I know, the owner supports Trump but they were the only hardware store around that had the right lumber!). Green Guy was home sick with a cough, so it was just me and Jeune Gal in the enormous warehouse maze of Home Depot, looking for a whole lot of redwood lumber (which will last longer than other woods, but cedar would be even better), galvanized nails, hardware cloth for keeping gophers out, and ~30 cubic feet of soil. (A list of what we ended up using for the raised beds and cost is below.)

We found the lumber section and then couldn't find the dimensions we wanted, so a kind and strong employee helped us and lifted three 2x12'' 8 foot untreated redwood boards from the rack and set them in a huge cart for us. He checked all three boards and made sure they didn't have cracks or rot--he had to go through quite a few of them before finding three that were in good shape. After searching for a bit and getting lost a couple times (some of the Home Depot employees we talked to weren't all that helpful), we found galvanized nails designed for decks (but you'll found out later why we didn't use them). At this point, we checked out so we could see how much more room was left in the car before we got soil.


The boards fit in Green Guy's Montero, but they went all the way into the front cab of the car. They weren't anywhere near the gear shift and didn't interfere with my ability to see, so we just prayed they wouldn't go crashing through the windshield. It looked like we could still fit about 4 bags of raised bed/potting soil, so I went back in and bought them, along with some hardware cloth that I finally found in their fencing/chicken wire section. I lifted all four bags of soil by myself onto the cart, pushed it to the car, and lifted all four bags into the back. Whew, what a work out!


We made it safely home with our heavy load of materials to find that Green Guy had been shoveling in the back and removed all of the grass for us! I guess he was feeling better! Also, special thanks to my dad for letting us borrow his shovel.

The ground was rock hard, and we probably should have been watering the lawn for a few days before doing this project, but we didn't really know we'd be doing it on Saturday. Ideally, we would have dug into the soil to loosen it, but we didn't, and I suppose we'll find out if that was a mistake once we begin watering the bed.


Once we checked that most of the grass was pulled up, we attempted to level out the dirt somewhat. We weren't scientific about it since we don't own a level, but maybe we should have been. Most of the websites and videos I watched encouraged leveling to avoid uneven draining. Again, we'll see if we made a big mistake soon!

Then we laid out the hardware cloth, which will prevent gophers and other ground rodents from eating our veggies. I had some random tent stakes in my backpacking pack, so we used those to hold the corners of the hardware cloth down. (Note to self: Buy more tent stakes!) The reason why this step is so important is that my grandma told me a story about one time when she watched from her kitchen window as a gopher pulled her crop right into the ground. Imagine caring for a plant, watching it grow, dreaming about what it will taste like, and then seeing a thief yank it into its underground lair. Horrible!

When we went to lay out the hardware cloth, I realized I hadn't purchase enough (I got two rolls of 3' x 5'). If we had wire cutters, we could have cut some of the extra off one end to place in the gaps, but we don't own wire cutters. The visual of a gopher pulling our future corn crop into the ground was enough to make us agree to finish the project on Sunday.


Although we knew we couldn't pour the soil in until we finished lining the ground with hardware cloth, we decided to build the raised bed structure so it would be ready. Fortunately, our nextdoor neighbor happens to own an electric saw, so Green Guy carefully measured one of the redwood boards and cut it in half to make two 4.5 foot boards (the boards weren't exactly 8 feet as we found out, but since we measured it to cut it in half, rather than cut it to 4 feet, it didn't matter).


Then Green Guy began hammering the boards together, but it was so difficult and loud and pretty much impossible that he decided to go buy some screws. The neighbor with the saw also has a power drill, so when he returned from the store, he quickly screwed the whole raised bed together. It was so simple!

We would probably still be hammering the boards together if we had continued using nails...

...and this is why humans invented power tools.

Yesterday on my way back from working at UCSC's Commencement ceremonies, I stopped by Home Depot to get some more hardware cloth and soil. I'm getting pretty good at lifting huge bags of soil! 

We laid out the rest of the hardware cloth, set the raised bed on top, measured it to make sure it was even with the edge of the concrete, poured in the soil, and leveled it out!

The view from our backdoor.

We may need to add a couple more bags of soil since it will compress when we water it, but it's basically ready for planting! It was a much simpler project than some websites made it seem. We didn't bury it into the ground or have posts that secure it down, but we don't think we'll need that. We plan to put gravel or rock around the edges to cover the dirt and extra hardware cloth. I can't wait to see it filled with plants!

I would encourage anyone with some extra space in their yard to build a raised bed. It was fun, easy, and didn't take all that much time. Below I'm listing the materials we used for this bed as well as some tips. If you have suggestions or ideas, please leave a comment!

Raised Bed Materials (4 x 8 ft) from Home Depot*
Tips if you do this
  • *Plan ahead and find out if there's a locally owned hardware store where you can get some or all of these materials. We were in a hurry to get the project done on Saturday, but in retrospect I would have felt better about shopping at our favorite farm supply store that's about an hour from here, even though it probably would have cost more. 
  • If you absolutely must shop at a big box store, consider placing your order online ahead of time. Since we got a late start in the day to do this, we wasted a lot of daylight searching around Home Depot. 
  • Be sure to measure the boards in the store and check for cracks or rot. Some of the boards that the employee pulled were actually 14'' not 12'', which wouldn't have been the end of the world, but would have been unnecessarily expensive.
  • If you own or can borrow power tools for this project, do it. Nailing into and hand sawing redwood is really labor-intensive.
  • Watch some videos as you're designing your raised bed. Sometimes the online descriptions can make this project sound much more complicated than it is. 
Thanks for reading! You can scroll through these photos on my Facebook page here.
Green Gal

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