Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Biking and Homelessness in San Jose


San Jose looks different when you ride a bike through it. For starters, you're moving a lot slower. Both hands are occupied on your handlebars so you're not looking at a phone like a lot of drivers are. 

You feel the temperature changes on your skin. Climate control consists of pulling the zipper on your jacket higher or lower - or even removing it entirely. 

You can hear different things than you can in a car since - with the exception of those who rudely carry a bluetooth speaker for all to hear on non Bike Party occassions - you're not carrying a seven-speaker stereo with a subwoofer under the dashboard. The rusty drivetrain of the slow beach cruiser with the bent rear wheel will make you wince. The roar of tires from a truck better suited for a Fury Road sequel than the streets of the 10th largest city in the country will make you frown.

The slow speed and open visibility of a bicycle - and the fact you're not in a small, wheeled living room going 50 miles an hour - means you get to see parts of the city others miss. 



Sometimes on Monterrey Road there are homeless tents set between the street and the train tracks. Last October I saw a network of tents taped together. In front there were pieces of plywood sticking out of the ground and a mannequin's leg coming out of a mound of dirt in front.

They had decorated for Halloween.

On a bike path that runs underneath the maze of freeway interchanges encampments are always visible. One of the tents I've seen the last couple of months bears a striking resemblance to the huge, green one my family I and would use when camping when I was a kid. Now it's someone's home. 

It won't last. Sometimes the encampments - we're talking twenty or so tents - will vanish only to reappear elsewhere. Often that elsewhere is somewhere else along a bike path. I can't imagine they'd get away with setting up a tent on a residential street - you know, where cars go. 

I've smelled food cooking on these rides by the encampments. I stood completely still watching someone on one side of a trail hit a golf ball and someone on the other side pushing a grimy bicycle through some bushes. 

Early one morning, while silently pedaling, I saw a young woman get out of a tent while folding something in her arms. As I got closer I realized it was a barista's apron and she was on her way to work. 

That tip jar at the coffee shop isn't there for show. Use it.

A few summers ago I did a free yoga class in St. James Park. I'd see a chatty and friendly woman there sometimes. I guessed her age at about fifty. Once I noticed a strange scar on her forearm and asked her how she got it. She matter-of-factly told me she had been bitten by a rat while sleeping in her tent by the Coyote Creek Trail. 

Later, when a friend at Be the Change Yoga & Wellness told me this woman's bike had been stolen, I donated a replacement. I got her cell phone number and told her I wanted to give her a bike. When I asked her where I could bring it, she gave me a very specific window of time since, as she told me, she needed to take a shower at a shelter and there was only a certain time she had time to take a shower. 

I was thinking about her again this very morning. I rode my bike to the light rail station to head toward downtown San Jose. I sometimes run into a homeless woman from Gilroy by the train's bike racks. She was a bit down and was complaining that while she had the previous week off from the San Jose school where she works she didn't get to do any of the things on her "to do" list.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Take a shower," she answered, sadly.

A region that can invent an app that allows you to turn up your thermostat while you're still in bed shouldn't also have people who can't take a shower whenever they want.

Yet here we are.



An affordable housing bond measure in San Jose failed almost a year and a half ago. For two years running, SB50, the bill that would have made it easier to build homes near transit, failed. 

In 2017, a report came out that said half of millennials wanted to leave Silicon Valley because of the cost of housing and the time spent in traffic. I pointed out - correctly - that housing and traffic are not separate issues. Today a report came out that said even more residents want to leave than to stay in San Jose . Homelessness, which spiked 42% last year, was cited as a reason. 



Homelessness is a complicated problem that needs a lot of solutions - some of which involve funding. The question I have for those opposed to Measure E - the ballot measure that would help decrease homelessness and build housing in San Jose - is the following: do you think this is all just happening on TV? Did you think years of telling people to build-more-homes-just-not-here was a winning, long term strategy for a thriving city? How long do you think it will be before conventions worth millions of dollars stop coming here because the city has picked up a label nobody is comfortable with? Before businesses stop relocating here? Before jobs move elsewhere? 

I won't get into the weeds of what Measure E is - I'll leave it to the experts but I can tell you it is a tax of 2% or less that comes from the sale of houses that sell for $2 million or more. 

Resistance to Measure E takes two forms: one is the 1980s battle cry of "No new taxes!" I'd be happy to sit with anyone making that claim - I'm guessing it is mostly those who pay half as much in property taxes than I do for a house worth twice as much as mine - which happens a lot in California. You want to talk fairness or tell me 'enough is enough' with taxation? 

The other response is the money goes into the general fund and we can't control what a future city council might do with the money. I'm much more worried about the money my city (and yours) is paying for car infrastructure that can't afford to be maintained than I am about that. 

The city can't be afraid of imaginary problems that might happen in the future. It has to deal with the real problems of today. Decades of NIMBYism and car-based city planning got us where we are. Measure E is step in the right direction, and it is a step we can take on March 3 in San Jose if we vote yes.  

That's all I feel about writing now. Please vote Yes on Measure E in San Jose. If you want to look into the eyes of a homeless person and tell them they should keep sleeping in a tent so you can feel a tiny bit better about your personal worth, let me know - I can help make that happen. In the meantime, drive slower and bike more. You might notice the city you live in. Thanks for reading and thanks for voting. 


Friday, February 14, 2020

Velofix in Silicon Valley: The Bike Shop That Comes to You


Vera Arais, working in a Velofix van 

Most of what I learned about bicycles is by taking apart old ones bolt by bolt - a practice I began in Stamford, Connecticut over ten years ago. I learned when I made my own mountain bike in 2011, a California Cargo Bike in 2016 and, most recently, a Back to the Future themed road bike in 2019. I've written about what I've gotten right (and wrong) here on this blog. 

But I hit a wall with my learning - and you never want to do that when you're passionate about something. I knew there was more to know but I just wasn't sure what any of it was. 

So I did something smart: I asked Velofix to come to my house and work on my Back to the Future bike.



Now you're probably thinking to yourself: "Isn't that Vera, the leader of Women's Night at Good Karma Bikes?" and I am thinking "Yes, it is Vera, and while she now works full time at Velofix she still runs Women's Night for Good Karma Bikes."

I had never heard of Velofix before she began working there - possibly because I don't watch Dragon's Tank or Shark's Den or one of those other reality-based funding shows on TV. The short story is: the Velofix people must have put on a good show, because they got some funding for their concept: a bike shop that comes to you. 

The premise does have a solid foundation. Driving - especially in the Bay Area - is annoying and outdated zoning rules put businesses far from homes. What if you don't want to lash your bike to your car, drive somewhere, park the car, wheel the bike inside, explain what's wrong, leave, and drive back again another day?

Velofix services range from about $65 to the neighborhood of a 'spa day' like treatment for your ride of about $500 - even more if you order a la mode* or your bike is laden with the latest gear and tech. Since my Back to the Future bike was cobbled together with mostly older parts I had picked up over the years, I knew I wouldn't max out my Visa card with a 'Silver' package purchase. 

The first thing, though, was I got to go inside the van that Vera parked in front of my house. It was a rare moment of pure workshop envy.




Velofix should charge money just to tour the van. Everything that should go in a shop six or seven times the size was found in this van - and it was put away in such a way that it just...worked. 

Magnets above the workbench, a Park Tool workstand mounted on one wall, led lights. And foam in the drawers so each was like a horizontal tool board made out of Nerf.



It was just an amazing place that radiated confidence and wrench skill. If Vera herself was a bike shop, this is the form she would take. 

She had read my post about building my Back to the Future bike and was familiar with a few of the, ahem, design quirks which include brake and derailleur cables that run the length of the frame so as to look more like the Delorean. She set the bike on the Park Tool workstand and went at it. 



Clients of Velofix can watch the mechanic work. Vera even offered me a cup of coffee because there is a coffee machine right there in the van. 

Yes. A coffee machine. I don't even have a coffee machine in my shop. Why had that not occurred to me? I was learning more already. 



There's also a well-curated supply of items for sale in the van - either just to buy or to add to your bike if a certain component was broken. 

I've been friends with Vera for a while and always knew she was a much better wrench than me but this was my first time being with her when she's in Work Mode - and I genuinely saw what an effective teacher she is. It made me glad she could not only allow clients to watch her while she worked - including, of course, little kids who will benefit from having bikes demystified right in front of their eyes - but also that she was still teaching Women's Night at Good Karma Bikes

It's also an important thing that separates bikes from cars - knowing the service you are getting and having it deconstructed right in front of you. After all, we have all been there with our motor vehicles: dropping it off for a service and getting the dreaded I-Have-Some-Bad-News/I-Am-Holding-Your-Car-Hostage phone calls in the middle of the day from the mechanic asking you to greenlight the installation and/or removal of a part you never heard of (I relayed a true story of trying to fix "The Noise" on my car a few years ago).



But back to the Velofix van: while Vera was finishing up tuning the rear derailleur, she asked if I had built the bike with all SRAM or all Shimano components. I admitted I was stumped, and it was then she casually imparted some wisdom that felt like a cartoon light bulb went on just over my head. 

When you build a bike, it is best to build with either all SRAM or all Shimano components. 

This was one of those it's-so-simple-it's-brilliant breakthroughs. I had been Wall-E-ing builds for years - taking anything out of metal recycling bins or other items I could scrounge and afford and it never occurred to me that there could be a difference in how everything works together. A shifter with the little clicky things** carries the derailleur cable only so far, and the gears on the cassette may be imperceptibly closer or further apart than others. 

I went into my shop and looked at my California Cargo Bike and the Bike Friday Tandem that I restored last year for a ride in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Both hadn't given me a lot of grief in terms of how well they shifted and I realized that might have something to do with the fact I just happened to cobble both together with all Shimano components. 

It's like when you make a list of all of your favorite X-files episodes and discover that they were all written by the same writer.*** I returned to the van to attempt to soak up some more wisdom.



Vera wrapped up her work and relinquished my Back to the Future bike. The next morning I rode it to Morgan Hill and back - managing just over 23 miles in an hour and a half - which is apparently pretty good for me.

Sorry: I'm still kinda new at this Strava thing. 

I've booked additional appointments with Velofix since - but the only thing I didn't like is there isn't a way to definitively ask for a Velofix mechanic by name. Right now, if you book Velofix in Silicon Valley, Vera will probably be the person who shows up even though someone from Velofix's corporate office assured me that every mechanic is equally talented.  That may be true but the thing is - and I'm relatively sure I'm not alone on this - relationships with good bike mechanics are like relationships with a good hairdresser or barber. 

Other than that, I have no quarrel. My Back to the Future themed road bike works better than ever and if you're ever stumped on a build or a fix, visit Velofix and have a bike shop come to you. If it's Vera who knocks on your door, be nice to her and listen - you'll definitely learn something. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 




* I meant 'a la carte' but wanted to make sure you were paying attention. 

** I still have a dreadful cycling vocabulary. 

*** yeah, it's Vince Gilligan (who went on to create 'Breaking Bad'

Saturday, December 28, 2019

San Jose, 2031


Detective Mercer shoved the door of the apartment open. It swung wide before a magnetic catch on the wall held it in place. The overhead lights went on automatically.
Her partner, Steven Summers, peered inside with his hand on his hip beside his pistol. 
“Mr. Benner. San Jose police. Are you home?”
No answer.
Mercer turned over her right shoulder to the building supervisor - an older man in his sixties who was standing unnecessarily close to her. 
“You can go now, thanks,” she said. “We’ll lock the door when we leave.”
“You need the key to lock it,” he said.
Mercer turned and took the key from the super’s hand - seeming to surprise him with her aggressiveness. 
“Thanks. We’ll bring it by when we’re done here. You can go.”
Her hardened look - practiced since graduating from the city’s police academy fifteen years earlier - told the super it was non-negotiable. He nodded uneasily and slunk away down the hall. 
“Mr. Benner,” she said again, stepping inside the apartment. “Are you home?”
Summers followed her inside, keeping his hand by his hip. The apartment was still, quiet, and clean.
“How long did you say he was missing?” Mercer asked.
“A week.” Summers replied.
Mercer pulled her phone out of her pocket and looked at a bookmarked page on the apartment’s app. “It’s only one bedroom and one bath,” she said, nodding toward the closed door that was closest to Summers. He stepped toward it and pushed it open. 
A spotless bathroom.
“You don’t think he’s dead in there, do you?” Summers asked.
“If he were, we’d have smelled him out here.”
She pushed the bedroom door open. The bedroom was empty, and the huge, made bed stood in the middle of the room. The side closest to them had the sheets and comforter rumpled and tossed to one side, while the other was empty. He was definitely living alone, Mercer thought. 
“And, nothing.” Summers said. 
“Closet,” said Mercer.
“Oh!”
Mercer turned as her young partner opened the closet door. Inside was a life-sized mannequin - a trim blond woman dressed in a maid’s outfit. 
“Welcome home, Robert,” a female voice said huskily. “Tell me what you want me to do.”
Summers slammed the closet door. Mercer smirked. 
“As far as sex dolls go, that’s one of the better ones I’ve seen,” she said. “Probably the most valuable thing the guy owns.”
“Should we interrogate it?” Summers asked.
She just stared at him. “No.”
Summers changed the subject. “Well, uh, this backs up what the people at his office said. He lived alone. Didn’t have a partner.”
“What else did they say about him?” she asked, looking at some of the assorted items on Mr. Benner’s dresser.
“Quiet. Hard worker. Favored the Mexican place across the street. Got to work at 8:00 on the dot every day and left at 5:15 every night.”
“That’s specific.”
“Well most of the cars there are on the D-Hive system, so they leave the office in shifts to try to mitigate traffic. It doesn’t really work, but that’s what it is.”
“What is D-Hive?” she asked, thankful her younger partner was at least more plugged in to the Silicon Valley tech scene than herself.
“It’s mostly for self-driving car parking,” Summers said. “It helps put as many cars into one place as possible. The car would drop you off at a certain time, and then the empty car scoots over to a parking space, and it would get blocked in by every car that came in after it. Then the cars would leave the packed garage in shifts and pick each person up. That would allow -”
“Wait a minute,” Mercer asked, holding her hand up. “That programmer guy, he said he’d leave the office each day at 5:15?”
“Yeah.”
“How long does it take to drive from Menlo Park to San Jose? In rush hour traffic?”
“An hour, usually. Why?”
Mercer looked at her watch. It was ten minutes past six.
“Come on.”
She led Summers from the apartment and closed the door behind her. The super was still in the hall about twenty feet away, watching them.
Mercer walked toward him with loud steps. “Hey, where’s tenant parking?”
“In the garage in the basement.”
“Do the tenants have assigned spaces?”
“Yeah, but his car wasn’t there.  I told you his car wasn’t…”
“Take us to the garage, now.” She said, striding down the hall with Summers in tow. 
A moment later the three were in an elevator. The super’s thumbprint unlocked the floor with the parking garage, and in a few seconds they were in the dimly lit garage that was packed with cars.
“Mr. Benner’s space is over here,” the super said. “He paid extra for an automatic charging station.”
“What space?”
“604. Same number as his apartment. But like I told you, he’s not here.”
The three moved through the garage as Mercer looked at the cars. All were parked within just a few inches of each other.
“Are you on the D-Hive system or whatever its called?”
“Of course. Our tenants expect it.”
Before long they made it to the far wall of the garage. Sleek electric cars - all attached to a charging cord - were parked in a perfect row save for a missing space with ‘604’ stenciled in flaking paint on the asphalt. 
“I told you, he isn’t here,” the super said, while Mercer stood in the parking space to look around. A Porsche stood on one side and a beat-up Tesla sat on the other. It didn’t seem possible another car would fit between them.
“What kind of car does Mr. Bennet own?”
The super turned his eyes up as if searching a memory. “Uh...I think its a Series 5 Sybertruck. It’s…”
“Dark silver?” Mercer asked.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
Mercer pointed as she stepped out of the parking space. A large truck was rolling toward them with  headlights illuminating the garage. It was a dark silver Sybertruck, moving in complete silence. 
Standing back, the super, Summers and Mercer watched as the pickup glided by them. In the glare of the side windows they could make out someone sitting in the driver’s seat. Standing further from the space, in a group, they watched the truck turn, stop, and slowly back up into the tiny parking space - missing the Porsche and the old Tesla by inches - before the headlights snapped off.
A gentle whirring sound was heard as the motorized charging cable snaked out of a port on the wall and plugged automatically into the electric pickup. A pulsing blue light on the vehicle’s dashboard showed the truck was ‘asleep’ while it was charging.
Mercer approached the truck and pointed a tiny but bright flashlight at the windshield. The beam cut across a bloated, rotting face belonging to the body that was sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Ah, jeez!” moaned Summers as the super put a hand over his mouth.
Mercer got closer and leaned her tall frame over the hood as much as she could. The body was an adult male, wearing a maroon dress shirt and dark slacks. He was wearing a seatbelt. Beside him, on the passenger seat, was a black briefcase and a white bag.
“Summers,” Mercer said. “Where did Benner’s co-workers say they had catered for lunch that day?”
“Mo-le,” Summers said. “There was too much food so everyone was asked to, uh, take some home.”
The beam of Mercer’s flashlight found the logo for Mo-le on the white paper bag. “Alright.”
“Get back.”
An electronic voice from the car rang out. Mercer looked down.
“Get back. You are too close.”
A mild electric shock hit her shin through her pantleg. 
“The hell?” She backed away.
“Must have a sentry mode,” Summers said. 
“Well, that’s Mr. Benner,” Mercer said. “No blood, no signs of trauma, no visible weapons and no sign of the vehicle being hit by a bullet . Probably died of natural causes on the way home from work.”
Summers nodded uncomfortably. He had noticed death by natural causes had a strange way of striking people in their forties and thirties quite a lot over the last few years.
“We need to get him out of there,” said Mercer to the super. “Do you have the key to the truck?”
“No. We have a parking compliance policy tied with eviction. People know better than to break any of the rules or risk losing their place.”
Mercer tightened her jaw. “Alright. “I’m going to have to get a tow truck down here and move that thing.”
“You can’t do that,” the super said. “There isn’t enough room for a tow truck to manuever in here.”
“Sir, this man died on the way back home from work last Thursday. Looks like a heart attack. The truck doesn’t know he’s dead, so it has been driving to and from an office in Menlo Park for eight days. Eight days with a rotting corpse in the driver’s seat. Eight days of people in their own cars sharing the road with a dead man and not noticing. We need to get him out of there. I suggest you contact all of the tenants whose cars are parked in this row and tell them to move them. Now.”
She used the same tone with him that she had in the hall of the apartment. Looking as though he was trying to hold back on using the word “harumph!” the super walked away from Summers and Mercer, pointing a green laser at the row of cars from his cell phone. As it passed each one, contact and profile info of every vehicle’s owner came to his screen
Summers stared. “Has he really been sitting there, dead, for eight days? And the truck has been driving him to work and driving him back, every day for a week and nobody has noticed?”
“Mmm-hmm. It happens. Self driving cars aren’t programmed to do anything if the occupants have any distress,” she said. “Once, I had a kid from Stanford punch his parent’s address in the car - they live in Portland, Oregon - and he blew his brains out on the way out of the parking lot. It was caught on the security camera. Twelve hours later, his autonomous car is in his parent’s driveway. He was getting back at them for something, it seemed. Also the big Marin Fire last year had these things drive through a cloud of toxic gas. When the fire department arrived, they found a fleet electric cars with dead bodies in them trying to drive on melted tires. Nothing to do but wait for the batteries to die.”
The super returned. “Sorry, but six of the car owners aren’t going to give up their spaces.”
“Come again?” Mercer asked, incredulously.
“Well, we let some of the tenants rent out their parking spaces on SpaseNow, that app that helps you find parking?” the super said, “they got no place to move them to, so they’re stuck, I’m afraid.”
“A man has died, contact them again and make it happen.”
The super again attempted to use his phone as Mercer turned to Summer. “You have one of these things,” she said, referring to the autonomous vehicle. “How do we get it out of here?”
“It’s not easy,” Summers said. “Most of the manufacturers make electric cars as safe as possible for the people who ride in them, and it’s nearly impossible to get an AV to open without permission from the driver. And since the driver is, well, dead…”
“...the driver can’t give permission,” Mercer finished.
“That’s right, but that’s not what I was going to say,” said Summers. “The newer cars, when they think the driver is inside, basically turn into cages to keep anyone from breaking in. So because the owner is in it, and the truck thinks you want to break in, it will keep you or anyone from getting to it. Hence, the sentry mode.”
“The super returned a second time. “No can do. They won’t move them.”
“Can you unplug the truck so it won’t take a charge at least?”
“No, it’ll throw off the whole building.”
Mercer’s phone chirped. She recognized the tone and looked intently at the screen. 
“Look, we have to get him out of there. Do you know a locksmith?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Mercer pocketed her phone. “Summers, we’re going. We have a triple homicide in Evergreen. Fresh case.”
“What? We’re just going to let this guy sit there?”
“We were brought in on missing persons,” she said. “We found the missing person. Beyond that, we have nothing to discuss. We’ll call the coroner and explain. Hopefully, he’ll have time to figure out how to get the body out of the truck, but as far as I’m concerned the guy can just stay there.”
Summers was incredulous as he followed his partner out of the garage - not bothering to say goodbye to the super. “Look, at least let me call the manufacturer. They can find…”
“That truck probably will drive that guy back and forth from work for several more days. Maybe even weeks or months. And I don’t care. Autonomous vehicles aren’t a crime. Three murdered people are. Let’s go.”
Summers followed.