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'