Commuter Heaven

Berkeley Bike Station

The Berkeley Bike Station is an idea whose time has come! Located  at 2208 Shattuck Avenue just outside BART, it serves the commuter population in so many fabulous ways. The original station started about 11 years ago inside the downtown Berkeley Bart station and was run by the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition.  The above ground version has been in the works for years, but opened just five months ago.

Alameda Bicycle, working with the community and BART, started their first bike station for the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, and has branched out to include services in Berkeley and the San Francisco Embarcadero station with plans to open a 4th facility at Ashby BART.  You just roll your bike in, sign your name for your ticket, and staff takes your bike and parks it for you, valet style. It just takes a minute, and with a screen that displays BART train departure times, you’re on your way in no time! The valet parking area has spaces for about 160 bikes and the 24 hour paid parking area has about 120 spaces to accommodate people going out of town or returning after 9 PM. We’re talkin’ green, people, as in eco-sensible!

I spoke with Jim Burakoff, manager extraordinaire of the Station, and here is what he had to say:

What are the benefits and services available to users of the bike station?

We park bikes, rent bikes, do repairs, and sell commuter gear – especially lights, locks, and bags.  People who sign up for the self-park area also get access to lockers and a restroom. We’re pretty excited about our rental program.  The bikes are all equipped with lights, locks, bags, and helmets.  So, if you know someone who might be interested in bike commuting, they can try it without spending a few hundred dollars on all of the essentials and get an idea of what it’s like when you’re really prepared.  Too many people commute without the basics, and are left with the impression that it’s a real hassle, when the opposite proves true for most of us.  On top of that, if the person likes the bike they were riding, they can buy it and credit all of their rental costs, and half of those of others who have rented that bike, towards their purchase.

Is there an emerging demographic of users thus far?

Inside the Berkeley Bike Station

We work with pretty much everyone.  Our clients are high school and college students, teachers, homeless people, professionals, tourists, artists, families, and children.  It’d be hard to find a demographic that wasn’t represented during a day at the Bike Station.  It’s one of the things that I love about this place.

How can we inspire others towards embracing a less car-dependent society?

I think that one of our biggest hurdles is people’s perception of using bicycles for practical purposes.  I was a “drive two blocks to the corner store” guy before I started riding; a mile ride sounded like a real ordeal.  Once I started, it was incredible how fast those distances seemed to shrink.  I’m most inspired by people going through that process against much larger odds.  Car free families, people with physical disabilities, people who commute truly great distances to work.  I think that the biggest key to moving in that direction will be the good examples set by those truly awesome cyclists.

I understand there is free parking weekdays from 7 AM to 9 PM. There is a separate, secure, keycard accessed parking area for longer term and late night parking. Now, are there any plans to expand to include weekend hours?

Yes!  We’re still working out exactly what we’ll be able to provide, but we’re hoping to roll out Saturdays when the weather starts looking nicer.

As the manager of the Berkeley station, what’s the best thing about coming to work everyday? What is the biggest challenge?

The best thing about coming to work here is that I get to help other cyclists in a way that I can really identify with.  I sold my car about six years ago and finding safe places to park my bikes has been one of the hardest parts of making that transition.  When I get to work, I basically get to spend all day solving that problem for people.  On top of that, we get to know the people who park with us over time, and see the positive impact that we have directly. The biggest challenge has generally been keeping things moving smoothly when tons of people show up at once, all needing different things.   It can be a tightrope act to make sure that no one has to wait more than a minute or two for their bike, but also get repairs checked in and questions answered.  I think we’ve learned a lot along those lines, and things are moving more smoothly than ever at this point.

What do you think of community bike-sharing programs that exist in several European cities and do you think that will ever be a viable idea for the Bay Area?

I love the idea, and I think we’ll get there.  I know that bike-share for San Francisco is in the works, and I’d love to see that reaching us out in the East Bay.

How can the community become aware of your services?

People can view the web site at for fees and services. Right now, we mostly rely on word of mouth and hosting events.  Going into warmer weather, and our first full summer above-ground, we’re going to put a lot of work into involving ourselves with the community.   It’s going to be great!

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It’s Tuesday morning so that means my weekly commute ride from North Berkeley to Mountain Yoga in the Oakland hills to teach my advanced level yoga class.  It’s roughly a 10 mile ride that takes me about an hour, crossing town southward through the flatlands for the first half, then gradually ascending up Broadway Terrace into Montclair Village. My students marvel at this effort, but I do it for the love of being with them each week and sharing in the joy of the practice.  And to be frank, it’s something I only thought about doing when I still owned a car two years ago, but now seems as regular as brushing my teeth.

The toughest part of the ride is keeping completely alert in the midst of  the morning bustle of people in cars who are late for work, bleary-eyed, cell-phoning and texting while driving, and just plain in a hurry and distracted. I am everyone’s eyes and ears, not just my own.  The first stretch through Berkeley offers Milvia Street’s generous bike lane with the biggest obstacle being Berkeley High’s colorful array of student’s arriving for school in a parade of latest fashions. They move along in boisterous packs,  or arrive by car practicing their skittish driving methods with mom in the passenger seat.  And, whether by foot or by car,  like clockwork cut into the bike lane completely unaware of my presence.   The next segment is a zigzag of bike laned streets towards the upscale Rockridge neighborhood passing young parents escorting their young ones to elementary schools;  commuters rushing to find parking at BART stations;  and standing-room-only, behemoth buses shuttling the masses to their 9-5 jive in downtown Oakland. I’m pleased with the random driver who stops to let me cross a busy street and I wave and smile to acknowledge their awareness and kind gesture.

Part two of the ride begins at Broadway and College, my old art school stomping grounds where I gaze nostalgically towards my past as I wait for the light to change.  When it does, it’s as though someone snapped their fingers and I’m transported into a new realm. As I pick up the bottom of Broadway Terrace and amble upward for several miles, the ambiance shifts as I pass the country club and a stacking of increasingly beautiful homes that evolve towards miniature estates.   Landscapers unpack their trucks; locals walk their pure-breds; a single latina woman disembarks from an otherwise empty bus on her way to take care of children and household duties for the well-to-do; and serious, competitive road cyclists take on another morning challenge in the network of world-class rides up here. A sensory shift occurs; a deer grazing by the side of the road, the scent of skunk, a warmth to the air, as the winding narrow route begins to hug into the edges of verdant oak and redwood forest of the Oakland hills.

Some days, I take the alternate short-cut past the gorgeous grounds of the Theological Seminary and on through to Lake Temescal, a family swim area in the summer and an all-seasons retreat from the urban pulse of Oakland.  The area is verdant and full of bird life and challenges me with a series of uphill stretches of paved biking trails that spits out onto the upper reaches of Broadway Terrace.

As I gradually approach Montclair Village, very much like a European village of intimate shops and eateries, I hear the banter and laughter of the seniors enjoying coffee outside Peet’s, a regular klatsch that today includes a couple of guys plucking a mandolin and a guitar. I steer my way onto the sidewalk to lock up my bike and unpack: from cyclist to yoga teacher – my cotton chamois, fresh clothes, music, a journal of yoga inspirations, grooming tools, and, the most important item in my pack: an attitude of service to others.

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Laundry day.  Seriously a chore-day with neither a washer/dryer at home nor a car. Tommy loads it all up with only a few groans but dons a proud little grin as he readies himself for the ride 3 blocks to the laundromat. I think that grin means he feels redeemed, gratified, resourceful. His wink goodbye reveals his little secret reward that awaits at Cheeseboard Pizza up the way. Certainly a  well-deserved side trip for the boy!

Does it sometimes feel a bit like college days? Yeah. Does it sometimes seem ridiculous or fringe compared to the masses? Maybe just a hair. Does it ever feel like too much to handle, “Nah, it’s no big deal”, he says in his usual sans-souci way of doing things. Not just cleaning  clothes, this thing, but refreshing the soul with a rinse of self-sufficiency, a churning of redemption, a spin cycle of resourcefulness. Throw it all together and dry out any edges of a dampened spirit, pack it back up into a neat stack of sturdy accomplishment. And I must say, it makes me so proud to have a partner who goes along with this effort to live a life of lesser impact, whether it was inspired out of necessity or commitment doesn’t matter. It just feels good. And today, it feels fresh and clean, renewed; washed and dried with love.

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In 1990,  I  lived in Osaka, JAPAN for a year, teaching English and learning about a culture quite different from my own. One of the biggest challenges for me was not about difference, but about “sameness” in a very particular sense. I once got off at the wrong subway station and actually walked for 3 blocks before realizing I wasn’t in my neighborhood. Every neighborhood looked like the next, with the same-looking coffee shops, plastic shoe vendors, and fried food stands.

In the Spring, one of my roommates won a bicycle at a raffle when he walked into the local “Family Mart-o” to buy beer.  They feted him like royalty as he rode off into the sunset, throwing confetti and snapping pictures. Mark, a dirt-man from Canada, had brought his own mountain bike to Japan when he came, so he loaned me his winnings for the rest of my time there. This was a real gift that relieved me of daily local subway and bus travel around the city and taught me a new way of interacting with the city and its constant crush of denizens. The bike was the standard-issue: a one-speed, black bike with a mesh basket on the handlebars – completely indistinguishable from the next,  the same bike everyone in Japan, and likely all of Asia, rides.

I learned quickly that everyone rides on the sidewalks, not the streets, and slowly began to finesse my skills at negotiating large gaggles of knee-socked schoolgirls, legions of “office-ladies”, knots of business associates, and colorful throngs of Geishas. Though the bike was equipped with a sturdy bell, what worked best was applying the brakes with just the right amount of pressure so as to utter the familiar loud screech, what seemed to be part of this bikes design, to announce my presence. A presence which often was met with loud gasps as people turned to witness a rare sight: a gaijin (foreigner) woman riding a bike like a local!

One morning on my way to a meeting in the farthest end of the city from where I lived, I parked the bike in front of a coffee shop by the subway station near my school. Japanese bike commuters didn’t use cables and U-locks and lock their bikes to heavy metal posts like we do in the States, but you simply turned a lock near the front wheel, deposited the key in your pocket, and went on your way. In such an honorable society as Japan, one would never even ponder lifting a bike and carrying it off. Steal it? It doesn’t belong to you. Well, either that or these bikes are such dime-a-dozen items, who wants it really.

When I returned that evening to the spot where I left my bike, however, it was gone! How can this be! What will I tell Mark! Did I have that “honorable society” bit all wrong? As I stood there stewing with what must have been a telling look on my face, the proprietor of the coffee shop came outside and started talking excitedly. My comprehension of Japanese at that time was marginal but the use of hand gestures gave ample succor to an otherwise hopeless scenario. Apparently, one does not leave one’s bike in front of a place of business and block visibility or access to potential customers. One leaves one’s bike in the bicycle parking lot to which he pointed down the block.  From my vantage point, I gaped over at the large bike lot with hundreds of bikes that looked just like mine, with tremendous doubt and dismay. Proud of himself that he had gotten his message across, that he had “done me the favor” of moving it to its proper place, he smiled broadly and patted me hard several times on the shoulder and ushered me off.

With trepidation, I made my way to the lot. I walked over to one cluster of bikes, and just stood there, dumbfounded. But then, somewhere out of the grand universe, I remembered something. Something the same, but different. A 7 digit serial number that all bikes had imprinted on them would be my life raft back to harbor, if only I could remember it. I began to squeeze the bike key in my pocket in anticipation of “saving face” with Mark, an important cultural ideal in Japan, I’d learned. I squinted sharply at my mind’s eye in search of the magic numbers; hadn’t I subconsciously looked at them every time I got on that bike? And to my surprise, my brain, acting like a computer, HAD mysteriously recorded and imprinted these numbers into my cerebral database, pulled them out of the ether, and presented them to me right then and there. As I weaved through the lot scanning 10, 20, 30 bikes around me, a miracle occurred. I found it! I actually found it! I pulled the key out of my pocket, damp with sweat by now, inserted it into the lock, and heard the most euphonious sound ever. Click. Yes, that’s it, just click. And out of the sea of sameness, I found my “different” and rode joyously home announcing my arrival at the door, “Tadaima! I’m home!”

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see: VIEW

In Webster’s New World Dictionary, there are 9 definitions for the word VIEW.  There is view as a critical examination, a picture, a landscape. But the one that resonates today, is this one: “that which is worked towards or sought.”

Today,  it’s 78 degrees in November in California. And after last week’s first-of-the-season rainy days after a long dry spell, that means one thing to a mountain biker – “perfect traction”.  And perfect traction is just what ya need on Tilden Park’s Seaview Trail in Berkeley. It starts out with a gentle climb but soon enough you are challenged with a rocky uphill with only a couple of  leveled out segments. Just when you are starting to get your first gorgeous views of the Bay to the west, and the San Pablo Reservoir to the northeast, you are faced with the unavoidable and grueling climb to glory. The view around you is about to become a blur as you slog, one revolution at a time, to the top.

No one said it would be easy, but today, perfect traction gives the illusion that it might just be easier. One must bear down and  negotiate well around technical, rocky upward bends and angles.  The trail underneath you is on fire but a bluish breeze above cheers you on.  Will we have a view of the sea, as the trail head name suggests, or is there some sort of hidden meaning here? All you can really focus on is your breath and your goal to make it to the top. Once there, ah yes, you are rewarded with magnificent 360 views of Mt. Diablo and San Francisco, the Bay, and various surrounding ranges. It’s not a Sea View, really, but it does remind you of why you live here and this one true meaning:  what is truly worth working towards and being sought!

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I am always surprised by the number of people I see cycling without a helmet. When I was a kid, a teenager,and even into my early twenties, I confess I biked all over the place sans-helmet. When did I even become aware that I could/should wear a helmet, I really can’t say.  But, once I did, I never took to the road or the trail without one. Wearing a helmet saved my life a couple of years ago, in fact.

And let’s face it, most drivers just don’t see bikes and the humans attached to them. Most drivers never ride a bike so they can’t even relate to the physical reality of it in any way, shape, or form. You’re on your own to make yourself seen, heard, and protected from all manner of obstacles. Beyond the moving vehicle, there are car doors suddenly opened to contend with, potholes and debris to avoid, tire blow-outs, oil spots, and slick streets on a rainy day. Make no mistake, a curb, the pavement, a parking pole is harder than your head. You can be out on a quick errand and think, “Oh, I’m not going very far, I’m cool.”

Or, like my husband will say – “My bike helmet makes my hair flat and my helmet stinks of sweat. I can’t show up for work like that.” To which I respond, “Would you rather have flat hair or a flat head? And I can tell ya what would really stink, is you having an accident without a helmet on!” Well, it finally sank in last week. On his way to work, just a 5 minute ride on one of Berkeley’s better bike-laned corridors, an early morning rain left the road just slippery enough for him to spin out. He went flying over the curb, then over his handlebars and BOOM, he broke the fall with his head, not merely grazing a parking pole. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. “At the signpost up ahead, next stop…the Emergency Room.” Which IS the Twilight Zone, believe me! He was fine, albeit sore and left with a big bump on the head, but it could have been so much worse.

Do you really need that wake-up call? Really, just one last thing, all you “wanna feel the breeze through my hair” bike riders out there: It’s a “no-brainer” to wear a helmet, and one that fits properly, at ALL TIMES. Don’t become a no-brainer because you didn’t wear one!

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I’m certainly not alone in my endeavor to attempt everything by bike in this town, Berkeley, but it took me awhile to come around to grocery shopping by bike. After we ditched our car, I got into a rhythm with local vendors, specialty shopping a little at a time like the Europeans, which I’ve always loved. But every now and then, ya just wanna get it all done in one outing and belly up to the stove and get down to the creative part. After several grocery excursions by bus with my backpack full and two large shopping bags in tow, I tired quickly of the waiting around for late buses and the maneuvering of said baggage while searching for a seat and wondering why the driver just can’t wait 30 seconds for me to sit down before he jerks back out into the main drag  (enjoy my oranges, Mr. back-of the-bus-rapper-dude). So, I ventured into Performance Bike on San Pablo Avenue, finally, and snagged up an incredible deal. Two awesome grocery style panniers for the price of one and now I’m stylin’! My first trip out was challenging. I overbought and my panniers were so heavy I could barely get on my bike! It took me a few trips out to determine my maximum weight for decent mobility, tricks for getting on and off the bike safely, and ways to pack for proper balancing. Now, I’m anywhere with those panniers and lovin’ the self-sufficiency of it all! 

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