Last month I wrote an article describing various internal hub transmissions as alternatives to the derailleur-gear system found on most bikes in the U.S. I was especially intrigued by the updated NuVinci hub, which uses a clever mechanism consisting of rotating balls in a fluid bath. A friend directed me to this blog post, which (along with the comments that followed) only increased my interest in the possibilities of a Nuvinci-based cargo bike.
A few days ago, I received the October 2010 issue of A to B magazine. If you aren’t familiar with that publication, it is a British magazine that reviews various bikes, often with a heavy emphasis on folding and electric models. I’ve learned a lot from reading it, and I love the attention and detail they put into testing and describing each bike. However, because it is so focused on Britain and Europe, I often have to translate into my American experience almost as if it were written in a foreign language.
In any case, the latest issue includes a review of the Raleigh 360 electric bike. Although it isn’t a cargo bike, my interest was piqued because it uses a crank-mounted motor (and integrated battery) driving a NuVinci 360 hub. That sounded like a really interesting combination to me.
The review does a good job of describing the technical details of the hub and how it works. Their critique of its performance was mostly positive, and I would highly recommend reading it if you are considering the NuVinci hub (I believe an electronic copy of the magazine can be purchased for a few dollars; a year subscription costs 11 pounds). But there were also a few caveats that gave me something to think about when considering the hills I must contend with:
We mentioned above that the shift quality gets heavier as pedal pressure increases. Add the stonking torque of an electric motor and the shift more or less seizes up. There are two ways round this: you can either relax your effort, which frees the shifter but rather negates the advantage of using CVT [continuously variable transmission], or you can twist the shifter with a gentle steady pressure. This allows the NuVinci to change gear at its own pace – you soon get to grips with the technique. The high top gear results in a time of 31 minutes on our ten-mile commuter ride, at an average of 18.9mph (yes, we know it’s not exactly ten miles). This is rarified territory for an electric bike, and the Cytronex is the only legal bike that outpaces it. Compared to similar crank drives, this bike is broadly one to six minutes faster over this sort of range, which doesn’t sound much, but it’s noticeably quicker. That’s not to say it’s more efficient though. The Raleigh 360’s high top gear, and gloopy happenings in the hub, result in power consumption of 14Wh/mile, which is unusually high for a normally efficient bike like this. If you like to commute in fast, furious style, power consumption might not be your top priority, but a clear picture is beginning to emerge: the NuVinci is smooth, fast and tolerably efficient on the flat, but a real pudding on hills.
There is a lot more detail in the 5-page article than I have included here. I’ve begun to see that there are two sides to the NuVinci story, and your local geography might be the determining factor whether it’s good technology for you.
About five months ago, I wrote an article called Dawn of the (U.S.) cargo bike revolution. At the time, the title seemed like a pretty big leap. I was extrapolating a new market and mode of transportation based on two barely-available cargo bikes with electric motor options.
If I was worried I was out on a limb last May, in retrospect I was just uncovering the tip of the iceberg. In the past few weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by numerous electric cargo bike designs. I wish I could cover all of them in as much detail as my recent review of the Urban Arrow, but it takes a lot of time and energy to write reviews like that, and this is not a full-time job for me. 🙂
Onya Cycles is a San Francisco-based company with three different electric cargo bikes in the works. They are the brainchildren of inventor Saul Griffith, who won the MacArthur “Genius” award for a variety of projects he has initiated. Saul owned several cargo bikes and wanted to try his hand at correcting deficiencies he saw in each. His innovations range from the somewhat incremental to the fairly radical – definitely worth a mention here.
Onya’s bikes could fit under my “third generation” criteria (bikes designed with electric assistance as a central feature), but in contrast to the Urban Arrow, they will be available without the motor for people with flatter commutes or Lance Armstrong legs. The current BMC motor/battery option is the same for all three bikes and adds around $1300 to the price of each. The motor is rated at 600W (2000W peak) – these people have to face some of the steepest urban hills in the country, and they are serious about them! The battery provides 10 amp-hours at 48V – enough to provide assistance for about 20 miles. Onya bikes ride on 20″ wheels to increase torque and lower the center of gravity. They also have 160mm disc brakes on every wheel (did I mention these guys think about hills?)
Onya’s “Mule” cycle won’t surprise regular readers of my blog. Like most of the bikes I’ve reviewed during the past year, it’s a longtail. However, it is the first assisted longtail available prebuilt from a manufacturer that adheres to the Xtracycle standard, which opens the door for Xtracycle-compatible accessories (rather than locking into accessories provided by the bike’s manufacturer). There are arguments on both sides whether Xtracycle standardization is a good thing, but it makes a lot of sense for a smaller company like Onya to leverage the standard. The target price of around $3000 (powered) is high compared to the competition, but if you’ve got hills, the heavy-duty brakes and motor might justify the premium price.
The “E.T.” cargo bike is an interesting new shape (at least, new for the U.S.) for transporting lighter loads (less than 50 pounds) with a more compact bike. With a normal-length wheel base, this might fit on standard bike racks if the front bucket doesn’t get in the way. Target release for both the Mule and the E.T. is early in 2012.
I saved the most interesting for last. The “Front End Loader” is the first serious electric tricycle that I know of. Besides the hill-hungry motor and three disc brakes, the suspension is very interesting. It allows you to lean the bike during turns, reducing the risk of lifting a wheel (or worse). The company is quite proud of the custom computer code they had to write to model and optimize the tilting mechanism. You can meet the inventor and watch the bike climbing hills and tilting through turns in this video:
The Front End Loader is closer to release than the other two bikes. Onya has already sold 10 beta test Loaders for $4200 each. They realize that price is high, and hope to reduce it as they increase production volume.
The videos show the bike climbing significant hills with little or no pedaling. I watched that with a mixture of excitement, dread, and even a bit of skepticism. I’m excited because this was almost exactly my wish when I daydreamed about a perfect bike for my friends and neighbors last May. I asserted that people of all ages and abilities needed to be able to ride up a hill at a decent pace in order to make cargo bikes practical for a broad audience. Maybe that day is close at hand. A tricycle addresses concerns about balance at low speeds. However, I’m concerned that first-time bikers may hop on bikes with this kind of power and exceed their skill levels. A few unfortunate accidents could give the nascent market a black eye, and it might even produce legislation that could curtail the use of these bikes. I’ll have more to say on that later.
Finally, I’m a little skeptical because riding a bike up a hill at the claimed speed requires enormous amounts of power. I have questions about the battery’s ability to sustain that, and the motor’s ability to handle the heat that is generated. I’m hoping these are issues that a MacArthur genius can solve.
Regardless of how these bikes turn out, Onya Cycles is interesting in another respect. Like Urban Arrow, this is a company whose sole products are cargo bikes (and primarily electric). These companies represent a bold bet that the electric cargo biking market is here to stay. Unlike Trek and Kona, they don’t have traditional bikes to fall back on if interest in cargo biking stumbles.
I am further encouraged that these companies are not making a bunch of “me too” products. At this point, each of the bikes I’ve mentioned in this blog might address a fairly small niche. But taken together, they cover a pretty broad range of riders and uses. We’re not growing a mono-culture crop here. Just as biodiversity indicates a healthy ecosystem, a variety of cargo biking designs bodes well for the health of this kind of transportation.
Once again, I’m looking at developments I didn’t expect to see so soon. However, I know what cargo biking will look like when it enters the mainstream, and I bet you do, too. We’ll see stores like Wal-mart and Costco selling electric cargo bikes for about half the price of today’s models. They will be made in China, and probably designed there as well. When that day comes, I won’t know whether to cheer or cry…
Advanced Vehicle Design
Speaking of different designs, a German company (formerly British) named Advanced Vehicle Design produces quadricycles for business with a couple of motor choices. Another first: electric-assisted recumbents! While these might be expensive for individuals, they provide an impressive way for businesses to burnish their eco-friendly credentials. And they look cool:
But where can you drive them? I’ve been trying to figure out how they fit into the vehicle code of my state. There are regulations pertaining to medium-speed electric vehicles (speed limited to 45 mph), and there are rules for electric bicycles. But I’m left scratching my head: where could I legally drive a quadricycle? In the bike lane? Probably won’t fit. On the road with car traffic? That would be an annoying obstacle for drivers on some of our faster roads, even with electric assistance. Perhaps these vehicles are really only useful in big cities, although there are plenty of opportunities there.
After our year of living in Copenhagen, it’s easy to see how far the physical infrastructure in most American cities needs to evolve to support lower-speed and lower-energy transportation choices. The legal infrastructure pertaining to electric bikes also needs to evolve – that became increasingly clear as I perused the Washington State Vehicle Code. Different statutes from state to state and country to country impede progress. On the other hand, I fear that regulations developed in the absence of a real understanding of these vehicles will go overboard and unreasonably restrict them.
For example, I have a friend who does a good job of tracking biking trails on his blog and trail network website. He alerted me to a recent ruling that restricts use of electric bikes on a trail near Aspen, Colorado. The bewildering varieties and capabilities of different bikes and motors stumped officials until they made it easy: no electric assistance allowed, period. Although that regulation may be revisited, similar motions will be considered in many town councils and state legislatures. To maintain our freedom of mobility, we need to play a part in these discussions.
The situation that concerns me most is transport of children. That is a uniquely emotional issue that biking critics will use to restrict cargo bikes on the grounds of safety. If I weren’t allowed to transport my kids by bike, at least half my bike trips would be eliminated, and it would then be difficult to justify the cost of my “car replacement bike.” Cargo bikes will eventually reach a critical mass, and there will be a significant outcry if their use is unreasonably curtailed. But at this point, I feel the industry is vulnerable to restrictions that might appear as reasonable compromises to non-bikers.
To avoid any sort of legal backlash, I believe we need to help the public understand the benefits and the realities of cargo biking. Sometimes advocates of a greener life style get a little too enthusiastic and the public gets over-hyped impressions of cargo bikes. For example, in the following video, a helmetless rider carries two kids (at least they have helmets) on a bike that the motor propels at “up to 30 mph” (well over the federal legal limit). Can you blame people for becoming alarmed when they see that?
Although I may be alone in this, I also think cargo biking will receive long-term benefits if we are careful to follow traffic laws – even the ones that don’t seem to take electric cargo bikes into account (read BikeForth.org’s counterargument here). If we flaunt the laws we don’t like and annoy 99.9% of the people with whom we share the road, we will have few friends to defend us when laws begin to restrict what/where/how we ride. I realize this advice goes against a cargo biker’s natural inclinations towards non-conformity, but if I can help my community embrace a slower-speed, greener, more sociable lifestyle, living within the rules is a small price to pay.
I worked in the computer industry for three decades, so I am accustomed to the furious pace of innovation associated with that enterprise. Even so, I have been surprised by the pace of development of electric bikes in general. While competition in the electric cargo bike category has been a little less fierce, it’s amazing that we’ve witnessed three generations of development in a little over a year.
The first generation of electric cargo bikes were do-it-yourself jobs. Customers had to pick a bike and a motor, put them together, and hope the marriage would be a good one. That’s what I did with my Rans Hammer Truck and BionX motor, and as you probably know, I’m pleased with the result. But there are quirks and compromises that I have to warn people about when they take my bike for a test drive. There are issues (like a non-existant gear) that wouldn’t be tolerable on a bike that was manufactured with an integrated motor.
I’ve written extensively about the second generation of electric cargo bikes. These are cargo bikes that come with an optional motor from the manufacturer, like the Kona Electric Ute, Yuba elMundo, and Trek Transport+. Each of these bikes is available in assisted or non-assisted versions. The motorized versions reduce the guesswork and installation labor compared to the preceding generation.
I’ve frequently mused what a third-generation electric cargo bike would look like. What if a manufacturer, instead of adding a motor to a non-assisted bike, decided to start from scratch and design a bike that integrated electric assistance so fundamentally that it defined the essence of the bike?
Several days ago, I got my first answer to this question from a Dutch company named Urban Arrow.
Let me just say it: I’m very excited about this bike. Just in case my exuberance gets ahead of my experience, I’d like to be clear why I’m excited about it. It’s not just about what the bike is, but what it represents: a preview of where I expected electric cargo bikes to be in another couple of years. If the company manages to sell this bike next year at their current price target, the market is maturing faster than I imagined. Either that or they are a little ahead of where the market opportunity is today. It will be fascinating to find out.
I will caveat my remarks by acknowledging that I’ve never ridden this bike or seen it in person. Since Seattle is pretty far from Amsterdam, I don’t know when I’ll have that pleasure. However, the Urban Arrow won an Innovation Award last month at the Eurobike Show in Friedrichshafen, Germany. So at least I’m not alone in my appreciation.
Without further ado, here it is:
Yes, it’s a front loader – the first with integrated electric assistance that I’m aware of. As I’ve said before, front loaders are common in Europe, but they look pretty strange to North Americans who may have never seen one in person. Despite the unusual configuration, a front loader is really what you want if you’re transporting young children. With a lower center of gravity, their wiggles won’t disturb the equilibrium of the bike as much. In a worst-case scenario, they won’t have as far to fall. It’s also comforting to have them strapped in a sturdy box and under their parents’ watchful eye. Furthermore, when the weather turns wet, you can do this:
I can’t imagine a kid who wouldn’t be thrilled to ride in that cozy compartment. There really isn’t a comparable way to shelter your kids on a longtail bike. The cargo box features a bench seat (which hides the removable battery), 2.5″-thick high density foam for comfort and safety, a grocery net, and even cup holders! The box can be removed to convert into a flat-bed cargo bike, although I’m not sure how simple that is to do.
Most front loader bikes are heavy – between 70 and 100 pounds, and that’s without a motor or battery. The Urban Arrow uses an aluminum frame to keep the weight under 100 pounds including the motor and battery. That’s not exactly light compared to the longtails I’ve reviewed, but it’s prepared to handle some serious cargo. The company claims it can carry up to 400 pounds in addition to the rider. As usual, I wouldn’t want to test those limits, especially coming downhill.
Although the company doesn’t refer to the angled seat stem and forward pedals as a “crankforward” design, it’s closer to the posture of my Hammer Truck than the other bikes I’ve reviewed. I’ve described the advantages of this design in previous articles, but perhaps the main advantage is reduced step-down height. You can get your foot on the ground while seated without tipping the bike and your cargo too far.
Motor and transmission
The Urban Arrow is assisted by a 250-watt motor manufactured by the German company Daum. In previous articles, I’ve faulted the Electric Ute for using a 250W motor, which I felt was inadequate for carrying cargo uphill. But even though the power rating is the same, there’s a critical difference between these bikes: the Ute has a hub motor, which typically produces less torque at lower hill-climbing speeds. The Arrow’s motor is connected to the crank, and it drives the wheel through the transmission – just like your legs. If the motor is beginning to fade at low speed, you can simply shift to a lower gear to increase cranking speed and get closer to the motor’s optimum torque range.
This idea isn’t new. Cargo bikers have been using Stoke Monkey motors to drive their cranks for years. But the Stoke Monkey requires an extra chain to drive the crank, and another extra-long chain to drive the rear wheel of a longtail bike. If you’re the type that likes to lubricate and adjust chains in your spare time, a Stoke Monkey might work for you, but it’s not a solution that is likely to appeal to the mass market.
The Urban Arrow’s design avoids another pitfall of the Stoke Monkey: shifting under power. If you’ve opened up the throttle on your Stoke Monkey and then try to shift, you have at least 2 times the strength of your legs ready to grind through your derailleur and gears. The Arrow uses a Shimano Nexus 8 transmission to dispense with the gears and derailleur. Besides easier and more reliable shifting, the Shimano hub allows you to shift even when you are stopped or under load. That makes shifting one less thing to worry about.
Eight gears seems adequate with motor assistance. I have 21 gears on my bike, but I only use the top 3 or 4 of them when the motor is helping. However, if you want to carry cargo over hills beyond the bike’s battery range, eight gears might not be enough. The company claims an assisted range of over 30 miles, but I suspect those are relatively flat miles in Holland, not Seattle hills. Battery capacity is 36V at 9.5 amp-hours.
Like almost all the electric cargo bikes I’ve reviewed in previous blog posts (with the exception of the Yuba elMundo), motor effort is controlled through a torque sensor which measures how hard you are pressing on the pedals, and then kicks in a proportional amount of assistance. I prefer this method to a manual throttle. Twisting both a throttle and a gear shifter is more than I care to think about when I’m negotiating traffic and road hazards.
To comply with European law, the motor is only allowed to assist up to 15 mph. In my opinion, that is a bit conservative, but probably wise. Especially when people are carrying kids, we shouldn’t encourage them to exceed that speed.
The drive chain of the Urban Arrow is nicely enclosed to keep it away from clothing and small fingers. It’s a great feature enabled by the internal hub transmission. I would still like to ride a chain-less bike someday, but this is a nice step in the right direction.
Assistance level and a wealth of other information is displayed on the large Daum control panel. Apparently, it will even measure your heart rate if you’re riding for fitness. A premium version includes GPS (for a premium price). That could be useful for rental bikes, letting the rider know where they are, and helping the rental company to keep track of their bikes. If a bike is stolen, the GPS unit can tell you where it is via SMS messages.
When I saw the first photos of the Urban Arrow, I was excited to see disc brakes on the front and rear wheels. A company representative soon corrected my false impression: the disc-like features on the axles are actually cooling fins for Shimano roller brakes. The company deliberately chose roller brakes rather than disc brakes to reduce the possibility of skidding. Having experienced the dangers of skidding with a heavy load, that sounds good to me. On the other hand, will these brakes handle the long, steep incline that heats my disc rotors to the point of scorching? I don’t think Holland has hills like that, so the performance of these brakes on steeper terrain is still a concern for me.
When you look closely at the front wheel, you see something next to the roller brake fin. At first I thought it was a hub motor: it’s nearly the same size as the Ute’s motor. But it’s actually a hub dynamo. It produces electricity as it spins. At first that seemed odd to me – you’re spending electricity on the back wheel to produce electricity on the front wheel. Fortunately, my contact at the company cleared up the mystery. They need the hub dynamo to determine how fast the bike is going so they can keep electric assistance within legal limits.
Excess electricity from the dynamo will be used to power the Arrow’s front and rear running lights. For increased safety, I’d be willing to accept a little drag on the front wheel even during daylight hours. I’m not sure what happens at night before you achieve sufficient speed to fully power the lights. I would be tempted to put Down Low Glow light tubes on either side of the cargo box to enhance visibility from the side in the evening.
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The video below shows the Urban Arrow carrying kids. It’s in Dutch with English subtitles.
The next video is a review of the bike by a Dutch technology reporter. Unfortunately, it’s all in Dutch with no translation. I included it here because it contains two interesting clips. In the first, the rider performs a U-turn with the bike. That’s one drawback of the front-loader design; the rod that turns the front wheel prevents sharp turns, so a short-radius U-turn requires some back-and-forth. The second clip compares hill climbing with and without motor assistance (he thinks that is a hill?!? :-)) I couldn’t hear any difference between the two, raising my hopes that the motor is as quiet as the company claims.
Price and availability
The company is aiming to start selling the bike in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2011 for around $3700. That’s at least $1000 more than the motorized longtails I’ve been reviewing, so that alone might narrow the market for this bike. On the other hand, it’s in the ballpark of similar front-loaders without a motor (like this Bullitt from Splendid Cycles). If you’re looking for a kid carrier, the Urban Arrow would be a good deal at that price. The rain cover will add about $250.
Price is just one factor that will determine the success of the Urban Arrow in the U.S. I’ve already wondered how this bike will perform on steeper hills, but there are plenty of places in the U.S. where the landscape is more forgiving.
I think the bigger question will be dealer support. If I were going to invest thousands of dollars in a bike like this, I would want a reliable and knowledgeable bike shop nearby who could maintain and repair the bike, when necessary. I’m guessing that few bike shops in this country would be familiar with Daum motors, and although Shimano is a well-known name, experience with roller brakes may also be sparse.
I’m hoping that some American bike shops will start selling the Urban Arrow and specializing in its upkeep. A really savvy shop could alleviate customer concerns by offering free pickup of a disabled bike. Even if the bike is your “second car”, getting its 8-foot length into or onto your first car could be a challenge. By way of comparison, loading my 7-foot Hammer Truck into our mini-van is pretty tight, even with the back seats removed.
It’s ironic that a bike I’ve never seen has inspired me to write a longer review than one I’ve actually seen and ridden (like the Electric Ute). I’ve never felt comfortable writing about a bike that I’ve only met in cyberspace, but I’ve done it before when I felt it gave a better idea of the range of options and where the market is headed. That reasoning justifies this article because the Urban Arrow breaks new ground in several ways. It’s a harbinger of a new generation of bikes, and I’m excited about that possibility. I hope other third-generation bikes are around the corner rather than years away. If I get a clue, I’ll be happy to let you know.
The Urban Arrow is enough of a leap forward, I can’t stop myself from wondering what a fourth-generation bike would be like. In my opinion, the next major advance will be some sort of automatic transmission. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, truly practical human-assisted transport will isolate rider effort from the terrain. Someday, a rider will pedal at a steady, comfortable pace, regardless of whether they are going uphill or down, and biking infrastructure in our cities will become more accomodating as riders of all ages and fitness levels discover they can participate in this revolution.
If nothing else, the Urban Arrow gives me hope that this vision is still achievable and on track.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of my cargo bike and my blog. What an interesting year it has been! I realize I’ve already made that point in several recent blog posts, so I won’t repeat myself here. But I will take just a moment to marvel at the timing of this: shortly after I returned to Seattle following a year of positive biking experiences in Copenhagen, and after deciding the only way to approximate that lifestyle here is with a little electric assistance, multiple manufacturers decided to offer motors on their cargo bikes. The timing couldn’t have been better to enable me to contribute something to this movement.
The title of today’s post (“Looking back, cranking forward”) reflects my desire to reflect on this past year. But it also describes the maneuver I perform on my bike when I want to change lanes or direction, and that’s a pretty good metaphor for my intentions regarding this blogging project. When I started, my main goal was to demonstrate the possibilities of this type of transportation. As more bikes came on the market, I started comparing their features. Then I wrote a few cautionary articles about potential pitfalls and limitations, trying to balance the inevitable marketing hype with a small dose of reality.
Now I’m approaching a decision point. With bigger companies starting to pay attention to cargo bikes, the efforts of a part-time cargo biker may not matter so much. People with bigger megaphones and larger marketing budgets will shape perceptions of cargo biking. Professional staff employed by biking magazines will begin to review these bikes, and I can shift my focus to other things.
At least, this is my hope. If we aren’t on the verge of this scenario, cargo biking may remain a small niche of enthusiasts. I’ve enumerated some of the reasons this could happen: lack of infrastructure, safety concerns, practical issues with weather/clothing/hair, or maybe just the larger size and higher price of these bikes. Even the price of gas figures into the general popularity of biking. The crystal ball is still cloudy.
Nonetheless, there are some interesting developments. For example, check out this marketing video from Trek. It presents biking in a light that might not be familiar to modern Americans. An attractive young woman enjoys doing her errands (buying vegetables and gardening tools from her neighborhood co-op) on her cargo bike at a relaxed pace in a nice suburban setting.
If you don’t find anything unusual about that marketing approach, compare it with this video that presents biking from the more common fanatic/competitive/fitness-oriented perspective:
(Did you watch that? The soundtrack, visuals, and punch line are pretty good! :-)) Granted, this video is promoting a bicycle race, but that’s my point. Many Americans think of Lance Armstrong and Tour de France when they think of biking, not going to pick up their groceries. We’re gradually changing that perception, but it hasn’t happened overnight, and it probably won’t.
Hammer Truck reviews
I’ve been waiting to see more detailed reviews of electric cargo bikes by professional magazines or web sites. Until they materialize, I’ve tried to fill the void with my own mini-reviews, but I can’t afford to buy bikes just to try them, and no manufacturer has offered to loan me one to demo. I can’t say I’m surprised – if they wanted to loan a bike out for review, they would probably choose a professional reviewer with known technical and writing chops.
Although I’m still waiting for those electric cargo bike reviews, I was pleased to see the first detailed review of the Rans Hammer Truck (but no motor added) a few weeks ago on the BikeCommuters.com web site. It’s nice to see a cargo bike critiqued by someone who is knowledgeable about cargo bikes and bicycle components.
While I’m on the topic of the Hammer Truck, I found this article about how to haul heavy loads with it (by Rans founder Randy Schlitter). I thought it was noteworthy that he mentions the dangers of transporting heavy loads downhill – on a bike equipped with both front and rear disc brakes! Most manufacturers are content to provide a single disc brake. Randy mentions other possible points of failure with a degree of candor that I heartily applaud. I recommend reading the article even if you aren’t considering a Hammer Truck as a potential ride.
Cargo bike economy review
Midway through the year, I projected that I would ride my cargo bike approximately 1,000 miles by its first birthday. The actual number appears to be somewhat less: a bit shy of 700 miles. Two things happened that cut my daily mileage: summer (we traveled a lot and I used the mini-van to transport kids to various activities) and a new exercise schedule (my wife and I drive to the local YMCA at 5:00 in the morning instead of me biking over by myself).
However, even though we’re driving the mini-van more than I would like, we cut our annual gasoline bill in half compared to the year before we went to Denmark. That’s partly because we have one less car now and my wife commutes to work by bike and bus. On the other hand, this year we needed to drive our daughter to many far-flung locations for gymnastics practice and competitions. Although the cargo bike isn’t the only factor reducing our gas usage, it is an important part of the program.
Although I may have hinted about our goals in previous blog posts, I don’t see any harm in being explicit about it. During this past year, my family has taken numerous steps to reduce our energy consumption and carbon emissions. We simply think it is wise to live in better balance with our planet and the creatures which need it. A less impactful lifestyle will benefit our country, our environment, and our children.
Last May we installed solar panels on our roof. During the sunny summer months they have produced more than 3 megawatt-hours of electricity – twice what we normally use during that period (the extra electrons flowed into the grid and were shared with our neighbors). But now the sun is going south, the days are getting shorter, and the clouds are returning. Our electricity production will fall below our needs this month for sure.
Federal and local tax incentives make our solar project financially feasible at our northern latitude, but just barely. Even with production credits, it will take us approximately 15 years to recover the investment, unless electricity rates climb significantly during the coming decade. So we’re not doing it just for the money. In these few months, the solar panels have saved the equivalent of nearly 3 tons of carbon dioxide. That feels nice, but most of our electricity comes from hydro-electric and wind power, so the savings may be more theoretical than actual. In any case, we wanted to support these nascent solar technologies so that the companies can survive and improve until solar power is a no-brainer for people around the country.
The next step in our program is to eliminate mini-van usage completely for daily errands. We’re planning to lease a Nissan Leaf all-electric car for about $350/month. Since we spend about $200/month on gas, the real cost of the lease will be about $175-$200/month, but then there’s car insurance and maintenance costs. No matter how we rationalize it, cars are expensive to operate. In comparison, the total bill for maintenance, improvements, and electricity to power my bike was less than $200 for the entire year.
Back to the main topic of this blog. As I review the articles that I’ve posted this year, I’m pleasantly surprised with the quantity of information I’ve been able to convey. Hopefully the quality of my posts was commensurate with that effort. Although I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t think the project will be complete until I get to ride the Transport+ bike from Trek, which I’m hoping will debut in my area next month.
After that, I’m not sure. Writing a quality blog is interesting, somewhat addictive, and time-consuming. I’m open to suggestions, if you think there are topics that aren’t being covered elsewhere.
A few days ago, I was carrying a load of groceries home on my cargo bike. Ahead of me, a serious lycra-clad cyclist was cranking a nice-looking bike up the steady incline. Normally, I try to avoid passing hard-working cyclists on hills out of respect for their efforts. But on this occasion, the gap between us was shrinking quickly with the assistance of my electric motor. Cars were approaching us from behind which would catch up to me at about the same time I caught the cyclist. To avoid a situation which might force me out of the bike lane, I quickened my pace and passed the cyclist at more than twice his speed.
Many biking purists scoff at electric bikes, and I can understand why. If my hard-earned athletic achievements were nullified by someone “cheating” with an electric motor, I wouldn’t be thrilled. On the other hand, the boundaries of “pure” biking aren’t black and white. For example, some dedicated cyclists ride fixed-gear bikes (“fixies”) without extra gears and derailleurs. Extreme purists even remove the freewheel for coasting as well as the brakes (although that’s illegal in some cities).
One could reasonably say that purity ends where non-muscular assistance begins. But that’s where practicality begins as well. The fact is, I wouldn’t have been hauling those groceries up that hill if it hadn’t been for my electric motor. If bicycle-based transportation is going to grow significantly in the U.S., we must broaden the concept of cycling to include motor assistance. We must enable Americans of average fitness to carry stuff uphill on two wheels.
This vision was validated by bike giant Trek when they announced their Transport+ electric cargo bike (see here for further thoughts on that bike). This month, another big company joins the parade: Shimano is introducing its “STEPS” system that includes a 250W front hub motor activated by a torque sensor (like the Kona Electric Ute), an electrically-shifted hub transmission, regenerative braking, and battery-powered front and back lights. Although a 250W motor is, in my opinion, a little skimpy for cargo bikes, more powerful motors and batteries will come. What’s important right now is the products and competition brewing in the electric bike market. I can imagine a day when unpowered bikes will be considered like fixies are today: cool, but for a very special segment of the population.
Will the march of progress stop with the coming generation of electric bikes? Of course not. Will bikes play a bigger role in future transportation, or will they also make way for something like a lightweight, enclosed personal car with no pedaling required? I hope that’s not the outcome, but our individual choices will determine that.
There are many alternatives to haul cargo on bikes – a fact that was demonstrated daily on the streets of Copenhagen during the year we lived there. By far the most popular were Christiania bikes, which were used to haul various daily goods including kids and girlfriends. There were also quite a few bikes with extended front ends, which look a bit awkward but have the advantage of keeping your cargo in view.
With such a variety of hauling solutions, the one cargo bike I never saw in Denmark is the one I’ve focused on in this blog: the longtail bike. One might wonder why I haven’t broadened my scope a little.
The main reason is my readership. Although my blog is read in many countries, roughly 80% of my readers are in the United States and Canada. Since I’m most familiar with the transportation landscape in North America, I can offer suggestions and opinions that are appropriate here. My experiences in Denmark strengthen my conviction that transportation must be tailored to local circumstances.
There are three things that make a Christiania bike a better choice for Denmark than the U.S.: flat geography, advanced biking infrastructure, and higher expectations or education about bikes in general.
As I’ve often said, flat terrain is a huge advantage for Danish bikers. The Christiania bike is heavy and not very aerodynamic. I rode one once and it required some effort to push it through a stiff Danish headwind. I’m not sure I could pedal one up a Seattle hill, even without a load.
The bike infrastructure in Copenhagen enables a diverse ecosystem of bikes. For example, many bike lanes in Copenhagen are wide enough for one Christiania bike to pass another without impinging on car lanes. Contrast that with my own city, where some bike lanes aren’t wide enough to accommodate a single Christiania-sized bike.
Finally, these kinds of bikes are viable because Danes use their bikes differently than Americans do. They tend to ride relatively short distances at a relaxed pace. They are accustomed to seeing all kinds of citizens on bikes, including many senior citizens who are more comfortable on a tricycle than walking. Bikes of many shapes and sizes are optimized for diverse needs. Here’s a video that illustrates what I mean. Check out the guy carrying 4 kids, a kid’s bike, and a whole bunch of other stuff on his bike:
Bike trailers represent another cargo hauling strategy that I rarely saw in Denmark. I’m guessing that’s because the added length, the extra wheels, and the location of the cargo farther behind you make a trailer difficult to maneuver in cozy urban settings. But I’ve been getting occasional emails from readers wondering about towing a trailer with an electric bike, so perhaps it is time to tackle the subject.
Before I start, I should say that I have never used a trailer, and I’m in the precarious position of expressing opinions that aren’t based on actual experience. I’m hoping that my trailer-towing readers (I know there are some of you out there!) will let me know if I say anything stupid.
From a price standpoint, a trailer-based cargo bike has some advantages. If you already own a bike, you can buy a nice trailer for about $500. If you were to add an electric motor and lithium-manganese battery for less than $1000, your outlay would be at least $800 less than the least expensive electric longtail bike I’ve described in previous blog posts. So how do they compare on features?
The trailer gets points for flexibility. When you’re not carrying cargo, you can enjoy a nice electric bike that’s a little more nimble than a longtail. It will fit on the rack of a suitably-equipped bus – not something most longtails can do.
The trailer can also carry heavier or awkward loads due to its longer cargo deck and lower center of gravity. For example, here’s a story of a guy moving a refrigerator using a bike trailer. That’s not going to happen on a longtail!
However, if you’re thinking of using your cargo bike for more common daily chores (carrying kids and/or groceries, for example), a trailer will be overkill. It’s not going to be as easy to pack or to ride.
Everything I’ve said so far might be obvious, so the real question is how the electric motor is going to perform with a bike trailer. Since it’s going to provide a significant boost to your leg power, the motor will
Decrease your effort
Increase your speed
Increase the amount of weight you can haul
Increase the slope of hills you can climb
The last 3 items on that list arouse some safety concerns. Since the wheels of the bike trailer don’t have brakes, the momentum of your cargo will add stress to your bike’s brakes without adding weight to your wheels. This increases the chance of skidding. As I discovered here, a skidding front wheel radically diminishes steering control. That would be a bad situation on a normal bike, but the bike trailer adds another complication. Unless you’re stopping in a perfectly straight line, the trailer will impart a sideways force to your bike during hard braking. I’ve seen enough jack-knifed trucks to be sure I don’t want to see a jack-knifed cargo bike.
What does this have to do with the electric motor? Nothing, except that the extra power and speed provided by the motor will complicate emergency stops. A hard stop at 25 m.p.h. is qualitatively different from the same stop at 15 m.p.h. If my experience is any guide, it’s hard to resist the temptation to open up the throttle when there are no obstacles in sight. Unfortunately, it’s the obstacles you don’t see that lead to emergency braking situations.
My gut feeling (again without practical experience) is that bike trailers excel at transporting big loads at moderate speeds over relatively flat terrain. An electric motor would be helpful to get the load moving without shifting through all your gears. Your safety sense must be your guide in determining how fast you allow that motor to propel you.
I have one other concern. There’s a reason you don’t see a trailer hitch mounted on a Toyota Prius: the car’s drivetrain isn’t designed for it. Likewise, most bike motors weren’t designed to tow heavy trailers. Even if they work for awhile, the extra wear and tear may not be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. Anyway, it’s something you might investigate before pursuing this course.
If you use a bike trailer, and especially if you’re using a motor, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Today I was sitting in my mini-van, waiting in a pretty long line of cars for a left-turn signal to change. As I waited, I was excited to see an electric bicycle pass me. It wasn’t a cargo bike, but sightings of electric bikes are still rare enough to catch my eye. I watched as the cyclist moved to the front of the left turn line, and I was a little surprised. When I ride my bike to that same intersection, I take my place in the line just like any car would.
My surprise quickly turned to dismay. The rider slowed as he approached the intersection, looked both ways, and then made the turn while the light was still red!
I know that cyclists sometimes bend the rules a bit, and I can understand the temptation. Coming to a full stop at an intersection requires a lot of gear shifting and loss of precious momentum. Our leg muscles pay so much more for that momentum than cars do. But electric motors ameliorate that. I often execute a full stop/start without shifting at all, because my motor is powerful enough to get me going again in a high gear.
To paraphrase Spiderman (how long have I waited for this opportunity?) – “With great power comes great responsibility.” I honestly feel this when I’m riding my electric bike. I take extra care to obey traffic laws, because my life and well-being depends on others obeying those laws.
If the driver of a car flaunted the law so flagrantly, I would be tempted to whip out my iPhone and take a photo of his license plate. I don’t know what I would do next, but I feel like there might be some recourse. However, electric bikes exist in this gray area where you can travel almost as fast as a car on residential streets, but you don’t need a license. As a result, there is no recourse for someone who is annoyed with your behavior. They might be tempted to yell at you or crowd you with their car. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for peaceful coexistence on our streets.
Perhaps legal regulations will change as electric bikes become more popular. Not that I want additional barriers to electric bike adoption, but it may be inevitable. In the meantime, I want to demonstrate that electric bikers can be good citizens on our shared roadways, and that we deserve respect and consideration from drivers. As newcomers to streets that have been ruled by automobiles for decades, I think we have to earn it.
I’ve focused rather heavily on cargo bike brakes in recent blog posts (like here), so I thought it would be a good idea to round things out with thoughts on other weak links in my cargo bike hardware. After a year of biking in Copenhagen, and another year here in Seattle, the components that have required extra maintenance or occasionally interrupted my ride are these:
The guy who built my Hammer Truck/BionX cargo bike knew that a flat tire would be challenging – especially if I had to change the rear tire under the cargo bags and with the added complexity of the hub motor. To forestall that scenario, he installed extra heavy-duty tires filled with puncture-healing gel. He wanted my tires to be “bullet-proof.” Although I had several flat tires in Copenhagen, I’ve had no similar difficulty with my cargo bike (knock on wood!) I haven’t even needed to top off inflation of the tires during the past year.
The drive chain was another source of problems in Copenhagen. Occasionally, it would stretch enough to start falling off my crank when I went over big bumps. I took it to a bike shop where a mechanic would re-tension the chain, and everything would be fine for a few more months. On my cargo bike, with a longer chain and heavier loads, I feared chain problems would be more frequent. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case – no chain problems during the past year.
But alas, my gears have not been trouble-free.
The phantom gear and the wedged chain
Last week, my kids returned to school, and my 4th-grader and I resumed our daily journey up the hill to his school. I have this deal with him: if he rides his bike twice during the week, I’ll give him a free ride on my bike on the third day. The other two days he walks.
A couple of days ago my son was riding his bike, and I was riding the cargo bike without motor assistance so that our speed and effort would match. To tackle the steepest part of the hill, I shifted into my lowest gear. It took me a moment to remember: I don’t have the lowest gear. This is part of the compromise I made when incorporating the BionX motor. The width of the motor precludes a full 8-gear cluster. My rear wheel has only 7 gears, but my shifter still shows eight.
My bike builder solved this mismatch by compressing the range of the shifter. This allowed me to select only gears 2 through 8. I hit a stop before I got to gear 1. That worked fine for awhile, but the tolerances were pretty tight. As time passed, there were other gears I couldn’t select. I took the bike to a different shop, and they brought back the missing gears by expanding the range of the shifter. Now there is no stop at gear 1; I just have to remember that there is no gear there.
When I temporarily forgot that important fact, the chain fell into the gap between my biggest gear and the hub motor. Unfortunately, that gap is just wide enough so the chain can wedge itself so snugly that it can’t be extracted without tools. It took me at least ten minutes to retrieve a couple of screwdrivers from my house and perform the necessary operation. I arrived at my son’s school late and with very dirty hands (cooking oil works great to loosen tough chain grease from your skin, by the way).
This was just the latest episode in my love/hate relationship with bicycle gears. I love the beauty and efficiency of this transmission system, but it still requires too much care and maintenance. Not too mention the fact that I often seem to be in the wrong gear at the wrong time. Even after two years of concentrated cycling, I don’t feel that I’ve mastered the art of smoothly shifting to precisely the right gear for the situation. If biking is going to achieve broader acceptance, more fool-proof transmissions will be required.
My bike in Copenhagen was superior in this regard. It had a 3-speed hub with internal gearing. Shifting was smooth and easy, and there were no fiddly adjustments or maintenance required. Three speeds were fine in the table-top flatness of Denmark. One gear would probaby have sufficed if it weren’t for some pretty stiff headwinds.
Hubs for hill-dwellers
Hubs with more gears and wider ranges have been available for at least a decade. One example is the Rohloff Speedhub with 14 gears and an impressive 526% ratio between its highest and lowest gears. It provides low maintenance, smooth shifting, shifting while stopped, and very reliable operation. When you see the cut-away of the mechanism inside the hub, you’ll probably agree this is a miracle of engineering. Unfortunately, it requires a miraculous number of dollars to buy: over $1000 on Amazon last time I checked.
On the day I wedged my chain, I coincidentally stumbled on an announcement for a new version of the NuVinci hub. Unlike other hubs, NuVinci uses a clever system of balls rotating in oil to provide a continuously-variable transmission (with a 360% range) rather than discrete gear ratios. The main disadvantages have been weight and price, but the new version (NuVinci N360) has reduced both (less than 5.5 pounds and $350).
When I asked a cargo bike dealer about the NuVinci hub, he gave it a thumbs’ up, especially now that the weight has decreased. But he was also getting quite excited about Shimano’s new 11-speed hub with a 409% range (Alfine 11). If it debuts at $419, as has been speculated elsewhere, this will also be a hub to consider.
Stuck with my gears
As you can probably tell, I would ditch my derailleur and gear cluster for one of these hubs immediately, except for one major problem: my BionX motor is mounted exactly where these hubs need to be! To me, this is the most serious disadvantage of a rear hub motor: you’re locked into the traditional bike transmission. If this is an issue for you, perhaps it’s enough to give bikes with a front hub motor (like the elMundo or Electric Ute) a second look.
In my opinion, a hub transmission on the Electric Ute would be a pretty interesting combination because of the Ute’s torque-activated assistance. To change your level of effort, you simply change gears, and the motor adds assistance depending on the level of torque you’re exerting on the pedals. On the elMundo, you need to choose both the gear and the amount of electricity to use. To my mind, that is one degree of freedom too many. When I start to climb an incline, do I lower the gear or increase the motor effort, or some combination of both? Perhaps some riders will find joy in mastering that art, but I have too many other things to think about.
It has been a few weeks since I published my last post comparing the elMundo, Electric Ute, and Transport+. I’m hoping that my somewhat breathless description of the Transport+ doesn’t leave the impression that I think it’s the “best” bike. That determination depends on what you want to haul, the geography over which you want to haul it, and who you are, physically and mentally.
For example, I’ve had a tendency to discount the Electric Ute because of its smaller motor and unimpressive performance on a steep hill. These are important considerations for me, personally. But if you have a longer, flatter commute, you might appreciate the Ute’s battery, which delivers 13 amp-hours compared to 10 for my (and Trek’s) BionX battery. With its less thirsty motor, the Ute might have a 40-50% greater assisted range. And at least one dealer I know of is selling the Ute at a discount that competes with the elMundo’s low price. When you consider the possibility of upgrading to a hub transmission (I would love to see that as an option from Kona!), the Ute is a bike that is difficult to say no to.
If you’re planning to carry heavy loads, you should still consider the elMundo, unless you’ve got hills that would make the extra 30-40 pounds of its steel frame an issue. I like the heavy-duty frame and the option of front and rear disc brakes.
With Trek’s Transport+, we’ve entered the awkward period between the announcement and the actual release of the bike. Since we can’t easily get our hands on one for the next couple of months, speculation is ramping up. One concern that has been hotly debated in cargo biking forums is the Trek’s weight distribution. Like my bike, the Transport+ carries its motor and battery in the rear. But the Transport+ battery is mounted waaay back (to incorporate the tail light) and quite high. The side racks extend farther behind the rear wheel than any other cargo bike I’ve seen. If you’re carrying a big load, will there be enough weight on the front wheel to steer precisely? Will you be able to control the momentum of heavy cargo back there during a quick turn? Of course, Trek claims this is not an issue, but time will tell.
It saddens me that I can’t include my Hammer Truck in this list of pre-built electric cargo bikes. I’ve written a couple of emails to Rans, asking if they have any plans to include a motor as an option on the Hammer Truck. I haven’t gotten a response, or even acknowledgement that they’ve received my emails. That’s too bad, because the crankforward design of the Hammer Truck is, in my opinion, a significant advance in cargo bike design. The lack of pressure on my hands, shoulders, and crotch make it more comfortable to ride than most bikes. I wish it were more competitive in this arena.
Dreaming of a maintenance-free bike
It’s hard to imagine that any bike will ever be maintenance-free, but with heavy-duty tires, a hub transmission, and good brakes, it’s possible to reduce maintenance and breakdowns. The chain is the only item left in my list of trouble areas. There are several companies that offer bikes with a shaft drive instead of a chain (and internal hubs, of course). Nothing like that for a cargo bike yet, but perhaps that will be the next step in the evolution.
My family and I have been back in the U.S. for a little over a year now, after living in Copenhagen for a year. As I’ve mentioned previously, we didn’t have a car in Copenhagen – all our travel was accomplished by bike or occasionally, by bus or subway. When I saw this nicely-produced video of Danes on their bikes in all seasons, it reminded me how much I miss the bike-centric lifestyle there.
I’m not sure the video will have the same impact for anyone who hasn’t lived or visited there, but if you haven’t seen the rush hour in Copenhagen, it may surprise you.
If you want more, check out the other videos in this post from the Copenhagenize blog. Although it’s a little long, the travelogue showing Copenhagen in 1937 shows that the bike culture has roots going back at least three-quarters of a century. No helmets, lots of fancy clothes — both videos look quite different from biking in America.
To avoid developing brake monomania, I’m promising myself that this will be my last post (at least for awhile) on the topic of cargo bike brakes.
But I noticed something interesting during my emergency braking tests yesterday: my bike had approximately the same stopping distance when carrying 180 pounds of cargo as it did with no cargo. How could I explain the physics of that?
I think it’s because stopping performance depends on the friction generated between the tires and the pavement. On an unloaded bike, the front tire does extra duty as the weight of the rider bears down on it – just like the front of a car dips down during hard braking. In this scenario, the unloaded back tire can’t produce as much friction, and it’s easier to lock into a skid.
With 180 extra pounds over the rear wheel, the back tire carries more weight, and the job of slowing down the bike will be more equitably distributed between the two wheels. The greater momentum of the extra weight just about matches the extra friction exerted by the back tire, and stopping distances remain about the same.
That was comforting to me until I realized that the bike’s center of gravity is also an important consideration. I carried my heavy containers of water relatively low. If I were carrying a passenger on the cargo deck, the center of gravity would be higher, and once again a lot of that weight would be loaded onto the front wheel during hard braking. Stopping distance would probably lengthen.
Trying to stop on a downward slope would also increase the load on the front wheel. For some combination of slope, speed, weight, center of gravity, brake type and condition, and road slickness, there will be safety issues.
As my experience shows, things get dicey if your tires begin to skid. A skidding rear tire isn’t too bad, except that it might indicate less-than-optimal weight distribution and diminished stopping power. There’s also a slight loss of maneuverability; it’s easier to steer the bike if both wheels are rotating.
A skidding front tire is another story. It’s nearly impossible to steer when your front tire is skidding. If you try, the tire is likely to catch the pavement, at which point your handlebars will be wrenched from your hands or you will be removed from your seat. The outcome of that situation is up to God’s mercy.
Moral of the story
The main thing that motivated me to write about this topic again is the realization that emergency stops with human cargo may be riskier than heavy loads with a lower center of gravity. Especially if you’re carrying kids, you should practice a series of quick stops at progressively higher speeds until you find your comfort limit, and then you should stay below it. Holding on during quick braking is good practice for your kids as well.
In addition, you should be extra, extra careful on hills or wet streets.
With kids on board, I am planning to reduce my speed and rethink my transport strategy in wet weather.