It might seem obvious that someone who adopts a car-free lifestyle is making sacrifices in order to live by their principles. The implication is that we should pity them. Cars can go faster, farther, and carry a lot more stuff than bikes, right? So they’re better, right? Not necessarily. Urban families are finding that an electric cargo bike can be a step up—a big step up—in meeting their transportation needs. And any task they can’t do on a bike they can accomplish with a rental car or carshare car.
When we look at the amount of time we spend on driving, the distances we go, and the amount of stuff we carry in our cars most of the time, an electric cargo bike can accomplish the same tasks over half the time, but for about 1/100 the cost. Think about that. Would you pay 100 times more for Continue reading →
I found a great way to bike in all weather: a $200 Walmart “Beast” fat bike equipped with a Stokemonkey mid-drive electric motor. This electric Beast easily traverses roads covered with two to eight inches of fresh snow or slush-covered streets.
If you use your bike mainly for transportation (as opposed to recreation), you are painfully aware that you can’t choose the weather conditions you ride in. If you’ve sold your car to be car-free, and you’ve got to get somewhere, often you have no other choice than to get there with your bike. Most of the time this is more of a pleasure than a problem. But there are some conditions that stop even the most determined bicyclists. Snow is one of them.
I like to ride in the winter. Every November I put studded snow tires, such as Schwalbe Marathon Winters, on my bike. However, these tires are not intended for biking on snow; they are really only for biking on icy roads. They prevent bike tires from slipping on patches of ice, and they do this very well. But if the road has even a few inches of snow on it, these tires don’t work well. They don’t prevent Continue reading →
New York City recently initiated an elaborate bikeshare system called Citi-Bike. It is a great gift to New Yorkers that goes beyond mere shiny bikes, practical and enjoyable as they may be. Citi-Bike’s greatest gift is that it legitimizes bicycling in a previously forbidding place: downtown Manhattan. Previous to Citi-Bike only daring, athletic and counter-cultural young men ventured onto Manhattan’s chaotic streets. But Citi-Bikes empowers people of all ages and abilities to think the formerly unthinkable: Continue reading →
No Virtue Required: Car-Lite Family Transportation Is Less Expensive, Faster, and More Flexible than Car-Encumbered Transportation
In his recent post, my co-blogger Don writes about “the virtue in choosing the right [transportation] tool for the job”. I realized that my own family makes regular use of five, count ‘em FIVE transportation options: walking; bicycling; busing; driving various CarShare and rental vehicles; and (in dwindling amounts) driving my wife’s tiny red Mini. Yesterday epitomized our highly flexible family transportation: we criss-crossed Ithaca together and separately and then at the end of the day we all landed together on our couch like the opening sequence of a Simpson’s episode.
The box has small handles, and I used this area to cut a small hole with a utility knife for the battery wire to come through. This placement means water would have to be going up to get into the box, so I’m expecting no rain and very little road spray could make in it there. ( Adding drain holes to the bottom could also be a good idea, just in case. )
For the past week, Seattle has been blessed with cold, sparkling clear weather. The crisp air makes the snow-capped mountains that surround us appear 50 miles closer. Did I mention we live in paradise?
It’s also extra-tempting to hop on the bike and enjoy a few moments in the sun as it slinks along the horizon. But be careful of the frost on the road! That’s a lesson my wife just learned the hard way.
On the first workday of the new year, she was riding her bike to the bus transfer station. As she approached a turn at the bottom of our hill, she stayed in the center of the road, well away from the frosty edges. Unfortunately, it wasn’t apparent that even the center of the street was polished with a microscopically-thin layer of black ice. Just enough to take down a bike, swift and hard, without a moment’s notice.
My wife landed on her hip, shoulder, and head, then slid for several yards before coming to a stop. We’re grateful to report that she sustained only minor bruises. That positive outcome can be attributed to three things. First, in the middle of the car lane, she was well away from the curb and other obstacles that might have complicated the fall. Second, the car behind her was following at a respectful distance, and she didn’t have to worry about it sliding over her. Finally, her bike helmet prevented a nasty bump to the head and kept the pavement from scraping her face.
To helmet or not?
This incident has caused me to reexamine my opinions about bike helmet use. Only a few weeks ago, I was taken to task by a reader for comments I had made regarding a helmetless rider on a video about electric bikes (here). The reader referred me to a site called cyclehelmets.org, which cites various research showing that mandatory helmet laws reduce bike riding by up to 30% without reducing bicycle-related head injuries. There are various charts like this one:
I won’t dwell on this, but the implication is that skyrocketing bike helmet use did not significantly reduce head injuries. And the rate of bicycle injuries is similar to that of pedestrians, who remain unhelmeted in Australia at this time.
I’m not an expert on this. My family and I have been serious about riding bikes for only three years, and besides my wife’s recent fall, we’ve experienced only one other. That was when I simulated a panic stop with a heavily loaded bike on wet pavement (you can read that bit of foolhardiness here if you’re curious). Our limited experience suggests that bike helmets do more good than harm, and we’ll keep them on.
But legally requiring others to wear helmets is a more complicated issue. Given the reduction in ridership that follows mandatory helmet laws, I’m not convinced that there is an overall increase in safety. Having more bikes in the streets increases the safety of individual riders through better visibility, infrastructure, and driver familiarity.
I realize that this is a contradiction relative to my opinions about mandatory seat belt laws. Those laws have led to documented reductions in highway deaths. That’s good for individuals and society. On the other hand, helmet laws may save a few individual bonks on the head, but may reduce benefits to society as a whole and bike riders in particular. Until there is a pretty strong case otherwise, I think our default stance should be individual responsibility.
The other lesson for my family is that we should stay off bikes when the temperature dips below 37 degrees Fahrenheit. I realize that people all over the world ride bikes in temperatures colder than that (we routinely did so in Copenhagen), but Seattle has some special considerations. Our hills, our minimal bike lanes, and the mixture of car and bike traffic are part of the difference.
But perhaps the biggest factor is salt.
When it snows in Copenhagen, the bike lanes are plowed even before the streets are (that always amazed us). And then the lanes are liberally seasoned with salt.
This has two results: we never slipped during our winter in Copenhagen (admittedly, the 2007-2008 winter was an unusually mild one there), and my bike displayed an appalling amount of rust after only one season. In Seattle, car dealers often make a big deal about used cars that are “local”. You don’t want some rusty hunk of junk from some other state that uses salt, they say.
But there’s a very good reason why Seattle doesn’t salt its streets and probably never will: salmon. Adding salt to the already oily brew that washes off our roadways could deliver a potentially lethal shock to young salmon. One might wonder if it’s appropriate to endanger human lives on slick roads for the welfare of fish.
Well, if you haven’t lived in the Pacific Northwest, it might be difficult to appreciate the importance of salmon. Fresh salmon are not just an important food (featured in almost every menu of local restaurants), they are integral to our economy, our culture, and our environment. Children study salmon in school, and we celebrate them with community festivals in the fall. The incredible migration upstream to spawn is a metaphor for dedication to a goal in the face of overwhelming obstacles. In the process, salmon deliver literally millions of tons of nutrients from the ocean to our rain forests, enabling a rich ecology that couldn’t exist otherwise.
You would think our love for salmon and a generally eco-conscious mindset among Seattle residents would spur us to develop alternatives to car-based transportation. But instead we have endless arguments and litigation. We disagree on the placement of light-rail lines, expansion and tolling of our bridges, replacement of the earthquake-damaged highway which is a blight on the city, and how to fund buses and ferries. There are squabbles between residents, transportation agencies, the legislature, and city councils.
I think of this as a testament to the tenacity of our car culture. It has taken over a century to develop our current transportation strategy, and it may take the better part of a century to unwind it. I’m hoping that in ten or twenty years, we will see a visible reduction in the steady stream of cars that crosses a bridge we see from our house.
Change at that pace is likely to be appreciated only by the truly patient.
The sweat threshold is the level of physical activity above which you begin to
sweat. Bike commuters ride below the sweat threshold– sometimes just below it– to arrive at the destination presentable and without using special clothing for cycling. Continue reading →
J. missed the bus to high school today, and I was tasked with getting the girls to school and daycare on time.
With temperatures in the upper 20s, we piled on to the electric-assisted Yuba Mundo and headed out. For this trip we dressed the toddler more aggressively to block the wind generated from the bike’s speed. Her commuting clothes included a winter helmet with built-in ear covers, a balaclava, mittens over gloves, snow pants and a winter coat. She reported that nothing was cold when we arrived at daycare about 15 minutes later. Continue reading →
My wife and daughter have been starting to winter bike commute this season.
One of the clothing challenges is the conflict between wearing a helmet for safety and wearing a winter hat for warmth, realizing that very few winter hats are designed to go under or over a helmet.
For the baby, I decided to try a kids winter helmet, which has few air vents includes padded ear covers. It’s paired here with a “thick and thin” kids balaclava that is thin on top and fleece on the bottom. Initially, this seems like it’s going to be a good solution.
For the baby’s hands we’ve been trying fleece mittens, but they have proven not to be warm enough, even for a for 10 to 15 minute trip, so we’ll look for something warmer. Likewise, the fleece blanket pulled over standard-weight pants didn’t work great either. We’ll be looking to refine that as well.
My wife was generally able to stay warm. She added a Turtle Fur headband to keep her ears warm, as well as a fleece neck gaiter and “windstopper” gloves.
Overall I think the experience was positive and something we’ll continue to try.
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.
Onya Front End Loader
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.