Third generation electric cargo bike

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.

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:

Urban Arrow

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:

Urban Arrow with cargo cover

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.

Groceries and passenger in the box

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

Daum crank motor and chain

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.

Stoke Monkey motor

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.

Urban Arrow in urban setting

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.

Daum display

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.

Brakes

Shimano roller brake

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. 

Lights

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.

Videos

The videos and slideshow below require Flash and won’t be visible if you’re reading this article through my email feed.  If you would like to see them, click here to open the article in your browser.

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Looking back, cranking forward

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.

What 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.

Now what?

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.

Electric bike rules of the road

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.

Nostalgia for Copenhagen

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.

20 miles of errands with an electric cargo bike

yard sales with an electric Yuba Mundo

Today’s milestone was our first family trip to Lowe’s by bike. While I have no special love for this big box store, it’s sells some things we can’t find elsewhere in town. It’s also located on the farthest edge of Richmond, nestled next to a interstate exchange and the typical sprawl of chain businesses and parking lots that accompanies them.

None the less, we found routes there and back that involved minimal time of busy roads, arriving in 18 minutes*. In total, we rode about another 20 in-town miles today running typical errands. Again this seemed very reasonable on the electric cargo bike, and a workout on my fast recumbent to keep up.
Continue reading 20 miles of errands with an electric cargo bike

Like a ton of bricks

Hardware Coop floor in progress Each 12 inch ceramic tile weighed 4 pounds and we needed 850 of them. That’s 3,400 lbs in tile alone. The floor project would also require about 12 bags of mortar at 50 pounds each. That brings the total weight of the project to 2 tons now– 4,000 pounds, before we even add the grout.

Of course, I calculated what it would take to carry all this on my bike. The tile alone would take 17 trips at 200 pounds per trip.

I decided cargo biking wasn’t practical for this job, but I still had the opportunity to have most of the material pass through my hands. I helped load and unload much of the 50 pounds bags of mortar, and two car-trailer loads of tile. By the end, I felt well acquinated with the full impact of 4,000 pounds. I could feel in my bones the amount of energy it took to move that material.

And for a least a moment, I appreciated cars for this. They were far better for carrying 2 tons of materials than a bike would be.

And that’s when it hit me like a ton of ceramic tile. The average American car weighs 2 tons.

Continue reading Like a ton of bricks

fun and attractive helmet alternatives

106:365 just a coupla nutcases

106:365 just a coupla nutcases, originally uploaded by julochka.

Having fun and attractive helmet options could help voluntary helmet use among yourself and your family.

Here are several alternatives to the standard recreational helmet design which may not be available in your local bike shop.

Continue reading fun and attractive helmet alternatives

Video: How to Dress for Winter Bike Commuting

Dottie commutes by bike with style through winter in Chicago, and she’s put together this great video on how to dress for winter bike commuting:

My own philosophy and recommendations would be rather similar. She also provides her own blog post with more details and photos.

You’ll find several more tips on this site in the clothing category.

SKS Chainboard: solving the greasy pant leg problem

SKS Chainboard
The SKS Chainboard in action

A significant deterrent to everyday bike riding is the prospect of getting chain grease on your clothing. European city bikes generally solve this problem with internal hub gears and partial or full or chainguards. The internal hub gearing also reduces the maintenance.

But here in the US, most bikes now have both front and rear derailleurs. And it’s just about impossible to find a chainguard that works in combination with derailleurs. But the new SKS Chainboard seems to be just that.

Read Patrick’s review of the SKS Chainboard on the Velocouture blog for a full review.