Dawn of the (U.S.) cargo bike revolution

[NOTE: I originally posted this article on May 27, 2010.  Since then, new information has become available.  I edited this on August 24 to incorporate some of the new developments.]

The title of this post might be a tad premature, but today I’m feeling a little more optimistic than I have in recent weeks.  That’s partly due to encouragement from my readers (you are a wonderful bunch!)  And perhaps some of the credit goes to a break in our Seattle rain that is allowing work to proceed on the solar panels being installed on my roof this week (soon I will be motoring up the hill using electrons harvested very locally).

But the biggest boost in my outlook came from news that two of the biggest names in cargo bike manufacturing — Kona and Yuba — are offering electric assistance as a pre-built option for their bikes.  Regular readers of my blog will know that this is a development I’ve been waiting and wishing for, and I think it signals the beginning of a new chapter in the annals of this kind of transportation (at least in the U.S.)

Why is it significant?

First, customers will no longer have to build these bikes themselves.  That requires either mechanical ability or a good bike mechanic and some extra cash.  But the process isn’t streamlined: which motor do you use?  Where do you mount the battery?  Are the specs on the motor a good match for the loads on the bike?  I’ve read several blogs where the build process took months to complete.

One can assume that the bike manufacturers have matched an appropriate motor to the bike.  If there are issues with the bike, there is a single contact, rather than wondering if the problem lies with the bike, the motor, or the installer.  To date, electric cargo bikes have been one-off custom builds, and there is no easy way to leverage knowledge or share solutions.

Economies of scale will reduce prices (both of the new bikes are significantly less expensive than mine), and competition will keep those prices within reach of people who need an alternative to a car for financial reasons.

So here’s a quick comparison of the bikes, with mine thrown in for context:

  Kona Electric Ute Yuba elMundo

Rans Hammer Truck / BionX
Price $2,599 $2,297 (includes tax and shipping!) $3,887 = $1,997 (bike) + $1,890 (BionX)bags/runners/deck not incl.
Motor 250W front hub 500W front hub 350W rear hub (BionX)
Links http://www.konaworld.com/bike.cfm?content=electric_ute http://yubaride.com/yubashop/28-e-mundo.html http://www.ransbikes.com/Hammertruck09.htm


When I originally wrote this article, I included a row in the table above listing the carrying capacity of each bike.  Since then, I have become concerned about the ability of cargo bike brakes to stop loads that approach the carrying limits of the bike.  Yuba has actually removed any mention of carrying capacity from its website.  In my opinion, that is the responsible thing to do.  There is already a tendency for enthusiastic cargo bike promoters to put very large loads on these bikes and post photos for bragging rights.  Even though it’s fun, I don’t think it’s in the long-term interest of cargo biking to promote unrealistic or unsafe behavior.

Since I wrote this article, there have been further developments for the Ute and elMundo, and there is a new bike coming from Trek.  You can read about them here.

  • Keep an eye on my blog at http://www.KonaUte.com for upcoming photos and video of the new Electric Ute. My experiment this past year of adding an eZee electric hub system to last year’s non-electric Ute was a dismal failure. The Ute performed great, but the eZee system is buggy (went through two batteries and two wiring systems to no avail).

    You can update your May? estimate for availability to a solid May. They are shipping. I’ve already received my new Electric Ute from Kona and my local shop is swapping out all the customizations from the old Ute to the new one. Get to pick it up this week.

  • Don

    I’ll be following your blog with great interest! The reason for the question mark on my availability chart is that May is almost over, and the Electric Ute is still not mentioned on Kona’s web site other than in their newsletter (as far as I can see). I’m hoping I can find one to test drive at a dealer in the Seattle area. Maybe Kona is trying to gauge demand before they go “full throttle” with this product, so to speak. 🙂

  • The Kona Ute looks a great simple, neat single passenger option; at 250watts it might even make it to Australia! However the Yuba although a little more agricultural in execution would go great at 750watts. I can only imagine how my yuba would go with an extra 550watts, but it does beg the question as to when does a bike become a motorbike?

    • Don

      I agree: the distinction between bike and motorbike is becoming less obvious. However, my main interest is how useful the bike is, how often I can use it instead of our mini-van, and how practical it might be for others to use in my hilly neighborhood. That’s why I cheer any development that reduces time and effort, increases the amount I can carry, or widens the market for people of all ages and body types.

      BionX claims that people who ride electric bicycles are, on average, more fit than those who don’t. I think it makes sense. The electric motor removes obstacles and makes it practical to spend more time on your bike. It’s not even clear that you’re using more resources, because the electric motor is more efficient than human muscle when it comes to CO2 emissions. At least, that’s a claim I’ve heard.

  • Fanny Assingham

    I’m wondering how these hub motor driven e-bikes compare to the Kalkhoff Pro-Connect S with its Panasonic bottom-bracket chain drive system. The Panasonic system has been around for a long time and appears to be very reliable and produce good hill-climbing torque. Have you had an opportunity to test this system? It might be possible to outfit a Kalkhoff or Raleigh Panasonic-drive bike with an Xtracycle kit which, in my mind, might be the ideal cargo bicycle.

    • Don

      Putting the motor on or near the crank has some interesting advantages over hub motors. The problem, in my opinion, is that the available options have been more functional than aesthetically pleasing. I’m thinking specifically of the Stoke Monkey and EcoSpeed. However, if someone were to mate a Kalkhoff/Panasonic drive with a decent cargo bike, the result would be interesting. Especially if this were an option offered by a well-known manufacturer, so customers didn’t have to build it themselves.

      The ideal cargo bike faces difficult trade-offs: price, power, range, weight, and overall elegance are factors that must be balanced to address as broad a market as possible. Not an easy task!