Electric cargo bikes everywhere

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

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 Mule

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.

Onya E.T.

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:

Leaning Loader

If you want to see lots of hills and turns, here’s another video with pretty much nothing but that.

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:

AVD Truck
AVD Taxi

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.

Legal infrastructure

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.

  • Hey your uncovering some gems keep up the good work! Love the ONYA cycles esp the extra cycle compatible longtail. The guy in the video is clearly an Aussie which is no doubt why he has used the name onya. “On ya Bike” being a common if old fashioned expression meaning “get going” or “get lost”. So maybe there’s some hope we can get them in Australia at some point.

    • Don

      Hey Mark, thanks for that bit of linguistic sleuthing! I was curious where the name came from, but I forgot to ask the company. Your explanation makes so much sense, if it’s not the actual reason, it should be!

  • Marc D.

    Hello Don,

    I just found your website and find it quite interesting. I’m looking to buy myself a Kona Ute to roll arround with my 2 kids but I was wondering if you had any tips/experiences/links on how to add floor boards at the back for them to climb on the back rack and any recommandation on front seats that goes on the handle bars for small kids…?

    I would like to be able to modify a 2008 UTE, something that may look like the Trek Transporter 2011.

    Cheers, Marc from Quebec, Canada

    Thanks for the tips… Anxious to read your comments..

    • Don

      Hi Marc.

      Unfortunately, I don’t have specific recommendations on modifying the Ute to make it a great kid carrier. As you might have seen in my Ute review video, I put my kids on the back and rode around the parking lot. It worked, but they felt awkward without a place to rest their feet and handlebars to hold onto, so I agree that these are important additions.

      In my opinion, the Ute isn’t the best bike for transporting more than one kid (plus kid stuff that you’re likely to be carrying). The Ute is kind of a mid-step between a traditional bike and heavy-duty cargo bikes like the Yuba Mundo and the Rans Hammer Truck. As your kids grow, you may find yourself approaching the limits of what the Ute can comfortably carry. My main concerns are the brakes and the aluminum frame. I love the light weight of the Ute’s frame, but aluminum can fail catastrophically under stress, where heavier steel frames tend to bend without breaking. I haven’t heard of any cases where the Ute has failed, but I wouldn’t want to be the first to discover where these limits are, especially with kids on the back.

      Anyway, these are some things to keep in mind as you consider the options. Hope it helps!

  • Fearless Freddy

    Re your comment about the absence of helmets in that picture. I’d like to suggest that you’re wrong to fret about people not wearing bicyle helmets. I’m guessing from your very nice and informative blog that you’d like to see more people riding bicycles and using bicycles instead of cars.

    Injury rates on bicycles are low: in the same general ballpark as walking or driving. Yet we don’t worry when we see unhelmeted people risking their lives on the sidewalk or in cars. More importantly this obsession with removing a very improbable accident is creating a false impression that bicycling is dangerous and lowering ridership levels.

    1. Bicycle helmets are designed to reduce cuts and scrapes obtained in low speed (e.g. an impact velocity of 12 mph similar to that experienced when an adult tumbles from a stationary bicycle) falls. They are explicitly not designed for speeds of up to 30 mph.

    2. Bicycle helmets may exacerbate rotational injuries. These are the ones to worry about. Injuries which lead to concussion and other neurological disorders through the mechanism of diffuse axonal injury.

    3. The only proven effect of bicycle helmet use is to lower the numbers of people cycling.

    http://cyclehelmets.org is one of the canonical resources for information on this subject. It’s worth a read before making your mind up about whether helmets are useful enough to be worth using or are actually a negative both for the individual and for any overall societal goal of increasing cycling.

    Thanks for the great blog.

    • Don

      Thanks for taking the time to educate me. I must admit I hadn’t researched the helmet issue to any depth. When I lived in Denmark, the government was preparing citizens for a mandatory helmet law, but I now see that the law was defeated in a vote that occurred about the time we returned to the U.S. (excellent article here: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2009/06/danish-bike-helmet-law-defeated-in.html).

      The site you mentioned was very informative. I especially liked the introductory article that shows a huge disparity between helmet research studies and real-world data.

      There is still a big question that probably won’t be known for awhile: does electric assistance change head injury/severity rates, and do helmets help or hurt in that arena? While we wait for more definitive data on that question, I ride my electric bike cautiously, relying on the motor mostly for hills (as opposed to whipping along flat terrain at unnatural speeds).

      • Fearless Freddy

        Glad I was able to supply some new information. For the record I used to ride with a helmet religiously and was frankly disbelieving when someone suggested that they were less use than I had thought. Some years later I actually spent some time reading a variety of literature on the topic and was floored when I realized that not only does the epidemiological data suggest that there’s no measurable benefit to indivduals, but that the numbers cycling actually go down. The risk-compensation stuff is a whole second area to consider.

        I would never have believed it.

        I’m interested in the point you raise too: will pedelecs result in people with less experience getting into high-speed crashes? Maybe. If so then motorcycle helmets (which are constructed to completely different specifications and can actually reduce rotational injuries) might be useful for them. On the other hand anyone can easily get up to 40mph on a steep descent on a regular bicycle.

        Most cyclist fatalities and serious injuries result from motor vehicle collisions. These tend to decrease the more of us there are out there hauling loads, commuting and having fun on our bikes. In any event the risks of cycling are low and the benefits huge both personally and societally ( *preaches to choir*).