04
Oct 2010
by don

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.

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