An eventful year has passed since my first New Year status report. A lot has happened in my life and the cargo biking scene that would have strained my imagination last January. And a few things didn’t happen that I confidently anticipated. I would be thrilled to repeat last year’s progress in 2011, but I’ll try to avoid making any bold and probably inaccurate predictions and instead focus on recent events.
After a flurry of announcements in early fall, there has been little news from cargo bike manufacturers during the past couple of months. Perhaps they think that most Americans aren’t looking for new bikes when so many states are buried in snow. While that seems like a reasonable assumption, my blog has seen no seasonal decrease in interest. On the contrary, every month of 2010 saw significant increases in readership, with literally thousands of unique visitors in December alone. And that was despite the fact that I posted no new articles in December and only two short articles early in November!
But perhaps those statistics deserve closer scrutiny. For example, the top search keyword for my blog (at about 15%) was “fixie”, due to an article I wrote last September. In that post, I predicted that non-electric bikes would someday be viewed like the fixie bikes of today: idealogically pure, but not practical for the average commuter (at least if you live anywhere with moderate hills or wind or traffic intersections). Imagine the horror of someone looking for information on fixies and landing on a blog dedicated to electric cargo bikes – about as polar opposite as you can get in the biking world! And I’m probably skewing future results by mentioning fixies again in this article. Sigh…
On the bright side, 2010 saw the release of two electric cargo bikes (the Ute and elMundo) and the announcement of three more (the Transport+, several models from Onya cycles, and Urban Arrow). Waiting for availability of these latter bikes has required considerable patience. Despite my frequent criticism, Trek’s web site still claims the Transport+ will be available in late fall (they don’t mention which year!). Hey, Trek, is there anyone awake over there?
Some features and prices have evolved since my earlier reviews of the Ute, elMundo, and Transport+. All of these bikes now sell for about $2600, so they must now be evaluated on features (and availability) rather than price. I am pleased to see continued evolution of the elMundo, both in the bike’s features (like the rear disc brake) and the increasing accuracy of the specs published on their web site. For example, I complained in an earlier article that the power rating of their motor seemed inflated, and now it’s fixed. Thanks, Yuba!
I don’t have any news on the Urban Arrow, but I received some interesting feedback from Todd at Clever Cycles regarding my article about it:
Our wariness about the high-speed braking characteristics of bikes in this format [front loader] is why we never pushed the assist concept with them. It’s not just the brakes per se, but the lightly loaded front wheel without a big load, and the relatively small amount of rubber on the road relative to the total kinetic energy of the vehicle. The crashes didn’t happen from not being able to stop the wheels, but when the wheels did in fact stop and the tires lost purchase. Large footprint lower-pressure Big Apple tires, modest motor power with a sensible speed limit, relatively low vehicle mass: these are more reasons to be optimistic that Urban Arrow might be “the one.”
This is a point that I hadn’t considered before. In the past, I’ve worried about braking performance of loaded cargo bikes, and I found that increased load seems to also increase the braking performance of the tires (at least, on dry pavement). The performance of an unloaded tire is therefore of some concern, especially for people riding on steep hills. I’m optimistic that the Urban Arrow will be a good bike for relatively flat terrain; I will be quite interested to see how it performs in our neighborhood.
My Hammer Truck continues to work beautifully. But ironically, it’s not getting much use right now. I used to have a great biking circuit: I would bike with the kids to school, then bike to the Y for a workout, pick up groceries on the way home, and bike back to school to pick the kids up in the afternoon. However, my daughter now rides the bus to her new school, and my son likes to walk with his friends to school. My wife joined the Y, and now we drive there together at 5:00 in the morning. My son joined a gymnastics club which is a 30-minute commute by car, so I pick up groceries on the way home from taking him.
With these changes to our family schedule, I have to invent opportunities to ride the bike, and there isn’t much incentive to do that in the wet winter weather of the Pacific Northwest. When I do get the chance, it feels quite luxurious, and increases my nostalgia for the lifestyle we had in Copenhagen. Some days I spend 2 or 3 hours in the car – a nightmare! We bought a used Prius to increase our gas mileage while we await the arrival of our electric Leaf (perhaps as much as 5 months from now), but I’m discouraged that the layout of our city and the demands of our busy lives make it so difficult to pursue bike-centered transportation.
Kids on board
Speaking of transporting kids, I was recently introduced to a wonderful blog focused on carrying children on bikes: http://totcycle.com. The blog includes a great survey of the options, and it’s broader in scope than anything I’ve written on this subject because it includes non-electric alternatives. If you have young ones, check it out. The photos of kids napping on various bicycle configurations is heartwarming. I only wish I had started biking when my kids were younger.
I recently read an interview with an oil industry analyst who thinks we will see $5/gallon gas in the U.S. by 2012. He thinks this is possible not because of any near-term shortage of oil, but due to fear of shortages as the world’s economies recover.
If this turns out to be true, the timing isn’t great. Expensive fuel will either inhibit the long-awaited economic recovery, or it will spur inflation if our economy manages to power through it.
If there’s a bright side to this prediction, the price of gas is probably the most significant factor in determining how many bicyclists there are on U.S. streets. However, I would rather see people choose bikes for all their benefits rather than because they have a financial gun to their heads. But no matter how it happens, bicycles will play an increasing role in our transportation options. For solo riders with relatively short commutes, a bicycle just makes too much sense from the standpoint of energy expended per mile traveled. And because electric assistance extends the range and lowers the effort for a broader section of our community, it really is possible to see bikes in numbers we’ve never seen in modern America.
I said I wouldn’t make predictions, but if 2011 isn’t the year of the electric bike, no one will be more surprised than I.