It has been 7 months since I posted my first article mentioning the Trek Transport+. After a very long fall and winter, the bike appears to be available to order. Trek has removed the “available late fall” qualification from their web site, and dealers in my area would be happy to take my order. With a price tag of $2809.99, it’s a little more expensive than the aggressive target of $2679 that was originally announced. It’s also $100 or $200 more than its competitors, the Yuba el Mundo and the Kona Electric Ute, but definitely worth considering for features like the BionX motor and integrated lighting (see my original article for further details).
However, my enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that I have never seen this bike, and it’s unlikely that I will in the near future. I’ve inquired at my local Trek dealers (there are quite a few in my area), and they don’t have any Transport+ bikes to show. They can’t tell me when or if they will see one.
Reviews of the Transport+ are rare on the web as well. The most complete review I found was from Bike Radar. The author loaded the bike and rode it for 6 weeks in a variety of conditions, so that review answered many of my questions.
If I were to review the bike myself, I would concentrate a little more on hill-climbing, braking, and range. I’d also check out the handling of the bike with loads that are carried a little farther to the rear than comparable bikes (including my own Rans Hammer Truck). But unless I can make special arrangements with Trek or a local dealer, that opportunity doesn’t look likely in the foreseeable future.
I’m both excited and frustrated with this state of affairs. For now, I’ll turn to my readers. If you have any experience with the Transport+, let us know what you think in the comments below.
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.
Today I was eagerly searching for a Trek dealer in the Seattle area who might have the new Transport+ cargo bike available for a test ride. I knew I was being a little optimistic, but several months ago a Trek marketer told me the bike would be available by November. Trek’s web site continues to say “Available late fall”, and there’s even a brief video review from ElectricBikeReport.com.
But no luck. The best I could hope for at local bike shops was late February of 2011. The marketer that gave me the more ambitious date is now out of the country and apparently not answering email.
Perhaps I’ll just need to be patient for the next 4 months, but I find this a little discouraging. It reminds me of the glacially slow rollout of the Electric Ute, and I expected something different from Trek. Instead, the introduction of the Transport+ is looking just as cautious as the Ute, and I’m wondering why.
Then I found this blog entry from the president of Trek, asking his customers to help him make the case to his market forecaster that this is a bike that will generate interest. What the #@%!? Maybe this is a clever ploy to increase buzz, but it’s not the approach I hoped the company would take to build this market.
I found another review of the Transport+ that looks encouraging, but in the details it trimmed 100W from the power of the motor, and nearly $500 from the price. If these specs were true it could make the Transport+ even more attractive to the mass market (if a bit less attractive to us hill dwellers). However, since these details conflict with Trek’s web site, I suspect they are not accurate.
In any case, the clock is ticking. Unless competitors slip their schedules, there will be other interesting bikes to consider in 2011, such as those from Onya and Urban Arrow. I’m excited to see this race heating up, but I’m disappointed if the starting gun has actually been delayed for a few months.
P.S. If anyone at Trek is listening, I would be happy to present your side of the story if you would like to tell it!
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.
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.
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.
A few days ago, I was carrying a load of groceries home on my cargo bike. Ahead of me, a serious lycra-clad cyclist was cranking a nice-looking bike up the steady incline. Normally, I try to avoid passing hard-working cyclists on hills out of respect for their efforts. But on this occasion, the gap between us was shrinking quickly with the assistance of my electric motor. Cars were approaching us from behind which would catch up to me at about the same time I caught the cyclist. To avoid a situation which might force me out of the bike lane, I quickened my pace and passed the cyclist at more than twice his speed.
Many biking purists scoff at electric bikes, and I can understand why. If my hard-earned athletic achievements were nullified by someone “cheating” with an electric motor, I wouldn’t be thrilled. On the other hand, the boundaries of “pure” biking aren’t black and white. For example, some dedicated cyclists ride fixed-gear bikes (“fixies”) without extra gears and derailleurs. Extreme purists even remove the freewheel for coasting as well as the brakes (although that’s illegal in some cities).
One could reasonably say that purity ends where non-muscular assistance begins. But that’s where practicality begins as well. The fact is, I wouldn’t have been hauling those groceries up that hill if it hadn’t been for my electric motor. If bicycle-based transportation is going to grow significantly in the U.S., we must broaden the concept of cycling to include motor assistance. We must enable Americans of average fitness to carry stuff uphill on two wheels.
This vision was validated by bike giant Trek when they announced their Transport+ electric cargo bike (see here for further thoughts on that bike). This month, another big company joins the parade: Shimano is introducing its “STEPS” system that includes a 250W front hub motor activated by a torque sensor (like the Kona Electric Ute), an electrically-shifted hub transmission, regenerative braking, and battery-powered front and back lights. Although a 250W motor is, in my opinion, a little skimpy for cargo bikes, more powerful motors and batteries will come. What’s important right now is the products and competition brewing in the electric bike market. I can imagine a day when unpowered bikes will be considered like fixies are today: cool, but for a very special segment of the population.
Will the march of progress stop with the coming generation of electric bikes? Of course not. Will bikes play a bigger role in future transportation, or will they also make way for something like a lightweight, enclosed personal car with no pedaling required? I hope that’s not the outcome, but our individual choices will determine that.
Finally! It has been months – even years – since rumors of an electrically-assisted Ute cargo bike first surfaced on the web. Kona recently posted its 2011 catalog online, and there it was: the Electric Ute in all its beauty. At $2599, Kona has allowed the Yuba elMundo to keep its low-price crown ($2297 including tax and shipping). However, the Ute and the elMundo are such different bikes, price should be among the last factors to consider if you’re choosing between them. There have also been changes in the elMundo since I last wrote about it, so there are good reasons to take another look at both these bikes.
Kona Electric Ute
Despite its workman-like name, the Ute gets my nomination for most beautiful cargo bike. Kona has paid attention to the details, and the electronics are nicely integrated. The Ute approaches my ideal of a bike and motor that were designed together. Unfortunately, Kona’s marketing is a little coy about what their design target really is. For example, the website introduces the Ute with this sentence: “The Electric Ute is a battery-assisted version of our very popular Ute, a long wheel base bicycle designed to carry loads of up to 100kg-perfect for transporting goods in the urban environment.” [their emphasis]
This might be an accurate statement in a superficial sense, but it deserves some careful disection. If you live in an urban environment that is relatively flat, and if you can fit your load into the comparatively small Ute side bag, the Ute will be perfect for you. On the other hand, if you manage to load 100kg (over 200 pounds) of cargo on the bike (that might require some creativity), you’ll find the motor is not powerful enough to help much on even moderate inclines. During my test drive (see my in-depth review here), the motor shut down while climbing a short, steep hill of about 15% grade – no load, medium assistance level. At first, I thought the failure was a battery issue, but now I’m pretty sure the controller was temporarily disabling the motor to prevent overheating. If you live in Seattle or San Francisco, you may have to pedal up the steep hills without assistance from the motor, just when you want it the most. I also have concerns about the ability of the front rim brake and rear disc brake to safely stop a heavy load in an emergency.
Kona’s description of the Ute ends with this: “Serious power for carrying heavier loads. Ditch the truck, people.”
I’m not a marketer (and thankful for that), but is it really necessary to hype the bike past the point of reasonable expectations? I mean, the Ute is a great bike for commuters who have some extra stuff to carry. It feels more like a normal bike than its bigger and heavier competitors. Maybe those facts aren’t sexy enough for the marketing department, but this is a bike that could satisfy many customers. The big question is how it will compare to Trek’s bike which will be released late this fall. I’ll talk about that shortly.
The elMundo has quietly undergone some changes since I corresponded with a company representative in late spring (here). The only clue that the bike has had another transformation is the addition of “v3.0” to the bike’s name. Photos on the website have not been updated.
Yuba has ditched its 750W motor from Aoetema and now uses a 500W motor from eZee instead. The fact that Yuba mentions the brand of the motor on its website is progress, but I still have a question. The only motor I know of from eZee is rated for 400 watts nominally, and about 800 watts peak. Is the 500W figure quoted by Yuba fudging a little? Not that I’m focused exclusively on the wattage of the motor: even at 400W, the geared eZee motor might deliver more power when it’s needed than the Aoetema motor. But the effort to be scrupulously accurate on these specs would be a welcome development in the cargo bike market.
I would love to know what inspired the motor change, but I have a couple of guesses. First, the eZee motor uses internal planetary gears, which should help deliver higher torque at low speeds for climbing hills. The elMundo is a big, heavy bike (due to its high-tension steel frame), and it really needs a high-torque motor. Yuba is also calling attention to the disc brake mount on the motor. Although the standard elMundo comes with a rim brake on the front wheel and a disc brake on the rear, I would encourage anyone who intends to descend hills with a loaded elMundo to invest in a front disc brake.
Interestingly, Yuba has removed any mention of cargo weight capacity from its descriptions of both the Mundo and elMundo. The company previously claimed an absurd figure of 400 pounds, plus rider. Although the frame may be able to handle that, it was hard for me to imagine the brakes (and perhaps the tires) would be capable of stopping that load in a reasonable distance. If my complaints helped motivate this change, I am pleased.
As before, I must add a huge caveat to my descriptions of the elMundo. Although I’ve read blogs and emails from people who are very happy with their Mundo bikes, I’ve never ridden one or even seen the bike in person. The scarcity of Yuba dealers in my area makes that challenging.
The elMundo is also likely to have a competitor in the upcoming Trek bike, so I’ll move on to that.
The entry of bicycle behemoth Trek into the electric cargo bike market is huge news. Trek’s annual sales are at least 100 times those of Kona, and I couldn’t even find sales figures for Yuba. If Trek decides to put any weight into the marketing and support of their bike, other cargo bike manufacturers are likely to become asterisks in the margins, at least in the U.S. for the next couple of years. Besides my bike, I’ve never seen an electric cargo bike being ridden in my city. At this point, I’ll bet the first one I see will be a Trek.
With an MSRP of $2679, the Transport+ has the Ute squarely in its sights. Like the Ute, the Transport+ includes a bunch of accessories at the base price: folding rear load racks, front rack, Bontrager Transport cargo bag, fender, wide-stance kickstand, front and rear lights. With the front rack, rear side racks, and bigger cargo bag, the Transport+ appears to be more serious about hauling cargo than the Ute.
These features alone could justify the extra $80 for the Transport+, but Trek’s choice of motor is an even more compelling reason. It comes with a beefier 350W motor which is essentially the same direct drive BionX motor I have on my bike. This motor offers superior load-carrying and hill-climbing capabilities compared to the Ute. It is quieter, the pedal activation system works a little more smoothly (in my opinion), and it offers regenerative braking which takes some of the load off your brakes. The advantage of direct drive (as opposed to planetary gears) is that the BionX motor is very, very quiet. The downside, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, is that motor assistance starts to fade at speeds below 6 mph, and this can be a challenge when hauling a heavy load up a steep hill.
BionX has incorporated additional features since I bought mine a year ago. When you turn the console light on, the lights in the front and rear of the bike turn on too, powered by the same battery. On my bike, I have to flip at least 4 switches to turn lights on and off, and I have to keep all those separate batteries refreshed. This is a welcome advance!
Trek explains their “Ride+” motor technology in a series of videos available here. One of the videos mentions a 250W motor, but that’s a less powerful version than the one Trek is using for the Transport+.
Another feature I like about the BionX system is the integrated battery/controller. If you compare the photos of the Ute and the Transport+, you’ll see the latter doesn’t need the extra black box mounted near the cranks on the Ute. The console for the BionX also gives better feedback about the level of assistance requested and received from the motor.
It’s always easy to get excited about a bike when it’s merely a photo and a set of specs, so I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm for the Transport+ until I can actually ride one. There are still opportunities for Trek to misstep. But with an attractive bike, good technology, a large dealer network, and marketing muscle, it seems like this is Trek’s game to lose. But we’ll all be winners if this bike helps bring cargo biking into the mainstream.
Big year for cargo bikes
A year ago I was shopping for an electric-assisted cargo bike. None were available pre-built from a manufacturer. The state of the art was an XtraCycle like the Surly Big Dummy driven by a Stoke Monkey, but it wasn’t easy finding a bike shop that wanted to build one for me.
Today we have ready-made electric bikes from two manufacturers, and the biggest U.S. bicycle company is about to enter the market. I’ve been riding my bike almost daily for 11 months. There have been few problems and virtually no close encounters with cars. My blog receives over 1,000 unique visitors per month from all parts of the world (but mostly U.S. and Canada), indicating an encouraging level of interest in this transportation alternative.
Sometimes the pace of change seems slow, but looking back, a lot has happened this year. I wonder where we’ll be next year about this time?