That’s a cool bike but is it practical?

What do people think when they see me biking around town? When they see me on my electric cargo bike, panniers full of groceries and Thea riding on top? I imagine they are thinking “That’s a cool bike but is it practical?” This is the very question I’m trying to answer with “my experiments with transportation” (which is my new tag line by the way—how do you like it?) So what makes a vehicle practical? Safety, cost, comfort, carrying capacity, and range come to mind. My preliminary results are in: an electric cargo bike is much more practical than people think in a number of ways:

  • People tend to overestimate how dangerous biking is. Over time you develop safer and safer routes to your destinations. You learn how to avoid dangerous intersections and you discover scenic back routes. So get over your fears and get on your bike—studies show that the more bikes there are on the road, the safer the roads become for everyone.
  • People tend to think biking isn’t practical for the very old or even the very female. The elderly are actually leading the way in the use of electric vehicles. There are whole retirement communities exclusively for the use of under-20mph electric vehicles. And the cultural bias against women biking is an American phenomena: in Europe the percentage of women biking matches men.
  • People underestimate how much a bike can carry. I remember the moment in my undergraduate physics class when my professor told us that a frictionless cart rolling on a level road uses no energy, no matter how much weight it’s carrying. This is almost true of a bike. The only limit is the strength of the bike frame. There have been improvements in chromoly steel such that my forty-pound bike can easily carry over 400 pounds. (For some extreme examples of carrying capacity see these photos of Cambodians carrying an outrageous amount of stuff on their motorcycles.) “What about hills?” you say. Read on.
  • People overestimate how hard it is to bike up hills and how sweaty they will be when they get to work. This is a big issue for many people, but they probably haven’t heard the good news about two key developments in the past decade. Now that we have relatively light-weight brushless electric motors and lightweight but powerful LiFePo batteries, people no longer have the “sweaty” excuse. An electric motor assisted bike lets you get as sweaty or remain as dry as you want to be.
  • People underestimate how far a bike can go. Again an electric motor makes it possible to run several 10-mile errands in a day. You’ve probably heard statistics like this: “Americans use their cars for two-thirds of all trips that are less than 1 mile.” Is that practical? Is it practical to hammer a nail with a sledge hammer?
  • People tend to underestimate how fast it is to run errands with a bike. Of course a bike can’t go as fast as a car on the highway. But in stop-and-go city driving I find I am not too far behind my compatriots in cars. And motorists neglect to factor in how much time they spend waiting in traffic, parking and walking from the parking lot.
  • However, people are currently realistic that rain and snow and cold can make biking very uncomfortable. I am confident we can develop a technological fix for this problem.

In this analysis we have to ask the converse question: how practical is the auto-centric transportation system that we have?

  • How practical is a vehicle that costs 50% of the average family’s income (and goes fast enough to be totaled by a wayward deer?)
  • How practical is a vehicle that is so dangerous an average of 114 people die each day in car crashes in the U.S.?  It’s appalling to me that otherwise good people think nothing of stepping into a vehicle that has such possibility of killing or injuring someone else.
  • How practical is a transportation system that limits our bodies’ mobility so much that it leads to unprecedented obesity?
  • I won’t even get into the bigger question of “Is a transportation system practical if it destroys the planet it’s on?”

It perplexes me that bikes with both an electric motor and cargo capacity are not on people’s radar yet. There was a great piece on NPR about cargo bikes. And there was recently an informative article in the New York times about electric bikes. But the mainstream hasn’t seemed to put those two together. Even the cargo bike people and the electric bike people do not seem to have met each other yet (with the Clever Cycles Stoke Monkey being the exception). I am looking forward to an explosion of interest when people discover how practical electric cargo bikes are.