Real data from my solar panels and electric car

My topic for today’s post might appear to be at odds with the main subject of our blog, which is how we can use bikes of various shapes and electrical enhancements to address practical transportation needs. However, if you’re patient enough to read (or skip directly) to the punch line, you’ll see how this relates.

We bought our electric car (a Nissan Leaf, which I described here) exactly one year ago, and we bought a fairly large solar panel array two years ago, so I now have enough data on each to draw some conclusions about their costs and benefits. As I look at the data, there are no huge surprises, but having this data in hand helps me understand how these might fit into our nation’s energy future. I hope my observations will be helpful to you too!

Continue reading Real data from my solar panels and electric car

Shawn’s Electric Yuba Mundo


The author giving his touring bike a break

Today’s article comes from a guest contributor, Shawn McCarty of Venice, Florida. Shawn is an avid cyclist who has completed bike tours through various parts of the United States and Europe. His blog ( has some nice photos of his European adventure. And his custom electric cargo bike is amazing!

If you have biking facts, photos, or a story you think our readers would enjoy, let us know. We’re interested in presenting a variety of topics and points of view as we build our biking community.

Continue reading Shawn’s Electric Yuba Mundo

Transportation: All Options on the Table!

Don on Hammer Truck

For the past couple of years, it has been my habit to begin each New Year with a status update on my blog. In past updates, I’ve described how my cargo bike lifestyle is developing, how the cargo bike market is growing, and I’ve even tried to predict what the young year might bring. In moments of wild optimism, I’ve declared “this is the year of the electric cargo bike!”

My annual update is a little late this year, partly due to the extra effort needed to coordinate with Mark and Larry to bring our combined super-blog online. I think you’ll agree the time was well-spent. I’m personally quite excited about it, because the frequent contact with kindred spirits makes me feel less solitary in my pursuit of more efficient, more environmental, and more humanitarian transportation. Even better, I will now have more time to write instead of spending hours on the more mechanical aspects of maintaining a web blog. (Mark and Larry are both more blog-savvy than I, although I hope to do my part!)

It’s ironic that I’m riding my cargo bike less now than in previous updates. That’s mostly because I started a new job at the University of Washington (I write software to analyze data collected from mass spectrometers), and my commute takes me across a floating bridge that has no bike lane. There are beautiful bike lanes on Seattle’s other floating bridge, but it’s a pretty long ride (about 3 hours round-trip!) Instead, I walk a couple of miles and take the bus.

That brings me to the title of today’s article. I now find myself using many different transporation options depending on trip distance, speed, and number of people accompanying me. The cargo bike is the most satisfying (definitely the most exhilirating!), but other modes have their place:

  • Walking works well for short distances without the overhead of locking the bike and worrying about its security.
  • The bus is a great time to catch up on podcasts and/or sleep!
  • Our solar-powered Leaf is only a small improvement in the sea of cars on our roads, but it’s handy when kids and gear need to be transported greater distances to music lessons and gymnastics practice.

If you’re wondering why I’m using your valuable time to enumerate my transportation choices, it’s because I think there’s virtue in choosing the right tool for the job. Although many Americans have a choice of options, most are content to use their cars for every trip. We have a car mono-culture, and like mono-cultures in agriculture or thought or politics, it’s fragile (vulnerable to swings in the price of oil), imbalanced in its use of resources, and frankly, it’s boring! It’s empowering to have freedom of choice when I need to get somewhere. Sitting in my single-occupant car in a traffic jam is the opposite of freedom.

I hope that the words I write here will help improve the world, and I’m encouraged by emails I’ve received from numerous people. But my actions have power as well. Many friends and neighbors have seen me riding my bike or walking to the bus stop, and suddenly the light dawns: “I could try that too!” One woman I know thought she might drive across town so she could get on the bus at my stop, just to see how it’s done. That first ride on public transportation is really that intimidating! I wish there were some way we could lower the barrier.

Making a choice at odds with the car mono-culture is simultaneously difficult and liberating.

Electric cargo bike, made in China

If you have been following my blog about electric cargo bikes for a while, you know that I often make predictions about where the market for these bikes will go.  Over time, many of my predictions have come to pass, but usually later or on a smaller scale than I had anticipated.  For example, I wrote this almost a year ago:

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…

That was one of my most audacious predictions, and one that I didn’t expect to happen any time soon.  But let’s check where we are one year later.  Available at Wal-Mart?  Yes, but not electric cargo bikes, just electric bikes in their traditional form, priced between $400 and $800.  Still, an electric bike for $400?  That’s just unbelievable.  Or maybe crazy – the bike has mixed reviews from customers on Amazon.

ODK Utility Bicycle

But as far as I can tell it’s not manufactured in China, and surely not designed there, so that part of my vision hasn’t arrived yet.

Or has it?

Continue reading Electric cargo bike, made in China

Pondering the Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf
Today’s topic strays from my usual focus on electric cargo bikes, but it relates to my broader interest in finding transportation options that are practical for my family and sustainable for the planet.  With these criteria in mind, where does the all-electric Nissan Leaf fit in?  To answer that, we recently traded our Toyota Prius for a new Leaf.  Since then, I’ve received many questions from friends and family about this car, and I’m hoping to address some of these in this article.

Continue reading Pondering the Nissan Leaf

Transport+ update: Available. Invisible.

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.

Perils of winter biking

For the past week, Seattle has been blessed with cold, sparkling clear weather.  The crisp air makes the snow-capped mountains that surround us appear 50 miles closer.  Did I mention we live in paradise?  🙂

It’s also extra-tempting to hop on the bike and enjoy a few moments in the sun as it slinks along the horizon.  But be careful of the frost on the road!  That’s a lesson my wife just learned the hard way.

On the first workday of the new year, she was riding her bike to the bus transfer station.  As she approached a turn at the bottom of our hill, she stayed in the center of the road, well away from the frosty edges.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t apparent that even the center of the street was polished with a microscopically-thin layer of black ice.  Just enough to take down a bike, swift and hard, without a moment’s notice.

My wife landed on her hip, shoulder, and head, then slid for several yards before coming to a stop.  We’re grateful to report that she sustained only minor bruises.  That positive outcome can be attributed to three things.  First, in the middle of the car lane, she was well away from the curb and other obstacles that might have complicated the fall.  Second, the car behind her was following at a respectful distance, and she didn’t have to worry about it sliding over her.  Finally, her bike helmet prevented a nasty bump to the head and kept the pavement from scraping her face.

To helmet or not?

This incident has caused me to reexamine my opinions about bike helmet use.  Only a few weeks ago, I was taken to task by a reader for comments I had made regarding a helmetless rider on a video about electric bikes (here).  The reader referred me to a site called, which cites various research showing that mandatory helmet laws reduce bike riding by up to 30% without reducing bicycle-related head injuries.  There are various charts like this one:

I won’t dwell on this, but the implication is that skyrocketing bike helmet use did not significantly reduce head injuries.  And the rate of bicycle injuries is similar to that of pedestrians, who remain unhelmeted in Australia at this time.

The other side of the argument (which has been going on for many years) is presented on sites like this one from the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

I’m not an expert on this.  My family and I have been serious about riding bikes for only three years, and besides my wife’s recent fall, we’ve experienced only one other.  That was when I simulated a panic stop with a heavily loaded bike on wet pavement (you can read that bit of foolhardiness here if you’re curious).  Our limited experience suggests that bike helmets do more good than harm, and we’ll keep them on.

But legally requiring others to wear helmets is a more complicated issue.  Given the reduction in ridership that follows mandatory helmet laws, I’m not convinced that there is an overall increase in safety.  Having more bikes in the streets increases the safety of individual riders through better visibility, infrastructure, and driver familiarity.

I realize that this is a contradiction relative to my opinions about mandatory seat belt laws.  Those laws have led to documented reductions in highway deaths.  That’s good for individuals and society.  On the other hand, helmet laws may save a few individual bonks on the head, but may reduce benefits to society as a whole and bike riders in particular.  Until there is a pretty strong case otherwise, I think our default stance should be individual responsibility.

Slippery Seattle

The other lesson for my family is that we should stay off bikes when the temperature dips below 37 degrees Fahrenheit.  I realize that people all over the world ride bikes in temperatures colder than that (we routinely did so in Copenhagen), but Seattle has some special considerations.  Our hills, our minimal bike lanes, and the mixture of car and bike traffic are part of the difference. 

But perhaps the biggest factor is salt.

When it snows in Copenhagen, the bike lanes are plowed even before the streets are (that always amazed us).  And then the lanes are liberally seasoned with salt.

This has two results: we never slipped during our winter in Copenhagen (admittedly, the 2007-2008 winter was an unusually mild one there), and my bike displayed an appalling amount of rust after only one season.  In Seattle, car dealers often make a big deal about used cars that are “local”.  You don’t want some rusty hunk of junk from some other state that uses salt, they say.

But there’s a very good reason why Seattle doesn’t salt its streets and probably never will: salmon.  Adding salt to the already oily brew that washes off our roadways could deliver a potentially lethal shock to young salmon.  One might wonder if it’s appropriate to endanger human lives on slick roads for the welfare of fish.

Well, if you haven’t lived in the Pacific Northwest, it might be difficult to appreciate the importance of salmon.  Fresh salmon are not just an important food (featured in almost every menu of local restaurants), they are integral to our economy, our culture, and our environment.  Children study salmon in school, and we celebrate them with community festivals in the fall.  The incredible migration upstream to spawn is a metaphor for dedication to a goal in the face of overwhelming obstacles.  In the process, salmon deliver literally millions of tons of nutrients from the ocean to our rain forests, enabling a rich ecology that couldn’t exist otherwise.

You would think our love for salmon and a generally eco-conscious mindset among Seattle residents would spur us to develop alternatives to car-based transportation.  But instead we have endless arguments and litigation.  We disagree on the placement of light-rail lines, expansion and tolling of our bridges, replacement of the earthquake-damaged highway which is a blight on the city, and how to fund buses and ferries.  There are squabbles between residents, transportation agencies, the legislature, and city councils.

I think of this as a testament to the tenacity of our car culture.  It has taken over a century to develop our current transportation strategy, and it may take the better part of a century to unwind it.  I’m hoping that in ten or twenty years, we will see a visible reduction in the steady stream of cars that crosses a bridge we see from our house.

Change at that pace is likely to be appreciated only by the truly patient.

New Year status report: Year 2

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.

Manufacturer hibernation

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 bike

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

Christiania trike, clown car style, Pt 2
Speaking of transporting kids, I was recently introduced to a wonderful blog focused on carrying children on bikes:  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.

Looking forward

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.

Year of the electric cargo bike: 2011

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

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!

Today I found a relatively new web site (started in June) that reviews electric bikes and developments in the industry:  Aside from frequent articles, the web site includes a section on electric cargo bikes.  At this point, the site is a little rough – maybe half-way between a hobbyist blog and a professional site, but it has potential to develop into a great hub for people who are shopping for an electric bike, tracking recent developments, or maintaining the e-bike they already own.  The web site creator has been in the industry for some time and has worked in bike shops.  He seems enthusiastic and committed to pursuing this as a real business venture (he sells some merchandise and derives income from ads on the site).

This is another step in the development of electric bikes that I’ve been hoping to see.  We need people who can make a living by providing helpful information as well as selling and servicing these products.  Even though I enjoy blogging about electric cargo bikes as an interesting hobby, I will gladly turn the reins over to professionals when that day comes.  I’ll be watching to see if it or other sites like it make superfluous.