Cargo bike survey

Occasionally I spend some time online looking at what others are doing with cargo bikes.  The spike in American interest that accompanied the gasoline price shocks of 2008 seems to have subsided somewhat.  The forecast is for moderate gas prices through the summer, so I’m not expecting any huge change in cargo bike usage in the U.S. for the near future.

The story is different in Europe, of course, where gas is roughly twice the price and the infrastructure and culture are more accommodating.  However, the European cargo bike market is more developed and possibly even saturated, so there aren’t many major developments.  At least, I’m surprised that the marriage of cargo bike and electric motor hasn’t become more common.

Sometimes when I start to feel a little lonely in this pursuit, I go to http://www.cargobikegallery.com to look at all the weird and wonderful bikes that people are riding.  It’s definitely inspiring, but only four of the 120 bikes shown there have electric assistance (mine is number 112 on the list).  Now I feel lonely and wimpy to boot!

Perhaps you can imagine my excitement to discover a blog by an Australian dad who uses his electric cargo bike much like I use mine (http://keller74.wordpress.com).  He carries his two kids — and occasionally his wife! — on the back of a Yuba Mundo assisted by an eLation motor:

Electric assisted Yuba Mundo bike

If you’re interested in a different approach to similar transportation challenges, I encourage you to check out his blog.  After decades spent writing computer software, I can only fantasize about being mechanically talented enough to do what this blogger has done.  I love the craftsmanship and the flashy color of his bike, in contrast to the more utilitarian appearance of mine.  But the admiration goes both ways: he likes the power and silence of my BionX motor, which exceeds the legal power limit in his country.  His experiences make me appreciate the relatively problem-free operation of my bike.

So, are we the leading edge of a global movement of electric-powered cargo bikes, or are we just a couple of eccentrics indulging a hobby that will have a miniscule impact on the environment and the economy?

I’m sorry to say that my friend’s blog is a little more optimistic regarding this question than I am.  Even though my bike generates lots of interest wherever I go, I see no indications that Americans would be willing to give my bike a try unless the cost of a gallon of gas doubles or triples.  Ironically, the world’s financial woes seem to be restraining oil prices.

In the meantime, battery-motor-bike technology will progress, but maybe not so quickly without the pull of a big market or the push of a major manufacturer.  The main focus of research and development efforts will be on cars, whether they be hybrid, plug-in electric, or hydrogen powered.  Bicycles will continue to face a daunting chicken-and-egg problem: not enough riders to spur investment in bike lanes and Copenhagen-style infrastructure, and not enough infrastructure to encourage people to try biking.

One thing that would help is a big company that helps develop the market for powered bikes.  Volkswagen appears to be ready to make the leap (http://www.gizmag.com/volkswagen-folding-bike-concept/14949), but with something more like a scooter than a bike with pedals.  This particular product may confuse things for a while — can it be ridden in a bike lane?  Does it help or hurt the case for bicycle infrastructure?

Note how the Bik.e's split centrestand folds flush when in use.

When I ponder these questions in front of my computer or laying in my bed, the answers seem discouraging if not overwhelming.  But when I’m on my bike, everything seems clearer.  The fresh air and exercise are invigorating, the pace is relaxing, my neighbors are waving and smiling, and my kids are calling to their friends from the back of the bike.  Maybe I don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems today.  At least I can point my path in a good direction.