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.
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.
Thankfully the news media is keeping quiet about this or I could be in big trouble: I flooded the Mississippi earlier this month. I’m also responsible in some small part for the Arkansas killer tornados last month. I may even be implicated in the Japanese earthquakes earlier this year, though the evidence for that is not so clear. But certainly without a doubt (as I confessed in a previous post) I share with BP responsibility for the gulf oil spill last year. How did I manage to cause such massive death and destruction? Simply by living my life as usual, getting around by car. I feel a little bit guilty about it actually. But what can I do?
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.
The electric Yuba Mundo works well asa kid & cargo winter bike. Recently I’ve been trying out Bar Mitts which so far seem to very effective at keeping my hands warmer while allowing me to wear thinner gloves inside of them. Compared to the bakfiets, the child needs to be dressed notably warmer. Since this photo was taken, we’ve also gotten some child ski goggles for her as well. In sum, we’re able to make cross-town trips comfortable at 15F (-9.4C) which is about as cold as it gets here in Richmond, Indiana.
The bakfiets makes it easier to keep the child warm with the greenhouse-like canopy, and the fully enclosed chain guard is definitely a plus for the bakfiets– On the eMundo the drive train got clogged with frozen slush in just about 15 minutes on a cold day– it was easy to clean out a little later with a stick, but no fun– plus the eMundo chain will need to be cleaned more after getting wet.
However, what the eMundo has going for it is a motor which allows me to get places faster and spend less time outside on very cold days. For that reason I currently prefer the eMundo to the bakfiets for most winter uses. The Mundo’s electric motor smoothed over the problem with the slush– while pedaling became “chunky” due to that issue, the motor could pull me along just fine without pedaling anyway.
Here’s same scene in a bakfiets from the previous winter:
In previous years I had done the Christmas tree recycling by bike, but this was first year I picked up the Christmas tree by bike. It was about a 15 mile round trip to the tree farm in Centerville, with snow falling and temps in the mid 20’s.
The trip went fairly well, although the drivetrain got frozen slush in the derailleur, causing chunky pedaling. I cleared out the frozen slush at the tree farm, but it happened again on the way back.
There was a stiff headwind on the way back and my hands got cold despite wearing Windstopper gloves inside of overmitts. I stopped at the bike shop on the way home and and bought some Bar Mitts, which are like large mittens that go over the handlebars and shifters, and stay on the bike. I have high expectations for the ability to keep my hands warm and comfortable on cold bike trips. Bar Mitts do seem priced a bit high. After I got home I found there are some similar products targeted at motorcycles that are made in the USA and cost less.
Update 2011: I love the Bar Mitts. You can several more posts and photos I’ve made that reference Bar Mitts.
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!
Last month I wrote an article describing various internal hub transmissions as alternatives to the derailleur-gear system found on most bikes in the U.S. I was especially intrigued by the updated NuVinci hub, which uses a clever mechanism consisting of rotating balls in a fluid bath. A friend directed me to this blog post, which (along with the comments that followed) only increased my interest in the possibilities of a Nuvinci-based cargo bike.
A few days ago, I received the October 2010 issue of A to B magazine. If you aren’t familiar with that publication, it is a British magazine that reviews various bikes, often with a heavy emphasis on folding and electric models. I’ve learned a lot from reading it, and I love the attention and detail they put into testing and describing each bike. However, because it is so focused on Britain and Europe, I often have to translate into my American experience almost as if it were written in a foreign language.
In any case, the latest issue includes a review of the Raleigh 360 electric bike. Although it isn’t a cargo bike, my interest was piqued because it uses a crank-mounted motor (and integrated battery) driving a NuVinci 360 hub. That sounded like a really interesting combination to me.
The review does a good job of describing the technical details of the hub and how it works. Their critique of its performance was mostly positive, and I would highly recommend reading it if you are considering the NuVinci hub (I believe an electronic copy of the magazine can be purchased for a few dollars; a year subscription costs 11 pounds). But there were also a few caveats that gave me something to think about when considering the hills I must contend with:
We mentioned above that the shift quality gets heavier as pedal pressure increases. Add the stonking torque of an electric motor and the shift more or less seizes up. There are two ways round this: you can either relax your effort, which frees the shifter but rather negates the advantage of using CVT [continuously variable transmission], or you can twist the shifter with a gentle steady pressure. This allows the NuVinci to change gear at its own pace – you soon get to grips with the technique. The high top gear results in a time of 31 minutes on our ten-mile commuter ride, at an average of 18.9mph (yes, we know it’s not exactly ten miles). This is rarified territory for an electric bike, and the Cytronex is the only legal bike that outpaces it. Compared to similar crank drives, this bike is broadly one to six minutes faster over this sort of range, which doesn’t sound much, but it’s noticeably quicker. That’s not to say it’s more efficient though. The Raleigh 360’s high top gear, and gloopy happenings in the hub, result in power consumption of 14Wh/mile, which is unusually high for a normally efficient bike like this. If you like to commute in fast, furious style, power consumption might not be your top priority, but a clear picture is beginning to emerge: the NuVinci is smooth, fast and tolerably efficient on the flat, but a real pudding on hills.
There is a lot more detail in the 5-page article than I have included here. I’ve begun to see that there are two sides to the NuVinci story, and your local geography might be the determining factor whether it’s good technology for you.
About five months ago, I wrote an article called Dawn of the (U.S.) cargo bike revolution. At the time, the title seemed like a pretty big leap. I was extrapolating a new market and mode of transportation based on two barely-available cargo bikes with electric motor options.
If I was worried I was out on a limb last May, in retrospect I was just uncovering the tip of the iceberg. In the past few weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by numerous electric cargo bike designs. I wish I could cover all of them in as much detail as my recent review of the Urban Arrow, but it takes a lot of time and energy to write reviews like that, and this is not a full-time job for me. 🙂
Onya Cycles is a San Francisco-based company with three different electric cargo bikes in the works. They are the brainchildren of inventor Saul Griffith, who won the MacArthur “Genius” award for a variety of projects he has initiated. Saul owned several cargo bikes and wanted to try his hand at correcting deficiencies he saw in each. His innovations range from the somewhat incremental to the fairly radical – definitely worth a mention here.
Onya’s bikes could fit under my “third generation” criteria (bikes designed with electric assistance as a central feature), but in contrast to the Urban Arrow, they will be available without the motor for people with flatter commutes or Lance Armstrong legs. The current BMC motor/battery option is the same for all three bikes and adds around $1300 to the price of each. The motor is rated at 600W (2000W peak) – these people have to face some of the steepest urban hills in the country, and they are serious about them! The battery provides 10 amp-hours at 48V – enough to provide assistance for about 20 miles. Onya bikes ride on 20″ wheels to increase torque and lower the center of gravity. They also have 160mm disc brakes on every wheel (did I mention these guys think about hills?)
Onya’s “Mule” cycle won’t surprise regular readers of my blog. Like most of the bikes I’ve reviewed during the past year, it’s a longtail. However, it is the first assisted longtail available prebuilt from a manufacturer that adheres to the Xtracycle standard, which opens the door for Xtracycle-compatible accessories (rather than locking into accessories provided by the bike’s manufacturer). There are arguments on both sides whether Xtracycle standardization is a good thing, but it makes a lot of sense for a smaller company like Onya to leverage the standard. The target price of around $3000 (powered) is high compared to the competition, but if you’ve got hills, the heavy-duty brakes and motor might justify the premium price.
The “E.T.” cargo bike is an interesting new shape (at least, new for the U.S.) for transporting lighter loads (less than 50 pounds) with a more compact bike. With a normal-length wheel base, this might fit on standard bike racks if the front bucket doesn’t get in the way. Target release for both the Mule and the E.T. is early in 2012.
I saved the most interesting for last. The “Front End Loader” is the first serious electric tricycle that I know of. Besides the hill-hungry motor and three disc brakes, the suspension is very interesting. It allows you to lean the bike during turns, reducing the risk of lifting a wheel (or worse). The company is quite proud of the custom computer code they had to write to model and optimize the tilting mechanism. You can meet the inventor and watch the bike climbing hills and tilting through turns in this video:
The Front End Loader is closer to release than the other two bikes. Onya has already sold 10 beta test Loaders for $4200 each. They realize that price is high, and hope to reduce it as they increase production volume.
The videos show the bike climbing significant hills with little or no pedaling. I watched that with a mixture of excitement, dread, and even a bit of skepticism. I’m excited because this was almost exactly my wish when I daydreamed about a perfect bike for my friends and neighbors last May. I asserted that people of all ages and abilities needed to be able to ride up a hill at a decent pace in order to make cargo bikes practical for a broad audience. Maybe that day is close at hand. A tricycle addresses concerns about balance at low speeds. However, I’m concerned that first-time bikers may hop on bikes with this kind of power and exceed their skill levels. A few unfortunate accidents could give the nascent market a black eye, and it might even produce legislation that could curtail the use of these bikes. I’ll have more to say on that later.
Finally, I’m a little skeptical because riding a bike up a hill at the claimed speed requires enormous amounts of power. I have questions about the battery’s ability to sustain that, and the motor’s ability to handle the heat that is generated. I’m hoping these are issues that a MacArthur genius can solve.
Regardless of how these bikes turn out, Onya Cycles is interesting in another respect. Like Urban Arrow, this is a company whose sole products are cargo bikes (and primarily electric). These companies represent a bold bet that the electric cargo biking market is here to stay. Unlike Trek and Kona, they don’t have traditional bikes to fall back on if interest in cargo biking stumbles.
I am further encouraged that these companies are not making a bunch of “me too” products. At this point, each of the bikes I’ve mentioned in this blog might address a fairly small niche. But taken together, they cover a pretty broad range of riders and uses. We’re not growing a mono-culture crop here. Just as biodiversity indicates a healthy ecosystem, a variety of cargo biking designs bodes well for the health of this kind of transportation.
Once again, I’m looking at developments I didn’t expect to see so soon. However, 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…
Advanced Vehicle Design
Speaking of different designs, a German company (formerly British) named Advanced Vehicle Design produces quadricycles for business with a couple of motor choices. Another first: electric-assisted recumbents! While these might be expensive for individuals, they provide an impressive way for businesses to burnish their eco-friendly credentials. And they look cool:
But where can you drive them? I’ve been trying to figure out how they fit into the vehicle code of my state. There are regulations pertaining to medium-speed electric vehicles (speed limited to 45 mph), and there are rules for electric bicycles. But I’m left scratching my head: where could I legally drive a quadricycle? In the bike lane? Probably won’t fit. On the road with car traffic? That would be an annoying obstacle for drivers on some of our faster roads, even with electric assistance. Perhaps these vehicles are really only useful in big cities, although there are plenty of opportunities there.
After our year of living in Copenhagen, it’s easy to see how far the physical infrastructure in most American cities needs to evolve to support lower-speed and lower-energy transportation choices. The legal infrastructure pertaining to electric bikes also needs to evolve – that became increasingly clear as I perused the Washington State Vehicle Code. Different statutes from state to state and country to country impede progress. On the other hand, I fear that regulations developed in the absence of a real understanding of these vehicles will go overboard and unreasonably restrict them.
For example, I have a friend who does a good job of tracking biking trails on his blog and trail network website. He alerted me to a recent ruling that restricts use of electric bikes on a trail near Aspen, Colorado. The bewildering varieties and capabilities of different bikes and motors stumped officials until they made it easy: no electric assistance allowed, period. Although that regulation may be revisited, similar motions will be considered in many town councils and state legislatures. To maintain our freedom of mobility, we need to play a part in these discussions.
The situation that concerns me most is transport of children. That is a uniquely emotional issue that biking critics will use to restrict cargo bikes on the grounds of safety. If I weren’t allowed to transport my kids by bike, at least half my bike trips would be eliminated, and it would then be difficult to justify the cost of my “car replacement bike.” Cargo bikes will eventually reach a critical mass, and there will be a significant outcry if their use is unreasonably curtailed. But at this point, I feel the industry is vulnerable to restrictions that might appear as reasonable compromises to non-bikers.
To avoid any sort of legal backlash, I believe we need to help the public understand the benefits and the realities of cargo biking. Sometimes advocates of a greener life style get a little too enthusiastic and the public gets over-hyped impressions of cargo bikes. For example, in the following video, a helmetless rider carries two kids (at least they have helmets) on a bike that the motor propels at “up to 30 mph” (well over the federal legal limit). Can you blame people for becoming alarmed when they see that?
Although I may be alone in this, I also think cargo biking will receive long-term benefits if we are careful to follow traffic laws – even the ones that don’t seem to take electric cargo bikes into account (read BikeForth.org’s counterargument here). If we flaunt the laws we don’t like and annoy 99.9% of the people with whom we share the road, we will have few friends to defend us when laws begin to restrict what/where/how we ride. I realize this advice goes against a cargo biker’s natural inclinations towards non-conformity, but if I can help my community embrace a slower-speed, greener, more sociable lifestyle, living within the rules is a small price to pay.