The Most Heroic Hero of the Decade, Maybe the Century

If you are Quaker (as I am) the biggest thing to shake up Meetinghouses and make young friends’ hearts throb all over the country is Jon Watts. I first heard about him when his video “Friend Speaks My Mind” made the rounds around Ithaca Monthly Meeting. Besides being very funny, with lots of Quaker in-jokes, this video had a further resonance for me. It single-handedly brought into the open an issue that has been festering unspoken: are all Quakers Christian? I’ve longed to affirm in some way that I am a Quaker but not a Christian for a long time. But I was always afraid that others in the Meeting might be offended. Jon finally puts into words what so many of us have been feeling:

I’m not a Christian but I’m a Quaker
I’ve got Christ’s inner light but he’s not my savior

So that’s number one why Jon’s my hero. Number two I discovered reading the Xtracycle forum Roots Radicals. Someone mentioned a young man riding an Xtracyle Radish from Richmond to Boston on a music tour. Sure enough: Jon Watts! Furthermore, he’ll be going through this area. You can read about his tour on his blog. I am looking forward to seeing him at the Farmington-Scipio Spring Gathering. Why is he biking? He writes:

Why not just drive a car like any other rational American would?

It would be easy for me to spout off a guilt-based justification about how quickly our society is killing the Earth, and how each of us is individually contributing a great deal to that destruction by owning and over-using personal vehicles. And it would be true. I do feel guilty and hypocritical about simultaneously mourning the destruction of the natural world and contributing to it.

But the deeper reason why I am riding my bike the 600 miles to Boston: I find driving, for all of it’s convenience, to be spiritually deadening. So let’s turn the question on it’s head… why, when I could be actively using my body, engaging with the land and the environment around me, viscerally feeling the miles go by underneath me, and genuinely living would I isolate myself in a sound-proof, wind-proof, experience-proof chamber?

Why in the world would anyone do that?

Couch Hunting: Rules of Engagement

Couch Hunting: Rules of Engagement

The rules of engagement are simple:

  1. Cruise alleyways to find a suitable abandoned couch or other furniture, totaling 300 lbs or less.
  2. Tie down acquired furniture to cargo trailer.
  3. Proceed to city dump, choosing the flattest route possible. Ride onto the scales and get report of you total weight. Subtract the “tare weight” of the rider, bike and trailer. The final total is your score for the trip.

Steps 1 through 3 may be repeated to raise your total score for the day.

A second rider in bright attire is helpful to function as a flag vehicle, to alert traffic that there is a slow-moving 18 foot pedal-driven couchmobile up ahead.

A skillful flag vehicle may also be help to push the load up a hill, while steering with the other hand.

My total scale weight for this trip: 450. Final weight after subtracting the tare weight: About 150 lbs.

We spotted several more potential prey along the way. There will be plenty of good couch hunting this season.

My Carrying Capacity

Here are some of the things I’ve carried over the past six months or so.

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.

Don’s New Year status report (2010)

It has been a couple of months and a couple hundred miles since my last post.  I really intended to update my blog more often than this, but it’s more fun to ride my bike (even when the errands are rather mundane) than to sit in front of my computer.  However, there have been many ups and a few downs since November, so I will try to catch my blog up.

The Hammer Truck continues to be a great bike for us, and I owe you another post or two to describe some of its features.  But it’s really the electric motor that makes the whole thing practical and fun in our abundantly hilly neighborhood.  On the flip side, the electric motor has also been the source of a few challenges.


Our motor is the BionX PL-350, with a retail price close to $2000.  I haven’t done a thorough comparison of different motors, but this one seems like it’s optimized for biking enthusiasts.  It’s relatively lightweight, very quiet, and supposedly maintenance-free.  But the features that really set it apart are torque sensor activation and regenerative braking.

Torque activation feels really cool when it is working the way you want.  The system senses the amount of torque you are applying to your pedals, and it kicks in additional power from 35% to 300% of your torque.  You determine how much assistance you want by selecting one of four assistance modes on the handlebar controller.

Regenerative braking allows you to reduce your speed and put some charge back in your battery while extending the life of your brake pads.  There are 4 generation modes that increase the drag on your back wheel and put increasing amounts of electricity back in your battery.  There’s also an option to activate the highest generation mode when you start to apply your rear brake.  I really like that feature.

Pros and cons of electric assistance

During the first week or two, I rarely used anything but the maximum assistance mode (level 4, 300%).  It’s frankly thrilling to blast up pretty steep hills at 10 m.p.h., to sprint away from stoplights as fast as most cars (at least until they shift!), and to haul kids around with less effort than going solo on my traditional bike.

With more experience, however, my strategy has become a bit more nuanced.  Assistance level 1 (35% additional torque) makes the unloaded Hammer Truck feel like an average weight bike.  It’s great for level ground or a light head wind.  Levels 2 and 3 are good for moderate hills when I don’t feel the need for speed.

For a while, I was fiddling with the regenerative levels a lot.  I would sometimes put it in a high regenerative mode and pedal downhill, reversing the direction of my battery meter by a click or two.  However, one day when I was doing that, the rear wheel suddenly locked up.  After some investigation, we found that I had shorn off the axle nut of the rear wheel.  After that, I’ve been quite cautious about pushing the limits of this bike/motor combination.  Since the motor wasn’t especially designed with a loaded cargo bike in mind, and since the bike wasn’t really designed to be motorized, and since our hill probably puts us in the 90th percentile of steep neighborhoods, I’m feeling that extra caution is probably the best course for now.

Bionic legs

When you match the power mode to your legs and an appropriate gear on your chain-ring, the reward is great.  With each stroke, you feel a surge of power, as if Lance Armstrong’s legs have been grafted onto your body.  In power mode 4, you might be even better than Lance!  It’s a beautiful marriage of man and machine – the kind of thrill you had the first time you rode your bike faster than you could run.

However, this is a great solution only for someone who likes to bike already.  It’s not a moped!  It works best when you’re putting in some effort yourself, not just coasting along and letting the motor do the work for you.  As a matter of fact, if you’re not pedalling, the motor isn’t working either.

I spend a lot of time in my higher gears, even going uphill.  Since the torque I’m exerting is pretty high, the motor is putting in a high level of effort as well.  If I get tired and shift to a lower gear, the motor seems to scale back as well, so I end up going slower with only slightly reduced effort.

Once mastered, the combination of Hammer Truck and BionX motor enables many kinds of errands by bike.  It extends your speed, your practical distance, and the amount you can comfortably haul.  And of course, it’s fun – I look for any excuse to get on my bike now.

But is this the bike that will get millions of people out of their cars?  I don’t think so.  It’s a little quirky and the learning curve is a bit steep.  Although it’s a good first step, the ultimate bike will be designed with an integrated motor from the outset.  There are already a number of electric bikes in a traditional form factor.  I haven’t seen a cargo bike with an integrated motor, and we may have to wait awhile for that.  For now, this is a pretty good alternative to a second car for many of our errands.

Cargo Bikes Featured on NPR!

Cargo Bikes: Riding with the Kids and the Kitchen Sink

I left this comment:

Larry Clarkberg (lclarkberg) wrote:

I like biking, so this summer I decided to do all my errands less than 10 miles by bike. I purchased a Surly “Big Dummy” cargo bike (which is also known as a “long tail” or Xtracycle style bike) for $1500. I regularly carry my 9-year-old daughter and four bags of groceries on my bike. Kids dig it. Because Ithaca (where I live) is extremely hilly, I mounted a Clever Cycles Stokemonkey electric motor on my bike. Now I can run my errands in any season up any hill with any load less than 400 pounds no sweat. Sweet.

embracing the bicycle: checking in

Thea drew this Big Dummy

It’s been four months since my life-changing post Don’t Ask Me to Drive in which I explain how I have rejected driving (or more positively, embraced bicycling) as my primary mode of transportation. How is it going you ask? Very well thanks! I have only driven three times since my embracing: driving my Dad to the bus station, driving Joyful to the airport, and driving Rini to the airport. And I plan to drive 26 miles to Ovid  next weekend to teach a class there. But other than that I have kept to my commitment. It wasn’t too hard actually.

A big help was my discovery of the Surly Big Dummy “cargo bike” and the Stokemonkey electric motor. We have two Surly Big Dummies now, and the smaller one has a Stokemonkey. We use them a lot. Jasper has taken to biking to school every morning (to the east a mile and a half and then uphill). I usually join him, then bike back to the Commons for work. I’ve used my bike several times to take Thea to the dentist which is four miles uphill to the north. (Everything is uphill in Ithaca.) On Thursdays I help Amanda carry Indie’s baritone from South Hill School. We’ve made several trips to Family Math events at Ithaca College which is straight up South Hill a mile and a half. Often we have passengers and we are toting some major educational materials such as this 6-foot-long physiognotrace. (Google it dude!)


I have to admit that I am sometimes exhausted by the end of the day. Partly this is due to the fact that I am training for a marathon. Sometimes I like the workout the bike provides. But other times I just want to get an errand done. So I’ve ordered a second Stokemonkey for my bike. Beginning in December, I’ll need to bike south (uphill) four miles every week to the Three Swallows Farm pick up our winter CSA. Wish me luck.