Nostalgia for Copenhagen

My family and I have been back in the U.S. for a little over a year now, after living in Copenhagen for a year.  As I’ve mentioned previously, we didn’t have a car in Copenhagen – all our travel was accomplished by bike or occasionally, by bus or subway.  When I saw this nicely-produced video of Danes on their bikes in all seasons, it reminded me how much I miss the bike-centric lifestyle there.

I’m not sure the video will have the same impact for anyone who hasn’t lived or visited there, but if you haven’t seen the rush hour in Copenhagen, it may surprise you.

If you want more, check out the other videos in this post from the Copenhagenize blog.  Although it’s a little long, the travelogue showing Copenhagen in 1937 shows that the bike culture has roots going back at least three-quarters of a century.  No helmets, lots of fancy clothes — both videos look quite different from biking in America.

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 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 (  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 (, 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.

Cargo bike economics

Tim from El Paso, Texas asks:

One thing that is becoming more apparent to me, is that I need to do more to prepare for peak oil and big bucks for gasoline. To be honest, though, I’m a little intimidated when you say you’ve spent almost $5K on your bike.

I wonder if you’ve done a spreadsheet of any type with gas at various prices to determine what the payback time is for a bike. That is my next exercise, to look at the $$ we spend on gas now for a pick-up and a mini-van and determine what the trade-offs for a bike, hybrid, electric, or other would be.

I don’t think Tim’s concerns are unusual.  The cost and the technology are still barriers for a lot of people.  I’ve done a lot of web searches that show interest in cargo bikes peaked about a year ago, when $3 gas was still somewhat shocking.  Now that the price has backed off a bit and we’ve become accustomed to that price, the interest in cargo bikes seems to have waned as well.  Most of the blogs I’ve found have a flurry of comments in 2008, somewhat less in 2009, and almost nothing in the first half of 2010.

If you approach this from a standpoint of pure economics, it’s not easy to compete with infrastructure and culture that is so optimized for cars (in the U.S., at least).  This is partly because gasoline is incredibly cheap for the amount of energy it delivers.  A gallon of gas weighs about the same as my bike’s battery, but it delivers 100 times more power.  Of course, gas wouldn’t be such a good deal if we factored in the costs to our environment (air pollution, carbon emissions, and oil spills) as well as national security.

But let’s play with the numbers we have.  I’m currently riding about 1000 miles per year on this bike.  As I’ve said before, those are tough miles for a bike or a car — mostly short trips up and down steep hills.  At this pace, I have to charge my battery about 3 times per week.  It holds 355 Wh of electricity.  At about 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, that’s roughly 3 cents per charge — less than a dime per week.

To do the same errands in our mini-van would take about 60 gallons of gas for the year.  That’s only $200 worth of gas at today’s prices, so I’m not going to recoup the $5000 cost of the bike and motor any time soon from savings at the pump.

However, I’ve saved money other places.  The bike has allowed us to avoid buying a second car.  Obviously, the savings are significant compared to the price of a used car, taxes, insurance, maintenance, and repairs.

But the main beneficiary is my conscience.  Showing my kids that there is a better way to transport ourselves without burning their natural resources at an unsustainable rate — that feels good.  I also see my neighbors more often, and I’ve had more opportunities to talk to people without the tinted windshield between us.  Most surprising, the bike saves time when traffic gets snarled around our neighborhood during school pick-up and drop-off hours.

The popularity of alternatives like this bike will increase as battery technology improves.  It makes so much sense to move just what you need, rather than pushing a ton of extra metal around when it isn’t necessary much of the time.  As it becomes easier, cheaper, and more reliable, this kind of personal transportation will become more common. 

In the meantime, I’m peeking into the future and enjoying the ride.

P.S. If you’re getting ready to take the next step in your own cargo bike adventure, you should check out this web site:  The author does a great job of describing all the options with lists of pros and cons and photos.  You’ll find some less expensive alternatives to my bike.  I’m just glad I don’t have to write all that myself!

Build a Better Block for $1000

For less than $1,000, Oak Cliff performed a make-over of a city block, making it more walkable, bikable, enjoyable and prosperous. Here’s a “before” shot:
Oak Cliff street in the "before" state
See the video for the result of the final transformation, complete with temporary businesses like a cafe, flower market, kid’s art studio and live music.

Visit the post for more information on this DIY street makeover.
Is this an event that could work in your town?

Bike/Walk improvements as a “Context Sensitive Solution”

Ron and Annetta

I’ve recently written about why INDOT should revise the plan for US 27. to follow Complete Streets principles.

I recently found another reason why INDOT should do this– because it would follows their own policy on Context Sensitive Solutions.

Ashley Hungate, an INDOT spokeswoman was quoted on a topic in a recent article by AARP, covering improvements needed elsewhere in the state to make Westfield, Indiana more bikeable, walking and livable. Here’s the quote:

INDOT strives to design its roadways for all users through its Context Sensitive Solutions policy, Hungate said. It uses community input to strike a balance between providing safe, cost-effective highways and protecting local values. “If we’re doing a project in a community, and they express opinions on what’s important to them, we try to accommodate them when appropriate and feasible,” Hungate said.

And “expressing opinions” is exactly what’s recently happened in Richmond. The City asked for a plan based on Complete Streets and over 100 people petitioned support for it.

I looked up the Context Sensitive Solutions program and found that “making streets more bikeable is often a goal of CSS projects”. CSS is also used to implement bike and pedestrian bridges like the Freeman Park / Oak Drive Connector which would truly be an improved and viable alternative to US 27 for non-motorized traffic.

With so many reasons to support Complete Streets in Richmond, I hope INDOT will respond soon to let us know that they will be following the new federal transportation policy as well as their own policies regarding accomodations for walking and biking.

Report on the State of Bicycling in Washington D.C.

The Well-Loved Crescent Trail in Washington D.C.

I recently visited my parents in Washington D.C. and as is my wont I paid particular attention to bicycling-type activity that I saw. As we rode through Adams Morgan on the bus, for example, I was pleased to see freshly painted bike lanes, but my adulation turned to horror when I saw that the lanes abruptly disappeared and reappeared as we rode alongside. And sure enough the bicyclists I saw cast their votes by their behavior: I saw lots of bicyclists driving on the sidewalk rather than risk driving on such deceitful bike lanes. (By the way I am purposefully using the word “driving” instead of “riding” for what a bicyclist does. Now that more and more bicycles have passengers, I reserve the word “rider” for what the bicycle passenger does.)

But for the most part I was pleased by what I saw in D.C. I saw an active bike community. I saw groups of tourists touring the city by bicycle. I saw lots of bikes and scooters parked around the buildings downtown. And for me the crowning jewel of our nation’s capital is not the Capital building, but the Crescent Trail. This wide tree-shaded bike trail circles more than 10-miles around the western side of the city. It is well-used by bicyclists, runners, and strolling families. It is built from an old railroad bed that passes over and under most cross streets. It is I think what all cities should aspire to create, ultimately for all short-distance non-commercial transportation. Imagine if all the beltways in our country were replaced with tree-lined boulevards on which ultralight vehicles (bicycles and cars weighing less than 100 pounds) rolled along at 15 mph amongst runners going 6 mph and pedestrians strolling at 3 mph. You might say “yes Larry it sounds very idyllic but it’s not practical; people wouldn’t be able to get to work on time on a bicycle.” I would reply that Washington D.C. is only 10 miles wide; at 15 mph a bicyclist could get from any one point to another in less than an hour. That’s certainly not the case now for people traveling by car. The Crescent Trail is the best example I’ve seen of How Wonderful Transportation Could Be If Only We Decided That’s How We Want It to Be. It doesn’t require any new technology. It doesn’t require drastic sacrifices. It just requires using what we already have in a new better way.

Does Driving Cause Cancer?

Internationally acclaimed environmental activist Sandra Steingraber spoke with my First Day School class this morning. (“First Day School” is Quakerese for Sunday School; I teach the 6th to 8th graders.) Sandra’s specialty is researching and writing about the links between the environment and cancer. It’s truly sobering stuff, which you can read about in her books or see about in the movie Living Downstream to be released next month. I invited Sandra to speak with us because I admire her as an activist, and I hope to emulate her approach in my work as a bicycling activist. She describes herself as a “shy activist” who would rather do the science side of things and support brasher activists rather than be a brash activist herself. And maybe people would rather listen to the science than the rhetoric any maybe people would rather hear it from a shy person than a brash person.

Because of my quest to Blame the Cars for All Badness I was pleased to find the following paragraphs in Sandra’s book Living Downstream:

The even better news [better because environmental causes of cancer are fixable whereas genetic causes are not] is that the synthetic chemicals linked to cancer largely derive from the same two sources as those responsible for climate change: petroleum and coal. Finding substitutes for these two substances is already on the collective to-do list. The U.S. petroleum industry alone accounts for one-quarter of toxic pollutants released each year in North America. This does not include the air pollutants generated from cars and trucks burning the products that the petroleum industry makes…vehicle emissions are linked to lung, breast, and bladder cancers…Investments in green energy are therefore also investments in cancer prevention. In this, it feels to me that we are standing at a historic confluence, a place where two rivers meet: a stream of emerging knowledge about what the combustion of fossil fuels is doing to our planet is joining a stream of emerging knowledge about what synthetic chemicals derived from fossil fuels are doing to our bodies.

…By-products from the burning of fossil fuels are under particular suspicion. Breast cancer, as we have seen, was first linked to potential sources of air pollution in Long Island. Subsequently, associations have been found between exposure to traffic exhaust during puberty and risk of early-onset breast cancer. Perhaps not coincidentally, a growing body of evidence suggests that tailpipe emissions have estrogenic activity. Air pollutants may alter breast density in ways that raise the risk for breast cancer. A 2007 review of the literature concluded that the risk of breast cancer associated with exposure to engine exhaust and other aromatic hydrocarbons is roughly equivalent in magnitude to some of the well-established risks for breast cancer, such as late age at first childbirth and sedentary lifestyle. Corroborating evidence comes from the laboratory: members of a family of combustion by-products called aromatic hydrocarbons—of which benzo[a]pyrene is one—cause breast cancer in animals. According to researchers at Albert Einstein College in New York, aromatic hydrocarbons inhaled by the lungs can become stored, concentrated, and metabolized in the breast, where the ductal cells become targets for carcinogens.

Bladder cancer, too, has been linked in several studies to air pollution. The strongest evidence comes from Taiwan, where researchers found positive associations between air pollution, especially from petrochemical plants, and the risk of dying from bladder cancer. An investigation of bladder cancer deaths among children and adolescents in Taiwan found that almost all those afflicted lived within a few miles of three large petroleum and petrochemical plants.

That caught my attention.

Highlights from the federal bike and pedestrian policy

detour on the way to church

I’ve recently mentioned the summary of the current federal transportation policy for bicycling and pedestrian accomodation which was signed on March 10th, 2010.

The document is accessible and relatively brief. I recommend reading through it yourself, but have included below some key highlights I believe are of interest to those advocating for improvements for bicycling in federally funded projects (which includes many state projects).
Continue reading Highlights from the federal bike and pedestrian policy

Getting the most out of your DOT public involvement process

she climbs in herself

Public roads should be for all users, serving this generation and the next.

Our recent Complete Streets campaign was a success in the sense that we were able to give feedback early enough in the process to make a difference.

Unfortunately, I owe this to a chance encounter in a grocery story, where someone mentioned the public hearing to me. As a leader of a local bike advocacy group, you would think it would be easy for me to be in the loop about major road projects so I could provide feedback on it. But since I’ve been in Richmond, I’ve seen two other major road projects begin construction before I even realized they were in the design phase.

If you’d like to better understand the “public involvement process” of INDOT or your state’s Department of Transportation, here’s what I’ve learned thus far.

Continue reading Getting the most out of your DOT public involvement process

Richmond to INDOT: Make U.S. 27 a Complete Street

bakfiets, car seat, stoller and Model T

On Friday Mayor Sally Hutton sent in the City’s official public response to INDOT’s proposed renovation of U.S 27. This phase of development starts near the Whitewater River near the Old Reid Hospitals and continues south through town. On behalf of the City, she asked INDOT for a new proposal, one based on Complete Streets principles that produce streets that work for everyone including pedestrians and cyclists. A new proposal could address serious concerns with the current proposal which would speed up traffic as it enters downtown, as well as leaving a major gap in our recommended bike route network.

The City’s response turns to be directly in line with a new policy released by the United States Department of Transportation on March 11th. Here’s an excerpt from the new federal transportation policy:

“The DOT policy is to incorporate safe and convenient walking and
bicycling facilities into transportation projects. Every transportation
agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and
opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and
bicycling into their transportation systems. Because of the numerous
individual and community benefits that walking and bicycling provide —
including health, safety, environmental, transportation, and quality of
life — transportation agencies are encouraged to go beyond minimum
standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for these modes.”

Although the City of Richmond and the Federal Government are on the same page this, we still need public support to bring this message to INDOT so they can revise the design. Please visit this petition by March 18th to view the City’s full response to INDOT as well as signing the petition of support:

Continue reading Richmond to INDOT: Make U.S. 27 a Complete Street