Dawn of the (U.S.) cargo bike revolution

[NOTE: I originally posted this article on May 27, 2010.  Since then, new information has become available.  I edited this on August 24 to incorporate some of the new developments.]

The title of this post might be a tad premature, but today I’m feeling a little more optimistic than I have in recent weeks.  That’s partly due to encouragement from my readers (you are a wonderful bunch!)  And perhaps some of the credit goes to a break in our Seattle rain that is allowing work to proceed on the solar panels being installed on my roof this week (soon I will be motoring up the hill using electrons harvested very locally).

But the biggest boost in my outlook came from news that two of the biggest names in cargo bike manufacturing — Kona and Yuba — are offering electric assistance as a pre-built option for their bikes.  Regular readers of my blog will know that this is a development I’ve been waiting and wishing for, and I think it signals the beginning of a new chapter in the annals of this kind of transportation (at least in the U.S.)

Why is it significant?

First, customers will no longer have to build these bikes themselves.  That requires either mechanical ability or a good bike mechanic and some extra cash.  But the process isn’t streamlined: which motor do you use?  Where do you mount the battery?  Are the specs on the motor a good match for the loads on the bike?  I’ve read several blogs where the build process took months to complete.

One can assume that the bike manufacturers have matched an appropriate motor to the bike.  If there are issues with the bike, there is a single contact, rather than wondering if the problem lies with the bike, the motor, or the installer.  To date, electric cargo bikes have been one-off custom builds, and there is no easy way to leverage knowledge or share solutions.

Economies of scale will reduce prices (both of the new bikes are significantly less expensive than mine), and competition will keep those prices within reach of people who need an alternative to a car for financial reasons.

So here’s a quick comparison of the bikes, with mine thrown in for context:

  Kona Electric Ute Yuba elMundo

Rans Hammer Truck / BionX
Price $2,599 $2,297 (includes tax and shipping!) $3,887 = $1,997 (bike) + $1,890 (BionX)bags/runners/deck not incl.
Motor 250W front hub 500W front hub 350W rear hub (BionX)
Links http://www.konaworld.com/bike.cfm?content=electric_ute http://yubaride.com/yubashop/28-e-mundo.html http://www.ransbikes.com/Hammertruck09.htm

http://www.cycle9.com/c9store/electric-bicycle-kits-c-5/bionx-pl-350-rear-hub-motor-kit-p-48

When I originally wrote this article, I included a row in the table above listing the carrying capacity of each bike.  Since then, I have become concerned about the ability of cargo bike brakes to stop loads that approach the carrying limits of the bike.  Yuba has actually removed any mention of carrying capacity from its website.  In my opinion, that is the responsible thing to do.  There is already a tendency for enthusiastic cargo bike promoters to put very large loads on these bikes and post photos for bragging rights.  Even though it’s fun, I don’t think it’s in the long-term interest of cargo biking to promote unrealistic or unsafe behavior.

Since I wrote this article, there have been further developments for the Ute and elMundo, and there is a new bike coming from Trek.  You can read about them here.