How to Bike Long Distances on Your Electric Cargo Bike

I am on a bike trip to Washington DC.–I am hoping to do more and more of my long-distance travel by electric cargo bike. I’m getting pretty good at it. Many of you are probably wondering “How can I too make such journeys?”

The hardest part is justifying taking the time. Expect a bike trip to take four times as long as driving. Use whatever rationale works for you: you’re saving the environment, you like to experience nature firsthand, you want to get in shape, whatever. I’m driven to bike out of a sense that it’s the way things should be, a way to make our transportation system humane (see a previous post about my vision).

The next hardest part is responding to the objections and warnings of your family and friends. They will say things like “Why don’t you just drive like a normal person?” They will imagine that biking on a lonely bike trail at 15 mph is somehow more dangerous than driving in dense traffic at highway speeds. Furthermore, there is an insidious bias in our culture that bikes are for recreation and cars are for utilitarian purposes. Therefore, the thinking goes, if you are on a long bike trip you must be on vacation. And you shouldn’t be on vacation if you have to do the serious business of getting to somewhere. This thinking makes it impossible to consider the bike as a valid long-distance transportation tool.

I went on several long bike tours in my college days. Those trips were basically fun ordeals. Long-distance bike trips don’t have to be ordeals any more. What has changed? The two big innovations are smart phones and electric assist for bikes.

When I bike I have my smart phone in one hand to tell me where I am and a printout from Google maps in my other hand to tell me where to go. I would be lost (literally) without them. Here’s how it works. Before I go on my trip I visit Google Maps and enter my starting and ending points. I then click Google Maps’ “bike button” to choose a bike-friendly route. I then print out selected portions of the route. The print outs are good insurance that I can find my way even if I can’t get a mobile phone signal. When I’m actually on my trip I stop periodically and use my phone to make sure that my current location corresponds to a spot on my printout. The phone has another use: finding hotels and campgrounds. I don’t reserve hotels in advance since it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. So when I get near my destination I simply search on hotels or campgrounds within a five mile radius, pick one, and dial. I wish I had had that feature in 1988!

The last step to going on a bike trip is the easiest: physically moving the pedals around. Plan on going 80 to 100 miles a day. I know that sounds like a lot to those of you who are experienced bike tourists. But electric assist changes the bike touring game: you can go a little bit faster and farther, carry a bit more, and work less hard. I remember that when I went bike touring 20 years ago I could expect to go 50 miles a day at 10 miles an hour. I carried about 50 pounds of stuff. Hills just about killed me. Now I plan to go 80 to 100 miles a day at 15 miles an hour. I can carry 100 pounds. And with electric assist, hills don’t require much more effort than flats.

The main drawback to traveling on an electric cargo bike is that you have to find an outlet to plug into at the end of every day. For that reason I mostly stay in motels. Motels are cheaper than hotels with the added advantage that since the rooms are at ground level you can wheel your bike into your room. I also carry camping equipment so I can camp out if necessary.

I am hoping that by next year I will be able to recharge my batteries completely with solar power on long trips. On a previous trip I was able to gather about one eighth to one fourth of my power from the sun using bike-mounted solar panels.

What does the future hold? More bike paths? Better batteries and motors? Really smart smart phones? And a kinder gentler transportation system? Let’s not just wait and see, let’s make it happen.