Today’s article comes from a guest contributor, Shawn McCarty of Venice, Florida. Shawn is an avid cyclist who has completed bike tours through various parts of the United States and Europe. His blog (aworldspinning.com) has some nice photos of his European adventure. And his custom electric cargo bike is amazing!
If you have biking facts, photos, or a story you think our readers would enjoy, let us know. We’re interested in presenting a variety of topics and points of view as we build our biking community.
For the past couple of years, it has been my habit to begin each New Year with a status update on my blog. In past updates, I’ve described how my cargo bike lifestyle is developing, how the cargo bike market is growing, and I’ve even tried to predict what the young year might bring. In moments of wild optimism, I’ve declared “this is the year of the electric cargo bike!”
My annual update is a little late this year, partly due to the extra effort needed to coordinate with Mark and Larry to bring our combined super-blog online. I think you’ll agree the time was well-spent. I’m personally quite excited about it, because the frequent contact with kindred spirits makes me feel less solitary in my pursuit of more efficient, more environmental, and more humanitarian transportation. Even better, I will now have more time to write instead of spending hours on the more mechanical aspects of maintaining a web blog. (Mark and Larry are both more blog-savvy than I, although I hope to do my part!)
It’s ironic that I’m riding my cargo bike less now than in previous updates. That’s mostly because I started a new job at the University of Washington (I write software to analyze data collected from mass spectrometers), and my commute takes me across a floating bridge that has no bike lane. There are beautiful bike lanes on Seattle’s other floating bridge, but it’s a pretty long ride (about 3 hours round-trip!) Instead, I walk a couple of miles and take the bus.
That brings me to the title of today’s article. I now find myself using many different transporation options depending on trip distance, speed, and number of people accompanying me. The cargo bike is the most satisfying (definitely the most exhilirating!), but other modes have their place:
Walking works well for short distances without the overhead of locking the bike and worrying about its security.
The bus is a great time to catch up on podcasts and/or sleep!
Our solar-powered Leaf is only a small improvement in the sea of cars on our roads, but it’s handy when kids and gear need to be transported greater distances to music lessons and gymnastics practice.
If you’re wondering why I’m using your valuable time to enumerate my transportation choices, it’s because I think there’s virtue in choosing the right tool for the job. Although many Americans have a choice of options, most are content to use their cars for every trip. We have a car mono-culture, and like mono-cultures in agriculture or thought or politics, it’s fragile (vulnerable to swings in the price of oil), imbalanced in its use of resources, and frankly, it’s boring! It’s empowering to have freedom of choice when I need to get somewhere. Sitting in my single-occupant car in a traffic jam is the opposite of freedom.
I hope that the words I write here will help improve the world, and I’m encouraged by emails I’ve received from numerous people. But my actions have power as well. Many friends and neighbors have seen me riding my bike or walking to the bus stop, and suddenly the light dawns: “I could try that too!” One woman I know thought she might drive across town so she could get on the bus at my stop, just to see how it’s done. That first ride on public transportation is really that intimidating! I wish there were some way we could lower the barrier.
Making a choice at odds with the car mono-culture is simultaneously difficult and liberating.
Here’s a little photo essay about my family’s bicycles. I’m proud to say that we use our bikes a lot. Each bike is tailored to its user: I drive a cargo bike capable of carrying passengers and cargo long distances; my wife drives a slower and lighter but more stylish bike; my 11-year-old daughter Thea and her friend JJ drive bikes tailored to their 2-mile drive to school. (My son Jasper, aged 15, resists having a bike. He pretty much walks wherever he needs to go.) Ithaca is hilly, so it’s important for a utility bike to have an electric motor. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years experimenting with electric bike motors and other accessories. Maybe you can benefit from my discoveries.
I recently increased the power of my Stoked Big Dummy by setting it up to use two 36v batteries in series rather than only the one 36v battery. (“Stoked Big Dummy” means a Surly Big Dummy extra long bike with a Stokemonkey electric motor.) The change required purchasing a more robust motor controller from the fine folks at ebikes.ca. I also had to open up the controller and solder some beefier resistors in there and make some other modifications. But the result has been amazing. My bike is now very responsive and can easily accelerate to 20mph in a few seconds, and go up hills at 15mph without pedaling. Normally in this blog I rail against speed, but I am discovering that this moderate increase in speed increases the utility and safety of my beloved car replacement vehicle. I can now go on single-afternoon 100-mile trips by bike without it being a big deal “tour”. And I can more easily maneuver in traffic and join the flow. True, I’m now using 20 watt-hours/mile rather than my usual 10 watt-hours/mile, but still nowhere near the 1200 watt-hours/mile that a car uses.
I won’t deny it, speed can also be fun. I recently put together an ebike for my daughter. In the photo above you can see that the bike has a big black front hub. That’s the motor. The batteries are in the bag on the bike rack. Her first ride produced in her the legendary “electric vehicle grin”. She said that her bike was “like a car disguised as a kid’s bike”. She instantly recognized that her new ebike would give her a basic freedom that is denied to kids in our society: the ability to use roads for transportation. Kids in our society are taught from the moment they can walk to stay out of the road. No wonder then that kids must rely on parents and school buses for transportation. No wonder we have an obesity epidemic in this country. The ebike, and the EV grin it causes, may change this sad state of affairs.
I thought this recent post to the Endless Sphere ebike forum by icecube 57 captured the “EV grin” phenomena that is currently only shared by hobbyists but may soon be experienced by the general public as ebikes take off. You can read the original post (along with video) here.
“In other news Im very suprised at the power of this motor. My neighor just moved in her bf. I came home to find them socializing with my wife in the garage. The conversation shifted to my bike. He was like ill try it later. I said you are going to try it now. He gave in. I started him off in Grandma mode. (20mph legal restricted) He was excited about that. The controller still dumps 3500-4000w off the line but it tapers off quickly and he proceeded to take my bike up the huge as hill on my street that I will stall on in grandma mode and it took him up the hill without stalling un assisted maintaing about 15mph. Which I cant even do unless I have a running start. He is about 120lbs lighter than me so I can understand it being easier on the motor and controller. He went around the block and came back. He said take this out of grandma mode. He had a grin from ear to ear…Its one thing to ride your own bike but to see someone else riding it with EV grin hauling ass at top speed in traffic like its a motorcycle”
For the record I only have a temporary interest in riding an electric motorcycle, until the grin wears off. My ultimate goal is to build a lightweight (200 lbs.) narrow (42″) slow (20mph) passenger-carrying “car” that falls within the legal definition of an ebike. I couldn’t see myself succeeding with 36v. I can definitely see it happening with a 72v machine.
My cargo bike is a Rans Hammer Truck with sling bag and runners. This is a “crankforward” design, which means that the pedals are about 10 inches in front of the seat rather than almost directly below. This has some interesting benefits:
The seat can be bigger and more comfortable, because it doesn’t have to be cut away to accommodate the motion of your thighs.
Your sitting position is more upright and natural. You aren’t supporting your weight on your hands, and your fingers don’t get numb.
You can crank pretty hard on the pedals by pulling back on the handlebar. You can climb a steep hill without standing on your pedals.
You ride an inch or two lower than a normal bike, which allows you to put your foot flat on the ground when you stop. That helps avoid tipping the bike when you’re carrying a heavy load.
The main downside to the crankforward design is that the bike feels a little wobbly when you’re travelling less than 3 m.p.h. I’ve fixed that by adding a BionX PL-350 electric motor. Now I can climb a steep hill with a heavy load at 4 or 5 m.p.h. — no wobbles! The battery and motor are hidden under bags. Since the motor is completely silent even under the heaviest loads, it’s not obvious to onlookers how much assistance I’m getting. 🙂
To heighten visibility during our gloomy Seattle days, I’ve added CatEye headlights and tail lights and Down Low Glow light sticks to increase visibility from the sides.
The final result is pretty expensive for a bike (around $5K), but cheap for a second car. I use it for errands, carting our kids up and down the hill to our local school, grocery shopping, going to the YMCA… well, you get the point. It’s a lot more fun than driving our mini-van around the neighborhood, but our bike lanes are nothing to brag about, so you have to be cautious as well. I never ride without the lights on.