Transportation: All Options on the Table!

Don on Hammer Truck

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.

Currently in the Clarkberg Bike Stable

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.

Continue reading Currently in the Clarkberg Bike Stable

Friends Bike Clinic

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end.”
-James Naylor’s deathbed testimony

I’ve been a bicyclist since I was a kid. As a middle-schooler I delivered newspapers from my bike. As a teenager I worked as a bike courier in Washington D.C. As a college student I biked from Portland to San Francisco on a three-week journey with my future wife. For me, bicycling is simply the most enjoyable way to travel.

Bicycling is also a way for me to care for the earth and to improve my community. In the last couple of years I’ve experimented with what the mainstream media calls a “car lite” lifestyle. I drive a large electrically-motorized bicycle that can easily carry a passenger and four bags of groceries up the steepest hills in Ithaca. In a typical month I put more miles on this bicycle than I do in the family car. I bike in all weather and in all seasons, and I make trips that are sometimes hundreds of miles long. I’ve found ways to almost completely (and comfortably!) replace our car with a bicycle.

I have a sense that others would like to bike more but don’t know how to get started. I’d like to share my experiences and learn about theirs. I’m setting up a project with Ithaca Monthly Meeting’s Earthcare Committee that I call the “Friends Free Bike Clinic”. Basically I will bring my tools to the meetinghouse deck and invite anyone to come by. We can work on our bikes together and share our knowledge about biking. Repairs could be as simple as a quick tune-up: cleaning a chain, pumping up tires, and adjusting brakes. Or they could be more involved: ordering and installing parts or even ordering whole bikes. In particular I encourage people to add electric motors to their bikes. I feel that an electric motor is a necessity for utility biking in Ithaca.

I plan to hold the bike clinic on fourth Sundays from 1pm to 3pm beginning September 25th (which also happens to be Porchfest, a neighborhood music festival). I invite complete novices as well as mechanically-minded people to join me.

-Larry Clarkberg

Biking Reconsidered

Yesterday I rode the whole day without electricity: my electric assist battery ran down and I couldn’t recharge it because I was camped out at one of the dozens of hiker/biker campsites that line the canal. And I paid for it: after biking sixty miles unplugged it was excruciating difficult to continue. So last night I swallowed my pride and instead stayed at the overtly commercial Jellystone campground, complete with life size Yogi Bear at the entrance, so that I could charge my batteries there.

This experience has lead me to wonder “How important is physical exertion to the bicycling experience?” If it were possible to bike without getting tired would more people do it? Would it still be fun? I think it would, and this trip I’m on proves it. I think it’s not the exercise aspect that most people are after, but the humaneness that only lightweight slow narrow vehicles can provide.

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.

shopping by bike

We had the most wonderful shopping trip this evening by bicycle. First we biked about a mile to the dollar store to get some glow sticks for the Quaker meeting retreat this week. Thea rode on the back of Rini’s new Surly “Big Dummy” long tail cargo bike while Jasper and I accompanied her on our road bikes. We had dinner at our favorite restaurant (Maxie’s), followed by a trip to Greenstar to pick up several bags of groceries. Rini easily yet heroically brought home both Thea and the groceries on the Surly as shown in this photo.


Hi Fell!

don’t ask me to drive

I recently made the decision not to drive. Surprisingly, the reactions of my friends and family (a predominantly open-minded bunch) have ranged from mild concern to outrage. “Supportive” is not in that range. This puzzled me at first. I understand that this decision will put a burden on others, in particular my wife. But the fact is she already does 90% of the driving so this isn’t a big change for us. This will also put a slight burden on my children. Again, our lives are already set up to minimize driving. My kids both walk to school and my wife and I walk to our offices, so this doesn’t affect our regular schedule. And lastly this will put a slight burden on my friends for the few times a year that I drive them somewhere. What can I say? I’m sorry. But I have to do what I have to do. (Note that I’m still willing to ride in a car—I’m a hypocrite I know. And certainly I’ll drive in emergencies.)

Why do I have to do this? Is it to save the planet? Global warming and all that, right? That’s a nice idea but actually I’m kind of afraid of people who want to save the planet. I’m not one of them and I try to avoid them. Is it because I want everyone else to stop driving too? Setting a good example and all that, right? I won’t stop anyone from joining me, but actually I am doing this for very personal reasons that most other people don’t share. I’m doing this because I am a bicyclist. If you are not a bicyclist then you won’t understand my feelings about cars. Over the last 35 years I have been honked at, cussed at, crowded out, and physically assaulted by motorists. I have endured a transportation system that makes very little accommodation for my needs, where the norm is a smug assumption by motorists that I am a nuisance rather than a fellow traveler. Why should I continue to be a part of a system that is so biased against me? I refuse to cooperate with our transportation system as it is.

I can completely understand if others don’t share my feelings. Few people have my history as a bicyclist or have spent the time that I have mulling these things over. Do what you have to do. But don’t ask me to drive.

My feelings about biking were recently brought to the surface after we visited Portland Oregon. There I was overjoyed to see a thriving bike community. At the Portland airport I picked up a book called Pedaling Revolution about the successes of Portland and other cities. I read it cover to cover on the flight home. I suddenly just knew that I had to stop driving. It wasn’t a decision so much as a realization about what was expected of me, perhaps what Quakers call a leading. I have a strange mix of reluctance and insistence about taking this on.

We are fortunate to live in a city (Ithaca New York) where we live three blocks from a thriving downtown with dozens of excellent restaurants and several theaters. We live two blocks from a three-mile trail through the woods. And there is a cool farmer’s market, a science museum, an art museum, a mighty fine college and a world-class university all within a two-mile radius. Except for the hills and the snow, it’s a biker’s heaven. And if you encounter either of those impediments, it’s no big deal to walk (or to use our electric bike).

I foresee a time in the near future when my family can live without owning a car. When a car is absolutely necessary we can use the local carshare cars. We only make three or four driving trips a week already. One of the few remaining reasons we drive is for grocery shopping. It’s less expensive (and more fun) to go to the big grocery store out on the strip and buy six bags of groceries than it is to bring home groceries from the tiny store downtown. But going to the big store would be impossible to do by bike. Or would it? In order to answer that question I recently purchased a bicycle trailer and I plan to start shopping with it this week. Wish me luck!

My two lovely assistants help test drive my new trailer.
Two lovely assistants helped me test drive my new trailer.