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.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m guessing a video is worth at least a hundred pictures. I’ve been wanting to make a video showing the bike in action for months. Now that I have, it won’t win any awards, but hopefully it will give you an idea of how the bike works and how it sounds (silent motor, squeaky brakes!)
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.
In my last post, I wrote about a few of the implications of riding my electric cargo bike from a financial and social point of view. Today I’ll tackle another topic that I’ve been pondering: how much extra time do my cargo bike errands cost?
My first errand under the stopwatch was picking my kids up after school. As sometimes happens, I was late leaving our house, so I had to literally sprint the half mile up the hill to the school. When I pulled into the parking lot, I was surprised to see that I had done it in 2 minutes! Sure, I had cranked those pedals pretty hard, but you can keep up a pretty good effort for an interval that short. While it’s true that I could get there a little faster in a car (possibly even a minute faster), I would spend much longer waiting to get through the traffic jam in the parking lot, so the bike wins this contest easily.
For my next errand, I needed to pick up a few items for dinner from the closest grocery store. The route winds through neighborhood streets for 1.7 miles, descending about 500 feet. The bicycle route tool in Google Maps says it should take about 8 minutes; it actually took me 9 (I got stuck at a red light for a long time). I spent 11 minutes finding my groceries in the store, and then I pedaled back up the hill in 9 minutes (no significant traffic light delays in this direction). So, my total errand time was 29 minutes.
To compare, I jumped in our mini-van as soon as I got home so I could measure the same errand in the car with the same traffic conditions. I got to the store in 6.5 minutes, and the return trip took 7.5 minutes. The total errand time would have been 25 minutes.
Although the car would have saved me 4 minutes, this was really a best-case scenario for the car. There was very little traffic at this time of day, and there were plenty of parking spots. Many times I spend several minutes looking for a place to park.
To be fair, there are many errands in the 5 or 10 mile range where the car is much more efficient time-wise, especially if the route uses a freeway outside of rush hour. If you’re thinking about buying a cargo bike, you will have to determine whether the kinds of errands you do make this feasible for you.
The terrain is also a factor. Google estimates that my return trip from the grocery store should have taken more than twice the time it did. Without the electric motor, the time and effort would force me back into the mini-van on many days. I really can’t imagine using this bike without some kind of assistance on these hills.
[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
Rans Hammer Truck / BionX
$2,297 (includes tax and shipping!)
$3,887 = $1,997 (bike) + $1,890 (BionX)bags/runners/deck not incl.
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.
Yesterday I took my bike back to the bike shop to replace a brake rotor that was warped and making loud screeching sounds all the time. For awhile, I tried to convince myself this was a great safety feature: everyone could hear me coming for at least a city block. But the joy of riding in near-silence was missing, and dogs were more likely to bark as my bike squeaked by.
Disc rotors are prone to warp when they get too hot. In most cases, my brakes stay relatively cool, because the BionX motor bears the brunt of braking. There is a little magnetic sensor on my rear brake lever that engages the motor’s highest level of regeneration when I pull slightly on the lever. Usually, the drag of regeneration is enough to keep my speed in check. When the hill gets a little steeper (or the load is heavier), I apply my brakes in addition to the regenerating motor, but most of the time I use the brakes lightly and for short duration.
However, there is a problem. If I sprint up our hill at maximum speed, there is some limitation in the battery or the motor which shuts off regeneration on the way down unless I wait for 10-15 minutes before I descend. Perhaps something is getting too hot, although I haven’t noticed excessive heat in either the battery or the motor. I called the motor manufacturer to ask if they were familiar with this situation, but the technical assistant who answered said regeneration shouldn’t turn off unless the battery is fully charged. I am quite sure my battery is only partially charged when I lose regeneration.
Riding down our hill and carrying two kids (about 150 pounds total) without regeneration, my front and rear disc rotors get very hot. Hot enough to leave scorch marks on the rotor, actually.
To be fair, this is a steep hill (12-18% grade for about 1/3 mile), and the total weight of the bike, rider, and cargo is around 350-400 pounds. But the duration of braking is less than two minutes. It’s hard to imagine a situation where I would worry about hot brakes after two minutes of braking with a car or motorcycle. Are cargo bike brakes really up to the tasks we’re asking of them?
According to the owner of the bike shop, they are not. Most cargo bikes come with disc brakes that were designed for single-rider bikes. A beefy cargo bike carrying a heavy load could easily double the weight the brakes have to stop. Add a motor and a battery, and you’ve not only increased the weight, but you’ve also increased the capacity to carry big loads up a hill. What goes up must come down, and the brakes better be ready for it. I haven’t done rigorous research on this topic, but it seems fairly obvious that the brakes need to be upgraded to handle bigger loads and higher speeds.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that the biking industry has squarely addressed. To absorb more heat, the mass of the disc rotor must increase. My rotor is 6 inches in diameter and 2 millimeters thick. Apparently, there is a company that makes a thicker rotor (3 mm), and that would help. Instead, I decided to lay out $100 to buy an 8-inch rotor laser-cut from stainless steel (http://dirtydogmtb.com/designandsafety.htm).
The first problem we encountered was that my brake cable wasn’t long enough to move the brake caliper mechanism the extra inch or two to accommodate the bigger rotor. In the process of replacing the cable, I upgraded to “compressionless housing.” The idea is that very stiff housing transmits more of your braking force to the brake rather than deforming the conduit through which the brake cable moves. I had already done this for the front brake on a previous visit to the bike shop, and I can tell a difference in braking responsiveness. The new cable and housing cost $38 for parts.
With the brake cable replaced and the rotor bolted on, all that remained was mounting the wheel. That’s when we discovered that the Hammer Truck panniers are supported by a bar in the exact position where the brake calipers need to be for that 8-inch rotor. The shop owner said we could crimp the bar to make room for the calipers, but I was concerned about compromising the integrity of the bike. Also, the caliper adjustment wheel (red in this photo) would be inaccessible if it were nestled into the dent he was proposing to put in the bar. (Click on photos to see them full-size.)
In the end, I decided to buy another 6-inch rotor. It’s nice and true right now, and my bike is quiet again. I’ve learned enough that I might be able to avoid warping this rotor. First, I should allow more time to let the BionX motor cool, or I should climb the hill at a slower pace (and perhaps a lower assistance level). With a little experimentation, I should be able to reduce motor/battery strain and avoid regeneration drop-out during my return trip. Although it might take a little more time or effort, this strategy might even extend the life of the motor and battery.
Second, my daughter just graduated from elementary school. Now I will have only one kid to carry down the hill in the afternoon, and that should reduce the braking load. My immediate concerns over our safety have been reduced.
But my concern for other cargo bikers is escalating. The electric cargo bikes that I have mentioned in earlier blog posts, Kona’s Electric Ute and Yuba’s elMundo, have no motor regeneration and only one disc brake in the rear (both bikes have a rim brake on the front wheel). I’m concerned that this might not be adequate to stop a heavy load after a moderately long and steep descent. It wouldn’t take more than a few mishaps to cause legal problems that could restrict the electric cargo bike market before it has a chance to develop.
Sometimes I try to convince myself that this is just an issue of setting expectations appropriately. When we get really excited about the economic and environmental advantages of cargo biking, we talk about our bikes as being “car replacement vehicles.” But it has been over a century since Ford’s Model T was first sold. Since then, cars have benefited from continuous technological improvements and fierce competition between many different car companies. The electric cargo bike has barely reached a comparable level of development to those first Model T’s. Manufacturers are still treating the motor like an after-market option rather than an integrated design feature.
My safety concerns aren’t just limited to the brakes, by the way. As the shop owner was re-installing my rear wheel after the rotor replacement, we got a good look at how the BionX motor mates with the Hammer Truck frame. The critical interface is where the motor axle bolts onto the frame — the C-shaped flanges called “drop-outs.” The owner pointed out that my drop-outs weren’t deep enough: at least one-third of the pressure plate that the drop-out should be holding is left dangling below (noted by arrows in this photo). If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you might recall that I stripped a hub nut during the first month I owned the bike. The results were catastrophic: the motor wiring was damaged beyond repair and a new motor had to be installed. When the nut stripped, the rear wheel twisted a little and locked up against the brakes. The bike went into a skid, but fortunately I wasn’t travelling very fast at the time. Even though there were cars nearby, I managed to stay out of traffic, and escaped unscathed from the incident.
If I had been travelling a little faster, or if — God forbid! — I had my kids on the bike when that nut failed, it’s not pleasant to imagine what could have happened. It seems obvious to me that this problem could have been avoided if the Hammer Truck had been designed with deeper drop-outs to accommodate the motor. This is what I am looking for: a manufacturer that designs the bike, the motor, and the brakes to work together, rather than putting these pieces together and hoping their designs and capabilities mesh well. So far I have not seen a bike that impresses me in this regard. It feels like a classic chicken-and-egg problem: manufacturers won’t spend the time and energy to develop that bike until they see a significant market opportunity, but the market won’t grow quickly until there is a serious bike that people can see, test drive, and feel confident about its safety and reliability.
There are still some breakthroughs required in battery and motor technology (and price) that may be required to make electric cargo bikes attractive to the mass market. However, those same advances will also benefit electric cars. The market for an electric car is so much broader than electric cargo bikes — I think Americans are going to jump straight from gasoline-powered cars to electric cars, and cargo biking will remain a tiny niche of ultra-environmentalists and fitness freaks.
Of course, that’s only the most likely scenario. A massive and sustained increase in energy prices would obviously benefit bikes of all kinds. A generational shift of mindset is also possible and can’t be underestimated. For example, if teen heart-throb Justin Bieber decided that cargo bikes were the only way to travel, who knows how fast cargo bikes could sell? But at this point, most of the people reading my blog are more likely to be the parents of the Bieber generation.
I’m in a strange position. For nearly a year, I’ve been riding my bike and enthusing over this method of cutting carbon emissions, burning some extra calories, and seeing more of your neighbors, nature, etc. Now suddenly I’m worried about safety. I’ve always known it’s a little risky competing with heavy metal boxes for a few feet at the edge of the road. But if you’re not sure your equipment is fundamentally safe and sound, there’s another set of issues to worry about.
Do you think my concerns are overblown? Does your cargo bike inspire confidence? Let me know in the comments below!
I recently received the following email from a reader:
I was researching cargo bikes and just kept seeing your blog pop up. I am very interested in doing a similar set up as yours. I also was interested in elMundo initially. A sidenote on the weight of the elMundo: they are now selling it with the electric components already attached and the shipping weight of the bike and box was 100 lbs. which seemed like a lot.
My question is pretty simple. I haven’t tested a Rans Hammer Truck in person since this is just the planning phase. I read the height of the bike had a 31- 38 inseam. I am 5’5″. I wondered about the comfort of the frame. And if your wife was shorter than you and found the Hammer Truck comfortable… ? Also just to pick your brain (and thank you very much in advance) how did you like the Hammer Truck handling without the electric assist? You mentioned you test rode it for a day…
My plans are just like yours, I want to use it to take my 2 kids to school and errands and fun – reduce car use in general. The kids are 6 and 4 and the bike trailer is just not cutting it these days.
Oh yeah! one more question. I read your post worrying about brakes. Currently with the bike trailer I often hop off and just walk up the hills. My question is, is a cargo bike easy to walk with when it’s carrying about 50- 60 lbs.? Or very tippy?
Thanks for the blog. I am surprised the Yuba people haven’t offered to let you test drive their bike. Surfing I ran across another cargo biker’s blog who actually bumped into the founder/owner while on a bike tour in Europe and had a very good impression of him and a good talk with him.
Thanks again. Happy biking! I am so happy I stumbled across your blog.
Thank you, Jessamin. Your email reminded me that there are still a few things I can say about the Hammer Truck. For many months, I have felt a bit uncomfortable about my bike’s relatively high cost, and I have been researching less expensive bikes that might appeal to a broader market. That has been an interesting project, and I intend to continue doing it for a while. But I don’t own these bikes or ride them on a daily basis. My real expertise is my particular bike, and answering your questions gives me an opportunity to return to familiar territory.
To answer your question about bike height, my wife rides the Hammer Truck very comfortably. At 5’4″, she is a little shorter than you. As you can see in this photo, the seat stem for the Hammer Truck is angled at approximately 45 degrees. When you lower the seat an inch, you also get an inch closer to the handle bars. This seems to scale well for most body types.
While you’re looking at the seat, I will also mention that the inclination of the seat is adjustable. When I first started riding the Hammer Truck, I had the seat almost parallel to the ground, like a normal bike. However, the Rans web site shows their seats tipped forward, so I tried it. It feels a bit like standing and leaning against a wall. Tipping the seat puts a little more weight on your feet, and that’s what you want when you’re riding. The slight curve of the seat back allows you to dig in for a little extra leverage when you need it. These are all helpful when you really need to crank!
The Hammer Truck worked fine without the motor. If we still lived in Denmark where it’s notoriously flat, I wouldn’t have needed the electric assistance. I’ve spent so much time on this blog bemoaning the hills in our neighborhood, I decided I really needed to show you what I mean. Yesterday afternoon, I put my 9-year old son behind the camera, and he took a video of me pushing my daughter up the hill, riding without assistance, and riding with the motor providing maximum assistance.
As you will see, this hill is a monster. When I write about heating issues with my motor and brakes, you need to understand that I’m pushing both to a limit that most people won’t encounter. Despite my occasional complaints, it’s pretty amazing that this bike can handle this kind of challenge. (Note: the scraping noises heard in the video aren’t the bike — my son was balancing the camera on a mailbox to keep it level, and scraping as he pivoted the camera.)
You can also see from the video, pushing the bike uphill is possible, but not fun. The side bars that carry loads so well are approximately where you want to put your feet, so you have to lean over a little. It might be hard to see in the video because I’m already leaning against the hill so much. It’s not as tippy as I thought as long as both hands are on the handlebar. It would be almost impossible to do one-handed.
You might notice my slightly hunched posture when I’m riding in this video. With the Hammer Truck, you generate power by pulling back on the handlebars, engaging the same muscles you would for rowing. In my case, I can produce more cranking force this way than I would standing on my pedals on a traditional bike. It’s more of a full-body workout, especially when I turn the motor off. However, this might not be a good idea for people with fragile knees.
Speaking of cargo bikes on hills, this is probably a good place to mention one of my favorite web pages: Cargo Weight Calculator. The calculator which gives you a rough idea about how much weight you can expect to haul up hills of varying steepness. Another page on the same site shows you how to measure the grade of a hill. Every time I turn off my motor and I’m reminded how hard it is to climb a hill with a load, I return to this web site, punch in the numbers, and I’m assured that there are real, mathematical reasons why it’s difficult. It’s not because my motor is making me lazy. 🙂
Sometimes I get distracted by all the details of this project: the specifications, the prices, the compromises. My blog is kind of heavy on that sort of thing. I occasionally need to remember that there is an emotional and even inspirational side to cargo biking, and my favorite blend of practicality and inspiration comes from the Couch Potato to Full-Time Cyclist blog. If you haven’t seen it, check it out — it’s really a great counterpoint to what you read here.
Regular readers of my blog know that I have been worried about cargo bike brakes for the past several months. Yesterday my wife and kids left for a multi-day camping trip, and I decided this would be the perfect time to do some braking experiments with a loaded cargo bike.
In my mind, there are two kinds of braking I’m asking my bike to do: long, steady descents where I just need to keep my speed in check, and quick emergency stops. I have a lot of experience with the former category – practically every weekday I pick up my kids from the school at the top of our hill and carry them down the steep slope.
On the other hand, I’ve only made a couple of emergency stops during the past year, so I haven’t been as confident in the ability of my brakes to stop a heavy load. This morning before dawn, I loaded our mini-van with the bike and containers of water weighing a total of 180 pounds. My destination was the parking lot behind the Seattle Museum of Flight. I was looking for a long stretch of flat pavement that would allow me space to accelerate and skid to a stop.
And now I’ll cut to the chase. When it comes to the Hammer Truck’s emergency stopping power, the big news is that there is no big news. The bike stopped a combined weight of 420 pounds (180 pounds of water, 160 pounds of me, and 80 pounds of bike) travelling at 20 miles per hour, and it brought me to a complete halt in about the width of a parking space (less than 10 feet). That wasn’t significantly longer than the stopping distance for the unloaded bike. For that matter, it was on par with the stopping performance of our mini-van, and that’s comforting given the frequency I have to ride in mixed traffic. However, I caught the unmistakable whiff of hot brakes and skidding rubber with the increased load. The brakes were definitely working harder, even though they still felt solidly in control.
With considerable relief and bolstered confidence, I decided to repeat the experiment on a patch of wet pavement that had been moistened by the museum’s sprinklers. That turned out to be a mistake. The tires locked and I went into an uncontrolled skid, followed by an awkward low-speed crash. I ended up on the ground, chain torn off the crank, and front wheel turned backwards. Fortunately, neither bike nor rider was injured (but I was grateful there were no spectators at that hour of the morning).
This won’t come as a surprise to experienced cyclists. Braking on wet pavement is a completely different story, and adding a heavy and somewhat badly-balanced load makes things even worse. Perhaps I haven’t given slick pavement the caution it deserves during our damp Seattle winter – now I will.
How applicable are my results to cargo bikes in general? My concerns about emergency braking have been mostly mitigated by these experiments, but with disc brakes on both wheels and the BionX motor assisting with regenerative braking, my bike is probably near the top of the class. It’s possible that less favorable results would occur if you tried to stop a heavier load travelling faster with less capable brakes. Don’t let my unscientific results make you over-confident in your brakes. I recommend doing your own experiments to give your equipment the opportunity to earn your trust.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of my cargo bike and my blog. What an interesting year it has been! I realize I’ve already made that point in several recent blog posts, so I won’t repeat myself here. But I will take just a moment to marvel at the timing of this: shortly after I returned to Seattle following a year of positive biking experiences in Copenhagen, and after deciding the only way to approximate that lifestyle here is with a little electric assistance, multiple manufacturers decided to offer motors on their cargo bikes. The timing couldn’t have been better to enable me to contribute something to this movement.
The title of today’s post (“Looking back, cranking forward”) reflects my desire to reflect on this past year. But it also describes the maneuver I perform on my bike when I want to change lanes or direction, and that’s a pretty good metaphor for my intentions regarding this blogging project. When I started, my main goal was to demonstrate the possibilities of this type of transportation. As more bikes came on the market, I started comparing their features. Then I wrote a few cautionary articles about potential pitfalls and limitations, trying to balance the inevitable marketing hype with a small dose of reality.
Now I’m approaching a decision point. With bigger companies starting to pay attention to cargo bikes, the efforts of a part-time cargo biker may not matter so much. People with bigger megaphones and larger marketing budgets will shape perceptions of cargo biking. Professional staff employed by biking magazines will begin to review these bikes, and I can shift my focus to other things.
At least, this is my hope. If we aren’t on the verge of this scenario, cargo biking may remain a small niche of enthusiasts. I’ve enumerated some of the reasons this could happen: lack of infrastructure, safety concerns, practical issues with weather/clothing/hair, or maybe just the larger size and higher price of these bikes. Even the price of gas figures into the general popularity of biking. The crystal ball is still cloudy.
Nonetheless, there are some interesting developments. For example, check out this marketing video from Trek. It presents biking in a light that might not be familiar to modern Americans. An attractive young woman enjoys doing her errands (buying vegetables and gardening tools from her neighborhood co-op) on her cargo bike at a relaxed pace in a nice suburban setting.
If you don’t find anything unusual about that marketing approach, compare it with this video that presents biking from the more common fanatic/competitive/fitness-oriented perspective:
(Did you watch that? The soundtrack, visuals, and punch line are pretty good! :-)) Granted, this video is promoting a bicycle race, but that’s my point. Many Americans think of Lance Armstrong and Tour de France when they think of biking, not going to pick up their groceries. We’re gradually changing that perception, but it hasn’t happened overnight, and it probably won’t.
Hammer Truck reviews
I’ve been waiting to see more detailed reviews of electric cargo bikes by professional magazines or web sites. Until they materialize, I’ve tried to fill the void with my own mini-reviews, but I can’t afford to buy bikes just to try them, and no manufacturer has offered to loan me one to demo. I can’t say I’m surprised – if they wanted to loan a bike out for review, they would probably choose a professional reviewer with known technical and writing chops.
Although I’m still waiting for those electric cargo bike reviews, I was pleased to see the first detailed review of the Rans Hammer Truck (but no motor added) a few weeks ago on the BikeCommuters.com web site. It’s nice to see a cargo bike critiqued by someone who is knowledgeable about cargo bikes and bicycle components.
While I’m on the topic of the Hammer Truck, I found this article about how to haul heavy loads with it (by Rans founder Randy Schlitter). I thought it was noteworthy that he mentions the dangers of transporting heavy loads downhill – on a bike equipped with both front and rear disc brakes! Most manufacturers are content to provide a single disc brake. Randy mentions other possible points of failure with a degree of candor that I heartily applaud. I recommend reading the article even if you aren’t considering a Hammer Truck as a potential ride.
Cargo bike economy review
Midway through the year, I projected that I would ride my cargo bike approximately 1,000 miles by its first birthday. The actual number appears to be somewhat less: a bit shy of 700 miles. Two things happened that cut my daily mileage: summer (we traveled a lot and I used the mini-van to transport kids to various activities) and a new exercise schedule (my wife and I drive to the local YMCA at 5:00 in the morning instead of me biking over by myself).
However, even though we’re driving the mini-van more than I would like, we cut our annual gasoline bill in half compared to the year before we went to Denmark. That’s partly because we have one less car now and my wife commutes to work by bike and bus. On the other hand, this year we needed to drive our daughter to many far-flung locations for gymnastics practice and competitions. Although the cargo bike isn’t the only factor reducing our gas usage, it is an important part of the program.
Although I may have hinted about our goals in previous blog posts, I don’t see any harm in being explicit about it. During this past year, my family has taken numerous steps to reduce our energy consumption and carbon emissions. We simply think it is wise to live in better balance with our planet and the creatures which need it. A less impactful lifestyle will benefit our country, our environment, and our children.
Last May we installed solar panels on our roof. During the sunny summer months they have produced more than 3 megawatt-hours of electricity – twice what we normally use during that period (the extra electrons flowed into the grid and were shared with our neighbors). But now the sun is going south, the days are getting shorter, and the clouds are returning. Our electricity production will fall below our needs this month for sure.
Federal and local tax incentives make our solar project financially feasible at our northern latitude, but just barely. Even with production credits, it will take us approximately 15 years to recover the investment, unless electricity rates climb significantly during the coming decade. So we’re not doing it just for the money. In these few months, the solar panels have saved the equivalent of nearly 3 tons of carbon dioxide. That feels nice, but most of our electricity comes from hydro-electric and wind power, so the savings may be more theoretical than actual. In any case, we wanted to support these nascent solar technologies so that the companies can survive and improve until solar power is a no-brainer for people around the country.
The next step in our program is to eliminate mini-van usage completely for daily errands. We’re planning to lease a Nissan Leaf all-electric car for about $350/month. Since we spend about $200/month on gas, the real cost of the lease will be about $175-$200/month, but then there’s car insurance and maintenance costs. No matter how we rationalize it, cars are expensive to operate. In comparison, the total bill for maintenance, improvements, and electricity to power my bike was less than $200 for the entire year.
Back to the main topic of this blog. As I review the articles that I’ve posted this year, I’m pleasantly surprised with the quantity of information I’ve been able to convey. Hopefully the quality of my posts was commensurate with that effort. Although I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t think the project will be complete until I get to ride the Transport+ bike from Trek, which I’m hoping will debut in my area next month.
After that, I’m not sure. Writing a quality blog is interesting, somewhat addictive, and time-consuming. I’m open to suggestions, if you think there are topics that aren’t being covered elsewhere.
An eventful year has passed since my first New Year status report. A lot has happened in my life and the cargo biking scene that would have strained my imagination last January. And a few things didn’t happen that I confidently anticipated. I would be thrilled to repeat last year’s progress in 2011, but I’ll try to avoid making any bold and probably inaccurate predictions and instead focus on recent events.
After a flurry of announcements in early fall, there has been little news from cargo bike manufacturers during the past couple of months. Perhaps they think that most Americans aren’t looking for new bikes when so many states are buried in snow. While that seems like a reasonable assumption, my blog has seen no seasonal decrease in interest. On the contrary, every month of 2010 saw significant increases in readership, with literally thousands of unique visitors in December alone. And that was despite the fact that I posted no new articles in December and only two short articles early in November!
But perhaps those statistics deserve closer scrutiny. For example, the top search keyword for my blog (at about 15%) was “fixie”, due to an article I wrote last September. In that post, I predicted that non-electric bikes would someday be viewed like the fixie bikes of today: idealogically pure, but not practical for the average commuter (at least if you live anywhere with moderate hills or wind or traffic intersections). Imagine the horror of someone looking for information on fixies and landing on a blog dedicated to electric cargo bikes – about as polar opposite as you can get in the biking world! And I’m probably skewing future results by mentioning fixies again in this article. Sigh…
On the bright side, 2010 saw the release of two electric cargo bikes (the Ute and elMundo) and the announcement of three more (the Transport+, several models from Onya cycles, and Urban Arrow). Waiting for availability of these latter bikes has required considerable patience. Despite my frequent criticism, Trek’s web site still claims the Transport+ will be available in late fall (they don’t mention which year!). Hey, Trek, is there anyone awake over there?
Some features and prices have evolved since my earlier reviews of the Ute, elMundo, and Transport+. All of these bikes now sell for about $2600, so they must now be evaluated on features (and availability) rather than price. I am pleased to see continued evolution of the elMundo, both in the bike’s features (like the rear disc brake) and the increasing accuracy of the specs published on their web site. For example, I complained in an earlier article that the power rating of their motor seemed inflated, and now it’s fixed. Thanks, Yuba!
I don’t have any news on the Urban Arrow, but I received some interesting feedback from Todd at Clever Cycles regarding my article about it:
Our wariness about the high-speed braking characteristics of bikes in this format [front loader] is why we never pushed the assist concept with them. It’s not just the brakes per se, but the lightly loaded front wheel without a big load, and the relatively small amount of rubber on the road relative to the total kinetic energy of the vehicle. The crashes didn’t happen from not being able to stop the wheels, but when the wheels did in fact stop and the tires lost purchase. Large footprint lower-pressure Big Apple tires, modest motor power with a sensible speed limit, relatively low vehicle mass: these are more reasons to be optimistic that Urban Arrow might be “the one.”
This is a point that I hadn’t considered before. In the past, I’ve worried about braking performance of loaded cargo bikes, and I found that increased load seems to also increase the braking performance of the tires (at least, on dry pavement). The performance of an unloaded tire is therefore of some concern, especially for people riding on steep hills. I’m optimistic that the Urban Arrow will be a good bike for relatively flat terrain; I will be quite interested to see how it performs in our neighborhood.
My Hammer Truck continues to work beautifully. But ironically, it’s not getting much use right now. I used to have a great biking circuit: I would bike with the kids to school, then bike to the Y for a workout, pick up groceries on the way home, and bike back to school to pick the kids up in the afternoon. However, my daughter now rides the bus to her new school, and my son likes to walk with his friends to school. My wife joined the Y, and now we drive there together at 5:00 in the morning. My son joined a gymnastics club which is a 30-minute commute by car, so I pick up groceries on the way home from taking him.
With these changes to our family schedule, I have to invent opportunities to ride the bike, and there isn’t much incentive to do that in the wet winter weather of the Pacific Northwest. When I do get the chance, it feels quite luxurious, and increases my nostalgia for the lifestyle we had in Copenhagen. Some days I spend 2 or 3 hours in the car – a nightmare! We bought a used Prius to increase our gas mileage while we await the arrival of our electric Leaf (perhaps as much as 5 months from now), but I’m discouraged that the layout of our city and the demands of our busy lives make it so difficult to pursue bike-centered transportation.
Kids on board
Speaking of transporting kids, I was recently introduced to a wonderful blog focused on carrying children on bikes: http://totcycle.com. The blog includes a great survey of the options, and it’s broader in scope than anything I’ve written on this subject because it includes non-electric alternatives. If you have young ones, check it out. The photos of kids napping on various bicycle configurations is heartwarming. I only wish I had started biking when my kids were younger.
I recently read an interview with an oil industry analyst who thinks we will see $5/gallon gas in the U.S. by 2012. He thinks this is possible not because of any near-term shortage of oil, but due to fear of shortages as the world’s economies recover.
If this turns out to be true, the timing isn’t great. Expensive fuel will either inhibit the long-awaited economic recovery, or it will spur inflation if our economy manages to power through it.
If there’s a bright side to this prediction, the price of gas is probably the most significant factor in determining how many bicyclists there are on U.S. streets. However, I would rather see people choose bikes for all their benefits rather than because they have a financial gun to their heads. But no matter how it happens, bicycles will play an increasing role in our transportation options. For solo riders with relatively short commutes, a bicycle just makes too much sense from the standpoint of energy expended per mile traveled. And because electric assistance extends the range and lowers the effort for a broader section of our community, it really is possible to see bikes in numbers we’ve never seen in modern America.
I said I wouldn’t make predictions, but if 2011 isn’t the year of the electric bike, no one will be more surprised than I.