“Why do cargo bikes cost so much?”

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

I usually talk about bikes with people who already ride bikes, often cargo bikes, and they don’t freak out when they see the prices of cargo bikes. They may not like the idea of paying for a bike (who would? free is always better) but they understand.

That said, I also hear pretty regularly from people who haven’t purchased a bike since childhood, if ever, and their usual response to the idea that any bike, no matter what it can do, might cost more than $100, is, “It costs HOW much?!?” Followed by the usual, “I could buy a used car,” “I could buy a moped,” muttering and suspicions of profiteering. [Note: for exact numbers, check my many reviews; I always list a price or a range of prices. That said, in general you’re looking at somewhere between $1,500 for an unassisted cargo bike at the low end to $7,500 to a seriously tricked-out, kid-hauling, weather-proofed and assisted cargo bike at the high end, although, as always, devotees can figure out ways to spend more.] This came up again recently, and so I am finally writing about it.

So for those who haven’t purchased bicycles for a while, first things first: All bicycles cost more now than they did when we were kids. That’s inflation. For those of us living in San Francisco, well, the bicycles people ride here cost more than the cruisers students ride around on in college because San Francisco has hills, and if you want to ride your bike up a hill instead of walking it you need gears, and once you introduce gears you are in a whole new world of parts and engineering and labor. So while a new Linus single-speed starts at $400 (curse you, inflation), by the time you get up to 8 speeds a new Dutchi (with no racks or lights) will run more like $850. That only gets us about halfway to the price of a cargo bike at the low end, though. What’s going on?

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

The demands placed on a bike that carries one person and a backpack are very different from the demands placed on a bike that may carry 1-2 adults, 1-4 kids, a cartload of groceries, school backpacks, musical instruments, toys, games, beach tents, a mattress, a bookcase, and tow a trailer, sometimes ALL AT THE SAME TIME. All hail the cargo bike, the minivan slayer! What’s different? Well, if you’re riding that cargo bike unassisted you may well want a wider gear range, because it’s hard to pick up speed with those kinds of loads. More gears=higher costs. The frame has to be stronger, because a cargo bike with a 250-pound load limit (common on bikes intended to carry one person) is ridiculously inadequate. That requires both more materials (=higher costs) and in most cases, a redesign of the frame (=higher costs, engineers have to eat too). If you are carrying those kinds of loads, you’ll also need a different kind of wheel, one with more or thicker spokes to support the weight (=higher costs). If you’re carrying kids, then getting more frequent flats in exchange for thinner, lighter weight tires is a bad deal, so you will probably want heavy flat-resistant monster tires (=higher costs). If you are heading down a steep hill with a heavy load, you will want much better brakes than are common on single-person bicycles (=much higher costs, and worth every penny). You can of course save money by building a bike yourself, but the relevant parts will still cost more.

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

And then there is the assist. There are the mighty-calfed among us, who laugh merrily at the very idea of putting an assist on their bicycles. “Why I carry 300-pound loads of construction materials up the mighty hills of Chicago all the time!” they crow. “You lazy bums don’t need to waste your money on an electric assist! You need the exercise!” And then there are the rest of us, who may be coming to riding after a long layoff, or in the wake of an injury (cough, cough), or who simply don’t view riding around town with kids as a way to achieve Maximum Heart Rate. And even if none of those things applied, the people who “see no reason for an assist” typically have no clue what’s involved in family biking. Carrying 300 pounds or more is a very different proposition with live weight than it is with dead weight, because kids have a terrible habit of not staying where you put them, and on a moving bike, an active kid, let alone two fighting kids, can sometimes overcome your pedal power. Moreover people in flat cities often have little idea what I mean when I say San Francisco is hilly. Here’s a hint: if it’s not taller than you are, then around here we don’t call it a hill. When you ride with (or without) kids up and down the hills of San Francisco, an electric assist starts to look very appealing indeed. Alas, an electric assist is far from free.

The prices of electric assists are pretty easy to understand, because they work almost exactly like the prices of bikes: the more they can do, the more they cost. You can get a low-end electric assist for $500. This is often a great option for a single person who needs an occasional boost, and who doesn’t mind the larger size, greater weight, shorter lifespan, and environmental consequences of using a lead-acid battery. (Yes, they sell e-bikes at Walmart that cost $500 together; these are the kinds of assists they have, and as one might imagine, the bike itself terrible.) Prices go up from there. You’ll pay more for a pedal assist that works almost without you noticing than you will for a twist-throttle assist on the handlebars that may feel like it will give you carpal tunnel syndrome. More powerful batteries that can easily push a cargo bike cost more than the kind designed for bikes with less intense loads. More range for a longer ride also commands a higher price. On the high end, the BionX D that we have on our Bullitt retails for $2,500; regular readers will know we paid less because fortune smiled and our battery died a week before its warranty expired. Again, you can save money with a do-it-yourself assist, but the parts suitable for a cargo bike are still going to cost more than the parts suitable for a lighter bike.

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers' market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers’ market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

All of this is before we get to accessories. Racks and baskets and bags to carry kids and gear cost money. Anyone who has every purchased a car seat knows that child seats cost money. Lights cost money, and you’ll need them if you’re riding at night. If you’re riding a bike for transportation, you might find it worthwhile to add dynamo lights to your bicycle, as they are very bright yet unappealing to steal, and these cost more money than clip-on lights. Some front loaders come with rain covers, which cost even more money, but can extend the number of months you ride in the year. And after spending all that money on the bike, it’s also rare than people feel comfortable locking up with a cheap lock; tougher locks cost much more than the cable I locked up my bike with as a kid.

In summary, the price of cargo bikes goes up more or less in lockstep with the quality of the parts. That means that what you are buying as the price goes up is (a) greater safety, to some extent, as with the wheels and brakes. We came to cargo biking relatively early in the scheme of things, which means, like, 2011, and made various screw-ups with crappy brakes and non-Clydesdale wheels and so on. If I can no other good in this world, I would be thrilled if I could prevent someone else from making these same mistakes, which have the potential to make family biking seem scary instead of fun. You are also potentially buying (b) greater convenience, to some extent, as with less flat-prone tires and dynamo lights, and (c) more ability to handle difficult terrain, as with the gears and the assist.

Your circumstances and skills may save you money. If you live in territory that’s flat and/or you have one skinny kid, and/or you are already very fit, you can save money by not getting an assist, and by choosing less powerful brakes. If you know how to build a bike or have electrical skills, you can save money by doing some of the work yourself (that said, I have met only one person who built her own battery instead of buying it retail and she was an electrical engineer). You may conclude on reflection that you don’t need the carrying capacity of a cargo bike, and a child seat on the bike and/or a trailer is sufficient for your needs. They are all good options.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

So cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes to buy and always will be. However there is good news. First, as those hoping for a price break may already have discovered, they last basically forever, retain their value well, and sell quickly on the secondhand market. Second, the maintenance costs are pretty much bupkis. Even if you ran down the entire battery on your brand-new assisted cargo bike and recharged it from zero every night and rode so hard that you had to replace multiple parts on an annual basis and insured it like it was made of platinum, you would still be hard-pressed to spend more than a few hundred dollars a year once you bought it. Compared to the “cheap” used car or moped people sometimes mention as “equivalent,” which can run up those kinds of expenses annually on insurance alone or oil changes alone, let alone the cost of gas and regular maintenance, and which depreciate at a rate that is equivalent to financial hemorrhage, cargo bikes are cheap at twice the price. All the cost is upfront. That’s not trivial, which is why bike shops are increasingly working on the financial side to spread some of that cost over time. Alternatively, you could do what we did and finance your new cargo bike(s) by selling your car.

So our bikes save us money, but more importantly they save us time and stress. They also make me the only parent at my office who gets regular exercise. There have moments in the last few years when we thought we might have to buy a car again at some point, and the thought filled us with despair. There’s no way to put a price on any of that, but altogether these things are worth much more than we’ve spent. All things considered, a cargo bike is a screaming good deal.

 

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Filed under car-free, commuting, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

What we did this summer

Rare photo of both household adults together in the wild, at the Conservatory of Flowers

Rare photo of both household adults together in the wild, at the Conservatory of Flowers

All’s well that ends well. I have completed my surgical hat trick of being operated on at every UCSF campus, and am feeling fine. Better every day, in fact. After that, I took two weeks of vacation and used the SF Public Library’s Family Pass program to take the kids to nearly every museum in San Francisco and environs. A friend of mine once described the experience of using the library’s family pass program as entering the family version of Eddie Murphy’s “White Like Me” sketch on Saturday Night Live. “Oh you have kids? You can visit for freeeeeeeeeeee!” Even so the family passes used to be something of a hassle to use, as getting into popular museums involved sprinting down to the local branch first thing in the morning at the beginning of the week. The SFPL recently joined the rest of us in the 21st century, though, and now you can download passes electronically for any available date. It is, in a word (an overused word): awesome. I realize I may be undercutting my own best interests next summer here by putting that out on the internet. You’re welcome.

The SF Exploratorium: it was surprisingly easy to get a family pass through the library program (until now, I guess)

The SF Exploratorium: it was surprisingly easy to get a family pass through the library program (until now, I guess)

My other vaguely public service type action over the last few weeks was also internet-related. Those of you active on Facebook may be aware already that there are a couple of very active family biking groups local to Seattle and Portland. I am ashamed to admit that I have known about both for years, and posted to both, and yet it never really crossed my mind that such a thing might be nice to have in San Francisco. However I recently met two families who had moved to San Francisco from Seattle, and finally felt guilty enough after meeting them both at a local taco shop during our homestay vacation (Hi Cate and Elisabeth!) that I created a San Francisco Family Biking Facebook group myself. It’s a public group (for the time being at least) and anyone is welcome to join. Hope to see you there!

These racks filled up and later arrivals had to go to the overflow racks

These racks filled up and later arrivals had to go to the overflow racks

Another thing I did this summer was try some new family bikes to hit the market: the new mid-drive Xtracycle EdgeRunner and the Juiced ODK. And we hope to do a short-term rental of Yuba’s new Spicy Curry from Vie Bikes one day soon as well. In the meantime, today was the first day of school, and Team Bicycle remains strong at Rosa Parks Elementary. We’re going to need more bike racks.

 

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco

In and out

How my kids see me lately, in compost form.

How my kids see me lately, in compost form. Mostly sleeping.

There are times when everything goes well, and times when it does not. In the last six months or so, things have been pretty quiet around our place, because I have been dealing with a persistent and annoying bout of anemia.

Having my leg smashed into shrapnel was my personal introduction to invisible disability, where I suddenly understood that not everyone who looked able-bodied and took the elevator up and down a single floor was being lazy. Dealing with anemia has been my personal introduction to chronic disease, and I can’t say I’m a big fan. I’ve found spoon theory is a pretty accurate depiction. Spoon theory proposes the analogy that every activity in life requires a spoon, and that when you are dealing with chronic disease you get only a limited supply of spoons. Once you run out of spoons you can’t do anything else for the rest of the day. So for example, last weekend we went sea kayaking with our kids. This was fun, but in exchange I had to stay in bed for the rest of the weekend.

As one might imagine, this kind of limited energy has put a crimp on our usual summer plans, which usually involve biking around the city all the time. Some days I can ride, and some days I find that I can’t. Things are getting better, and lately I have been riding more days than not. However I have been heavily triaging on all fronts. I haven’t fallen too far behind at work, however updates to the blog have been limited, it’s been months since I last checked my personal email, and so forth. Also I have been very grouchy, because seriously: who would want to live this way?

Fortunately for me, this turns out to be a curable condition. Less fortunately, it means that I have to have another surgery. Tomorrow. That’s right: three years in a row! I’m sure that’s not a world record, but it’s definitely a personal one. Nonetheless I’m grateful that this isn’t going to last forever, and that I have the chance to get better.

When we started riding with our kids, I took my strength and good health for granted. Riding up the hills of San Francisco was difficult but not impossible. I assumed that using an electric assist would make me lazy, not yet realizing that at certain times, it would be the only thing that allowed me to ride at all. In hindsight, this is all very humbling. And surprising: I would never have believed, five years ago, that it was possible to keep riding after getting run over, when I needed a cane just to walk, or when I needed to stop and catch my breath every few steps while going up a staircase. And yet I could ride through all of that. I have heard people say that there is no form of transportation more efficient than a bicycle. It is experiences like these that make me realize what that really means, and that somewhere there is a (possibly assisted) bicycle (or tricycle) suitable for everyone. Now all we need are more safe places to ride.

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Filed under commuting, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

We tried it: Burley Travoy

travoy

Our Burley Travoy, ready for the market

This may well be the most-delayed review I’ve ever written. We got a Burley Travoy for Christmas in 2011, and have used it regularly for 3.5 years. It is sort of a stealth accessory, because it’s not exclusively used on our bikes. It is a multipurpose urban hauler.

The Travoy made a bit of splash when it first came out several years ago, because it was the first trailer with an advertising campaign that suggested that people wearing suits might use it while biking to the office. Ride a bike to work in a suit? What kind of craziness is that? Although to be honest, even though I totally ride to work in dress clothes, the commute to work is one of the few things for which we’ve never used the Travoy. Anyway, since then it seems to have faded somewhat from the cargo hauling consciousness. There are reasons for that, but I think the Travoy is somewhat underappreciated, just like my favorite bicycle accessory of all time, the bungee net. Granted, it is many times more expensive than a bungee net, but in its defense, it can do a lot more. Six word review?

Burley Travoy: goes anywhere, hauls anything*

*except a box spring, the bête noire of all family bikers

What I like about the Travoy

  • It hauls anything. I mean, not ANYTHING, not a house or a car, because physics, but pretty much anything you might actually need to haul. Groceries and work supplies like laptops, duh, but
    This is how we got around at Camp Mather.

    This is how we got around at Camp Mather.

    that is just the beginning. There are photos all over the internet of people hauling bikes on Travoys, full-size bikes, not just Bromptons (which fit nicely). Boxes bigger than actual human beings are no problem, there are straps for that. I have been obsessing somewhat over disaster preparation ever since I took the SF Fire Department’s NERT (Neighborhood Emergency Response Team) training, and a Travoy would be worth its weight in platinum in any kind of post-disaster scenario. When we went to Camp Mather last summer, which is a car-free and sometimes off-road environment, I used the Travoy every day to ride from our cabin to the lake. It attached to the Brompton and typically carried: two umbrella chairs, a pop-up sun tent, multiple pool toys, books, sunscreen, 4 water/wine bottles, 4 bag lunches, 4 beach towels, 4 changes of clothes, and so forth, plus whatever random rocks and other crap my kids snuck in there when I wasn’t looking. We have a habit of pushing right to the edge of the 50 item checkout limit at the library, and we all have our own library cards. Although I suspect that the resulting loads fall somewhat beyond the Travoy’s official 60 pound (27 kilo) capacity, it has never had issues carrying them. I would probably not attempt larger furniture items, but who knows.

  • When I say it hauls anything: yes, that includes a kid. IMPORTANT: carrying your child on a Travoy will unquestionably void any express or implied manufacturer’s warranty, because Burley specifically tells you not to
    How to void your warranty (photo used with permission)

    How to void your warranty (photo used with permission)

    do that. But let’s face it, just like every other family biker, I push bicycles and bicycle accessories far, far beyond their suggested use cases. I was once cautious like every other newbie, but life happens, and one day you find yourself in a position where you need to carry a kid in the front basket or on a cargo trailer, and then it happens again, and sooner or later you realize that the universe is full of surprises and you might as well roll with them. So now I test upfront for all the stupid stuff I know I’m eventually going to do with the bike/accessories, rather than facing disappointment later on when I’m desperate. Would this be a good option for a daily commute? Absolutely not. Would I strap an infant car seat on the Travoy? Hell no. Can I imagine doing it when I had an unplanned kid pick up one day? Yes, I can. So anyway yes, this can be done, and yes, it will also almost certainly inspire some drive-by parenting, but then again, what doesn’t?

  • It attaches to nearly any bike. Longtail decks are a maybe (I have been told that it’s doable but would require either extreme handiness or the assistance of a local bike shop) and for obvious reasons it cannot be used in combination with a trailer or trailer-bike. The Travoy ships with a seat-post clip-in attachment; this is what we use on the Brompton. You can also buy a Burley clamp and attach it to a rear rack; this is how we had it set up on the Breezer.
  • The Travoy can be used as a hand cart. It is designed for this, as the bike attachment can be folded down, leaving a nice padded pull bar that is so comfortable to hold
    Fold down the bike attachment and you can push or pull it with this handle.

    Fold down the bike attachment and you can push or pull it with this handle.

    that our kids fight over who gets to pull it when it’s unloaded. Since we moved last year, this has become our primary use for the Travoy, because our new place is one block away from the farmers’ market. We used to ride to the market but given our new location we can walk there in roughly the same time it takes to get the bikes out of the garage. If you are city people, as we are, you have already seen people hauling their shopping around in folding metal hand carts, because in major cities only crazy people shop by car and trying to carry 3-4 bags of groceries in your arms or a backpack is excruciating. Anyway, you can buy cheap hand carts that break after a few months for $20 in Chinatown, or you can spring for $100 versions that will last for years. Or in our case, you can glance at the Travoy sitting next to the bikes and realize you already have a hand cart. Bonus: the big air-filled wheels mean that it can be dragged up staircases fully-loaded, something traditional folding hand carts resist strenuously.

  • There are bags and straps for various stuff-hauling scenarios, and the clip system that attaches them is very clever.
    A closeup of the clever clip for attaching bags (four per bag)

    A closeup of the clever clip for attaching bags (four per bag)

    It comes with a bag that can carry the folding Travoy or be attached to the unfolded trailer. Given our regular farmers’ market run, we eventually got the shopping bags; a small bag on top holds fragile items like berries and flowers, and a large bag on the bottom holds heavy stuff. Apparently these bags aren’t big sellers because we got them for like half-off, but they are great. There are travel bags that are somewhat more insulated for laptops or checked luggage, and waterproof roll-top bags for some reason, I don’t know why. You can use the two included straps to hold large boxes; bungees are also an option.

  • The Travoy folds up into a tiny package, which can be dropped into the included bag. This is especially nice for those of us who live in cities where real estate prices exceed $1000 per square foot, but it’s not unwelcome
    Push the button in the middle and the wheel pops off.

    Push the button in the middle and the wheel pops off.

    in any scenario. Bike storage can be a hassle, especially cargo bike storage. We have two kids, a ridiculously large garage, and we do not own a car, so bike storage is a no problem for us personally. However if we had one kid and lived in a tiny walk-up apartment with no garage or storage, as we did when we first came to San Francisco, the Brompton + Pere seat + Travoy combination would be a category-killer, because together they take up less space than a folding metal hand cart. Actually, as regular readers know, I have regularly carried two kids on our Brompton; one on the Pere seat and one standing on the rear deck. You could easily stick the whole kit behind the front door. Alternatively, our old landlord let people keep trailers and strollers in the building lobby. The folding mechanism is very clever, however it is definitely a two-handed operation only suitable for the able-bodied. Our son (9 years), for example, does not yet have the hand strength to push the side buttons in simultaneously to collapse each portion of the trailer; those with limited hand strength might need to find another trailer or leave it in the open position permanently. The buttons on each axle that pop the wheels off, on the other hand, are extremely easy to operate.

  • At less than 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) unloaded, the Travoy is light enough to carry anywhere. What’s more the fact that it leans over while in use gives it an extremely small footprint, and it’s narrower than the handlebars on our bikes. This is not a trailer that you have to worry about threading through traffic pinch points or the (sadly necessary) bollards blocking the entrances of multi-use paths to cars.
  • There are multiple grab points on the trailer in both the open and closed positions, as I alluded earlier. Flip down the bike attachment point and the Travoy becomes a hand cart (bags attached) or hand truck (bags
    The hand truck mode, no bags

    The hand truck mode, no bags

    detached). Fold it down at the center point and fold up the bottom plate and it can be carried in one hand like a briefcase.

  • The Travoy can be operated with flat tires. It is pathetic that I can testify to this, but in my defense, I know I’m not the only Travoy owner who sometimes forgets to pump up the tires. More than once I have found myself griping about the Travoy’s poor handling, only to discover when I got home that both tires were completely flat. Ignoring routine maintenance on this trailer will affect the handling, but it will still work.
  • Attaching and detaching this trailer on to and off of the bike is simple and secure. All you have to do is place the hole over the pin and drop it in. It is held in place by a spring-loaded arm, and having taken this trailer off road, I can report that it will not shake loose even under rough conditions. To release it, pull back the spring arm and lift up the attachment point. Because of the geometry, it is easy to lift the trailer off the attachment point even when fully loaded, because the tires hold all the weight. Easy peasy.

What I don’t like about the Travoy

  • The Burley Travoy is more over-accessorized than Batman. This is confusing and annoying. It comes with one bag, which you can store the folded trailer in, and pretty understandably, most people think that that is all that there is. However there are additional shopping bags and travel bags and waterproof bags, and at least the shopping bags are far better designed for carrying stuff than the included trailer bag. They are so much better designed, in fact, that I think that they should be included with the trailer. I see no point to the travel bags; other user reviews have noted that Burley is not a luggage manufacturer and that parts like the shoulder straps are uncomfortable. It would be more useful to be able to buy clips that allow you to attach any bag you already own to the Travoy, yet to the best of my knowledge these don’t exist. I have no idea what purpose the waterproof bags serve; I have yet to meet anyone who has one. Similarly, the Travoy comes with a couple of tie-down straps, and you can buy more tie-down straps, and it comes with a seat post attachment, but you can buy a rear rack clamp if you have a child seat or whatever on the bike and can’t reach the seat post from behind, and so on, and even trying to write all this stuff down gives me decision fatigue despite the fact that I am a researcher by inclination, training, and profession.
  • The kickstand is wretched. A friend calls it “the penis stick,” which, yes, it does resemble, noting that “you can’t use it as a leg.” With extended use, some people’s kickstands break off. Ours has remained attached, but it
    This kickstand is not entirely useless, but it is the weakest point on the whole trailer.

    This kickstand is not entirely useless, but it is the weakest point on the whole trailer.

    is unreliable, and will sometimes collapse unexpectedly when we try to balance the Travoy on it. Is it a deal-killer? No, it’s not the end of the world if the trailer tips over. Is it as annoying as heck? It definitely is. The kickstand would be bombproof if it were welded into position and didn’t fold away, like on every other folding hand cart in the known universe. Having the kickstand extended permanently wouldn’t really affect how small the trailer folds away so it’s basically another case of unnecessary “features.”

  • The trailer bag that is included with the Travoy, when it is attached to the trailer to carry groceries or whatever, tends to scrape against the wheels. That is because, unlike the shopping and luggage bags, the trailer bag has no rigid internal structure. If you drop three bunches of carrots in the bag, they fall right to the bottom and once the trailer is tilted back to be pulled, they often shift and rest on the edges of the wheels. This is part of the reason that I failed to notice the tires had gone flat so many times; when the trailer bag is filled on the Travoy, I learned to expect poor handling because of the wheel scraping. If you notice it, you can sometimes rearrange the bag’s contents around a little bit and get them off the wheels for the remainder of your trip. Since we moved to using the shopping bags almost exclusively, this is no longer a problem. However this solution requires buying extra bags.
  • Although the folding mechanism is clever, each folding point can be sticky. This seems to be somewhat random; sometimes they pop right into action, and sometimes you have to poke around for a while.
  • The trailer attachment point sticks sometimes, particularly on the Brompton, which holds the Travoy at a slightly different angle than Burley seems to have intended. The same issue would arise for short riders on properly-fitted bikes and for children. To attach and detach the trailer from the Brompton, I sometimes have to lift the bike a couple of inches off the ground.
  • Technically the Travoy can only carry 60 pounds (27 kilos). Given that we’ve owned ours long enough that any warranty has long since expired, I’m comfortable sharing the fact that in our experience, it can carry much more. Nevertheless, do this at your own risk. Similarly, Burley doesn’t really support people carrying anything but its designated bags on the Travoy, which underestimates its true capabilities.
  • The Travoy, yee-argh, it’s kind of expensive. Maybe this would feel less painful if you were already planning on dropping a Benjamin on a folding hand cart, but still. The current list price is $300, although it goes on sale sometimes (we bought ours years ago and paid a lot less than that; seeing the current price was an unpleasant shock). What’s more the Travoy is almost as hard to find used as a Brompton child seat, because it’s both useful and easy to store, so no one has any reason to get rid of one once they have it. It’s definitely an investment kind of accessory. We have no regrets because after all the years we’ve owned it, the cost is fully amortized plus it’s got years of use left, but you know, our kids’ bikes cost less than that. Plus there are the endless potential accessory purchases as well. On the other hand, as always, it’s cheaper than a car.

So the Burley Travoy: we like it and we’d get it again, despite the fact that figuring out the accessories gave me a headache and despite the annoyance of having it tip over sometimes. The Travoy folds up like origami and can haul virtually everything we need. We are moving out of the years when going somewhere with our kids requires dragging along an obscene quantity of stuff, so our use has declined, but it we still take weekly trips to the farmers’ market and the library, and as a result, our Travoy more than earns its keep.

 

 

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Filed under Brompton, car-free, cargo, reviews

A city without cars

vapstop

Waiting for the vaporetto

Over spring break we went to Europe. This was a long-delayed trip, in honor of our son’s request, years ago, to visit a city without cars. There are parts of multiple cities that are car-free, and we have visited some of these (including, on this trip, in Bordeaux and Paris), and there are a few car-free places that are more bucolic (like Mackinac Island in Michigan) but there is only really one city that has (virtually) no cars, and that city is Venice.

Venice is both an easy and a hard city to love. The easy part to love is the beauty and the incredible sense of safety and comfort that comes from being someplace that is truly car-free.

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Our kids acclimated almost immediately and after a week, it was an unpleasant shock to step off the water taxi to walk to Marco Polo airport and discover a crosswalk. They were not prepared for passing cars despite our warnings and tried to run across as they would have in Venice proper. Less appealing is that Venice has been loved almost to death. Venice hosts more tourists than it has permanent residents every day of the year, and it is packed with people, all of whom seem to be hauling wheeled suitcases (which are, incidentally, almost totally useless in a city that uses bridges with stairs to allow people cross canals every few meters). What’s more, the city is riddled with tourist traps and it can be a challenge to find services that normal people use, like grocery stores, laundromats, and pharmacies. Also, unlike in the rest of Italy, we ate some of the worst meals of our lives in Venice. We are as guilty of doing touristy things as the next family, of course: we took our first gondola ride while we were there, and it was awesome. I do not dismiss all things touristy out of hand.

This is a Venetian handtruck: pull it up the stairs and the load stays steady, then flip it around and bounce it down.

This is a Venetian handtruck: pull it up the stairs and the load stays steady, then flip it around and bounce it down.

I have become kind of obsessed with transportation over the last few years, so I was fascinated by how Venice worked. I took pictures of garbage boats and ambulance boats, and checked all the squares for the water cisterns, which historically were filled by filtered rainwater. You can still see the cache drains, although the cisterns have all been capped off and water is now piped. On the way out, though, sewage still drains right out into the canals, yeeargh. I digress. Goods and people in Venice move primarily by boat. For deliveries, one boat worker ties up the boat at the nearest dock to the destination, and the other grabs a hand truck to make deliveries. The hand trucks have two large wheels and two small wheels, so they can be dragged up steps on one side of each crossing bridge, and bounced back down on the other side, without tipping. I found the whole process fascinating to watch. Sometimes they cut out the middleman: we spotted more than one boat that served as a floating market.

Cement trucks on a barge! Words fail me.

Cement trucks on a barge! Words fail me.

The inability of Venice to handle any auto traffic whatsoever becomes surreal at times. We watched a barge pull up to a construction site carrying two cement trucks, which proceeded to mix and pour cement while tied up to the edge of the canal. It is patently ridiculous to use a truck to mix and pour cement in a car-free city, but this is pretty much the only way we have anymore to make large quantities of cement, so that’s what they did. It was moments like this that made me understand that what it really means to live in a completely car-dependent culture; I realized that certain things cannot be done any other way.

“Accessible” Venice, sometimes.

I spent a fair bit of time wondering whether the way that Venice worked could be exported to modern cities, given that is still the only car-free city in the world. And my conclusion was: sort of. One thing that makes Venice wonderful is the complete separation between different modes of transit, and this could and should be done everywhere. It is safe to walk anywhere (assuming you don’t walk right into a canal; this is Europe and governments don’t bother with safety rails) because the only motor traffic is in the water. In lieu of buses people ride the vaporetti, which honestly completely trump both buses and trains for unrelenting coolness. And unless they are on strike, they come every few minutes; it’s not like they’re going to get stuck in traffic. One thing that could never be exported is the relentless use of stairs, which makes the city totally inaccessible to the non-able bodied. The entire city is like Escher’s Relativity lithograph. There were occasional ramps, but only on the largest bridges, because most places there simply isn’t enough room for them. Riding bicycles is completely out of the question. We saw a few kids on scooters, but only those who had parents patient enough to carry them up and down the stairs every 100 steps or so. Strollers are basically nonexistent. Even so, I understand why people dream of living in Venice, despite the mostly-terrible food and the madding crowds and the near-impossibility of washing the clothes our kids threw up on during the plane ride. A car-free city is peaceful, and quiet, and beautiful. Even though the sewers dump right into the canals, the air is clean. We could let the kids run free. It was hard to leave and return to places where we always have to be alert, just to keep from being killed. After just a few hours in Venice it becomes clear that doesn’t have to be that way; we could redesign cities for people. And yet it is.

This is everywhere in Venice.

This is everywhere in Venice.

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We tried it: Butchers & Bicycles MK1-E

I am one of the worst people on earth to offer an objective opinion about a tricycle. We have tried them before and the experience was off-putting. My conclusion then was that trikes are great when stopped and terribly unstable in motion, which is just the opposite of bicycles, and also diametrically opposed to my transportation needs. There are lots of reasons that a tricycle could work for other people: for example, the Exploratorium has an XL Bakfiets that it wheels along the Embarcadero and sets up with little science exhibits for people walking by. This is a perfect use for a trike.

My family is not a museum, however, and I have had a chip on my shoulder about trikes since August of 2012. But a while back I started hearing about a different kind of trike, a tilting trike, which seemed to resolve one of my biggest issues with tricycles, namely that they are a bear to turn. The first Butchers & Bicycles promo trailer I saw did something I had previously thought was impossible: it made a tricycle look kind of badass. What’s more, there was an assisted version, which held the promise of allowing a tricycle to move at speeds approaching those of a bicycle and to go up hills, which were some of my other major issues with tricycles.

I was ready to get over years of tricycle-skepticism, so the weekend before we went to Europe, we rented an MK1-E from Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before is rolling out their family bike rental program in San Francisco, and presumably eventually the world, and which is amazing because it means that you don’t have to travel to another city (as we did) to try a bunch of different family bikes. And as is fitting for San Francisco terrain their rental bikes are all assisted, because second-hilliest-city-in-the-world-and-yes-it-gets-windy-here-too-blah-blah-blah. My take: the MK1-E would never have been right for us and it’s got some kinks to work out, but it could definitely be a good fit for other families. My six-word review?

MK1-E: first trike I’d ride twice.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

Some terminology: there are at least two kinds of tricycles. Some have two wheels in the front, and these are called tadpole trikes. Some have two wheels in the back, and these are called delta trikes. The MK1-E is a tadpole trike, which allows you to carry the kids in front.

What I liked about the MK1-E

  • The tilt-steering is amazing. Whee! Sure, it looks cool in the videos. Nonetheless I tried to assume nothing, because I have been fooled before. And anyway this is a Danish trike and Kierkegaard tells us to trust our own senses. However if you trust mine, I can attest that turning this trike is just as fun as it looks, and super-snappy as well. It makes tight turns, the kind of turns that seem unimaginable when looking at it. Because it’s quite short, I would even go so far as to call it nimble (for a cargo bike/trike).
    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Warning: this kind of agility does not come intuitively to the inexperienced rider. The usual rules for test-riding cargo bikes apply: do not be fooled by the fact that trikes are stable when stopped (years of test-riding cargo bikes and yet I was fooled). It takes some practice to get the hang of riding a tilting trike and I would suggest practicing with the box empty. I went around the block a couple of times and was then ready to haul some real weight. No problem. My squealing cargo enjoyed the tilting turns too.

  • The box is swank. Like a Bakfiets, the MK1-E allows the kids to sit straight upright with their legs at a 90 degree angle. Trikes are all height and width, unlike trailers or longtails. What’s more this trike, like a lot of the European kid-haulers, puts a lot of effort into their comfort. The bench seat is padded (and has a locked compartment inside) and there are three-point belts. The weather cover is unbelievably well-designed. It is tall enough that my 9-year-old didn’t bump his head and has waterproof zippers that allow you to
    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    open the front and the back for ventilation. The front door to the box is more like the door of the cabin we rented at Camp Mather than anything I had seen on a bike/trike before. Part of the reason I tried to ride with the kids in it at first is that they saw that box, dove in, and didn’t want to get out. And although my kids are a bit old for the target market at ages 6 and 9, they both fit just fine in there. There is a little box behind their heads as well, where the battery is stored (more about this later) and which has extra room for a small bag. If you took two kids shopping they’d end up with bags piled around them for sure, but you could probably add a shopping cart’s worth of stuff on top of those two kids that way.

  • The kids sit in front. I’ve waxed on about this many times before, so I’ll keep it brief: having kids in front is awesome, it’s easier to talk with them, it’s easier to break up fights if more than one kid is in there, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on, etc.
  • The MK1-E has a front stand. The trikes we’ve ridden in the past didn’t have parking technology. You stopped pedaling and (ideally) it stopped moving, the end. This raises some issues. First, good luck stopping on a hill, or even a mild slope. Second, with a tadpole trike, when the kids climb into the front of the box, it can tip forward and go into a nose stand. This kind of thing is disconcerting at best and dangerous at worst, and back in 2012 led to an “I’m not getting back in there” protest from my son. Apparently someone at Butchers & Bicycles had the same bad experience that we did, because there is a pedal that allows you deploy a super-stable 2-legged stand right at the front of the box. When the kids climb aboard the trike will not tip. To raise the stand, push the trike forward and up it goes.
  • The parts on this trike are really nice, suggesting that the manufacturers assumed that you might be riding in conditions that are not ideal (e.g. a flat, separated path with no cars, no other riders, no pedestrians, and no traffic signals—in other words, the kind of conditions shown in all cargo bike ads and never experienced by their actual riders). Yes, Virginia, there is a tricycle with hydraulic disc brakes, and it is called the MK1-E. The rest of the parts are in the same class. Butchers & Bicycles did not stint.
  • This trike is assisted, and the assist is a mid-drive, which tend to be powerful. It’s a fully-contained system and built into the trike. It comes on smoothly and is powerful enough to move this
    Here's the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    Here’s the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    trike, which is not light by any stretch of the imagination, up some meaningful hills. It is also almost completely silent, which I did not expect. The controller is intuitive, and placed next to the left grip where it’s easy to adjust. Using this assist with a fully-loaded trike on the flats or a mild incline is like flying; in the park, whizzing along, I felt like Batman. This is not an experience I associate with a lot of cargo bikes, our beloved Bullitt excepted. There’s something about going fast with a load in front that evokes it.

  • This trike is clearly built for commuting. It has the NuVinci n360 drivetrain, which I’m not sure I’ve discussed before, but which I’ve also tried on an Edgerunner. Basically it’s an internal hub with an infinite number of gears, which you adjust by turning the gear grip so that your little avatar bicycle in the view window on the handlebars appears to be riding on the flats or riding up a hill, to reflect the actual terrain around you. And then the gears do the thing without you having to worry about petty details like which number makes sense for this hill, because there are no numbers. It’s an internal hub, so you can shift while stopped. The chain is enclosed, and the MK1-E has daytime running lights, fenders, a bell and a rear rack: all the usual suspects.
  • Everything is adjustable. I started out with the seat down low, as I always do on test-rides, but this is not really necessary with a trike, so I popped it up; you can do this without tools because it has a little flip lever for just this purpose. However unlike a quick release, the seat post is not removable, so having this feature doesn’t increase the odds that someone will steal your saddle. The handlebars are also adjustable using a lever, just like on the Bullitt; a couple of blocks into my ride I was feeling a little cramped and then realized, hey, I can just raise the handlebars, so I did. I don’t know the official word on what size rider can handle this trike, but I suspect it’s a very wide range indeed. With the upright posture you have on a trike, the reach is not going to overwhelm the short, and the seat and handlebars can go way up for the tall.
  • The trike is very short, with respect to length. Next to the Bullitt, viewed from the side, it looked tiny. And yet it is still a real cargo… bike-like thing with wheels that I’m trying really hard to
    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    avoid calling a bike because it’s a trike. This is handy on turns and also could be useful in certain parking situations, where length is an issue. There are several questionably-placed bike racks in San Francisco that spring to mind.

  • No worries about stopping and dumping the kids. It won’t tip over if you don’t get a foot down, because it’s a trike, and trikes are stable when stopped. This is very hard to get used to if you are even an occasional bike rider. At red lights I kept trying to stabilize the MK1-E, which eventually I pictured kind of rolling its eyes at me.
  • As usual, a decent front-loader will set you back several grand: the MK1-E lists at $6200, while the unassisted version is a somewhat more palatable $4300. Seats, seat belts and rain hoods are extra.

What I didn’t like about the MK1-E

  • Tricycles are wide, like as wide as houses, and the MK1-E is no exception. This is the obvious tradeoff, of course, for being short and giving the kids lots of headroom (curse you, Euclidean geometry). The MK1-E owned the bike lane and sometimes even more. I wasn’t particularly worried about getting doored, because that front box would most
    Side by side, however, the Bullitt appears much smaller than the MK1-E.

    Side by side, however, the Bullitt is much narrower than the MK1-E.

    likely take out the distracted driver’s door and not even rattle the kids inside, but it did mean that there were times in traffic when I couldn’t pass like I normally do. When I rode it on and off the sidewalk to park, or in front of our house, I realized pretty quickly that my usual “go up through the curb cut” method was not working, because the trike is so wide that only one wheel could fit in the curb cut and the other one either slammed down or had to be wrenched up. The MK1-E made me a driveway-spotter, because I needed that kind of width. It was a little nerve-wracking getting it through the bollard-protected entrance path to Golden Gate Park the first time I tried. We chose a narrow bike for its maneuverability in San Francisco; this trike is far from that. If you’re used to riding with a trailer, the MK1-E would probably be an improvement, because the width is in front so you can see whether the load you’re trying to thread will fit, but if you’re used to a bike, it is definitely an adjustment. What’s more, there are lots of situations where a wide tricycle will be very difficult to park. Poorly placed bike racks are often too close to each other, or to nearby bollards or street lights, and that front box takes up a lot of room.

  • The battery does not fit tightly inside its compartment. What that meant was that when I went over a serious bump, it disconnected and the assist turned off. The first time it happened I thought I had overheated the assist going up the hill, and trying to go up the hill behind the Conservatory of Flowers on a big heavy trike unassisted is pretty much the opposite of fun. For the record I was bringing it like a boss up that hill while unassisted, albeit a slow and deliberate boss. However it is not really
    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    supposed to be possible to overheat a mid-drive assist (so far I have not been able to manage it, anyway). The guy from Vie realized what had happened when we swung back to grovel about breaking the trike in less than 20 minutes. He reconnected the battery and showed me how to do it as well. So okay, but then I went over the streetcar tracks, and it disconnected again, and then hit an asphalt crack, and it disconnected, and criminy. So I started thinking, “Maybe I could get a mini-bungee, and find a way to strap it down, I wonder if there are attachments…” And then I thought, “Wait a minute: shouldn’t a battery that stays put when you ride over a bump really be a given on an assisted trike?” Our BionX battery locks into place, and now I know it’s not just to keep it from being stolen. I’m sure that any of the shops carrying the MK1-E, which seem to be excellent, can kludge a fix for this issue, but this is actually the kind of screw-up that made me wonder a little about the build. Going over uneven pavement is a fact of life, so much so that it even happens sometimes in the cycling paradise that is Copenhagen. Maybe I am overly paranoid.

  • The assist [note: see comments below as this motor has since been upgraded]  is what I have begun to think of as “European-style” and that is my new shorthand for an assist that it is not necessarily ideal for the hard-riding conditions endemic to hilly cities on the west coast of the United States. It comes up gradually, and there is no boost button, so you can’t get a fast start at an intersection. It won’t give up on a hill, but when fully loaded on a steep hill you will be working really hard, and going really slowly. For the purposes of comparison, Matt and I hit some of the serious hills around our neighborhood (some of these go up to a 25% grade, although we stayed in the 12%-18% range), figuring that our bike and trike could take it, which for the record, they both could. I was carrying our daughter on the MK1-E and Matt was carrying our son (who is heavier) on the Bullitt, which we recently upgraded to the BionX D assist. And he skunked me every single time. We’d start out together and I would be working harder and harder as he peeled away, he’d reach the top at about the point that I got 2/3s of the way up. Then he’d wait for me, not even breathing hard, and I would be panting and ask to take a little break before we went up the next hill. For a while he thought it was funny, but eventually it became clear that the boys were getting bored of waiting around for me (“Are we done yet?”) To be fair: I am the weaker rider of the two of us. And also to be fair: the assist will not quit and strand you in the middle of the hill, which the old BionX would do sometimes when pushed to its limits (we have not yet reached the limits of the BionX D). But good grief, it was hard. It is no Stokemonkey.
  • While the assist won’t give up, I found that on the steepest hill we rode, the trike’s steering got away from me. The good news is that it’s very hard to dump a trike, so I didn’t. It was still unnerving. I wanted to see what
    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    the assist could do, so we headed up the hill to the kids’ old preschool, which is perched on the edge of Mt. Sutro and easily the steepest hill we’ve ever ridden on a daily basis. And as mentioned, it kept pumping out the power as I struggled up, but about halfway up the weight of my daughter got away from me, at which point the MK1-E did what I think of as “the trike thing” and dove for the curb. We drifted over and I walked it back down (no problem thanks to the hydraulic disc brakes). So… I’m not sure what to make of this. I suspect that I would get better with the handling over time; this was, after all, my first ride on this trike and it had been three years since I rode any other trike. Perhaps more relevantly, that’s a real nightmare of a hill, way outside the range of most people’s daily rides. So while I didn’t like it when it happened, it’s not ever going to be an issue for people living in places like Portland, or even the less outrageous neighborhoods of Seattle and San Francisco. However, that’s what will happen on the MK1-E at the limits of your strength and/or riding ability on a steep hill. Now I know. [Note: see the comments below, the MPF assist on this test bike has since been upgraded to the Bosch, which is both more powerful and noisier according to commenters.]

  • It weighs a ton. To the extent that I have any intuition on these things, it felt like it was on the heavier end of the family carrying bike/trike set. Some of that is because of all the lovely features that have been piled on (tradeoffs!) Some of it is probably the nature of the tricycle riding experience (seated upright, pushing a third wheel, etc.) I would love to try the Bosch mid-drive on a lighter bike to see how it handles the same hills, and get a fix on how much of the effort I needed to put out was simply a function of how much weight it was pushing.
  • Here I have to make my usual complaint that cargo bike (and trike) manufacturers seem to focus on either the front end and ignore the back or vice versa. The MK1-E has a rear rack that can hold panniers and I believe a Yepp seat, so it’s actually doing pretty well on that score, but because we have so much experience now with the more versatile racks on midtails and longtails, I would love to see a front-loading bike or trike that came standard with things like a towing rack. This is a minor quibble, but I keep mentioning it in the hope that one day the universe will respond

Things I am clueless about

  • We did not have occasion to test the battery power. I have no idea what kind of range this trike has while assisted.
  • This is a relatively new company and bicycle, so there’s not much to say yet about people’s experiences with it. Having excellent parts is a good sign with respect to potential longevity of the trike, however.

 

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

For reasons of width alone, we would never have seriously considered the MK1-E for ourselves. We are narrow-bike people all the way, because we live in San Francisco. However (assuming that the battery were firmly attached) I can imagine lots of places and situations that this trike would be a great choice. I was particularly impressed that it could fit two older kids so easily. And outside of the extreme situations I put it in, it is a lot of fun to ride. I’ve ridden a lot of family bikes now, and there are some I feel no great desire to ride again. But this trike? I would totally ride it again, as long as it wasn’t anywhere too steep.

 

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Filed under Copenhagen, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

Je suis revenue

Earlier this week we came back from a two-week trip to Europe. It had more drama than anyone had expected: for example, when we landed in Paris, our son passed out on the plane, so we ended up entering the EU through the airport urgent care center. (He is fine now.) However if you are going to have drama halfway around the world, I think it’s better to take care of it at the beginning rather than the end. Also, we got our own immigration agent so there was no waiting in line for passport control. That part was nice.

We first went to Venice, which as promised had no cars. As a city it is astonishing although it has been loved to death; it has 60,000 permanent residents and every day of the year, tourists outnumber them. Often it was hard to find what was left of the city under it all. Then we visited friends in Bordeaux, who have basically transitioned to a car-free life thanks to the city’s bike share system and its gorgeous new electric tram. While we were there I saw a Philippe Starck Pibal for the first time, which looks just as weird in real life as in photos, and charmingly has a map of Bordeaux on the deck. Another first I spotted was an assisted Nihola trike, ripping along far too fast to photograph in pancake-flat Bordeaux.

Our final stop was Paris. Paris is Paris, although it has changed dramatically since we lived there. One change we love is the Vélib’ bike share system, and the network of protected lanes being built for its riders. A change we didn’t love at all was that people have switched from riding scooters to riding motorcycles. The insane driving and relentless smoking remain the same. The exceptional food and culture are unchanged. I love Paris so much that I can forgive a lot.

Catching up has been exhausting, but we are back, and with the shift to warmer weather, bikes are out in force. Bike and Roll to School Day is coming up in a week, on April 24th. You’ll find us on the Panhandle, en route to Rosa Parks, and happy to be home again.

 

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