Category Archives: cargo

Christmas tree by bicycle 2014

We were having camera trouble at the lot, so this mug-shot is the best we've got.

We were having camera trouble at the lot, so this mug-shot is the best we’ve got.

There was a time when we didn’t get a tree every year (because technically we’re a Jewish family, albeit a California-Jewish family affiliated with the Japanese-American community, so we celebrate holidays of the world on like a daily basis). However now that we go everywhere by bike, it’s an annual thing. And we’re getting better at it. This was the fourth year we went tree-shopping by bike, and every year the trees get taller, the loading time gets shorter, and the trip gets less precarious.

It's easy to park cars at the Christmas tree lot, but it's even easier to park bikes.

It’s easy to park cars at the Christmas tree lot, but it’s even easier to park bikes.

In the first year we picked up our tree by Kona MinUte, and in the second year we hauled the tree by Bullitt. We also forgot to take the cover off before leaving that year, and lost a critical part, so in year three we went back to the MinUte. And then this year we hauled by Bullitt again, remembering this time to take the cover off in advance. We’ve also moved since last year, so instead of going downhill then uphill again, it was all uphill on the way to the lot, and all downhill on the way back.

We don't normally ride on the sidewalk, but it made for a good photo.

We don’t normally ride on the sidewalk, but it made for a good photo.

Our bugaboo has always been that we have the lot nail on a stand for the tree, which makes the tree wide as well as tall. This year we were enough of a caravan that we were already all over the lane. So we dumped the tree sideways on top of the Bullitt’s bucket, snapped a couple of bungees to the side pins to hold it in place, and rode on home. No problem.

The EdgeRunner pinch-hit with some simultaneous bike- and kid-hauling

The EdgeRunner pinch-hit with some simultaneous bike- and kid-hauling

The big change this year is that instead of me carrying both kids home by Brompton (still totally possible) they wanted to ride their own bikes. Our son made it all the way to the lot. Our daughter made it about two blocks uphill before she lost the ability to climb any further on her little single-speed bike. We had expected this, so I had ridden the EdgeRunner. It only took a minute to pop her bike on the back and tow it once she gave up. Having both a boxbike and a longtail is awesome. It’s like having two minivans, with magical park-anywhere-and-avoid-all-traffic powers.

This year, we got a seven foot tree.

This year, we got a seven foot tree.

We don’t have to carry stuff by bicycle, of course. We have a car share membership, which my daughter announced to everyone in her kindergarten class during a field trip that passed by our house. So our decision to haul the tree by bike is a choice—we could drive if we wanted to, but where’s the fun in that? Nonetheless, when we got to the lot we spotted some friends from kindergarten there, and they were very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to get the tree home. “Please, let us carry it home for you on our minivan,” they begged us.  I couldn’t be more grateful that we have the kind of school community where people volunteer to help. Still, this was our fourth year in a row of carrying trees on bicycles. We’ve totally got this.

There are people who’ve been hauling trees by bicycle longer, but it’s not a competition. Until next year, happy holidays!

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, EdgeRunner, family biking, San Francisco

Family bike shops that I like

I get asked questions about family biking a lot (Always welcome! Feel free to email! I will be painfully slow to respond, but it will happen eventually). One of the more common questions I get from people is where I think they should shop for bikes. This can be an awkward question to answer. There are thousands of bike shops and only one me. Admittedly there are far fewer family-oriented bike shops, but still. I live in San Francisco and mostly travel north from there, because that’s where my family lives. There’s no way that I could ever be truly objective, let alone offer advice to people in say, Minnesota.

That said, at least I have no conflicts of interest. I am a professor of public health and health policy at a university medical center with an extremely strict policy about any kind of giveaway that could be even vaguely construed as professionally-related. Although my primary work is in tobacco control, active transportation could easily be viewed as related to public health, because, well, it is in fact related to public health. Under the terms of my contract, I can’t be compensated for anything I say on this blog or accept any discounts or freebies (loaners are okay, but I have to give them back). So if nothing else it’s safe to say that my wildly subjective opinions are based solely on my wildly subjective experiences.

So anyway, below is a list of family-focused bike shops that I’ve liked and would visit again. It is a short list. First, as mentioned, I haven’t really visited THAT many bike shops, plus I only included shops that would actually call themselves family bike shops (which excludes our local bike shop). Second, I only listed places where we’ve made two or more purchases. My apologies to all the other family bike shops—I’m sure you’re great, but I have no way to know. Third, to the extent that you can trust anonymous reviews, they all get great reviews.

Shops are listed in order of their distance from my house. I admit that this is a totally useless organizing principle to anyone but me, but hey, it’s my blog.

Ocean Cyclery (1935 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Enablers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Not that I saw
  • Kids’ play area: No, but noodling around on kids’ bikes is encouraged
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Yuba (Mundo, Boda Boda)
  • Assisted bikes: Yes, BionX both for the Yubas and as an after-market addition
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, and a buyback program to help afford bigger bikes as kids grow!
  • Child seats: Yes, and a lot of expertise with them
  • What we bought there: My old Breezer, Bobike Maxi, Bobike Junior, accessories, service
  • Other: Ocean Avenue is a nice commercial strip with places to retreat when the kids get antsy, like the burrito shop next door. Transit access is excellent (it’s on the K line) and the former hippodrome around the corner is an outstanding place for test rides, especially for kids.

Ocean Cyclery is the first real family bike shop I ever visited, and they made it very easy to start biking for transportation. It is the shop where I often send people who ask me about different kinds of child seats, who want to buy bikes for their kids, and who tell me that they’re not sure they’re up for this “riding for transportation” thing that we’ve got going on but still want a bike, something inexpensive so they can ride with the kids on their new bikes in the park on weekends. Ocean has the widest selection I’ve seen in San Francisco of what I consider traditional family biking goods: child seats, trailers, and kids’ bikes. One Christmas they had a bike in the front window with a Bobike Mini on the front and a Bobike Maxi on the rear ready for test-rides, the only time I’ve ever seen such a thing in a bike shop. They offer a buyback program for kids’ bikes to make it easy to upgrade as your kids grow, and also have a great selection of bags and accessories. On the cargo bike side, they carry Yubas (assisted and unassisted). The owners, Jeff and Sabina, support the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and they are incredibly nice. As a bonus, Ocean has possibly the best location for test riding bicycles in all of San Francisco: it is a block away from the city’s former hippodrome, which is now a sleepy flat oval road surrounded by homes. Even little kids can safely try out bikes there. If you’re interested in family biking but not sure where to start, Ocean Cyclery is your bike shop.

 

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

The New Wheel (420 Cortland Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Curators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: No, but older kids will adore the tools and parts hung on every square inch of the bathroom walls; our son had to be forcibly extricated
  • Kids’ play area: No; however younger kids can play with kids’ bikes and older kids will gravitate to the shop’s iPad
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Xtracycle EdgeRunner
  • Assisted bikes: All their bikes are assisted, and they will put after-market BionX assists on other bikes
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, plus, unusually, a good selection of helmets for infants
  • Child seats: Yes, the Yepp rear seat
  • What we bought there: Our son’s Torker Interurban (20”), Xtracycle EdgeRunner, our daughter’s helmet, BionX upgrades, accessories, regular service visits
  • Other: Cortland Avenue is a quiet and increasingly upscale commercial strip so there are restaurants and shops, plus the Bernal Heights library about a block away if the kids lose patience. Getting there is a serious haul by bike but the 24 Muni line will drop you right in front of the shop.
The New Wheel is out at Sunday Streets offering test rides, FYI.

The New Wheel comes out to Sunday Streets to offer test rides of assisted bikes, FYI.

The New Wheel is a focused bike shop. They carry only electric-assist bikes (okay, and unassisted kids’ bikes—it’s illegal for kids to ride assisted bikes in California). They’re actually even more focused than that: they carry extremely reliable assisted bikes that anyone can ride. The whole electric assist market is still pretty nascent, and has only recently become more than a private enclave for the do-it-yourself set. For someone new to the idea of riding a bike, let alone riding an assisted bike, the obsessive hobbyist end of the market can feel completely overwhelming, to put it politely. It felt that way to me. The New Wheel is not set up like a traditional bike shop, with mystifying parts and accessories piled up on every surface. Instead they have bikes in front to test ride, and some reasonably identifiable accessories mixed in with actual art. It is a very non-threatening place for a new rider to visit. If you want an electric-assist bike, you should go to The New Wheel. Their expertise with assist systems is in a class of its own. Plus, they always have the most recent BionX software upgrades and know how to tweak the system to maximize the torque for hill-climbing. They also reset our BionX so that it kicked in at 0.5kph instead of 2mph, which has been a total game-changer for us. Many of their commuter bikes have mid-drive assists, some of which could probably scale anything short of a vertical wall. Also, they have the prettiest assisted bikes, with none of the hulking beasts that anchor (literally) the less expensive and less reliable end of the market. In keeping with the curated feel, they offer one family/cargo bike: the EdgeRunner (assisted, obviously), as well as one kids’ bike in each size. Everything in their shop promises years of trouble-free riding. Brett and Karen, the owners, are kind people who have immense patience with my wild ideas, and they are also big supporters of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Their service is top-notch, way beyond expectations (you can bring your unassisted bike here for service too). Because The New Wheel is an all-assisted bike shop, it is located in Bernal Heights, among the steepest hills in the city, including Bradford Street, with its 41% grade. That’s kind of inconvenient for me personally, but hey, why not?

 

There are so many bikes it's tough to get a good shot.

There are so many bikes it’s tough to get a good shot.

Blue Heron Bikes (1306 Gilman Street, Berkeley, California)

“The Aggregators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh, we didn’t visit the bathroom. Sorry.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a Lego table in the back corner, plus an extensive collection of kids’ bikes that they’re encouraged to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No, although you can sometimes use the deck of a Bullitt for this
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Surly, Xtracycle, Yuba, and more
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair
  • What we bought there: Brompton accessories
  • Other: Gilman Street is a small commercial strip with some options for food and entertainment. The shop is right on the Ohlone Trail and easily accessible from North Berkeley BART.
The Lego table

The Lego table

A question I get a lot: “I want to try a lot of different kinds of cargo bikes. Is it worth traveling to Blue Heron in Berkeley?” My answer: Yes. Yes it is. They have all the bikes. They have cargo bikes I’d never seen or heard of before, and after the years I’ve spent obsessing about cargo bikes this is a rare experience for me. So if you want to compare riding a Bullitt with a Brompton with an Xtracycle with a Yuba with an odd-looking longtail that just came off a container ship from Japan, all in both assisted and unassisted versions, well, now you know where to go. It’s pretty obvious that Berkeley real estate is less expensive than San Francisco real estate, because they also have piles of commuter bikes and dozens of different kids’ bikes. As a result, Blue Heron Bikes is the Bay Area’s one-stop family bike shop. Even better, it is located along the Ohlone Trail, a shared bicycle-pedestrian path that runs past the North Berkeley BART station, and it has a large flat paved area in the back, which allows safe test rides for all ages. The owner, Rob, is passionate about family biking and patient with families who come in and are understandably a little overwhelmed with all the options they find. I’ve now met more than one family who bought a Bullitt there and made an adventure out of getting it back to San Francisco by ferry or BART, carving out an ad hoc Silk Road for family bicycles. Nonetheless, I feel resentful that Blue Heron is located in Berkeley and not in San Francisco.

 

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Clever Cycles (900 SE Hawthorne Boulevard, Portland, Oregon)

“The Experts”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes, and diapers too. Like Ikea! But cooler.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a large corner with a couch, toys, and books, plus kids’ bikes out the wazoo to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes
  • Cargo bikes: Babboe, Bakfiets, Brompton, Metrofiets, Nihola, Surly, Workcycles, Xtracycle, Yuba, plus we spotted dark horses like the Kidztandem and Onderwater—seriously, it’s unreal
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and they developed and sell the Stokemonkey assist.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, yes, yes
  • What we bought there: rental bikes, accessories
  • Other: Hawthorne Boulevard is a commercial strip featuring distressingly fast car traffic with some options for food and entertainment (basically a nearby bar as I remember it). Head back onto the nearby quiet and leafy streets of Ladd’s Addition for test rides instead.
Why not a hot tub?

Why not a hot tub?

Clever Cycles is the drag queen of family bike shops: it’s faaaaaaabulous! Honestly it’s difficult to describe, let alone oversell, Clever Cycles’ raw, unadulterated family biking appeal. I say this even though the first time I walked in, the bike at the front door had a huge growler full of beer attached to it. Honestly this seemed a little off to me for a family bike shop, but that is only because I do not live in Portland. Portland is so beer-crazy that I assume local hospitals give it away to new parents in lieu of formula. Clever Cycles is a venerable institution in the world of family biking, as its owners were importing, designing, and selling family bicycles and electric assists before we even had children. There was clearly unmet demand back then, because the shop has expanded through its various incarnations to the point that it’s now gigantic, at least to my eyes. It does not look like any other bike shop. It looks more like a bike museum (admittedly I have only visited one bike museum, in Davis, California). In the front showroom the box bikes look almost petite, and the kids’ bikes are parked in long rows on oriental rugs. There is so much space that the mechanical parts of the shop are tucked away in back, with rows of even more bikes. Their accessories are so extensive that I would embarrass myself with the omissions if I tried to give details. However they were the first U.S. shop to discover and carry the Brompton child seat, back when the idea of carrying a kid on a Brompton sounded roughly as plausible as throwing a kid all the way to the moon. In the realm of family biking I suspect they have accumulated more firsts than even they can remember. Clever Cycles has the largest selection of rental bikes that I have ever seen, including Bromptons and family trikes. The shop also rents out portable hot tubs that it delivers to customers by bike, because this is Portland. I mean, obviously. Unusually, Clever Cycles sells some clothing too. My only frustration with Clever Cycles is that it is so well-suited to its locale (as it should be) that it is rather less well-suited to mine. Nonetheless, at least one owner is a former resident of San Francisco, and so even if their stock doesn’t reflect our issues—it’s hard to imagine a shop making a go of selling unassisted bakfietsen in San Francisco, although one shop tried and moved to Sausalito—they have the expertise to speak intelligently about them. Even some of the offhand comments they made back in 2012, when we first bought our Bullitt, turned out to be more prescient than I had hoped (they were skeptical about adding the Patterson). At some point I realized that I was not totally ignorant about family bikes anymore, but I know enough to know my limits. The people running Clever Cycles are experts.

 

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Splendid Cycles (407 SE Ivon Street, Portland, Oregon)

“The Visionaries”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh… once again we neglected to check the bathroom.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a corner with a bench and a basket of books and toys
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, plus the deck-of-a-Bullitt option
  • Cargo bikes: Bullitt, Butchers & Bicycles, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: No
  • Child seats: Yes, various options for the Bullitt and Yepp seats for the Xtracycle
  • What we bought there: our Bullitt, rental bikes, Bullitt parts and accessories
  • Other: Splendid Cycles is located on a weird little corner underneath the freeway and near some industrial/construction companies, which I offer as a warning because when we first got there, we thought we were in the wrong place. The shop is also directly adjacent to a lovely bike path that runs along the river. Portland, I sometimes find you kind of schizo. Who zones this way?
The kid zone

The kid zone

I first visited Splendid Cycles after we realized that we might actually be able to stop using our car in San Francisco if we had the right bike. The BionXed Big Dummy that they had available for test rides was the first assisted bike that I ever rode, and after hauling my extremely patient friend Todd on its deck up the hills around the shop I couldn’t stop grinning and thinking, “This could totally work!” Joel and Barb, the owners of Splendid, imagined a world full of crackpots like me and decided they could help make it happen. And so they did something that I would never have the courage to do: they opened a shop that sold only cargo bikes. And holy smokes, they were right: there really were a lot of crackpots like me out there. Splendid is best known for selling Bullitts (and in fact it serves as the source for all the Bullitts sold in the family bike shops we visit, as it imports them). But there are lots of good reasons to ride longtails as well, and Splendid had child seats on Big Dummies long before the EdgeRunner made its debut in less forward-thinking shops. They rent bikes as well, which is very helpful when learning to maneuver cargo bikes—in some cases (mine) there is a learning curve. I’m still awed by the sheer bravado involved in opening up a bike shop that doesn’t carry any “normal” bikes, but you’d never guess it was anything out of the ordinary from talking to Joel and Barb, who are down to earth and incredibly helpful and also know way more about cargo bikes than, like, everybody. When they started their shop cargo bikes were pretty much a boutique niche and everything was somewhat customized. The rain cover for the Bullitt was their development, and getting it made riding with our kids in all weather conditions completely unremarkable. Both the covers and the larger wooden boxes that hold more kids are accessories they developed with local Portland businesses. When we bought our Bullitt we had the option of getting a larger wooden box but declined in favor of the standard box both because we couldn’t get a rain cover for the wooden box and because we wanted a narrower bike. Not long after that, they’d developed rain covers for the larger wooden boxes and now they have 3-child Bullitt boxes and rain covers for those too. They are already selling Bullitts with the super-powered BionX D on them, which is not an option yet here in San Francisco, no matter how often I call. (One of the problems of being an early adopter is that now I’m always envious of the latest innovations.) They never stop coming up with new cool things, many of which are so popular that they stop being innovations. Then they put the only-slightly-less-cool older bikes on the incredible sale page of their website. Honestly, I didn’t really catch on to how impressive it all was at first because Joel and Barb are so mellow. They put their bike shop on an industrial corner and concentrate on the bikes rather than the bling. Splendid has all the right things without any unnecessary extras, and they are always coming up with more awesome ideas that make family biking (and the somewhat-less-interesting-to-me cargo biking) easier and more fun. Whenever there is discussion about adding bike lanes in San Francisco, there is always blowback from some people about how it’s only for hipsters, and that you can’t shop for groceries or carry kids on a bike. These people are wrong. Splendid Cycles is building a world where people can carry anything and everything on bikes.

 

The G&O logo is a family bike.

The G&O logo is a family bike.

G&O Family Cyclery (8417 Greenwood Avenue N, Seattle, Washington)

“The Tinkerers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a train table right in front, plus some balance bikes that kids can ride
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, stools by the counter (and the deck of a Bullitt), not to mention a La Leche League sticker in the front window
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Metrofiets, Soma Tradesman, Surly Big Dummy, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX, Bafang, or Stokemonkey kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Cleary bikes (all sizes), Soma BART
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair (in stock!)
  • What we bought there: Brompton parts and service, Xtracycle EdgeRunner accessories (frame-mounted front rack, Rolling Jackass center stand)
  • Other: Greenwood Avenue has great options for food and entertainment when the kids start to lose it, including the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company (formerly the Seattle outpost of 826 Valencia)
The train table

The train table

G&O stands for Tyler Gillies and Davey Oil, and while their shop is less than two years old, I knew Davey well before then, when he had his own blog, Riding on Roadways (now folded into the shop blog). I love G&O because it has and does all the things that people learn they want once they start riding around with kids. It’s a bike shop that grew out of family biking. Almost all the bike shops we visited when we first started riding talked about family biking as something extra, “oh yeah, we’ll do that when we have time, later.” In most cases, of course, later meant never, but even shops that pick up family biking sometimes do it half-heartedly. But not here! This is a shop that had a changing table in the bathroom and a La Leche League sticker on the front door the day that they opened, and that puts the kids’ play table right out in front with the bikes. You can tell when you walk in the door that no one is going to freak out about your trying out a Yepp seat by actually putting a kid in it, something that happened to us (twice, in fact). G&O has launch parties when customers come to pick up their new bikes. They make a point of keeping accessories in stock that don’t necessarily make money, like the Brompton child seat, because “why should you have to wait for us to order it?” You want obscure kid-hauling stuff, like a helmet sized for a toddler? They’ve got your back. Despite the huge increase in family biking lately, things like toddler helmets are in fact considered obscure, and cargo bikes don’t necessarily have all the things families want yet. I think of Davey and Tyler as tinkerers because I know that there is nothing you can dream up that they won’t try to make work, as long as it’s safe. When I visited their shop last year, they were installing a Yepp mini front seat on a giant mountain bike with a telescopic fork, and the whole rig was covered in mud. It was the weirdest combination I’d seen in a while, and I stopped dead and said, “Really?” And Tyler smiled and said, “It’s what they want.” That visit to G&O is also where I found the frame-mounted front rack that now graces my EdgeRunner (maybe grace is the wrong word there, I concede that it’s not pretty), when I test rode Davey’s own personal EdgeRunner, which has the same rack. G&O also tested the first true pedal-assist Stokemonkeys, and have put more kinds of assist systems on a Bullitt than I knew existed. And of course they’ll take care of non-family bikes too. Servicing family bikers is like building for accessibility—what’s good for people in wheelchairs is good for everybody, and what’s good for families on bikes is good for all riders. Seattle is lucky to have G&O.

 

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Filed under bike shops, car-free, cargo, destinations, electric assist, family biking, kids' bikes, Portland, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

Christmas tree by Bullitt, and three people on a Brompton

Last year, we brought our Christmas tree home on the Kona MinUte. It was the easiest way to bring a tree home ever. Longtails and their midtail cousins are custom-made for the long skinny load. This year, to address some of my grouchiness about having the MinUte stolen, I decided I’d try to bring our tree home on the Brompton.

Christmas tree by Bullitt: welcome home.

Christmas tree by Bullitt: welcome home.

Ambition, you have felled me again. We brought the tree home in the Bullitt. But the Brompton still had a surprise in store for us.

Many San Francisco residents will know the significance of the numbers 7 and 49. San Francisco is seven miles by seven miles square, and thus 49 square miles. San Francisco also came into its own as a city in 1849 with the Gold Rush. Thus the city is littered with references to both numbers: 49-mile drive, the 49ers, not to mention a vapid lifestyle magazine, 7×7 (which once referenced the city’s geography but now apparently alludes to days of the week). Anyway, I became very excited when I realized that this year I had both a seven year old and an opportunity to carry a seven foot tall Christmas tree. Surely this was meant to be!

Once again, my son found a tree and stood yelling, “This one!” as two other families were walking over talking about taking it home themselves, and once again a couple of other people made a move on our tree as the packing guys were wrapping it up. His ability to find the best tree on the lot is uncanny. Trying to carry both him and it on the Brompton, however, was a mistake.

If we'd gotten a smaller tree it TOTALLY WOULD HAVE WORKED.

If we’d gotten a smaller tree it TOTALLY WOULD HAVE WORKED.

Based on my test run with a load of lumber, I could almost certainly have carried a 4-5 foot tall tree standing up on the rear rack, with the center of the tree bungeed to the saddle rails (here’s proof). More than that height, though, and it was too top-heavy. We couldn’t keep the tree from toppling over just walking it across the Christmas tree lot. Oh well, that’s why we brought the real cargo bike. We had a backup plan.

Almost there, but note a crucial handlebar mistake on the left.

Almost there, but note a crucial handlebar mistake on the left.

So we plopped the tree on the Bullitt, bungeed it down (the Bullitt has many handy bolts to bungee things to) and put our son in the bulldog seat over the top tube. Hey, 7×7 after all! Unfortunately this setup lasted less than a block. We’d inadvertently put the tree stand too close to the handlebars, and when Matt tried to make the first turn, he hit it and dumped the bike. I have this disgraceful moment on video, but will never post it. It took less than a minute to rearrange the tree, but our son pretty understandably refused to get back on the Bullitt after that.

So Matt headed off again with just the tree on the Bullitt, drawing accolades from all and sundry, including a man walking by who stuttered, “That is… so cool! It’s like green… on green!” Honestly, you’d think these people had never seen someone carry a Christmas tree home by bike before.

Yep, that's two kids on one Brompton bicycle. We are our own clown car.

Yep, that’s two kids on one Brompton bicycle. We are our own clown car.

I followed, assuming we’d walk the Brompton home. But both kids wanted to ride in the IT Chair, and our daughter refused to get off. Our son was so dejected that I did something that the manufacturer definitely does not recommend: I offered him a ride on the rear rack. What can I say? He was so excited. He really didn’t want to walk. So after a little bit of testing (to make sure the rack wouldn’t collapse underneath him) we rode all the way home with him standing there whooping, and I have to say, it was fantastic. Following Matt as he carried the Christmas tree, however, made us look like lunatics. “LOOK NOW OH MY GOD, there are TWO kids on that bike!”

We were laughing all the way, ho ho ho, even on the uphill parts. Admittedly the trip was less than a mile. I realize that I have probably voided every warranty that the manufacturer offers on this bike based on my son’s weight alone; but I would totally do it again. It was really, really fun.

So last Christmas: tree by bike. This Christmas: tree by bike and three people on a Brompton. Next year, well, no idea yet, but I’m open to suggestions.

Home at last

Home at last

In the meantime, anyone can follow along with tree-hauling-by-bike exploits around the world by following the hashtag #ChristmasFeats on Twitter. Happy holidays!

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Filed under Brompton, Bullitt, cargo, family biking, San Francisco

Grocery shopping by bicycle

I consider grocery shopping to be one of least interesting things that I do by bicycle. Compared to figuring out a way to carry two kids simultaneously up and down steep hills, it’s not particularly challenging. I am always surprised to find out that the question of how I carry groceries is interesting to people. Even weirder to me, people who don’t ride bikes regularly typically assume that we must use car share to shop, because no way could we carry groceries on a bike. And I am thinking: dude, we did our shopping by bike even when we owned a car (as a California resident, I am legally required to use the word “dude” at least five times a day).

We live in San Francisco, which is not packed with the kind of giant supermarkets featured in suburban locales. Thus we are not once-a-week shoppers, because we pick up groceries here and there en route to other destinations. Last week, just as an exercise, we shopped entirely without the Bullitt, which can carry anything, figuring that most people do not have a cargo bike.

Trader Joe’s by bike basket: milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, box of wine, fruit, crackers, vanilla (plus my lunch bag)

General groceries: There is a Trader Joe’s a block from my office. There is no point in driving to this location, which is the busiest in the entire United States, and where the line to park stretches dozens of cars back at all hours. I usually walk to the Trader Joe’s once a week during my lunch break and pick up things like milk, yogurt, cheese, and pasta. The Trader Joe’s near my office does such a land-office business that its produce is actually okay, so I will also pick up organic fruit on sale.

This week’s farm share (carried in one MinUte pannier): apple pears, arugula, turnips, carrots, persimmons, bok choy, leeks, kale, potatoes

Farm share: Matt takes a martial arts class in our neighborhood on Thursday evenings. On the way home he detours a few blocks to pick up our farm share produce. He transfers the contents into a pannier for the ride home.

Farmers market: strawberries, kettle corn, carrots, apples, oranges, grapes, coffee cake

Farmers market: Our farm share doesn’t provide much fruit, but our kids eat a lot of it, so on Sunday mornings I go to the neighborhood farmers market. My son’s birthday party was this weekend so I bought a full flat of strawberries for the party instead of our usual half-flat. I also picked up four bags of kettle corn at a local grocery store because the boys watched a movie during the party and requested it.

A farm share + Rainbow trip by Kona MinUte: produce and bulk shopping in the panniers plus a 25 lb. box of apples strapped to the deck, no problem!

Odds and ends: We are vegetarians so we don’t buy meat. We also don’t usually buy things like cereal and bread because we make them.  However that means that every few months we need to make a trip to Rainbow Grocery for staples like flour, along with occasional bulk purchases of olive oil, salt, grains and beans. We also stop by Costco (which is across the street from Rainbow) on roughly the same schedule for things like compost bags, toilet paper, and the tissues that we donate to our son’s school.

Historically these stock-up trips have been by car share if we’re with both kids (or if Matt passes by the neighborhood while in a business-related car rental), or by bike if one of us was going solo. Matt’s Kona MinUte can carry anything we’ve ever bought at Rainbow and then some, and it’s not even a full-sized cargo bike. Lots of people shop at Costco with ordinary bikes.

Five pizzas for a kid’s birthday party in the Bullitt is also no problem.

Our future bulk shopping trips will almost certainly be by Bullitt, because it’s more fun and has zero marginal cost. We haven’t used car share since this bike rode into our lives in the middle of last month. For our son’s birthday party on Sunday, Matt took the Bullitt to pick up five pizzas. A load like that isn’t even a challenge for a bike like this.

If you get a real cargo bike your ambitions scale up accordingly. But even with just a midtail and our limited ambitions, we have carried a Christmas tree, two kids and their gear, each other, and the Brompton. A week or even a month’s worth of groceries barely ranks on this scale. Ride on, shoppers.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, San Francisco

Getting used to life with a real cargo bike

Heading for the Presidio on the party bike

We’ve had the Bullitt for a week now. Riding an assisted Bullitt in Portland was mostly effortless. Riding an assisted Bullitt in San Francisco is not effortless. I’ve now got two kids and cargo on my bike most of the time and on serious hills, even with a boost from the BionX it’s: “Oh hello, lactic acid.” In San Francisco, riding a loaded, assisted cargo bike on steep hills is the parental equivalent of training for the Olympics, difficult but gratifying. I’m not yet up to carrying this kind of load every day. However with Matt at home for a month or so, I have time to build up strength by switching out to an alternate bike sometimes with just one kid on board. But it sure is fun on the days that we do take the Bullitt. And on the flats we are so freaking fast.

We had an unexpected chance to race a car this weekend. Matt’s parents came to meet us for dim sum, then wanted to go shopping with us in the Presidio, then came home to play with the kids. They drove over from Berkeley. We met them at the restaurant; they arrived late because although miraculously they found parking immediately, they had to walk over from their car. When we left the Outer Richmond, we headed off separately to the Presidio. Ultimately we leapfrogged with them through light Sunday traffic. We all got lost thanks to the road construction, but ended up turning into the parking lot at the exact same time. Then we split up and headed home. I assumed they’d get there first because we had to climb both the Presidio hill and Mt. Sutro, but once again, we arrived simultaneously. On a weekday (or a busier weekend), with more traffic on the streets, we would have beaten them handily.

I’m still not used to the attention that we get on the Bullitt. After several rounds of my son singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” I caved and bought a speaker that works with my phone. So now I am whizzing around the city with two kids on board who are blasting TMBG’s “Alphabet of Nations” and dancing along in the box. We are a traveling party-bike. Passing drivers stare so long that they drift out of their lanes as they go by. We hear groans of envy from parents pushing heavy strollers up San Francisco hills. Little kids chase our bike. It is a blast, but disconcerting. “AWESOME BIKE!” is what we hear most often. “Wow, all of us could fit in that bike,” is an occasional addition from groups of people waiting at bus stops.

Because the Bullitt is such a slim cargo bike, it still slips through narrow bike lanes and alongside traffic pinch points. When I am riding it, it is the best of all possible worlds. It carries as much as a car and travels at least as fast, but can speed past stopped traffic and park in an ordinary bike rack by the front door of any destination. It eats up the hills. Next week, I am taking this bike to Costco. (The San Francisco Costco is unlike its suburban siblings; it is a three-story parking garage occupying an entire city block, and the store itself is located in the center of the second floor, and thus it gets a fair amount of bike traffic.)

Running for the Bullitt

I expected that the Bullitt would substitute for trips that we normally took using City Carshare. Historically that’s meant shopping trips on the far side of a big hill or two that we couldn’t manage with two kids and cargo simultaneously, or trips out of the city. Realistically, we could have used City Carshare for all of the trips that the Bullitt is now handling indefinitely. Our occasional car rentals are usually pretty cheap, maybe $6-$20 per trip depending on length, and even at a once a week pace, it would be a very long time before the bike paid for itself using offsets from car share rentals. But the bike is more convenient. We no longer have to worry about when we go someplace; we’re not going to get stuck in traffic and we won’t have to circle to find parking. And it is so much fun to ride! One week in, when given the choice between City Carshare and the Bullitt, we all run to the bike.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

A series of electric assists

This is the first assisted bike I ever rode, a Surly Big Dummy with BionX.

I first tried a bike with an electric assist last March, just over six months ago, a BionX assisted Surly Big Dummy at Splendid Cycles in Portland. It made quite an impression. Later I tried a mid-drive assist at The New Wheel in San Francisco. Then I tried another mid-drive assist and a front hub motor.  Less than a year ago, I could not have identified the difference between these assists with schematic diagrams and prompts from their designers. I wish I knew then what I know now.

The electric assists I have tried:

  • A front hub motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (eZee)
  • A mid-drive motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (EcoSpeed)
  • A mid-drive pedal-assist motor (Panasonic)
  • A rear hub pedal-assist motor that responds to torque (BionX)

I have pretty strong feelings about what kind of assist I prefer after trying all of these (BionX, although it’s not perfect). Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, but wish you did because you’ve been hearing about this electric assist thing and it sounds kind of cool, but you couldn’t pick an electric assist bike out of a lineup. Read on, friend.

General thoughts

Electric assist bicycles are interesting because they are true car replacements for ordinary people. I have met lots of committed, fiercely strong riders who not only ride to work and for errands and on weekends, but also head for the steepest grades in the city to improve their hill-climbing chops. These guys (they are almost always men) are inspiring, but your average mom of two isn’t going to look at them and say: “Yeah! That could be me!” But put an electric assist on a cargo bike and you are looking at a transportation system that can haul the kids, handle a week’s worth of groceries, dodge traffic, and park right next to the front door of any destination in the city—at the same time. All of this for minimal operating and capital costs, plus enough exercise that you no longer get depressed about not making it to the gym since the kids were born. Many of the factors that make riding a bike seem intimidating—I can’t sweat because I need to look decent for work, no way can I make it up that hill, how am I going to carry the kids, I can’t handle the wind—disappear with an assist. All that’s left to worry about is wet weather. I personally got some waterproof outerwear and found out that I liked riding in the rain, but if I had hated it, heck, we could rent a car on every rainy day in San Francisco without coming close to the cost of owning a car. (In other climates people worry about snow, but from what I’ve read this involves getting some studded winter tires and a cover for the kids and then you’re good.)

Some people like throttle assists (operated by a grip on the handlebar, independent of pedaling) and some people like pedal assists (which multiply your effort as you pedal). My anecdotal impression is that people who come to electric bikes from bikes prefer a pedal assist because it feels like riding a bike. Whereas people I’ve met who ride both bicycles and mopeds, or bicycles and motorcycles, seem to prefer having a throttle. Everybody likes what’s familiar. I came to electric bikes from riding a bicycle as my kids’ weights edged up toward 100 lbs. I didn’t care for the throttle assists I tried.

None of the electric assist systems cost much to charge. Efforts I’ve seen to estimate power costs sort of peter out because they’re so trivial. NYCE Wheels, which sells a lot of assisted bikes and has some great articles on their website about the technology, estimated the cost per charge at maybe 18 cents in New York City, but of course prices depend on local rates. The better systems estimate that a charge can carry an assisted bike at the highest level of assist for 20-45 miles.

Currently there are three kinds of batteries that can power the motor on the market (that I know of): sealed lead acid (SLA), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) or nickel cadmium (NiCd), and lithium-ion polymer (LiPo). The technology for batteries on electric assists is still considered somewhat experimental. Getting the longest possible warranty from a reputable manufacturer is a really good idea. Expect the battery to last only a little longer than the warranty and you won’t be disappointed. Battery replacement is the true cost of maintaining an assisted bike. Compared to the costs of maintaining a car, it’s still bupkis: with a good warranty, it will run $500-$900 every two years at the most.

  • SLA batteries are the least inexpensive electric assist battery. They’re incredibly heavy and take several hours to charge. Bikes with these batteries tend to have limited range (maybe 5 miles). When SLA batteries won’t hold a charge anymore, they have to be disposed as hazardous waste. These batteries are common on e-bikes in China. If you buy an e-bike at a big box store it will have an SLA battery, and it won’t last long. You’ll be replacing entire bikes more frequently than other people replace their bike’s batteries.
  • NiMH (more common) and NiCd (less common) batteries are somewhat more expensive, still heavy, and bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (maybe 10 miles). They were considered an upgrade from SLA batteries at one time, but they have their little issues. One of these is charge memory; occasionally you have to drain the battery down or it will stop fully recharging, and you won’t be able to go as far. When they won’t hold a charge anymore, they will not win any awards for environmental stewardship. However in San Francisco, Sunset Scavenger will recycle them if they’re left taped up in plastic on top of a black can. It’s almost impossible to find these batteries on new bikes, as they’ve been supplanted by LiPo batteries.
  • LiPo batteries are the most expensive, most energy-dense, and lightest weight battery option. LiPo batteries largely dominate the market now. Bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (20-90 miles). Using them with inappropriate chargers or puncturing them can make them explode (exciting!) They can be stored for long periods (1-2 months) without losing charge.

Front hub throttle assist

I tried the eZee front hub motor that comes standard on the Yuba elMundo. This is a 500 watt motor. You can tell there is a motor on the bike because the front wheel has an oversized hub. There are lots of other manufacturers that make front hub motors, and kits made in China, where electric bikes are fairly common, are often found on eBay. However eZee seems to be one of the more reputable manufacturers. On the elMundo there is also a battery attached to the frame, just behind the seat tube (that’s the part of the frame that attaches to the seat) and in front of the rear wheel; however the battery could be placed somewhere else on other bikes (a rear rack, a down tube, anyplace that would hold the weight). The suggested range for this assist system is 20 miles.

  • How it works: You activate the motor by twisting the right handlebar grip away from you. The more you twist, the more assistance you get. When the motor is on, your pedaling appears to add nothing. You can turn the motor on and off with a controller on the left side of the handlebars. The controller is pretty basic; just a switch with lights. The look screamed “high school science fair project” to me.
  • What it feels like: It feels like skitching. Skitching is when you are pulled along by something other than the bike, like when lunatic bike messengers grab onto a passing car. You’re hitching a ride. I have never skitched on a bike because that would be insane, but I have skied. Using a front-hub throttle motor feels a lot like being pulled on a rope tow while on skis (except obviously you’re on a bike).
  • Noise level: Medium. I definitely noticed the sound of the motor while I was riding. I wouldn’t call it noisy, but people walking along the sidewalk alongside noticed the sound, and it also muffles the noise of passing traffic somewhat.
  • Pros: You never have to work going uphill. The eZee motors work with many batteries. They are the Microsoft Windows of electric assists. The system is reasonably priced as electric assists go, although not so cheap that you wonder whether they’re a fly-by-night manufacturer.
  • Cons: A downside of using any of the throttle assist motors is that your power is limited to what the motor can pump out. Pedaling adds nothing. Unfortunately a 500 watt eZee front hub motor didn’t really have the kind of power needed to get two kids up steep hills in San Francisco. I saw one elMundo overheated and out of commission (two older kids on deck, bike on a hill) during our recent Kidical Mass/Critical Mass ride. I have heard other similar stories, although I haven’t personally witnessed them. There is also something weird going on with eZee right now; none of its products seem to be in stock. Using a throttle-operated assist doesn’t feel like riding a bike.
  • Battery type: LiPo. I’ve seen warranties on eZee batteries of either six months or a year.
  • Cost: around $1450 for this motor with a 36v battery.

Mid-drive throttle assist

This is the EcoSpeed Bullitt; the motor is not visible, but note the console above the handlebars.

I tried the EcoSpeed aftermarket mid-drive assist mounted on a Bullitt at Portland’s Splendid Cycles. This is either a 1000 watt or 1500 watt motor; the answer seems to depend on how you frame the question. Mid-drive motors are more efficient than hub motors, so comparing watts between systems isn’t helpful. Unlike many assist systems, the controller did not limit the maximum speed (many state laws limit the top speed on assisted bicycles to 20mph). This discovery led to the following entertaining conversation. Me: “Uh, is this system even legal in California?” Splendid: “Well… no. Maybe. It’s a gray area, legally speaking.”

You can tell there is a mid-drive motor on the bike because there’s a bulbous protrusion near the chain wheel attached to a second chain. The motor drives the second chain and pulls the bike along. On the Bullitt, the batteries were mounted under the front box. You can fit a lot of batteries under the pallet of a long john, and mid-drive motors are pretty efficient; EcoSpeed claims their system can go 35-45 miles.

  • How it works: Twist the right handlebar grip and away you go. More twist, more speed. You can spin the pedals for fun but it’s not necessary, nor does it add any power or speed. The controller is a complicated-looking little computer on the handlebars that details the remaining battery power, speed, mileage, etc.
  • What it feels like: Hard to describe. It’s kind of like riding a train? I could feel that the motor was moving the bike underneath me, but it didn’t feel like I was being pulled; it wasn’t like a front hub motor.
  • Noise level: Unbelievably loud. It sounded like a moped.
  • Pros: This is an insanely powerful motor. It would be great for a construction company. Attach a trailer and you could haul, I don’t know, a load of concrete blocks up steep hills for miles on end. It would be overkill for hauling my kids around the city. Nonetheless, they thought it was wildly entertaining. They still ask about “the fast motor” sometimes.
  • Cons: It’s really noisy and really expensive. It may or may not be street-legal. The motor is so powerful that evidently it sometimes breaks chains on bikes. Using a throttle assisted bike doesn’t feel like riding a bike. To be honest the EcoSpeed scared me a little. I think this assist is best suited to someone who really understands the mechanics of electric assists. I am not that person.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The battery supplied by EcoSpeed has a two year warranty. There’s an option to supply your own battery.
  • Cost: $4,195 for the motor with battery, $150 for the computer.

Mid-drive pedal assist

Two types of bikes at The New Wheel: the Focus has a mid-drive pedal assist, the Ohm next to it has a BionX assist.

I tried a Panasonic mid-drive pedal assist on a purpose-built electric bike at The New Wheel in San Francisco, a BH Emotion Diamond Wave+. Some of the European assisted bikes have really weird and complicated names, I’m sorry to say. I’m going to refer to this bike as the Emotion because that was the name emblazoned on the down tube.

The Emotion has a 250 watt motor that’s built into the frame of the bike; you can tell it’s there because the chain guard looks really fat, like it’s been pumped up on steroids. Because the manufacturer built the system into the bike the torque/motion sensor is hidden inside the frame. There is also a battery mounted behind the seat tube and in front of the rear tire. Like many of the higher-end electric assist bikes, it comes with lights, fenders, chain guard and rack; this bike is designed to be used for transportation, not as a toy.

Mid-drive motors are so efficient that it would be a mistake to think that the comparatively low wattage means that you’re sacrificing power. On this bike I could easily scale hills that I’m fairly certain would have knocked out the eZee entirely. (The New Wheel is cleverly located near some of San Francisco’s more scorching hills. In my neighborhood the hills top out at a 25% grade; there are steeper hills near the shop.)  The BionX and EcoSpeed motors could handle the same hill; in fact I was riding with a friend who was on a BionXed bike (350 watt motor) at the time and he was just peachy. However the suggested range of the Emotion was 45 miles, whereas the suggested range of the BionX bike he was riding (an Ohm) was 35 miles.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the left side of the handlebars where you set an assist level of low, medium, or high (or off). Once it’s on it sends power as you pedal to multiply your effort. On low I wanted to gear down to make pedaling comfortable. On high, gearing down for the hill was optional.
  • What it feels like: Using the mid-drive pedal assist motor felt like riding a beach cruiser along the waterfront regardless of how steep a hill I attempted to scale. People do that kind of thing for fun on vacation. If you ride on a lot of hills already, the experience of using a mid-drive pedal assist is both intoxicating and a little spooky. If you always wanted to ride a bike but don’t because you live on a steep hill, this bike is a dream come true.
  • Noise level: The motor itself is silent. There was a slight rattling from the chain when the motor was running. It was fairly quiet but I noticed it, although someone walking on the sidewalk next to me wouldn’t have.
  • Pros: I like all of the pedal-assist systems because they feel like you’re riding a bike, but you don’t have to suffer (unless you want to). However this system is probably the most sophisticated I’ve ever used in that it doesn’t require you to think about how you’re riding: set the assist and forget it. The mid-drive motor works with internally geared hubs. The motor and battery are unobtrusive. There is a neat feature on most of the European assisted bikes, the “walking assist”, where you can push a button and the bike gives a trickle of power that makes it feel like you’re walking a bike that weighs 10 pounds instead of 50 pounds.
  • Cons: The biggest con is that these systems are currently only built into one-person commuter bikes (but see below for notes on the Stokemonkey). So although you could add a child seat to a bike like this, there isn’t any way to use the assist system to haul serious cargo or two kids, even though the motor is capable of handling those loads. Beyond that there’s only trivial stuff. If you’re using to riding a bike on hills, learning to use this kind of assist appropriately can be a little weird. The goal is to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm and not bear down on the hill, or even necessarily shift down (unless it would make it easier to maintain cadence). I had to remind myself not to *try* to climb the hill. It was like The Matrix: “There is no hill.” But if you haven’t been riding on hills a lot, this won’t be an issue. You’ll take to it immediately. Another minor issue is that people who like to tinker get frustrated that these are closed systems; you can’t mess around with the bike. However I have trouble believing that people like that would have the slightest interest in this kind of bike anyway.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The entire bike has a two-year warranty.
  • Cost: The entire bike, including the electric assist, costs $3,300 at the New Wheel; they offer 12-month 0% interest financing as well.

The Stokemonkey

Once upon a time, there was an aftermarket mid-drive pedal assist system specifically meant for cargo bikes , the Stokemonkey (designed and sold by Clever Cycles in Portland). Although the motor was created for longtail cargo bikes, Stokemonkeys have also been used on front loading box bikes (this is not recommended by the manufacturer, however).  I have, sadly, never ridden a bike with a Stokemonkey. However reports from people who have ridden them claim that the motor is silent, the assist is seamless, and that a stoked, fully-loaded cargo bike can easily climb any hill. The Stokemonkey was withdrawn from production when the cost of parts increased, but is apparently coming back at an unknown (to me, at least) future date and price. Yeehaw!

Rear hub assist that responds to torque

The BionX system can go on any bike with a rear derailleur, including this Yuba Mundo.

I have now ridden two different bikes with aftermarket BionX pedal assists, both in Portland: a Surly Big Dummy and a Bullitt. In both cases the motor was the PL-350 (350 watts), which is the model recommended for climbing steep hills. The BionX controller gives you the option of choosing between four levels of assist, which range from a 75% assist to 300% assist. There is also a thumb switch that acts as throttle, giving the bike a burst of power at the highest level. This is a handy feature when you’re crossing an intersection. The BionX system only provides an assist if you’re moving at least 2 mph, however, so the initial start has to be powered by the rider. This ensures that the bike won’t jerk forward if you accidentally brush a pedal while stopped.

The BionX is a rear hub motor. You can tell it’s there because the hub of the back wheel is much larger than normal. The (proprietary) battery comes in two versions. One is an odd and obtrusive tear-drop shape, which can be mounted in a couple of different places but usually goes on the down tube. The other is a less-obvious flat pack that mounts below a special rack. Although the rack mount is unquestionably more attractive, I have heard from more than one bike shop that the rack mount can be problematic, because that much weight placed high on the back of the bike can make it very tippy. Add kids to the rear deck and the problem is intensified.

The BionX system is an unusual pedal assist system for two reasons: first, it responds to torque, and second, it has regenerative braking.

The BionX provides more or less assist depending on how hard you press on the pedals. For this reason, riding with an assist feels the same as riding without the assist, except you’ve grown massively stronger: push down hard on the pedals and you rocket forward. For people who’ve been riding on hills for a while without an assist this is an intuitive system to use because it mirrors the way they already ride.

Regenerative braking means that as you go downhill and brake, the battery recharges a little. This is a little bit of a gimmick, but not totally. For some reason, many people I talk to about electric assists to seem to think that pedaling the bike should provide all the charging they need for the assist system, as though an assisted bike were some kind of perpetual motion machine. I suppose this is technically possible, but only if you worked exactly as hard as you did on an unassisted bike, in which case, what would be the point of having an assist? Setting aside the expectation of a free lunch, however, regenerative braking has some advantages. The first advantage is that you can use the system to slow the bike while going downhill by setting the controller to a negative assist, turning it into a hub brake. On steep hills where brakes can overheat, which are all over San Francisco, this feature is outstanding. I am paranoid about brakes, so the news that BionX assists came with an independent second braking system had the same effect on me as a face mask full of nitrous oxide at the dentist. Whee! The second advantage is that regenerative braking can decrease range anxiety, because after going downhill you have a little bit more range.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the right handlebar that allows you to set an assist level; there are four levels of assist (and four levels of negative assist that act as a brake). There is also a thumb switch that acts like a throttle and gives a burst of power at the highest level of assist. The controller is also a computer that provides information on speed, distance traveled, and remaining battery life. It is a slick little machine, the iPhone of controllers. Once an assist level is set it sends power to multiply your effort. You can set an assist level and forget it, and just ride around faster than usual with no fear of hills.
  • What it feels like: They call this system BionX for a reason. When it’s on it makes you feel like you’ve suddenly developed super strength, but without the sordidness, health risks or expense of taking performance enhancing drugs. Because it responds to effort (torque), it really does feel just like riding an unassisted bike, except that the experience has become much, much easier. You still use the gears, but don’t ever slow down so much that you wobble on the hills.
  • Noise level: Completely silent.
  • Pros: This system feels more like riding a bike normally than any other assist I’ve used, and yet is powerful enough that I had no trouble hauling two kids up steep hills. In Portland, riding the BionXed Bullitt, I didn’t even need the highest level of assist to clear the local hills without difficulty on brutally hot days. On the hottest day we were in Portland (with a high of 105F), however, I did turn the assist to the highest level and it allowed us to go fast enough to catch a breeze even though I was putting in minimal effort because I feared I might pass out from the heat.
  • Cons: The BionX system currently only works on bikes with a rear derailleur and not with internally geared hubs (however BionX will be releasing a system with a 3-speed internally geared hub next year; this system will only be for purpose-built assisted bikes, however, as the torque sensor has to be built into the frame by the manufacturer). Having to get the speed up to 2mph before the assist kicks in can make starts on a heavily loaded bike very wobbly. There is no walking assist, which would be helpful. (If you make the mistake of trying to use the throttle button as a walking assist, as I once did, the bike will lurch ahead faster than you can follow it.) The BionX system is proprietary and does not allow the use of less expensive batteries from other manufacturers. This really ticks off people who like to tinker with their assists: BionX is the Apple of electric assists.
  • Battery type: LiPo. BionX offers a two year warranty.
  • Cost:  Ranges from $1200-$1800. The more expensive systems are better hill climbers and have greater range.

My conclusion

After riding all of these systems, the one that seemed best suited for our needs was the BionX (but how about a walking assist, BionX?) However, because the battery technology for all electric assists is still a little spotty, I wouldn’t get an assisted bike without the kind of gearing that would have a sporting chance of getting me up serious hills if the battery failed. Our new cargo bike has a wide range of gears.

Our needs are not everyone’s needs. I suspect a mid-drive pedal assist bike would be the best choice for an inexperienced rider facing steep hills. If I wanted to carry seriously heavy loads on a cargo bike, an EcoSpeed would be the better choice (or if it were available, a Stokemonkey). Personally, I didn’t really like being pulled along by a front hub motor, and the version I tried was underpowered for San Francisco hills. However many people like these motors better–I recently talked to one dad who wouldn’t consider any other kind of assist–and it’s possible to buy stronger assists for a front hub. Moreover there are some relatively inexpensive front hub systems available. Battery experience with these systems may vary.

No electric assist with any longevity is inexpensive, and some of them cost more than the bike itself. However I know many families in San Francisco who ride bikes but own a second car only to get the kids to school on top of a steep hill or because they can’t get a week’s worth of groceries home on a bike. Compared to car ownership, an electric assist is a bargain indeed.

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

We tried it: Christiania and Nihola cargo tricycles

Over a year after our return from Copenhagen, we finally got to ride a Christiania.

I knew coming in to our cargo bike test rides that we weren’t going to be buying a tricycle. If there is one thing that is fairly certain, it is that trikes can’t handle steep hills. But we wanted to try all the cargo options, if only to get a basis for comparison. Also, we had really, really wanted to rent a Christiania while we were in Copenhagen and no bike shop we found would let us.

One kid plus a backpack does not test the capacity of the Nihola.

In Portland, however, it was easy to test-ride a trike, because Emily Finch offered us the chance to use their family’s Christiania when she learned we were coming to Portland. How sweet is that? She herself rides a Bakfiets, but her husband got the Christiania when he was new to riding. While we were at it, we rented a Nihola from Clever Cycles (Clever Cycles is amazing). Matt and I each rode one for a few miles from the shop to the Hawthorne shopping district for lunch, then we switched off and headed back.

This is about as far forward as you want the weight in the cargo box to go.

Tricycles have a reputation for being more stable than bikes among new riders, which is only half-true. Trikes are statically stable and dynamically unstable (whereas bikes are statically unstable and dynamically stable). When trikes are stopped they rest on three wheels, like a footstool with three legs. For this reason you’ll never see a trike with a kickstand. They have a single hand brake with a parking latch, and coaster brakes. When trikes are moving, however, they are unstable. They sway and shimmy. My father-in-law, who is a physics professor at UC Berkeley, explained this to me as partially a function of the third wheel. All wheels have inherent lateral instability from the centripetal force of their movement. Add a third wheel and you increase that instability by 50% (my summary of his explanation elides a lot but is much shorter).

This guy with no legs whizzed by us on a hand-powered delta trike. Impressive and depressing at the same time.

Whether you will like a trike depends on whether you expect to be stopped or moving most of the time. It also depends on a lot on how fast you want to ride. We found that the top speed of a loaded tricycle was only slightly faster than brisk walking (although it was much less effort). Given this pace, it was tiring to think about taking it for a ride longer than a mile or two.

I would rule out a tricycle if facing any hill steeper than a speed bump. This isn’t because they are poor climbers, although they are, in fact, terrible climbers. I radically redefined my definition of a hill while riding these trikes to: any incline whatsoever. More distressing was that even in the fairly flat environs of southeast Portland, while going down mild hills in the Christiania at maybe 5 miles/hour, I experienced shimmy for the first time. And it scared the crap out of me. A shimmying bike starts to tremble uncontrollably and stops responding to attempts to steer, swinging wildly across the road. Slowing down the trike helps, but good luck getting much braking power from coaster brakes and a single hand brake. The Nihola handled the hills better. I would say it was roughly comparable to a very heavy bike with bad brakes.

The Nihola on the move

On the flats, however, a trike offers a pleasant and meandering ride. If you’re not in much of a hurry, it can be quite pleasant to putter along. The trikes came with chainguards and fenders but not lights. You never have to get out of the saddle at stops, which is a nice break if you do a lot of stop-and-go riding. Riding posture is bolt upright. Trikes are heavy and can carry a lot of weight, and you don’t really feel that (unless you’re going uphill, in which case you TOTALLY feel it, it’s like dragging an anchor). In a place like Chicago or Copenhagen, I can imagine that a trike could be an appealing option. They can, however, be slow to start at intersections after a full stop. At Clever Cycles they advised that we stand up on the pedals and use our body weight to get them started, and this was good advice.

Both the Nihola and Christiania are tadpole tricycles with two wheels and a cargo box in the front rather than delta tricycles with two wheels in the back. Our kids liked the trikes and couldn’t wait to ride them, but they couldn’t climb into them by themselves. Our son could almost make it into the Christiania trike, but it nearly fell forward from his weight when he tried. This was an unexpected downside of the tricycle experience. We had assumed that trikes were always stable while parked, but they can actually fall forward. After that we lifted both kids in ourselves, placing them toward the back of the cargo box, which was between all three wheels.

The front view from the Nihola

Both the Christiania and Nihola have seats for two children. The Christiania box is wider, with more elbow room. Given our kids’ sizes it was like sharing a love seat and they liked having that space. The Nihola is narrower but has a clear front, which improves the view for riders. There is arguably room for two more kids sitting on the floor in front of the seat, although this would be a very tight squeeze in the Nihola, and would probably lead to kicking and screaming in either trike on a long ride (but no one would take a cargo tricycle on a long ride). Both trikes offer rain canopies with a lot of headroom for kids as well. Having the kids in front is awesome. We have never had such great rides with them as we have with them in front. We could always hear what they’re saying and they could always hear us.

As one might expect, tricycles also need enormous amounts of space when parked, and reversing them involves something like 35-point turns.

Both tricycles are very wide, and as a result we stayed off busy streets with narrow bike lanes or sharrows, opting instead to follow some of Portland’s excellent neighborhood greenways on our trip. No way would I want to ride either trike in city traffic.

Both the Christiania and Nihola have internally geared hubs rather than a derailleur. Weirdly, they both shifted with a significant time lag, although it was more delayed on the Nihola than the Christiania. So we would shift gears, and I don’t know, the trike would think about that for a while? And then several seconds later the gears would change. It was strange and made going up hills (riding a tricycle on a hill of any kind TOTALLY SUCKS) even more unpleasant.

Riding the Christiania in the bike lane means using the entire bike lane.

The steering on the Christiania is bizarre and yet fun. There is a bar across the back of the cargo box and you shove it away from the upcoming turn to corner the bike (push left to go right). It takes a little getting used to at first but is very responsive. It feels kind of liberating to swing the bar from side to side. Whee! The steering on the Nihola uses regular handlebars, which made me realize immediately why the Christiania used the leverage of a wide bar across the box. It was difficult to get the Nihola to turn at all. At one point I took a speed bump a little too fast, rolled away to one side, and couldn’t straighten the trike before ramming into the curb. (Hitting a curb with a wheel isn’t dangerous, but it was annoying.)

The Christiania offers a lot of elbow room.

Overall, the Christiania was bigger and easier to steer, while the Nihola was marginally better on hills and has a neat clear front and thus a better view. However if I were forced to get one, I would pick the Christiania over the Nihola, because I would never take either tricycle anywhere that wasn’t flat anyway. These are very nice tricycles, and I’m delighted we had the chance to try them. For better or for worse, however, we live in a place where they are completely inappropriate, and we are unlikely to ever ride one again.

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