Category Archives: cargo

Christmas tree by bicycle, our 7th consecutive year

Has it been a year? It kind of has.

One of the first cargo-type things we did with our first cargo bike, other than carry our own kids (typically one at a time), was to pick up a Christmas tree on it. It was only later that we added odds and ends like game tables and other people’s children (in value-pack combinations.)

It’s getting harder to take pictures of the kids.

This year we headed to the tree lot early, because I am heading out of town for a while to visit my mom, who has been ill. Our son is now 12, and has glumly resigned himself to the prospect of having to go to the tree lot in the company of his parents and younger sister, which he finds embarrassing. Our daughter (now 8) is still delighted by the prospect of running around looking at the turkeys and running through hay bales, which I have come to appreciate because I now have evidence that it will not last forever. On arrival, however, both kids were charmed by the usual collection of things on offer that kind of freak me out: trees flocked in neon colors and inflatable snow globes. Their demands to get a flocked tree this year got them my usual public health killjoy response: “no toxic flame retardants in the house!” Ho, ho, ho.

Loading up the tree

We are no longer the only people to ride to the lot, although I wouldn’t say that it is packed with bicycles. We are certainly no longer considered bizarre by the lot workers, who cheerfully heaved our tree into the bucket of the Bullitt, clearly pleased not to have to carry the tree out to the parking lot. However given that once again we ended up riding past a line of cars stretching back for two long blocks, it seems that most other people still haven’t figured out how much easier it is to ride. This remains one of the many household trips that I cannot fathom doing by car, because between the waiting to get into the lot and the strapping of the tree onto a car, the whole endeavor turns into a multi-hour process. We are not exactly decisive when it comes to picking out a tree, yet we still managed to ride away before some of the families waiting in cars had even reached the lot. That’s no way to live.

Heading home by longtail bike, with two kids on the back whose legs are really too long to sit together anymore, followed by a front loader carrying a Christmas tree, well, it seems that this is still the kind of thing that stops traffic—at least what little car traffic was moving. The other bicycle riders on the street, though, just waved. We all know what’s possible.

Heading home

Like last year, our return home this year coincided with the return of our next door neighbor, also on his bicycle, from grocery shopping. The world is changing fast, in some scary ways, yet some things stay the same. Sometimes that’s all I can ask.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, family biking

We tried it: Riese & Müller Packster 60

The Packster 60

The Packster 60

Over the winter break, we got the chance to test ride one of the recent new entrants in the front-loading cargo bike market, the Packster. The New Wheel in San Francisco loaned it to us while the EdgeRunner was getting a tuneup. Thanks, New Wheel! This is the first front-loading cargo bike they’ve stocked. Back when we were shopping for a family bike, the front-loading options were pretty limited, at least in the United States: a Bakfiets.nl (inappropriate for San Francisco hills, as are all of its European knockoffs); a Metrofiets (fun bike, but oversized for our needs); and a Bullitt (what we ended up getting.) Since then, we’ve tried out new entrants like the Urban Arrow and not-exactly-bikes like the Butchers & Bicycles tricycle, and been unable to try some of the new ones like Douze. And there have been various now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t attempts to enter the market, which have permanently put me off reviewing bikes that are not yet in production. It’s still a pretty thin market.

The Packster 60 is one of two Packsters; there is also a Packster 80 (bigger,) and a similar model from the same company, which is higher-end and more expensive, called the Load.

Riese & Müller is a German company, and the bikes have Bosch assists, which are also German. The Jewish half of our family has been slow to make peace with German cars, and Bosch did not exactly win their hearts and minds during World War II either, however in the last decade or so there has been something of a rapprochement, enough of one, at least, that no one was scowling at the prospect of seeing their grandchildren on a German bike. Personally, while I have continued lust in my heart for the German postal and baker bikes, I have found most of the assisted bikes from Germany to be unsettlingly large and sort of overwhelming. Until last week, I guess I should say. My feelings about the Packster in six words: German engineering applied to a bicycle.

What I like about this bike:

  • In short: German engineering. This is a term that can mean different things to different people. One of the most obvious indications for us was when I was riding with the kids and my daughter complained that we were going “too fast.” And I thought, “What do you mean we’re going too fast, we’re going maybe 9-10mph.” Then I looked at the controller and realized we were actually booking along at about 17mph. It’s the German way. When I was an exchange student in high school my host father was driving on the Autobahn and I said something about how I thought people were allowed to drive faster, and his daughter looked over at me and said, “We’re going 180kph.” Which we were. I had mixed feelings about this for a while until I got back on the EdgeRunner and realized I didn’t feel the speed on the Packster because the bike is pretty impervious to external shocks. The suspension fork on the front wheel helps with that. It glides over rough pavement. The parts don’t rattle. The frame doesn’t twitch. Everything is stable. I never noticed the shifting or the pedals. We just rode, and the bike didn’t get in the way. It is subtle, but once you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to go back. I could spout a bunch of details about the quality of the parts, but why bother when that stuff is on the company’s website. The parts are awesome. Everything works better than you would expect. It’s great.
  • Here we are loaded up: two kids, groceries, and my stuff.

    Here we are loaded up: two kids, groceries, and my stuff.

    The front box is great, wide enough but not too wide. We still haul our two kids in the standard Bullitt box, which is narrower on rainy days. Four years ago I would not have imagined that this was possible with them now at the ages of 11 and 7 years, but what did I know? It can be done and it’s what they want. That said, there was way less drama about “get your ELBOW out of my FACE!” with both of them in the wider Packster box. And although I was initially concerned that the wider box would interfere with our ability to get through tight spaces, it’s not so wide that it limited our mobility much. Front loaders in general are fantastic because it’s easy to talk to the kids and see what they’re doing.

  • Quick release adjustment on the seat (there's a similar one on the handlebars)

    Quick release adjustment on the seat (there’s a similar one on the handlebars)

    The Packster has a number of features to help riders of various heights feel comfortable. These include a low step over (nice in general, necessary if you want to do something like put a child seat on a rear rack) and quick-release adjustable height handlebar stem and seat post.

  • NuVinci gearing on the right

    NuVinci gearing on the right

    The integrated NuVinci gearing and Bosch middrive assist work together seamlessly and go pretty much anywhere. (For some reason Bosch ranks its levels of assist from lowest to highest as “Eco,” “Tour,” “Sport,” and “Turbo” instead of the more logical 1-4 range. It is annoying and non-intuitive. Hindu-Arabic numerals were good enough for Brahmagupta so they’re good enough for me, and thus I will refer to the assist levels by numbers from here on out.) I’ve ridden an EdgeRunner with the infinite NuVinci + Bosch middrive assist before and didn’t have a good experience, probably because (I learned later) Xtracycle is shipping those bikes with a front cog that it is the wrong size for climbing. I have been informed by more than one person that swapping it (which many bike shops now do as a matter of course) makes a huge difference. And I thought that the Butchers & Bicycles trike I rode had that combo but it turned out to be a different assist. Anyway, this time I understood what the fuss was about. This combination makes for an incredibly smooth experience in which you can gear down and power up to go up hills, and gear up and power down on the way back down. Even with two kids on the bike I was able to shift down and stay at a level 2 assist to get up moderate hills without (a) slowing down enough that I worried about tipping or (b) feeling like I was going to pass out or (c) both. After that success, I took the Packster (unloaded) up our old preschool hill, a hill that has tacoed the rear wheels of at least two unassisted bikes hauling trailers, and that many assisted bikes have failed to scale. For that, I needed to use level 4 and gear way down, and it was not exactly effortless, but I could have done it with a kid on board, and Matt could do it with two kids. The Packster says: veni, vidi, vici.

  • Here's the box with seat cushions and restraints.

    Here’s the box with seat cushions and restraints.

    Do you have range anxiety when you think about riding an assisted bike, worrying that you’ll ride to one end of town and find you’re out of battery power? If so, this is the bike for you. The Riese & Müller front loaders can accept a second battery, meaning that whatever the normal range of the bike (typically 20-35 miles, depending on load and terrain), it can be doubled. That second battery isn’t free, of course, but for people with long commutes, or people like us who sometimes find ourselves riding distances beyond what we’d ever initially imagined, it could be worth it.

  • Do you worry about your pants catching in the chain? I used to until I realized that I could just wear skinny pants all the time. Matt and I both ride enough that we tear through the crotches of our pants pretty regularly, so it didn’t take long to resolve that problem. However the Packster has a belt drive, so I could probably wear palazzo pants if I owned this bike. Belt drives have other advantages as well: smooth operation, longevity, no rust and no need for lubrication (I could wear white palazzo pants), and reduced weight.
  • Front, with suspension and an outstanding light

    Front, with suspension and an outstanding light

    There are really great accessories, and most of them are included in the price of the bike. The wired front and rear lights are incredible. I don’t often have a chance to test ride bikes at night, but because this one stayed with us for about a week, I did, and the throw on the front light of the Packster is the best I’ve ever experienced; it lit up exactly the section of the road I needed to see to get around. The kickstand is sprung so that it’s easy to release down, and ranks in the stability range of the Bakfiets.nl, making it almost impossible to tip over, even when three or four kids swarm it. Because the stand uses an enclosed frame, you can also lock it to a ground puck through the kickstand—we recently started locking our bikes to floor pucks in the wake of several hot prowl thefts of cargo bikes from garages in our neighborhood. It has a rear wheel lock, which is of course totally inadequate as a primary lock here in San Francisco, but is enough in combination with another lock to discourage many bike thieves. The pedals and saddle are nothing special, but they’re perfectly adequate. If you are so inclined, you can add three-point restraints and a cushioned bench seat to the box (the bike I rode had these.) There is also a rain cover available. Although: no bell!

  • Locked to a floor anchor through the kickstand: this is cool.

    Locked to a floor anchor through the kickstand: this is cool.

    Thus far, the Packster is the only cargo bike I’ve ever been able to bunny hop onto a curb. I usually would never even attempt such a thing, but while I was riding the bike back to the shop, I got stuck behind two broken down buses, which had led to an epic traffic meltdown. After waiting a few minutes in the completely stopped car traffic, I figured I had nothing to lose by trying to drag the bike onto the sidewalk and walk it past the buses. I could barely believe it when the front wheel popped right up over the curb and glided up to the sidewalk. My bet is that this is related to the suspension on the front fork, but who cares why it works, the fact that it did work was totally awesome.

  • The Packster is surprisingly easy to park for a front loader. I was edgy when The New Wheel handed it off with a standard U-lock, which can be problematic for our other big bikes. However my cargo lock had gone with my bike to the shop for a tune-up, so I didn’t have a choice. While the Packster has a pretty hefty frame, the rear of the bike is pretty lean (the loaner had no rear rack, but I don’t think a standard rear rack would add any volume here,) so we had no trouble backing it into almost any rack or parking meter to lock up. The usual caveats apply about trying to lift it up a flight of stairs, though, meaning: no way. Yet combined with its ability to hop over curbs, the Packster is shockingly maneuverable for a long john.
  • This is a very clean look, and easy to operate as well.

    This is a very clean look, and easy to operate as well.

    It looks cool. Although I try not to get hung up on aesthetics, there is value to having a bike that I look at and say “I want to ride that.” I was particularly impressed by the way all the wiring has been corralled in front. In the past I have referred to the advice I once read to “buy the cool bike.” I think liking your bike is especially relevant for cargo bikes, which are sometimes kind of big and intimidating, and are used to haul loads that understandably may give people pause. In my case, that’s two squirming kids who are old enough to make their own fun, often by fighting with each other. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and my sense is that bikes with curvy frames seem friendlier than sharp-edged bikes like the Packster, but after years of drive-by parenting I’m actually not interested in looking any more approachable than I already do. Anyway, I found myself wanting to ride this bike.

What I don’t like about this bike:

Nice controller, oh look, we cracked it.

Nice controller, oh look, we cracked it.

Almost everything on the list of things that I didn’t like about the Packster could be summarized as first generation issues, meaning that they’re either aesthetic or correctable annoyances. One of the ones that hit us on the second day was the fact that this particular bike looks interesting enough, particularly loaded up, that people around us could be, frankly, jerks. When I was riding with the kids in Golden Gate Park I tried to ride to a bike rack to park, but was stopped by a guy standing in front of me on the street to “get a closer look at the bike.” I answered a couple of his questions, at which point he stopped talking and just stood there staring at us (as mentioned above: I’m already way too approachable.) Then I said, “I’d like to get to the racks over there!” He said, “Oh!” and stepped back, and then just as I started riding again, STEPPED RIGHT BACK OUT IN FRONT OF US. And because I am evidently way too nice a person I didn’t run him over, so instead we all went down. My kids started screaming, the guy immediately vaporized, and the controller cracked. I’m sorry, New Wheel. Anyway, I put this problem in the same category as vandalism and I hope anyone who happens to buy the bike will mow him down for me next time.  And generally: beware of looky-loos.

  • As always, I note that there is a learning curve for bikes with linkage steering. Don’t look at the front wheel, look at your destination. I can’t tell anymore how easy or hard it is to pick up the steering on a particular make or model, because once I mastered it on the Bullitt I had no trouble with any of the others. Some lucky souls pick it up right away, some people (me) struggle for a few days, and how quickly a person picks it up seems completely unrelated to experience riding other bikes, so who knows. The possibility of dropping the bike on a test ride is real and it’s something to keep in mind. I expect that owning a bike shop that sells front loaders offers a real challenge to one’s equanimity during test rides.
  • Similarly, the turning radius on all front loaders is pretty terrible, what with the long wheel base, and this bike is no exception. Tight U-turns are a thing of the past.
  • It may be hard to see, but this is too much reach.

    It may be hard to see, but this is too much reach.

    At several points while I was riding I wondered if Riese & Müller had a single woman test ride this bicycle before bringing it to market, or even a non-German person, by which I mean a smaller person. Although there are signals that it’s intended to be accessible to people of a range of heights, including the low step over height of the frame and the quick releases to adjust the seat and handlebar heights, one miss that stood out for me was the huge reach required to reach the brake levers. I felt uncomfortable going down steep hills for this reason and for a woman, I have long fingers; I could reach a tenth on the piano back in high school, an advantage that kept me playing far longer than my talent supported. Dialing that back to a shorter reach is something that any bike shop that wants to sell this bike to moms should probably do (and I know it can be done.) Similarly, the box is a sort of origami structure held together by what I assume (based on what my neighbor stores in our shared garage) is a motorcycle tie-down strap. The ratchet (cam?) that secures it is placed at the back left of the box. This is perfectly positioned for anyone who is swinging a leg over the top bar to hit their right foot on it as they dismount. Several times. Ouch. I presume that the (tall, German) men who designed the bike were always lifting their leg over the back of the bike to dismount so this never came up for them. I learned to pull back on the dismount after a while, but it kind of ticked me off.

  • So many times I hit that thing on the dismount

    So many times I hit that thing on the dismount

    While the kickstand is rock solid and goes down to support with a mere touch of the foot, it can be tricky to get back up. What’s supposed to happen is that you push the bike forward and it snaps up automatically. What actually happens depends on what type of surface happens to be under the bike. When we were on rough asphalt, the kickstand gripped enough that it popped right up. When we were on smooth cement, like on the sidewalk, it sort of dragged along and wouldn’t go up without riding for a while, or without me sticking a foot under it to nudge it before I got on. I suspect that applying some kind of grip tape on the bottom of the kickstand would provide enough friction to resolve this, but as is, it’s finicky.

  • Incredibly stiff and annoying rear wheel lock

    Incredibly stiff and annoying rear wheel lock

    Although the Packster mostly rides like a dream, the wheel lock and battery attachments are very stiff. I like having a rear wheel lock but I loathed trying to operate this one so much that I almost gave up on it. It was bizarre because the U-lock I was using was also made by Abus and was easy to operate. Yet only the fact that I did not actually own the bike combined with the high levels of bike theft in San Francisco made me endure messing with that wheel lock. The plug attachment for the battery is also persnickety and hard to connect. Similarly, the quick release adjustments on the handlebars and seat post, while awesome in principle, are not particularly intuitive or easy to operate. I felt a weird dissonance between the times that I was riding the bike (this bike is great!) and the times that I was getting on the bike, getting off the bike, or locking up the bike and charging it (this bike is so annoying!) Some of this may be the fact that it was just unboxed and not everything is working smoothly yet. My experience with the older Abus U-lock would support this hypothesis, however although the battery plug seems designed to be annoying.

  • Note that at this level, we were constantly doing a helmet v. handlebars contest

    Note that at this level, we were constantly doing a helmet v. handlebars contest

    While the bike itself sometimes assumes a tall rider, the accessories are sized for the littlest kids. We did not have the rain cover on the bike that I test rode, which is just as well, because I could tell just by looking at the photo that older kids like mine would not fit under it. My daughter’s attempt to try the three-point restraints left her laughing maniacally at how impossible it was. While my kids appreciated the width of the box, their legs were a bit cramped. The box is a bit shallower than we’re used to as well, so although it was possible to put both kids and a pile of groceries in the bike, we weren’t breaking any maximum load records. And because I didn’t figure out how to make height adjustments until I returned the bike (see above), the handlebars and brake levers struck their helmets when we were riding together. At the highest height point there’s clearance for tall kids (and short adults) but I couldn’t get it there when we had the bike. Overall, the length and width of the Packster 60 is roughly comparable to the Bullitt, but the standard box is shorter, shallower, and wider, although the Packster 80 would presumably be longer.

  • The model I rode was better sprung for riding unloaded than loaded, which was interesting. This is pretty nitpicky, because the ride is great regardless, however the handling improved when it was unloaded; in this it is unlike our Bullitt. When I returned the bike to The New Wheel they mentioned that Riese & Müller supply stiffer springs that could be installed in front that would probably reverse this, making the ride better loaded than unloaded. If I were planning to use this bike for heavy loads (and why get it if not?) I would want to make that switch.
  • The Bosch middrive assist is not silent. The higher levels of assist are extremely not silent. I had a boyfriend in college who later went to law school and after he graduated he took a job at a big firm and decided to buy an “affordable” sports car with his new salary, a Mazda Miata. As we still hung out at times, I rode with him in it occasionally and thus I had the opportunity to experience why it was an “affordable” sports car: the engine noise was like a chorus of howling demons. By comparison, the Bosch at level 4 I would classify as more like the whining of a moderately annoyed demon. For a bicycle, it’s pretty loud; relative to cars, it’s not offensive, but relative to other bicycles, it’s a Miata.
  • Occasionally, the general awesomeness of the ride was interrupted by a weird thunking sound from the gears on hill starts. It never persisted, and it didn’t happen often, but it was unnerving.
  • Last and certainly not least, this bike, like all front loaders, is pretty expensive. The version I rode is priced at $5900, which does include the lights and whatnot. However the kid accessories like the rain cover and so on are extra, as is a second battery; I can’t price those accessories as the bike just came out so I couldn’t find them listed.

Things I can only speculate about:

  • As always, with a new bike on the market, I can’t speak to reliability. That said, this is not a one-off manufacturer, the parts are all pretty high-end, and German engineering has a reputation for reliability, recent exceptions like Volkswagen notwithstanding. Personally I wouldn’t feel any real concern.
  • I’m not sure how well the Packster would handle a fully loaded start on a steep hill, although it is great starting from zero on moderate hills, and for those living outside of San Francisco, that’s probably more than enough. After I dumped the bike my kids were not eager to get back in the box for extended test rides, so the steepest hills I rode were all without them on board. Our usual bikes are BionX assisted, and we use the boost buttons to make the steep uphill starts. As a comparison I tried making a steep start from a dead stop with the assist dialed up to 4 and the gearing down low, and the Packster took off pretty fast. However where we live, I’d want to test ride it with the kids on board before I felt completely confident. If that’s relevant, The New Wheel has the Packster I rode sitting out in front and available for test rides at 420 Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights.

I realized how I felt about the Packster when I rode back to the shop to pick up the EdgeRunner and they wheeled it out. The EdgeRunner is super-practical and maneuverable, but I admit, although I am fond of it, it looked like a beat-up warthog next to the shiny new Packster, and also, I realized once I started riding it that it squeaks and rattles a bit at higher speeds. These are not things that I noticed about it before I rode the Packster.  It is unquestionably true that the abuse we put our bikes through is a big factor in that. Nonetheless, I curse my lost innocence.

We’re not in the market for a new cargo bike, and I am increasingly longing to return to the days of solo biking. So the question I ask myself when I test ride is more along of the lines of who it would best serve. It would serve a family like ours, it turns out. So I asked myself whether I would want it as a replacement for one of our cargo bikes in the (not unlikely, actually) event that one was stolen. It’s a close call. The Packster and Bullitt ride differently, both in appealing ways, however the Packster climbs more smoothly than our BionX assisted Bullitt (the middrive Bullitt may be different), can be upgraded to have double the range, is less expensive (assuming a single battery,) and the slightly wider box would probably eke out a year or so more of carrying two older kids at once. Thanks to the belt drive, I could wear wide-leg pants, should I ever be so inclined. I’d have to live with noise from the middrive on the hills, and plugging in the battery would irritate the crap out of me, but these seem like acceptable tradeoffs. The answer at this point, weirdly, comes down to the rain cover: our kids wouldn’t fit under the Packster’s rain cover. This is probably the closest miss ever for a bike I’ve test ridden. The rain cover would stop me from buying it, unless Riese & Müller come up with a better one. For families with smaller kids though, or hardier ones, it’s a fantastic choice.

 

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

Christmas tree by bicycle, 6th year in a row

Hey. Hey there. I’ve spent a crushing term with an extra-heavy teaching and advising load, and spent all of my writing time working on papers and grant proposals, because that’s my real job. However it’s now December, I’m done teaching and have mostly caught up on papers, and don’t have another grant proposal due until February. It’s blogging time!

Decisions, decisions

Decisions, decisions

December has traditionally been the time of year that we head to the Christmas tree lot and draw stares as we load up a tree on our bicycle. Our son (11) is now old enough to be feeling some tween awkwardness at the prospect of rolling into the Christmas tree lot on bikes; our daughter (now 7) remains oblivious to all forms of peer pressure. Admittedly both kids express some interest in the question of what it might be like to carry a Christmas tree in car, as they have no memory of ever doing so. However when we arrived and discovered a long line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot (which we breezed past, per usual) our son concluded that our decision to bike was appropriate after all. And despite some unusual indecision from the kids this year about which tree to purchase and some contemplation of the (live) turkeys and rabbits, we still made it in and out of the lot faster than any of the drivers.

Tree loaded and ready to go

Tree loaded and ready to go

In this, our sixth year of hauling a Christmas tree by bike, the people at the lot have gotten used to us and we no longer raise eyebrows. We’ve learned we can roll the bike right up to the tree baler, which makes us popular because it means no one needs to carry the tree anywhere, let alone strap it to a car roof. I know that other families in the neighborhood bike their trees home too; thus far we’ve never met any of them at the lot, though.

We have pretty much settled on the Bullitt as our Christmas tree bike, after some experimentation in earlier years. Front loaders are laughably easy to load; just throw whatever in the bucket. Our tree was taller than we are, so we also used a couple of bungees to ensure it wouldn’t slide out on bumpy pavement. For this reason and many others, the Bullitt remains the most reliable vehicle we have ever owned.

Hey, neighbor!

Hey, neighbor!

When we first began carrying our tree by bike, it got us a lot of attention. Even last year, we got a bit of hooting and dropped jaws. This year was the first time that no one seemed to think we were doing anything odd, riding bikes around San Francisco with a Christmas tree and two kids. We see more and more families like ours every year. As we rode up to our building, our next door neighbor appeared on his own bike, on his way back from a trip to the grocery store. It was cool. Not everything gets better all the time, but it feels like occasionally, some things do get better.

 

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

Stay these couriers

My mail carrier is an asshole.

My mail carrier is an asshole.

We live on a street in San Francisco that has unusually wide sidewalks, and, not coincidentally, unusually narrow lanes for cars. It is also a bike boulevard, and connects directly to two of the separated bike paths in Golden Gate Park. Thanks to the narrow lanes, cars find it difficult to pass each other and avoid cutting through our neighborhood. These things are all great for us, as it means we live on one of the quietest streets in San Francisco, despite the fact that the streetcar runs one block parallel to us and we never have to walk more than a block to get on transit.

The wide sidewalks apparently serve as an irresistible temptation to a certain type of driver, however. My neighbors and I have learned to call the city to ticket drivers who decide that in the absence of a sufficiently convenient street spot, why not park on the nice wide sidewalk? It is apparently the same offenders over and over again, because word like us has gotten around, and our block now stays pretty clear.

A few blocks over, however, it’s a different story. My arch-nemesis in the sidewalk parking wars is unfortunately our mail carrier. Despite personal requests, calls to the city, calls to USPS, tweets to USPS, and in-person complaints at our neighborhood post office, he is an inveterate and unapologetic sidewalk parker. Every day his truck blocks it, leaving me, my kids, neighbors pushing strollers, etc. to fend for ourselves in the street. He parks on the sidewalk even if there is an open parking space on the street right next to the truck. I loathe that guy.

Eventually I will prevail—if nothing else, he is older than I am and thus will retire before I die—but in the interim it’s infuriating.

Me, saying something forgettable at the cancer prevention meeting.

Me, saying something forgettable at the cancer prevention meeting.

Anyway, as a result of all this, I have mixed feelings about the US Postal Service. So earlier this week, when I attended a meeting addressing cancer prevention strategies held by the National Institutes of Health, I was vaguely depressed to realize it was being held at the Bolger Center in Potomac, Maryland, which it turns out is owned and operated as a retreat by, yes, the USPS. (The meeting itself caused me intellectual whiplash, which is another story altogether.)

This plant is brought to you by USPS.

This plant is brought to you by USPS.

The Bolger Center is extremely trippy in its own right. It contains a hotel, a conference center, a dining hall, and bar, and is set up like a college campus. It is labyrinthine and seriously confused multiple taxi drivers. Moreover literally everything on site, from the rooms right down to individual plants, was labeled with signs reading “USPS,” which frankly began to seem excessive. I was tempted to chase down to the squirrels and rabbits wandering around the lawn and woods to check them for tags as well, but they were too fast for me. Other than the 20-odd other attendees at the NIH meeting, the entire center was occupied by USPS middle managers on some kind of retreat. Perhaps recognizing the nature of their core constituency, the Bolger Center lacks sidewalks per se, although there are separated walkways, which are placed far away from the roads designed for cars.

Authentic mail bike: Now we're talking.

Authentic mail bike: Now we’re talking.

All that said, I did discover something new and interesting among the various mail-related paraphernalia posted in the hallways. At the entrance to one building is a display of a postal bike! The sign, which is too small to read in my photo, explains that the USPS bought bikes like these from military surplus in 1944 and used them and their equivalents to deliver mail as late as the 1990s. How cool are these bikes? Amazingly cool! Why on earth did they stop using them? I have an offer for you, USPS: bring back the bikes; in return, you’ll never have a complaint about sidewalk parking again.

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Filed under cargo, San Francisco, travel

Is it too good to be true?

Two kids on our Kona MinUte, not an everyday thing

Two kids on our Kona MinUte, not an everyday thing

Our path to all-bikes-all-the-time did not always run smoothly. At various points, we got crappy advice (I have refrained for years from listing “San Francisco Bike Shops That I Hate” by name so I won’t start now), and at other points, we were unwilling to listen to good advice. Probably the best example of the latter was the Co-Rider/Bike Tutor debacle. The idea of an inexpensive front child seat for older kids on a step-through frame seemed so promising that we wanted very much to believe it would work. Even though the quite reliable and well-informed owner of Ocean Cyclery was leery of this seat, he installed it for us. When it dumped my daughter in the middle of a ride into a busy street, we realized that reality didn’t always conform to what we wanted to happen. Another depressing example was our issues with the terrible brakes on the first-generation Kona MinUte, which kept failing on steep hills with a kid on board (I’ve been told that the brakes on newer models are better). Our local bike shop, for the record, advised upgrading to hydraulic disc brakes on the MinUte from the beginning. Thankfully our kids were never hurt, although we had some very close calls. We have gotten better about listening since then.

Ages 10 and 7 and they STILL squeeze into a standard Bullitt box

Ages 10 and 7 and they STILL squeeze into a standard Bullitt box

We started down the family biking road before there were many resources or options. Now we have two monster cargo bikes, a Bullitt and an Xtracycle EdgeRunner, which can handle whatever we throw at them. They were not cheap, although I maintain that they are a good value. Part of what we paid for was versatility, and part of what we paid for was safety: there is no question that these bikes were designed to do what we do with them, and both the manufacturers and the bike shops where we purchased the bikes are committed to quality. We learned the hard way that this is something that matters because it is what keeps our kids safe. There are national standards in the US that define what features make a car safe(r). These standards do not yet exist for bikes, and that means that finding an appropriate family bike remains a question of trust.

File under "questionable ideas"

File under “questionable ideas”

Even back in the early part of this decade, the prehistoric years of US cargo bikes, there were more and less expensive options, and rest assured that I desperately wanted to believe that the less expensive options would work for us. So when people I had come to trust told me that the bikes I liked were not suitable for San Francisco, and that ultimately a safe and reliable cargo bike would cost much more than I had imagined spending, it was a very difficult thing to hear. I suspect that the only reason we were able to accept it was that we had already had a couple of bad experiences that came from believing there was a way to do what we wanted at a price that we liked. And there was not. We had to decide whether we were willing to (a) make family biking a sometimes thing, (b) risk our own and our kids’ safety, or (c) spend a lot more money than we had hoped. The family biking equivalent of “fast, good, cheap: pick any two” is “versatile, safe, cheap: pick any two.” It’s easy to find an inexpensive bike that’s safe for recreational family riding (short distances, mellow terrain, no weather challenges), or an inexpensive bike that can be used in many situations if you don’t mind risking your life, or an expensive bike that’s safe for daily riding with kids (like every day commuting, especially in annoying terrain). But the Holy Grail of a family bike that is inexpensive, safe, and suitable for carrying kids every day? A bike like this does not exist (yet.) I wish it did.

The fact that cargo bikes are much more expensive than normal bikes is almost always the thing that makes people want desperately to believe in things that are too good to be true. I’ve written about why cargo bikes cost what they do before. Cargo bikes are not expensive because their manufacturers and the shops that sell them are making huge profits; they are not. In more than one case, I have learned that bike shops are run by people who have chosen to make less money than they could in order to make these bikes more accessible. They do it for love.

We've been seeing more and more bikes like ours around the city: Solidarity!

We’ve been seeing more and more bikes like ours around the city: Solidarity!

I have reviewed a lot of bikes on this site. I have avoided reviewing even more bikes. I haven’t mentioned it before, but some of those choices have to do with safety, because quite frankly we have made enough mistakes. I’m not always a huge fan of the bikes I review, but the fact that I write about them at all means that I believe that they are safe enough to ride for at least some kinds of families, even if they’re not a good fit for mine. Over the years, I’ve frequently gotten questions about whether I am going to review a bike that other families are interested in buying. In some cases I haven’t reviewed them because I haven’t seen them locally here in San Francisco, or in Seattle, where my mom lives and where we visit regularly, and thus I know nothing about them (one example: Douze.) In other cases it’s not ignorance that keeps me from writing a review. I have ridden certain bikes that I would not be willing to put my kids on, not even for a test ride. I have been warned off riding certain bikes by people that I trust and who know me well enough to advise that I would not be willing to put my kids on them, not even for a test ride.

The bikes that I avoid reviewing almost always promise the three-fer: they claim to be versatile, safe, and inexpensive. They are often sold direct to the consumer, without the intervening reality check of a bike shop. There is not much point in naming names on the internet, because the manufacturers never last very long. Eventually people realize that the bikes are either not really versatile or not really safe, though more often it’s the latter. In the interim, though, I never really know what to say about the inevitable excitement that accompanies each new cargo bike that promises all the things but that makes compromises that ensure that I will keep my kids from even coming near it. I know that in the absence of reviews, or in the presence of reviews written by people who don’t regularly ride cargo bikes (reviews based on test rides in which the rider did not carry cargo of any kind annoy me), that each new bike makes a wildly compelling promise. Many people are understandably eager to believe—I know that I was—and end up buying a bike that at best will disappoint them. Yet in the slightly-modified words of my beloved dissertation adviser, these bikes ultimately fall of their own weight. They are too good to be true.

(All that said, one of these days I will start checking my blog email again (sorry, it’s been a weird time), and yes, I’m willing to name names off the internet.)

Looking out over our neighborhood

Looking out over our neighborhood

If you are in the market for a family bike, there is no such thing as truly objective advice. Manufacturers and bike shops want to sell you bikes, and they’re pretty straight up about that. Periodicals rely on reviewers who often don’t ride with kids, and they make money from advertising bikes so they’re unlikely to say anything negative. Bike reviews by family bikers are typically written by people who test rode a few bikes, bought one of them, and really like it, which doesn’t provide much basis for comparison or offer a lot of insight into newer models. Speaking for myself, although I have ridden many bikes and am financially unconflicted because my job doesn’t let me make any money or even request discounts, I don’t have anything like the resources to review all the bikes on the market, I think everybody should ride bikes for transportation because it’s cool, I can’t speak to the reliability of any bike that I don’t actually own, and what’s more even on my best day I am wildly idiosyncratic, have kids who have grown out of peak family biking age, and live in a place with unconventional topography.

Who can you trust? A while back I decided to trust family bike shops. Although they definitely want to sell you bikes, they are informed enough to compare different types of bikes, and know a lot more than I do about manufacturing quirks and reliability, which are critical issues that go way beyond what anyone can learn on a test ride. I realize that not everyone has the luxury of living in the San Francisco Bay Area or Portland or Seattle, where good advice is at worst a trip across town away. Yet many of these shops are run by people who will send long emails or talk your ear off over the phone, even though they may not expect it to result in a sale. I took advantage of this long before we bought our first cargo bike. And I have learned that when they tell me something is too good to be true, even though I don’t want to believe it, they are right.

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Filed under cargo, family biking, reviews

We tried it: Juiced Riders ODK U500

Well hello, long time no see. Both the world and I have been busy, in my case innocuously. I have a new fall class with about 120 students, and thus have missed multiple anniversaries that I try to mention. It’s been over three years since we sold our minivan and two years since we were able to buy our condo with the money we’ve saved. It’s been three years on the Bullitt and that’s still great, and a year on the EdgeRunner with no regrets. But I digress.

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

Over the summer we had a chance to try the Juiced Riders ODK U500, a newish midtail. Our midtail, the Kona MinUte, was our first cargo bike. Since then there have been other midtails released, including the Yuba Boda Boda and the Kinn Cascade Flyer, during which time the MinUte went in and out of production. The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day was a midtail in one incarnation, but according to Bike Friday has now stretched out to longtail length. At some point I realized the cleverly-designed but much-too-heavy-for-San-Francisco Workcycles Fr8 was also a midtail. However I think it is fair to say that the midtail category has not exactly been wildly innovative, as the best-case scenario is pretty much that manufacturers keep producing the same bike.

My daughter wondering why we couldn't stop taking pictures already

My daughter wondering why we couldn’t stop taking pictures already

What makes a midtail? In our experience it’s a bike with a rear deck that comfortably carries one kid on the deck. We have squeezed two smaller kids on the deck of the MinUte, because I’m not so good with “boundaries,” but I learned that if you do that kind of thing with any regularity There Will Be Blood, literally. With a very little kid the frame is sturdy enough to handle both a front seat and the kid on the rear deck, so carrying two kids is not impossible, but that will work only for a limited age range. Anyway, the ODK is a midtail by my reckoning because my two kids would not even consider the possibility of getting on the deck at the same time.

We tried the ODK while visiting Seattle and the always-amazing G&O Family Cyclery. My only regret was that Madi of Family Ride couldn’t come out with us, because I would love to have gotten her thoughts. Anyway, the ODK is unusual in a few ways. Most notably, it is sold only as an assisted bike. Since my reviews are way too long, here is my new obligatory six word review for those who don’t want all the blah-blah.

Juiced ODK: the assisted midtail slayer.

What I like about the ODK

  • The ODK is designed for cargo. A persistent complaint that I have had about midtails is that their decks tend to be really high,
    Pretty stable, even loaded

    Pretty stable, even loaded

    which makes them tippy, especially when hauling kids. That’s less of a big deal on a midtail than a longtail, because the deck is shorter so there’s less fishtailing effect. It’s less of a big deal for the tall than for the short, because the relative height is lower and thus more manageable. However it’s not trivial. I am not particularly short at 5’7” (170cm) yet I notice the tippiness of our MinUte, especially on corners, when it feels like the bike wants to roll over. The Boda Boda and the Cascade Flyer are built with the same high deck. The ODK shaves several inches off by using 20” wheels and the handling with cargo, especially moving human cargo, is noticeably improved as a result.

  • The ODK has a step-through frame. It’s a really low step-through as well, meaning that this bike can easily be ridden by the short or less-flexible. I went out on a test ride with Jen of Loop-Frame Love who pointed out that this would be a fantastic bike for seniors, and I agreed. However it’s also nice for people who have a kid sitting behind and thus cannot swing a leg around the back. The lower the top tube, the easier it is to get on and off.
  • The ODK has an extremely upright riding position. Not everyone likes this, but I do because it helps me see over traffic. With a kid (in this case my daughter) in the back, it also makes me feel less like I’m sticking my butt directly in her face, which seems gauche.
  • The parts on the ODK are formidable on even the cheapest model. Cargo bikes usually carry loads that strain parts to their limits, so the quality of the parts matters more than it might for solo riders. Hydraulic disc brakes are standard (Tektro Dorado for those who care about details like that) and it is immediately clear that they have the kind of stopping power that is appropriate for a fully loaded cargo bike. The shifting is smooth (3 speeds; this bike is assisted and not designed with a big gear range as a result) and the steering is easy. I have ridden enough bikes now that I can tell within a few seconds of getting on a bike whether the manufacturer is trying to save money by using cheap parts: Juiced Riders is not.
  • There are a lot of cool accessories that come with this bike, which I am happy to see is becoming more common for assisted and family bikes. It comes with fenders and a wired-in rear light. It offers a frame-mounted front basket, which is deep enough that not everything would need to be bungeed down.
  • Like all midtails, this bike is short enough lengthwise to be very maneuverable. The ODK is even more so than most midtails because it has 20” wheels, which allow tight cornering. The ODK is also fairly narrow. Overall, this makes it a very easy bike to park at the kinds of dreadful racks that grocery stores, movie theatres, and parking garages seem to have installed sometime in the 1960s and never replaced. The San Francisco standard bike rack, aka the parking meter, offers no challenge for the ODK; our Bullitt, as handy as it is, usually needs some coaxing to snuggle up to a meter.
  • The assist on the ODK, which uses a motor on the front wheel and a throttle on the handlebars is very, very powerful. I have
    At the top of the hill, Jen's turn

    At the top of the hill, Jen’s turn

    learned with some practice that you can add some pedaling power with throttle-assists, although this is not necessary, particularly with this motor. It did not even slow down on the steepest hill we could find in the surrounding neighborhood, which although it did not achieve San Francisco levels of aggression was nonetheless very respectable. As a devotee of pedal assists I have gotten used to contributing noticeable effort on my commutes, particularly when I’m carrying heavy loads like the kids. It was kind of intoxicating to relax and let the motor do the work, pedaling at roughly the level of effort I expended the last time I rode a beach cruiser on the boardwalk. I have seen ODKs on some disturbingly steep hills in San Francisco and now I know why. I don’t think there is much it could not handle, except maybe the 41% grade of Bradford Street in Bernal Heights.

  • The battery options are scaled to a level that allows you to use a lot of assist for a long time. This is a bike that’s intended to be used assisted most of the time; I have seen bikes like this before but they tend to have limited range. The three battery options provide ranges estimated from 40 miles at the low end to 100 miles at the high end. I typically slice estimated ranges in half given San Francisco’s topography; even after this those estimates are very respectable. I rode the model with the biggest battery, and despite my going up and down big hills a few times with my daughter, then having a friend do the same thing, the battery didn’t seem to drop a single bar.
  • The ODK is ridiculously, laughably affordable for an assisted cargo bike. The version with the smallest battery is $2200, and that includes the fenders and the rear light (the front basket is extra). Especially considering the quality of the parts, this is an unbeatable value. Upgrading to the biggest battery adds another $1000 to the price, and that’s still a good price relative to its competition.

What I don’t like about the ODK

  • When you put the kind of battery that can give you 40 or 100 miles of range (maybe) on a bike, you make it really, really heavy. The ODK is really, really heavy. To Juiced Riders’ credit, they are actually willing to report the weight of the bike; with the smallest battery it comes in at just shy of 70 pounds according to their specifications. The version with the biggest battery, which I rode, weighed so much that I couldn’t even lift it. This is not a bike that could be put on an overhead rack or a bus rack, even though it is short enough to fit. It is not a bike that you could carry up the stairs. It is a bike that is, shall we say, permanently wedded to the ground. If you don’t have street-level parking, this may not be a good choice. On the up side, the bike thieves that break into garages with pickup trucks around my neighborhood might very well end up leaving this bike behind rather than risk throwing their backs out. So there’s that.
  • Aesthetics are admittedly in the eye of the beholder. However to this beholder, the ODK is a punishingly ugly bike. This is not
    Eh. Looks aren't everything.

    Eh. Looks aren’t everything.

    the kind of bike that will draw compliments from strangers. The ODK is built for practicality and value and it shows. I hoped with time it would grow on me, and have a certain “so ugly it’s attractive” kind of appeal. I regret to report that this did not happen. Even almost six months after my first exposure and even though I genuinely like this bike, looking at the ODK hurts my eyes. Even the controller is unattractive.

  • The ODK has a twist throttle assist operated by hand, not a pedal assist that operates as you pedal, and throttle assists are the kind of manufacturing choice that makes me question how serious a company is about commuting. Even during the test ride, operating the throttle was starting to hurt my wrist. This is admittedly a personal preference, but it’s less personal than my aesthetic opinion, because I suspect that a long ride on this bike could become unpleasant. There is a “cruise control” option, which I am sure would be fine on an extended ride on a multi-use path, however my longer rides tend to be city rides with a lot of stop and go. This issue isn’t insurmountable, as the ODK is inexpensive enough for an assisted bike that a bike shop with the right experience could convert this to a pedal assist at a price that would still make the ODK a good value. However it would be far better if Juiced made pedal assist an option, even if it were a more expensive option. Not everyone lives near an experimentally-inclined electric bike shop, it would be more cost-effective if the manufacturer did it, and it would not risk voiding the warranty. And it would be better for commuters, particularly commuters with kids, for whom every available hand matters pretty much all the time.
  • The 20” wheels on the ODK make the ride a little bumpy and slow; this is a tradeoff for the low deck and maneuverability. Any speed you pick up on this bike will be coming from the assist, and you will care about the quality of the pavement.
  • The ODK is not really designed for carrying kids. Apparently the rack makes it possible to mount a Yepp Maxi, which is good.
    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    A bike I saw, however, although set up with Yuba accessories for an older kid (probably a better fit for my daughter, age 6), which were nonetheless a little limited; foot pegs and wheel skirts were not available, for example. (I have had some concerns in the past about the quality of some of Yuba’s parts, but I definitely appreciate that they are all-in on the kid-hauling accessories.) Like our Kona MinUte, setting up the Juiced ODK for kid hauling requires some hacking and creativity, probably from a bike shop with experience with the bike and with these kinds of accessories in stock.

  • The ODK’s standard one-sided kick stand is pretty much a joke for a bike that is supposed to haul cargo, as with any load that wasn’t perfectly balanced it’s likely to fall over, unless it were windy, in which case it would definitely fall over. Juiced offers a center stand option that I did not get to try. Like hydraulic disc brakes this is the kind of thing that should be standard on cargo bikes.
  • Like any assisted cargo bike, the price point on the ODK is a big jump for people who are used to solo unassisted bikes. It’s a good value for what it’s offering, but it’s still out of reach for many families.

Things I’m clueless about

  • Juiced Riders as a company is new to me so I can’t speak to the long-term reliability of this bike, or the support that the company will offer. It’s a good sign that it’s invested in high-quality parts, and that it seems to be working with shops that have a good reputation. However there’s no way to know for a while.

Overall, I was impressed with the ODK. The midtail bike market has been pretty stagnant in the last few years and the ODK offers a lot of significant improvements for people looking for an assisted cargo bike. The lower deck and step-through frame alone are long-overdue innovations for midtail bikes. Because of its weight, its throttle assist, and the limited accessories for kid-carrying, it won’t suit everyone’s needs. Nonetheless I’ve seen enough of them around San Francisco now that it looks like they suit a lot of families very well. Within a minute of riding it I thought “this is the midtail slayer” because even though it has some obvious limitations, it fixes so many of the problems I have had riding other midtails. It might be ugly, but it can really haul.

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Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle, Uncategorized, Yuba

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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