Category Archives: Biking

Cargo bikes are expensive right now

Cargo bikes, in particular those with electric-assist motors, are life-changing.  They are also, unfortunately, expensive.  (Mostly.  For now.  Which I’ll come back to).  The price tags of most brands put them out of reach of many potential riders and make them appear to be toys of the comfortable.

This came up in discussion at a cargo bike group ride this weekend: we all field constant questions about the bikes from strangers and the one that makes us pause is, “how much did it cost?”  To the owner of an average adult bike, a thousand-dollar bike can seem unfathomable.  And even if you compare it to the cost of purchasing a(nother) car – which is often a fair comparison, say, for Hum of the City‘s family – the very top-end cargo bikes from Riese & Muller or similar can be half the cost of a subcompact car.  And said Toyota Yaris can get you to your job 30 miles away, which the bike cannot.

This week I did 50 miles of bike commuting, mostly moving my kids around, and 0 miles of driving.  It was delightful.  And I remain confident that e-cargo bikes are the future.  Here I want to put the high price tags in what I hope will be the accurate historical context and explore factors that will make them universally accessible.  Time will tell.

As cars were at first a luxury good, so now are e-cargo bikes

The first cars were made for the wealthy.  They were expensive and held novelty appeal, which remains true of luxury and sports cars that are sold today as toys for wealthy  adults.   Automobiles existed for decades before the Ford Model-T made history as the first affordable car, accessible to the masses.

Today, we still have luxury cars, like we did in 1900 – just today I biked for blocks behind a Porsche Panamera 4 (an e-bike is just as fast as a car in downtown Ann Arbor) – but unlike then, we also have mass market cars.  I hope and expect that 2019 for e-cargo bikes is like 1899 for automobiles.  E-cargo bikes will similarly benefit from mass production and the efficiency of scale to hit a price point that works for anyone.

They’ll also benefit from other parallels to the car market: financing options and used vehicles.

The current state of non-luxury models

While the variety of cargo bikes continues to multiply, the market is still in its infancy.  I’d compare most of the flagship cargo bike brands – like Riese & Muller, Butchers & Bicycles, Larry vs. Harry, Urban Arrow – to luxury auto brands ranging from Lexus to Ferrari.

Yuba seems to differentiate a little on price, especially in a few models, like the Mundo Classic starting at $999.  An aftermarket motor would make this a great e-cargo bike at a fraction of some other bikes’ costs.  But Yubas are still generally expensive bikes.

The most affordable e-cargo bike may be the Radpower Radwagon, at $1,599 for an electric-assist longtail.  Yes there are meaningful differences between this bike and say a Yuba Spicy Curry ($4,499) – but compare the price tags.  I bet there are a lot of people who don’t care so much about a hub motor vs. a mid-drive and DO want to take their kids to school via bike, and can afford the Radwagon but not one of these fancier bikes.

It will be interesting to see what models and companies compete in the budget cargo bike space, what their staying power is, and how reliable and ubiquitous their models get.  Will the Radwagon be the Toyota Corolla of bikes?

EDIT: A reader pointed out to me the Blix PACKA, which blew past its Indiegogo goal this month.  It’s a longtail e-cargo bike that is currently priced at $1,349 for just the bike or $1,899 with all of the accessories, including a second battery.   Looks like healthy competition for the Radwagon.

Beyond cash sales

It’s not just about the models for sale.  Only one in six new automobile purchases are outright cash payments; the vast majority are financed with loans or leases.  Just like most new car buyers aren’t plunking down five figures up front, there should be a similar shift in cargo bike purchasing.

Many bike brands have started working with Affirm to offer financing.  For instance, the aforementioned Yuba Mundo Classic ($999) is $88/month when financed.  I haven’t seen anyone leasing a cargo bike, but that could be a promising model.  People new to the lifestyle could try one for a year with less risk, and those who want to rotate between different models without owning many bikes could experience more variety through leasing.

Buying used

The last parallel I’ll draw to the automobile market is the availability (or lack thereof) of used models.  Most automobile sales aren’t of new models at all – they’re people buying used.  This is the most important factor making cars more affordable.  And “used cars” span a huge range, from like-new to ultra-affordable beaters.  (Like my first car, a decrepit Ford Taurus where my dad and I riveted a coffee can to the front door to cover rust holes).

The market for used cargo bikes is tight, especially outside of big cities.  It should grow as the popularity of these bikes increases and the needs of early-adopting families change.  My local cargo bike shop, Urban Rider in Ann Arbor, has started selling used models and can help facilitate sales by those looking to part with a used bike.

Cargo bikes for the people

I’m hopeful that as more people discover the magic of e-cargo bike commuting and hauling, we’ll see new models emerge and prices fall at all levels.  New ultra-luxury bikes, pioneering tech that will eventually be standard?  Sure.  A drop in price on the current top-tier bikes mentioned above?  Please.  And most of all, huge volume and new entries in the bottom of the market that will make family bikes that can compete in traffic affordable to everyone.

Yes, I swoon at the Riese & Muller Load 75, like I goggled at the Acura NSX when I was a teenager.  But the more important question is, who will be the Ford Model T of cargo bikes?

New models, more used bikes, and better financing options should lead to e-cargo bikes eventually being more affordable than automobiles.  I don’t know any manufacturers or have access to their market research, which is unfortunate as I’d love to know what sales volume they forecast and how low the price can go.

Even Henry Ford probably didn’t think he’d sell 16 million Model Ts.

Studded bike tires for winter cargo biking

I love biking and hate driving. Thus I try to bike as much as possible. Biking in the cold is easy enough, you just bundle up the right way. The only truly specialized product needed is pogies. I install my winter accessories on my e-assist cargo bike, which I can use for solo commuting but also ferrying children and fetching groceries.

This served me well until the current set of snow-thaw-freeze cycles in Ann Arbor. Water runs onto previously-clear streets from uphill snowbanks; this turns into ice at night.

Going downhill on Madison St last week, I wiped out hard on black ice, sliding sideways (along with my bike) down the icy pavement. Fortunately I was alone, and only bruised my elbow and my pride. This was my first fall since I started tracking my distance biked, so 2,900+ miles. I was riding a Yuba Boda Boda with relatively-wide 2.15″ Freedom tires – good grip by summer standards, but useless on ice.

That spill was enough for me to try studded tires. I put a 26″ Kenda Klondike on my front wheel. And the difference has been remarkable. I now feel my back tire sliding, but can recover from that; meanwhile, my front wheel grips the ice.

This morning I went through West Park, where snowmelt had coated the paved path in shiny ice for stretches of 10 feet at a time. No slipping! Ditto when navigating the bumpy ice ruts that have established themselves on my street in the last month. I’m riding both cautiously and with delight.

My verdict thus far is yes, studded tires make safe year-round biking possible! And that a single studded tire, on the front, is a big improvement from none (the internet had suggested this, but not unanimously).

My studded rear tire was a special order item because my bike has a 20″ rear wheel. The Schwalbe Winter Marathon is on its way and I’ll be installing it immediately upon arrival.

The studded tire makes a crackling sound, which I don’t mind except that it makes it hard to hear my kids on the back of the bike at speeds above 15 mph. It seems to grip clear pavement well, and while it’s designed for ice, the knobby tread is an improvement for navigating snow compared to the road-style tread of my Schwalbe Marathons.

And while it seems to slow the bike a little, I’m running these tires on an e-assist model, so that’s not a problem.

Speaking of which: studded tires and cargo bikes seem like the perfect pairing. Cargo bikes are already slow and heavy; they are costly, with the expense of studded tires relatively low in comparison; and they transport children, not just a single carefree rider, so safety is paramount. (And the bike looks more gnarly on studs).

I am surprised not to see more cargo bike purveyors pushing studded tires. Perhaps the cargo-biking demographic is more likely to just leave the bike at home when it gets icy?

The cargo bike changed my life

In the summer of 2016, I was visiting Brooklyn for work.  Walking down Fulton Mall during morning rush hour, I saw a man pedaling through traffic with his school-aged daughter perched on the back of his bike, her feet resting on running boards.

I had never seen such a thing and couldn’t get it out of my head.  I did some research online, searching terms like “bike transport kids running boards” and encountering the proper name: cargo bike.  When I found myself back in NYC a few months later, I stopped by 718 Cyclery, talked to Joe, and ordered a Yuba Boda Boda.

That bike changed my life.  Let me count the ways:

My health

My bike before the Boda Boda was an old hand-me-down Trek hybrid that I neither took care of nor rode much.  At most maybe a 3 mile commute a few times per month in the summer.

Continue reading The cargo bike changed my life

The North Maple Cycle Track

Summary:  By building a protected cycle path along North Maple Road between Jackson and Miller, Ann Arbor will fill a glaring gap in its transportation infrastructure and significantly improve the quality of life for its west side residents.

The problem

Ann Arbor has a conspicuous hole in its bike map (bike lanes in green).  Do you see it?

Ann Arbor's Bike Map

Okay, there are a few gaps.  Like most American cities, Ann Arbor’s biking infrastructure is limited, relying on unprotected bike lanes and sharrows (other cities have gone way beyond this). But for the most part, its major thoroughfares have bike lanes.  The biggest exception is North Maple Road:

map of bike lanes with N Maple road highlighted

This is an essential transportation corridor.  It connects to major bike lanes at the north (Miller), middle (Dexter), and south (Jackson, South Maple, Stadium).  And it would break from a downtown-centric rut of thinking by enabling residents of many west side neighborhoods to bike to essentials (groceries, drugstore, library, shopping, Secretary of State), restaurants and entertainment, and community hubs like the amazing Westgate Library.

But it’s supremely unfriendly to bikes.  It’s a 4 lane road with nothing to slow speeding traffic; the speed limit is 35 mph, though travel speeds exceed that.  This road is not a destination, it’s a way to get somewhere, including serving as the primary route to highways (I-94 and M-14).  Cyclists must “take the lane” for safety (the lanes aren’t wide enough for a car to pass a bike at the legal distance of 5 feet) and risk the abuse that comes with braving a car-centric roadway.

Maple Road near Walter
North Maple Road near Walter

In my last 1,500+ miles of biking in Ann Arbor, I’ve only been yelled at to “get on the sidewalk!” three times.  That low count is a credit to local drivers.  But all three times have been on Maple between Dexter and Miller, despite this stretch comprising only 1-2% of my biking time.

I can’t fully  blame my harassers.  While the sidewalk is a more dangerous place than the street for cyclists, the drivers are channeling the truth that this particular road was made only for cars.

The solution

A relatively easy fix would be to apply a “road diet,” going from four lanes to three, and use the extra space for an unprotected bike lane on each side.  This would feel like Miller or Packard: much better than North Maple is now – but still insufficiently “safe-feeling” for the average person to feel welcome.

And it would be quite doable.  No major construction needed, just a traffic study, resurfacing, repainting.  The lanes along this stretch are never full, and a recent closure of one lane each way (for road work) offered proof-of-concept that a single travel lane in each direction, plus a central turn lane, will be sufficient.

This would be doing the minimum.  It would work for me, a dedicated cyclist, but most people – regular residents, from 8 to 80 – do not feel comfortable biking on a road with 40 mph traffic whizzing by, separated by a stripe of paint.

No, we can do better.  Look at the picture above, and how much room there is to work with.  Four lanes, plus large public access strips of grass on each side, plus the sidewalks.

It’s the perfect place for Ann Arbor’s first cycle track.

NACTO describes a cycle track:

an exclusive bike facility that combines the user experience of a separated path with the on-street infrastructure of a conventional bike lane. A cycle track is physically separated from motor traffic and distinct from the sidewalk. Cycle tracks have different forms but all share common elements—they provide space that is intended to be exclusively or primarily used for bicycles, and are separated from motor vehicle travel lanes, parking lanes, and sidewalk

There are lots of configurations, but at a minimum this cycle track would be clearly separate from the street, raised to the level of the sidewalk and adjacent to it, and with clear markings for both walkers and bikers.

There’s great food for thought in what other cities are doing.  Sure, some European cities are in another league, but there are American cities innovating, too.  In the time I’ve been dreaming about this space, I personally saw inspiration in Chicago:

Bikeway separated from street
Taken from a bus near Michigan Avenue

(Here’s the rendering of that raised bikeway).  And inspiration in Brooklyn:

Separated cycle track in Brooklyn, NY

In both cases, I happened to be walking or busing by and thought: we deserve this, too.  This is a bike path that a ‘tween could ride to the library with her friend, or that a senior could take to Plum Market.

Uncertainties

One two-way cycle track, or two one-way cycle tracks?

I would like to hear from experts on this.  A one-way track in each direction seems cleaner to enter and exit, there’s no need to cross the street.  And it seems safer as bikes would be traveling in the direction that cars expect.

But a single two-way track on the east side of the road might work better for the Jackson-Dexter stretch (see below).

Two sections: Dexter-Miller and Jackson-Dexter

The bike infrastructure gap on North Maple spans these two sections of North Maple.  Dexter to Miller is simple: road diet that includes a turn lane (northbound cars often stop traffic to turn left  into the Alano Club).

Between Jackson and Dexter

The two blocks between Dexter and Jackson are trickier.  I’m less certain this could be subject to a road diet, at least not the southernmost block.  There is more lateral movement of cars in this stretch, including turning into the Maple Village shopping center.

Here’s the middle of the stretch, looking north:

Maple Road facing north at the skate parkAnd the southernmost block might be the hardest for integrating bike infrastructure, given the traffic flow to and from Jackson.  But it needs something.  Approaching the Maple & Jackson intersection by bike, and navigating it, is a daunting feat (made worse by the fact that the approach is uphill and that cars swoop into the right lane to make turns):

Intersection of Jackson and Maple
Yes, that’s four northbound lanes. I bike in the 2nd-from-the-right.

(an electric-assist bike helps here, but that’s for another post)

Here is where I think a single, two-way cycle track could have the advantage.  The city owns the land on the east side of Maple between Dexter and Jackson.  If it’s not suitable to remove car lanes here, the track could be built along the west side of Vets Park without altering the road.  There’s currently a footpath here for walkers and skaters and there’s plenty of room for a cycle track next to that (see the north-facing picture above).

Would a one-way cycle track on each side be feasible here?  Perhaps a single-direction track could fit on the west side of Maple along Maple Village, for southbound bike traffic.  This would provide the benefit of being on the natural side of the road, and access to Maple Village.  Though it’s not a big deal to dismount at Dexter & Maple and continue into the mall on foot, and biking along the mall would be less pleasant than biking along Vets park.  And the logistics seem trickier.  There’s grass next to the footpath on the west side of the street, but ownership isn’t as clear to me (would eminent domain by on the table?) and the final few feet where the cycle track would pass the Shell station seems unsolvable to me.

The one-way and two-way cycle track options could be blended.  For instance, take a one-way cycle track on each side between Miller and Dexter.  At the point where southbound bikes would need to cross to their left to join the last stretch of cycle track in Vets Park, a clearly demarcated path could be shown on the pavement indicating how to do this via left turn.  The bike would make a left turn from the left traffic lane (or from the cycle track, if it had its own turn signal cycle – this is a thing in say, Toronto) and then, instead of continuing east into the city, would make a wider curve onto the sidewalk area and join the cycle track.

Stadium-Jackson?

This block, an extension of the North Maple Cycle Track discussed above, is also a bike infrastructure gap.  And frankly an unpleasant place to travel via any mode: car, bike, foot.  It’s often clogged.

Stadium Blvd looking north at Jackson RoadIf the cycle track is built between Jackson-Miller, attention will then be turned to this stretch, to complete the connection to bike lanes on Stadium and Maple.  That would be hugely beneficial.  But I don’t have the knowledge to suggest a solution myself.  If you have ideas, please comment or write your own post!

Outcomes and feasibility

This post is long enough and others have made the case for the benefits of more biking to a city’s residents, so I won’t do that here.  I’ll just note that Ann Arbor would benefit massively terms of health, air quality, environmental impact, social connections, traffic flow (yes, my car-driving friends), and overall happiness.  But I will expound on benefits other than the generic ones of increased cycling share.

A calmer traffic flow with more non-motorized travelers would be an improvement for those who live along this stretch, creating a more pleasant atmosphere in their front yards and a safer place for kids and dogs.  I’d also like to see the city take on the duty of clearing the cycle track of snow; this could be with a small plow, or using a tractor with a spinning broom, ala Water Hill’s SnowBuddy.  With the track elevated next to the sidewalk, this snow removal will be straightforward – and the city can do residents a favor by clearing the adjacent sidewalk while they’re already out brushing.  This would increase the perk of living along the cycle track.  Construction would be an annoyance, but residents along the cycle track would likely see a bump in their home values as a form of compensation.

While the above benefits would accrue directly to those living along the cycle track,  the primary benefit – access to the track – would reach those in many neighborhoods on the west side, on both sides of North Maple.  Thousands of people would now find themselves with a comfortable, short bike ride to the essentials.

The cycle track would be good from an equity lens.  The city’s premier non-motorized transportation projects are downtown (the proposed cycling improvements on First/Ashley/William) or in wealthier near-downtown neighborhoods like the Old West Side and Water Hill (the “Treeline” urban trail).  While all residents and visitors benefit from improvements in downtown, it strengthens the city to have top-notch bike infrastructure outside of the city center.  This project would primarily serve middle-class homeowners and renters, as opposed to the Treeline, whose chief beneficiaries would be the more-expensive neighborhoods of the Old West Side.

This project should rank high on the non-motorized transportation list.  It compares favorably to the Treeline Trail as actual transportation infrastructure*, while also being a recreation opportunity.  Our transportation conversation too often focuses only on getting people in and out of downtown.  Downtown is great for restaurants, the Farmer’s Market, the Hands-On Museum – but it’s not where most people live day-to-day life.  The North Maple Cycle Track reflects the reality of living on a cul-de-sac in The Crescents and needing parts from the hardware store to fix your sink; living by Hollywood Park and picking up a prescription from Walgreens; a one-car family wanting to attend preschool story time at the library.

How does it happen?

I hope planners and other experts will weigh in, likely with better ideas.  I’m an enthusiast but not an expert.  A study will be needed to measure car traffic volume.  And there are lots of details to figure out.

This is not a small project.  It involves pouring concrete to create the cycle track, not just repaving what’s there.  So timing-wise, I expect this would be a ways off in the future, perhaps planned to coincide with other necessary construction along this road.

But it’s unquestionable that we must make North Maple Road more accommodating for bikes, opening up access from neighborhoods to the business corridor that is the heart of the west side (stretching from Maple Village to Westgate and then south to Stadium and Maple).  We have an opportunity to do better than a buffered bike lane.  Let’s show what’s possible and enjoy the city life we deserve.

* the Treeline began life as the Allen Creek Greenway, and its mission of bringing Allen Creek above ground has a significant environmental benefit that should not be dismissed.

Ride Your Bike In Traffic and Live Longer

Summary: Your life expectancy is higher if you get in traffic on a bike instead of in a car.  Biking alongside cars might seem dangerous – and this misconception may deter potential cyclists or lead them to risky behavior like riding on the sidewalk – but the health benefits greatly exceed the dangers of crashes and other risks.

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Last week, The Ann (an Ann Arbor magazine) showcased a story by a local NPR station about bikes and cars co-existing on the road.  The Ann added their own more-provocative title: “Who owns the road: drivers or cyclists?”

Their framing succeeded in drumming up conflict-oriented comments from readers.  Reading the comments, I was struck by two things:

Continue reading Ride Your Bike In Traffic and Live Longer