Cargo bikes are the pickup truck of bicycles, and with an electric assist they can be a very effective car substitute. They can have a box in the front like the Dutch bakfiets (translation: box cycle), which are common in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, or have an extended rear frame with a large rack, like the long-tails. The box or rack makes it easy to carry kids, groceries, large boxes, or even surfboards. Adding an electric motor enables using a bike instead of a car, and the battery is also a good power source for a bright headlight.
There are also trikes being used as utility vehicles, but my narrower two-wheeled Bakfiets has been a better fit on the rural roads of Vermont, where I live. With light to moderate pedaling, my electric-assist bike is using an average of 13.2 watt-hours of electricity per mile (equivalent to 2,553 miles per gallon), at a cost of a quarter of a cent per mile. My traveling speed is usually 16 to 19 mph, with an overall average of 14.8 mph. My fastest speed has been 40.9 mph. Hills are much easier with the motor. The six-mile ride to the center of my town takes 21 minutes on the Bakfiets versus 13 minutes in a car, and the 17-mile ride to the food co-op is 56 minutes versus 29. An errand of 40 miles is feasible, even though I’m not in shape for that!
The tradeoffs are weather and speed. Temperature isn’t as important, as dressing for the cold is standard procedure in Vermont, and riding along on an electric bike when it is hot is actually enjoyable. Precipitation is more of a problem, although loads in the cargo box stay dry. The slower speed has turned out to be not that much of a problem. Compared to a car, it works out to 10 to 20 minutes of extra time for most trips, which is acceptable.
In contrast to the many PV modules required to recharge an electric car, an electric bike can typically be charged with one PV module. I’ve added 60 watts of PV to my Bakfiets, which, on sunny days, provides a quarter of the energy needed and also recharges the battery when the bike is parked. Bikes participating in The Sun Trip tour carry enough solar-electric modules to fully power them. The original Sun Trip bike traveled 7,500 kilometers last summer from Savoie, France, to Astana, Kazakhstan (thesuntrip.com).
Bikes are an excellent fit with a renewable-energy-powered world. I would like to suggest publishing an article about electric-drive bikes and, in particular, cargo bikes for everyday utility use. There are 14 bakfiets and 15 long-tail bike companies that I know of. Plus, Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition is gaining some traction. I’ve also started a blog about my bike—MySolarElectricCargoBike.com—and would love to hear from others.
Karl Kemnitzer • Hartland, Vermont