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A small step forward

A small step forward

My idea of a Cargo Bike Club took a small step forward today, but first a wee bit of history:

Back in the autumn of 2010, Ulli and I were faced with the problem of getting a large pumpkin home from the allotment (not a problem that we have had since due to the poor summers). The solution I suggested then was to get a cargo bike, but at that time such bikes were very few and far between in Scotland, not that there are that many more now. This led me to come up with the idea of a Cargo Bike Club as a means of making cargo bikes available to the wider population (and a way of kick-starting the market for cargo bikes in Scotland).

When I first floated the idea of the Cargo Bike Club, it attracted a lot of positive comments. My initial idea was to use the City Car Club model, where the users would pay an annual fee to join the club and then have self service access to the bikes for a small hourly hire rate. There are, however, a few technical issues with security and self service access, which I have yet to overcome.

One person who thought he could over come these problems was Will Vaughan who took my idea (he did contact me and ask first) and started cargobikehire.com. However, he was planning on using a prototype technology from a small German startup called LOCK 8. I have seen the Kickstarter campaign raising funds to develop the locking system, but was sceptical about the level of security it would offer (the cable shown in the pictures is up to Solid Secure Gold level, as required by insurance companies). [Up date: I met Philipp Meyer-Scheling, the MD of Lock8 at EuroBike and am hoping to have another meeting with him in November] At the present time, it doesn’t appear he has managed to get the self service access up and running, but he does have a Bullitt available for hire in the Hereford area, so all credit to him.

The idea of the Cargo Bike Club has continued to gnaw away at me, and I have re-visited the idea a few times, but mostly I have gotten on with other projects like the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling. Where is all this rambling going, I hear you ask? Well, this year the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling Ltd has acquired an Urban Arrow cargo bike, and from today it is available to hire when not in use for company business.

Urban Arrow for hire

It is a small step, but it is a start, this is currently the only cargo bike available for hire in Edinburgh. Who knows, if this bike proves popular, there may yet be a Cargo Bike Club in Edinburgh. I am still working towards getting it off the ground one day.

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Riding the flying bathtub

Riding the flying bathtub

In the run up to the second Edinburgh Festival of Cycling, I find myself having to move large numbers of festival programmes about the place. If I am just taking a few score of programmes to places where people might want to pick them up, that is easy to do with a courier bag or a set of panniers. However, today I was in the situation of needing to move several boxes (there are 150 programmes to a box and a box weighs 9.5 Kg) from Laid Back Bikes to EdFoC HQ, which is quite another matter. That is where the flying bathtub comes in.

Before going further, maybe I should explain that the “flying bathtub” is an affectionate nickname for the Urban Arrow family cargo bike (and one that I came up with this afternoon). Why, you might ask, “flying bathtub”? Well this particular Urban Arrow spent a couple of weeks sitting in the front window of the Cycle Service (where it was extracted from its cardboard box and built into a working machine), as a couple of frame bolts had gone missing in transit. While it was sitting in the shop, a number of customers asked about the “bathtub in the corner” and the name kind of stuck. The reason I call it the “flying bathtub” is because when you get used to the electric assist, it fair flies along (and this is a bike which weighs 42Kg unladen).

This wasn’t the first time I had ridden an Urban Arrow, I had had a wee test ride when the first one arrived in the UK last year…

Urban Arrow in action

… however today was the first time I had tried using it with a full load, in this case 66.5 Kg of programmes. So how did the bathtub and I get on? Well, starting off was a wee bit shaky, mainly because the front wheel is some distance ahead of the rider, which takes a little getting used to. There is also a slight play in the steering due to the nature of the ball joint at the end of the steering rod (see photo below), but within a few minutes I got the hang of it.

You can see the ball joint on the steering linkage to the left of the picture.
You can see the ball joint on the steering linkage to the left of the picture.

The other thing that takes a wee bit of getting used to is the transmission control which takes the place of gear leavers. Unlike most conventionally geared bikes, the Urban Arrow uses continuously variable NuVinci Hub gears. With this there are no set gears, instead there is a twist grip with an indicator window showing a cyclist on the flat. The straight line turns into a hill as you twist the grip. As it is continuously variable, there is no jump between gears as for conventional bikes, so at first you might not realise that you are changing gears, as it is so smooth. NuVinci are right when the say “It is unlike anything you have experienced before”.

Urban Arrow controls

When starting off with a heavy load, it is best to be in a low gear, with the indicator showing the wee cyclist climbing a hill. This makes it very easy to move away, even with the bike fully loaded. Once you are moving, you should then twist the grip to even out the hill on the indicator, until the wee cyclist is on the flat. At first I didn’t realise this and found that, once I had moved off, my legs where spinning round madly, with very little resistance and no increase in speed – as you might expect in a very low gear. I soon learned to twist the grip when I started to feel less resistance to my pedalling, and comfortably picked up speed. This, together with the Bosch electric motor providing assistance means that even with a heavy load you can actually fly along at a fair pace. It should be noted that the electric assistance cuts out at 15 mph (25 km/h) or if you stop pedalling, to comply with EU regulations. Although the route which I took was fairly flat with some slight uphill stretches on the way out (loaded), I found that I could get up to 20 mph (32 Km/h) and comfortably sustain a reasonable speed for keeping up with other traffic. Some drivers had a tendency to underestimate the speed at which I was travelling (but my experience is that also happens on an ordinary bike). This suggests that a VeloCityLight rear light would probably be a good idea.

The control for the electric assist (shown mounted to the left of the stem in the photo above) means that you can vary the level of assistance the motor gives you. This is done in three modes, Eco (the lowest level which makes the battery last longest), tour (which was the mode I was using) and sport. The display also shows the estimated range until the battery is exhausted and will need recharging. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I am told that you can expect to go about 25 miles (40 km) between charges.

Stopping wasn’t a problem either, as this Urban Arrow is equipped with Shimano hydraulic disc brakes (although the standard Continental configuration uses roller brakes), which provided plenty of stopping power even with a 66+ Kg load. The design of the Urban Arrow means that it can be stored out of doors with a cover over the cargo area (supplied as standard). There is built-in security in the form of a frame lock (something I am considering getting for my own bikes) and the electric assist can be disabled by simply removing the control unit. The only thing I found to be bit of a pain is the Dutch insistence on using Dunlop valves which makes pumping up the tyres very fiddly with a normal track pump. If I owned the bike, I would either change the inner tubes or fit adapter nipples (probably the latter).

Overall the bike was great fun to ride, as a car replacement it could be a useful addition for any family. It makes for very practical transport. In fact I enjoyed it so much, I will be taking it down to Round Six of The Pearl Izumi Tour Series (next Thursday) to see if Sir Chris would like to join me for a ride round the circuit. If he is lucky I might even let him ride in the bathtub at the front… 😉

Errata: Since I wrote this post the bike has had some work done and the steering issue has resolved.

 

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The Cargo Bike Club idea revisited

The Cargo Bike Club idea revisited

Some time back I came up with the idea for a Cargo Bike Club™ along the lines of a City Car Club (read all about it here). Since that time it has been sitting on the back burner and a number of people have been in touch to ask what, if anything, I am doing about it. So I thought it was about time for an update. This post is based on an exchanges of e-mails I have had with interested parties.

Cargo bikes cost about £2K – £4K each and have a high resale value, so security is a bit of an issue. Therefore, having hire stations and security are the key things which are really holding me back. Funding may be less of a problem once I have a clearly laid out business plan ready. There are a range of grants and an increasing number of social enterprise funding models popping up (along the lines of kickstarter.com) which could make it possible to get off the ground.

Most cycle hire schemes use docking stations, where there is no lock on the bike, and you are expected to travel from docking station to docking station, think London, Paris, etc. This model is fine for big city wide schemes, but would be no use for something like the Cargo Bike Club™. Ideally there would be a locking system attached to the bike, which is track-able when the bike is away from its home location. So I have been looking for a suitable locking system, something like the SoBi model. SoBi started out by developing a locking system which would attach to any bike, so that people could start up their own social bike hire schemes. This sounded just the thing I need, sadly they have moved their business model to selling only whole bike systems and won’t just sell me the locking system. Deutsche Bahn have a similar locking system, with their Call a Bike scheme, but I haven’t found out yet if it is possible to buy the locking system (although I have found out how to hack the software to get unlimited free usage).

I did think of trying to get the supermarkets interested, but an earlier attempt to persuade them to provide free bike trailer hire got nowhere. Waitrose has offered this at some stores down south, but showed no interest in Edinburgh, despite a number of customers asking for it. So I thought that having residential hubs might work better, this also makes the bikes available for a wider range of uses, other than just shopping, i.e., the school run, moving flat, etc.

These residential hubs would need parking space, and I am rather hoping the proposed on-street cycle storage scheme which the City of Edinburgh Council is talking of trialling this year will provide a precedent for this. I have also thought of trying to get the Universities interested in hosting hubs near student housing.

Also, given that Edinburgh isn’t exactly flat, I also wondered about getting electric assist for the cargo bikes. There are a number of options available, so it is perfectly possible, and some users would consider it highly desirable. However, there are the obvious downsides of extra cost and the problem of battery charging. So that one requires some more thinking. Having spoken to Neil from Pronto Pedal Power about his Bullitt (my preferred choice of cargo bike, although Dutch models will also be considered), he says the gearing is low enough to manage to get about Edinburgh without electric assist, but then he rides for a living.

One way of dealing with the security issue and electric assist at the same time might be to employ a modified Copenhagen Wheel. I did try contacting MIT about this, they said they would put me on their mailing list for information and updates, and that was the last I heard from them. Well, that is design students for you, just make it look pretty and ignore real world applications.

If all else fails, we could just form a consortium, buy a couple of bikes, cut some keys and set up a Google calendar…

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Cargo bike culture?

Cargo bike culture?

Since I wrote a post suggesting the Cargo Bike Club, there has been a lot of interest in the idea from all over the world and even from London. However, one or two people have asked “what is a cargo bike?”, so I have found this wee video from Streetfilms, recorded at the Copenhagen cargo bike race, which should explain something of the concept.

My vision, or rather my (day)dream, is to establish a cargo bike culture here in the best wee country in the world, then spread it to the rest of the world! Indeed, the Australians have been reading my thoughts even before I have had them, and came up with the Watershed Bike Library. Don’t worry, I am not really intent on world domination…

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New Idea: the Cargo Bike Club

New Idea: the Cargo Bike Club

Following my recent wee issue with getting the biggest pumpkin home from the allotment and trying to find a cargo bike to transport it has made me wonder if there are other people in a similar situation? I think I might have a solution: the Cargo Bike Club®. But, before I get into the details, maybe I should just give a wee bit of background.

First off, what is a Cargo Bike? Well, they come in all shapes and sizes, they are general purpose load carrying bikes, basically they are the SUV of the cycling world, only a lot more environmentally and people friendly. This concept is well understood in Europe, but some in North America struggle with it.

For my purposes, the sort of cargo bike I have in mind is either a Dutch Bakfiets or a Danish Larry Vs. Harry BULLITT, although other bikes would probably work just as well [UPDATE: the Urban Arrow is now the front runner].

Why would you want a Cargo Bike? In places that have a cycling culture, cargo bikes are used in the same way as a second car, for taking the kids to school, doing the weekly shop, moving flat, and all that sort of thing. Indeed some people use them instead of a family car. The important thing to remember is, we are not talking about poor countries here, but the likes of Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. Also, cargo bikes are cool! They are increasing in popularity all over the place, even yummy mummies and (I hate to use this word but, here goes) Celebrities are using cargo bikes.

If cargo bikes are such a good idea, why aren’t we seeing more of them on our streets? Here is the rub, there are several good reasons:

Cost: a basic cargo bike will set you back between £1,100 – £1,600, and then there are the accessories: child seats, rain covers, etc. So, for a kitted out cargo bike you are looking at somewhere around £2,000 – £2,500.

Availability: there are very few dealers in the UK who sell these bikes, I am not sure if there are any in Scotland.

Secure storage: yes, they can be stored outside, but, having spent £2,000 – £2,500, you are going to want to keep it safe and secure. As we all know, this can be a problem in our cities.

So this brings us back to my idea of starting a Cargo Bike Club! This would work in a similar way to the City Car Club, with a number of cargo bikes available for hire 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, across the city, for a modest fee to members of the club. The cargo bikes would be stored in lockers around the city, not sure I like the term locker, so let’s call them kennels, I like the idea of a cargo bike kennels. The kennels would be opened by a digital key, with each member having a personalised key. Members will only be able to open the kennels when a (club owned) cargo bike is in the kennel or nearby. This will mean that members will be able to store their own bike securely in the kennel while they are using the cargo bike.

So how would it work? Well, you would book the cargo bike on-line (or maybe even by SMS text or phone, but I would have to work out the cost of that) > go along to the cargo bike kennel > unlock it with your personalised digital key > take out the cargo bike (and put in yours, if you have ridden there) > close the door and ride away.

When would you have to make the bookings? The bookings could be made in advance or right at the last minute 24/7.

Where would these “cargo bike kennels” be? The aim would be to have them in residential areas throughout the city, ideally at roadside or on road in existing parking bays. There would need to be round the clock access. If provision can be made for City Car Club cars, then why not for the even greener alternative? Yes, there maybe some local resistance in some residential areas, people might say silly things like roads are for cars or cyclist don’t pay tax, but this can be overcome in time. Because there may not be a cargo bike kennel inwith walking distance of every member, it is important that members are able to leave their own bikes in the kennel when they take out the cargo bike.

If there were “cargo bike kennels” at various locations, would you have to return the cargo bike to the same one? Yes, unlike other bike hire schemes, the Cargo Bike Club would not be about point to point travel. Although it could be possible to expanded the facilities to include Vélib’ style bicycle hire scheme as well, at a later date.

What would these “cargo bike kennels” look like? Well, there are two approaches that could be taken, either the bicycle locker disguised as a rubbish skip approach or Copenhagen urban camouflage (although I am not suggesting using these colour schemes). Both these approaches could easily fit into our urban landscapes.

What would it cost to hire a cargo bike? Well, that is a detail which I would have to work out, but I would envisage having an annual membership fee and then an hourly hire fee for the actually usage. So, something along the lines of £50 per annum membership, then the first 30 minutes of use free, followed by a sliding scale of hourly fees. Say £1 for up to an hour, £2 for an hour and a half, £5 for two hours and so on. These are just suggestions, I have yet to work out the details.

So who would the Cargo Bike Club be aimed at? The cargo bike club is for everybody! Well, everybody who needs to shift things about, things like the weekly shopping, or kids on the school run, or move a washing machine, or just stuff… More seriously, the obvious target market for the Cargo Bike Club would be young urban professionals (contrary to the belief prevalent among many motorists that cyclists are poor, urban cyclists are more likely to be from socio-economic groups ABC1 than in D or E), students, and allotment holders bringing home large pumpkins.

This Cargo Bike Club sounds like a really good idea, so what is next? Well, I am about to start working up a business plan, so if you are interested in getting involved or you would like to invest, please feel free to get in touch.

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