Cargo Bike Visit to Northern California - Part II The Cargo Bike Scene
If you've been around bikes, and know the history of mountain bikes, you might understand the significance of Marin County and the influence of its residents in the evolution of the bike and its uses in modern times. I began my career in the bike biz just as mountain bikes were beginning their reign as popular bikes. Mountain bikes, then and now, were built for the purpose of riding rough terrain. But they also have the appeal of giving of an upright riding position, stable handling, and low gearing. Those features appealed to the masses who at the time only had racing bikes or beach cruisers from which to choose. If you ask me, the popularity of the mt. bike was due to those factors and not just the lure of off-road riding. Many of the mt. bikes I sold NEVER hit the dirt.
As bike manufacturers got wise, many more bike styles appeared on the market: hybrids, comfort bikes, commuters, flat-foot geometry, etc. Today, we are fortunate that we have a bike for just about any purpose and rider. However, there are two bike categories that still have yet to fulfill their potential: cargo bikes and electric-assist bicycles. These bikes, we'll call them utility bikes for the purposes of this article, are still a bit of an oddity, even in Portland.
No doubt, we (Joel and I) are a bit biased these days, we see cargo bikes and e-bikes as the next great thing that's going to change who bicycles and how they do it, and ultimately how bikes look. In other words, we believe the next bike revolution is around utility bikes.
Like the mountain bike in the 1980s, cargo and e-assist bikes are still in their infancy in the USA. Interbike, the annual bike show for bike dealers, still is dominated by recreational cycling. The latest and greatest full suspension bikes, carbon fiber road bikes, and wheels, dominate the show. But, utility bikes are gaining in popularity. In Portland, there are 3 specialty bike shops dedicated to utility and city riding (Splendid Cycles, Joe Bike, and Clever Cycles), a well-respected e-bike expert (eBike Store), cargo bike manufacturers (Metrofiets) and e-assist system manufacturers (EcoSpeed). We also benefit from a vibrant, active cargo bike community (Transportland.org).
So, on our visit to Northern California, Joel and I stopped, visited shops and manufacturers, participated in events, and observed the current state of utility bicycles in the hotbed of the last bike revolution, and generally felt encouraged that the next bike revolution is in fact underway. Influential and affluent, the SF Bay Area is indeed gaining momentum with utility bikes. Here's a short list of some of the people, organizations, and shops leading the way:
XtraCycle - I recently wrote a blog post about XtraCycle. After visiting their Oakland showroom, I am even more enthusiastic. Joel and I chatted with Ross Evans, founder of XtraCycles and Worldbike, for an hour or so and are very encouraged to learn that the latest XtraCycle bike and accessories have created quite a buzz. After test riding an EdgeRunner, I understand what all the buzz is about.
Blue Heron Bikes - Rob of Blue Heron Bikes of Berkeley is a bike industry veteran. He knows the bike business well and when faced with the exciting prospect of opening his own shop, he chose to focus on transportation and utility. Blue Heron, has a wonderful mix of city bikes and cargo bikes. With brands like Bullitt, XtraCycle, Yuba, Brompton, Raleigh and Felt, Rob is able to meet the needs of a wide variety of customers. When I stopped in to visit, he was addressing the needs of a mom looking for a kid-carrying bicycle. But, his mechanic was completing a tune-up on a rugged commuter. His shop is well-stocked with racks, bags, tires, and commuter accessories and one of their fortes is converting mountain bikes into practical everyday bikes. Blue Heron's Mission Statement aspires to bringing people closer together and enhancing neighborhoods and communities through bicycles From what I observed in our short visit to this shop on the Ohlone Greenway bike trail, Blue Heron Bikes is already achieving success on that account.
Bay Area Cargo Bikes - Located in Campbell, CA, owners Paul and Dallas, are spreading the utility bike word in the south Bay Area, San Jose/Los Gatos area selling Bullitt and Metrofiets cargo bikes. Their business grew from their enthusiasm for riding cargo bikes and that enthusiasm has not waned. Like us, they use cargo bikes as everyday bikes and some nights (as during the San Jose Bike Party events). Paul and a couple of his customers dropped in at the Cargo Bike Jubilee relay races and their Team San Jose Awesome lived up to its name. Not only did they show the rest of the competitors how you transport goods by bike, but they clearly demonstrated how to have a good time doing it. If you're in the San Jose area and want to test ride a Bullitt, they're your contact.
The New Wheel owners, Brett and Karen, are optimistic visionaries. They even fly the tag line "An Optimistic Bike Shop." Visionary, yes, but also driven to convert the city by the bay into THE city of e-bikes; so their shop specializes in electric bicycles. SF is famous for its hills. While it's possible, as a visitor, to avoid some of the bigger hills, for those living in the city it's a different story. Many neighborhoods require cyclists to tackle steep climbs. Some of the steepest streets in SF are over 30%, so 15% -20% is not unusual in some areas. Even for the most intrepid cyclist that makes for a challenging commute. Brett and Karen know that e-assist has the ability to effectively level those hills. When getting up hills is not an issue, there's one less obstacle to cycling instead of driving.
I absolutely LOVED their shop. Like Splendid Cycles, it's a small but welcoming space. You're greeted by a charming old-west store front with a modern twist - a solar charging station. Solar panels and a convenient place to wait while you charge your phone, iPad, or computer! Inside, is a similar mix of practical time-proven products (such as Brooks Saddles) and modern technology - e-assist bikes. With expertise in BionX and a variety of other e-assist system, they are able to appeal to a variety of cyclists - casual to performance. Most of all, The New Wheel offers something that's valued in any era - customer service. Customers are clearly their priority. In talking with Brett and Karen about their business, it was very clear that they are very focused on providing a good experience before, during, and after the sale.
Now, to the cradle of the last bike revolution to see it's standing in, what we see as, the next bicycle revolution. Bike culture is alive and well in Marin. Sitting at a local cafe, I observed kids heading home from school by bike, adults doing errands, and of course lots of recreational riders. When I cruised by the local grocery store, there were at least three longtails parked outside! Here's what else is happening with utility bikes in Marin County:
The Bicycle Works - A common theme among the utility bike proponents that I meet is the desire to build or enhance a sense of community. The Bicycle Works is a sterling example of an organization achieving that goal. Located in San Anselmo, CA, there is no shortage of cyclists. On Sir Frances Drake Blvd. (the main street through town) you'll view a parade of cyclists. That parade has a number of shops to patronize BUT The Bicycle Works is the only non-profit. Offering tools and instruction for repair, advocating utility bikes, and providing a community resource is their strength. In addition to their non-profit services, they are also a retail shop selling "human-electric hybrid vehicles." They're our North Bay Bullitt dealer but carry XtraCycle, Surly, and a host of other utility bike options. The positive energy evident in the leadership and volunteers of this organization have enabled this organization to grow and expand. I see a bright future ahead for them and their community.
Geronimo Wheel Works Michael Bock of Geranimo Wheel Works, a craftsman and pioneer in e-assist bicycles, works closely with The Bicycle Works consulting on e-assist projects. The custom e-assist bikes he builds are also on display at The Bicycle Works.
Always wanting to improve on performance of the systems he offers, Michael's always thinking and a doing bit of tinkering to find innovative solutions. Inside his workshop numerous cargo bike frames, bike parts, and e-assist motors and parts await assembly. I await his next creation!
(R)evolutions per Minute: CargoBikes in the US -When Liz Canning, the dynamic and passionate cargo cyclist behind (R)evolutions, embarked on her open-source cargo bike documentary project, I'm not sure she knew how much her film would ignite the cargo bike community. Since she first posted a trailer of her film on YouTube there's been a buzz around utility bikes. The cargo bike community has coalesced around her project, producing miles of footage and inspiring new converts to the revolution. The film's FaceBook page serves as a community bulletin board for the exchange of information and ideas on any cargo bike-related topic. Liz (and her family) also bring heaps of pro-utility bike energy to the local (Marin) neighborhoods by setting a fabulous example of how to incorporate bikes into everyday life.
Biketoberfest Marin/Cargo Bike Jubilee - Our discussion of what's happening in Marin, would not be complete without singing the praises of the Cargo Bike Jubilee at Biketoberfest Marin. Biketoberfest, a benefit for the Marin Bicycle Coalition, is huge. The attendance by vendors and customers is exceptional. While many folks come just for the group rides or beer sampling festivities, it also brings cargo bike people from all over the SF Bay Area. Whether shopping for a bike or looking to connect with fellow cargo bikers, I met people from San Jose to San Francisco to Emeryville. Some came to see a representation of all of the popular cargo bike brands others to participate in fun events such a cargo bike parade and relay races. The jubilee is only in its second year but it already is a mainstay of Biketoberfest. There's as much fun as there are attendees - can't wait for next year!
My overall impression is that there's momentum but also a long way to go before the revolution really catches on. Utility bikes are gaining ground as awareness of their existence grows thanks to the early adopters, dedicated advocates, and even to some degree, the mainstream media. That's all encouraging. But, what really gives me hope are the common threads I observed during our trip (and have observed here at home):
- 1. Everyone's welcome. This revolution is about community, sharing, and building relationships: whether connecting with neighbors or strengthening family ties. Cargo bike events and groups are inclusive, all types of bikes and riders are encouraged, even those who don't yet own a cargo bike.
- 2. It's about a return to simple values. The retailers involved in this revolution focus strongly on customer service. Taking care of customers, working hard to enable cyclists to reduce stress and expenses through car-lite living, and standing behind their products, are common priorities. The people buying utility bikes want a simpler, more sustainable life.
- 3. Excitement. This revolution is just beginning and many of the early-adopters see the potential for a big shift in how bikes are used for transportation. That vision creates excitement and enthusiasm, which in turn brings new people to the revolution.