I’ve been awarded a wonderful opportunity to borrow an Urban Arrow electric-assist bakfiets for an extended amount of time, of which a few months have elapsed. I’ve always loved bakfietsen (also known as longjohns, frontloaders, and box bikes) and have several times rented them when visiting flat cities before e-assisted versions were common. Getting my hands and feet on one that’s spacious enough and powered enough to carry my two big kids is simply awesome! However, I don’t ride it exclusively and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Thanks to @stuuart for recently asking me about this on Twitter:
Is it difficult to hop on the manual surly when you have an e-cargobike too? Both are great bikes but it seems like it would be hard to not ride the ebike for obvious reasons!
— Stuart Campbell (@stuuart) January 2, 2020
What a great question! I feel a bit silly that I hadn’t considered this before, but I’ve taken some time to put significant thought into the matter–both while using and while avoiding this wonderful bike. Here are my ranked numerous–but minor–reasons.
1. It’s heavy. Yes, it has a motor that counteracts (and then some!) the weight of the bike while rolling along, but most people end up needing to maneuver their bikes while not rolling quite a bit. The Urban Arrow weighs 112 pounds. My Big Dummy isn’t light at 75 pounds, but that’s a significant difference, plus I’m used to its weight distribution and am fairly good at lifting parts of it to move it around without hurting my back. Granted that wasn’t always the case: graduating from a mere 50-pound bike of regular length that I could easily move around while the kids were seated on it (one at the front and one at the back, so their weight was nicely distributed) I spent my first couple months of Big Dummy ownership with an aching back as I got used to not being able to lift and redirect the tail of the bike while the kids both sat upon it. So perhaps I could get used to the weight of the Urban Arrow if only I would use it more often. As it is, to get the bike inside at work I awkwardly move hand over hand to the front of the bike to lift the nose wheel up the curb, then paw my way back to the rear rack and lift the back of the bike up the curb while shoving it forward through the door.
At home I have a makeshift ramp up the shallow steps to my back door, but I still need to lift the rear of the bike just an inch or so to prevent the bottom bracket from scraping. I can usually get the bike out of the house with just one of the French doors open, but I often have to open the second door (which requires bending down to undo one latch and stretching up to undo the other) to get it back inside. Not the biggest inconvenience, but it’s an additional step I don’t need to do with my Big Dummy and all these things add up to sometimes irritate my bad back.
I know a cargo biking mom who took up weight lifting to increase her strength and ensure she could keep riding her longtail as her kids got heavier. I have yet to prioritize time to any exercise outside of bike commuting, but I really like this strategy in theory.
I know another cargo biking mom whose bakfiets was stolen. When I heard her lamenting the weight of her bike I mistakenly thought she’d replaced her cargo bike and I’d missed the announcement. But no, she was talking about her folding bike she’d been making do with for all trips. “Totable” folding bikes can require a lot of carrying around–something she didn’t need to do with her bakfiets, obviously. We don’t always appreciate how much bike lifting goes with certain bikes or certain circumstances. I have a folding bike and I need to be in the right mood (free of back pain, sufficiently rested) to want to take it along on transit where I know I’ll be lifting and carrying it a lot. It’s extremely convenient and I love having it, but it’s heavy–not only in actual pounds (it’s 30 pounds) but also because I need to lift and carry it a lot.
This isn’t a direct correlation, but it’s a good “note to self” that I could very well get used to the Urban Arrow’s weight and heftitude: I used to think if I had Pixie before my Big Dummy I would have bought a dog-specific basket. Or at least a deeper basket. I felt this way for a couple years before realizing the existing shallow basket works well enough. I’ll consider myself adapted to the Urban Arrow’s weight once I stop complaining about it. Last week I brought the UA to work, assuming I’d use it to tote my 12-year old to a doctor’s appointment, but when our schedule changing I stomped my foot and whined, “I could have taken a lighter bike today!” I’m clearly not very far along the road of getting used to its weight yet.
2. I love riding my Big Dummy. We’ve lived here two and a half years now, but it’s still a novel treat to live in a neighborhood and city I can easily enough get everywhere with my beast of a bike. When I lived in Seattle (in “a neighborhood on the side of a cliff” according to a friend from a slightly less hilly neighborhood) I always took a regular bike if I was making a trip without my little passengers. I never understood why Seattle friends with cargo bikes took their big, heavy bikes when they didn’t need to. I’m still not sure why Seattle dwellers do that, but here in a flat part of Portland I love taking my comfy, familiar cargo bike on every excursion–because you never know when you might need to carry something big that won’t fit easily on a regular bike.
3. I’m used to being very slow. Everyone passes me when I’m on my Big Dummy–even when I’ve got absolutely no cargo on board. But I’m used to it. I like being slow enough to notice things I’d miss if I were going faster and I’m good about giving myself sufficient time to get places at my slow pace. And if I really really need to hurry I can usually pick up the pace a bit, even on my heavy bike. On the other hand, it’s a treat to get places 10 minutes early when I ride the Urban Arrow! Or to take an extra 10 minutes before leaving. Sometimes I take my road bike to work instead of my Big Dummy and it’s the same feeling. I enjoy being fast from time to time, but it’s not a daily craving for me like it is for some. I’m happy to putter along.
Apparently the Urban Arrow is a “slow” e-cargo bike, according to a friend who owns a different e-bakfiets and has more experience than I with the various e-bakfietsen on the market. Obviously that makes it the perfect e-bakfiets for me! Having used the same Bosch assist when borrowing the Surly Big Easy, I can say that the Big Easy longtail is much zippier. I chalked that up to the different geometry of the bike–the Big Easy is a mountain bike with the rider canted slightly forward while the Urban Arrow has a cranks (feet)-forward position putting the rider completely upright. It’s very stately! And fast. But apparently not fast-fast.
4. I’m better at loading big things in the Big Dummy. This is another thing that would surely change with practice, but while box bikes like the Urban Arrow are wonderful for tossing in bag after bag of groceries, longtails like my Big Dummy are excellent at carrying bikes and other long objects. I’ve been able to carry one kid and his bike with the Urban Arrow by laying the bike across the unoccupied part of the box, but it’s wide. I found the door I’m using as a bike ramp while on my Big Dummy and I can’t imagine having carried that with the Urban Arrow. I haven’t taken to carrying cargo straps with the Urban Arrow so I’m not really giving it a chance as a big-stuff hauler.
5. It’s fancy and it’s not mine. I’m always nervous locking up or dinging a new bike. I feel an additional layer of nervousness with the Urban Arrow since I’m simply borrowing it. I think I’m using it enough to be a good ambassador even so, but I cannot bring myself to take it anywhere I’ll need to leave it locked up outside for hours. Fortunately it can stay indoors at home and at the office and there are lots of other places I can take it and not need to leave it unattended for an amount of time that will make me nervous.
6. I still get a bit range anxiety. It’s not as bad as it was in the beginning, but it’s one more thing to think about. I’m not used to plugging in my bike and often don’t bother plugging it in unless I know for a fact I’ll be using it in a few hours. This left me with an almost dead battery and a sick kid to fetch from a canceled sleepover…nearby, but down a big hill. (I left the motor off to get to him and used it at Eco/lowest mode on the way home and ran out of juice at the top of the hill, phew. But I felt bad that it took me an extra couple minutes to get to my sick kid and then an extra handful of minutes to get him home, all because I’m not good about plugging in.) For most people range anxiety all but goes away after living with an e-bike for a short time. That said, every so often I’m surprised to hear a long-time e-biking friend fret about battery life.
0. I’m worried about getting spoiled/e-bikes are cheating. This one doesn’t get a real place in my numbered list because E-BIKES AREN’T CHEATING so it’s not one of my reasons. However, enough people tease that e-bikes are cheating that it always bears addressing. And I’ve heard lots of people voice concern that they’ll get spoiled when considering getting e-bikes. While I love switching to turbo mode (the most powerful of the four modes) to charge up big hills, I don’t think it’s left me spoiled. I also love using the e-bike to carry both kids far distances, nor has that spoiled me. E-bikes are amazing and fun and zippy, but they’re still bikes. When I’ve stupidly set out without enough battery, I can still pedal the bike once there’s no more juice. I can also choose flatter routes if I’m on a regular bike. Someone with the mindset that e-bikes are cheating isn’t going to change their mind based on my shared experience, but I love adding more biking to our lives by replacing long transit trips. I picked my kids up at the airport (14 miles away) on New Years Day. It was cheaper, quicker, and funner than using the light rail and the bus–which would be my other method of picking them up since I would never carry them all that distance on my Big Dummy or expect them to ride their own bikes (even in the middle of the day in nice weather…which it wasn’t) that distance. Other people are replacing car trips with this sort of trip and that’s the real game-changing awesomeness e-cargo bike create. Now that e-bikes have been around for a bit and lots of data is available, there are oodles of easy-to-find articles with better ammunition than my anecdotes enumerating how much more people bike when they switch to e-bikes.
I really wish I could find the link to a video I saw a long time (eight, ten years?) ago of a former professional cyclist (maybe mountain biking?) who carried her kids around with an e-assist cargo trike. I was confused at first because obviously this woman was strong enough that she didn’t need a motor. But that’s the thing: you don’t need to need a motor to make very good use of one. While I’ve never thought e-bikes were cheating, it’s taken me a long time (until writing this, in fact) to coalesce my thinking on the matter in regards to people like this cool mom. It’s easy to see how wonderful e-bikes are for people who couldn’t otherwise bike where they need to go or carry what they need to carry, but they’re also wonderful for people who can get by with non-electric bikes.
Has the Urban Arrow spurred any changes to our lives? Heck yes! I consider myself lucky that my kids don’t have a lot of activities and interests far from home and at weird hours. But I signed my middle schooler up for an after-school class that’s close to home but far from school with a very short window to get him there. I never would have done that without the Urban Arrow. As it is, we arrive a few minutes late, but in checking with the organizer I learned that was OK with them as well as OK in terms of my kid not missing valuable intro time or activity time. I’m not sure what we’ll do about the program once we’re not using the Urban Arrow anymore. Possibly carpool with a family coming from the same school…but we all like avoiding using cars. The next fastest choice would be for he and I to ride our tandem bike, which I’d like to make part of our regular repertoire in general, but it’s going to take a lot of practice and possibly some knee pain on my part (he’s not the most consistent pedaler). But for now, he loves his class and I love being able to carry him there quickly with the Urban Arrow.