Alternatives to gas-powered cars

We are blessed with two working cars which are completely paid off. One is gas-powered, the other diesel-powered. We run biodiesel through our VW Passat, which is the primary family vehicle. Great gas mileage and can haul quite a bit of gear + kids. And yes, I’m aware that biodiesel is not a long-term solution as an alternative fuel.

But what to do about our other vehicle, a Subaru Outback? It’s a terrific car, but dependent on gas. And it is primarily used by me for work meetings and errands alone. That’s a single person driving around a wagon capable of hauling quite a bit of stuff. And it is unloaded 90% of the time. Not a good use of resources; both ours and the earth’s. Time to fix this.

I’m going to try an experiment of not driving a car by myself for one year.

A few caveats: note this experiment is “by myself”. I’ll still drive when needing to take the kids to school, which is not often. I can always purchase a kid trailer later; for now, I am transporting myself for work meetings and hauling cargo only. Second caveat: I commuted by bicycle for years and still have all that apparel and gear. Third caveat: for the vast majority of my current driving, it is local to our town which measures roughly 4 x 8 miles. That’s a relatively small geography to cover.

But this will be attempting to use a bicycle as a true car replacement, rather than just a commute vehicle replacement. The conditions and scenarios I’ll be riding in:
  • Ride on 5% trails, 15% gravel, 80% road (live on a 1/2 mile gravel road).
  • Weekly trips to town for meetings and light chores (UPS Store; book, drug, and hardware stores).
  • Heavy hauling monthly chores (grocery store; garden supply compost and chicken feed).
  • Four miles one way for all trips.
What am I hauling around town?
  • 100 lbs of chicken feed (two 50 lb. bags).
  • Dojo gear (long thin sticks) and soccer gear (e.g. balls, cleats, cones).
  • Groceries (4-8 bags).
  • Small miscellaneous errand stuff (book, drug, and hardware stores).
  • Medium sized packages for work to/from UPS Store.

There are several bicycle setups that could handle my needs and the above conditions:
  1. Normal bike + electric assist + trailer.
  2. Electric bike + trailer.
  3. Cargo bike + electric assist.
I eliminated option #1 because I will tend to leave the trailer at home unless I have a specific chore in mind for it, which means I wouldn’t bea able to do any ad hoc cargo pickups. And a good two wheeled trailer is an added $500+ expense.

I eliminated option #2 because electric bikes are not geared for steep hills nor hauling 100 lbs. in a trailer.

Which leaves option #3, a longtail cargo bike. As a lifelong bicyclist, I had never heard of cargo bikes until I began researching them two months ago. Cargo bikes in various forms have been around Europe, but North American bike companies are now seeing the market open up for the longtail version. I like this option best as it moves me very far away from car dependence.

And I get to call myself a cargonista, which is a nifty term a fellow named DL Byron created. Still working on how to effectively combine that term with my recent label “Green Hawk“. In general, I am less concerned about the bike weight and more concerned about pedaling efficiency (especially for hills) and comfort (e.g. not sweating as much).


I ordered my option #3 cargo bike last week. I should receive my new 2010 Kona Ute (pictured here) sometime in October/November. Why a new bike rather than used? I could not find a way to build up my own longtail cargo bike for less than the $900 Kona Ute price tag, especially with front/rear disc brakes.

The primary “new bike” alternatives (both great alternatives, BTW) were the Surly Big Dummy ($2500 for a complete bike, before you add electric assist), a Yuba Munda (no disc brakes and I’m not crazy about a one-size-fits-all bike), or one of several hip Xtracycle-equipped options.

Given that I commuted by bicycle for years, I’ve still got all the apparel/gear, so outfitting the bike itself will be my only expense. I should earn all that money back within one year of not incurring the normal driving expenses (gas, oil changes, repairs, etc).

“Not sweating”? “Electric assist”? What am I, you might be thinking, a wimp?

Well, no. So why does an in-shape bicyclist need electric assist? To conquer these hills while hauling 100 lb loads, and so that I can arrive at work meetings not too sweaty (no shower facilities).

So what exactly is “electric assist” (EA) for bicycles? EA is offers you assistance when pedaling (no pedal, no assistance) so you can ride longer, haul heavier loads, and tackle steeper hills. There are several different mechanisms for adding electric assist to your bicycle. Chris Martenson offers a good summary.

Given that I want front and rear disc brakes (imagine a rainy winter day, loaded with 100 lbs of cargo, going down a steep hill – you want disc brakes), that eliminates the Nine Continent system. And given that I want the dynamo hub on the front wheel for better traction when fully loaded, that eliminates the BionX system. That leaves the systems from Amped Bikes and eZee. Amped’s system is less expensive than eZee’s and gets good ratings. I’ll order their system this week, too.


The two other options my wife and I have discussed for replacing the Outback (but ultimately dismissed) were:

  1. Replace it with a plug in hybrid (PHEV) like the upcoming Toyota Prius. Assuming we are recharging the battery from green energy (we are), this is a decent medium-term solution for transportation. We could be electric only for 90% of the driving time, given our small town commute. Dismissed for large initial cost and the fact that these will not be out for months (an expensive aftermarket mod is available now).
  2. Replace it with a motorcycle, which gets significantly better gas mileage. I’ve ridden for years, but given that we now have young children, my wife is less enamored with this option. And the hauling capacity is not terrific, even with a good set of panniers. And it is still oil-dependent. Three strikes and you are out. Dismissed.
Stay tuned for updates on the one year car-free experiment and tweaks I make to my cargo bike when it arrives.