My car-replacement bicycle setup

For my one year experiment of not driving when by myself, I’m replacing the hauling capacity of my car with a longtail utility bicycle. More details here for new readers regarding what constitutes a utility bike and how I selected the 2010 Kona Ute as my final choice.

For more reading on bicycles recapturing a role as utilitarian people-movers, the person behind Cycle 9 wrote a lengthy but excellent summary on the Chris Martenson website. Recommended. Part IPart II

I used to commute by bicycle for years, so I have most of the gear and correct attitude to actually *want* to ride around in the cold, dark, wet winter here. But a bicycle that is replacing a car requires some unique gear. For me, it was simplest to begin with a new bike suited to the purpose. Here’s how I’ve tweaked my 2010 Kona Ute longtail:
  • eZee electric assist. While I was thinking originally about the Amped Bikes system, I went with eZee because I found a local dealer/installer. The only downside is the weight of the battery; darn heavy. Currently storing in one of the saddle bags, as it is too large to mount elsewhere on the frame.
  • Light & Motion Seca LED 900 lumens battery-powered light (rechargeable, not dynamo). My winter dark riding will be minimal since I can plan most trips between 10AM – 2PM, but I’ll use this as an always-on light during the day year-round.
  • Three Down Low Glow lights. One for the rear and two underneath to serve as side lights. Hip and functional. I chose the amber color to match the Ute bags.
  • Ortlieb‘s Office Bag 2 in black for laptop and other work items. Mounted at end of rack to leave room for (future) stoker kid near seat post.
  • Second matching Kona pannier bag (large) since the Ute only comes with one. Which is just plain silly. Why would you ride around with just one loaded bag, making you off-balance?
  • Brooks Flyer Spring saddle. Because they are so darn cool and so darn comfortable.
  • SKS Chainboard: this really is revolutionary. It’s the first chain guard to work with front derailleurs. Keeps everything cleaner. Will take a pro’s touch to get it adjusted smoothly, though. Useful review.
  • Replaced the standard Kona Ute tires with the relatively bulletproof combination of a flat resistant tube + Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires with a kevlar bead.
  • A Salsa stem plus Moto Ace handlebars. The standard swept back bars on the Kona Ute are incredibly uncomfortable. I got significant immediate pain in my left hand trying to adjust my grip to the extreme swept back position. I’ll reuse these bars as a stoker bar for my kids riding on the back, where the extreme angle should be a benefit.
  • Classic bell on the handlebars, along with a mirror.
  • Ergon grips. Awesome. Amazing. Going to put these on my wife’s bike, too. They even fit the grip shifter we put on to work better with the eZee throttle. Reusing the nice cork Kona grips on the stoker bar.
  • A waterproof Aquapac on the stem for my iPhone. I can listen to music while riding and easily see when I have incoming work phone calls. Pull to the side, hit the brakes, answer the phone, and suddenly I am “in the office”.
  • No water bottle cages. Using those areas to mount the bottom Down Low Glow lights and rechargeable battery pack. Will fuel up on yerba mate before I hit the road.
  • We eliminated as much extra cabling (brake, electric assist, lights) as possible to keep things nice and tight. But there are still alot more cables than normal.

Total cost was about $4500. About the same cost as many high mountain bikes, road bikes, and commuter/city bikes, but very affordable when compared to the cost of an automobile (vehicle, gasoline, insurance, maintenance). The fact that the price was kept affordable was due primarily to the $900 2010 Kona Ute, as the electric pedal assist kit and the lighting system were each $1200. Kudos to Kona for producing an affordable utility longtail bike; you guys rock.

There is another fellow doing a similair experiment named DirtDad. Check out his thread here on the electric vehicle technology forums at Endless Sphere. And the folks at Kona have an electric version of the Ute in the works. Perhaps we’ll see this as a 2011 model.

More photos in the little slideshow on the right. Click through to the Picasa site to view them in larger format.

Testing your bicycle awareness

A humorous (and effective) reminder to pass along to your non-bicyclist friends. Be sure to remind them that with Peak Oil, they will likely become bicyclists in the not-too-distant future. Whether they want to or not.

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.