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BTWD and a couple of cargo bikes

Commuter, Utility / Cargo Bike 9 5040

It’s National Bike to Work Day here in the US. For the hardcore bike commuters who might be reading this, today is like any other day (except for the free food and schwag). A couple weeks ago, I heard one of those everyday, rain or shine commuters dismiss the idea of Bike to Work Day, saying that riding to work one day a year shouldn’t really be celebrated.  I guess that is one way to look at it, but I prefer to think of BTWD, and Bike Month in general, as an opportunity for those of us who already love cycling to get out in the community and talk to people who are just starting to think about giving it a try. With gas prices around $4 per gallon, there are more and more of those people out there, so I hope you are all getting a chance to help spread the word today, and throughout the month of May.

For anyone just starting out with bike commuting, the Bike to Work Book, by Carlton Reid, is a great resource. You can read it online or download a pdf for free at Issuu. For more info, check out sites like Commute by Bike, Bike Commuters, Paul Dorn’s Bike Commuting Tips, the People for Bikes blog, and the LAB’s ‘Tips for Commuters’ page. I could keep going, but there are way too many great blogs and sites about commuting to list here. Check out the Bicycle Design links page for more.

Plywood cargo bikeThose of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember the profile of designer Michael Downes. You also may remember that he wrote a couple of interesting guest posts here at Bicycle Design. Michael left his job at Giant and moved to Portland to teach design a few years, but he still works on bike projects whenever he gets the chance. Lately, he and his neighbor, wooden boat builder Jeff Sayler, have been collaboriting on an entry for the Oregon Manifest Design Challenge. Together, they call themselves Art & Industry and for the past few months they have been working on a prototype cargo bike made entirely out of ¼ inch Birch plywood. Michael explained to Jonathon Maus of Bike Portland that the pair chose to design wooden cargo bike because it “would be a challenge aesthetically.” You can read more about the bike, and see additional pictures, at the Bike Portland post. Also, be sure to check out Michael and Jeff’s blog, which they started to chronicle their progress.

Sanitov cargo trike renderingThe Sanitov C-type cargo trike is the “outcome of a fruitful marriage between Chinese and Danish bicycle cultures.” Unlike the similar cargo trikes that I often see on trips to China, this one includes an integrated GPS-chip, so it can be tracked in case of theft. Read more about the Sanitov trike at Design Spotter, Bike Hugger, and Inhabitat. Sanitov has a blog too, so check that out as well.

Now it’s time for me to get out of here for the weekend. The ominous dark clouds are building up outside, so it looks like I might have a wet ride home. Oh well, that’s the first rule of commuting…be prepared. Just hope the rain doesn’t discourage anyone who tried bike commuting for the first time today.

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  1. Nick F May 20, 2011 at 5:34 pm -  Reply

    That wooden cargo bike is great. I can’t wait to see how good looking the final version is going to be.

    I also really love the cargo bike they linked to in their blog – the forkless cargo bike made by Elian Cycles. ( ) I had no idea such tech existed, and am a little skeptical about its practicality, but it sure makes a very elegant front end. I wonder how much a hub like that costs.

    • Adam S May 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm -  Reply

      It may be a little more complex at first, but I have a feeling the forkless design could revolutionize cargo bikes. It looks stronger and lighter than anything else I’ve seen. I’m just trying to imagine how the mudguard fits on…

  2. Johann Rissik May 21, 2011 at 3:41 am -  Reply

    The “largely wooden” cargo bike is brilliant, a pragmatic combination of materials. Can anybody tell me about the energy/carbon implications of the wooden vs steel bits? It’s not as if the wood is hand harvested with a designer Portland axe wielded by some previously unemployed hipster and then carried home on a bakfiets 🙂
    The Sanitov’s GPS chip is interesting, what powers it and what stops it from being removed by said thief? If that thing works, I know of a huge market for it down on the southern tip of Africa 😉

    • Nick F May 21, 2011 at 11:12 am -  Reply

      As you mentioned, any embodied energy costs are going to depend heavily on how far away the materials were made. Nonetheless, using some general figures, the embodied energy in high-quality plywood and high-quality steel are somewhat similar. (around 15MJ/Kg, ICE Database)

      I suspect that means that a steel bike is going to have the edge in terms of sustainability because CNC’ing profiles is a very energy intensive and materially inefficient way of making what you want, versus making relatively simple cuts from lengths of tubing.

      Which is not to say that wood must be at a disadvantage – steel bikes have been made for hundreds of years now – the certainly have time on their side. With a refined design, local sourcing, and low-energy shaping and joining methods, a strong case could probably be made for sustainable wooden bikes.

      Seems like sort of a moot point, though… as a replacement for a car, it could probably be made out of whale bones and still end up being more environmentally responsible. (Only joking… but… maybe? I’d like to see the life-cycle-analysis on that one.)

  3. michael downes May 21, 2011 at 12:12 pm -  Reply

    Our purpose in designing & building a wooden cargo bike had/has little to do with sustainability and more to do with process. Our interest was in seeing if it could be done and the Oregon Manifest competition gave the project focus and a deadline. I don’t believe a solid argument can be made in favor of any bicycle as far as sustainability. Sure, we burn no gas while riding it, and that has localized benefit but there is a vast industrial/consumer infrastructure involved to bring it to that stage. Bicycles, just like wind & solar energy, are derivatives of the hydrocarbon economy not an alternative to it.

    • Nick F May 21, 2011 at 4:58 pm -  Reply

      (Not referencing your design in any way, which I think is amazing, just want to continue this thought process )

      I don’t believe a solid argument can be made in favor of any bicycle as far as sustainability. Sure, we burn no gas while riding it, and that has localized benefit but there is a vast industrial/consumer infrastructure involved to bring it to that stage.

      This is true of virtually all forms of transportation though, so doesn’t that argument reason itself into a corner? If bicycles aren’t sustainable, what is the (non-hypothetical) benchmark form of transport that is? Running, naked and barefoot? (or maayyyybe mass transit?) It seems like an argument over the semantics of sustainability at that point.

      I wanted to do some REALLY loose math to see if we could put any (equally loose) numbers to this…

      -Let’s say my commuter bicycle is 10kg, and for simplicity’s sake, is 80% virgin aluminum and 20% plastic/rubber by weight. (virgin aluminum because it is probably the most energy intensive building material available)

      -Cast/Extruded Virgin aluminum has about 220MJ/Kg of embodied energy (Recycled has about 10% this energy… though I don’t know what percent aluminum for bike tubing is recycled… probably not a lot)

      -Plastics and Rubbers average about half of that, let’s say 100MJ/Kg.

      …That means 8Kg * 220MJ/Kg + 2Kg*100MJ/Kg = 1960MJ

      For the sake of argument, since a bicycle is made of not a block of extruded/molded material but many complicated components, let’s double that number (probably wouldn’t really be that high), and round up, to an even 4000MJ of embodied energy. I feel like it would be a reasonable claim to say that this is the higher-end of what the embodied energy of a bicycle might be.

      What does 4000MJ translate to in terms of driving a car? Gas has 34.8MJ/L when combusted (couldn’t find stats for the embodied energy of gas)… so our 4000MJ Bicycle is equal to (at minimum) about 115 liters, or 30 gallons, of gasoline.

      Assuming I’m driving an efficient car (40MPG)… my hypothetical 4000MJ Bicycle is (probably) energy neutral after offsetting 1200 miles I would have otherwise traveled by car.

      At this point, even if you don’t consider the industrial infrastructure (factories, mines, ships) a sunk cost, continued use of the bicycle will begin to soak up those energy uses as well.

      Anyways, I’m sure no one needed convincing that bikes are the way to go. I just got curious and wanted to see how the numbers might possibly go down.

      • michael downes May 21, 2011 at 10:18 pm -  Reply


        I take your point and it’s fascinating to see the figures laid out like that. I guess I have become jaded with claims of ‘sustainability’. My point is that humanity has become one vast and unstoppable resource and energy drain on the planet and although I am passionate about bicycles and their potential to empower people and heal our communities I sometimes feel like we are trying to put out a forest fire by pissing on it.

        • Nick F May 22, 2011 at 12:26 am -  Reply

          Yeah, I understand that sentiment. I guess the hope is that bicycles become the cornerstone of a movement that pushes all of human enterprise to be as efficient as pedaling yourself somewhere…

          … though in any case, a cargo bike like the one you’ve built should be strong enough to hold several people to piss on that fire at once.

  4. Johann Rissik May 22, 2011 at 3:57 am -  Reply

    @Nick and Michael,

    Thank you both for the insightful comments. Interesting points raised, thanks Nick for those figures.
    As for the plywood cargo-bike? I’m just jealous that I don’t have one!
    Keep us posted on it’s progress.

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