Thursday, October 11, 2012
CYCLING Cargo bikes designed to carry larger loads
When lovers of cargo or utility bicycles get together, they get to bragging about the biggest loads they’ve hauled on two wheels (or three, depending on the model). The crowd spilling out of the Oakland showroom and headquarters of cargo bike maker Xtracycle on a recent Saturday was no exception:
- Olivia Rebanal uses hers to take her two daughters from Alameda to Oakland for dance class, and maybe pick up a couple of watermelons and a flat of strawberries on the way home.
- Ross Evans and a friend once used his to pick up 12 batts of insulation at Home Depot.
- James Hsu uses his to tote his miniature dachshund, Trudi, who rides on the back in a cozy doghouse Hsu built from a wine box.
These are not bicyclists who dress in Lycra and discuss how to cut weight to increase their speed. They’re more likely to be parents in jeans, using a bike as a “minivan replacement,” in the words of Kaytea Petro, marketing director at Xtracycle competitor Yuba Bicycles.
The U.S. market for bicycles that can carry several people and heavy loads is tiny, but enthusiastic. Bay Area manufacturers Xtracycle and Yuba are largely credited with introducing the cargo bike in the United States – in particular a nimble variety known as the longtail. Observers say that a number of factors, such as high gas prices, the slow economy and environmentalism, are nudging these bikes toward wider use.
“Younger Americans who live in cities are using the bicycle to go to the market and take the kids to day care,” said Jay Townley, a bicycle industry consultant. Townley’s surveys show that Generation Y and Gen X riders are more likely than Baby Boomers to put bikes to practical use.
Townley cited telling evidence that the market is coming into its own: Major manufacturer Trek now sells a longtail.
Evans said the growing interest was palpable when Xtracycle showed its latest models at September’s Interbike trade show in Las Vegas. “Our booth was packed,” he said, adding that hardly anyone stopped at the company’s first booth there 15 years ago, Evans said.
More than a foot longer than the average bike, a longtail has a shelf on the back to accommodate passengers and saddlebags. Various accessories, like a fold-down side platform, can increase the hauling potential.
Xtracycle started out selling “bolt-on” kits that extend ordinary bicycles into longtails, an idea that Evans came up with while working with Nicaraguan veterans as a Stanford undergraduate. The bolt-ons worked well in Nicaragua because they could be made inexpensively with donated bicycle parts, and could handle the rough, narrow paths that farmers rode to local markets better than trailers.
Back in the United States, Evans started Xtracycle in the mid-1990s to support international nonprofit projects. “Originally, I didn’t have any intention of making it work for the First World,” he said.
But he was surprised to realize that his longtail bike came in handy for a distinctly American use: carrying his kayak to water.
In 1998, Evans launched the for-profit version of Xtracycle. It’s been a bumpy ride. After years of feeling ignored, Xtracycle saw its sales triple in 2008, said chief operating officer Nate Byerley. Then the financial crisis hit. The warehouse closed and most of its employees were let go. Evans was spending most of his time on other interests, and Byerley kept the company alive by filling orders out of his kitchen.
Xtracycle also faced growing competition. In 2006, employee Benjamin Sarrazin left to start Sausalito’s Yuba, because he felt a cargo bike designed from the ground up would be more stable than a modified bike, said Petro.
Now, both Yuba and Xtracycle sell complete bicycles, although Xtracycle still sells more bolt-ons than bikes. Both companies are private and declined to disclose their revenue.
For the past 18 months, Byerley said, Xtracycle has been growing on what he believes is a more sustainable path. Fourteen new products are scheduled for 2013.
Not all cargo bikes are longtails. Some riders prefer the load in front, especially when carrying children. Most front-loading cargo bikes are made by Portland, Ore., or European companies, but one Bay Area firm, Onya Cycles, is building a small batch of front-loading tricycles for year-end release.
Cargo biking is even bringing fun to the workplace for some employees. Staff members at the San Francisco Department of the Environment share a bike by Yuba that’s equipped with an electric motor for hauling a heavy load. Throughout October, the department will be using the bike to deliver free reusable tote bags to promote the city’s new checkout bag ordinance.
Rock the Bike, a Berkeley company that sells bike-powered blenders, sound systems and other fun cycle-related items, uses Yuba cargo bikes to make deliveries.
Both Xtracycle and Yuba will be showing off the capabilities of their bikes with a relay race and other events at the Cargo Bike Jubilee on Saturday, part of Fairfax’s Biketoberfest. Liz Canning, a film editor who is making a documentary about the cargo bike movement, is helping organize the Jubilee, which premiered last year.
“This year it’s going to be huge. It definitely took off,” she said.
Canning, who is soliciting homemade videos of cargo bikes for her film at her website lizcanning.com, is a longtime biker who felt grounded after becoming the mother of twins. But thanks to a Portland-made cargo bike with electric assist, Canning is a road warrior once more, taking her now-4-year-olds along with bags of groceries up the steep hill to her house.
- Blue Heron Bikes, Berkeley (blueheronbikesberkeley.com)
- Xtracycle, Oakland (xtracycle.com)
- Yuba Bicycles, Sausalito (yubaride.com)
- Biketoberfest, Fairfax, Saturday (biketoberfestmarin.com)
- “(R)Evolutions per Minute: Cargo Bikes in the U.S.”: bit.ly/oWLU0U