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The Case for Bikes and Bike Share at ODU

30 Mar
Protected bike lane (cycle track) in Bogota, Colombia.  From

Protected bike lane (cycle track) in Bogota, Colombia. From

In case you might have missed it last weekend, the regional public radio program With Good Reason highlighted bicycling last week in a episode called “Pedal Power.”  The first segment is an interview with Ralph Buehler, a Virginia Tech professor in Urban Affairs and Planning, who does a nice job laying out benefits of building bicycle infrastructure so that everyone can use a bicycle as a transportation option, and some of the reasons we have yet to do that in the U.S .

The episode also highlights the bike share program at Old Dominion University and explores the growing popularity of e-bikes, bicycles with electric motors that allow a wider range of people to use a bike for transportation in a wider array of contexts.


RVA Bike Jumble Saturday

22 Aug

Ride Richmond is holding its annual bike swap event at the VMFA on Saturday 8/23, 10 am to 4 pm.  Come and check out vintage and used bikes and parts.  If you have just a couple of things to sell, you can add it to the community swap area.

I’m in Love with an ELF

6 Mar


Well, actually not one in particular, but rather the product.  A friend recently pointed me toward a new vehicle that could really take human-powered transport to the next level.

The ELF is basically a small pedal-powered car, not far from a recumbent bike with a shell.  This isn’t the first time someone has put a body of some kind around a pedal-powered vehicle, but as far as I know this is the first one that is designed for most any adult to use easily.  The differences are: electric assist, a shell that protects from the elements (to some degree), and room to carry and lock up a significant amount of cargo.  It has a top speed of 30 mph and can be plugged in for recharging, but also includes a solar panel!  It also has built-in lights and signals, not to mention 24/7 roadside assistance.  (Not sure how that works, but that’s what they say).

The one thing that surprised me — in a less than positive way — is that, according to the FAQ, to incorporate a child seat you have to find a way to rig it up yourself.

As with some cargo bikes, the price might produce an initial gasp: $5K for the basic package.  But if you’re replacing a car or a bunch of car trips, you would make back that money within a couple of years, even if you keep your car.  According to the site, no license or insurance are needed, so aside from maintenance, the cost to keep one is very low.  So who’s going to be the first to own an ELF in Richmond?

Bikes for Carrying You and Your Stuff

20 Oct

I recently posted about the cost of owning a car and options for going car-light or car-free.  There are lots of ways to get around other than by car, but traveling by bicycle has the advantages of being both low-cost, relatively fast, and more under your control than taking the bus.

If you are considering using a bicycle in place of a car, one issue that will probably come up is carrying stuff or people (especially little ones).  Depending on what you want to carry, it might just be a question of adding a child seat and/or racks and a basket or bags to your bike.  And people have been using bike trailers for kids and other stuff for a long time.  But there are now bikes that can carry a lot more stuff more easily are becoming more widely available in the U.S.  Check them out below.

Carrying Kids

There are quite varied opinions on how best to carry kids by bike.  The blog totcycle has a really great rundown of the different options and which ones to consider at different ages.

Yes, you can carry 3 kids on one bicycle!

Yes, you can carry 3 kids on one bicycle! With large bags that attach on the back you can carry lots of stuff too. This is a Yuba Mundo long tail bike, but several other manufacturers offer their own versions, and Xtracycle sells a kit that you can use to convert a regular bicycle into a longtail.

My family ended up not using the trailer on city streets after a couple of tries because we felt it was not as visible to motorists as we would like.  We prefer having our son in a seat on the bike itself despite the fact that he’s higher up that way — it’s better for communicating with him, and it feels better to us than having him trailing behind us where we have less control.  Other people are more concerned about the kid going down with them if they crash, so for them the trailer is preferable precisely because it rides low and will not tip over even if the bike does.


But if you want to carry a lot, or have a bike that’s really built to handle well with cargo or kids, a cargo bike (also sometimes called a utility bike) might be for you.  If most bicycles are more like a sports car or small sedan, these are like a station wagon.

The great news is that there are a lot more options in this area now in the U.S. than there were just a few years ago, and you don’t have to invest in a pedicab or ride an adult tricycle to do it.  Some of them are pretty much regular bicycles with integrated racks, but others are built to carry even 2 or 3 children or a bunch of groceries — or paint buckets or whatever else you can strap on or put in the bags.

Box Bike

Bikes built to carry stuff have actually been around a long time.  But in the U.S. they’re mostly a distant memory.  Not so in, you guessed it, places like the Netherlands and Denmark.  The Bakfiets or box bike has been around in the Netherlands for quite a while.  Rather than stretching out the bike toward the back, this design stretches it out in the front, placing a box between the handlebars and a small front wheel (steering works with a tie-rod that runs beneath the box).

A traditional Dutch box bike.  The Bullitt is narrower and lighter due to its aluminum frame.

A traditional Dutch box bike. The Bullitt is narrower and lighter due to its aluminum frame.

The nice thing about a box bike is that its cargo space is so versatile.  You can strap in one, two, even three kids of varying sizes, and throw their bags and yours in as well.  No special seats to outgrow.  Then by just flipping up the seat, you have room for a week’s worth of groceries.  The down sides are that traditional Bakfiets are quite heavy and obviously require a good bit of storage space, and they tend to be pricier than long tails, partly because they’re usually custom built or imported from Europe.

I’ve tried a racier Danish version of the Bakfiets called the Bullitt (you might have seen one or two in Richmond being used by couriers).  We ended up going with a long tail because its handling is hardly different from that of a regular bicycle, while the Bullitt takes a lot of getting used to.  I’m not sure if the learning curve would be as steep for a more traditional Bakfiets.  Click here for a guide on some further types of European cargo bikes and a list of U.S. retailers.

The Long Tail Option

Probably the most common and least expensive option in the U.S. for hauling a lot of stuff is a long tail bicycle.  A long tail looks a lot like a regular bicycle, but the back end of the frame is stretched out so that you can have a really long rack and big bags on the back.  I recently strapped a heavy 5-gallon bucket of roof coating to the side of my long tail and didn’t have any handling problems‚ even with my 45-pound son also on the back.

That’s the type of cargo bike my family opted for, partly because it handles very much like a regular bicycle.  Our Yuba Mundo is rated to carry up to 200 pounds in addition to the rider, and it has enough room on the rear rack that you can even attach two child seats — or have space for as many as two older children to sit.

Trek, Kona, Surly, and Xtracycle (Edgerunner and Cargo Joe models) all have long tail models too, with somewhat different configurations and carrying capacities.  Kona and Yuba also offer “mid-tail” bikes that offer good carrying capacity but are not as stretched out (and therefore not as heavy) as the full-on long tails.

A Madsen set up for rainy weather riding.

A Madsen set up for rainy weather riding.

Madsen also offers an especially striking long tail with a big plastic bucket on the back that can carry even 3 or 4 kids.  The least expensive option is the Xtracycle Free Radical kit, which can be used to convert a mountain or hybrid bike into a long tail.  Some people swear by the Free Radical, but since the “extra” part of the frame is bolted on, it can’t carry as much weight as some of the others.

If the idea of pedaling up one of Richmond’s hills with, say, a hundred pounds of kid or cargo on a 50 or 60-pound bike sounds nuts, there are two things to consider: it’s really good exercise and not as tough as it might seem; and you can get many of these models with an electric motor that will help.

How to Choose

If you get to the point of seriously considering making the investment in a cargo bike, the toughest part is getting the opportunity to try one out.  Richmond Bicycle Studio carries Yuba bikes, and there are local Trek and Kona dealers that might have one of their long tails in stock.  A super nice guy in the DC area sells Bullitts through Kasperscargos.  He leaves bikes in stores in various cities to sell on commission, but even brought one to us to try out when he was passing through Richmond.  The closest place I’ve been able to locate traditional Bakfiets is New York City.  There are also a good number of reviews on the web, so you can do some research in advance too.

Bring the Kids – Part I

19 Jun

It’s best to try cycling with your child after her or his neck is strong enough to hold up that cute head plus helmet — usually after the first birthday.

There’s more to say about bicycling with kids than will fit in one post of tolerable length, so this will be an introduction.  I’ve posted previously about Safe Routes to School and the incredible decline in the number of children who bike or walk to school over the last 40 years.  But there’s also the issue of cycling with the littler ones in the city.  If people have safety concerns about themselves and older kids, I can only assume that many would find it irresponsible to ride with a small child anywhere but on an off-road trail.  There are interesting and in many ways quite distorted ideas about safety in this country that I’ll touch on below but get into more deeply in a later post.  For now I’ll share a bit about my own situation to start off the discussion.

I live on the north side of Richmond just north of Laburnum Avenue, and when I’m able to, I take my 3 year-old son to daycare in Jackson Ward by bike.  It’s about 3.5 miles and takes about 20-30 minutes, depending on how many stops we make along the way to check out something — like I-95 bridge repair, building demolition, or something else fun.  I stick to residential streets as much as I can, but can’t avoid Brookland Park Boulevard and Brook Road for part of the trip.  Brook has some fairly fast traffic depending on the time of day, but a very wide right lane with not many parked cars (perfect place for a future bike lane!).

Am I totally nuts to ride with him in such places?  If you’re inclined to think so, consider this.  When given the choice he always opts for the bike over the car, and I think the reason boils down to this: he gets to interact with his surroundings and with me in ways that he would not be able to in the car.  He asks to ride down the bumpy cobble-stone street near his daycare and then we both listen to our rumbling voices as we roll over it; he asks to stop and watch the jackhammers rattling away under the highway; he waves at pedestrians as we pass by; he feels the wind in his face.

Biking is one of the best things we do together, and it certainly is the best way for us to get somewhere together.  Is it perfectly safe?  No.  But neither is transporting a child in a car, no matter how big it is.  In fact, driving big cars on big roads tends to give people an exaggerated sense of safety that makes it more dangerous for everyone.  More on this later.

The best discussion of the safety issue I’ve found is at, written by a father and pediatrician who bikes with his kids all around Seattle and beyond.  He also has a great guide to bike seats and other options for kids of various ages.

This is not to downplay the need for really good cycling infrastructure to help encourage a sense of safety and make cycling safer.  If we can put infrastructure in place (that includes measures to slow traffic down) where parents feel comfortable getting around with their kids on bicycles, then we’ll know we’ve really made it as a bicycle-friendly city.  To my mind that will involve more than installing bike lanes, although that’s a good start.  It will involve creating more “complete streets” that give priority to pedestrian and cyclist safety and comfort.

In the meantime, if you’re considering cycling with a little one and are not ready for busier roads, try to find a route using residential streets to get to school, playground, local coffee house, or wherever.  And consider working with your school to get a Safe Routes to School grant (assuming it does not get nixed from the federal transportation bill), which can be spent for a wide range of measures to make walking or biking to school safer.

Dead Bikes and Spare Parts

9 Apr

An image from the site "You Found a Dead Bike."

The community blog Fan of the Fan recently featured a post on a really creative new project called You Found a Dead Bike.  Those abandoned bicycles or remnants thereof that you see locked up around town are documented and in some cases “shrouded” with a large black cover with the message “Here lies a dead bike.”  Here’s how the project site explains the idea behind it:

To continue an individual’s memory beyond their life, we build monuments and tombs. By shrouding these dead bicycles, we show our appreciation and love for bicycles and hope that they’ll get their second life.

Within the city limits you will occasionally find a bicycle, locked to a pole or tree, stripped of its valuable pieces and left to rust. Even without these components, the bicycle still has value and could be saved for a minimal cost.

What does this say about our respect for a machine we spend so much time enjoying? Does the loss of a lock key merit the abandonment of the entire bike?

The intent of this project is to bring a renewed appreciation for bicycle culture and awareness to a community willing to leave their friends behind.

There has been discussion in the Mayor’s Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Trails commission about adopting a policy on abandoned bicycles now that the city is planning to install a lot more racks.  Along with wasting a good bike, abandoning one also takes up a good parking space!  Hopefully there will be a way for an organization such as the bike co-op being organized with some help from RideRichmond to reclaim these “dead” bikes (after they’ve been officially determined to be abandoned) and bring them back to life.

On a related note, folks who have not abandoned their bikes but would like to swap them (or bike parts and gear) should attend the Bike Swap being held April 22 at the VMFA, presented by he VMFA and RideRichmond as part of Bike Week II.  And if your bike is not yet dead but seems a bit sick after sitting in the garage all winter, check out these three simple tips posted by Amy, also at RideRichmond.

Bad News and Good News

23 Mar

The bad news is that Richmond is losing one of it’s oldest bike shops.  As reports, after 95 years in business, Rowlett’s is closing its doors.  It looks like they’ll remain open a few more weeks, and they are offering significant discounts on their remaining stock, so go by and say ‘bye.  While we’re on the subject of bike shops, the New York Times just published a nice piece about the SoHo shop Bicycle Habitat.

The good news is that spring is here!  Well, actually it’s (strangely) been here for a while already, but it feels like there’s little chance of one of those springtime cold spells or crazy snowstorms.  Ross Catrow has a photo on RVANews that perfectly captures why it’s time to get on your bike if you haven’t already.

Speaking of spring and biking, keep a lookout for info on Bike Week events being organized by RideRichmond folks at the end of April, and Bike Month events planned for May!