By Dave Cohen
Chickadee came up to them. “Nobody around,” she said in her small, dry voice, “but there’s one of those fast turtle things coming.” Horse nodded, but kept going forward…. and then in the distance something moving fast, too fast, burning across the ground straight at them at terrible speed. “Run!” she yelled to Horse, “run away! Run!” As if released from bonds he wheeled and ran, flat out, in great reaching strides, away from the fiery burning chariot, the smell of acid, iron, death.
In this passage from Ursula Le Guin’s short story “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come out Tonight,” animals glimpse a familiar moving object blazing toward them. To us, that object “burning across the ground straight at them at terrible speed” is so easily articulated in our familiar coded language – “car” or “automobile.” But to the greater world it is experienced as something profoundly different.
Any way you look at it, the unbridled deployment of the massive number of automobiles on our landscape is deeply undermining our bodies, our soundscapes, our sense of place, the global ecology and so many nooks and crannies of this world we could never know about.
Thankfully, in the US we’re beginning to seriously consider the impact of the automobile, and that is moving many cities forward with the implementation of better bike and pedestrian infrastructure and programs, as well as taming the car and its domination of public spaces, including our streets.
In just the past five years we’ve witnessed some great projects in New York City and many other municipalities, aimed specifically at boosting bike transportation – paths, lanes, bike share programs, bridge access and much more. Along with these developments, a bicycle design revolution has been taking place. The most exciting part of this has been the re-emergence of the cargobike.
Recently heralded in the Wall Street Journal as the “New Station Wagon,” cargobikes may have two wheels or up to four and are either exclusively human-powered or a hybrid of human-power and electric-assist. Cargobikes typically have features for hauling things like groceries, kids, grandma, refrigerators, or whatever else.
While cargobike designs have primarily originated out of Europe for the past 100 years or so, the current cargobike revolution is inspired by an American idea – the longtail bike.
The longtail is essentially a stretched out mountain bike – the first half with all the appearances of a typical mountain bike and the back half with enough space for children and cargo. The original concept started in the early 1990’s with the Xtracycle Free Radical – an extension frame that will stretch almost any bike into a child-carrying, stuff-hauling cargobike.
The best longtails now feature fully integrated frames (see www.yubabikes.com and www.xtracycle.com) that can transport loads upwards of 400 pounds. They are packed with features like special kid’s seats and rear handlebars for carrying up to three children. Also available are enormous panniers for carrying groceries, sidecar trailers, huge front baskets and an ability to tow another bike (great for bringing your kid’s bike along) and much more. Longtails and a number of other cargobike designs have become increasingly popular in many communities, but in places like Portland, OR they are now a major phenomenon.
However, a most intriguing aspect of this revolution for those dealing with hills, mountains and distances, as I do in Vermont, is the electric-assist cargobike or e-cargobike. Electric-assist refers to a compact motor and battery that power either the front wheel, rear wheel or the chain drive of a bike.
Of course, the rider still offers the purest, greenest, cleanest form of energy available – the human body. But by harnessing the amazing efficiency of the human body and, when needed, adding in the supplementary power, an e-cargobike is in many ways the ultimate hybrid utility vehicle. Now families can ride up steep inclines while carrying cargo and covering distances that would be impossible without the boost.
Furthermore, with the new lightweight lithium-ion batteries, e-bikes can now travel farther than ever before. A full battery charge can carry an e-cargobike rider upwards of 40 miles. It takes four to five hours to fully recharge a lithium-ion battery at a cost of no more than 10¢ of electricity!
So, compared to the massive batteries found in electric cars, the battery on an e-bike is just a fraction of the size and weight. Also, without a car’s two-ton plus body to haul around and four thick tires that create enormous drag, e-cargobikes have a long litany of special advantages over internal combustion, hybrid, or electric cars. E-cargobikes weigh 1% to 2% of the typical car, so the resource demands, impacts on the land, the health of our soundscape and communities, and energy consumption, the ecological and social footprint of an e-cargobike are negligible compared to any type of automobile.
And best of all, e-cargobikes augment the conviviality and quality of life of any town or city by adding in a human presence and a healthful, inspiring image that is so often missing from car-centric communities. Seeing happy parents and kids travelling together without being confined to the sensory deprivation experience of an automobile is just an absolute blast.
All that said, e-cargobikes are not a silver bullet that will solve all our transportation challenges. If you want a silver bullet you get the car. I believe some part within every one of us understands what that means, even beyond what we know about climate change, carbon footprints and endless shopping malls.
This is about abandoning the dignified use of our bodies, as well as exiling our potential for a far deeper connection to the terrain we inhabit and all the living beings we share space with. Maybe it’s ultimately about a degradation of what it truly means to be a human being.
In merging with the car we become partly what it is – robotic. And we haven’t yet even witnessed the coming invasion of self-driving cars – the “carbots.” They’re approaching way faster than you can ever imagine.
Can we hear chickadee’s alarm at the “fast turtle things”? If so, perhaps our response shouldn’t be about accommodating our current dystopian world. Maybe we can bring forward our human potential – our attuned senses, strong bodies, emotional intelligence, and imaginative minds – fully engaged to work towards creating a world we and our children actually want to live in. I think that’s exactly the moment when something like the cargobike will truly shine.
Dave Cohen (www.davecohencounseling.com), is a psychotherapist and an ecopsychologist in Brattleboro, VT, blending body-oriented and mindfulness therapies with approaches that draw on the healing potential of the natural world. As founder of Pedal Express, a nationally-recognized cargobike delivery service in Berkeley, CA, he continues to ride and promote really big bikes for everyday use. He and his family are sighted nearly daily on their bright orange e-cargobike in the Brattleboro area.