You probably recall the day the internet shook last fall: November 21st, to be exact, when Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Cyber Truck. You know, the vehicle of the future that looks like an EL Camino if an El Camino had been designed before we discovered curves.
Aggressively unconventional aesthetics aside, the Cyber Truck claims to be the solution to many of our gas-fueled problems. After all, the Ford F150 is the most popular vehicle in the USA. If we could persuade people driving fossil fuel trucks like that one to get into zero emissions rides, we’d be making progress, right?
Well, kind of. But if we really want to create positive change, we need to make a bigger leap. Electric trucks are certainly an improvement compared to petrol or diesel, but they are not the panacea they are made out to be. If you really care about reducing the impact of your travel, and you are looking for a new vehicle to haul a lot of people or cargo, an electric cargo bike is by far the best way to get around.
As a bonus, there is no glass to shatter along with your ego when you try to show how tough your truck is, and you don’t have to pay now and spend the next few years anxiously checking Twitter to see when your new vehicle will arrive. I don’t want to say the Cyber Truck is the Marlboro Light of vehicles, but I’m not about to say it isn’t, either.
The Math Hurts
Let’s look at some numbers. Survey response data from e-bike riders suggests the average e-bike consumes about 1.02 kwh of electricity per 100 miles travelled. Using data from Tesla’s launch claims, we get an estimated efficiency of 35.5 kwh per 100 miles using the cybertruck. The truck is approximately 35 times less efficient. Which wouldn’t be such an issue if all our energy came from renewable sources, but in the USA, less than 17 percent of it comes from eco-friendly sources, with over 60 percent coming from burning dead dinosaurs.
I know what you’re thinking: what about the pollution caused by making those batteries? Well, lifecycle analysis suggests e-bikes — when manufacturing, maintenance and shipping is taken into account — consume 82 kilojoules of energy per person mile travelled. Meanwhile, a sedan powered by gas consumes 4027 kilojoules and a train consumes 1400.
That cybertruck? We don’t have the manufacturing data, but using only the electricity consumed to move the thing, it is already at 1260kj per mile. Even if that truck has five people in it — and I want you to go outside and see how many trucks you can count this week with five people in them — that is 252 kj per person mile.
Now sure, you could fit five people in the cybertruck, and a lot of groceries, but the average car trip carries just 1.6 people, according to the Bureau of Transport Statistics. You can carry four people (if three of them are small) on a cargo bike. You can also haul a pretty full load of groceries in those panniers, perhaps not as much as in the bed of a cybertruck, but I have made plenty of successful Costco runs on my cargo bike. I haven’t been able to find any data on how often trucks are used to their full capacity, but I am sitting in a coffee shop in Arizona writing this and I can see 12 pickup trucks in the parking lot. Mine is the only one with anything in the bed.
I’m not saying that all truck trips can be replaced by cargo bikes, but given that the average commute is just 12.6 miles and every cargo bike e-assist system that I have ever tested has a range of far more (40 miles on full assist is normal), it seems that if you really want to make your travel less damaging to the planet, you don’t need a fancy new electric truck, you need a cargo bike.
If you’re like me, you’ll have days when you need a truck, say to move house or haul climbing gear to the crag and mountain bikes to the trail. Given that we know the environmental costs of building an electric vehicle are higher than a conventional vehicle, it makes more sense to pick up a ’90s Toyota (might I suggest the excellent t 100 SR5) and use that occasionally than it does to construct a whole new vehicle and maintain the same harmful habits.
Toyota commissioned a study that suggested 28 percent of a car’s emissions occur in the manufacture and transport to a dealer. With an older or used car, those emissions have already occurred. By keeping it on the road, you’ll also keep it out of the scrap yard and reduce the emissions associated with scrapping a vehicle. Also, it’s not as tempting to hop into your ’90s Toyota for a five-mile drive as it is in your air conditioned, and distraction laden, modern vehicle.
But the benefits of riding a bike and not driving go far beyond emissions. Consider all the cars parked rent free on our roads. That space isn’t actually free, your taxes pay for it. Fewer cars parked on the street would mean more space for bike lanes, less congestion, and less crowded cities. To get the same amount of people in cars as bikes you need almost twice as much space.
E-bikes could also change our cities and make them more enjoyable places to live. My wife rides one to work, parks it beneath the stairs in her office, and never has to sit in traffic. If she’s tired on the way home, she doesn’t need to labor up the hill, she can use the full assist. If it’s hot and she doesn’t want to arrive at work sweaty, she can use the assist to clip along at 21 mph without exerting herself and generating a nice cooling breeze without any of the harmful refrigerants your car uses to do the same.
4 E-Cargo Bikes We Love
So, now you want an e-bike? I’ve got some options for you. I spoke to Kerry Waldman, who runs the Cargo Bike Republic Facebook group, and he explained that the three basic categories are long tail, short tail and bakfiets. The first two are self explanatory, and the choice will come down to how much space you have to store the bike and what you need to haul.
Bakfiets, or barrow bikes, put the load in the front. They are very stable and allow you to see your cargo (or kids), but they are pretty bulky to store and virtually impossible to maneuver around stairs.
“I like long tails because they’re useful, ride like a normal bike, can travel easily, and there are many choices,” says Waldman. “Bakfiets are cool if you’re in an urban-ish area and you don’t travel much, but you need to be prepared for the volume of space they take up. The small guys are nice if you’re just running errands, don’t need to carry more than one kid and are limited on space.”
Of course, some people still want a truck simply because trucks are cool. To those people I say, tell me getting your groceries while popping a wheelie and never waiting in traffic isn’t cooler.
Yuba Electric Boda Boda
For a long tail bike, Waldman relies on his Yuba El Mundo day to day. It is compatible with normal bike parts and rides like a normal bike, but allows him to carry his daughter and groceries much further than a non electrified bike and is far more eco friendly and fun than a minivan. While Yuba no longer sells this particular bike, the Electric Boda Boda boasts similar features.
For those with limited space, Waldman suggests the excellent Tern HSD. Yes, it’s a folding e-cargo bike — with room for one kid or a family grocery haul — that can be stored vertically to take up minimal space.
Urban Arrow Family
When it comes to Bakfiets, Waldman loves the high-end Urban Arrow Family, straight out of (where else?) Amsterdam. This bike really is a minivan replacement complete with a Bosch motor, stepless gears, child seats and an optional raincover to keep your cargo warm and dry when you rely on a bike for transit all year round.
If you’re not looking to haul too much gear, the Priority Embark is a fantastic e- bike. The belt drive keeps your pants clean, the internal gear hub needs next to no maintenance, and the spec is comfortable and reliable.
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