of people that I approached liked the idea, but few were willing to actually get their hands dirty. We started off with a lot of classes and reaching out into the community. It’s been slow, but momentum has really been building, lately. Right now we have about 250 members, and that’s about half of what we need to really be sustainable—you know, to be able to pay the rent and utilities, keep the lights on, etc.” (Membership costs $100 per year, with full access to the shop and tools as well as discounts on service rates, parts, and accessories.)
“We have three staff members including myself. Staffing is funded through selling bikes on consignment, parts, services, as well as through the sale of new cargo bikes. In fact, we’re the #1 Xtracycle dealer in the country for a bike shop that doesn’t do internet sales. We’re the #3 Yuba dealer in the country with only Joe Bike in Portland, OR, and Mike’s Bikes with more than a dozen locations here in the San Francisco Bay Area selling more than us. We’re pretty proud of that. This year we sold about 75 cargo bikes, and while that may not seem like a very big number, it’s a huge number for a single shop that primarily serves the local community.”
I asked about whom The Bicycle Works actually serves. After all, Marin County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. For example, the median house price in Marin is nearly $841,000 for owner-occupied properties. Did the community really need a community bicycle program? Jelani looked at me for a moment with what I imagined to be a note of disappointment on his face for asking this question. “Families are our mainstay. A lot of them have kids—based on the demographics of this area—there are a lot of kids in Marin. Most people wouldn’t think of starting a non-profit bike cooperative in an area like this—this is more common in college towns, or in areas with low-income or underserved populations. The economic spectrum is skewed up in this area.” And then Jelani’s whole demeanor changed. “But there are people who are in need here in Marin. Part of our mission is to serve all of these groups—those in need, those with families, immigrants, those who do not have money as well as those who do have money. We even had Robin Williams hanging out… I think it’s important to have a space where we can have a large cross-section of people. That’s why we have bikes that we can give away for free, or bikes in the $1000-$5000 range for some of the purpose-built bikes.”
At this point, as if on cue, the phone rings, and Jelani becomes engaged with a person who is asking about how to get a free bike. Settling back in, the conversation turns to the electric cargo bike rental program.
The Long Haul
“We are starting a rental program as we’ve been pushing the electric and cargo bikes. We let people ride them every day. If someone wants to borrow one for a day, or even a week, it’s a lot harder for us as we have a limited number of them here. We had been brewing up how to get people on the purpose built bikes from the very beginning. Then one day Michael Bock showed up and left a couple of electric bikes here. Michael has been a big driving force in getting us up to speed.”
“Michael is a local guy—a master woodworker by trade and not an engineer. He basically did five years of research on his own, buying every system he could find, running it into the ground, seeing if he could destroy it, and finally came up with things that worked. He’s transferred those skills and a dedication to the environment—and the connections that he’s made—he’s opened up his connections to us. He’s a co-conspirator of sorts along with Justin Lemire-Elmore from Grin Tech in Vancouver, BC. Justin has done a tremendous amount of work in the open source DIY world of electric bikes. He’s the mastermind engineer behind most of what we’re using here. Of course, most of this stuff is sourced from China, but after getting a degree in engineering he started taking them all apart, rewiring them, reengineering them, and then sending the specs back to the manufacturers who are making them. He developed the Cycle Analyst, that’s a key element for any enthusiast, it shows what’s going on with your battery, how many amps are you drawing, what kind of Wattage are you using, how many cycles do you have on your system and so forth. Justin has been working with Michael Bock and Xtracycle to develop the EdgeRunner, an electrified Xtracycle, and we have one of the first ones here. We’re near the epicenter of a lot of this phenomenal work.”
I’ll admit that I’m a gadget and electronics geek; all of the technical stuff is cool, but at the end of the day how will all of this come together as a rental program? Do you think that there is really a market for electric cargo bike rentals? “There aren’t a whole lot of folks that can drop several thousand dollars to get one of these bikes, but there are lots of people who could drop $40 a day or $200 a week to rent and try one of these bikes out. You know, try it for a week and see what it’s like. They’re probably already interested in cargo bikes but they don’t know yet how they will fit in their day-to-day lives. Renting one of these bikes and taking it out for more than just a few hours will give them a taste of what it is really like. This is less of a standard bike rental program in the traditional sense where people rent bikes for a few hours after going on a scenic ride, but more of an extended loaner program so that people can really try the bikes.”
“Here’s how it works: if you’re part of the general public then the rental is $40 a day; for The Bicycle Works members, it’s only $20 a day. If you want to rent for a week then it is $200 for the general public but only $100 for members. As membership in The Bicycle Works is only $100 for a year, we think that we may also be able to increase our membership as the discounts on electric cargo bike rentals may be an incentive that will help more people to join the cooperative.”
“The bikes that we chose for the rental bikes are Juiced Riders. They are a low barrier bike, the idea being that the design contributes to these barriers, so it’s a step-through frame, comfortable riding position, a very powerful motor, long range 48-volt battery pack, with 20-inch wheels, lots of torque and climbing power, three speed with grip shifts and a single cruise control button. It has a longtail cargo rack. It’s a bike that you can use for a lot of different activities. We think they’re a lot less intimidating than the front-loading cargo bikes and make a nice entry point as a rental. And if the Juiced Rider isn’t right for the customer, we have lot of other options that they can choose from with the other bikes here.”
Parked outside of The Bicycle Works was an incredible hand-made cargo bike that was clearly still in the process of being finished; marker pen and measurements were still on the tubing, the braze-ons looked fresh. Jelani was chatting next to this bike with one of the folks that had been instrumental in providing some seed funding for the first round of rental cargo bikes through a local foundation; he told me to go inside and meet Cameron Falconer, who was making the bike.
As it turns out, Cameron is the guy that made Jeliani’s “daily driver” cargo bike, and he had come to the shop to chat with Jelani and show him his latest project. Cameron encouraged me to take his bike for a test ride, and I did. Soon after, Paul, one of the employees was taking it for a spin. The enthusiasm for these bikes is contagious at The Bicycle Works. Without too much trouble, I could easily see myself using a cargo bike for most of my errands and shopping.
Jelani had some final thoughts on this very notion. “I moved my house using a Worksmans front-loading cargo trike not too long ago. I try, as a spectacle, to put lots of things on my bike. Just the other day I put a 250 lb oak desk on it and rode that here. I’ve moved a refrigerator, a couch, even a Hammond organ. For events that we attend I bring the entire booth on the cargo bike. It’s not always practical at times—sometimes it would be easier just to throw the thing in a truck, but I want people to think about what they can do with a bike.”
People are doing more than just thinking about it at The Bicycle Works. They’re in it for the long haul.