Setting Up Your Bicycle as a Car Replacement
It makes little sense to drive everywhere in a two ton metal box on wheels
Driving absolutely everywhere in a two ton metal box on wheels is fundamentally wasteful and irrational.
The rational way to think about automobiles is that they serve very useful purposes when one needs to accomplish very specialized tasks. If you need to transport a cord of wood from the forest to your home, you probably need to use a full size pickup truck. If you are building a concrete patio and need to haul sacks of concrete mix from Home Depot, maybe you need to rent a small truck. Long road trip to a remote beach to go camping? A car is probably the way to go.
There are plenty of other examples, but I would argue that cases where you actually need to use an automobile are quite specialized. Most people use cars for all kinds of things that could be better accomplished on foot, on a bicycle, or using public transportation.
If one accepts the idea that the automobile is a tool best used for specialized and rare tasks, the irony of how most people view bicycles becomes quite apparent. Most people view bicycles as the specialized tool and the automobile as the general purpose tool, not the other way around. In fact, a bicycle is a very useful tool for getting around most of the time – it is a general purpose tool, not something to bring out only on a sunny weekend. However, in order to get the most utility out of a bicycle, it is necessary to spend some money up front to make sure that it secure and has the carrying capacity to meet your daily needs.
If you consider your daily routine, you might realize that you need to carry your laptop and other materials to work, you’ll need some carrying capacity for groceries, maybe you will need a child seat, and so on. In my case, a typical trip might be to a local cafe or to the grocery store. About once a month, I usually go to Wal-Mart to stock up on household supplies. Almost everything is within a five mile radius of my home.
I have owned a Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike for over twenty years which I purchased new for around $700, a substantial amount of money for a bicycle at the time. It was a fairly high end model that I actually used for mountain biking for many years but it has long since been surpassed technically by more sophisticated mountain bikes. Nevertheless, it remains in good condition and completely functional. It also has very simple parts that I have no problem maintaining myself. For the past decade, the bike has had very little use.
When I moved to a new city in May, I had to adjust to new ways of getting around. I have been car free since 2014, but in my old city I relied on getting around by foot or on the extensive subway system. I lived in a high rise and stored my bicycle in an out-of-the-way storage room. I used it recreationally a few times a year, at the most.
My new city has a bus system and limited streetcar service but there is no extensive subway system. Although I can walk to a Whole Foods easily from my apartment, I find the prices ridiculous even after Amazon cut a few items after acquiring Whole Foods earlier this year. The regular grocery store is about a mile away and requires walking through some neighborhoods that don’t seem all that great. I prefer biking through those areas rather than walking. I used to go to coffee shops (where I often do some reading or work on my laptop) primarily by subway and now prefer to use my bike most of the time. I can store my bike securely inside my first floor apartment which makes it easily accessible.
Securing the Bicycle
Although I feel quite safe in my new neighborhood, crime statistics suggest that I should be worried about theft. For the limited recreational use of my bike in my old city, I had a cheap lock that I purchased at a CVS for $10. Any competent criminal would laugh at that lock and defeat it in seconds. Clearly, I needed a new way of securing the bike.
In general, you have a choice between securing your bike with a cable lock or a U-lock. A cable lock can easily be cut using bolt cutters and isn’t really a good option in urban environments with any significant level of crime. A U-lock is harder to defeat but there are a large number of models at various price points to choose from. Although my bike is not very valuable, losing it would be a huge hassle for me and I wanted to seriously deter criminals. After doing a lot of research on U-Locks, I decided to opt for a Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit Lock which, as the name implies, is intended to deter serious criminals. This lock is expensive and very heavy at over four pounds but looks bombproof and is visually distinct from lesser locks and (hopefully) looks intimidating.
Anyone who has seen bikes locked securely from the frame to an immovable object but missing wheels and saddles knows that thieves are willing to rip off anything that is attached to the frame. I have “quick release” hubs for both the front and rear wheel which is great for easily removing a wheel to change an inner tube or to perform other service but is also an invitation for a criminal to steal the wheel. My saddle is also secured with a quick release. When I go to the local grocery store and will be in and out in a few minutes, I sometimes take a risk and just use the U-Lock. However, if I’m going to spend any time in a cafe or if I’m going to Wal-Mart, I also use a Kryptonite KryptoFlex Cable to secure the wheels. I loop the end of one cable through the rear wheel, then loop the other end through the first loop, secure the front wheel, and finally loop the cable through the U-Lock.
I have no illusions that my bike is perfectly safe, but I try to secure it to very immobile objects such as lamp posts or stop signs and I am hoping that the U-Lock is intimidating enough to make a thief think, “This isn’t a very valuable bike and it would take a long time to defeat the lock so I’m going to move on to something easier.”
Carrying Items on the Bicycle
Some people are satisfied with carrying what they need in a backpack but this gets very old and very tiring quickly, especially in the summer heat. A backpack is not a great way to carry anything on a bicycle and fortunately there are much better ways to secure many things to a bike. For those who use a bike both for recreational purposes as well as getting around town, it is important to come up with a strategy that doesn’t encumber the bike with permanently attached accessories that would weigh down recreational rides.
For those who have very limited needs, a front basket might be sufficient but most of these baskets can only carry small and relatively lightweight items without making the bike handle poorly. Also, having a front basket on a mountain bike that might occasionally still go off-road would make very little sense. I clearly preferred the idea of carrying items on the back of the bike and doing so requires buying a cargo rack. Although a rack is permanently fixed to the bike, a good one should not add too much weight or be noticeable when riding recreationally.
One of the key goals of setting up my bike was to keep things very simple and easy to use. The idea of spending a lot of time securing things to my bike was unappealing and would make me less likely to use the bike. I decided to look for a high quality cargo rack that would support “quick release” accessories such as panniers. Many lower end racks do not support “quick release” products. In such cases, straps and bungees are used to secure things to the rack. I wanted no part of using straps and bungee cords on a daily basis so I decided to purchase the Ibera Cargo Rack which supports a variety of Ibera quick-release accessories. At around $25, the rack wasn’t particularly expensive and it was very easy to install in about ten minutes. It is rated to support up to 55 pounds which seemed adequate for my needs.
When I first purchased the cargo rack, I started looking at all kinds of Ibera accessories that I could attach to the rack using the quick-release feature. However, I wanted to start slowly and experiment with one of their products before purchasing all of the gear that I would eventually require. I decided to outfit the bike to make quick trips to my local grocery store as well as trips to a coffee shop about three miles from my apartment. A cargo trunk appeared to be the perfect first accessory to purchase for my new cargo rack.
A cargo trunk rides directly on top of a cargo rack. Most trunks on the market appear to be intended for commuting and have a large inner compartment with several side pockets. What I really wanted to do was to be able to go to the grocery store and load up a basket with perishable items and then bike home. This was during the height of summer with typical ambient temperatures in the 90s. I decided to go with the Ibera Insulated Cooler Trunk Bag. This product has proven to be perfect to carry a limited amount of groceries. It contains an inner insulated compartment that has a zipper enclosure. This compartment can be removed from the trunk to create more capacity and to clean, if necessary.
How much can you really carry in this trunk? I’ve been able to carry about five days of groceries for one person in this bag without any difficulty. Sometimes, I have strapped an additional bag with a light item (like a loaf of bread) on top of the cooler and this has proven secure and reliable. I walk through the grocery store with this bag and items are placed directly into it at checkout which eliminates the need for paper or plastic disposable bags. At slightly under $50, this isn’t a cheap bag by any means but it is reliable, clips on in seconds, and seems durable after several months of use. I’ve also been able to carry a number of books, my iPad, and other items when I go to a coffee shop. However, the bag is not large enough to accommodate my 15 inch laptop which I continued to carry in a backpack.
A few months ago, I borrowed a car to make a large Wal-Mart run and purchased enough household supplies and non-perishable food for several months. But this was just a stopgap step that I took knowing that I would not have regular access to a car and that my bike was not yet set up for larger loads. I could continue borrowing a car but living the car-free lifestyle implies that regular tasks should be done without a vehicle. In order to carry larger loads, I needed to consider buying a pannier.
Panniers ride on each side of a cargo rack and, ideally, do not prevent the use of a cargo trunk. Since I’ve been satisfied with the Ibera trunk bag, I decided to purchase a set of Ibera quick-release panniers. These panniers cost about $80 and have a very large capacity on each side with a secure quick-release attachment system. Each pannier has a rigid back, side, and bottom making it easy to fill up the bag with various items. At Wal-Mart earlier today, I was able to place a large container of oatmeal, two jars of pasta sauce, two jars of salsa, four cans of beans, and several other items into just one of the two panniers. The panniers and the rack appeared more than capable of handling whatever I threw at it.
Each of the panniers can also accommodate my 15 inch laptop, although I have yet to use the panniers for this purpose. Some care needs to be taken to ensure that a laptop is not damaged by bouncing around the pannier. I plan to put the laptop in a sleeve, then in a small backpack, and finally in the pannier. Hopefully this will protect my laptop and eliminate the need to use my backpack. In terms of durability, both the bag material and the quick release mechanism seems robust but only time will tell how well the bags hold up. They seemed to carry well on the bike with no excessive movement when loaded or unloaded.
There are many types of specialized panniers on the market. For example, you can purchase the Banjo Brothers Grocery Pannier or the Bushwacker Omaha Pannier, both of which are sized to perfectly fit a paper grocery bag. For someone who is only going to use the pannier for grocery store runs, this could work very well. Alternatively, one can purchase a simple metal rack such as the Wald 535 Rear Carrier Basket. The advantage of the basket option is that it doesn’t have to be removed from the bike like panniers because criminals are unlikely to be interested in it. Panniers have to be removed and carried into stores. However, I would hate to have a metal rack attached to my bike at times when I don’t need the capacity. The Ibera panniers did not cost much more than these less desirable options and should provide more utility in the long run.
Riding With Heavy Loads
Some people might object to riding a bike under heavy load but this has never been a problem for me. Thinking back three decades to my days as a newspaper carrier, the main thing to remember is that it takes longer to stop and it is a good idea to keep your momentum while moving, as long as this can be done safely. I probably had 50 pounds in my trunk bag and panniers today at Wal-Mart (see the picture at the start of this article) and the bike did not handle poorly or feel unsafe. It was also not hard to get moving when using a low gear and I just rode home relatively slowly.
Did I buy absolutely everything that I would put in my shopping cart if I had a car in the parking lot outside? No, I did not, but mainly because this was my first run to Wal-Mart using my new system. I also obviously kept an eye on the total volume in my cart to ensure that it would fit into the panniers and the trunk. It would have been ideal to load these items into the bags while shopping but that would probably have looked like shop lifting to security personnel. As it was, security asked me about the bags at the bottom of my cart as I was leaving the store. So I just kept an eye on total volume and then packed up the panniers and the trunk bag in the parking lot.
Although the roads are bumpy around here, the dozen eggs in my trunk bag and the light bulbs I purchased survived the trip home perfectly intact. One good tip is to by frozen vegetables (corn is ideal) and put that at the bottom of the trunk bag. It serves as a substitute for ice and keeps everything in the bag very cold. Surround the eggs with something soft that you’re buying anyway, like tortillas or bread. Some common sense goes a long way to ensuring a successful shopping trip.
For my particular needs, a bicycle, walking, and occasional bus and streetcar use is perfectly adequate. In fact, owning a car would be a hassle in terms of parking and maintenance and the DMV around here is a nightmare when it comes to registration. The city also requires periodic “safety inspections”, no doubt for the benefit of politically connected local mechanics. Insurance rates are sky high compared to my old city due to higher catastrophe and theft risks. I have rarely felt like I would prefer using a car and have found Uber to be a good solution for those rare occasions. If I really needed to use a car, I could borrow one or rent a car at one of various locations in the downtown area about four miles away.
There are obviously people who either want to own a car for recreational purposes or are convinced that they need to own a car for daily use. There’s nothing wrong with owning a car but I would say that for most people, it is a luxury item best suited for specialized uses, not a necessity needed for daily life.
I have considered the merits of an electric bike, like one of the attractive models made by Juiced Bikes, but I live in a flat city and I’m in very good shape. My 20 year old bike is fine. But one of the electric cargo bikes offered by Juiced or other manufacturers might be a great option for people who have more intense needs such as safely transporting children or heavy loads. If you’re not in great shape and feel like a car is a necessity, consider an e-bike as a compromise. In most cases, insurance and registration are not required. I don’t need an e-bike, but I’m tempted. If I end up moving to an e-bike, I will review it on this site.