Friday, September 23, 2016

Meet Ellen's Urban Arrow: a Cargo Superbike in Belfast

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

When I found myself in Belfast some time ago with an hour to spare, I used that hour wisely: I met for a coffee with local cycling celebrity and trans youth advocate Ellen Murray.

As I locked up my bike in St. Anne's Square, her arrival was tremendous. The sleek, black, shark-like contraption she pedaled appeared not so much to roll, as to slice through the stately, rather Viennese, backdrop of white neoclassical buildings. Pedestrians stopped in their tracks. A passing flock of birds hovered overhead. And I, mouth ajar, nearly dropped my U-lock on my foot, as my own bicycle made a meek neighing sound in the presence of this formidable giant.

"Your new Urban Arrow!" I said, trying to play it cool and hide my awe, "How do you like it?"

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

Unsurprisingly, she liked it very much indeed. Ellen's transport cycling history began with a roadbike, then progressed rapidly to a contemporary Batavus step-through, and a Pashley Postie. With each bike, she enjoyed sitting ever more upright, and appreciated being able to haul ever more stuff. It began to dawn on her, that perhaps what she really needed was a full-on Dutch style cargo bike.

One problem, however, was that Ellen's disability (when off the bike, she moved with the help of a cane at this time; she now uses a wheelchair) was making it difficult to put in as much daily milage as she wanted. And switching to an even larger and heavier bike probably wouldn't help matters. So she did some research. And then she researched some more. And she discovered the Urban Arrow.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

A comparative newcomer to the cargo bike scene, in many ways the Urban Arrow is a typical Dutch bakfiets (box bike). It's a step-through frame, with swept-back handlebars, dynamo lighting, chaincase, mudguards, internal gears, and an enormous front crate - which can be adapted to carry cargo or human passengers, including infants and children.

However there are several crucial features that make the Urban Arrow a bit different. First, it is made of relatively lightweight materials: the frame aluminium, the box a durable foam (expanded polypropylene). Second, it is designed to be zippy and maneuverable whilst retaining the tame, easy-to-master handling of a traditional bakfiets. Third, it is modular: The front end of the frame can separate from the rear, allowing to switch platforms (family, cargo, "shorty").  Finally, the bike is available - and, in fact, comes standard - with integrated e-assist.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

Adding e-assist to cargo bikes is not exactly a new practice. But the key word here is "integrated." The Urban Arrow was designed as an electric bike to begin with. As a result, it incorporates the assist in a manner that is streamlined, native-looking, and economical weight-wise.

There is no awkwardly attached battery taking up valuable real estate and adding bulk. The Bosch 400 Wh Powerpack sits in a special nook behind the cargo box, so stealthy it is nearly invisible. The motor integrates with the cranks and bottom bracket in a way that looks wholly organic. Both are low to the ground and compact, making minimal impact on the bicycle's look and balance.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

On the cockpit-end sits the e-assist control unit that monitors battery range and allows for different settings (turbo, sport, tour, eco), and the gear shifter for the NuVinci N360 hub.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

For those unfamiliar with the NuVinci system, it in itself is really something, and a treat to experience on what is already interesting machine. An internally geared hub, the NuVinci is unique in that it offers a continuously variable transmission. There are no individual gears as such. Instead, there is a wide (360%) range of continuous, "unlimited" gear ratios. You twist the shifter, in increments as tiny or as large as you like, and the gearing grows proportionally lower or higher. The animated icon on the shifter reacts by continuously steepening and flattening the landscape, thereby indicating where you are within the range.

Having dealt with fixed systems of gearing throughout my experience as a cyclist, NuVinci's smooth, continuous drivetrain felt exhilarating to try for the first time. And its integration with the Bosch e-assist felt seamless.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

Also seamless is the integration of the dynamo lighting (which runs off the battery), and, of course, other standard bakfiets accessories, including mudguards, chain guard, heavy-duty kickstand, and giant loud bell.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

The overall look of the Urban Arrow is really - to my eye, at least - incomparable to any other front loading cargo bike currently on the market, in terms of sleekness of presentation. And it's more than just the clean lines, the contemporary materials, and the almost architectural minimalism. There is an aggressive wooshness to it that communicates speed and excitement, reminding me, more than anything, of one of those raw-finish racing supercars.

It's an interesting choice of aesthetic for a cargo bike. And one that would almost have you forget that these things are designed for everyday family life. But perhaps the point Urban Arrow are making, is that family life, and sexy woosh-wooshness, need not be at odds with one another.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

The open-box design of the Family model is ideal for the transport of passengers, cargo, or a mix of the two. With benches, seatbelts, and easy options for both child and infant seat attachments, as well as optional rain cover attachment, it is a versatile system for up to 4 passengers, dependent on age. It is also, Urban Arrow claims, superior safety-wise, placing passengers "lower than other cargo bikes, as its center of gravity is closer to the ground... And the robust and shockproof foam (EPP) box gives extra protection."

Having experienced the Urban Arrow as a passenger, I did find myself seated deeper in the box than I recall from having tried this in several other bakfietsen. I can also report that it was cozy and fun.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

While Ellen does not use her bike as a family vehicle, she does have occasion to transport passengers now and again, usually adults, and describes this process as a relatively easy one - thanks to the bike's maneuverability and to the e-assist.

More frequently though, she uses the box to transport work supplies, and her wheelchair. The combination of the two machines - chair and bike - is in fact rather perfect for Ellen, helping her move about at speed throughout the day and get things done with the efficiency she likes.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

For those who'd want to use the Urban Arrow as purely a non-passenger work bike, the Cargo version comes with a lockable hardshell box designed for 150kg (330lb) of weight. And for those looking for a considerably more compact option, the Shorty features a two-level container that hauls a combined 73kg (160lb).

All versions of the bike are designed around a 26" rear wheel and 20" front wheel with Schwalbe Big Apple tyres, integrated Bosch e-assist, and NuVinci drivetrain, with a choice of hub or hydraulic disc brakes. The Family model is also available in a non-electric version. Optional accessories include rear racks, child seat adaptors, rain cover, luggage net, and more.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

Measuring 244cm in length, the Urban Arrow Family model is a large cargo bike - on par in size with other popular front-loaders, including the Bakfiets.nl (225cm), the Larry vs Harry Bullit (243cm), and the Workcycles KR8 (264cm).

However, weighing in at "only" 43kg (95lb) for the electric version, it is lighter than what most front-loaders of this size weigh without the e-assist. Which makes it easier not only to propel along the road, but to walk and lift over kerbs - something I noticed immediately when playing around with the bike in the city.

While I did briefly ride the Urban Arrow, it was for a very short time and in a limited context. My only impression worth reporting is that it rode "normally" from the start, rather than like the sort of front-loading cargo bike where the steering takes some practice to get used to. It's a bike that I would certainly love to get to know better.

Ellen's Urban Arrow in Belfast

With a current (European market) price tag of €2,150 for the unassisted, and €3,950 for the electric, machine, the cost of the Urban Arrow is on par with other cargo bikes in its class. Which is to say, quite high if you judge it by city bike standards. But more reasonable if you think of it as a family car replacement, which is how the manufacturers of this category of bike promote them.

In future I would love an opportunity to do a proper test ride of the sexy, fascinating machine that is the Urban Arrow. While the name suggests it is designed for cities, with the e-assist I do think it makes for a good candidate for hilly, windy rural areas as well, which is where I normally ride. Even more so, I am curious what the non-electric version would feel like, with that lovely NuVinci drive.

As far as Ellen's use case scenario, it is delightful that she and the electric Arrow have found one another. Thanks to the Urban Arrow, not only has there been improvement to Ellen's mobility, but, I daresay, to the streets of Belfast.

With thanks for allowing me to paw her bike, I invite you to check out Ellen's tumblr and ever-entertaining twitter feed, as I wish you a Happy Weekend! For a full picture-set: visit here.



34 comments:

  1. I think the E-assist is a good option for Cargo Bikes, but I am a little wary of those integrated systems that basically take the place of the normal bike Bottom Bracket, Etc. What happens when Bosch redesigns the current unit? Will the new one still fit? Meanwhile other E-bikes that simply use a regular bike with a conversion kit are still bikes when the motor burns out or the battery gives up! I'd rather not spend 4 grand on something that will be useless when the battery and/or motor gives up! - Mas

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    1. I'm no expert, but I think a DIY retrofit would be possible under those circumstance, as (for instance) follows: The burned-out motor could be removed to get rid of its weight. (Drag is not likely a factor; the linkage mechanism, whatever it is, probably freewheels when the motor is not running.) Then the front wheel could be rebuilt with a hub motor. Hub motors with brake disk mounts are available. If the new motor is not compatible with the old motor controller, that too could be replaced. A new throttle and pedal sensor might be needed, but I don't think these cost very much. As for the battery, the hub motor could be chosen for compatibility with the existing one. All this would cost a few hundred dollars, I guess. Not a cheap repair, but peanuts compared with replacing the motor and transmission of a car!

      Walter

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    2. Anonymous 11:45 AM raises a valid concern which can be understood in the same context as laptops versus typewriters or digital cameras vs film cameras. Today's business model is based on consumption, meaning to intentionally design the product to wear out so the manufacturer has a continual stream of customers.

      Background: our first ebike in 2011 was an Italian-designed, Chinese-made eBike. When the battery quit, they wanted as much for the battery as I paid for the bike.

      After that introduction and after educating myself at LovelyBike on what makes a good bicycle, I bought a 65-y/o Raleigh DL1. I fitted it with a mid drive motor kit slotted into the bottom bracket. The instructions were simple; took me about an hour: remove the BB, slip the motor in, hook it all up and it drives the chain when you start pedalling. The motor cuts out when the brakes are applied; the controller has power settings to vary the amount of assist. In the beginning I went full power, and then gradually began to lower the assist to find the sweet spot between exercise and pain.

      What a difference. The motor is silent and one does not realise it is assisting up the hills unless one taps the brake to cut power and see how much help it is giving. It gives me Lance Armstrong legs (he pedals at 400W, I pedal at 100W, the motor adds 300W to my legs). The motor flattens the hills, 10 kph up the hill, 19-25 along the flat without power assist. The upshot is that the power-assist DL1 ride is brilliant, to the point that we are down to one car.

      But I digress. To speak to the subject, when the motor wears out - and it will wear out much sooner than a car motor, I can replace it with another bottom bracket mid-mount motor. The Urban Arrow has a mid-mount. The only difference is that the Bosche requires a special mounting bracket, whereas the bottom-bracket mount of my motor fits on a wide range of bikes, including my 65-year-old DL1.

      While Anonymous 7:01 PM talks about replacing with a hub motor, that's not a great solution. Mid mount motors that drive the chain are far superior to hub motors that do not. The motors are quiet, the controllers built in, but most importantly they work with the gears, whereas a hub motor does not.

      Given the price difference of €1,800, I suggest the best solution is to buy the non-electrified model and buy a midmount motor from http://em3ev.com/ * with local support in Ireland. The motor and battery kit cost about US$500 plus shipping and duty.

      When the motor wears out, replace it with the next generation of motor. Ditto the battery. The technology is improving as fast as in the digital camera world.

      Finally, a comment. Except for her one ebike ride in the Glenveagh National Park, Velouria has made it clear that she is disinterested in ebikes. I am grateful for the huge service she has done in passing along her learning to others in the tradition of Sheldon Brown. It also has been wonderful to follow her evolution from a street rider in Boston to a serious cyclist pressing herself to new challenges.

      But Velouria's story on an electric assist cargo bike is actually about a new form of transport. From a performance or utility perspective, eBikes are not bicycles. They perform differently. They go up hills painlessly. They overcome the wind. They enable non-cyclists to take medium-distance trips for a few pennies, and they will offer cities a way to make their roads bigger by reducing the footprint of their citizens. eBikes are redefining transport and in doing so enabling hilly places (like Switzerland) to take to bikes the way flat cities have done for decades. Ebikes are still in their early days and we can expect to see a lot more innovation. Good story, thanks!

      ------------

      *I have no relationship with em3ev.com except as a paying customer. Paul is an Englishman in China with one of the best reputations in the business. The alternative is to find a local shop that carries retrofit motor kits noting that there is a lot more competition now than three years ago.

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    3. Starting with the nonmotorized version and adding a bb motor: brilliant. Cheaper and you can choose the power level, in addition to solving mas's obsolescence issue. I learned lately that you can build your own battery packs from loose li-ion cells. You need a spot welder, but they say it pays for itself on the first build. So that would be way to deal with the worry about obsolete battery specs. A world of tinkering opportunities for bikey types, this ebike thing. Someday I might have the budget.

      Ellen Murray is brilliant too. Please look at her Tumblr! Nonconformism born of need, there's nothing nobler. I want my disabled son to be like her.

      Walter

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    4. Bosch is a BIG company, and I think it will stand behind its products for a few years to come. It already has several models on the market, some of which have different bottom bracket requirements. I just wish I could afford to replace my hub motor e-bike (with 7000kms on the clock) with an integrated Bosch motor e-bike!

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    5. Thank you for sharing your experience, Slow Cycles!

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  2. Although I don't have a use for one myself, I find these machines – or tools? – cargo bikes, fascinating, both as an idea and the engineering solutions that are employed in them. The most common use for them round here seems to be transporting children; earlier today I saw a Bakfiets ridden by a woman who takes two toddlers to playschool (with electric front hub, I think) and there used to be a bloke who transported his two children to my son's primary school in an un-assisted Christiania trike (he later added a motor, I think).

    One question that occurs to me is where do people store these cycles in an urban context of flats and terraced houses? They're rather expensive to leave outside, it seems to me. Of course, people leave cars worth far more out on the street without a thought; probably the manufacturers of cargo bikes should pay some attention to inbuilt security similar to motor vehicles.

    In addition, having found her website, I have to say that Ellen Murray is also a fascinating character.

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    1. I have trouble storing ordinary bikes at home, never mind cargo bikes. I have always wondered where people keep their bikes, especially those with multiple bikes or cargo bikes. Do they all have garages? We don't and our garden is small and done up in such a way that there is no shed. I have my sporty bike hidden away in a cupboard under the stairs, my Pashley lives in the dining room, my husband's Brompton tucks itself away neatly in the living room and the kids' bikes are outside in the side return. Only the Brompton's abode is secure ... The sporty bike lives with our wifi system, gardening tools and lots of shoes and it is a pain to drag in and out every time. The children's bikes get rained on and are not secure, which has been OK for now but my eldest is 12 and about to get an adult sized, 'nice' bike. Where are we going to put it??? We can't have two bikes in the dining room, can we? ��

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    2. Hi there, I'm the owner of the Urban Arrow in this article! I've parked mine on the street since I've got it now - it's D-locked to a strong railway fence, and it's been absolutely grand in central Belfast.

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    3. Although (and some people might chuckle at this) I would describe Belfast as an unusually safe city, most bakfiets owners I know, regardless of locale, do simply leave them on the street, usually locked with a motorcycle-style chain. Theft of these massive bikes is comparatively rare. They were not designed to be dragged indoors.

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    4. Stephanie, really. It sounds like you have about 5 or 6 bicycles and an apartment or house large enough to accommodate 2 adults and more than one child. You should easily be able to store that many bikes PER PERSON! I hear people complaining about this all the time but when you ask a few questions you quickly discover they aren't even TRYING.

      First, you probably have enough floor space for another half dozen being wasted on things like desks and chairs that people only use for an hour or two a day, and shelves for books that might only get read once in a lifetime. They should probably go, the bikes will be there ALL THE TIME till you're dead making much more efficient use of the space.

      The same goes for things like kitchen tables. Eat your meals over the sink or together as a family on the stoop. Voila! Room for that Urban Arrow where the table and those silly cafe chairs used to be. What about walls and ceilings? Screw-in bike hooks can be bought cheaply in quantities of 50 and if you stagger them so you can hang your bikes alternately wheels up/bars up you'll be amazed what you can pack in.

      Once you get the hang of it you'll delight in finding new and creative ways to sneak in another bargain from the Good-Will Store. Soon you'll be keeping your eyes peeled for unicycles and children's sidewalk bikes to fill in those odd little spaces too small to store the Polish folding bike with the broken hinge.

      It may sound too good to be true but I bet that if you put your mind to it you could pack several HUNDRED bicycles where you now have only a few.

      It makes a house a home.

      Spindizzy

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    5. Although I've never been there, I find it very easy to believe that Belfast is a safe city in terms of theft. And that cargo bikes, being so specialist, are probably less at risk – at least of theft, I don't know about vandalism – out on the street overnight than a more "normal" bike, of which zillions are left on the street here.

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  3. Wow, some of the scenes really do look like Vienna! If it weren't for Belfast in the title I would have thought you were back there for a visit. Any similarities?

    Oh and the ladies in the last photo are hilarious. It must be a cool bike to get that reaction!

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    1. Yes, that last photo is priceless :)

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    2. Aside from both being European cities with rivers running through them, I'd say Vienna and Belfast have few similarities. St. Anne's Square does have an uncannily Viennese feel to it, but it's a tiny and unique nook, not characteristic of the rest of the city.

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  4. She's rides a cargo bike. She's a trans advocate. And she loves cats. She sounds like someone after my own heart!

    And I agree with 8:16--I could have thought she and you were in Vienna.

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  5. I live in a mid-terrace and my bakfiets (a Workcycles KR8) lives in the back yard. Getting it in and out is a bit of a faff, but I'm not too worried about security - any thief is going to have to break the locks and then drag it through two more back yards and the access alley. The box rain cover lives on it for most of the year so the contents stay pretty dry; it possibly picks up slightly more surface rust this way but then it's a working bike. It just fits in our front yard (you need to lift the back and swing it round), and I park it up there during the day if I'm going to need it again, but I'd want to fit a wall or ground anchor if I were storing it there on a permanent basis, and it would make getting the bins in and out a bit of a pain. I gather from the Workcycles blog that in Amsterdam people just chain them up to lampposts or cycle racks with a great big chain.

    How are the brakes on the Urban Arrow? Having moved from pan-flat Cambridge to a hillier location I'd like it if the KR8's roller brakes were a bit more powerful; on the days when I'm slogging uphill into a headwind with toddlers and shopping on board e-assist would be nice, but I suppose it keeps me fit! FWIW the weight doesn't seem that light - from memory Henry quotes the weight of a KR8 at 30-35 kilos, which seems reasonable.

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    1. I didn't ride the UA enough to comment on its downhill stopping power. But in theory, you can't get much stoppier than hydraulic discs.

      Will have to double check the weights quoted by other manufacturers, and what configurations are included in those figures.

      How do you like the KR8 experience in general, hills aside? Assuming you've tried bakfiets.nl, are there noticeable differences?

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    2. I've only ridden a Van Andel (bakfiets.nl) briefly, and a while before I got my KR8, but I don't recall there being huge handling differences. I love my KR8 - at over two and a half metres long it's obviously fairly stately, but it rolls smoothly along like a limousine, and is wonderfully comfy. The steering took me about 30 seconds to get used to, and since then it's been second nature - the only thing it won't let me do is ride no-hands, which is probably for the best! I don't own a car, so it gets used for everything from the nursery run to shopping to trips to IKEA. When really heavily loaded (80+ kg in the box) you start to get some frame flex, but it doesn't affect the handling. I do a reasonably hilly 25-mile round trip with my toddlers fairly regularly and it's fine; when the rear sprocket wears I'll probably drop the gearing as a lower bottom would sometimes be welcome, and I don't really need to be able to push 30 mph downhill in top...

      The only niggles I've had have been really minor; the rubber feet on the (excellent) stand wore out fairly quickly and I haven't bothered to replace them; the powdercoat's lifted in one or two places and there's some surface rust (I really should scrape it back and stick some primer on); I need to put some threadlocker on the bolts that hold the plywood box panels onto the frame (and I had to threadlock the bolts that hold the chain tugs in place after losing one twice).

      They're not cheap, but after two years and a couple of thousand miles it's probably cost me £20 or so in parts (couple of stainless bolts, some rollerbrake grease, some chain lube... that’s it.) If you live somewhere suitably cycle-friendly (or even not - after all, I live in the West Midlands!) I can unreservedly recommend one as a car replacement for daily use.

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    3. Wow. A "reasonably hilly 25-mile round trip with toddlers," without e-assist, sounds very promising. Glad to know you are getting so much use out of the Kr8. I am really looking forward to trying it some day.

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  6. How very true, Just home from Vienna and the streets and squares are very like those photos.
    Not many cargo bikes in evidence but otherwise a vibrant cycle city. The view of the city from Kahlenberg hill on my first evening there was unforgetable.Plenty of mountain bikers about too.

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    1. "Not many cargo bikes in evidence..."

      You've been hanging about the wrong neighbourhoods, sir!

      There is even a cargo bike specialty shop in Margareten (5th district), selling pretty much every brand imaginable.

      See also:
      Bakfiets & Christiania Test Rides, in Vienna
      MSC Truck Test Ride in Vienna

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    2. I did see a few , but there was so much to see and do that I may have been somewhat distracted at times. Public transport network is excellent, my weekly ticket €16.20 was great value, and the beer and coffee occupied a lot of my attention.

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  7. What a beautiful backdrop. While I do love the surreal greenery of Ireland, I miss your urban photography and enjoy seeing it here again.

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  8. I'm still in two minds about e-bikes. Of course, in this case of a 40+kilo bike, without an engine, it wouldn't be on the streets.

    However, it must be possible to build lighter cargo bikes than this, no? I mean, 40 kilos for a bike made "from lightweight materials"? Somehow this bike is just the opposite of the basic concept of a bike as a light, easily manoeuvrable, fast machine.

    My ideal still is the Frances Smallhaul reviewed in Bicycle Quarterly a few years back: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmuirfromsc/sets/72157638558329206/
    About 17or 18 kilos, if memory serves me right. No need for an engine on that.

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    1. If you were to look at the blog of this bike's owner (do!), you would see that she's physically disabled. Bikes don't need motors, but some cyclists do (and not only physically disabled ones). And although the Frances Small Haul is an exceptionally cool bike, its job is not the same as a bakfiets'. You couldn't carry two kids and a weeks' worth of groceries with it.

      Walter

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    2. I wasn't commenting on the rider (yes, I can read...) but on the bike.

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    3. You cannot evaluate a bike without reference to what its rider needs and wants. My point was that it didn't make sense, under the circumstances, to criticize this bike for being heavy and motorized. Never meant to denigrate your literacy! From that perspective, your comment was perfectly correct.

      W.

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  9. To me, the very best thing about this is the mention of Ellen's disability. It plays such a small role in the review. But it is remarkable that a woman who gets about with a wheelchair can cut such a wide swath as she moves about through the city. It is a perfect marriage of a need and a technological answer.

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    1. Ellen also likes trains. Add that to the mix and she's EVERYWHERE!

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  10. Great to see you testing the Urban Arrow - we have a fleet of 8 of them making 1000s of deliveries every month across Brighton and Hove on the South coast of England. After 1000s of kms of use, we have learnt what goes wrong but for the most part they are durable and well designed vehicles and provide a dependable fleet for our delivery business. You can find out more about us at www.rechargecargo.co.uk

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  11. I live in Portland, Oregon and have owned an Urban Arrow for 2 years now and love it! My 3 year old son loves riding in it and hauling cargo has been a breeze. I'm an all weather daily commuter and rotate between the Urban Arrow, a road bike and an upright mixte. The bike was not cheap but it is cheaper than an electric car and I have not encountered any mechanical issues so far. Test ride one at Clever Cycles in Portland if you get a chance. So much fun!

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