Brattleboro-Based VBike Is 'Rebooting The Bike' With Electric Assistance

Aug 16, 2016

Far too often when we need to make a run to the store for groceries or other goods, we hop in the car or truck. But wouldn't be great to use your bike for a chore like that? If only your bike had the capacity to hold all those bags of stuff. In Brattleboro, there's an organization working to get more people on electric-assisted "cargobikes" to fill this need.

Dave Cohen, founder and director of VBike, spoke with Vermont Edition on Tuesday about cargobikes and what they can do for travelers.

"Cargobikes come in all shapes and sizes," Cohen explains. "The ones that we have are called 'longtail cargobikes.' We also have 'midtail cargobikes.' The first half of it looks like a mountain bike. The last half of it looks like it's been extended out, like somebody stretched out the bike."

That back area can be used for passengers, packages or even towing another bike, Cohen says. He also adds that these current cargobikes are a lot lighter than earlier models.

And while VBike does promote the cargobikes as useful for families with children, Cohen explains that the organization is focusing on more than just cargobikes.

"We're looking at all kinds of designs and technologies that will help families, households, seniors, commuters, people with special needs with adaptive technologies and designs," Cohen says.

One notable feature of the bikes is an electric assist element that provides additional power.

"It really turns out to be the ultimate hybrid between human power and electric power," Cohen says. "And so electric assist systems come in many different varieties, but most of them have different levels of assists that you can choose from."

A fleet of electric assist bikes, which vary in style. The black battery packs are can be seen on the middles and backs of different bikes - some were retrofitted as electric assist bikes, and some where built with that as the original intent, Cohen explained.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

The rider can control the levels of electric assist, but even with that feature, Cohen stresses that pedaling is still important.

"A number of these bikes won't operate at all unless you're pedaling," he says. "And the battery itself, you'll really lose a lot of the capacity and the life of the battery if you're not pedaling. So pedaling is absolutely essential I think for electric cargobikes and electric bikes in general."

In terms of cost, Cohen says that there's a range of price points for electric assist systems, beginning at around $500 and heading up to about $1,500 to $2,000. Cohen says the cost of cargobike can begin at about $1,000.

One option for people is a conversion kit, which Cohen explains allows a regular bike to be turned into one with electric assist capabilities.

"It transforms your bike into something completely different and your range or carrying capacity, hill-climbing ease – everything is radically transformed," Cohen says.

"It transforms your bike into something completely different and your range or carrying capacity, hill-climbing ease. Everything is radically transformed." — Dave Cohen, director of VBike

To get more Vermonters on these kind of bikes, VBike has a contract with Go! Vermont, a division of VTrans, to give consultations to individuals and to bike shops, Cohen explains. This is part of VBike's goal of "rebooting the bike" and updating how people in the state think about bicycling, Cohen says. Those consultations can help people determine what kind of bike would be the best fit for them.

"You know, maybe folks out there are not going to believe us, but there are people e-mailing us and calling us and pleading with us, 'We really want to get out of the car. We don't want to be driving our kids around anymore,'" Cohen says of the "car reduction therapy" that VBike does.

This longtail cargobike has had a cargo rack attached to the back. Other features of the bike, including the side running boards, the front basket and the electric assist controls on the handlebar, are also visible.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR

Consultations can happen over email or phone, but VBike also has a program that's currently just in the Brattleboro area called "Take It Home" which allows people to give these bikes a try for a few days.

"We're hoping to move that all around Vermont, but we have a fleet of bikes that folks can take out and for a period of like, three or four days — some people have taken out one for a week," Cohen says of the program. "Most of those people have actually turned around bought a bike from one of the shops in Brattleboro."

Cohen also credits the bike shops in the Brattleboro area for assisting the "bike revolution". He says that some organized rides in the area are in the works, to help promote the idea of making the switch.

"There are at least 75 electric assist bikes moving around Brattleboro, including the cargobikes," Cohen explains. "And next year, we're really looking at doubling that, maybe even passing the 200 mark."

Watch a quick video demonstration by Cohen of the electric assist feature on a cargobike: