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“But tradespeople can’t carry their stuff around by bike” – oh yes they can! How cargo bikes are changing the way people work

From electricians to plumbers and gardeners, more and more people are using pedal power for work

One of the more common objections you will hear about efforts to promote active travel or restrict motor traffic, whether through the implementation of low traffic neighbourhoods, or congestion charging schemes or those based on vehicle emissions, is the impact they might have on tradespeople who rely on their vans to get to their jobs, and who cannot be expected to do so by bicycle.

But increasingly, electricians, plumbers, gardeners and others, as well as major businesses are taking to two (or sometimes three or four) wheels to carry out their work, and as this image posted to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter by Richmond Cycling Campaign makes clear, you can shift a lot more by bike than many people might imagine.

Ferrying big loads around by bike – something we are big fans of here at road.cc, and which was featured in a blog post by the author of this article earlier today – is becoming an increasingly common way for companies to get goods around our cities, often using specialist companies such as Pedal Me, which has even used its cargo bikes to perform office moves such as for Fusion Media, owned and run by Adam Tranter, the active travel commissioner for the West Midlands.

As part of its Transport Decarbonisation Plan published in 2021 under then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK Government encouraged the use of electric cargo bikes for last mile deliveries, and from florists to online grocers, many businesses are increasingly turning to them as a way of quickly getting purchases to customers in our congested cities.

It’s anyone’s guess where that sits on Rishi Sunak’s list of priorities, although given the cuts made to the active travel budget since he entered Number 10 and his public support for drivers and backtracking on policies aimed at fighting climate change, it seems a safe bet that it will have fallen well down the agenda.

In cities including London, however, it’s a different story. In March this year, Transport for London (TfL) published its Cargo Bike Action Plan, in which its says: “Cargo bikes are an affordable, safe, clean and efficient alternative to vans and other light goods vehicles in London.”

It says that the plan “was developed to promote and enable further growth of cargo bikes to make them a leading option for last-mile freight and servicing trips. It is aimed at organisations involved in delivery and servicing who use or are considering using cargo bikes for business applications, as well as boroughs and other authorities who can facilitate sustainable cargo bike growth.

“Cargo bikes support the Mayor’s ambition for London to reach net zero carbon by 2030 and contribute to the wider ambitions of having healthier, safer streets as set out in the Mayor’s Transport Strategy,” TfL adds.

“The plan also supports our Freight and servicing action plan that sets out the actions we can take to support the safe, clean and efficient freight operations that are fundamental to achieving the Mayor’s vision as a city which is better to live and work in for all Londoners.”

Within London, the Cargo Revolution campaign has signed up a number of boroughs to its charter, and says that those councils signing up to it “are making a commitment to becoming cargo bike friendly boroughs, where everyone who wants to use a cargo bike is supported.

“We’ve worked with businesses, researchers, councillors and other stakeholders to identify five key areas where cargo bike accessibility in boroughs can be improved.”

Those areas are:

Improving internal logistics
Supporting businesses making the switch
Improving infrastructure for businesses and individuals
Making communications cargo-bike friendly
Making it easier for residents to switch to cargo bikes.

The nine councils signed up to the initiative so far – Brent, Camden, City of Westminster, Ealing, Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham, Lambeth, Southwark and Waltham Forest – are all controlled by Labour, and include several of the city’s most forward-thinking boroughs when it comes to active travel.

On its website Cargo Revolution, which was launched by Glimpse with MP Smarter Travel and Clean Cities Campaign, and is funded by Impact on Urban Health, says: “Toxic air and heavy traffic is a nightmare.

“Enter cargo bikes: clean, green and fast two wheelers that can deliver a transport revolution for London. These dream machines can clean up our air, cut carbon pollution and shift impressive amounts of stuff all at the same time.

“Cargo Revolution is a campaign to celebrate the amazing benefits cargo bikes bring to Londoners, and champion the fantastic local businesses that are adopting them.”

Major companies including Amazon and DHL now use cargo bikes for last-mile fulfilment in the city, but independent traders are also increasingly turning to them as a means of transporting themselves and the tools of their trade around the capital, with Cargo Revolution highlighting several case studies.

Those include electrician Aaron Fleming-Saheed, who trades as Cycling Sparks and mentions the puzzled reaction he sometimes gets from fellow tradespeople in vans at traffic lights when they spot his branding, and plumber Rob Darbyshire, who reveals the benefits of switching to two wheels, some of which only became apparent afterwards, as well as how he adapted his business to maximise the benefits of travelling to customers using a bike rather than a van.  

You may also have come across the Carry Shit Olympics account on X, formerly known as Twitter – indeed, you may well have contributed to it – which posts images of people using pedal power to get all kinds of things from A to B, and not just on cargo bikes.

It’s maybe not Vietnam motorbike levels of haulage, but nevertheless there are some very impressive examples – here are just a few of them.

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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E6toSE3 | 2 months ago
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A friend tried a cargo bike from a hire pool near his home. Narrow streets, pedestrians, ebikers, pedal cycles, children, old folk, parked cars and cargo bikes. Concluded he and everyone needed practice, training, full Highway Code testing. Heavy loaded is huge inertia to turn and park. Public liability insurance essential or face life changing costs if you get something wrong.
Some trades will work, some won't. Ladders, lots of heavy metal tools soon get extremely heavy - ok in straight line but very dangerous on a bend with black ice. Braking distance. Especially downhill?
In principle, I'd like one. In practice, a trailer for my urban pedal bike might work (but I couldn't ride it up SE London hills like we live on). Many folk have nowhere to park them. Back to complete rethink about how we use roads in UK

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vanisle | 2 months ago
1 like

Tools, spare parts, and other things I carry with me daily take up about a quarter of the space in my ford van, roughly 1750 litres. I also have several ladders, as well as lengths of pipe on the outside of my van. I would need a trailer 14ft long and 6ft wide, just for the ladders. Not to mention without an engine, I would have to choose between charging power tools and using the electric motor on the bike. E bikes have great utility. Last mile delivery and commuting are perfect use cases, but they are not practical as service vehicles at this point.

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plumbergreaves | 3 months ago
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I'm a self-employed plumber using only a cargo bike for work in Bristol. I started my business a year ago with the bike and it's the best thing I could've done. No problem on Bristol's many hills (electric assist), no parking charges, no getting stuck in traffic becuase I can use bike lanes... I've adapted the bike so I can carry 3m lenghts of pipe, and bulkier stuff I can get delivered to wherever I'm working. I carry all the tools I need, no problem, and no one has yet tried to break into the locked box. The bike lives in a shed I built in the tiny space in front of my terraced house. I know this wouldn't work so well in a rural area but in the city it's a winner and more tradespeople should try it. See for yourself @plumbergreaves

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hawkinspeter replied to plumbergreaves | 3 months ago
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plumbergreaves wrote:

I'm a self-employed plumber using only a cargo bike for work in Bristol. I started my business a year ago with the bike and it's the best thing I could've done. No problem on Bristol's many hills (electric assist), no parking charges, no getting stuck in traffic becuase I can use bike lanes... I've adapted the bike so I can carry 3m lenghts of pipe, and bulkier stuff I can get delivered to wherever I'm working. I carry all the tools I need, no problem, and no one has yet tried to break into the locked box. The bike lives in a shed I built in the tiny space in front of my terraced house. I know this wouldn't work so well in a rural area but in the city it's a winner and more tradespeople should try it. See for yourself @plumbergreaves

That reminds me - I've got a slightly corroded joint on my mains inlet under the kitchen sink. I'll drop you an email.

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Freddie Bloggs | 3 months ago
2 likes

I have made cargo bikes and like everyone here advocate for less people driving and getting on your bike. I'm sure we also have a tale to tell about white van men too but there's a reason why white vans are the backbone of western civilisation.

I think that a bit like these discussions you get when purple-haired girls are asked 'what men bring to the table' and they are unable to think of a single thing. What it really says is they are totally ignorant what builds the modern environment and maintains it. Thinking a self-employed trades-person would be thriving using a cargo bike is largely fantasy for all but a pretty narrow range of scenarios. In fact for many trades-people even cycling at the end of a day's work is an ask because it's often physically demanding doing a days work. Assembling a bit of IKEA furniture on the weekend doesn't qualify your average journalist or white collar worker to know what it feels like on a Friday afternoon when you are a groundworker, labourer or scaffolder. I could list a bunch more trades but believe me, some jobs don't lend themselves to riding home 10 miles on a modern bike let alone a hefty cargo bike with 25kg of tools uphill after a days work.

Safety bikes have been around since 1885 and cargo bikes arrived hot on their heels. Even when people didn't have access to motor vehicles they would still opt for a donkey/horse and cart or hand cart over cargo bikes. In third world counties, cargo bikes can help productivity but then in some countries there are gangs of people carrying heavy stuff up mountains in sub zero temperatures wearing very short shorts and flip flops... So people do stuff because they have to not because it's the best option. Willing us back to technology that was second or third choice in the 19th century is like a lot of the current environmental do-gooding. It's not really thought through.

Today although auxillary electric propulsion adds a lot to the proposition, cargo bikes haven't come on enormously in the past 150 years and don't get close to the utility of a van. Human powered, you are looking at about 120watts and that means you can't move much in terms materials or tools any sort of distance. In any practical sense you need fairly flat places to move load. With gradient it's not just going up hills, coming down hills with weight means you need a whole different class of brakes etc. Believe me I set out with intention to make a really light cargo bike using carbon fibre etc and by the time I was finished to make it strong enough to carry load and stop it was a hefty hector. If I wanted CE certification to manufacture it, it would probably be 30% heavier. With electric assistance the question is less about cargo bikes and more about light electric vehicles.

If you've seen rickshaws that are designed to move a couple of people...That's maybe 150kg load...You are restricted to walking pace and those posts we have here where people are moving a sofa or wardrobe will almost certainly have experienced a whole new level of road rage riding at 5 mph, forming a rolling road block to other road users. Sure it can be done at everyone else's expense over short distances but that sort of exception isn't the rule for your average self employed trades person and you can probably get away with it because so few people do it. If there were hundreds of people riding round London slowly with wardrobes and sofas I'm sure there would be a drive-per-mile tax on them in a heartbeat.

There are loads more problems too. You can't carry more tools than you can carry in one go or they will be stolen as you move between your cargo bike and work place. It's bad enough with a van and they are way more secure than a cargo bike... and of course there's a fair chance your cargo bike will get nicked whilst you are working anyway. Even white collar workers commuting by bike know it's always a welcome treat to find your bike is still there when you want to go home. Cargo bikes aren't so easy to park up or store as normal bikes, especially ones able to carry bigger stuff. If you live in a city terrace you aren't going to get many brownie points from your flat mates parking your 35kg 12 foot long bike in the hallway and if you leave it in the street it's just a matter of time bore it's stolen because cargo bikes are EXPENSIVE.

If I just think about the 'extras' that have been picked up on the job in the past week for the project I'm on in addition to the big deliveries, there were a few sheets of plasterboard, several lengths of timber 3.3m to 6 m long, bags of cement, plaster, lime, 100m of armoured cable. Forget I'm in North Wales, it's hilly, the sellers are too far away, the stuff needs to stay dry and all that jazz, to maintain the built environment requires tons and tons of stuff. Even that spool of armoured cable that didn't look big weighed 145kg. Now obviously I could have ordered it all and wait for it to arrive but if you think you can run a business on a MyHermes schedule or whatever you will be out of business in a week. Several of those extras were on the van, so the work just continued. The rest was picked up.

Don't get me wrong cargo bikes will amaze you in their carrying ability and utility but in any realistic sense they are limited in how much they could be adopted. There is enormous kudos for hipsters with clip-on man buns to be riding the roads of Hoxton with an artisan loaf of bread on the front but there is a reason why cargo bikes haven't featured heavily in the self-employed-trades scene that keeps Britain going. The business of building and maintaining the modern environment requires lots and lots of energy to move millions of tons of materials, tools machinery and manpower every day. A human is good for 120 watts. Fine for a local handy man or window cleaner with a local round but not realistically for self-employed full-time trades people (let alone someone in a hilly city like bath or anyone outside a city where jobs, home and suppliers are spread out). Sadly we aren't just selling ice cream on the sea front.

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chrisonabike replied to Freddie Bloggs | 3 months ago
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I want to make sure I have you right (I lost you for a bit at the purple haired girls) - are you saying that a bike is not a transit?

Sounds right.  Furthermore our armed forces would probably look like plonkers if instead of Challenger tanks and Warrior APCs the armoured division rolls forward on Leitras and Urban Arrows.

Freddie Bloggs wrote:

Sadly we aren't just selling ice cream on the sea front.

Or whelks!

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Rendel Harris replied to Freddie Bloggs | 3 months ago
5 likes
Freddie Bloggs wrote:

there's a reason why white vans are the backbone of western civilisation.

And there was me thinking it was Judeao-Christian philosophy, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, a couple of millenia of creating a culture, whereas in fact it's the white vans that have been around for about the last fifty years that have done it. Live and learn.

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chrisonabike replied to Rendel Harris | 3 months ago
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Rendel Harris wrote:
Freddie Bloggs wrote:

there's a reason why white vans are the backbone of western civilisation.

And there was me thinking it was Judeao-Christian philosophy, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, a couple of millenia of creating a culture, whereas in fact it's the white vans that have been around for about the last fifty years that have done it. Live and learn.

"What have the (inserts a vast range of cultures and kingdoms / states) ever done for us?"

White vans?

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E6toSE3 replied to Rendel Harris | 2 months ago
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Supercilious. Never really had Judæo-Christian philosophy; just J-C veneer that modified Plato and Aristotle. Ren and enlightenment still needed carts to move stuff, eg Constable's Haywain and Turner's Rain, Steam, Speed. No carts, no fancy stuff.

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Rendel Harris replied to E6toSE3 | 2 months ago
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E6toSE3 wrote:

Ren and enlightenment still needed carts to move stuff, eg Constable's Haywain and Turner's Rain, Steam, Speed. No carts, no fancy stuff.

Where is the cart in Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (to give it its correct title)? There's a train and a boat, no cart.

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E6toSE3 replied to Freddie Bloggs | 2 months ago
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Could almost be my son! He's in North Wales. So many 20mph limits that stretch travel by the full (3/2) multiple has destroyed delivery and care worker productivity. With 4 small chokdren, he'd have been very happy with 25mph as a safety development. Next generation electric cars, vans, and infrastructure might do the job but, at the moment, they don't work up there.

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chrisonabike replied to E6toSE3 | 2 months ago
1 like
E6toSE3 wrote:

Could almost be my son! He's in North Wales. So many 20mph limits that stretch travel by the full (3/2) multiple has destroyed delivery and care worker productivity.

Really?  I'm pretty sure this was chewed over and addressed ahead of time with some studies and tests in some small areas - see the Senedd's FAQ for example.

There have been some studies of the effect on speed (so actual data) after the change - showing average speeds have reduced (slightly).  I'm not aware of studies specifically addressing journey times after the change however.  Do you have any?

E6toSE3 wrote:

With 4 small chokdren, he'd have been very happy with 25mph as a safety development. Next generation electric cars, vans, and infrastructure might do the job but, at the moment, they don't work up there.

Wait - but 25mph is still slower than 30mph.  Won't that also "destroy productivity" because "slower"?

I'm not sure what you mean by "don't work up there"?  What doesn't work and why?

These things are of course a question of degree but for all the arguments (I've waded through lots) I'm not convinced that some roads changing from 30mph limits to 20mph limits is going to cause businesses to collapse.  First - where this has been done (lots of places, this idea isn't new) civilisation hasn't ended.  What it might do is just save a few lives per year / reduce number and severity of injuries / possibly reduce crashes.  All those are very expensive both to individuals and the public purse.  It can also make places much more pleasant to be in when you're outside of a car.  Plus as I understand it the speed limits can be still be varied anywhere by local authorities.

EDIT meant "...is going to cause businesses to collapse" not "isn't"

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chrisonabike replied to E6toSE3 | 2 months ago
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On care industry: obviously in a rural area it's different but this story might be of interest (according to the 2021 census in Wales 88% live in "built-up areas"):

https://road.cc/content/news/oxford-care-company-turns-bikes-beat-conges...

Obviously people will need to get round to different clients efficiently.  However "productivity" often appears to be at a cost to the "care" part in the care business especially in personal home-based care .   As in "our company is maximising the money we get by upping the number of people we serve, increasing the load on our care staff and reducing the time available to get between service users - because as long as someone actually turns up we've fulfilled our contract".

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CyclingGardener | 3 months ago
5 likes

Of course there will be some activities that don't work without a van, but probably fewer than most people think.
I've been gardening by bike (not in London) for 25 years, and have never thought of it as anything special. Maybe even a bit old-fashioned. Makes total sense as far as my situation is concerned: most of my trips are only 2-3 miles, urban streets or through town centre, so it's no slower than driving, and I never have to worry about traffic or parking restrictions.
You don't necessarily need an expensive cargo bike either. My current 'company vehicle' is a very basic steel-framed rigid MTB-style hybrid thing from Halfords to which I've added a sturdy rear rack to accommodate a tradesman's bag with lots of storage and a pannier for sticking out things like loppers. If it gets nicked, or knackered by potholes, I’ll just get another one.
I have wondered about a cargo bike or trailer, but most people already have lawnmowers and big stuff like spades and rakes, so not much point carting those around. And I like the speed and nippiness of a normal bike in traffic (it's surprising how little the load I carry affects handling), and the option to go off-road when necessary.
Mind you, some of those delivery bikes are seriously impressive, and look as if they might be rather fun . . .

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TCS replied to CyclingGardener | 3 months ago
2 likes

Cycling Gardener, if you're in SE London, give me shout if you want to try one of our bikes

https://linktr.ee/cyclingsparks

Aaron

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CyclingGardener replied to TCS | 3 months ago
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'Fraid not - but thanks for the offer!

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Wheelywheelygood | 3 months ago
4 likes

This is a perfect example of the silly things bikers do ,this trailer is seriously overloaded for the power a bike can generate . There are strict laws about how much a vehicle can tow for the simple reason of braking ability , even on a slight hill this could never make it up or have enough power to brake going  down . A small trailor to carry tools to work or allotment fine but this is beyond dangerous 

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Rendel Harris replied to Wheelywheelygood | 3 months ago
2 likes

There are no legal restrictions on the weight that a bicycle can tow on a trailer, you're simply making that up. If stopped, the police may ask the rider to prove that they can brake safely but that's a different matter. As you have not the slightest idea what is in those sacks your assumptions that it could never make it up a hill or be able to brake safely going down have no validity.

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jonnyvelo replied to Rendel Harris | 3 months ago
1 like

There is a career for you in diplomacy. I am sure you have won Wheelywheelygood over. Have you thought of offering your services to a conflict currently in the news?

 

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Rendel Harris replied to jonnyvelo | 3 months ago
2 likes
jonnyvelo wrote:

There is a career for you in diplomacy. I am sure you have won Wheelywheelygood over. Have you thought of offering your services to a conflict currently in the news?

I have not the slightest interest in being diplomatic with this poster, who is an out-and-out troll who  has never posted anything on this website except anti-cyclist bile, not once. Every single post is all cyclists jump red lights, all cyclists ride on pavements etc. It's a real shame road.cc still don't offer the facility to read a poster's full history, as most sites do; if they did you'd see what I mean.

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E6toSE3 replied to Rendel Harris | 2 months ago
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As lifelong cyclist (age 68) as main form of transport in Nottinghamshire, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, London, SE England, you might think I'd agree with you. I don't. You're the troll

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E6toSE3 replied to Rendel Harris | 2 months ago
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Another supercilious comment. There may be no legal limit to weight towed by bike but there are responsibility issues that affect others, pedestrians, other cargo bikes, etc. I haven't checked, but I think such responsibility is within Highway Code

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Adam Sutton replied to Wheelywheelygood | 3 months ago
2 likes

He looks to have extended the loading capacity by using a ladder as well. It could be the angle and/or lens distortion, but it also looks like the ladder is sagging. If a van or flatbed truck was loaded that badly it would be rightly stopped. I can only imagine what braking on that would be like.

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cyclisto | 3 months ago
0 likes

Worked in the past and occasionally now with equipment that in total maybe was half my weight, moving around on a bicycle was never a viable option. There were some times that I was so physically tired, that trying to return to base, and having to pedal a super heavy bicycle, seemed just ridiculous. The closest attempt was in a certain project was to use the metro, as parking was hard and for this project, equipment was very limited, so in this particular case it made sense.

There are though more realistic improvements that can be made. One company had one of these huge pickup trucks, that was a menace to drive and very impractical, but in theory could go off-road and carry four people and a lot of cargo (we very rarely did). At a mission I proposed to the boss to rent a simple A-segment mini car, and it was much faster to operate.

 

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Rendel Harris replied to cyclisto | 3 months ago
4 likes
cyclisto wrote:

Worked in the past and occasionally now with equipment that in total maybe was half my weight, moving around on a bicycle was never a viable option. There were some times that I was so physically tired, that trying to return to base, and having to pedal a super heavy bicycle, seemed just ridiculous.

Which is where e-bikes come into their own.

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cyclisto replied to Rendel Harris | 3 months ago
2 likes

Not really, when you are out 8-10 hours working under stress in the summer heat or winter cold, and being exhausted, every minute out is really painful. I just want to get a heated or cooled place asap.

Let alone, that having sometimes to carry equipment costing more than 20K, and you worry having it car, the stress of having it in any kind of bicycle would seem more. Or, when you have to travel in a single day 300-400km to go on site and return home, cargo bike would be science fiction, but I understand we are not discussing such tasks.

 

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TCS replied to cyclisto | 3 months ago
3 likes

Hi

It's Aaron here from cycling sparks. Yes the heat and cold are difficult, but we've been dealing with it since we started in 2017. We're in London and not in Scotland also so I know we don't have it as bad as other parts of the country, but still. It beats being stuck in traffic every single time. 

Also, during heatwaves theres is nothing more frustraighting than watching people sit in their cars idling with the Air Con on to keep cool. It just add's to the the probelm of climate change.

Sure it gets hot and cold. It's hard. But we're keeping the we effect we have as a business to the climate to a minimum.

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Rendel Harris replied to cyclisto | 3 months ago
2 likes

I can't claim to have done that sort of work much - not since I was a student and worked on building sites in the vacations, to be honest, and that was a long long time ago, certainly long before ebikes were a thing. I can say however that during times when I was absolutely prostrated by chemotherapy drugs, to a point of exhaustion I had never before experienced in a life which has involved rather a lot of strenuous activities, both sporting and working, I could still get about (albeit quite slowly and relying heavily on the assistance) on the ebike.

The main point is that nobody's telling you you must use an e-cargo bike if your work makes them impractical, but for a lot of trades working in domestic settings they are immensely practical, as the ever-increasing number of electricians, heating engineers, plumbers etc using e-cargo bikes proves.

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eburtthebike | 3 months ago
1 like

I'm ashamed to say that, just for a milli-second, I wished Boris was back.

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Cra5hed | 3 months ago
1 like

I mean if you are going less than 5km and the route is flat then sure but I live near Crystal Palace good luck with that. As a cyclist and a designer please stop trying sell bikes as a catch all solution to ensure bikes have road dominance, it rediculous.

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