Monday, December 9, 2013

School run for three by bakfiets

One of our daughter's friends from school lives a few blocks from our place.  So on days when we are organised enough, I pick her and her older sister up on the way through.

It's a bit squishy, but they all seem to love it, with their mum saying that they both get super excited at the prospect of riding to school in the bike.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

(Extremely) conservative economic analysis of bakfiets ownership

In the first twelve months of owning a bakfiets I rode a little over 4,000km, averaging about 80km/week.

So I began wondering about quantifying the cost-effectiveness of the bike.  Was I saving money, or was it a false economy?

Short answer

Yes, I am almost certainly saving money at 80km/week.

Averaged over five years, the petrol savings alone are enough to break even.

If you include the variable depreciation component as modelled by the VTPI, then it becomes clear that the break-even point, based on fuel and variable depreciation alone, is at between XXX and XXX kilometres per week.

If, like ourselves, you can avoid owning a second car then the savings are obviously much bigger, as a bakfiets costs about $1,000 per annum including the cost of an expensive personal loan to buy the bakfiets, and making the further extremely conservative assumption that it is worth nothing after five years.

Long answer

Let's make a few purposefully conservative assumptions.  The idea is if these figures work out positive for you, then you should be able to fairly safely assume that owning a bakfiets will save your family money.

1. You already own a car, that consumes approximately 10L/100km.
2. You will retain the car, and will still service it as often as now.
3. You will displace some kilometres from the car to the bakfiets.
4. The sunk-capital costs of the car will not drop.
5. Petrol costs about AU$1.30 - AU$1.60 a litre in Adelaide now.  This equates to AU$0.13 - AU$0.16 per kilometre.
6. Including all accessories, delivery and assembly, a good Butch bakfiets costs about AU$3,500.
7. Interest cost on a bakfiets will be between 4.5% (lowest rate home mortgage) to 10% (expensive personal loan).
8. A bakfiets will cost about AU$120 a year for servicing and incidental items (replacement tyres etc).
9. Dutch bakfiets have a design-life of about 20 years, but let's be really conservative and say that you we expect only five years of useful life, after which it has the implausibly low residual value of AU$0.

This is a very conservative set of assumptions, as eradicating short trips will increase the life of most vehicles through reduced cold-operating wear, as well as pushing out servicing intervals.  But again, we want to be exceptionally conservative here.

In other words, we are looking at the pure incremental cost and savings of owning a bakfiets.

Petrol, as mentioned costs between AU$0.13 to AU$0.16 per kilometre at current prices.

The above assumptions require a five-year loan for AU$3,500 with a prevailing interest rate of between 4.5% and 10% per annum.  That loan will cost between AU$15.04 and AU$17.12 per week. The annual servicing costs of AU$120 will add another AU$2.31 per week.  Thus the total weekly cost of buying and operating a bakfiets over five years will be between AU$17.35 and AU$19.43 per week.

The above implies that you will need to displace between 109 and 150 kilometres per week to be practically certain that you will come out financially ahead compared by owning a bakfiets.

This is more than the 80km/week that I ride to work and doing the morning school/child-care run.

Let's now consider this over the coming five years, assuming that inflation remains at about 3%, and petrol prices will, on average, at least match inflation compared with current prices (which seems reasonable based on historical data).

YearExpected petrol price per kmWeekly kilometers to break even
113c - 16c109 - 150 / week
213.39c - 16.48c106 - 146 / week
313.79c - 16.97c103 - 142 / week
414.21c - 17.48c100 - 137 / week
514.63c - 18.01c97 - 133 / week
615.07c - 18.55c13 - 15 / week *
* With no loan repayments from the 6th year onwards, there is only the operating cost of the bakfiets to consider, hence the dramatic drop in operating costs.

Again, this analysis is quite conservative, as the cost of petrol typically trends up at a rate nearer to 10% per annum, but with some downward corrections from time to time when the global economy tanks.

Taking historical petrol price trends into account

Looking at the best data set I could find, which records the price of fuel in the USA since 1990 (see here), we see that the cost of fuel increased from US$1.191 to US$3.262 per US-gallon between August 1990 and November 2013, for an average annualised increase of 4.5%, compared with US inflation which averaged 2.7% during the same period (see here).

So let's calculate the outlook where we assume that petrol will increase at 4.5% per year instead of 3% per year:

YearExpected petrol price per kmWeekly kilometers to break even
113c - 16c109 - 150 / week
213.59c - 16.72c104 - 144 / week
314.20c - 17.47c100 - 137 / week
414.88c - 18.26c96 - 131 / week
515.50c - 19.08c91 - 126 / week
616.20c - 19.94c12 - 14 / week *
* With no loan repayments from the 6th year onwards, there is only the operating cost of the bakfiets to consider, hence the dramatic drop in operating costs.

These figures are still on the high-side of realistic, given that I only average 80km/week. But as I have made clear above, the figures are purposefully very conservative.

Taking realistic residual value of the bakfiets into account

For example, it is likely that a bakfiets would have a residual value of around AU$1,000 - AU$2,000 after five years, and assuming it was well enough maintained to still work, AU$500 would be the lowest realistic figure here.  Recycling the capital at the end of the five years (lets assume AU$1,000 resale value for the bike at the end) to payout the balance of the loan would reduce the weekly loan repayment to between AU$11.61 and AU$14.16 per week.  Adding the AU$2.31/week operating costs for the bakfiets back in, the total weekly cost would be AU$13.92 - AU$16.47, .

So let's see how that works out:

YearExpected petrol price per kmWeekly kilometers to break even
113c - 16c87 - 127 / week
213.59c - 16.72c83 - 122 / week
314.20c - 17.47c80 - 116 / week
414.88c - 18.26c77 - 111 / week
515.50c - 19.08c73 - 107 / week
616.20c - 19.94c12 - 14 / week *
* With no loan repayments from the 6th year onwards, there is only the operating cost of the bakfiets to consider, hence the dramatic drop in operating costs.

That one simple change of assuming an AU$1,000 residual value at the end of the five years reduces the kilometres to about what I do now -- still without relying on any of the "fixed" costs of owning a car reducing.

Taking variable car depreciation costs into account

The VPTI suggest that the variable depreciation cost per mile of travel is about US$0.055.  That is, driving one extra mile will, on average, reduce the resale value of a five year old car by 5.5c.  On newer cars the effect is even greater.  Thus we can add 5.5c/mile = 3.44c/km to the fuel cost and recalculate the impact:

YearExpected petrol+depreciation cost per kmWeekly kilometers to break even
116.44c - 19.44c72 - 100 / week
217.03c - 20.16c69 - 97 / week
317.64c - 20.91c67 - 93 / week
418.32c - 21.70c64 - 90 / week
518.94c - 22.52c62 - 87 / week
619.64c - 23.38c10 - 12 / week *
* With no loan repayments from the 6th year onwards, there is only the operating cost of the bakfiets to consider, hence the dramatic drop in operating costs.

Given that the worst case cost of owning a bakfiets (on a 10% loan and no residual value at the end) is only $1,014 per year, you don't need to save much on parking costs, less frequent car servicing and other incidentals to reduce the break-even point.  And that doesn't include using the bakfiets to avoid trailer hire, taxi fares to the airport, let alone being able to get rid of that second car (or in our case, not needing one in the first place).  We have also completely ignored the social, emotional, family and other non-economic benefits of bakfiets ownership.

In fact, my observation is that riding around Adelaide you can collect an average of one 10c deposit container every two kilometres, thus offsetting the cost of running by 5c per kilometre.  5c x 4,000 kilometres = $200 per year -- sufficient to easily cover the non-capital operating costs of the bakfiets.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cargo bikes at the Adelaide Christmas Pageant

This is not the first year that we have ridden in to the pageant with the kids.  This year it was especially appealing, as our state government is still in the process of upgrading the local railway line, and driving is never a good option to an event that attracts about 20% of the total population of the state in any given year.

This year the kids used the seats in the box to increase their elevation so that they could get a better view:

Caleb's attention span was a bit short, so he and I walked around a bit, allowing Mummy to climb in with Isabel who together had a lovely "girls time" watching the floats:

The Adelaide Christmas Pageant is apparently the largest in the world (179 floats, bands and other features this year, apparently), and is certainly lots of fun for little people (and their accompanying big people).  I didn't get many shots of the floats, but

Walking around with Caleb, I had a good chance to see what other bikes people were riding there.  It was great to see a lot of people had ridden in on various "normal" bikes, but I was pleasantly surprised to see this year was the number and variety of cargo bikes that were there.

I don't remember seeing any other than ours last year, but this year there was quite a variety.  Here are pictures of the ones I found within a few hundred metres of our spot on South Terrace where the pageant starts.  I have no idea if there were more (or how many more) along the couple of kilometres of the remainder of the route.

Another cargo long, just like ours, but with reflector strips on the side.

One of several trikes.

Caleb inspecting another trike with fun space-invaders decoration.

Some other kids loaded in their trike. I don't remember if they were coming or going.
Yet another trike.
The number of trikes was intriguing.  Some of them were from families with 3+ children, which makes sense for the space.  But at least one parent I spoke to, on learning I had a two-wheel cargo bike, expressed what I took as some regret that they hadn't bought a two-wheeler, as he had realised that the trikes are not as stable at speed.

I remember when I was contemplating getting a cargobike that I was leaning towards a trike, and it really was just someone who made me realise that a two-wheeler is the better option (unless you have too many kids to fit).  They simply asked me two questions: 1. Can you ride a bike? and 2. If so, then why are you thinking of getting a trike?  The implication being that the two-wheelers are a better option, unless there is some reason why you can't ride or use one.

I am inclined to support their view.  Two-wheelers are no wider than a normal bike, substantially lighter (possibly the only sentence where a cargo long and "lighter" can be used together ;), handle well at speed (we have had ours up to 65km/hour with kids on board, admittedly down a big hill. They are also typically a bit cheaper.

Not strictly cargo bikes, but I still approve of this method of transportation, and unlike us, they were allowed to join in the pageant.

There were a few bike+trailer combinations, but there were more cargo-bikes than trailers.

There was even a bullit, fitted out to seat one fast passenger.  Bullit's are much faster than most other cargo bikes, but with more traditional bike parts (which is part of their appeal for many) are more effort to maintain, like a "normal" bike.
 We also managed a few shots of some of the 179 floats and bands as we walked about.


There was even a float with a bicycle theme:

And of course Father Christmas and his reindeer are the cavalry, following the floats to the "Magic Cave" on North Terrace:

Then it was time to get ready to ride home:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Escaping the Car Trap

Many Australians are caught in a vicious cycle where they own or are paying off older cars with intrinsically high running costs, with maintenance, fuel inefficiency, loan repayments, insurance and registration costs all adding up to several thousand dollars per year.

The high cost of participating in this cycle contributes to poverty, and makes it a difficult cycle to escape, for example, by finally purchasing a newer, more reliable and fuel-efficient vehicle. Even then, many of the costs remain, and for Australians on low incomes this represents a significant drain on their limited finances.

Car ownership is practically a background assumption for suburban Australian life. Most of us don't even question the need for a car if you live in the suburbs, and so this cycle continues to hold many Australians in financial bondage. As a long-time cyclist I had long found my own way to step outside of this cycle riding my bike to work, and easily saving enough to buy a good new bike and go on a pleasant holiday each year.

But I am aware that the traditional Australian approach to cycling just doesn't work for many people. The kinds of bikes we ride in Australia are fundamentally pieces of sports equipment, and you need to have a sporty or determined approach, and a willingness to endure a bit of pain, mess, inconvenience and difficulty in the process. If you needed to cart your kids to child care or school, or carry reasonable loads around, e.g., to do the weekly shopping, then the inconvenience rapidly turns to impossibility.

Then through some Danish friends and work trips to Northern Europe I discovered the utility cycling cultures thriving there. Bikes in Berlin, Amsterdam and Copenhagen aren't sports equipment – they are practical, comfortable and convenient transportation appliances.

The differences include many seemingly little things, that together make a profound difference, like a more comfortable up-right riding position and comfy sprung seats, the ubiquitous AXA frame-mounted locks where your key stays in while unlocked, sensible stands that will hold a loaded bike upright (locked and parked in under 10 seconds), proper fenders, chain-cases and skirt-guards that stop you getting dirty when riding, low-maintenance internal hub gears and sealed drum brakes, and thorn-proof tyres with built-in reflectors, through to dynamo lights (with battery backup for the rear, and with the dynamo built into the front hub), low step-through frames that are easy to mount, and copious integrated storage options.

As a result, these statfietsen (city bikes) and bakfietsen (box or cargo bikes) as the Dutch call them are much more practical for life in the suburbs than sports bicycles, in much the same way that a station wagon is more suited to suburban life than is a racing car. Millions of Dutch, Danish and Germans (including many, many Mums) cart children, groceries, building supplies and themselves around comfortably and cleanly using utility bikes.
We tend to view these countries as something of an oddity, and their experience as irrelevant to Australian suburban life. However, the reality is that most of suburban Adelaide is about as flat as Amsterdam, and has considerably less wind, rain, snow, sleet, hail, steep bridges and narrow crowded streets than Amsterdam. In short, Adelaide is arguably better suited to a utility cycling culture than in Northern Europe.
In the year or so that we have owned our cargo bike, I have ridden almost 5,000km, made innumerable shopping trips, carried loads of compost, firewood, bottles for recycling as well as taking the kids to school and childcare and carrying my gear to and from work each day.

One of the less obvious benefits is how the daily kid-run commute is transformed from a stressful necessity into daily quality time with the kids as we sing, play games, avoid traffic snarls, park in the middle of the school yard, and sometimes give little friends a ride when we get there or stop for a few minutes at a playground on the way. Similarly going to the shops is now extremely convenient, parking right outside the supermarket door. But perhaps the most unexpected benefit is avoiding taxi fares when flying for work, as I now load my suitcase into the bike, ride to the airport, park the bike for free for as long as I am gone, and reverse the process on the way home.

It also turns out for us that it is faster to do the morning kid-run by cargo bike than by car – despite the fairly sedate speeds one attains on a cargo bike full of kids and gear, despite the fact that I only average about 15km/hour on the bakfiets. Part of the gain comes from the ability to ride in the school yard instead of having to find a park, and not have to remove, walk at toddler-speed and re-harness Mr. Two when delivering Ms. One to school.

With the advent of electric-assist on bikes, it is possible to average more like 25km/hour on the flat, in your work gear, and without breaking a sweat. This further improves the competitiveness of utility bikes, especially when you consider that peak hour speeds in Adelaide are mostly between 20km/hour and 35km/hour (not counting the nightmare of parking near schools and child-care centres), and that there are often short cuts available for cyclists, and in most cases there are routes that allow you to mostly avoid the main roads and enjoy a pleasant commute that add to your day, instead of ruining it.

In short, while we may not realise it, there is an option for many of us to escape the car trap – or in the least the two-car-family trap – and save money, time and sanity in the process. But first we have to understand the difference between bicycles that are sports equipment and those that are practical transport, and stop thinking about practical utility bikes as a European oddity. As is often the case, it is the cultural change that is the limiting factor.

Carting compost

It's that time of year again when our garden needs compost, and like last year, for smaller loads the bakfiets proved itself a handy solution.  I got a couple of loads of mushroom compost today in under an hour and a half, including all travel time, loading and unloading onto the garden.

An improvement on last year's effort was the judicious use of the gumboots to pack it down firmly in the box, meaning that I was able to get more than 80KG of compost in a single load, up from 60KG last year.

One thing I really like about using the bakfiets instead of a car trailer for this job is that there is no back-straining shovelling and twisting.  You can just park the bakfiets near the garden bed in question, just like a wheel-barrow, and bucket the compost out comfortably until there is sufficiently little that you can just lift out the remainder and tip it on the garden.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Replacing rear-tyre on a cargo bike in pictures

After 4,500km of heavy riding (including up that hill to work every day) the rear tyre of my bakfiets was getting a bit sad.  The tread was getting low:

But more importantly, a loose spoke that I found and tightened a couple of weeks ago or some other cause had caused the wide-wall to partially rupture, resulting in a large bulge that made the bike feel a bit like a clown-bike, bumping up and down every revolution:

The first step was to lift the rear wheel off the ground.  A cargo strap and handy verandah beam made this easy:
Resulting in a convenient air-gap under the wheel:
Next step is to undo the screws on the side of the chain case so that it can be loosened off. The pieces can stay attached, as we only need to be able to move the wheel around and get the chain off of the rear sprocket.
I had oiled the chain a little last week when it started making some noise, but apparently it needs more oil than I gave it. I applied the oil after changing the wheel to reduce mess.  The real reason for taking this picture was to show the bolt and nut to the right of the sproket.  There is one of these on both sides of the hub.  
These need to be undone completely, and the little retaining plate removed on both sides:
Now release the cable from the roller brake. This is quite easy to do, but hard to photograph the process of doing so. First, undo the bolt that holds the brake to the frame. Then pull the bolt where the cable connects to the roller brake to release tension on the cable, then pull the cable to release it from the lug just below the bolt that you have undone.  The brake is now free of the frame, allowing the wheel to be eased out of the frame.
Once that is done, and after jacking the wheel up higher, I was able to ease the axle and hence wheel out of the frame with a bit of fiddling:
Tada, no wheel in the frame.  Note that I left the Nexus 8 gear cable connected, since there was no need to remove it.
Then I removed the tyre and tube.  I was able to do this without even using tyre levers, but you might want to use some:
Then it was time to get the new tube ready, for which I had help unrolling it:

Then it was time to get the new tyre ready.  I am using Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres which claim to be the ultimate in thorn-proofing.  They are cited as being "quite heavy and awkward to fit".  I don't think they are particularly heavy or awkward to fit -- again, I didn't even need tyre levers to get the new tyre back on.  And compared to the weight of the rear wheel, the tyre is quite, quite insignificant.  And like all Good Sensible Tyres they have a 3M reflective strip for night visibility way better than any wheel reflector provides, and without the weight imbalance that reflectors provide:
Now it is time to reverse the process, and put the wheel back in.  This is the fiddliest bit, as you have to line up those bolts that you first undid.
Again, hard to photograph while you are doing it, but five minutes of fiddling and it was back in:
Here is the bolt nicely lined up and back in place, ready to get the bracket and bolt put back on:
And here they are back on, but yet to be tightened.  Now tighten on each side before doing up the axle bolts, until the chain is reasonably but not too tight, and the wheel is straight.  Then do up the axle bolts.
Finally, put the retaining bolt back on that holds the brake to the frame:
In case you unsure which one it is:
Then put the brake cable and nut back into the spot in the roller brake:
And here is that brake cable lug slotted back in, taken from below. Again, hard to take a picture of on your own with greasy hands:
And, ta-da, all back in.  Then it is time to refasten the chain case:
And after that it was time for a test ride, which happily confirmed that the annoying bumping (and several other odd noises) were a thing of the past, and that the brakes still worked:
The whole process took me about an hour, but if I had to do it again, it would take perhaps half that.