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Can a bicycle replace the family car?

Dave Cohen says yes, and is trying to convince other Vermonters

BRATTLEBORO—In a culture as car-centric as Vermont, Dave Cohen may seem like he is swimming against the tide when he advocates for bicycles as a way to reduce pollution, improve public health, and save people money.

But the Brattleboro psychotherapist has been at this a long time. When he lived in the San Francisco area, he created specially-designed cargo bicycles that could haul up to 1,000 pounds of cargo, and started up a human-powered delivery service called Pedal Express.

“We changed the idea of what bicycles can do,” Cohen said. “Bicycles are still seen as toys in Vermont, but human power is the largest untapped source of energy in the nation.”

So Cohen has taken it upon himself to become an evangelist for a new type of bicycle — the cargo bike — and is touting it as a vehicle that can replace the family car, or at least replace the second family car.

He admits that there is one big obstacle to increased bicycle use in Vermont — hills. As the old saying goes, “Vermont ain’t flat.”

But Cohen says there’s a solution for that too — electric-assist bicycles that help riders get up steep hills without gasping for breath.

“Electric-assist helps reduce the toy-ification of the bicycle,” said Cohen. “It’s not a silver bullet, and not everyone is going to ride it, but these bicycles can help cut down on indiscriminate use of cars.”

He said that the nation is entering a time of economic and environmental crisis, and much of that crisis is driven by fossil fuel use and the rising cost of using oil, coal, and natural gas.

“Are we disassociating ourselves from this crisis, or are we coming up with ways to deal with it?” asked Cohen. “Bicycles represent a brighter future, while the indiscriminate use of cars represents a disconnection from the problem.”

Cohen has been riding a Yuba El Mundo cargo bicycle around Brattleboro. It’s a seven-speed bike with an electric-powered front wheel. Using the electric power exclusively, Cohen says the bike has a top speed of 20 mph and a range of approximately 20 miles. The battery charges in a couple of hours.

The El Mundo is longer than a standard bicycle, and can carry 400 pounds of cargo, plus a rider. It’s modeled on the cargo bikes that are ubiquitous in Africa. Yuba, based in California, also makes a standard-sized bike, called the Boda Boda, that has less carrying capacity than the El Mundo, and is designed more for solo riders.

Buy and bike locally

Burrows Specialized Sports on Main Street is the local dealer for Yuba bicycles. Owner Robert “Woody” Woodworth said the Yuba cycles are an important addition to his store’s line of bicycles.

“We’re really getting hammered by online retailers,” Woodworth said, “so it’s good to have a product that you can’t get online. Plus, these are fun bikes to ride. They’re stable and comfortable.”

But the bicycles aren’t cheap, ranging from $800 for a non-electric El Mundo, to about $2,200 for a fully-electrified version.

With running board, panniers, and cargo shelves, it can be configured in many ways to haul two passengers, six bags of groceries, or even be used as a delivery vehicle.

“I’ve ridden with my son and his friend on the back to play-dates,” said Cohen. “I’ve taken my cat to Dummerston to see the vet. I’ve gone on a date with my wife to the Latchis. For shopping or commuting, there’s not a lot you can’t do with this bike.”

Even with winter approaching, Cohen hopes to ride as long as the weather allows, for he believes the more that people see him riding around town doing things that most people don’t associate with bicycles, the better chance there is of changing people’s minds about the role of bicycles in everyday transportation.

“Vermont is still stuck in the 1950s in terms of infrastructure,” said Cohen. “It’s designed for cars, and the landscape encourages you to drive. Brattleboro is a really dynamic community, but we’re stuck in a car trance. We’re not going to change the infrastructure right away, but if we get more of these bikes out there, maybe we’ll see more support for bike lanes.”

Cohen is working with the Vermont Bike and Pedestrian Coalition and, at a statewide forum on Oct. 24, gave a presentation on cargo bikes and how they have the potential to alter infrastructure.

“I like to think about the family/utility bike movement as something that has Vermont written all over it and truly captures the essence of what it means to be ‘Vermont strong,’” he said.

“It’s about mindfully adopting a technology and mode of transport that is uniquely aligned with the highest notions of what it means to be a Vermonter. It just seems to me that there is a vast importance of working to integrate ourselves into our communities, landscapes, and larger bioregion, rather than the isolation and insulation typically experienced in a car. That’s what being a Vermonter can and should be about.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #177 (Wednesday, November 7, 2012).

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