At the start of 2022, we bought an Urban Arrow – a front-loader cargo bike with an e-assist motor. Six months later, we just hit 1,000 miles on our odometer!
Without hyperbole, the Urban Arrow has been life changing for our family. It's transformed how we run errands and structure our days, it's unlocked large parts of the city, and it's almost completely displaced our car. It's also injected so much fun and joy into our lives.
Here's some thoughts on our first thousand miles.
It Buys Us Alone Time
We're a family of four living in Brooklyn. We have a 7 year old, Emma, and a 1.5 year old, Julia. The scarcest commodity in our lives is time without kids.
Last fall, Emma started taking swim lessons in Lower Manhattan. At the time we rode an unpowered cargo bike with a single child-seat. It took every bit of my strength to get us up and over the Brooklyn Bridge. I could do it – barely – but found myself looking for excuses to drive or take the train. While Emma and I were at swim, Rachel would hang back home with Julia.
Once we got the Urban Arrow, two things changed. On our first trip to swim, I realized I could do 15mph uphill without breaking a sweat.
Second, I realized that we could bring Julia. This gave Rachel three whole hours to herself.
We now do the same thing on weekday mornings – Julia and I drop Emma off at school, and then ride out and explore Brooklyn's parks and coffee shops, giving Rachel time every morning to work out and get ready for her day.
One parent being able to transport multiple kids multiple miles without a car has been a game changer. Also, if you happen to be reading this as a parent of three, know that we regularly take Emma, Julia, and a friend for rides.
Every once in a while, on short trips, we pick up a bigger kid as our third passenger.
E-bikes expand your radius
"Expand your radius" is an expression we got from our friend Sara, an e-bike evangelist who lives in Red Hook, where public transportation options are limited.
Living in Brooklyn with kids often feels like an exercise in "so close, yet so far away." You have the world's playground within a five mile radius, but going "the last mile" can be so damn hard.
Emma and I rode to Williamsburg a few weeks back. The five miles would have taken 45 minutes by subway, which has lost a lot of its romanticism since the pandemic, or 40 minutes by car, which would mostly be spent in traffic and finding parking. Neither the car nor the train would put us on the doorstep of our destination – we'd still walk a few blocks once we got out.
On the Urban Arrow, it took 25 minutes and we rolled right up to the waterfront. In six years, our family's only traveled to Williamsburg three or four times. Now it's a legitimate destination any day we want.
We've also been spending a lot more time at Brooklyn Bridge Park. BBP is a mile-long stretch of old industrial piers on the East River that the city has spent the last decade converting into a waterfront park with dramatic views of the bridges and Lower Manhattan. Pier 6, the start of the park, is 1.5 miles from our house and would be a 25 minute walk for me but an impractical journey on foot with the girls. Parking near BBP is scarce, and at best puts you a couple blocks outside the park.
On the bike, it takes 12 minutes to get to Pier 6 – and then we can ride our bike through the park. All of the piers, playgrounds, fields, lawns, water features and photo ops become accessible in a way that they're not by stroller. And while Brooklyn Bridge Park is our favorite, we've also been hitting up Fort Greene, Prospect Park, Red Hook, Battery Park, Little Island, and Greenwood Cemetery,
E-bikes make impractical destinations accessible.
It feels like the safest way to ride
I've been urban biking since moving to Chicago in 2005. There are few activities that bring me as much joy. Biking gives me feelings of freedom and unencumberment. I feel immersed in the city – like I'm a part of it – as opposed to passing through in a protected bubble.
Unfortunately, my biking tapered off since having kids and moving to Brooklyn. For all its benefits, urban biking also carries the undeniable sense that, "I could die doing this" – and the risk-reward hasn't felt worth it these last few years.
Getting an e-bike changed that equation considerably. With an e-bike, you don't have to make the same weight/speed/safety tradeoffs that you do with an unpowered bike. You sit upright. You get off the line fast. You keep up with traffic (the NYC speed limit is 25 mph, and cars rarely reach that because they stop every few blocks). You can confidently take the lane and cars don't try to pass when you do. You don't make mistakes due to fatigue. You've got fat tires to absorb the bumps in the road and disc brakes to stop fast. And if you were to get doored while riding upright on the Urban Arrow's 115 pound frame at 15mph with a big foam basket in front of you, you might actually take the door off.
E-biking feels like the best risk-reward tradeoff I've experienced in 17 years of urban biking. That's not to say that riding in the city always feels safe. There's a lot of potholes and distracted drivers out there. Riding at 10-20mph through New York while hauling the most precious of cargo demands constant vigilance – which is also part of what makes it so stimulating and fun.
As a parent, my job isn't to protect my kids from all risks at all cost, as much as I want to. The lesson I hope the girls learn during these rides is, "the world is a beautiful and dangerous place – here's how to navigate through it."
It's a utility vehicle
Last week Julia and I were making our weekly Trader Joe's run (about a mile away) when we ran into our neighbor at checkout. She told me she was ordering an Uber and kindly offered to take our bags back for us. "Oh, thank you so much, but we're good. We've got our our bike." By the time her Uber dropped her off next door, we already had our groceries unpacked.
Groceries. Package returns. Furniture. Tool rentals from Home Depot. We are continually surprised by what we can haul in the Urban Arrow and how that hauling capacity improves the quality of life in the city.
It's a healthy Midlife Crisis Mobile
I tell people, "I turned 42 and bought a motorcycle, as one does."
The Urban Arrow scratches so many itches of a middle-aged father doing a work-from-home job. It's sleek, black, and goes fast. It draws smiles and comments from strangers. It carries a non-trivial risk of injury every time I get on which makes me feel a little more alive every time I get home.
But it also helps me create memories with the girls, helps me help Rachel with household chores, and gives me a moderate workout every time I'm on it.
The Urban Arrow is a sensible cross between a motorcycle, a minivan, and a Peloton.
Rachel loves it too
I've put 80% of the miles on Urban Arrow... which means Rachel's done 200 miles on her own! She picks Emma up from school, goes grocery shopping, and rides it to appointments solo. When we go out as a family, Rachel takes the kids on the e-bike while I ride point on my old-fashioned, unpowered hybrid. It's so nice to lead the family caravan, pedal as hard as I can, and know that Rachel's having no problem keeping up with me.
While sitting at the kitchen table writing this, I asked Rachel for her thoughts on the bike, and here's what she said:
"Biking in the city isn't easy, but if you're going to do it, having e-assist feels way safer. You can come to a stop and get started without a huge amount of effort. I like that the girls are in front so that I can see them, and they can see where we're going. We can talk to one another. For how big of a bike it is, it's really easy to maneuver. It's surprisingly easy to park. It's also just a lot of fun."
There's two drawbacks to the Urban Arrow that I feel obligated to mention after singing it's praises.
First, you need a place to store it. It's too big to bring up stairs or into the house, and too valuable to just lock up on the street. We have a small gated area where we can lock and cover it, but whenever it comes time to move, "a place to put the bike" will be at the top of our search criteria.
Second, the Urban Arrow costs $7000. That's a lot of money to spend on a bike.
We bought ours from Propel Bikes, a nationally renowned e-bike shop based in Brooklyn (thanks Jeff!). Propel carries a number of longtail e-bikes which are less expensive, and I suspect that most of what I've written above would apply to those as well. Propel's YouTube channel is an excellent place to dip you toes into the e-biking waters.
It's also worth noting that, while $7000 is a lot to spend on a bike, it's inexpensive compared to a car, and that's probably the better comparison when talking about the Urban Arrow. Over the last six months, we've put 10x more city miles on our bike than our car. These days, we mostly use the car to leave the city or when it's raining.
For everything else, we're on the bike.