One of the first things that Brian Rinckenberger, commercial sales director for Rad Power Bikes, tells me as I sit perched on the saddle of one of the company’s massive electric tricycles is that regular cyclists usually freak out at this point.
I am no exception. I’m in Golden Gardens, a waterfront park on the northwest edge of Seattle overlooking the Puget Sound. And I’m about to try to pedal 500 pounds–a 300-pound tricycle, piled with 200 pounds of cargo in the truck-bed attachment behind me–across the parking lot. For reference, my road bike, which I ride daily, is 22 pounds. I can’t stop moving my feet from the pedals to the ground in an unnecessary attempt to stop the tricycle from tipping over, as I’m convinced it will.
This, Rinckenberger says, is how people used to riding a bike generally react when they first try out the RadBurro–Rad Power Bikes’ new, multipurpose electric trike that can carry up to 700 pounds (including the rider). The pedaling action may be the same, but that’s about where the similarity stops. But even through my slight panic at the disconnect between road cycling and piloting the behemoth I’m sitting on, I recognize that this is what makes the Burro such a revolutionary tool.
Rad makes a number of other electric bicycles, which mimic non-motorized bike transport just with an additional boost from a motor. If you think of e-bikes as a replacement for a car, the Burro is the successor to a box truck. It stands to reason that a similar learning curve exists between learning to drive a massive truck and learning to pilot the Burro.
Rad’s cofounders, Mike Radenbaugh and Ty Collins, designed the Burro in the hopes that small businesses will use it to transport goods, instead of relying on cars and trucks.The Burro can reach up to 80 miles on a single battery charge; the battery needs to be plugged in for 2.5 hours to go from dead to fully charged. It takes around four or five Burros to move the cargo that a typical truck can carry, but the trikes cost just over $5,000, versus over $25,000 for a box truck. In terms of cost and capacity, a small fleet of Burros is equal to a single truck, and leaves a much lighter environmental footprint. The appeal of this trade-off has reached some major players in the delivery industry: In Portland, Seattle, and Pittsburgh, UPS is rolling out an e-tricycle delivery pilot with the same idea.
The Burro comes with a number of different attachments to work with different delivery needs. There’s a flatbed and a truck bed, both around three feet by four feet, which work for moving things like garden supplies and loose equipment. In Seattle, the Woodland Park Zoo electrician, who regularly has to get around the property with hundreds of pounds of equipment and tools, uses the Burro with the truck bed so their work is carbon free. There is a large, insulated steel cargo box–which stands over four feet tall–useful for perishable goods deliveries and larger loads. Spud, a grocery delivery company in Vancouver, has swapped out its vehicles for RadBurros equipped with cargo attachments. And there’s a carriage-style passenger seat, which companies like Hood River Pedicab use to bring people on tours.
Dave Wilke, the Woodland Park Zoo’s facilities director, says the zoo has used people-powered tricycles on the property for decades, but RadBurro has made it possible to do more without relying on internal combustion vehicles. “We have a decent amount of elevation change across our 96 acres,” he says. “That’s hard enough to manage when you’re moving yourself and a bike, but throw in a couple hundreds pounds of load at the back, and it’s impossible.” With the Burro, though, the electrician who mainly uses it no longer needs to rely on a car, and the zoo will likely purchase more for other maintenance departments. For the zoo, Wilke says, the electric tricycle helps the staff live out their commitment to leaving as light an environmental footprint as possible.
On city streets, electric bicycles are also having a bit of a moment for that exact reason, as well as their ability to circumnavigate traffic congestion. In places like New York City and San Francisco, bike-share companies like Motivate and Lime are swiftly rolling out battery-enhanced bikes, recognizing that the boost from the motor makes cycling more accessible to people who feel left out by urban bike culture, which can often feel dominated by the lycra-clad or hardcore bike messengers on fixed-gear rides. Between 2016 and 2017, sales of electric bicycles increased by 95%, and show no sign of slowing down; e-scooters, too, have joined as a seemingly permanent feature in the urban streetscape.
The Burro is Rad Power Bikes’ answer to the question of how to apply the enthusiasm for non-vehicular transport to hauling cumbersome loads. As I’m quickly finding out, this will not be a seamless transition. That’s why we’re in an all-but-empty parking lot, not cruising through the streets of Ballard, the north Seattle neighborhood where Rad Power Bikes is headquartered. Anyone that purchases a Burro, either for personal or business use, receives an extensive training in how to use it from Rinckenberger and Kagen Luedemann, Rad’s post-sales support specialist. They walk new clients through basic mechanics–how to install the different attachments, and how to re-charge the battery–and if possible, they get a crash-course in navigation, like I’m receiving.
The first step is actually starting up and steering the hefty tricycle. Once I get it through my head that a tricycle (especially one with a 35-pound battery at its gravitational center) will not tip over like my flimsy road bike if I keep me feet on the pedals, Rinckenberger shows me how to adjust the trike’s motor and pedal-assist settings. Pulling the throttle in the right handlebar activates a surge of energy that gets the heavy trike going from a standstill. Once it’s moving, I adjust the pedal-assist settings, which activate the motor as I move the pedals. Soon, traveling in a straight line down the parking lot, I forget that I’m transporting more than 500 pounds with just my legs (and a very powerful battery). Using both the throttle and the highest pedal-assist setting, I could go as fast as 20 miles per hour.
When it gets to the point at the edge of the parking lot where I need to turn around, though, I panic. On a regular bike, if you rotate your handlebars more than a few degrees to the left or right to turn, you’ll end up on the ground; most of the steering happens by leaning your body. On the RadBurro, this is not the case. To get the bike to turn, you need to wrench the handlebars nearly 90 degrees in the direction you want to go, which causes my palms to instantly sweat, but works. My boyfriend, a former pedicab operator who’s watching my practice run bemusedly, reminds me that I’ll have to start turning the bike sooner than expected to give the trailer at the back enough time to make it around the corner without whacking another vehicle.
I will admit: My first go-round the parking lot on the RadBurro was not great. To me, it felt physically impossible that just by pedaling, I could move such a hefty load without feeling like I was doing any work. Something felt off, and I couldn’t reconcile it in my head. But I tried again, and it felt more normal. The third time, something clicked, and I was cruising. As tank-like as it is, the Burro is surprisingly nimble; Rinckenberger set out an obstacle course of cones I eventually learned to navigate around. Doing that, I could imagine working around car traffic on a trike.
Even as more cities look for ways to lower their carbon footprints and reduce traffic congestion, there’s a lingering assumption that deliveries and large-load transport will still need to happen by vehicle. The RadBurro, and small pilots like UPS’s e-tricycle program in Portland, are challenging that idea. And even though it might feel strange at first–as it did to me–to move such a big load just by pedaling, it should be a huge source of optimism that it’s possible.