This article was published in 2016, in Newsletter 124.
I had been thinking ahead to Christmas, and more specifically Christmas trees. In previous years I’ve hired a ‘man and van’ at somewhere north of £30, or given up and not bought a Christmas tree at all, but then an American webcomic1 prompted the question, ‘well, why can’t I just get my tree by bike?’ After all, even a two-metre tree probably weighs only a little more than other things I’ve carried on my own bicycle (previous best – a 12kg amplifier, on my front rack), so the only real issue was size. Could a tree that size even fit safely on a bicycle? How would it affect the handling if it was high up? Might be a bit tricky on any bike I own.
Then Outspoken, the Cambridge-based delivery company, announced in October that they would be starting a short-term cargo bike hire scheme, making use of the electric-assist bicycles from their courier arm Outspoken Delivery at times when they’d otherwise be unused. Tailor-made, almost, for a tree!
The bare facts: hire one of a variety of bikes to suit loads weighing anywhere up to 300kg, for £12 over a three-hour slot on weekday afternoons or Saturdays, after a one-off training session costing £50 (£10 for the first ten users).
Training is mandatory for the hire and is equivalent to a Bikeability level 3 test followed by a couple of check rides with unloaded and loaded cargo bikes – understandable, since they can hardly require a driving licence! The check ride covered everything from cycle paths to East Road at rush hour – a stiff test of on-road traffic negotiation. The Maderna Truck bike that I used is a full metre longer than my regular bike as I found out when trying to navigate one of Midsummer Common’s narrow-fenced cattle grids – thankfully, nothing damaged.
My journey to pick up the Christmas tree two days later was thankfully entirely uneventful. In true Christmas spirit Rob from Outspoken had kindly let me rent the bike outside the planned hiring window, so instead of heading home we returned to the Outspoken site as the bike was needed for another delivery. Rob then delivered the tree over the ‘last mile’ to my house that evening.
My thoughts, as someone that can drive, but does not own a car? The concept is excellent for those sorts of situations where I might otherwise be thinking ‘hire car’ or ‘man and van’ – a preplanned furniture or appliance shop for example, or taking a load to a charity shop or dump. The Maderna Truck bike was comfortable to ride both when empty and full, and the electric pedal assist makes riding at 15 miles per hour as easy as at five. It is also extremely forgiving in terms of balance thanks to the wide tyres, though it does require a bit of trust that the motor will kick in when you push off fully loaded.
The downside? A three-hour window might be rather tight if you want to make multiple journeys -I feel Outspoken might be optimistic about moving flats with it, for example, and their rate of £12 for that time may leave some people pondering an all-day self-drive van hire instead.
Overall though, I can see a lot more uses for their bike hire in my future, and as more customers leave their feedback – praise and criticism alike – I believe that the scheme will shake down into something to make a few ‘men with vans’ quite nervous!