The e-cargo bike
For people who don’t cycle.
Your car; but better.
DarkerSide review-in-haiku; Urban Arrow
If you keep an eye on @DarkerSide on Twitter, you may have noticed a measure of excitement about a last minute trip to Edinburgh on Sunday to
go and play on review an Urban Arrow.
Here’s how we got on.
The Urban Arrow family
This photo by Kim Harding shows a family of Urban Arrows in Edinburgh:
It also shows four Urban Arrow family (as in, the model of the UA adapted for lugging kids around) and one Urban Arrow cargo (only good for kids if you want to lock them in a box). Not shown: the Urban Arrow shorty.
I was testing an Urban Arrow family with the first edition frame. There is now a second edition – I’ll point out the differences as we go.
The Urban Arrow is a front-loading cargo bike with an aluminium frame, expanded polypropylene box and integrated Bosch crank electric assist. The standard electric model comes in at £2,985 – which includes a host of handy things like lights, mudguards, a rock-solid kickstand, a very loud bell, a rear wheel lock and a rear pannier rack. This one also has hydraulic disc brakes, a cover for the front box and a whole-bike parking cover for a total cost of £3,350.
That lot weighs slightly north of 43kg, which isn’t bad given it’s 2.44m long. It looks pretty portly too, but it’s only 63cm at the widest point, which is narrower than some handlebars. The front wheel is 20″ and the rear is 26″, with both rolling on heavy-duty 36-hole rims. Tyres are chunky Schwalbe Big Apple slicks, the handlebar grips are ergonomically shaped, and the saddle comes with a built-in handle to make lifting the back of the bike slightly easier.
Although you can buy this bike without the electric assist (so if you find it really cheap somewhere, that might be why), you’d be missing out on one of the best features. The Urban Arrow has a Bosch crank-assist motor with four levels of assist ([off], eco, tour, sport and turbo). There’s no direct throttle (the power only feeds in as you turn the pedals), but there is a controller (on the left of the handlebar below) that toggles up and down the power levels.
(Edit on 26 Jan 2016: note the motor fades out at around 28kph, which I suspect is due to boring legislation reasons. You’ll only notice because if you’re giving it the beans on the flat, it’ll suddenly feel like you’ve started going uphill at around that speed.)
System information is displayed on a removable, backlit screen in the centre of the handlebars. That shows your speed (measured from a wheel magnet), power level, actual magnitude of assist right at that point in time (the vertical bar on the right – think of it as a tachometer for the motor), and a headlights on/off indicator. The lower section of the screen can be cycled through using the “i” button on the controller – fields include remaining range (based on current power level and recent consumption), total distance, trip distance and average speed.
The lights are powered from the same battery as the motor and can be turned on and off by the little light button at the bottom-right of the screen. They’re just powerful enough to light your way in darkness, but are plenty bright enough to be seen by.
That battery is stored in the box under the passenger seat in the v1 frame (for slightly better cold weather performance) and between the pedals on v2 (for easier access and shorter cable runs, see photo below). It locks in position.
The drivetrain, controls and brakes
Gearing is managed by a NuVinci continual variable transmission (CVT) rear hub (like any hub gear you can change gear whilst stationary, but uniquely the NuVinci is smooth across the entire range without any defined steps. It’s done using spheres and spinning disks, and is Very Cool). That’s controlled by a grip shift on the right hand side of the handlebar.
Note this makes for a fairly complicated set of rear dropouts. Here’s frame version 1:
And here’s the slightly more straightforward v2:
The chain is fully enclosed, and the frame also protects the chaincase by arcing around it (which is handy if you suspect an enthusiastic child might try and use it as a step).
We’ve already talked about the electrical controls, so completing the controls are the brake levers (connected to a very effective pair of hydraulic disc brakes) and a large bell that produces a healthy ding-dong with each push of the lever.
Because the front wheel is some distance away from the handlebars, the front wheel is manipulated by a long push-road. It’s damped (very effectively) with a glorified elastic band.
The cargo haulin’ stuff
The box (on the family model) is a very thick, dense foam supported by struts from the bike frame. It has the same sort of feel as polystyrene, but is much, much more robust. Within the box you’ve got a fold down passenger seat at the back with two three-point passenger harnesses, and the option to add a further rearward facing seat at the front. Talking of options, you can also add a rear facing MaxiCosi baby seat mount (with suspension) – video for that below:
With the baby seat you could still have two passengers at the rear of the box, but obviously the front bench wouldn’t be an option. The rain tent does still fit over a reasonably-sized baby seat (I asked Urban Arrow to check).
There are studs on the outside of the top tubes that allow the covers to attach, as well as sockets on the front for the rain tent poles. Rather than try and describe them, I’m just going to use the Urban Arrow videos. Here’s the cover:
And here’s the rain tent:
The bottom of the box is perforated metal (so that any water that does get in drains away). There’s also a cutout from the box which functions as a step so kids can climb in by themselves:
This would only work with a suitably robust kickstand. Lo and behold:
If you also secure the rear wheel using the framelock the bike is going nowhere, even with an array of children climbing over it.
Finally there is a fully functioning rear pannier rack.
I really like the Urban Arrow. However, if you forced me to pick out the best bits:
It’s ready to go, and ready for a beginner. If you cycle already you’ll get on fine with the UA – the handling is predictable and the motor makes the additional weight disappear. However, even if you haven’t cycled for 20 years and frankly find the idea too much like hard work, I’d lay money on you falling in love too. You don’t need special clothes to ride it, you don’t need to be fit (although it will help you get fit), it comes with every bike accessory you need with the exception of a lock for overnight, and it’s just so easy to get along with. Urban Arrow have got their marketing spot on when they refer to the operator as a “driver” – this feels like all the best bits of private driving but with much lower running costs. I reckon almost every multi-car family could replace one of their vehicles with an Urban Arrow, and a good percentage could go completely car-free. There’s also a sensible set of additional extras (like the baby seat mount) that can be added in without advanced spannering – the holes are already pre-drilled in the base waiting for you to screw in the bolts. In this way will the utility cycling revolution be won.
That motor and drivetrain. It’s not breathtakingly powerful, but it’s strong enough for most scenarios and the sensible maximum assist avoids the need for an enormous battery. It’s also intuitive – the power feeds in as soon as you put pressure on the pedals, but doesn’t ever spin the cranks round and crack you on the shin when you stop pedalling. There’s no throttle to think about (or hold down), it just feels like you’re on a constant downhill with a gentle tailwind. Coupled with the NuVinci at the back, the Arrow is a breeze even in stop/start traffic.
It’s good value. Just over three grand is expensive. However, you’re getting an awful lot of bike for your money bearing in mind most respectable electric assist systems come in around £1k for just the motor and battery. It also includes all those little extras that other brands might not have in the standard model (kickstand, lights, mudguards, etc). Again, you should be comparing the cost of this against the car you could be replacing.
It feels like it’s been made by someone with kids. The Urban Arrow has been designed to be clambered on, knocked into, abused, poked and generally mistreated by its passengers. You’ve got the rock-steady kickstand, the build in step, the protection for the drivetrain, and the soft-touch-ness (that’s a word, honest) of the foam box. The rain tent sets up without needing advanced camping skills, and the box cover that rolls back to keep your little darlings snug and dry(ish) is just really neat. Whilst we’re talking about your little darlings, the Arrow has massive road presence (I got much more space from other vehicles that riding a normal bike), and – if the worst does happen – your kids will get a solid amount of protection from that box and the handlebars.
I also think it looks pretty damn fine, but that’s totally subjective…
There are a few things I’ll mention on the negative side.
The child harnesses aren’t great. There’s no padding over the shoulder, they’re a faff to size properly, and the fastener is just a standard push-the-sides buckle rather than something more child-resistant. I’d like to have seen something a little more thought-through here.
The lights are only just good enough. Given the low price of dynamo lights (even though these are powered off the battery, they’re still dynamo models as far as I can tell), Urban Arrow could have gone for something with slightly more oomph without significantly increasing the cost. This bike is supposed to be a drop-in replacement for a car, so give the rider something they can see with (rather than just be seen by) as part of the standard build.
Changing the rear tube would be a right faff. There’s no way around that without a Workcycle’s-style split rear stay, but I’ll mention it anyway. I’d maybe consider some kind of sealant in the tubes. The v2 frame dropouts should make it considerably easier to get the rear wheel out, but you’re still handling a very heavy bike.
The foam box can’t be painted. Maybe it’s just me, but with a wooden cargo box I’d be painting a shark’s mouth or Normandy invasion stripes on it in short order. You can still decorate the UA box (and there’s a photo of an UA for a Laid Back Bike’s customer just below), but you’ll need to use adhesive stickers rather than paint.
The “would I buy it?” one line conclusion
With two or more children, and particularly if I had a car I could dispose of; yes.
I hired the Urban Arrow (you can too!) from the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling for the purposes of this review. That was £12 for four hours. The Scotland dealer is Laid Back Bikes, who I know well, but sadly David has not, as yet, rewarded this review with a free Urban Arrow.
Uberuce did most of the photos apart from the five UAs abreast, which was taken by Kim Harding, and the ugly phone photos, which were by my ugly phone.
PS: the route I tested the UA on is below. Around 24km of urban riding, with a few ups and downs. Despite the temptation, I did not attempt to win any Strava king-of-the-mountain segments with the electric assist on turbo…