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Pennsylvania's first active transportation initiative for people with I/DD: From walking to electric cargo bike

Updated: Mar 12

This program uses an adapted electric cargo bike to help Margot maintain Kennett's Pop Up Lending Libraries: What other options did we consider along the way?

On our sister site Kennett Ability Network, we recently highlighted a new initiative that includes the use of an adapted electric cargo bike to help my daughter Margot complete bicycle-based deliveries. As far as we can tell, this may be the first example of a program using e-bikes to support active transportation for people with disabilities (if not, we would love to learn of others). Over the next several months, we expect to highlight the other specific uses of this bicycle, from delivering food to families in needs, and helping to mulch trees planted to repair riparian corridors. But we think the journey that brought us to this solution reveals some unique challenges - and opportunities - to active transportation for people with disabilities.

First, some background. As Margot approached the transition into adulthood and we began planning her life after school, we wanted to integrate exercise throughout her day and to get her out into the community as much as possible; young adults like Margot are at high risk of sedentary and isolated lives. We immediately thought of how to build active transportation into her programming: we had already seen the benefits of keeping Margot healthy through regular walks in nature, and so the potential for active transportation was clear. Our first efforts focused on designing a program that would allow her to walk from site to site to the greatest extent possible. To that end, we acquired a small house in the center of our town that served as a home base for Margot that was literally a 5-10 minute walk to three key sites: our town park, library, and YMCA.

Reaching sites further away was more challenging. Though we had begun to use our adapted electric tandem (a Hase Pino STEPS) to shop in town, we were doubtful that we could find an aide experienced enough as a cyclist to be comfortable with the option.

Cargo was another challenge. Some of the volunteer opportunities required that Margot carry books or groceries, and this was difficult for short distances, let alone longer ones. We first sought a cart that Margot could push or pull. We had several false starts as we discovered that Margot had difficulty maintaining her balance while pulling/pushing AND steering. In the end, she learned to pull a small lightweight shopping cart designed for a bicycle (a Burley Travoy trailer) with up to 30 pounds in it for up to a quarter mile. As we began doing this more often, we began dropping some of her daily 90 minute walks as we discovered that Margot was exhausted by mid afternoon.

At the same time, we had also observed that just carrying anything other than a backpack challenged Margot's balance. A bag or bucket in one hand for more than a couple of steps quickly threw the rhythm of her gait off, especially as she carried heavier items. Carrying two bags did not solve the problem, especially when combined with the challenge of steps or any unfamiliar or uneven surface. Our solution was to move to use standard milk crates to carry everything: Margot could comfortably manage much more weight by holding it higher and centered, as in the picture above. We gradually increased the amount she could carry, and the distance she carried it.

By this time, Margot was at the point where her volunteering could be more than just a way of filling time: she could really begin to give back IF she could carry a bit more. In many cases, this meant more than what could be managed on a handcart. So that began our search for a bicycle-based option. Bicycle-based delivery systems were well established in Europe, and were gaining steam in the US, but we had to be able to deliver the cargo AND the Margot. So we were excited to get our hands on an electric assist Trio Taxi (pictured above) in late 2021. The Taxi provides a very safe and comfortable ride for Margot, even on our back country roads, and we began to use it for our deliveries in town and for shopping at our local store.

Cargo was trickier... you could stack 1-2 milk crates on the seat of the Trio Taxi, but you needed a trailer for anything more. So we found a heavier duty cargo trailer made by Wike - the same Canadian company that manufactured the special needs trailer that got Margot behind a bike in the first place! This trailer includes an optional "brake", allowing it to carry more. And we discovered a great advantage of cargo bikes - they can deliver any cargo door to door almost anywhere. This changed how much we could accomplish, because we could roll right up to our destination, decreasing the final distance Margot had to carry crates, and therefore allowing us to carry more in one outing. For example, we could double the number of newly planted trees we could mulch in an outing, carrying up to 12 crates (about 120-150 lbs) of mulch at a time.

As we began to see what was possible by carrying more, we began to hit a limit... I could get Margot up almost every hill in our town, as long was we were ready to use maximum electric assist, our granny gears, and some muscle... but not with a fully loaded trailer. The combined weight was simply too much even for me, and the creaking of the bicycle wheels suggested maybe too much for the bike too. We identified alternate routes that were longer and less steep, but were still left with destinations we simply could not reach. If you stopped on a hill, you were simply stuck... a scenario that was simply unacceptable if I ever wanted an aide to bike with Margot. Were there other options?

That is when we discovered the Urban Arrow Tender, just introduced to the US and available at  HEH Electric in Ann Arbor MI. Urban Arrow is one of the most well-established manufacturer of cargo bikes in Europe. The Tender is a true cargo bike, with three wheels and with the largest model (pictured here) designed to carry 2 European-sized pallets. The two car tires in front provide more stability, and the higher torque of the electric motor and lower gear ratios made it more likely that we could master most hills. I was excited by the option to build out the cargo area to accommodate seating for the Margot AND the cargo, making a trailer unnecessary in most cases.

So after a test drive, and after determining that the height and depth of the wheelcover could accommodate a seat, and the cargo area could (almost) accommodate 6 -12 milk crates, we acquired a the smallest Tender (1000) with a flatbed plus. I added boat seats with armrests and seatbelts, built out the cargo area to fit up to 12 milk crates with tiedowns, and added a footrest in front that made it easier for Margot to climb up. Even fully loaded, the Tender is a breeze on the flats, and the lower gear ratio combined with maximum electric assist helps us to comfortably make it up almost all hills. In contrast with the 20x1 1/2" front wheels of the Taxi, the wide car tires on the Tender makes it feel solid going over curbs and even over grass. We are gradually increasing the number and weight of crates Margot carries (and the distance she carries them from the bike), and will soon help her to place and stack the crates independently.

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