Florence’s RunAbout Cycles
Up the Road Ahead -
Joshua's Electric Bike
By Edward Shanahan
Across the hall from my space on the ground floor at 30 North Maple St. in Florence the mechanical clutter and activity evoke for me pictures of the young Thomas Edison toiling away in his laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J. in 1879.
Because Edison’s invention of electric lighting is old hat, Joshua Kerson and his friends are trying to adapt it to newer practical uses.
His company – RunAbout Cycles – is designing, fabricating and trying to get people to pay attention to the efficiency, economy and enjoyment of non-polluting electric bicycles, or more precisely large tricycles powered by electric batteries and the cyclist working in tandem.
Apart from being a formidable engineering and marketing challenge, Kerson, 37, sees the “electric bike” as a “kind of a protest against all of the socially car-imposed values that everyone is hit with.”
There are some 250 electric bike companies producing some 7.5 million such bikes world-wide, he said, the largest market being in Asia, followed by Europe. U.S. sales lag far behind at only 20,000 units.
Yet, Kerson says, the bike or trike he has developed is “unconventional” in terms of the other firms active in this field. “I’ve got a new product – a tricycle platform which provides for the most stable and comfortable ride for this technology.” The standard electric bike is upright, simply a traditional two-wheeler with pedals and heavy batteries, but quite unstable and difficult to handle because of the weight of the energy pack. He also has built a two-wheeled recumbent version of the trike, which is his high-end product.
Meanwhile, the bottom line right now with existing battery technology is that a rider engaging in moderate pedaling and tapping into the onboard energy can travel about 50 miles at a cost of 15 cents.
While he describes his business as “still an investment … it will be a few years before we make money,” he says he intends to grow and eventually open “our own stores in recreational areas,” to attract baby boomers by offering them “a human hybrid.”
For the 50-year-old-plus crowd, the electric bike offers comfort, economy and exercise. The bike is propelled first by the rider, then the energy takes over, then it can be half rider and half electric output, until the rider “gets pooped” and once again battery-driven power kicks in.
A bike rider can pedal 8 to 12 miles an hour, and with electric assistance this can be bumped up to 20 to 25 miles per hour, although Kerson feels 20 mph is pretty much the optimum speed.
Kerson and his crew, including Rob Young who used to operate a bike shop a few hundred yards down the street, this month will mark the business’s first full year operating out of space in Bill Arnold’s factory building at 30 North Maple.
Kerson (left) with Young
Since moving from a location in Amherst last year, Kerson said in a recent interview: “Our biggest accomplishment is building our fabrication shop, I really learned I needed to have my own shop, my own space.”
And once the shop was
outfitted and up and running, he said proudly that RunAbout Cycles has built four bikes - three trikes and “one top of the line recumbent bicycle … a real feat for us to build the recumbent prototype.”
But let’s back up.
Kerson grew up in Belchertown and graduated from the local high school in 1987. Between then and 2000 he pretty much worked full-time in the bike business and ski industry. During the summer he worked in a variety of local bike shops, Valley Bicycles in Amherst, Peleton, and Competitive Edge, and when winter came he headed for Park City, Utah, to be a professional ski mechanic.
In 2000, he said, his family offered financial help if he wanted to go to school, something that has not held his interest earlier. “But I absolutely knew I wanted to go to school, to take it to another level, (rather than) continue to run someone else’s shop.”
A few years earlier, while working at Valley Bicycles’ satellite shop in Hadley, Kerson started mulling the notion of developing his own bike.
This idea was reinforced when he and John Coull of Amherst Bicycles went to a trade show in Philadelphia and were struck by the demonstration of 25 electric bicycles, only available in Asia. “We could see a development that was growing and we talked about designing our own electric-assist system,” he recalls. “This is when we got the idea of creating a pusher electric trailer, charged by solar panels.”
The concept, he said, was to have the trailer push the bike, “like putting the horse behind the cart.”
Goaded by this growing interest in an electrical bike, Kerson enrolled in UMass’ University Without Walls which enabled him to take classes in design and fabrication at Hampshire College.
It took him five years to graduate but in the course of that time he moved forward with developing his own bike.
The first year, Kerson built his solar-powered bike trailer and took it to the Smithsonian Institution’s “Reinventing the Wheel “ program, which showcased “bicycle-related inventions.”
The second year, he took to the show the latest version of Spin Cycle, the “first complete vehicle I ever built, three wheels, motor, and brakes.” This represented his belief that “we would need to design it as a hybrid, to carry the weight of the extra energy,” rather than simply add a battery to a regulation bike. He called it Big Blue.
“I wanted to design it from the ground up, incorporating the battery into the frame, centered, and balanced,” he explained.
He received a good deal of help at Hampshire College from its Lemelson Assistive Technology Development Center, writing proposals for grants to build five different vehicles over five years.
The third vehicle he came up with was called Greenie. He then sold all three of his early offspring after graduating from UMass in the spring of 2005, which is precisely the point in starting a business.
Post-college life was “a bit of a struggle,” he admits, working out of a space in Amherst for a while, but unable to develop a full fabricating shop.
That was when Kerson and his 15-year loyal companion Phedoux, part Alaskan Husky and part Timberwolf, moved to Florence to get RunAbout Cycles finally on the road. Sadly, Phedoux succumbed a few months ago, and is mourned by Kerson, but he remains the firm’s’ distinctive icon – effortlessly racing forward - in its promotional materials.
So where does RunAbout Cycles stand today? “We are in production for five more bikes right now,” he said. “We’ve bought parts for 25 bikes, and we’re making five frames. We want to do a bike in two weeks now that we have a few people helping out.”
The most exciting development, he said, is the newer light-weight lithium ion batteries now available at a more affordable cost. Each lithium battery weighs 13 pounds compared to 45 pounds for the standard lead acid batteries. Thus his first Big Blue bike was carrying a load of 90 pounds.
The lithium ion battery cost is four times that of the lead battery, but it will take 2000 charges. A pair of lead batteries will take only 350 to 500 charges. So if you ride 50 miles before a charge, and the battery takes 2000 charges, the batteries are presumably good for 100,000 miles. Probably the bike or the rider will wear out long before that.
Right now, Kerson offers two bike options – one with the lead batteries for $4,500, the other with the lithium batteries for $6,000, both on a standard trike frame.
Ultimately, fuel cell technology will supplant batteries for the bikes’ energy, but its cost is prohibitive now, except for space shuttles and solar homes, he says.
Author takes a spin on bike trail
A final barrier that confronts Kerson and his electric bike is trying to sell it through retail outlets. “This is a hard story,” he says. “Electric bikes don’t fit in bike shops because they have motors, and we don’t find them in motorcycle stores because they have pedals.”
Frustration becomes evident as he admits that “the electric bike is searching for a home. This really bothers me, it gets under my skin … the bike industry sees us as a threat … they are not embracing it, they have a Luddite mentality … it’s too different. ” He says for traditional bike shops the training of staff to sell and service is the biggest hurdle.
Yet ,while 90 percent of the bike shops “pooh pooh electric bikes,” he said, there are 50 million baby boomers on the cusp of retiring for whom the electric bike is an almost perfect vehicle.
So, Kerson has made arrangements to put his bikes in seven “solar stores,” mainly in Vermont, which promote a “green technology.”
Still, he says: “I love the bike industry, even though a lot of our friends are hesitant to embrace a new technology that could blow new life into an old industry.”
The liveliest electric bike market is in California, Florida and Arizona – the homes of many of the retiree population – so the question is will Kerson and RunAbout Cycles eventually have to pull up roots and head south.
“We aspire to ship bikes, “ he says, which means he can stay put here. “Basically, I love the valley, I like the mentality of the people here.” He also recognizes that in New England “ we sell fair-weather vehicles,” even though he says: “I ride all year; I just bundle up in ski gear and get on my bike.”
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