VanMoof, the Dutch builder of sleek, high-tech e-bikes, boasts more than 150,000 riders worldwide. Taco Carlier, co-founder and CEO, has just announced at SXSW 2021 the company’s plans to provide top-level service for their riders. VanMoof will expand its worldwide presence from eight to 50 cities, including American cities Los Angeles, CA, Portland, OR, and Washington. D.C.
The new network is not just a blossoming of modern, angular showrooms. The plan is to build out a network of state-of-the-art service hubs and certified partner workshops over the next six months. Along with a more intuitive app support and remote diagnostic solutions, this enables the brand to provide excellent service for their bikes around the world.
“The goal is to provide the best possible experience to our riders—no matter where they’re located,” explains Taco Carlier.
I got to test a VanMoof e-bike myself back in July of 2020, from the showroom in San Francisco. Wearing my mask, I received a touchless store demo and then got to see for myself how helpful the pedal assist was when riding up San Francisco’s steep hills.
The upscale but understated bike is a valuable and highline item, so keeping it in perfect running condition is important to its owners. When you’re spending a couple of thousand dollars on something, you want to be well taken care of. VanMoof has experienced “hypergrowth” as a result of a global boom in e-bikes, tripling sales over this last pandemic year.
Cities with brand stores will include Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tokyo. The 14 service hubs will offer test rides, check-ups, and repairs. The more than 60 carefully selected certified partner workshops will receive special training to work on VanMoof’s S3 and X3 bikes.
Cofounder Ties Carlier, Taco’s brother, reminds us of the bottom line:
“Reducing our reliance on cars and instilling the confidence to change-up your commute habits requires a robust service fallback for your new ride. Only then will we reach a critical mass turning point that transforms our cities.”
Cycling is a great way to reduce automotive traffic, especially in crowded urban settings. The residents of the Netherlands are experts and want to help other nations understand the benefits of cycling, build out cycling infrastructure, and ride safely. To do this, they have established the Dutch Cycling Embassy.
“The Dutch Cycling Embassy is a vast network of public and private organizations from the Netherlands who wish to share their expertise on building what supports the Dutch cycling culture to those interested.”
I recently attended an interesting online presentation by the Embassy. The initial portion included an introduction by Chris Bruntlett, the Embassy’s Marketing and Communications Manager. Derek Taylor of Goudappel also spoke. This was followed by a choice of three simultaneous breakout sessions; I attended one on the design and building of cycling infrastructure.
Some Impressive Dutch Two-wheel Stats
The Netherlands is the number one country in the world in bike ridership. This nation of 17 million residents owns 23 million bikes—more than one per person! They take five million bike trips each year, averaging about 621 miles per person. There are 202 cities and towns where bike share actually exceeds car share (for trips shorter than 4.7 miles). And today, 18 percent of bike trips are by electrical assist, and 26 percent of all miles ridden are by e-bikes.
What helps it run so well is that cycling is incorporated into the public transit system. Half of all train trips begin with a bicycle ride to the station. The Embassy’s slides showed vast bike parking facilities there.
Derek Taylor, the Mobility Analyst and Business Developer from Goudappel Coffeng spoke.
Goudappel Coffeng is a Netherlands-based company with 60 years of mobility planning experience and currently has 250 experts on staff. Their slogan is “Mobility Moves Us” (Mobiliteit beweegt ons). Derek lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and understands what’s relevant to the local community.
The Netherlands, the world’s transport-safest country, has a balanced modal share—30% car, 30% public transit, 30% bikes, and 10% pedestrians (or other). And it’s fully integrated, too, with residents using a single card for local, regional, and international travel.
Derek described the similarities between the Dutch Randstad Economic Region and the Bay Area. The Randstad encompasses the four largest cities in the Netherlands, which are located in the western part of the country. The four cities are Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, and The Hague. This maps fairly closely to the Bay Area, which includes the cities of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland, and all the places in between.
A huge difference, though, is that the Bay Area uses a lot more cars! For comparison, the car to non-car ratio in Amsterdam is 30/70 percent while it’s 88/12 percent in San Jose—utterly the opposite. How do they do that in the Randstad?
The answer is, they take an integrated approach to mobility planning, land use planning, considering the urban form, buildings, and special design. Dutch cities have even created some car-free zones.
A good way to remove cars is to make it easy to live without them, so there is a hierarchy of travel modes, all integrated:
International high speed trains
Interregional – Intercity trains
Metropolitan – metro, light rail, commuter rail
Local – trams, buses, cycling
The Bay Area doesn’t have this kind of integration, and there’s really no land-based international travel. As it is, about 7.7 million people live in the Bay Area, and the area has the fifth largest GDP in the U.S. In a challenge for cycling, 33 percent of Bay Area residents work in a different county from where they live, and 75 percent drive to work. According to Derek, traffic congestion has increased 80 percent since 2010, especially at high travel times, and its growing rapidly (in non-pandemic times).
Many people live within 1.25 miles of an existing rail station (BART and CalTrain) and could possibly cycle to the station and take transit if it were set up for it. Derek talked about catchment zones, which have 5% of the land but 51% of the jobs and are good transit hubs. So, for example, the Salesforce Transit Center in downtown San Francisco is ideal, and commuters could bike to the train stations and go to work from Salesforce (or even in it—it’s the tallest building in San Francisco). This of course is in the world after COVID-19 is under control.
The E-Bike Design and Planning Breakout Session
The three speakers in this session taught me a lot about how cycling infrastructure decisions are made and how those beautiful Dutch bike paths and structures get designed and built.
Kennisplatform Crow is an e-bike design and planning company in the Netherlands. Hillie Talens, Project Manager, talked about how Crow considers the user’s perspective in design decisions.
The Netherlands has a road classification system that helps develop guidelines for safety.
Motorways (no bicycles)
Distributor roads (to connect them)
Hillie discussed five safety principles that Crow considers when designing cycling paths and structures:
Functionality – It does the job as well as possible
Homogeneity of mass, speed, and direction – moving at the same speed helps avoid accidents
Recognizability of road design and predictability of the road course and road user behavior – signage is consistent and placed consistently
Forgivingness of the environment (physical and social) – help eliminate problems by allowing room for errors and enough space for safe passage
State awareness by the road user
Crow considers five main bicycle infrastructure requirements:
Coherence – The system is complete, connected, and consistent, and cyclists have no trouble finding their way. Bicycles combine well with cars and public transit and offer route choices
Directness – Eliminate unnecessary detours and allow for a constant speed with a minimum of delays
Attractiveness – Include variety and surprise, activities along the route, positive stimuli for all of the senses, and to keep bikeways clean, whole, well-tended
Safety & Health – Mix bikes with cars when possible and separate them when necessary for low speed and volume and provide alternative parallel pathways for high volume. Consider infrastructure and land use, such as location of schools
Comfort – Provide a smooth surface (concrete/asphalt), minimal stops, protection against the weather, avoid steep slopes, make sure there’s enough space (abreast), avoid sharp curves, and design for a speed of 20 mph
Other factors include positioning bollards marked with reflective material, streetlighting, keeping vehicles out of bike paths, and providing enough bike parking spaces.
Mobycon is an independent consultancy firm based in the Netherlands. Their interdisciplinary team includes urban designers, planners, economists, and social scientists who are well versed in applying Dutch transport expertise around the world. Lennart Nout, Manager of International Strategy, guided us through their presentation.
Mobycon wants to make the world less dependent on the car. In the Netherlands, people cycle not only on short city trips but do some long-distance commuting, too. That means investing in bicycle highways, not just bike paths along existing roads. Research has found that providing designated bike lanes helps get more riders to take short trips. Mobycon is working on a fully segregated bicycle highway in Los Angeles.
Like Hillie, Lennart mentioned three different types of roads, which they label flow, distribution, and access. Mobycon has found that creating low-traffic residential neighborhoods unlocks high bike use. Motorists are willing to drive shorter distances at slower speeds within them, which is safer for cyclists. You can plan out a neighborhood where you can get where you need to go in six minutes. Lennart showed an example of how, in Barcelona, they put the cars on the outside of “superblocks” and the cyclists inside.
Bike Minded is located in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Their goal is co-designing a bicycle friendly world by creating e-bike infrastructure. They are concerned with signage and technical elements such as bridges. Company founder Maurits Lopes Cardozo was our guide.
E-bikes are growing steadily in the Netherlands. From 2% in 2004 they now are fully 42% of bicycle purchases. With reduced effort, more people can use them, and it enables higher travel speeds, which makes longer trips possible—and has an effect on urban planning. It could have a large impact in the Bay Area, too.
Pedal assist used to be for seniors and people who had difficulty riding a bike, but now, they are used by many other people, including for delivery and even schoolkids.
Maurits described two types of cyclists—practical and recreational—and says that both types would be willing to switch to e-bikes. Practical cyclists are everyday cyclists: commuters, people carrying cargo, or students going to school. Recreational cyclists are of all ages, are often e-bike users, and enjoy riding for sports and fun.
The two cycling types have different needs, but it all requires good infrastructure. While the main cycling network in town can be on asphalt streets, there are some fast-cycling regional routes for longer distance commutes. Maurits talked about three hierarchies of cycling: basic, main, and fast.
Basic can share streets at slow speeds
Main have a separated path—red-painted asphalt in the Netherlands
Fast-cycling routes are not for cars, and are for longer commutes and recreational rides
However, for those longer trips, there are often barriers, such as highways, rail and utility corridors, rivers, and canals, which divide neighborhoods. Car-dominant intersections are a problem, too. So, Bike Minded plans and designs ways to surmount these barriers. For example, the amazing Hovenring in Eindhoven, is a circular cable-stayed cycling bridge that floats over the highway. Maurits showed us the Los Angeles River Bike Path, and the City of Davis’ bike infrastructure projects.
The ideal situation is to integrate cycling seamlessly with other transport networks, and that sometimes is not parallel to the car network. Minimal contact with other modes is much safer. That’s why Bike Minded likes roundabouts in place of intersections, such as in Beukelsdijk in Rotterdam. They are much safer and keep all traffic, cars, and cycles, flowing smoothly.
The Last Word from Chris Bruntlett
Chris Bruntlett, based in Delft, the Netherlands, uses his knowledge and passion for cycling to share what the Netherlands has to offer with other locations around the world.
Per Chris, regular unassisted bikes can be part of the picture, but e-bikes are transformational.
“Switching just a fraction of automobile trips to the electric bicycle could save societies billions, addressing myriad problems such as obesity, congestion, air quality, noise pollution, and road safety,” he said.
However, there are three major barriers to realizing these benefits: lack of infrastructure, lack of storage, and the up-front expense. That means e-bikes won’t be used in large numbers without creating safe places to ride and park them and providing incentives to make it easier to buy one.
“This seemingly limitless potential to transform our cities and towns won’t be fully realized without additional support from both the public and private sectors,” Chris said.
So, the best things you can do now are to join like-minded people and organizations to push for change, lobby your elected officials, and if all else fails, run for elected office yourself. And, of course, go get your own e-bike.
Bicycles are ubiquitous. I’ve had one most of my life, starting before the age of 6. I even made a living as a bike messenger many years ago at age 18. I now own a 35-year-old 10-speed and a modern 21-speed cruising bike, but I don’t ride them. Part of the problem is that I live in a hilly area, and while it’s nice to ride downhill it’s a lot more challenging to ride back up. VanMoof has an answer.
VanMoof e-bikes help you pedal, while still retaining the look and feeling of being “a bike.” The VanMoof S3 model I tested has a small electric motor and is packed with loads of technology neatly and securely hidden inside its sturdy, matte black frame.
The S3 and its smaller, but otherwise identical X3 sibling, just came out in April, replacing the previous S2 and X2 while offering more features and better quality, at a lower price! How did they do that? Answer: VanMoof increased the production volume in their Taiwan factory, as well as owning more of the production process and outsourcing fewer of the steps involved. This increased efficiency resulted in savings they could pass on to their customers.
VanMoof is a Dutch company from Amsterdam, but they have a few locations in the U.S., including San Francisco! The narrow, but deep shop sits at 886 Valencia Street in the City’s famous Mission District, across the street from a remarkable mural that’s been updated for the COVID-19 pandemic.
I arrived at the shop a few minutes early and waited patiently for my appointment outside while three employees arrived, including Grace, who became my guide for exploring this exciting bike. Once they opened up at 11 a.m. I entered the shop and saw a few of the bikes set up. Grace brought out a black S3 and explained the good stuff.
This is a beautifully simple looking ride. The surfaces are all painted a deep matte black that looks like it’s an eighth of an inch thick. The handlebars are simple one-piece units with the appropriate brake levers on each side and a couple of little thumb buttons for controls. The left button is an on/off switch and the right controls some settings and lets you select extra boost when you need it while riding up hills. There are matching black fenders that, per Grace, are great for keeping rain from spraying you off the tires. There’s a small but bright LED headlamp up front and a red taillamp.
You can use a phone app with the bike, but I wasn’t able to test it. There used to be one set up in the shop display, but with COVID-19 concerns, it’s a more touch-free environment now. We kept our masks on the entire time, including my photo session. You can do a lot with the bike itself, but the app enables more configurations, and can even be set to unlock the bike when you approach.
A compact display is built into the top of the upper bar, and with a small flush field of little lights lets you set five levels of automatic assist, from none (0) to 4. You can also see the level of battery charge and note your speed when you’re out riding; it also displays messages from the anti-theft system. You can use the display to unlock the bike, too, tapping in a three-digit code.
This is an assisted bicycle, so you won’t be cruising along with your feet sitting on the pedals doing nothing. It just makes it a lot easier to ride. You can decide what level of assist works for you, although my brief test had the max setting.
This bike has one sophisticated anti-theft system, too. You line up a couple lines on the wheel and hub and press a small button behind the left pedal. Chunk! The wheels are locked up tight. A thief would not be able to use the bike, even if they cut the chain lock and dropped the bike in their truck. And, an alarm sounds when the locked bike is moved and gets louder if the thief continues to fool with the bike. The display shows a flashing skull to presumably further discourage the bad guy. If they do run off with your bike, within 15 minutes its hardware sends out an SOS to VanMoof, where an employee can track its whereabouts. I’m not sure how exactly they confront the perp who stole it (find a cop?) but VanMoof promises recovery or replacement if they can’t recover your bike within 2 weeks (a loaner is provided). This theft policy costs $340 for three years—well worth it, I’d say.
Once Grace showed me the tricks of the bike and adjusted the seat for me, I walked it out the door and took off for a short test ride. In San Francisco, there is no shortage of hills to climb. I learned right away that you must pedal to use the boost button. The transmission itself is an automatic—you don’t select gears, so it downshifted for me to start out and I could feel it shifting when it sensed I needed it.
When I hit the first hill, a real steep one, I pushed the boost button but the motor (or more likely, I) petered out partway up. It may be that some hills are just too steep for the boost. More likely, I am not in great shape so I needed more than it could provide.
So, I came down the hill and was able to test the hydraulic disc brakes. These really work well and are likely to stay good for a while. You can see the metal discs and the small pads sitting over them, just like in a modern car (but much smaller). Brake pads do wear, so VanMoof recommends purchasing the service package. It takes care of all your routine maintenance for $340 for three years, which just happens to be the same price as the anti-theft package. That’s also almost exactly 300 Euros, so maybe they just do a straight conversion from the Amsterdam even-numbered price. You can also get occasional service without a plan, but it’ll be just like going to the car dealer—you need at least some maintenance, it could add up, and parts are extra.
I tried the boost on a few less daunting hills near Dolores Park and the little motor gave me the help I needed to climb them. And, cruising on relatively flat streets is magic. It’s like walking on those moving sidewalks at the airport—normal effort gives you extraordinary velocity.
The S3 has 28-inch wheels and a full-size adult bike frame.
The little motor in either the S3 or X3 provides boost torque of 59 NM (43.5 ft.lbs). It’s powered by a 504 Wh (Watt hour) battery. Note: I’m used to talking about kWh (kilowatt hours) from electric cars. This tiny motor puts out just over half of one kWh. A Chevrolet Bolt, for example, has a 60-kWh battery, making it 120 times more powerful than the bike. Of course, the Bolt’s battery weighs 900 pounds and the one in the S3 fits neatly inside the bike’s vertical tube.
Battery range varies tremendously. If you use the minimal assist (level 1) and are pedaling moderately on a flat surface, you can get some assist for more than 90 miles. If you have it set to maximum assist and are using boost a lot, it could be more like 37 miles. “Your mileage will vary.” Of course, you can pedal without assist for as long as you like.
It takes about four hours to fully charge the battery on 110 household current. The battery is not removable, so you need to bring the bike close to the outlet—a task easier in a garage than in a third-floor walkup apartment.
The S3 has 28-inch wheels and has a regular full-size adult frame. It accommodates riders from 5-8 to 6-8, which just includes me (at the lower end). The X3, with 24-inch wheels and a smaller frame, accommodates riders from 5 foot even to 6-5, so I could pick either one, I guess. Below, it’s shown in the other color, a rich light gray (the black S3 better matches my outfit).
So, what’s the price, you ask. It’s $1,998 for either the S3 or the X3. If that seems like a lot think of it as an Apple iPhone 11 and a regular bike as a Nokia cell phone from 2000. This is no ordinary bike. There’s a lot of sophisticated brain power in these e-bikes, and they are built like fortresses to protect the hardware—and keep it from being stolen. If you have the means and the desire to ride a bike for an extended distance for commuting or just fun, the VanMoof bikes are worth the investment.