Less Car More Go

A cargo bike revolution is underway in North America. Liz Canning collects the stories of people, families and businesses and the bikes that have transformed their lives.

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The Birth of the US Cargo Bike Boom

Like many of you, I’ve ridden, raced and loved (LOVED) bikes for long enough that I did not expect to be surprised – for my life to be transformed, yet again – by a bike. I never saw myself pedaling twins all over Marin, CA in an electrified Portland-built bakfiets, let alone directing a crowdsourced documentary on the cargo bike movement in the US. I’d seen some longtails here and there and I’d heard of e-assists but I was a roadie snob: a single girl commuting on carbon fiber, necessities on my back, light as a feather and free as the wind.

Eventually, however, I married, bought a house on a long steep hill, and bore adorable boy/ girl twins. I stuffed Stormy and Rocko into a double bike trailer and suffered through the climb home until I was actually afraid I might not be able to keep the bike upright over that 22% pitch near the top. By this time the kids made it clear they were done, too. The trailer was too small, too low, and behind all the action. I resorted to the car, driving instead up and down that long steep hill, but I missed my bike-centric life. I began to wonder if there existed a bike that could bring that life back to me – and to my kids.

My initial forays online uncovered the bloggers. Everywhere I looked, folks were documenting how their cargo bikes had changed their lives. Then there were the forums, galleries, advice sites and bike builders. All over the Internet and seemingly throughout the country, the excitement about these bikes was palpable. Cargo bike lovers were head over heels and eagerly sharing their passion for this amazing tool as it evolves in affordability, accessibility and transformative power. I fell in love with this community instantly – even before the arrival of our dazzling Joe Bike ShuttleBug months later.

Whereas the trailer seemed to make the kids feel a bit like luggage, in the ShuttleBug they are my copilots! We sail down our hill together, around every switchback, feeling safe, secure, magical. As we cruise through town, people on sidewalks and in cars smile, wave, and laugh. The kids chant “Go, Mama, go!” or “Mommy, catch that car!” The bike is a revelation, but it was not until a year later, after we added a throttle-activated Ezee electric hub motor to the front wheel of our ShuttleBug, that the true significance became clear. By now I was sold on the safety, comfort and fun that our new bike offered; I had no idea that a little thing called e-assist would blow my mind and convince me that the US is headed for a cargo bike revolution!

Pre-electrification, going anywhere with our typical load of three well-fed people, their lunches, a camera bag, and two balance bikes was a major commitment of energy and time. Marin is a vast and spread-out county and many favorite activities are 5-10 hilly miles away – not a quick ride carrying 100 pounds. And of course even the shortest trips concluded with a painful, sweaty and somewhat stressful climb home. With 1100 watts or so at my disposal – when needed – there is no hesitation and no excuse! I can go most anywhere anytime without using the car, and get as much (or as little) exercise as I want. Beyond the school commute, we go on twenty-mile adventures without worrying about travel time, extra weight or plain old exhaustion. I feel safer knowing I can accelerate quickly if necessary, and love the way the motor can give us immediate momentum pulling away from a stop sign or light.

This bike brings thrilling joy into our lives everyday while connecting us to each other, our bodies, the community and the environment and saving money, stress, gas and emissions. In the words of Josef Bray-Ali of Flying Pigeon LA: “The night I assembled my Workcycles bakfiets in the autumn of 2007 and rode it home, I cried tears of joy. For me, the bakfiets was a release from the obligation most parents feel to trap themselves in minivans, traffic, stress, and health and happiness goals that are ‘unrealistic given our hectic schedule.’ It was a middle finger to the entire 20th century pattern of sprawl, urban ruin, and disgusting over-investment in a car-only lifestyle.”

The power of my experience and the intense dedication of the community I found online told me that if more people had information and access, cargo bikes might go big in the States. About a year ago – a month or so after electrification – I decided to try to tell this story in the form of a crowdsourced documentary titled Less Car, More Go (watch the trailer here). The active Facebook group has 600 members. The film trailer has generated 50,000 views and will travel the world as part of the 2012 Bicycle Film Festival. And that’s nothing compared to what’s happening all over the world.

According to Hans Bullitt Fogh of Copenhagen’s Larry vs Harry, sales of their Bullitt have doubled on the East and West Coasts of the U.S.; Eugene’s Lane Kagay predicts that he will easily quadruple last year’s sales of the CETMA, and Joe Doebele of Joe Bike in Portland says “These bikes are finally catching on, the field has exploded. But that’s nothing compared to what’s about to happen. ”

Will Kearins of Boxcycles, the US-based partner of Christiania Bikes from Denmark, agrees: “With more of the bikes on the street, the novelty will wear off and people will understand that cargo bikes offer real solutions to a number of important issues.”

But there’s a lot more to this story than just another bicycle industry trend. As described in the Xtracycle anthem “You’ve got to ride to believe,” the compelling aspect of the cargo bike boom is in the way these bikes enhance our everyday lives and somehow give us faith that maybe – just maybe – the world is not going to hell in a handbasket. Unconvinced? Not for you? Just keep reading. Several experienced cargo bikers and co-directors of Less Car, More Go have come together here to offer a crowdsourced guide to the cargo bike life: bits of wisdom gained from using something as old and simple as a bicycle in new and (we hope) revolutionary ways.

Lindsay Smith-Aronson

Lindsay writes a blog titled “You Ain’t Got Jack” about life on a Yuba Mundo with her son Jack (“conquering self-doubt, fossil fuel and the terrible twos”). “As an out-of-shape, overweight couch potato I was honestly afraid of my bike when I first laid eyes on it. I wasn’t completely sure I’d be able to manage it on a test ride, let alone a trip to the grocery store and back. But when my feet left the ground and met the pedals, I was amazed by the ease of use, the stability – really; the grin on my face must have said it all. Since bringing it home I’ve added a child’s seat, an oversized pannier and an old soda crate – and I still find myself pleasantly surprised every time I ride off with it loaded down.” As is often the case in the cargo bike world, Lindsay’s gone from beginner to hardcore with the turn of a pedal. She’s about to launch a local Kidical Mass ride and her blog features instructions for a DIY Weather Protector and Milk Crate Child’s Seat based on her own designs (the Peanut Shell was backordered and Lindsay wanted to get out and RIDE). “This bike has given me a sense of freedom and control that was lacking before.  Put it this way, if my home was on fire (and my relatives and pets were safely outside), what would I grab? Undoubtedly the Yuba Mundo and my son’s diaper bag. In fact – as it always has baby necessities on board – I’d probably just grab the BIKE!”

Travis Wittwer

Early on in his stint as a stay-at-home dad, Travis decided he “did not want going to the grocery store to get in the way of life,” so he traded his minivan for a WorkCycles bakfiets. “Hauling my kids next to bags of groceries turned every outing into an adventure,” he recalls fondly. “My eldest son would run up to the wooden box – place hand on side – jump in the air sideways – and land like a stunt man from an old 1970’s movie. Then the other two would pile in. It was our daily ritual.”

Travis is proud that his boys see riding in a cargo bike as luxurious. “It put us all in the same place, the same mindset, and the same slow pace. In a car, the driver and kids are removed from each other and from the environment. There are no smells or feelings, and you are going so fast you cannot stop to look at that cool tree or free pile.” Travis points out that his generation of Americans grew up thinking of a bike as simply a toy. “I want my sons to see that with a bike (at very little cost) they can go anywhere in the city they want, whenever.”

The problems of weight, distance and weather were easily solved by this creative dad. “I had some real low gears which allowed me to carry heavy loads comfortably.” Blankets, hot water bottles, snacks, word games and group storytelling kept the boys quite happy in their rolling box, “even in downpours.”

Interestingly, his adventuresome crew preferred the protection of a cozy blanket made with wool on the outside and soft polar fleece on the kid side, to the rain cover that didn’t leave room for all three to sit up.

Stacy Bisker and Brent Patterson

Stacy, her husband Brent, and their four children were not a cycling family. In the spring of 2010, however, Stacy took a hard look at the car payments, fuel and insurance costs, alongside a second mortgage and student loan debts. She was struck by one of her “crazy ideas”: they donated one of their cars and the family began bicycling. “I made do with a hand-me-down trailer for six months before our Yuba arrived,” said Stacy. “We could no longer afford not to purchase a cargo bike. We see this as a step to financial freedom.”

Stacy says she didn’t exercise as an adult until she began riding a bike in April 2010. A year later she can ride 15 miles with 120 lbs of cargo and finds herself, even with four kids to transport, begging the neighbors to borrow her van, just to keep the battery alive. “I will admit I don’t enjoy riding my bike for the sake of riding, or riding solo…. Using my energy to accomplish my needs and spending time with friends and family motivates me to ride, every time.”

These days Stacy hosts a monthly Kidical Mass ride in Huntington, West Virginia where they live, and organizes regular “Chat n’ Chew” events at which bike advocates debate local issues. “I am very passionate about riding my bike with my children, and with our cargo…. It has sparked a desire to be a better, more generous and dedicated person.” Currently Stacy saves $700 a month and shares her enthusiasm for their new life on her blog, asimplesix.com.

Angela and Dorea Vierling-Claassen

Angela and Dorea live with their two kids in Cambridge, MA and write a blog called “Carfree with Kids” (carfreecambridge.com) Dorea says, “For us, a cargo bike didn’t replace a car. It kept us from buying one. We were happily carfree before we had a child, but once we were expecting, everyone started to ask, ‘When are you buying a car?’ We said we weren’t. And we’re stubborn. So we didn’t.” They started with a hand-me-down trailer before using an Xtracycle Free Radical kit to turn a regular bike into a kid-hauling machine. “Our joy in riding as a family shot up immediately.… We felt so free, and those occasional yearnings we had for a car disappeared almost completely.” The need to travel far was avoided by simply living locally – a limitation that Dorea says has numerous surprising benefits like a rich sense of community, simplification of choices, and convenience! As she puts it, “Mr. Rogers got it right.”

As families evolve, so should their cargo bikes. Angela is 5’1” and eventually she found that when transporting two kids the higher top tube and center of gravity of their particular Xtracycle setup presented a real challenge. Enter the WorkCycles bakfiets. “It’s so much easier to manage during loading and unloading, or when kids get wiggly…. We have found that the right bike, for the right family stage, makes a huge difference in our quality of life.” Despite the initial sticker shock, Dorea says she can hardly believe they ever thought the bike was “too expensive.”

Sara Armstrong

Sara’s blog – fullhandsx3.blogspot.ca – is full of cargo bike love, creativity and photos of her twin boys and their younger brother arranged in various configurations on their three big bikes. “I did not ride a bike for nearly ten years before getting on the bakfiets,” she admits. “It took four months of research and discussion about investing in such a bike before ours arrived on a cold February afternoon. We had no idea that we had just found our new passion.” They started with a simple two-mile commute to school and soon found that the more they rode, the more they realized what they could do by bike.

Sara loved having kids in the front so that she could interact easily, point out sights and diffuse disputes with a tap on a helmet. “The center of the weight is low so even when the boys were squirmy, it did not throw off my balance. I became accustomed to having the front wheel at a distance, and once we got going, the ride was easy and smooth.”  

When the kids’ schedules took them in opposite directions, Sara and her husband brought home an Xtracycle Radish. “Now our car remained parked for weeks at a time, with one parent riding a fellow to a birthday party on the longtail – water bottles, snacks, shopping bags, and present stored in the side bags – while the other headed out to music lessons with a 1/4-size cello, 1/2-sized violin, and two cute musicians happily rolling along in the box bike.”

The boys however outgrew the box, and while their cycling skills improved, the New Haven infrastructure was not sufficient protection for 9-year-old bike commuters. “We decided to invest in the extremely solid Yuba Mundo. Adding a front rack and side bags gives us enough carrying capacity to get to school with backpacks and lunch bags, even a guitar on Tuesdays, and to grocery shop on weekends.” Their stable of cargo bikes has allowed this family of five to remain a one-car family.

Marni Duffy

Some folks find a cargo trike suits their situation and comfort-level more than a two-wheeled bike. Marni Duffy of Philadelphia started with a longtail bike and realized over time that it wasn’t right for her. “I felt really silly for choosing this bike, not using it, being scared of riding it, and then falling with my kids on it,” Marni shared. She and her husband replaced the longtail with a custom box trike. “The length of the box and the gears are suited to our kids and our terrain,” says Marni, confident and happy on her new wheels. “If the bike you choose doesn’t work out, sell it, move on, and find your perfect bike.”

Cargo Bikes for Business Owners

Joe Doebele is owner of Joe Bike, a shop that sells a huge variety of useful bikes in Portland, the undisputed hub of the cargo movement. (He and his team designed and made our ShuttleBug.) Everyday he sees cargo bikes benefitting not only families but business owners. “Bikes have been put to work for over a century, with bakfietsen carrying 200 lbs or more of coal and German firefighters hauling hoses, axes, and ladders before the age of gasoline engines. But whereas a decade ago the IRS was handing out huge tax breaks on new Hummers, today bikes seem to be catching on again as efficient urban work vehicles that save owners thousands of dollars a year while providing mobile advertising.”

One Joe Bike customer, carpenter/contractor Chris Sanderson of Builder By Bike, tired of his truck and tried getting by with City Car Share, then a bike trailer, an Xtracycle, and finally settled on a Yuba Mundo longtail and a 6-foot trailer. He tows a set of power tools, lumber and other building materials to work sites every day. “Last summer, I had to move tools and 1×4 boards measuring 450-lineal feet…I believe the weight was well over 350-pounds…. With the exception of a few mild hills, was not too difficult.” What if he has to install, say, a bathtub? In cases like that, he might have the distributor deliver to the job site. How do customers react when they see Chris riding up to a worksite on a fully loaded cargo bike? “They’re charmed more than anything,” says the Builder by Bike.

Veterinarian Matthew Marasco (rivercitybikevet.com) carries everything he needs to make house calls on his Oregon-made Ahearne Cycle Truck, and his service area covers most of Portland. Ahearne is also the vehicle of choice for New Seasons Markets when they haul Meals on Wheels to the elderly, and as company car for bicycle accessory designers Portland Design Works. Portland Pedal Power started their delivery business in 2008 with a couple of Yuba Mundos and later developed a five-foot-tall cargo pod with huge panels for advertising. Meanwhile B-Line Sustainable Urban Delivery uses e-assist trikes that regularly haul about 500 lbs.

On the other coast, former pedicab company owner and bike pioneer George Bliss of Hudson Urban Bicycles says that persuading local NYC businesses to give cargo bikes a chance “has proven tough.” It’s complicated by the fact that electric bikes are illegal on public streets in New York State. Yet Bliss is hopeful: “Businesses eventually are going to realize…. It’s going to take a high-profile example like a Whole Foods having a fleet of electric-assisted cargo tricycles for that to kick in, but I think it will happen – maybe even this year.” In fact, Whole Foods in Austin has been offering bike delivery since 2009 and the company is looking at bringing the service to two of its Bay Area stores. Meanwhile Trader Joe’s in Long Beach has collaborated with the local Bike-Friendly Business District program and the Pedaler Society, a bicycle taxi company, to provide free grocery delivery for all customers who ride a bike to the store.

YOU on a Cargo Bike

From non-cyclist moms to heavy-duty delivery companies and carbon-fiber obsessed roadies, people all over are falling in hardcore cargo bike love. Once you’ve comfortably carried passengers and belongings on two wheels, there seems to be no turning back. Furthermore the thrill of e-assist can make an automobile feel simply silly. How many of the million-plus choices we are faced with everyday feel this entirely good?

Do yourself a favor. Celebrate summer with a cargo bike test ride today.

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