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Why buy a cargo bike, types of cargo bikes, how to ride them, and buyer’s guide.
Picture this: you have two young kids that you’re picking up at school, one of them is bringing a friend over, the school is 3 miles from your place, the kids have backpacks, and you need to get groceries on the way home. Or maybe this: you work in the trades, you bring tools to work every day, you have to travel a lot between jobs, and you live and work in a hilly area. What do you do?
If you’re anything like most North Americans, you get in your car. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people on this continent either refrain from regular bike commuting, or stop doing so once they have children or get a job that requires travel with cargo because they simply don’t see bike commuting as a feasible option for their specific circumstance. “Great for college students, maybe, but it won’t work for my lifestyle.”
While much of that hesitation is rooted in the prevailing North American attitude that views cars as the best (or only) transportation option, there are many people who would like to commute by bike but simply aren’t aware of their options.
However, as our cities invest more heavily in safe cycling infrastructure, more and more people are beginning to view bicycling as a feasible option for their daily commute. As such, cargo bikes have seen a small surge in popularity, and an even bigger surge in interest as people explore their options for bike commuting with kids, careers, and the general load-bearing responsibilities that accompany adulthood.
To give a gentle nudge in the bike direction, we’ve put together a guide to cargo bikes for North Americans to get your started.
While your trusty old commuter bicycle enables you to replace a car for the majority of trips you’ll take in a day, a cargo bike enables you to step up your game and leave the car at home for basically every local trip. Traveling with kids? Gardening equipment? Tools? Kids, gardening equipment, and tools? No problem, your cargo bike can handle it. While we’ll concede defeat and admit that they can’t hold literally everything, unless you’re carting around 25 ft steel beams, a shipment of livestock, or 250 lbs of live lobsters, you’ll probably be alright with the cargo bike.
Cargo bikes are, in essence, a workhorse that you don’t have to feed. They enable the transportation of many more pounds of goods than you could possibly carry on a regular bicycle, with much more economic and environmental efficiency than get from a car. They’re your family vehicle, your work truck, your moving van, your party bus. They’re everything you would need a car for, but much more affordable, much more sustainable, and much more fun.
Cargo bikes originated in The Netherlands in the early 20 century, and were used by tradesmen to deliver milk, bread, and other goods in the absence of the automobile. By the 1930s, the phenomenon had spread across Scandinavia. In Copenhagen, Denmark, bike messengers called svajeres carted goods all around the city, and nearly every company owned at least one cargo bike to handle their deliveries.
Around the same time in the UK, deliveries were being made by “butcher’s bike,” a light-capacity cargo bike with a rack mounted to the frame over the front wheel. The British trend spread to the US, where Schwinn produced the original American “cycle truck,” which sold over 10,000 units in a year at its peak of popularity during WWII.
While cargo bikes have remained immensely popular for carting everything from kids to couches in parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, their use waned considerably in North America when mass marketing of the private automobile began in earnest. These days, many North Americans have never even heard of a bicycle with high carrying capacity.
Only with the recent trend towards high-density urbanism have we seen a resurgence of interest in cargo bikes over here. As with the regular bicycle, many of the original cargo bikes designs are essentially the same today as they were in the early 20th century, with a few modern technological upgrades.
A cargo bike is essentially any bicycle, tricycle or pedal-powered four-wheeler which was designed specifically to carry a load – large or small. In its simplest form, a cargo bike can be a bike with a built-in, reinforced front basket for heavier-than-normal daily transportation needs. In its most complex, it could be an electric-assist box trike with refrigeration capabilities. While these days, the variations of cargo bikes on the market create a bit of crossover between the categories, most cargo bikes fit roughly into the following six types:
Utility bikes are built with a traditional wheelbase, but with reinforced frames that enable them to carry larger loads than a standard bicycle. They often have metal front baskets and/or back racks built onto the frame, and are designed to be nimble and easier to ride than larger cargo bikes while still maintaining considerable carrying capacity.
Cycle trucks have the same overall size of a standard city bike, but they have a smaller front wheel (typically 20″ compared to a 26″ rear), with a front rack affixed to the frame over the wheel. The rack either has a box mounted to it, or has mounting options for when you need the box, and space for when you don’t.
Longtails have an extra-long wheelbase at the back, which accommodates an extended, built-in deck to carry cargo or children. Longtails typically come with open-top panniers to hold cargo at the sides, have hooks for webbing to secure cargo on top, and have options for handles or backrests to transport children.
Yuba, Xtracycle, Surly, Bike Friday, and Kona Bikes all make longtails, which range between $1,000 and $2,000 USD. Madsen Cycles is notable in that they make a longtail with a box. Tern and Xtracycle collaborated to make the Cargo Node, the world’s first full-sized folding cargo bike, which retails for $1,800 USD.
Long Johns were developed in Denmark in the early 20th century. They have an extraordinarily long wheelbase at the front and a smaller front wheel, with the cargo area or an attached wooden basket sitting low to the ground between the handlebars and front wheel. Today, the Long John design has more or less been absorbed into the category of Bakfiets, or Box Bikes, which were developed in The Netherlands in the late 19th century. While Bakfiets were originally a cargo tricycle with a wooden box between the two parallel wheels, modern bakfiets can be either a trike or a two-wheeled Long John design with an integrated box. A few of the brands below make both box bikes and box trikes.
Cetma Cargo, Metrofiets, Wike, Fiets of Strength, Larry vs. Harry, Babboe Cargo Bikes, Christiana Bikes, Nihola, trioBike, Douze Cycles, Urban Arrow, and Bakfiets all make box bikes, which range between $2,500 and $6,000 USD.
Tricycles or Cycle Rickshaws usually feature an elongated frame with two wheels at the front or back for added stability, with a cargo platform, box, or seat between the two wheels. Cycle rickshaws are common in parts of Asia and Africa as bike taxis, while cargo trikes (often with a box) are common in Europe for personal use, and are becoming increasingly popular in North America.
Wike, Pashley Cycles, Butchers & Bicycles, Johnny Loco, Bakfiets, Boxer Cycles, and Virtue make cargo trikes, which range in price from $3,500 to $5,000 USD. Cycles Maximus is a global manufacturer and distributer of cycle rickshaws, which start off at £3,375.
When bike commuting enthusiasts point with longing at the well-developed cargo bike culture in The Netherlands, they are often shut down with the all-too-common dismissal, “Easy enough in a small, flat country. But I bike up a hill to get home every day, how is that practical for me?”
And honestly, fair enough. While it’s all very well and good that the cargo bike itself can carry up to 300 lbs of cargo, it’s the rider who will be doing the work to get it to move. Most people are not in good enough shape – or are understandably unwilling – to pedal three kids and a load of groceries straight up a hill every day.
With the recent global boom in e-bikes, cargo bike manufacturers are realizing the potential of electric-assist to make cargo biking viable not just for the super-fit or enthusiast crowd, but for anyone in any geography.
Yuba Bikes, Xtracycle, Pedego Electric Bikes, Radwagon, NTS Works, Felt, Babboe Cargo Bikes, and Douze Cycles make electric cargo bikes, which range in price from $1,700 to $6,000 USD. Johnny Loco makes electric front-loader box bikes and cycle trucks, which begin at $3,000 USD and are available in the US through Seattle E-bike.
While a few people may balk at the hefty price tag of an electric cargo bike, it’s certainly a lot cheaper than owning a car, which is exactly what it’s designed to replace.
Learning to ride a cargo bike varies in difficulty depending on the type, the terrain, and your stature. Longtail cargo bikes are by far the easiest to ride, and loaded up with less than 50 lbs should feel little different than a regular upright bicycle.
For a Long John-style bakfiet or any form of front-loader, you may need to do some work in re-learning how to balance in a straight line, as the extended steering tends to make you overcompensate for small imbalances by sharply turning the front wheel. Keep your eyes on the horizon rather than on the front wheel, and eventually you’ll develop confidence on the bike and balance will no longer be an issue.
With any model of cargo bike, it’s when it’s loaded with cargo that you’ll feel the real difference. Whichever type you go with, the best approach will always be to take your bike for a few rides on quiet streets, empty of cargo. Get a feel for the new width or length, as you’ll have to develop a new sense of spatial awareness for your increased size. Slowly add weight and practice turning, stopping, starting, and riding uphill before you get into traffic.
If you’re a particularly small-statured person, not all models will work for you. Look out for bikes with a low center of gravity such as Bike Fridays, Yubas and some bakfiet models.
When you’re loading up your cargo, keep weight distribution in mind as it will have an impact on the way you ride. Keep heavier items towards the bottom of your box or bags, and do the best you can to evenly distribute weight on either side of the bike. As a general rule no matter your stature, the lower the center of gravity, the easier the bike will be to ride.
There are a few things to consider now that we’ve convinced you to buy a cargo bike, the most important of which is the type of bike itself. While all cargo bikes are good for carrying things, different types have considerably variant benefits depending on what you’re planning to carry and where. A few things to keep in mind:
Use and Infrastructure
Consider what you’re most likely to be carrying around, the kinds of roads you’ll be riding on, and if you expect those needs to change significantly over time. Bakfiets and longtails are great for transporting kids and groceries, but the bakfiets may not be a practical choice unless you have dedicated cycling infrastructure where you’re able to take up space on the road. Trikes are a great option for business as they can be easily retrofitted to suit your particular needs, but depending on the amount of material you expect to be carrying, you may be better off with a simple cycle truck. Take the time to consider the size, shape, and weather-resistance of your expected cargo, and don’t be afraid to ask questions at your bike shop or of other cargo bike commuters before you make your choice.
Storage is a big one for cargo bikes, which are both heavy and attractive to thieves. Box bikes and trikes cannot be lifted by one person or regularly carried down stairs, so you’ll need a secure, ground-floor storage option to consider those types of bike. When considering any cargo bike, ensure you have an accessible, safe, dry place to store it so it lasts as long as it’s designed to.
Maintenance and Breakdowns
Routine or emergency maintenance isn’t as straightforward with cargo bikes as it is with normal bicycles. Many cargo bikes feature unique steering linkages, long chains or internal hubs that make home care difficult for non-mechanics, and emergency roadside repair nearly impossible. Expect to spend a bit of extra time understanding how your bike works, and a bit more money than usual in maintenance if you’re used to doing your own work. With some cargo bikes, replacing a flat at the roadside can be prohibitively difficult, so have a backup plan such as a phone number for a local hauling agency in case you run into trouble.
Electric Assist cargo bikes do tend to produce a bit of a shudder when you first see the price tag. But if you live in a hilly area or regularly travel with a lot of gear, the e-assist could be the difference between whether you adopt cargo biking into your regular routine, or relegate the thing to a life collecting dust in the garage as a brief but failed experiment. Once you decide on e-assist, you can look at your options. Some electric cargo bikes only have pedal assist, while others also have a throttle. If you frequently get stopped at a busy intersection halfway up the hill to your house, going the throttle route might be the best way to get what you need out of the upgrade.
Know that you’re going to spend between $1,200 – $6,000 USD. If you budget $2,500 USD for the bike, you’ll have a good range to choose from and will be able to find something that fits your needs. Budget an additional $150 – $300 USD for rain covers and fenders if you want to equip your bike for rain.
Since you paid a pretty penny for the bike, the last thing you want is for it to get stolen. Having a secure lock is a must. A large, flexible lock such as the Abus Bordo Granit X-Plus 6500 or the OnGuard 8020 is a good choice to be able to get around the larger bike. A frame lock as a secondary lock would be a wise investment as well.
Nearly every cargo bike comes with a kickstand, but make sure your choice has a double kickstand or the option to upgrade to one, and get the upgrade. If it’s loaded with a cargo on a single kickstand, you can bet it’s going to fall over.
Wide distribution of cargo bikes at independent retailers in North America is nascent. Yuba is the most widely available cargo bike on the continent, but don’t discount any of the other brands simply because they’re not in your local shop. Shop around online and make your choice, then check with the company to see if they could deliver the bike for assembly at your local bike shop.