A Guide to Cargo Bikes

Car-free living is even more possible with the right bicycles designed to haul everything from groceries to children.
By Finley Fagan
January 11, 2013
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“On Bicycles” is an anthology of bike culture — an informative collection of 50 how-to essays supporting all things cycling, from how to carry cargo on bikes, folding bikes, biking with kids, bike advocacy and more. 
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Bike culture is exploding in cities across the world. Whether people are riding folding bikes to the commuter train, slipping through traffic on streamlined single-speeds, or carrying children and groceries on their cargo bikes, bicycles are making urban life more dynamic and enjoyable. Cargo bikes — specialty-form or retrofitted — are a good option for cycle commuters who want to fully replace the car with green transportation that works for everyday life. In this excerpt from On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life (New World Library, 2012), Finley Fagan explains the different kinds of cargo bikes and their benefits. 

Hauling stuff by pedal power is nothing new. In 1898, when Morris Worksman established Worksman Cycles in New York City, he believed that a well-designed cargo bike could replace the horse and wagon. Henry Ford begged to differ, and so King Car all but killed the fledgling cargo bike. The towns, cities, and suburbs of North America grew to rely on and reinforce the convenience of the automobile, bicycles were largely relegated to the role of toys, and cargo cycling didn’t evolve much beyond the factory floor. But in the late 1990s, almost a century after Worksman Cycles built its first heavy-duty trike, cargo biking started making a comeback on the streets of North America, with hot spots in Portland, Seattle, the Bay Area, New York and Colorado.

So what do we know about cargo cyclists, this curious breed who set themselves up for hauling heavy or cumbersome loads?

Sales figures indicate that the buyers of cargo bikes are just as likely to be male as they are female, and that the new cargo is not strictly business. While some entrepreneurs and couriers are zipping around laden with mail, organic fruit and vegetables, baked goods, coffee, and Christmas trees, for others cargo cycling is all about the everyday A to B — getting the kids to school, the pets to the park, the groceries into the fridge, the fridge into the new apartment.

Vik Banerjee, the self-confessed bike geek behind the Lazy Randonneur blog, has noticed two major groups leading the renewed interest in cargo bikes: “Bike geeks that want to ride bikes more” and “families and individuals who are trying to be green and not drive … not necessarily bike people in general, but they see cargo bikes as a way to replace car trips.” The wheel has turned full circle. Ironically, King Car has been responsible for both the collapse and the renaissance of cargo biking in North America.

Nicole and Anthony Stout are parents who have taken cargo cycling one step further, having now celebrated three years without a car. I was interested to find out how car-free living is going for them and their two young children in suburban Colorado.

“Living car-free in suburban America requires a pretty significant mind-set change,” Anthony says. ”Your world becomes smaller and bigger at the same time. You may not stray as far and wide as you do with a car, but because you see so much more and experience the world in a different way, your local world seems bigger … At first we thought we’d have to save up and buy a Prius or something, then we discovered [cargo] bikes do the job nicely. Living car-free is very healthy for our kids. They see so much more, smell so much more, notice so much more than when they go someplace via car.”

Anthony acknowledges that living car-free in the suburban United States has not always been easy.

“As with most things, there is a point of diminishing returns. Living 80 percent car-free is very doable; going the next 20 percent, up to totally car-free, requires at least as much effort as, if not more than, the first 80 percent.” But Anthony is quick to add, “There are few experiences that we don’t enjoy more by bike than we did by car.”

For those wanting to get a taste of cargo cycling, a cheap and easy way to start is to make a regular bike more cargo-friendly with any combination of racks, bags, child seats and baskets. Play around and see what your bike is capable of carrying and what errands it can conquer. People in the developing world have been mastering this skill for decades.

If you feel the desire to increase your cargo capacity with a heavy-duty cargo bike or trike, the good news is that handling becomes second nature after a brief adjustment period. The extra weight makes for slower starts and slower stops, but riding is not difficult on flat terrain once you have built up momentum. For hillier terrain, consider stronger brakes and lower gearing, and choose between an electric assist and an extra-buff pair of legs. On your wheels, fatter tires, beefier rims, and more spokes will help cushion loads. Keeping your load low and balancing it on both sides will enhance stability.

Nowadays there is a cargo-hauling option for almost every kind of terrain, use and budget. So, what’s your cargo beast of choice? Here are some of the options.

Long John Style

Perhaps the most iconic image of cargo cycling is a parent riding a two-wheeled bakfiets laden with children (bakfiets is a generic term for any “box bike,” whereas Bakfiets is a popular Dutch bike company). With its plywood box in front, fitted out with child seats, harnesses, and canopy, and a low step-through frame and stable parking stand, these heavy-duty, ultrapractical cargo bikes have become a huge hit with families across the pancake flats of the Netherlands. The two-wheeled Bakfiets was one of the many updates on the 1930s Danish Long John, a long-wheelbase bike defined by its sturdy load-carrying area directly in front of the rider, low center of gravity, and a front wheel steered via a rod linkage below the load carrier.

European models from Bakfiets, WorkCycles, Monark, and Bullitt are available in North America, along with a growing range of locally designed bakfiets that address the demand for lower price tags, lower bike weight, or lower gearing for hilly terrain. These include a nimble cargo bike from Bilenky, the Cetma Cargo bike, Joe Bike’s Shuttlebug, CAT’s Long Haul, the super-stylish Metrofiets, and Tom’s Cargo Bikes, with their DIY hillbilly charm.

Longtails

Longtail bikes (with one exception, the Madsen) have no single box for hauling loads. Instead the rear part of the frame is extended so that the rear wheel is about fifteen inches farther behind the seat than on a conventional bike, allowing bulky items to be strapped on either side of or above the rear wheel. Smaller items can be tucked away in large rear bags. Optional seats for children and adults can be fastened to a platform above the rear wheel.

Longtails have been around in the Netherlands since the 1970s, but North American interest spiked with the introduction of Xtracycle in the late nineties. Xtracycle’s bolt-on FreeRadical is a frame extension that can be retrofitted onto almost any regular bicycle, lengthening the wheelbase and turning it into a longtail cargo bike.

Other North American designers followed, offering a range of sturdy one-piece longtail bikes capable of carrying loads of more than four hundred pounds. These include the versatile Surly Big Dummy (capable of epic off-road adventures); the rock-solid, no-frills Yuba Mundo; the big-name Kona Ute; and the stylish Xtracycle Radish.

Cargo Tricycles

Trikes, the often-forgotten siblings of bikes, found widespread popularity in Christiania, an eccentric quarter of Copenhagen, in the 1980s. Christiania Bikes developed a small, front-loading trike with a large plywood box capable of carrying up to 220 pounds of kids and freight.

It became a Copenhagen icon and spurred more three-wheeled designs from the Danish company Nihola and the Dutch companies Bakfiets and WorkCycles (all imported into the United States).

Homegrown cargo trikes include Portland’s TerraCycle Cargo Monster (a recumbent trike with an Xtracycle frame extension), Montana’s Lightfoot Trike, and offerings from the venerable Worksman Cycles of New York City, which has been selling industrial trikes for more than a century. There is some risk of tipping a trike, especially at high speed around corners, so the word on the street is to go slow and keep the rubber side down.

Read More: Learn about transporting cargo without a specifically modified cargo bike, or increasing your carrying capacity with panniers, bags and weigh distribution in Shopping by Bike: Tips and Tricks for the Commuter Cyclist. 


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life, edited by Amy Walker and published by New World Library, 2012.  


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