Cargo Bikes: Getting Started
by Alberto M Zanni, posted 09 November 2017
Alberto M Zanni gives us the lowdown on what to look for when it comes to your first cargo bike.
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Cargo! That's the way to travel: A shortish guide to buying a cargo bike
"That's the way to travel" is the comment I get the most when on the cargo bike around the city I live in (Brighton). Few people can resist a smile at the sight of that long and stylish bicycle with two children happily sitting in a box.
I have been a proud owner of a cargo bike for a year and half, and have spent quite a lot of time researching and analysing the various models before, and after, my purchase. I'll be brief here (for a longer version of this guide please see this page), and discuss a number of criteria which I feel are important when considering the purchase of a cargo bike.
Cargo bikes do appear to be complicated machines (they are not that much, really...) and, above all, they do represent a considerable investments (but which pays off quite quickly). Therefore, it is certainly sensible for those contemplating their purchase, well, to contemplate a little, but not too much, before rushing into buying one.
Two Wheels or Three Wheels
This is possibly the most important choice you'll have to make. Two-wheel cargo bikes really ride like normal bicycles. Trikes (the three-wheelers one) are more stable at low speed (and especially when still; very handy if you need to reach your children for assistance), but their handling is not straightforward, and you'll need a bit more time to get used to (you can read more about my experience with trikes here). If your front wheels are not on the same level, you do have the strange impression that you are going to tilt, but well, that is an impression only, and there are plenty of enthusiastic trikes owners out there that can testify to that.
In terms of size, two-wheelers are longer but narrower, and the same applies to their boxes. Trikes are generally shorter and wider, and the almost squared sized boxes are generally bigger and easier to load. Size obviously has an impact for riding, especially when you need to overcome various types of barriers (do take your measurements if there are narrow passages along the roads you normally take), parking, and for storage. Two-wheelers are easier to park around as they generally fit in normal bike racks. Attaching a trike to a standard rack is more complicated but not impossible). An important size advantage of trikes is that being generally shorter (below 2.5 metres), they are 'technically' allowed on trains.
You can study trikes models on the websites of Dutch makers Babboe, Danish ones Nihola, Christiania, Winther, as well as those of the British manufacturers Boxercycles and The Cargo Bike Company. Babboe, and Winther also do two-wheelers. Classic Dutch two-wheel cargo bike examples are the Bakfiets Cruiser Long, the Gazelle Cabby and Workcycles Kr8. Other two-wheelers are the Danish Larry vs Harry Bullitt, the Dutch Urban Arrow Family (the one I proudly possess and carefully reviewed here) and Dolly Family, as well as the German-made Riese & Muller E-cargo and the French-made Douze F4e. If you want to go local do have a look at the London-based Porterlight.
Before deciding, do try both types, possibly for a bit more than a short ride. If the choice about the number of wheels seems too tough, a possible solution is to go for a tilting trike like the very cool looking one produced by the Danish company Butchers and Bicycles (the Dutch company Babboe is also about to launch a tilting trike, the Carve). The tilting system on trikes attempts to mix the stability of a two-wheelers with the handling of a two-wheeler. I have not tested it yet, and can only say that reviews have been mixed so far.
Electric or non-electric
This will very much depend on where you live, and the usage you want to make of your cargo bike. I live in a hilly and windy city and have one with electric assistance. But in a flatter area you can reasonably go around without electric assistance.
If you simply want to have a bit of a push here and there, perhaps when your load is a bit heavier (children, bags, shopping), a 'hub' electric motor should be enough. If you want more to be able to climb tougher hills, you absolutely need to go for a mid-drive motor (which is more expensive). Those motors turn the pedals with you and, above all, allows you to use a wider range of gears. Babboe, Boxer Cycles, Butchers and Bycicles, Douze, Riese and Muller and Urban Arrow all have models with mid-drive motors.
Disc brakes or roller brakes
Again, this will depend on your usage, but keep in mind that if you want to climb hills, you do need very good brakes to be able to stop safely when coming down, especially with a full load (of children). So, disc brakes, albeit quite expensive, seem to be a good addition to a cargo bike, and they are now available from almost all makers either included or an optional accessory.
Where to find them
Well, if you also live in Brighton The Amsterdammers shop can source Urban Arrow cargo bikes for you. Based in London, and with a very good selection, are London Green Cycles, Fully Charged, and Flying Dutchman. Carry Me Cargo Bikes, also in London, are a social organisation where you can hire and buy cargo bikes. Practical Cycles in Lancashire, Laid Back Bikes in Edinburgh and Really Useful Bikes in Bristol also have a very good selection. Finally, for possibly the largest selection of cargo bikes in the UK, trailers and other accessories for family cycling do visit the website of the Dorset-based Kids and Family Cycles.
A note on prices
I have not mentioned prices along this piece. Prices will affect perspective buyers differently, depending on several reasons. The models I have mentioned above are all quite expensive, and the final price will also depend on the type of accessories you decide to add (you are going to need a cover for the box when empty, and a rain cover for your load for sure). There are, however, more and more opportunities to buy both ex-demo and second-hand ones, so clearly the market is moving in the right direction.
Why cargo bikes?
They are useful, and cool, and if you start looking around for info, and try one, you won't be able to resist.
Alberto M Zanni is an Italian applied economist with a specific interest in transport, its energy usage, the environment and bikes