Homebase Cargo Bike review & response

by Robyn Jankel, posted 09 November 2017

Robyn and her partner agree to test out the use of a cargo bike at Homebase in York, but got a different experience to the one they hoped. So we also have a response to Robyn from the nice people at London Green Cycles. 

Contact on twitter @RobynJankel

A wobbly start to the cargo bike revolution

“My only concern is that the shelves won’t fit,” I told my boyfriend as I cheerfully planned my trip to Homebase.  “I’d be more worried about falling off,” he replied; “All reports say that that Christiania trikes are pretty unstable when you take a corner”.

 

God, I hate it when he’s right.

On a normal bicycle, it takes 15 minutes to cycle from my house in Clifton to Homebase in central York.  My regular route goes via the Foss Islands Path, a lovely greenway which, despite being almost twice the distance of the driving route, avoids the perennially snarled-up city centre and can make the journey quicker by bike than car.  Even with the necessary double journey, for avoiding traffic alone, the cargo trike intrigued me.

 

Problems started immediately at Homebase: the shelves were out of stock. Thankfully items two and three – a large plastic storage box and a potted plant – were good to go.

 

I’d also taken the liberty of popping into HomeSense, because it’s in the same retail park and I really needed six fragrance diffusers and a mug in the shape of a cat.  It’d be a massive waste not to take advantage of the trike’s empty space, I reasoned to my boyfriend as I loaded a trolley’s worth of purchases on to the till.

Credit: R Jankel, 2017

Battling the red tape

Back at Homebase, the trike’s unfortunate underuse was quickly becoming clear.  To start, it couldn’t be unlocked.  Two people located four potential keys from around the store, none of which worked.  A third person was called.  After a good 15 minutes, it transpired that one of the original keys could be forcibly wedged into position and off came the chain.  “Do you know how to turn on the lights?” asked one store assistant.  “I think it’s probably on the sheet, isn’t it?” replied the second.  “Where’s the sheet?” came the inevitable response.

 

Much sifting of paper later and a rental sheet was fished out from under the desk.  Name, address, credit card details, all alarmingly scribbled onto a scrap of paper; no fancy computer logs here, my friend.  I showed my driving licence as ID and paid a £50 deposit.  There was the option to take the hood (which I did), as well as the lock and a helmet (which I didn’t).

 

It was surprisingly spacious – more so than the WorkCycles Kr8, the only other cargo bike I’d previously used.  The 84l plastic box (with my HomeSense goodies nestled inside) sat nicely with the plant wedged in behind.  The shelves would have easily fitted too, I thought grumpily.  Thanks to the bulbous, well-fitted hood, it’s possible to carry both bulky and small items without losing anything out the top.

I fastened the hood around the plant to hold it securely in place and, looking rather like a Victorian travelling salesperson, pushed off.

 

And immediately yelped that I couldn’t control it and was going to fall off, and narrowly avoided careering into a crash barrier.
 

My boyfriend wondered if it was because the tyres were a bit limp, but – no surprises – Homebase’s pump was broken.  And to make life even trickier, the tyres used Dunlop valves; common on the continent, but extremely rare in the UK, leaving any user of this trike entirely dependent on Homebase having a working, accessible, Christiania-specific pump.

 

To top it off, the chain was loose and the rear light didn’t work.  Later I discovered that the front one was so ineffective, its beam barely reached the road surface.  But by this point, I’d come far enough that I wasn’t about to let a little deflation and illumination (or lack thereof) interrupt my plans, so off I optimistically set (again).

And off we go...

Credit: R Jankel 2017

It's no lie

I can’t lie: I hated every moment (dear reader, we’re reliably informed almost all cargo bikes and especially Christiania, are almost always lovely. Please see the statement by London Green Cycles and our boxed-out comment. Ed).

 

The weight distribution is terrible, so unless you spread your wares throughout the bucket with mathematical precision, it feels incredibly unstable.  The path’s slight camber (unnoticeable on a regular bike) meant I spent the entire journey terrified that it was going to tip over.  I had to lean off to the right to balance the weight, and barely moved above walking speed, so fearful was I of the entire contraption taking a tumble into the nettles – or, later on, the path of an oncoming bus.

 

Of course, it’s not designed for speed; the gears are set extremely low, which means it was surprisingly easy to cycle uphill, even fully-loaded.  Meanwhile on the flat, even at top speed, I was a traffic obstacle (which could be good or bad, depending on your perspective).

I normally use a heavy Dutch bike so I’m used to cumbersome cycles, but this felt counterintuitive.  Whether it’s a general issue or specific to the Christiania, I found the steering awkward and unresponsive.  The back-pedal brake made sense after a while, but will be a shock to anybody – like me – who isn’t used to one.  There is a handbrake, but only on one side wheel, so it wrenches the front of the box to the left when squeezed, adding to the sense of destabilisation.   If pedal brakes are unfamiliar then it will be an automatic response to use the handbrake, and as such I found myself heading into the bushes and jumping off the seat every time I attempted to slow down.

 

I haven’t navigated a journey in charge of such an unpleasant vehicle since Sixt accidentally rented me a box van.  On both occasions I reached home with a knot in my stomach, pounding headache, and deep loathing for the respective creators.

This isn’t solely a cargo bike [INSERT LINK TO ALBERTO ARTICLE] problem.  The Christiania trike – not to put too fine a point on it – is a flawed piece of kit.  It might exude retro Scandi cool, but sod me if it isn’t typically hipster.  Trendy yet empty.  Beautiful but dysfunctional.  Overpriced and underdeveloped.  Whereas the Kr8 had felt solid and well-made, the Christiania was flimsy and visibly warped as it turned.  The return journey was infinitely more pleasant; ironically for a vehicle intended to carry cargo, it’s considerably nicer to use when it doesn’t have any cargo in it.

 

I suspect that if one is transporting an adjustable load with a low centre of gravity – say, multiple bags of soil, cans of paint, or boxes of tiles – then this issue could be averted.  In fact, the journey may even become relatively easy.  But the problem is that many items from Homebase aren’t like that.  Some are bulky.  Some are tall.  Some are corn palms.  Must one be forced to buy everything in multiples of two to ensure even weight distribution?  Was this Homebase’s racket all along?!

 

I really, really wanted to love this experience.  Although the four-journey round-trip is hardly convenient, if you don’t have access to a car then it’s a small price to pay.  And that remains the case: it’s a genius move, Homebase are leading the pack, and I sincerely hope other stores follow suit.

Credit: R Jankel 2017

A Great Concept, Poorly Executed

Unfortunately, it’s a great concept, poorly executed.  If it were used more regularly, the staff would become accustomed to the rental process, making it faster and more streamlined.  Better advertising would attract new users.  Repeat use would be encouraged by making the experience easier and more pleasant, simply by giving the cycles regular maintenance.  And how about a discount or a points system, for people who choose to cycle instead of drive?  As it is, the Christiania itself is enough to put me off completely… but with a few cheap modifications – better lights, Schraeder valves, double handbrakes – I’d actually be tempted to try again (albeit only for certain purchases).  And if they could just get entirely new bikes, then… ok, that’s perhaps an expectation too far.

 

As I returned the trike, we noticed a Land Rover Discovery driving away with a familiar-looking palm tree sticking out the sunroof.  Problematic though my experience had been, it was a timely reminder of the possibilities that these trikes offer, and the unnecessary journeys which could so easily be avoided if this scheme were to be perfected.

 

And that’s why I still love it… in theory.  If you’ve got no other options then it’s fantastic that it exists.  I’m sure my non-driving boyfriend will put it to good use, and I hope he won’t be alone.  But with our closest Homebase trike in its current state, and as a cyclist who also owns a car, I’ve got to be honest… next time I need a pot plant, I’ll be spending some of my accumulated green points and driving over.

Robyn Jankel is a writer, Londoner living up north (York) and fan of travelling, cycling and film

JRtB were confident when we read Robyn’s article that what she experienced was not typical of anyone else riding a Christiania. So, we asked the people who know best: London Green Cycles. Not only are they one of the major distributors and retailers of cargo bikes in the UK (and particularly London obviously, but they are backing the Homebase cargo bike scheme across 20 stores in the UK. Following a successful trial Homebase rolled out the scheme in May offering their customers free use of the bikes. It is a brilliant idea as the Christiania bikes are solid workhorses with the capacity to carry up to 100kg plus the rider and volume of 270litres. The bike comes with a rain tent, helmet and heavy-duty lock.

Here’s what London Green Cycles said when they read Robyn’s article:

 

“We would like to thank Robyn for her feedback and we are sorry to hear of her experience when using one of Homebase free hire Christiania cargo bikes.

Customers should be able to ride off with confidence when hiring the cargo bike. We will review the information provided to the members of staff at the stores and look into improving the hand-out procedures of instructions. This should ensure customers are fully informed over basic handling, using the brakes and weight distribution.

Issues with regards to the maintenance should be raised with the store directly, as with any bikes, they do need care and love. Christiania bikes have obviously two front brakes in addition to the coaster brake so when using the lever, they do not steer if serviced properly and regularly. Presta pump will work on a Dunlop/Woods valve and most pumps will have a couple of adaptors so you don't need a Christiania specific pump.

I would encourage Robyn to give it another try as really this is quite an unusual impression and a far cry from the experience of many thousands of Christiania users worldwide, tens of thousands in Copenhagen alone. Tricycles do require a different mindset, a different riding philosophy. Christiania bikes are regarded as one of the finest examples of cargo bikes, a top-quality choice. The best evidence is found in the many 30 years-old bikes still ridden regularly.”

© 2017 By Just Ride the Bike. Created using Wix.com

All images are ©Just Ride the Bike,  © the author, or from Unsplash. Go visit them, they're great. 

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