A guide to cargobikes
A guide to cargobikes
Bikes aren’t famous for carrying bulky loads – but cargobikes can. If you’re looking to get small children around from A to B and you can’t fit them on your regular bike, there are loads of options out there to help you. Or if you’re running a small business like Green Workforce in London, or even a courier company like Outspoken Delivery in Glasgow, Norwich and Cambridge, and you need to get light freight from place to place, it’s definitely worth considering a cargobike. Even for trips to the plant nursery and the weekly shop, a cargobike can be a great alternative to a car.
What are cargobikes?
There are several different types of cargobike. Broadly, you’re looking at a boxbike, a longtail, a pedicab, other types of trike, and a ‘mini cargobike’. They all have different niches, and they vary in price from mini cargobikes at prices similar to the average regular bike, through to several thousands of pounds for pedicabs. These days many can be fitted with an electric assist option, which you will thank when those unnoticeable inclines you experience on your regular bike turn into irksome hills when loaded up with two kids, their stuff and the weekly shop. You will pay a chunk more for that, but you will never look back.
It may also be wise to choose a model that includes all the really useful stuff for true utility vehicles: back racks, mudguards, chaincases, rain tents and so on. Your cargobike will be working hard, so choose one with good quality parts. Hub gears and brakes should be well protected from the elements, and a low frame will make getting on and off that much easier when loaded up.
But first, you need to define what you’ll be carrying: A very young baby? Small children? Older kids? Another adult? Or cargo? What type of cargo? Then, how long will your trips be? Is time of the essence – will you want to remain nippy and manoeuvrable, or would you rather have a three-wheeled vehicle with perhaps a greater capacity but which is likely to be slower?
Very importantly, consider where you will store it, and have a good idea of your uppermost budget, remembering to factor in the cost of accessories such as rain tents, child seats and high-quality locks.
The best advice is to try out several types to see how they feel to you, and to see how much capacity each actually has. Check out the weight limit including rider and vehicle as well as load. If you have a friend or neighbour who has one, that’s ideal: try theirs and pick their brains about their experiences. Look for things that will make your life easy, such as a low step-through frame, integrated stand, and well-designed accessories suited to your needs.
There are a good number of high street bike shops around the UK that stock cargobikes, such as Bikefix and Bikeworks in London. Some outlets specialise in cargobikes, such as The School Run Centre or Power to the Pedal in Cambridge; Practical Cycles in Lancashire; Really Useful Bikes outside Bristol; Kids and Family Cycles in Dorset; and London Green Cycles , CarryMe Bikes and The Flying Dutchman in London. Some even specialise in hand-making their own cargobikes, such as The Cargobike Company in Derby and Porterlight Bikes in London.
The best outlets allow you to try before you buy, ideally renting one to see how it works practically in your own home or workplace environment. London Bike Hub operates a free cargobike rental scheme in the London borough of Ealing, and Edinburgh Festival of Cycling has a cargobike for hire. Many of the above mentioned companies such as CarryMe Bikes and The School Run Centre will let you rent one to try it out and take the rental cost off your purchase price.
You may well find that whichever cargobike you choose, it will change your life!
Electric-assist on cargobikes
‘Pedelecs’ are a form of electric assist becoming extremely popular within the cargobike market. There are now some brands which manufacture cargobikes with electric assist as standard, and don’t offer a non-motorised version, such as Urban Arrow.
A pedelec bike is one fitted with an electric motor which only starts to give power only once you start to pedal, hence ‘pedal electric’. They will cut out when you freewheel and when you reach the legal speed limit: current regulations state that with a motor of up to 250 watts and a speed of up to 15.5mph/25kph the vehicle is not classed as a moped. You will not need a license, vehicle registration, motorbike helmet etc.
Having electric assist on a cargobike is an obvious choice if you will be pedalling significant loads, relatively long distances, or steep/long inclines. And it’s up to you how you judge this – just 3 miles taking 2 kids to school requires significant effort without electric assist! However, it will add significantly to the price. But you may wonder how you ever coped without one!
Types of motor
There are broadly two types of pedelec common for cargobikes: hub (wheel) motors fitted usually to the front wheel(s), and mid-drive motors that are fitted to the bottom bracket where the pedal cranks join the bike frame.
There are pros and cons for each, but the more sophisticated systems now are the mid-drive versions such as Shimano Steps and Bosch. A mid-drive motor provides power through the transmission of the bike (drivetrain), enabling highly effective help with long/steep inclines. Mid-drives can also use a cadence/torque sensor; it senses how fast your legs are spinning or how much torque (force) is being applied to the cranks and adjusts the power accordingly. This provides a system that blends with your own muscle power in a smooth way.
Additionally, electronic gear shifting may be available: an automatic changing of the gears much like with an automatic car. This might take a bit of getting used to, especially if you are used to having absolute and precise control of your gears and cadence. But it can be an astonishingly easy thing to master and lead to a smooth and practical riding experience.
Battery technology is changing extremely quickly and high quality batteries are now much lighter than they used to be, often with a carrying ‘handle’ to make taking them in and out of the bike easy. Some systems can be charged up in situ which is handy if you lock your cargobike in a garage with a charging point. For some, you need to take the battery out in order to charge it, but this may be a good security habit anyway. An electric assist bike without a battery to power it is far less valuable to thieves!
The location of the battery varies; it could be attached to the frame, under a bespoke rear rack, or fitted inside the box of a box-bike – which is a popular choice when retro-fitting a system to a non-electric assist cargobike (see below). And the Tern GSD longtail Cargobike due for release this summer will have space on the frame for two batteries, making the energy last longer (not making the bike go faster!).
Original or retrofit?
A cargobike designed to have a motor and battery is likely to look ‘cleaner’ and function better, with wires tucked away and the bike designed to carry the system. It might have a slightly different frame to the non-electric version, e.g. Bakfiets.nl has a different frame design around the bottom bracket to accommodate the mid-drive motors. But stand-alone systems designed to be retrofitted can be cheaper and with some technical know-how not particularly difficult to install. They are usually the hub-drive wheel versions, but retrofittable mid-drives are also becoming available.
Be careful when choosing your motor and how to fit it. The cargobike may not have been designed with the added forces on parts of the bike that a motor will create in mind, e.g. on the spokes and rim of a front wheel. Hopefully you have chosen a good quality cargobike that is likely to already have extra strong spokes and rim, but do check. You will also want to consider upgrading your brakes; rollerbrakes are not really suitable for the speeds and forces of electric-assist bikes and trikes.
Some say that retrofitting a motor to a bakfiets-style trike is more expensive and complicated than retrofitting to a bike, because a trike with two parallel front wheels will need to have a hub-drive motor fitted on both, whereas with a two-wheeler just the front wheel needs to be replaced/upgraded. So you may wish to plump straight for an electric assist Cargobike in the first place. You are very unlikely to regret it once you experience how extremely useful it is!
Which type of cargo bike is right for you?
Somewhat resembling super-charged wheelbarrows, boxbikes have a large sturdy box at the front of the bike, set low to the ground to give a low centre of gravity and therefore a steady feel. Coming in two or three-wheeled versions, they are the classic cargobike for transporting small children or light freight. The trike versions have the largest capacity; the two-wheelers retain the nippiness and manoeuvrability of a classic bicycle; and both types benefit from the excellent handling that comes with pushing the load at the front of the bike rather than pulling it behind.
There are many different brands of bakfiets, but they all broadly fall into the categories of two or three-wheeled versions, designed for children or freight. The bike versions can often come in long or short forms, and business-specific versions abound. The famous Dutch brands include Azor Bakfiets, Gazelle and Babboe. From Denmark, the iconic Christiania is the high profile three-wheeler and the sleek, sporty Bullit is a well-known two-wheeler. More recently, the British-built Boxer brand has arrived on the scene, with an emphasis on quirky, solid design.
Business-specific options include the ‘street vendor’ type with integrated umbrella, the ice-cream bike, and ones fitted with a lockable box.
If you’re a mobile bike mechanic you might want to consider a bakfiets as they’re the perfect size for bike tools, common bike spares, a track pump and a bike stand. ‘Flat-bed’ versions of the two-wheelers are used for moving freight in towns for the ‘last mile’ delivery. They are affectionately known as ‘long-johns’, and those with customised boxes fixed on the flatbed can showcase the company’s logo and act as a great advertisement.
Some of the advantages the bakfiets has over carrying kids or stuff on your regular bike are obvious. The capacity of the box is far greater than panniers or child seats can offer, and you can switch easily between transporting children and shopping. Some advantages are not so obvious. For instance, the only realistic way to carry babies by bike when they can’t yet sit up by themselves is in a baby carrier within a cargobike box. Even newborns can be carried this way. The low centre of gravity and protective sides of the box give reassurance to parents. You can also see your child in front of you, and you can fix the baby seat so that they can see you too.
Until you ride a boxbike you don’t realise what a difference it makes to be handling a specially-designed, fully integrated vehicle, rather than a regular bike with child seats perched precariously that can make the bike unstable when you’re loading up, or panniers stuffed to the gills that give your bike a very weighty feel at the back. Additionally, one of the greatest advantages when carrying children in a boxbike is that you can see and hear your kids in front of you, retaining the interaction and eye contact that can be lost on a longtail or a tandem.
This easy feel and improved convenience comes at a cost. Prices start at over £1,000 for the cheapest ones that are safely built, and can range up to over £3,000 for an electric-assist trike. It is definitely not recommended to buy a super cheap one on the internet for under £1,000. They are not robustly built and when you are carrying children you want to make sure that safety is your priority.
The good news is that a boxbike keeps its value, so you can sell it on after a few years and get up to two-thirds of the cost back. There is high demand for second-hand versions due to the relatively high purchase price, and if you try to keep it in good condition you will be thanking yourself that you made the investment. This applies to most cargobikes, because they are not yet widely sold in regular bike shops, and demand is rising.
Longtails are basically like regular bikes but with longer ‘tails’. The back part of the bike frame is extended to enable a longer, sturdier back rack. With the right accessories you can even carry adult passengers on some brands, which gives an advantage over the smaller bakfiets-type cargobikes which are really only designed for children. Longtails are a practical option when you want to get the bike into the house or down the side of a passage by your property where a wider cargobike might struggle. They also provide a familiar riding experience, being basically the same as a normal bike but longer. When loaded up heavily, the handling might take a bit of getting used to, but the faster you go, the more stable it will feel!
You can get kits that allow you to convert some types of regular bikes into longtails, rather than buying a whole new separate bicycle. Check out the Xtracycle ‘Free Radical’ conversion kit.
But, again, you will find that a fully integrated bike specially designed to be long and load-carrying has a more sturdy feel and better handling than a modified ‘normal’ bike. Some brands to have a look at are Surly ‘Big Dummy’, the Kona ‘Ute’, and the Yuba ‘Mundo’. Expect to pay upwards of about £900 plus accessories such as oversized panniers, running boards for passengers’ feet, and handles for little'uns to hold on to.
They’re great bikes for when the kids are older but not riding their own bikes, and they’re a fun way to give another adult a lift somewhere. But bear in mind that they’re not tandems, so you’ll be doing all the work!
A great freight bike that’s almost a cross between a longtail and a bakfiets is the 8 freight, a classic British cargobike designed by Mike Burrows, the man responsible for Chris Boardman’s world-beating Lotus bike in the 1990s. It has an extended ‘back end’ where the load is placed, like a longtail; but the basis of the loadbase is a box-shape, like a bakfiets. Designed to carry cargo and children, it is possible to carry both long items and bulky items, and you can just about fit an adult in the basket! From £1,895.
Most people think of pedicabs as rickshaws, famous throughout Asian countries, and more infamously in London’s West End. But versions are available of the classic massive trikes which are designed for freight. The most iconic is the Cycles Maximus, which is available in a variety of options including flatbed and bespoke design. These trikes have the load at the back so feel different to the bakfiets style, but generally can carry heavier and bulkier loads – for instance up to 250kg plus rider and the vehicle itself. They are even available as mobile advertising hoardings. Expect to pay several thousand pounds – prices are on request.
A word about trikes
Some people are drawn to them because they are not so confident about the balance issues of handling a two-wheeled cargobike, especially when carrying their children on busy roads. Trikes may appear to be an easier option to ride because you can sit on them without having to balance them when you are stationary. But they are not easier to ride; they are just different. It can take a while to get used to the unique way that they handle: you need to be careful that both of the parallel wheels stay at the same level, otherwise it will feel as if the trike is tipping. Speed cushions, raised ‘tables’ at side streets, and going round corners need to be handled with care. Broadly speaking, a two-wheeler feels more stable the faster it goes, and a three-wheeler feels more stable the slower it goes. So if swiftness is a priority, a trike may not be for you.
It’s possible to get various different types of steering methods on trikes. The Nihola has a mechanism that steers via the front wheels without moving the box. The Bellabike has a rear-steering mechanism. Both of these options create a totally different riding feel.
Other types of trike
This is a separate category because there are some cargobike-esque machines out there that don’t have a box, but are designed to carry passengers of some kind without being a classic ‘pedicab’.
The Zigo ‘Leader’ is a trike which can be separated into small-wheeled bike plus stroller. It hasn’t got a box so it’s not a bakfiets but it carries small children at the front bakfiets-style. It’s lighter than a boxbike and more compact, but with smaller wheels it may be slower than a conventional three-wheeler. If storage really is your limiting factor then this might be a good bet, although you will need to consider the faff-factor of disassembling the machine every time you get home. The Taga Bike is similar, converting into a stroller, and even has a box-bike style front version.
For both these brands you can buy different versions designed to carry one or two children, but they don’t include a back rack and the storage space for other items such as shopping, kiddie stuff or your child’s school chum coming home for tea appears very limited.
The Trikidoo was essentially a small trike with two wheels at the back instead of the front, above which were two passenger seats for young children and some storage space underneath. The company ceased trading in 2011 but sometimes they become available online second-hand.
Mini cargobikes / porteur style
Finally, there are some load-bearing bikes out there that aren’t oversized but can still be pretty neat load-carriers. Traditionally called ‘butchers bikes’ these types are similar to regular city bikes but have large built-in front or back racks, often with one or more slightly smaller wheels to accommodate the load on top. A British version is the Donky bike retailing at £499 which also has the advantage of small wheels with the resultant low centre of gravity and short wheelbase (basically, it’s compact). Elephant Bike restore old Royal Mail delivery bikes to tip top condition, and when you buy one from £250 they donate one to a social enterprise in Africa. As built, both of these are only designed to carry freight, not kids.
Workcycles have a fantastic mini cargobike called the FR8 (“freight”) which has a lot of versatility. It has both a longer back rack upon which two child seats can be mounted, and an integrated front rack. Another child seat can be mounted between the rider and the handlebars. From £950 its price is very competitive with the Longtail bikes, but similarly it’s not set up to carry young babies.
Storing a cargobike
Storing outsized machines can be a challenge, especially in compact urban environments. Many cargobikes simply don’t do steps. With their sturdy inflexible boxes you can struggle to manoeuvre bakfietsen through hallways. An extra-long bike will have issues getting round tight corners. If you have a garage then it’s easy, but in the inner city many people simply lock their cargobike in their front garden or even on the street. If you get high-quality locks, good insurance and a specially-made cover, you won’t need to go through the hassle of trying to store it indoors. “Treat it like a motorbike” is what I often say to customers.
Maintaining your cargobike
Bear in mind that some bike shops won’t accept larger cargobikes for repairs and servicing, especially if you didn’t buy it from them, and more so if you bought a cheap nasty one from the internet! They are awkward to work on and they take up lots of space in what are often cramped workshops. If you choose ones with moving parts that are protected inside chaincases, hub gears and hub-type brakes, you’ll find that they will need a lot less maintenance and they’ll last a lot longer. Buy a cargobike face-to-face and your dealer is likely to make an arrangement on at least your first service, plus decent warranties on the frame and parts for your peace of mind.
Do you really need a cargobike?
Of course you do! Oh, well, not necessarily, actually. It really is a good idea to decide whether you can carry your precious load using your existing bike without having to fork out on another bike. You would also avoid the hassle of finding the space to store an outsized one.
The classic Japanese ‘Mamachari’ bikes are great at carrying young children while still being a similar size to a ‘regular’ bike; so if you’re looking to change bikes anyway, they are great little run-around machines that won’t take up loads of extra space. From about £325 second-hand.
There are many trailers on the market which can do a great job of carrying shopping as well as small children. Pulling a load behind you is a very different feel to pushing it in front of you, and you’ll need to get used to the handling of an ‘articulated vehicle’. You may not feel so happy about having your small children out of sight behind you quite low down when travelling on roads with lots of traffic, but trailers certainly are an option when you don’t have the space or the budget for a whole new bike. They’re great for leisure rides on traffic-free routes, and tagalong additions are the next step up for when your child is ready to do some pedalling too. From about £90 - £300.
You can buy flatbed trailers that come apart easily for storage, such as the Carry Freedom Y-frame range from about £200. These can’t carry children but are great for carrying things like plants which might get crushed in a pannier, or toolkits if you are a tradesperson who doesn’t always want to use your car. You can even carry pets on them by adding the right box.
Alix Stredwick is a Cycling UK member and the founder of CarryMe Bikes, a social enterprise in east London renting out and selling cargobikes and running projects to help people access cargobikes.