If the sleek, barely there bikes of the Tour de France are the rockets of bicycling, then the cargo bike is the hard-working pick-up truck. Each one has its place in the world. Even pro cyclists wouldn’t want to race a cargo bike, but, neither would you attach racks and panniers to carry gear on the racing bike. For hauling, it's better to choose the sturdy, reliable truck. Handy, easy to use, indestructible, and, unlike a pickup, none of your friends will ask to borrow it.
The Adventure Begins
My relationship with cargo bikes started when I got lucky. My sister was on the board of the Sonoma County (California) Bicycle Coalition and, at the last minute, posted on Facebook that there were still raffle tickets for the big ticket item, a cargo bike fitted with an e-motor. Even though I already owned a bicycle or two, I’m a good sister, so I bought two $35 tickets. Color me surprised when I found out a couple of hours later that I’d won!
A few weeks later, the bike had been shipped and reassembled at one of our local shops, World of Bikes. I was a little intimidated. Bluebelle (yes, I name my bikes) is a shiny blue Yuba Mundo. Her heavier frame and extended back deck means that she is both sturdier and heavier than the average bike around town. In addition, Belle was outfitted with an e-assist motor powered by three batteries that sat in a box attached to the right-side ledge. She’s got 6 gears and pedals just like a regular bike; you activate the motor by holding down a throttle with your left thumb. The batteries have a range of about 20 miles.
At first, I rode Belle as a “regular” bicycle, without thinking about what she could do. She came to live with us at a time when I was thinking about bicycling as transport, in addition to commuting and riding for exercise. The Yuba can hold 450 pounds, including the rider, and gave me a way to experiment with errands that most people do by car.
Her first job was as my grocery cart. In a normal world, groceries for two can be handled by any bike with a rack or a backpack. The challenge came because my son was a high school student and an athlete who ate everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor. I found that, with some imaginative use of bungee cords and plastic crates, Belle could carry groceries for the two of us for almost a week, including cases of soda and gallons of milk and juice.
In addition to gathering food, her talents extended to all sorts of errands around town; she carried furniture, brought home books from the library, and took boxes to the post office. We put her to use when we rented a bike with a trailer to move my partner Larry, needing only two carloads to bring fragile stuff to our house.
Being useful was pretty good, but what else could a cargo bike do for me? For Christmas, Larry gave me an eight-foot Bikes At Work trailer that hitches on to the back of a bike (see my previous paragraph, re moving by bike). For the record, I had asked for a truck, but he swore this was better. Check the trailers out at http://bikesatwork.com. At first we pulled it with his fat bike, which worked fine, but after hauling super-heavy stuff like two garbage cans of compost, it was clear we needed more power.
After a slight modification of the hitch to account for differences in the frames, Belle is now our designated trailer-hauler. (The owner/founder of Bikes at Work is an obsessive god and I mean that in the best way.) With the trailer, Belle’s pulled supplies and chairs for our annual Bike to Work Week party, heavy stuff from the big box hardware store on the edge of town, and helped a friend move. We’ve even ferried wood chips from our driveway to use as mulch in the backyard.
More recently, Larry updated the battery system with lithium ion batteries (like those in a laptop) that fit in a triangle-shaped bag under the top tube. The new battery pack also powers head- and tail-lights.
Other people, other places
Carrying goods by bicycle has been common since the early 20th century in the Netherlands as a way for tradesmen to deliver goods. According to a recent article in Momentum Magazine (Find it here at https://momentummag.com/cargo-bikes-guide-usa-canada/), by the 1930s, cargo bikes were used in other countries for messenger service and deliveries. During the 1940s, with the rationing of steel and gasoline, Schwinn manufactured a “cycle truck” for use in the US.
Eventually, the US car culture and suburban sprawl eclipsed the use of bicycles for hauling goods, although cargo bikes continue to be used all over Europe, Asia and Latin America to carry people and goods. http://one.cyclelogistics.eu/docs/111/D2_1_Analysis_of_Cargo_Cycling_v_2_Sept2013.pdf
Cargo bikes can be outfitted to carry small children, either in special seats or corralled in a system of bars that attaches to the back rack of the bike. Seattle-ite Madi Carlson (https://familyride.us) carries an impressive amount of gear, kids, and goods on her Surly Big Dummy. She has turned her passion into a non-profit called FamilyRide Seattle which promotes biking to enhance individual, family, and societal quality of life, while at the same time moving toward sustainable lifestyles and communities.
For an enthusiastic look at the worker bees of bicycles, check out this Bicycling magazine article: http://www.bicycling.com/bikes-and-gear-features/reviews/coolest-bike-ever-made
Back to the Future
More recently, Larry used an Extracycle conversion kit to make an old Gary Fisher mountain bike (no suspension and more recently used as a town/commuter bike) into a cargo bike. His “new” extended frame bike with new disc brakes supplements our fleet, and has been tested by countless trips to the Farmer’s Market to haul home five dozen of ears of corn (at a time), watermelons, squash, and whatever else catches our culinary fantasy. The Extracycle was designed for use in developing countries to carry people and goods. You can learn more in this short excerpt from a documentary “Less Car More Go” https://youtu.be/uWMd6yyYs8E.
This year, I invested in a Kickstarter project, LIFT Cargo Bike, which will turn a regular bike into a “bakfiets.” I have a bike ready (bought “as is” at the Iowa City Bike Library) and I’m looking forward to the cargo box and attachment kit coming my way in February. You can find out more here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1616617044/the-lift-cargo-bike
I’ve added a number of photos of our cargo bikes at work. But, even if you don’t have a cargo bike, any bike that can carry panniers can be your friend with muscles. My town bike, an Electra Amsterdam (named Fanny Fiets), has hauled the fixings for Thanksgiving dinner (including a frozen turkey riding in splendor on the bike rack), gallons of paint and other hardware store supplies, and, until my retirement, daily hauled my lunch, briefcase, and changes of clothing to work and back.
Carrying cargo and doing errands by bike is our family fun, but it also serves a purpose. Larry and I own a car, a VW Jetta (named Greta), which is mostly used to carry us to adventures where we ride bikes. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we go weeks without taking her out of the garage. Since we don’t buy gasoline on a regular basis it’s hard for me to point to specific savings. Think about how often you drive a car and how much it costs to fill the tank. What if you got to spend that on other things, like travel?
Bikes can carry us to the happy places we remember from childhood. They can also help us feel connected to our community and the world around us. By choosing to do more by bike we have the freedom to choose the way we live our lives.