A beginner’s guide to buying a Cargo Bike

This guide mainly applies to the UK, where I am based, but surely it can be useful for people living in other areas as well.

I can’t exactly recall the way I became aware of the existence of cargo bikes as a solution to transport children. I did visit The Netherlands a couple of times, and Denmark once, so it must have been there (I don’t know you, but I sometimes wonder whether I was aware of the existence of children before having one of them…). In any case, after a long period of research and reflection, which lasted approximately three years from the first time I spent some moments looking at photos of different models on the internet, I finally bought a cargo bike in July last year (2016). The bike I finally bought, which I am going to review in another post is great fun, but it was also quite entertaining for me to look at various manufacturers’ and shops’ websites, blogs, reviews, and analyse specs, pros and cons of the different models. And even nowadays, with the cargo bike in my possession, I still enjoy looking at info about new or improved models, photos and stories about how great is to have one of these machines.

I’d like to share here some thoughts and perhaps help other people considering the same decision which, given the price of most of the models, it is definitely one that needs a bit of pondering about. I’ll go through the different criteria that guided my decision and the models I considered, finally revealing my choice. The main issue for me (based in Brighton, UK) was that there were not many opportunities to try different models of cargo bikes around my area (although the situation is slowly changing, luckily, and London, for example, has a number of shops with a very good selection). So, it had to be mainly desk-based research. This is far from an exhaustive guide, but I do hope it is going to be useful nonetheless.

What is a cargo bike?

I wanted to begin with a definition. It is difficult to find a precise definition of what a cargo bike is, depending on the country where you are. My impression is that in the UK a cargo bike is defined as one that has been adapted to transport a load of any size and type, and this includes apparently normal bikes with large racks at the front and the back (like this one for example). Dutch people use the word ‘bakfiets’ (box bikes) for, well, literally,  bikes with a box, and I am not sure the two definitions always overlap. For the purpose of this post, I am considering bikes that are generally larger or longer, or both, than normal bicycles, built or adapted, mainly but not only, for the transport of children (several of the models I mention below do have a freight version as well, and their potential for city deliveries is incredible).

(1) Two wheeler or Three wheeler?

For quite some time (actually up to a little while before taking a decision), I was convinced the only real option for carrying children and other things on a bike (apart from having a seat in from, and one in the back on a normal bicycle as I had done for quite some time) was a three-wheel cargo bike (or trike), with a nice squarish box in front. I thought, and I still think, that those bikes look very cool, special, and versatile, and I really wanted to get one.

I carefully studied the websites of various Danish and Dutch companies like NiholaBabboeChristiania, Winther, Johnny Loco, as well as those of the British manufacturers Boxercycles (how much I like their Shuttle model) and The Cargo Bike Company. I learnt that the Dutch generally prefer the speed and handling of a two-wheel bike, while Danes prefer the stability of a three-wheeler, as they also ride them on snowy and icy roads in Winter (I always mention this little story whenever someone tells me that few people cycle in Britain because of the weather…).

However, after trying a two-wheel model, and after reading reviews and various accounts of life with a three-wheeler, with pros (space and stability) and cons (size and maneuverability), I then decided to steer towards a two-wheel bike (but I have not managed to try a three-wheeler yet so it is a decision based on info rather than trial, I am afraid – Note of 21 April 2017 – Last week I was in Holland and hired a three-wheeler, I’ll share my experience on these pages shortly). Importantly, at that particular moment, I had not been able to find any three-wheel model that could satisfied the criteria that guided my final decision (which I discuss below).

I was also not sure yet about where to store it overnight, and thought a slightly smaller bike would have created less issues. I also wanted it to be simply my main bike, and wasn’t sure I would have used a tree-wheeler as much as a two-wheeler to go around town on my own, or for some more leisurely type of long rides at weekends. And there are at times narrow passages on the roads I usually take, which I even went to measure, that a big bike would have struggled to pass. But again, I did not have the opportunity to try one, and would be very happy to hear from people who have made a three-wheel cargo bike their (sort of) main bike.

(2) Electric or non-electric

I live at the border between Brighton and Hove, right by the seafront, and if you ride anywhere North of where I am staying it is quite hilly. Now, I do not think that hills, apart from some very tough ones, are a real obstacle to cycling in general (and there is certainly no shame in getting off your bike and pushing it up a hill in case). With heavy bikes is however a bit different, and the main reason was that all the quieter routes I usually take are quite hilly. I could avoid those hills, but I really do not like cycling through Churchill Square, in the main centre of Brighton, among big buses, lorries, taxis…Moreover, for me cycling is another means of transportation, I use a bike to go and do some shopping, to station to catch a train, to the library, to the playground, wearing exactly what I would wear if I was walking, driving or in the bus. So the idea of pushing a 40kgs+ bike up the hills (without counting the possible goods and/or children) was not really my idea of fun (at least not something I would like to do every day).

(3) What type of electric assistance?

Before starting looking for info about cargo bikes I did not know much about electric bikes apart that they existed and that somehow they made cycling a bit easier. I then read quite a lot about electric bikes in general, chatted with some very informed people and decided that the only way forward, given how steep were the hills I wanted to be able to climb with a reasonable effort on a relatively big and heavy bike, was a Crank or Mid-drive motor.

I am putting things simple here, and experts of electric bikes may have much more details to add, but there are basically two main types of electric bikes motors (I am here talking about bikes that can legally be used in EU roads without a licence and a number plate). In the first type ‘Hub’, the motor is in the wheel, either the rear or the front one, and moves the specific wheel while you are pedaling. The Crank or mid-drive motors sits where your pedals are and moves them with you. There are plenty of pros and cons of the two types, but my main interest was the climbing capability. Mid-drive motors allows higher torques and you can use them with whatever gear you are on, while Hub motors do not give you the same range of gears. Mid-drive are however, more expensive (the best website for me about electric bikes in the UK is Ebike Tips, and there you can find a very useful review of the four most popular models of mid-drive motors, which can also help in the choice of a cargo bike). Despite of the price issue, I was quite convinced that if I was really going to spend money on an electric assisted cargo bike, it needed to have the best possible motor to be able to look at long hill-climbing tasks with a different eye.

(4) Disc brakes or roller brakes

I have to admit a general ignorance about bike brakes, despite having ridden bicycles almost all of my life. But, I read some interesting blogs from the US (the most useful for me has been Hum of the City) about life with children and cargo bikes in hilly cities like San Francisco and Portland (they are much hillier than Brighton…), and most people seemed to agree that if you are given an electric motor to help climb particularly steep hills ,you must have some very good brakes to be able to stop safely when coming down, especially with a full load. So that was it, I needed a model with disc-brakes, or at least the option to add them.

(5) It has to look cool

Now, I like to think of myself as a confident person that could ride anything, wearing anything and still fell the coolest and relaxed person in the world. That is not always the case unfortunately (my mamma says ‘fortunately’), and I did look at the various models available thinking “which one would I like to be seen on?”. Some people may not agree, but I did find most three-wheel cargo bikes quite cool. There is a bit of a wow vintagy factor like the old postal or bakers’ bikes (and talking about cargo bike being cool, have a look at this video showing the Italian way of doing things cargo bike, style as important as usefulness, and possibly more, and if you do not like the idea, think that if style can win the heart of the people, we’ll see more people with cargo bikes around…).

For the two-wheel cargo bikes I was not so sure, however. And I thought, for example, that neither wooden boxes (the Babboe City Mountain is an example, a very good bike with an excellent electric assistance, but not to my taste, and at the time there was no option to add disc-brakes, but I think the option is there now; or the Bakfiets Cruiser Long ), nor soft tent like boxes (for example the Gazelle Cabby, which I do not think has an electric assisted version anyway) looked that good on bikes as long and quirky. But again, very much my personal taste.

(6) Children and load in front or in the back?

I have photos of myself as little more than a new-born baby in a white seat attached to my dad’s bike crossbar, with either him or my Grandad riding. So, for me carrying small children has always meant having them in front. Before buying the cargo bike I carried my children in a front mounted seat (and when they became two, one in front and one in the back), and while so many front-mounted seat models are available in my country Italy, there were really few choices in the UK.

Before embarking in the search for the perfect cargo bike I did not know about the existence of the long tail cargo bikes which seem quite popular in the US, and was quite happy to read about them (and after a bit I also spotted one in Brighton around my daughter’s school, and was told it belonged to someone who has a bike shop in the city, but have not seen it for quite a while). They did not appeal to me, however, as I wanted a big box where to chuck everything, but I am sure they could be right the solution for many people. The Yuba bikes are quite popular and come in a number of different versions. Xtracycle have an impressive range as well, but I liked very much a sort of artisan one, hand-made in Eugene, Oregon, the Bike Friday Haul-A-Day. It is quite compact and light, and can also be stored vertically as it can stand on its rear carrier (but I think those bikes not available in the UK or Europe yet though).

The short-list

Perhaps it is because of my other life as a choice modeller, but despite establishing a clear set of criteria, it was difficult nonetheless to come up with a shortlist.

To sum up, I was looking for an astonishingly looking cargo bike (5), with a box in front (6), mid-drive electric assistance (2 and 3) and disc brakes (4). You must have noticed that criteria (1) is missing here. That is because the move towards a two-wheeler rather than a three-wheeler took time, and was certainly based on the reasons I described above, but also on the fact that no three-wheeler could satisfy, at that particular moment, all of my criteria.

I did love the British-made three-wheel Boxer Cycle E-Shuttle, that has disc-brakes, but no mid-drive motor (this has now changed as their website says that all models from April 2017 will have the Shimano Steps mid-drive electric assistance…). I found the Babboe Curve Mountain a very interesting one, with a Yamaha mid-drive assistance, but no disc-brakes were available (although they are now, but only the rear ones). I liked the Winther Cargoo but no mid-drive electric assistance is available (and I am still not sure about disc-brakes).

There was a three-wheeler satisfying all of the criteria, although at the beginning of my search it was not yet available in the UK (but the manufactures then pointed me to the London shop that was soon to become their dealer in the UK). It is the Danish-made Butchers and Bicycles tilting MK1 trike, which satisfied all of the criteria.  I think the bike looks very cool, and the tilting mechanism, combining the stability of a three-wheeler and the maneuverability of a two-wheeler was definitely a plus point. However, I was then put off by the price, and the fact that the box has enough space for two kids only and not much more, and when I was finally invited to test it, I had already purchased mine. Reviews have been mixed but I would really like to test it to form a better opinion.

My research was almost desk based only. Nevertheless, one day while still thinking about which three-wheeler cargo bike to go for,  I decided to go and ask about cargo bikes at a used bikes shop in Brighton, which I had visited only once before, properly named The Amsterdammers. To my great surprise, right in front of their big door there were a number of two-wheel cargo bikes with big freight boxes and a DHL logo. I had spotted some of them before in Brighton, read about the company behind (Recharge Cargo), and even talked about the company to my students once in class when discussing more sustainable freight solutions, but did not know they were connected to the shop. All were Urban Arrow and in the shop they also had a family version for hire, which I could try for a couple of minutes on the spot. I did enjoy that first ride, I thought it was incredible the way such a big bike really handled like a normal one. I went back there a month after and hired it for a day. To my surprise, even with my two children on, it was easy to ride. The very first ride was not very successful though, as my young one, who was 2 and half at the time, was not feeling very well and did not like it at the very beginning. I continued with my daughter only and we were caught up in an unannounced massive rain storm and had to took shelter in a church (like in the good old times…It was St Micheal & All Angels, the ‘Cathedral of the Backstreets’, a very beautiful church well worth a visit if you are in Brighton). After the storm and a warm lunch (it was May in case you were wondering), my son was back with us and did enjoy the rest of the day on it.

The final choice

After another couple of months of thinking, and reading, and thinking again, and yes, the Urban Arrow Family was the one that met all of my criteria. It looks very cool, has a a big box in front, mid-drive electric assistance (by Bosch) and disc-brakes. After having asked a couple of shops for a quote, I finally ordered it at The Amsterdammers in May and finally took it home (well, to the bike rack in front of my block…) for the first time in July 2016. I am going to share my experience about it so far shortly, so please check these pages.

Some of you may say at this point: ‘hey but there certainly are other very cool two-wheel cargo bikes!’. Indeed there are, and I could not overlook the beautiful Larry vs Harry Bullitt. Now, that is a seriously good-looking and well-made bike, apparently quite popular among bike couriers in London at the moment. However, there were three issues. The first of which is that, as I said before, I am for a relaxed way of cycling, in a sit-up position, and the Larry vs Harry Bullitt does involve a more aggressive stance. Also, I read somewhere that it was not built with children in mind but rather freight (they do have accessories to transport children, but the box is not as good and big as the Urban Arrow Family, and they also display even a photo with children on it on their website, two of three children on the pic do look a bit miserable though, and perhaps there is a hidden message there…). Otherwise both electric version (with Shimano Steps) and disc-brakes are available.

When I was almost decided I also discovered about the Dolly Family, not bad but I don’t think coming with a quality matching the Urban Arrow (especially in terms of electric assistance), but nonetheless a nice bike to consider. I also liked the London-hand-made Porterlight, but discovered it a bit late, and I did not think it is as versatile for children (and no electric assistance available as far as I know).

More recently, I discovered two other very good ones, too late for them to be part of my short-list. The German-made Riese & Muller E-cargo (there is an ex-display model for sale on Ebay at a very good price at the moment), and the French-made Douze F4e (properly named as a Formula 1 car, and a variant has a rear wheel hub motor with a Kinetic Energy Recovery System….). They both do look very good and well made, but my guess is that the issue about the aggressive position I highlighted above also applies to them (and in any case now that I have bought mine I do not want to indulge in too much after-thinking…).

Where to find them?

The Urban Arrow Family and some of the other models I have mentioned above, are  now available in a number of places in the UK, and I did get in touch with some of them during my decision process. Well, in Brighton you have The Amsterdammers. Based in London are Fully Charged (they are also the only one stocking the Butchers and Bicycle MK1-E in the UK, as far as I know), Flying Dutchman (they have a very good selection of two-wheel cargo bikes) and London Green Cycles (with a good selection of both two and three-wheelers and, as far as I know, the only one to have the impressive Douze). Practical Cycles in Lancashire, Laid Back Bikes in Edinburgh (a city where it seems there are a number of Urban Arrow bikes) and Really Useful Bikes in Bristol also have a very good selection. I also just discovered Carry Me Cargo Bikes, a social enterprise based in London where you can hire and buy cargo bikes. They are also involved in a number of impressive local projects to promote (cargo) cycling. Finally, for possibly the largest selection of cargo bikes in the UK (but no Urban Arrow…), trailers and other accessories for family cycling do visit the website Kids and Family Cycles. They are based in Dorset and can also take the bikes to you for a trial for a reasonable price (and they were very nice when I got in touch with them). I don’t think this is a complete list and I’d very happy happy to add other shops (or update the info about availability) if you let me know about them.

Why a cargo bike?

I preferred keeping this bit towards the end. Why all this effort? Well, because I like cycling and spending time with my children, because I wanted to get rid of my car, which I was not using very much, and have an alternative to public transport (which I continue to use but a bit less). And I like the idea of a cargo bike as such, I think they are useful, and cool, and then it almost became an obsession, and after so much thinking and comparing, I really needed to get one…

A note on prices and a warning

I have not mentioned prices too much along the post. They did play an important role in my decision process. But prices will affect perspective buyers differently, depending on several reasons, so I did not think it was necessary to discuss them in any detail.  Obviously, the models I have mentioned above are all quite expensive (especially those with electric assistance), and the current weaker GBP does not help, but prices do vary a bit, and also depends very much on the type of accessories you decide to add. There are, however, more and more opportunities to buy both ex-demo and secondhand ones (as usual Ebay and Gumtree are the best sources), so clearly the market is moving in the right direction. You’ll also see some very cheap new ones around, even with electric assistance. I was quite tempted by some of them at the very beginning, before getting more info. Do spent time on some research if you intend to buy the cheap ones, as people have shared some bad experience. And well, personally I had never spent more than about 100 GBP on a bicycle (much less in Italy, where I still use a bicycle that my dad bought for him probably 50 years ago…), and never regretted it, but things are different for an electric cargo bike…

And finally some questions for you

If you have managed to read (or more likely skim through) down to here you really must be interested in cargo bikes. So, I’d be very happy to hear whether you agree with my criteria. There must be people who have a cargo bike with a hub electric assistance (or even without assistance at all) and happily climb hills, and those who find disc-brakes not that essential, or those who have a three-wheel cargo bike and would not change it for anything else. Any other good model available in the UK that I have missed? Any other comment or view very welcome, so please do not hesitate to get in touch.

All the best

Alberto

10 April 2017

All opinions expressed in this post are my own and I have received no incentive whatsoever from any of the companies or businesses mentioned above

Here you can read about me, this is a bit about my research, here you can see my publications. You can follow me on twitter here

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