In my previous post I went through the thinking behind the purchase of a cargo bike, discussed the different models I had considered, and said a few words about the model I finally chose and started using in July 2016, the Urban Arrow Family. Here I am sharing with you my thoughts about the bike after more than six months of use and more than 500 miles covered.
First of all, I have never regretted a single second having bought a cargo bike in general, and mine in particular. My only regret, not buying it before. My children love it, they love being in it, and I love carrying them around in it. I think this says a lot already given the considerable investment and the time I have spent on the decision (which was, by the way, a good distraction from writing research or consultancy papers, marking exams, or performing econometric analysis….).
The one I have is the 2016 model with hydraulic disc-brakes, Bosch Active Line Electric Assistance, and 400 Wh Powerpack battery. Note that the bike is now available with the upgraded Performance Line or Performance Line CX motors (in both cases only with disc-brakes), the latter with a 500 Wh battery. I have discovered it in some of the retailers’ websites, this one for example, not on the Urban Arrow website itself. And talking about that, I don’t think they update their website much, and for the latest info, and very nice photos, it is better to visit their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages.
I am not sure how better the two upgrades are though, and whether they are worth the extra price (and perhaps a retrofitted upgrade on mine? what do you think?), and would definitely like to hear from someone who know better the differences among the different variants of Bosch electric assistance, and has perhaps tested them on a cargo bike.
What about the criteria guiding the purchase I discussed in my previous post?
Quickly, the outcome of my long period of research was that my as soon as possible to have cargo bike had to be a two-wheeler (1), with electric assistance (2) via a mid-drive motor (3), with disc-brakes, a box to carry children in front (4) and, above all, it had to look cool (5).
So, has the bike delivered? Well, I still think it does look very very cool so absolutely no regret on that.
I sometimes spend time just looking at it and enjoy its beauty as the work of a Dutch master. Disc-brakes are indeed very powerful and I do feel secure downhill, even with a very full load. I did not like the short brake levers at the beginning, especially when wearing gloves, but am now quite used to them and they are fine. I keep two fingers on them while riding and feel very much in control. The box is wonderfully laid out there in front of me and I have total control of its content at all times (well, almost). The electric assistance is good and I managed to climb some good hills in Brighton on my own with no problem. My cycling is relaxed, with normal clothing and I do not look for showers at destination. Full loads require more effort obviously, but always a reasonable one (after all, it is a bike). Moderate hills and even strong winds are no issue.
How does it ride?
It rides very well, really like a normal bike, and for me it was so from the very first time. And this applies to both the cases when the box is empty or when I am carrying two/three children, although obviously you feel the extra weight (if the children moves around it gets a bit more difficult but never felt like I was going to fall). The riding position is upright, ‘a la Dutch’, ‘ a la European’, or as I have always been used to. The Nuvinci continuously variable transmission gear system is wonderful, and you can always find the right gear. At times I feel the need of a longer gear on long flats but it is not a big issue, and the system helps you maintain a reasonable speed without racing against the cars. The only issue: it does takes potholes in a rather abrupt way (and you feel the vibrations going all over its length, beginning from the front wheel). Having said that, on bad roads I feel more secure on it than on a normal bike, as your centre of gravity is lower (not sure this is a very scientific explanation). The Riese and Muller E-Cargo Load, which I have mentioned in my last post, has full suspension and I would be very curious to see what difference it makes. The electric assistance is very good, and I have definitely fallen in love with e-bikes. Range is between 25 and 40 miles, depending on the route and level of assistance (there are four of them, ECO, TOUR, SPORT and TURBO, which you choose simply using your left thumb. There is also a walk-assist feature and all info are nicely shown to you on the display, which is mounted in the middle of your handlebar and shows the battery level, assistance mode, current, average and max speed, distance covered and time spent pedaling). The battery is light and relatively portable. It recharges in about a couple of hours (and I have seen no noticeable difference on my electricity bill in case you were wondering).
But can it handle the big hills?
I said above that on my own I could climb some of the steepest hills around my area in Brighton (but have not tried all of them yet, and not the very steep ones out of town up to the South Downs..) with no particular issue. Still you have to pedal, but it is a reasonable effort. I often go up Furze Hill with reasonable ease, and the same sort of applies to Guilford Street next to Brighton Station. Church Street all the way up to St Nicholas Church was possibly the toughest one (I know there are much tougher hills in Yorkshire, and even mountains around the world, as a proud gentleman told me in the street when discussing the potential of e-bikes, but here I am talking about urban cycling with children, and I am a Northern Italian after all and did follow the Giro for years…I mean on TV). I did the latter with my children as well and it was quite tough, somehow like doing it on your own on a normal bike, but well I was carrying 90 kilos. Otherwise riding against the wind, even when it is quite strong, and moderate hills are easily tackled, and depending on the mood or form of the moment I can decrease or increase the assistance.
What about the box?
The box is certainly one of the main feature of a cargo bike aka a ‘bakfiets – box bike’. The box looks and is sturdy and easy to load. Children benches are comfortable enough (I would definitely add a sort headrest though, but my little one shortly manage to find a good position for some long naps, his sister shoulder…) and are well built. My children are 3 and half and 6 and half years old now, they are reasonably tall for their age, and so far (and that has included the winter when they have been wearing big jackets), the space was more than enough for them to seat one next to each other on the bench without fuss, and there is still space in the front part of the box for bags and other things (I can even carry the buggy on the bike when the two are in there). They are well tucked in the box and look like they are well protected by it. This does not seem to be always the case in other cargo bike models, where the boxes (or the family conversion kits) are a bit smaller or are simply two seats next to each other with a bit of a barrier around.
I had read sort of negative reviews (like this one for example) about the seat belts, and indeed they could be better and, above all, more padded. The buckles look like those of a cheap school backpack but I did see pics of those in the 2017 version and indeed there has been quite some improvement, with belts now carrying magnetic buckles. Having said that, they do not look any worst than belts in any of the children’s seats I had, and it is not that I go faster, but actually slower, on a cargo bike than on a normal bike, and on a cargo bike they are more safely seated in a box, in my opinion. Therefore, I do not really see the absolute necessity of car style seat belts for some general cycling here and there (my normal average speed is below 10 mph).
One important bit about the box and bike. It is a modular system, so when the big box is not needed any longer, the bike can be converted into a sort of normal one with a small box in front. The result of the transformation is the Urban Arrow Shorty (I know it does not look very good on that pic, but you can get different types of boxes, even a pizza one, or no box at all). I think that is a great feature and may motivate some reluctant perspective buyers worried about their children growing too fast.
What about parking and storage?
The bike is small (narrow) enough to be parked almost anywhere and it does fit in the normal bike racks around Brighton without taking more than a space (but either the front of back has to be accommodated either on the road or the pavement). At first I was always a bit nervous about where to park it, in order not to block the whole pavement (I am a very considerate person). That was really an over-reaction and with a bit of common sense it can be parked almost anywhere, especially in or near a bike rack.
Before buying it, and while waiting for it to be delivered, and assembled, I was convinced the only place for it was a garage. I desperately looked for one, not too far, not too expensive. I prepared little cards with my number and distributed them to all blocks and houses with garages around my place, hoping to to find people willing to rent out a bit of their space (half or one third of a garage). No success. Whole garages were either too expensive or too far. I even asked Brighton and Hove City Council to rent one of their council garages as I could see some were available in a council development not far from my place (they were not cheap though). Disappointingly, they also seem to be bound by that rule (which I have never understood) according to which things that are likely to burn cannot be stored in communal garages. So a car with petrol or diesel, engine oil, plastic, foam…is fine.
But well, while I am still on the look for a bit of space to store the bike when away or when the weather is very poor (so if you have a space please do get in touch with me). I am quite glad I am not spending money on a full garage as having the bike right outside my place enables me to use it more and whenever I want. It is sometimes a bit of a pain watching it (under its cover) when there is a lot of rain, but well, life is tough sometimes. After last winter, which was particularly wet, few bits have developed a tiny bit of rust. Nothing major, and I think that would have not happened hadn’t it be parked by the sea.
The idea of a garage was also motivated by security. But I am not sure it would be more secure in a garage (unless integrated to a house) than in a public space as it is now. I know cargo bike theft is a problem in much more mature markets, like Holland of Denmark, but I do not think it is a big problem in the UK. Few models circulate and they would be much easier to track down. In any case, it is attached to the rack with two very good Sold Secure Gold locks. One is a very heavy chain, that always stays there, the other a d-lock that travels with me and the bike. The battery, which is possibly the most expensive bit of the bike, has a lock for when out and about, and I do not leave it on the bike at night. The on-board computer is quite small and I always remove it when not riding. The bike itself has an Axa frame lock for extra security that is very handy when stopping for a bit in town. These frame locks are very popular in plenty of more cycling nations, and I have had them in all the bicycles I have used when in Italy. Nevertheless, I did forget about the frame lock a couple of times before setting off (but have not broken the spokes yet..).
The bike is expensive and so I thought an insurance policy would have been useful. It was not easy to find the right one though as, disappointingly, plenty of companies did not want to insure a bike kept outside rather than at home. I was particularly surprised when the Environmental Transport Association (ETA) said they could not insured it for that reason. They are a good organisation, they had the better policy on paper, and also have a short guide to cargo bikes on their website. I know they do their risk assessment, but surely they cannot expect everyone to have a garage, a back garden, or be able to carry a 2.5 meter long, 45 kg heavy bike up the stairs and then put it next to the sofa in the living room (although mine is so beautiful that would look wonderful in there, a real piece of modern art…). After a bit of research, I then insured it with Cyclesure.
The accessories are an important bit of a cargo bike as most of them are generally optional (although very necessary), and also rather expensive. In my case I have added:
- the box cover: this is indispensable to protect the load and to avoid wind to enter the box and basically slow you down. I really think that should not be an extra but included in any purchase, so definitely go for it, and this applies to any cargo bike you may decide to buy. The cover can be rolled up and down so we create the ‘sardine box’, with the children’s heads the only things exposed to weather (either cold or hot, but mostly cold). The cover is of a reasonable enough quality, and water resistant, but the belts and buckles could be much better.
- the rain-tent: a very good one again, I have not used it very frequently, but it does protect the load as well as the rider (being right there in front of you) from the rain, but also from the cold air in winter days. It is easy to mount and of an extremely good quality. You’ll feel the side winds more when riding with it, but unless it is a stormy day, you will not feel less safe riding.
- the parka bike cover: this is the cover that goes on the bike when it is parked to protect it from the element. It is indeed water-proof and it must look very much so as well as plenty of lovely dog owners let their dogs piss on it like it was a tree or a lamp post (I have been reading about ways to keep the dogs at bay, and it seems the best option is wolf urine…but have not found a sample of it yet). Well, obviously the cover is necessary but I think it could have been of a better quality given the price. A hole appeared after a few weeks of use and some of the seams started going apart from the very beginning (although the situation has not really been worsening after months of use). There are two holes that sits on the top of the box when the bike is covered. I am not sure why they are there. Perhaps to pass a chain, or to give more air circulation? Anyway, water get through from them, so when it rains a lot a little lake forms underneath on the box cover.
- the net luggage: I was very undecided whether to add this (for about 65 euros) to the lot, and I am very glad I had. It is a little net where I store the bike lock when riding and, above all, the snacks for the children. They can reach them by themselves and after a few months they also started to use it as a bin (and they therefore stopped passing me opened packaging while I am riding as they do when we walk around or when they are in front of the TV…)
- the extra bench: good, well built, and foldable. You can accommodate an extra one or two (small) children, and it creates another two-level space for groceries or any other load, so a very good addition.
There are other accessories on the Urban Arrow website (scroll down at the bottom of the page), do have a look at them (and the nice videos) especially if you want to transport a baby on the bike (and have a look at this post for some useful ideas about that).
And is there any accessory missing? Well, in my opinion a simple sun protection tent would be wonderful. And, perhaps, a small lockable box under the main bench could also be handy. Finally, a rack for transporting small children bikes off the box, similarly to the one in the Boxercycles Shuttle (obviously to the side rather than to the front) would be another useful addition.
What about #cargobikelife?
Great! I use it as my main bike (and means of transport) and I love it. I think that I’ll keep it with the big box even when my children
will be ashamed of will not want to ride in their dad’s box bike any longer. For now they love it (and they had never really liked sitting in the car). Their favourite activity while sitting in the box is by far snacking (and in the photo above you cannot see it, but they were enjoying a gelato), chatting, and people watching (they also enjoy being spotted in there by other children). How happy I was the first time I went to the supermarket and filled the box with groceries. I took quite a lot of stuff to charity shops, went to recycling centre once carrying an old tv, a chest of drawer, metal and other things (safely secured with a belt). We visited a lot of playgrounds in Brighton a bit far away from home, and also enjoyed longer rides along the coastal cycling path to Saltdean to the East, or to Bramber Castle to the West. I can even say that I don’t know how life was possible without a cargo bike….A lot of people do stop to ask about it in the street, not only parents, not only cyclists (and the comments I get the most is “that’s the way to travel!”). I had a number of requests for a photo, normally from grandparents who wanted to tell their children about it. A couple of cyclists did tell me it looks like I have a coffin in front of me…but it is definitely more of a bathtub.
With the children I rarely mix with traffic (the cycle lane system in Brighton is not as good as in my region in Italy, but you can reasonably go almost anywhere being a bit separated from traffic for most of the journey). I generally notice smiles from the car drivers and a reasonable space given when overtaking. It is a bit different when on my own and some drivers did manage not to see me (on a 2 and half meter long white and black bike…) while in the middle of a roundabout (yes newly redesigned Seven Dials roundabout, I am talking about you), and so had to stop to let them pass despite having priority. There are not many round-abouts within the centre of Brighton and Hove luckily.
I saw from afar, or while on the bus, a couple of other cargo bikes in Brighton. A Christiania trike, and a Winther one I think. I know that a family who live in Shoreham Beach has a trike as well. If you have a cargo bike in or around Brighton and Hove, or any other gear to transport children, or are interested in family cycling, do get in touch. We could perhaps meet to
show off our gears, compare the sound systems, see how many children we can fit in the boxes, and see which electric motor is the noisiest and scares the seagulls away the most eh…discuss the benefits of family cycling, our contribution to the improvement of air quality around the city and well, having some good time together. Perhaps one day we could even form something like the Southampton Cargo Bike Group. And talking about family cycling, we had great fun a couple of weeks ago at the Mayoress of Brighton Family Charity Bike ride so do not miss that next time.
Where have I bought it?
I finally bought it at the Amsterdammers Cycle Hire shop close to Brighton Station. I do not get any commission from them, so no conflict of interest here. But they are very nice guys (and run a very good and sustainable cargo bike delivery business). Importantly, they know the bike well as they have been using a number of them (the cargo version with a slightly bigger and lockable box) for a while for their delivery business. So if you live in the area and are interested, do go an see them. They also have a Urban Arrow Family for hire so you can test it before deciding.
But other place where you can find it, some of which I got in touch with during the decision process, and were very nice and helpful, are London Green Cycles, Fully Charged, and Flying Dutchman in London, Practical Cycles in Lancashire, Laid Back Bikes in Edinburgh, and Really Useful Bikes in Bristol. There surely are others, let me know and I’ll be happy to add other shops to this list.
A car substitute?
I wanted to leave the bits about the sustainability of all towards the end. Well, I did sell my car a couple of months after buying it, but that had been decided already as I was spending money on the car without really using it. For me, therefore, the cargo bike has mainly substituted for bus and walking trips (or trips with other bicycles) but, as I said, certainly some car trips as well (like those to supermarkets, like Aldi in Portslade, to the local recycling facility, to some playgrounds farther away, and those for shorter trips along the coast). But I do think it can definitely substitute for most car trips (with an adult plus two children) in an urban area. Having said that, I am quite convinced that cargo bike or not, you do not really need to own a car in most urban areas. The potential of cargo bikes for freight deliveries is also immense, but I’ll leave that discussion for another post.
Some other good reviews?
I have read a number of good and informative reviews of the Urban Arrow Family while taking a decision. And I still have a look at some of the most recent ones out of curiosity. Here are the ones I have found the most useful:
- Darkerside blog
- Hum of the City blog
- Lovely Bicycle blog
- a video review from the US
- a very good one by a family in Bristol
- and a very recent one, looking at the newest model
Simply, a great cargo bike, something the old Dutch masters would be certainly proud of (I was in Delft a couple of weeks ago, and I know what I am talking about…). If you have one, and have different views or anything to add, do comment below. Also use the box for any question or comments.
All the best
02 May 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