By Tom Clynes
Source : Bicycling Magazine
It’s slow. It’s heavy. But the cargo bicycle just might transform your life—and bring a bigger smile to your face than cycling ever has.
IT’S JUST AFTER 10 on a Saturday morning, on the front porch of a bungalow on the east side of Portland, Oregon. As Katie Proctor guides newcomers toward the Voodoo Doughnuts—”vegan on the left, maple bacon on the right”—her husband, David, supervises the herd of cycling friends and friends of friends who have shown up to help them on their moving day. Furniture of all sizes and weights, boxes, and years’ worth of bric-a-brac flow out the front door and into a dozen beefy, two-wheeled contraptions—bakfiets and Long Johns, longtails and flatbeds—that are parked on the sidewalk and roadside.
The craziest-looking of them all is Adam George’s homebuilt tandem recumbent, a rough-brazed, stretched-out beast that positions the rear pedaler backward, facing a homemade flatbed trailer. Adam’s backseat driver, Halley Weaver, helps him carry out a futon frame. As she lowers her end onto the trailer’s bamboo bed, she narrows her eyes at another pair of volunteers, who are using knotted together inner tubes to tie down a sofa that lies across their Long John cargo bike.
“I’m so mad they got the couch,” Halley says. “We should’ve gotten here earlier.”
“Yeah,” Adam tells me as we portage and load the Proctors’ possessions, “a couple of weeks ago we showed up right on time for a move and there was, like, nothing left. Now we try to come a little early. To get the good stuff.”
A Portland bike move may be among the more extreme manifestations of cycling’s booming ultra-utilitarian movement—people racing each other across town for the chance to lift and transport the heaviest household objects—but across the nation, seemingly sane and normal people are getting swept up in the cargo-bike cult, trading second cars for behemoth bikes that promise to do anything a four-wheeled vehicle can.
In New York’s Brooklyn neighborhoods, the bikes have become the most fashionable means of delivering kids to school. In Northampton, Massachusetts, entrepreneurs put their quads to work picking up curbside recycling and compost. In Berkeley, California, they drop off municipal mail and bread. And in Eugene, Oregon, your final ride can occur in a cargo-bike hearse.
Whether this trend is spurred primarily by gas prices, concerns about health and the environment, or a simple craving to get out of traffic and wring more enjoyment from urban and suburban living, there’s little doubt cargo bikes are returning cycling to its functional roots. More than any development in the past few decades, these beautifully monstrous hunks of steel fulfill the promise of integrating bicycles into our daily lives.
The bicycle was invented about 200 years ago. By the early 20th century, nearly every American cyclist was riding for practical purposes: to get places, of course, but also to cart around tools, produce, and just about anything that could be sold, eaten, or installed. Countless tradesmen relied on the “poor man’s nag” to make a living. Then, with the ascendency of the automobile and the urgency of the wartime manufacturing boom, freight bikes mostly went indoors, ferrying parts and personnel around factory floors. Eventually, the country’s suburban sprawl and inexpensive oil supply enshrined the car as the primary means of personal transport and utility. The bike industry responded by promoting the two-wheeler as a toy and a piece of sporting equipment.
But in Europe and much of the developing world, bicycle vendors continued to carry everything from flowers and mail to coffee and charcuterie. The modern evolution of the cargo bike as personal transport began in Europe in the 1980s, with Holland and Denmark as epicenters. As cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen began to make themselves over as bike-friendly metropoli, the kid-and-grocery-carrying bakfiets (literally, “box bike”) caught on with young families. In the 1990s, European frame builders responded to the demand with hybrids such as the Danish Long John, which nestles the load between the rider and the front wheel.
There wasn’t much of a response in the United States, at first. In 1997, a Stanford engineer named Ross Evans introduced his uniquely American iteration of the cargo bike, the longtail, which carries cargo on a stretched-out rear end. The bike, which he dubbed the Xtracycle, was ahead of its time when it hit the market. He sold a mere five bikes in his first year of production.
Now, Evans can barely keep up with demand. Meanwhile, independent framesmiths continue to pour into the market, encouraged by the cargo community’s affinity for easy-to-fabricate steel. And cycling heavyweights such as Trek and Kona have recently jumped into the fray with mass-produced longtails.
Because different manufacturers categorize cargo bikes differently, getting industry-wide sales figures is difficult—and the boom is, to be sure, regionally uneven. If you live in Portland, Maine, you could ride all year without seeing one. In Portland, Oregon, you can hardly shake a stick without thrusting it into a cargo bike’s spokes.
Some of the new bikes, such as Portland’s Metrofiets, are colossal, trucklike contraptions that handle miraculously well. Others, like Larry vs. Harry’s nimble Bullitt, excel at what their creators call “reasonable” loads—two or three kids and a few bags of groceries. And, in the past couple of years, improvements in battery technology have made electric pedal-assist cargo bikes a feasible alternative, extending their range into rural and rolling terrain. Though it’s easy for a Dutch flatlander to scoff at the new, only partly human-powered bikes (which can be fully charged for as little as three to 10 cents a day), electric-assist technology could be the game changer that makes cargo cycling irresistible to the mass of Americans who live among hills or sprawled-out suburbs—or whose jobs don’t include the expectation of a sweaty arrival.
Last year, James Osborne and his wife paid about $1,600 for a boxbike from Portland’s Joe Bike. Osborne, who lives in suburban Denver, says the rig is big enough to accommodate his five-month-old daughter and a few bags of groceries. “By going to one car and keeping it in the garage when we go places like the park or the hardware store, we’re saving handfuls of money,” he says. “And we’re having a lot more fun. It gets us exercise and gets us closer to the community. What it adds up to is that it’s made us more free.”
For eco-conscious cyclists like Joseph Ahearne, a Portland bike builder, part of the allure is making a statement. “Every time I’m on my bike with a big load of stuff on it,” Ahearne says, “I can only hope that some people in cars see me and are already so frustrated with traffic and the costs of fuel and car payments and the roll of fat falling over their belts that they look at me taking care of business on my bike and feel something like envy. It plants a seed.”
Although I’m fairly eco-conscious and thoroughly cost-conscious, what intrigued me most about the world of cargo biking was a suspicion that there is, nestled in that brute shell of practicality, a nugget of pure bliss. Sure, in Shanghai or Copenhagen, cargo bikes are common enough to have become just another tool. But in America, it seems, the bikes have taken on an almost spiritual payload, as a connector of people, places, and things. That might mean a delivery person making a connection between a farmer and a family. A parent moving the kids between home and school. Or a few bikemad people becoming friends—or something more—as they move a fellow cyclist’s belongings across town.
In the case of Adam and Halley—the futon-hauling couple helping out the Proctors—it was something like love at first lading. They met at a bike move shortly after Adam relocated to Portland from Maui (“hardly any bike culture”) last year. Now, they’re planning a bike move of their own.
“I’m going to bring my cat to his place today,” Halley tells me. “That’s big. Then in a couple of weeks we’ll post the move and round up some cargo bikers to cart over the big stuff.”
One thing that quickly becomes clear is that if you can get 20 people involved in a relocation, whether they’re on bikes or not, things go quickly. Out on the sidewalk, I bungee down my load of boxes and houseplants to a Bullitt I’ve borrowed from Joel Grover, who owns the cargo-bike-only store Splendid Cycles. Looking up, I catch a passerby’s eyes, which widen at the collection of bikes, piled high with everything from crates and band saws to kitchen tables and kitty-litter boxes. A smile stretches across his face.
“Holy moly,” the guy says. “Would have never dreamed you could do that on bikes.”
Despite the 200-pound load I’m carrying, the Bullitt is easy to maneuver. Our triumphant little parade twists through the neighborhood (the new place is only a few blocks away), forming an ad hoc traffic-calming program. Cars wait patiently at stop signs as we pass, and amazingly, no one honks. The only extended fingers I see are upturned thumbs—backed by delighted faces.
Two weeks later and nearly 3,000 miles to the east, I find myself traveling back in time as I enter a three-story factory where the oldest continually running bike manufacturer in the United States builds the world’s preeminent work bikes. Worksman Cycles occupies an entire block of Ozone Park in Queens, the neighborhood once ruled by John Gotti (“the Dapper Don”). Just inside the front door, president Wayne Sosin sits behind a desk cluttered with piles of orders from Tulsa, Saudi Arabia, and beyond.
“It shouldn’t be news that someone’s still mass-producing bikes in America, and in New York City for that matter,” Sosin tells me. But it is. What’s just as surprising is that Worksman, founded during the last utility-bike boom, in 1898, is in the midst of another growth spurt. Sosin tells me the factory is adding workers and scaling up production of its bikes and trikes.
“I think what’s happening,” he tells me, “is that with gas the way it is, people have to make a decision whether to fill up the car or eat.”
The business, founded by a family of Russian immigrants whose name actually was Worksman, started out selling locally to street vendors and delivery people. In the 1930s, the company got its first big break when the Good Humor company asked it to build a fleet of human-powered vehicles from which to sell its ice cream.
“They had gone to Schwinn first,” Sosin says, “but it wasn’t something Schwinn wanted to do.”
During World War II, manufacturing boomed and the company began to specialize in work bikes, with the bulk of them finding their way onto ever-expanding factory floors. With manufacturing long on the wane, Worksman took its old-school bikes and trikes into what Sosin calls the “specialty recreation” market.
“I can pretty much guarantee,” he says, “that we’re the only American-made product in Walmart’s bike department.”
Worksman’s shop floor is so cluttered that it would be nearly impossible to ride any of the company’s bikes inside. Sosin guides me through warrens of heavy steel tubing and piles of rims and hubs, fenders and kickstands. Workers trade jokes in accents that span the Caribbean and Asia as they braze frames, squint at wheel-truing gauges, and spray away in paint booths. Apart from the solar panels on the roof and the music on the boom boxes, it could easily be a scene from the 1950s. “You won’t find any titanium here,” Sosin says proudly. “No assembly line either. If we get low on a part, we have the machinists spend a day stamping some out.”
Out in the parking lot, I take the company’s Low Gravity cargo bike for a ride, then I try out one of the Port-O-Trikes that are all the rage in Florida retirement communities. Amazingly, playing the codger is no mean feat; without the ability to lean the bike, I feel like I’m going to flip over at every turn.
Sosin, standing atop the loading dock, chuckles and says, “The hard-core cyclists always have the hardest time with the trikes.”
Though the company doesn’t put a whole lot of energy into developing new products, I press Sosin for a hint of things to come. “I don’t want to give too much away,” he says, sounding a bit like an auto exec, circa 2005, “but we’re going to go even bigger.”
Though Worksman is thriving again, the company’s off-the-shelf bikes fall a little short of what a New Yorker might define as bicycle chic. For that, you could visit one of the city’s three shops specializing in next-gen cargo and commuter bikes, such as Rolling Orange Bikes, in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood.
The shop’s owner, a Dutchman named Ad Hereijgers, is an urban planner who often consults on sustainability and mobility issues.
“I’ve always been incorporating bikes into my plans for communities,” he says. “Then, when I turned 50, I decided to put my money where my mouth is. The cargo and commuter biking business is a lot like urban planning, because it’s all about making cities better places to live.”
The store’s imported cargo bikes from Nihola and De Fietsfabriek aren’t cheap. But Hereijgers says business is growing. “At first it was just Dutch ex-pats. Now it’s the American early adopters, the creative types who no longer wish to drive five blocks to take their children to school. Some of them are showing off their buying power, and at the same time making a statement that they’re conscious about what’s going on. They’re making the choice to enjoy city life.”
Across the East River, pedicab pioneer George Bliss is also doing a brisk business at his Hudson Urban Bicycles store in Lower Manhattan. Bliss, a bike builder and activist, once built cargo trikes for gardeners, sculptors, and handymen who wanted to haul their gear with human power.
“Now,” he says, “it’s the glamour moms.”
It was Bliss who first used the term “critical mass,” in Ted White’s 1992 bike documentary Return of the Scorcher, to describe a volume of bike traffic that is sufficient to make cyclists safe. Back in the ’80s, Bliss was building and renting pedicabs in Manhattan when he met and began working with another designer and builder of cargo and passenger bikes. Jan VanderTuin, a former bike racer, had returned to America from a farm in Switzerland, where he’d delivered produce to customers via bicycles. VanderTuin wanted to bring what he would eventually dub Community Supported Agriculture to North America—and he wanted to develop his own human-powered vehicles to make the deliveries.
Now, VanderTuin directs the nonprofit Center for Appropriate Transport (CAT), in Eugene, Oregon. If the name sounds a bit like a sermon, it’s not by accident. Indeed, CAT has emerged as cargo biking’s megachurch, with VanderTuin as its high priest. Here, in a sprawling complex on Eugene’s north side, you get a sense of the possibilities inherent in the brawny side of biking. In addition to a line of human-powered machines that includes hundreds of designs, CAT produces rain gear and bike racks. There’s a repair center, a do-it-yourself workspace, educational programs, and the Pedalers Express delivery service.
VanderTuin speaks softly, but with an evangelist’s zeal, as he shows me around his shop. Four frame-building apprentices, from as far away as Alaska and New York, are studying the manufacture of cargo bikes. “They’re learning CAD, welding, machining, sewing, organic agriculture—everything they need to know to build a business based on principles of social enterprise, sustainability, and appropriate technology,” VanderTuin says.
One of the students, Kyle Wiswall, from Brooklyn, tells me that “It’s much more than frame building. Yes, I’m going to build a cargo bike from the ground up. But I’ll also be taking away the skills to run a shop, make my own clothing, and grow my own food.”
VanderTuin dreams of a worldwide “human-powered network” of thousands of cargo-bike frame builders, spreading the seeds of sustainable change. “It just doesn’t make sense to build bikes in China and ship them around the world,” he says, “when people can build them where they live.”
Ross Evans, who pioneered the longtail cargo bike, initially came to a similar conclusion after he went to Latin America and noticed people struggling to carry large loads on conventional bicycles. He developed a bike-extension kit as “a poverty-alleviation tool.” Just remove the rear wheel, bolt on the kit, throw on a longer chain, and you have a versatile cargo vehicle that can negotiate the narrow footpaths of the developing world.
As the extension kits evolved into the longtail Xtracycle, Evans eventually abandoned the hope that his design would be knocked off all over Latin America and Africa. “I found that this sort of expertise is disappearing,” says Evans. “The reality is that stuff is just made in Asia now. I realized that accessibility is more important than do-it-yourself skills if you’re going to change the world.”
Regardless of whether the hardware for the cargo-bike revolution is made by thousands of artisanal frame builders or a few Chinese megafactories, another part of VanderTuin’s dream seems to be coming to fruition. Back in 1993, a Berkeley bike activist named Dave Cohen heard about the Center for Appropriate Transport, and organized a bus trip to Eugene with 30 other Bay Area cyclists.
“It was like a pilgrimage,” Cohen says. “When we went up there and saw everything they were doing, we were blown away by the possibilities. The thing that impressed me most was the delivery service, Pedalers Express. I immediately knew that was what I wanted to do.”
Cohen and two other cyclists purchased two of VanderTuin’s Long Haul bikes and started Ped-Ex as a Berkeley workers’ cooperative in 1994. The concept quickly took off, and Ped-Ex’s fleet grew into a throng of human-powered vehicles that could move anything from a few stacks of municipal mail to an 800-pound fridge. “When I was hauling loads like that,” Cohen says, “folks would look at me like I was an alien, from some planet where people actually have arms and legs and move things under their own power.”
With its flashy uniforms and signage, the delivery service caught the attention of the media and was featured in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, Ped-Ex also caught the attention of attorneys for—yep, you guessed it. “I still have the letter from FedEx,” Cohen says. “It’s hysterical. They claimed we were engaged in copyright infringement and—get this—unfair competition!”
Rather than brawl with Goliath, the cooperative stretched its name to Pedal Express. By that time, the seed had been planted. Soon, bicycle delivery services were popping up around the Bay Area, then all over the West Coast, then metropolitan areas across the country.
Few have been as successful as Portland’s B-Line Sustainable Urban Delivery, which has a fleet of tricycle trucks generating revenues approaching $350,000 per year. Each day, B-Line delivery trikes fan out with as much as 800 pounds of baked goods, office supplies, organic produce, and dry cleaning.
“I had the goals of reducing pollution and congestion, giving back to the community, and making a profit,” says founder Franklin Jones. “Now, I’m getting calls from all over the world from people who want to replicate this business.”
Since it’s pretty much impossible to do anything in Portland that doesn’t involve bikes as well as beer, Jones and I meet at the Green Dragon pub, where Joel Grover has organized a sort ofPedalpalooza for the cargo-bike crowd. I grab a pint of Mikkeller East Kent Golding and take a look at the impressive hardware arrayed along half a city block. I take a ride on the EcoSpeed-powered recumbent trike, which is impressively torquey. Then I go for a spin on what’s probably the biggest human-powered vehicle in Portland, a beastly Dutch bakfiets set up as a mobile coffee shop. Owner Rick Wilson saw the bike on a trip to Amsterdam and fell in love.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to get one and build a business around it,'” he says. “When I first got it, I couldn’t make it across town without people stopping me on every block to talk about it. Now, three years later, it’s become part of the cityscape.”
Later that night, I ride over to Hopworks Urban Brewery, where brewmaster Christian Ettinger coasts in on the coolest bike I’ve ever seen, the Hopworksfiets. The bike holds two kegs on ice below an inlaid wooden bar, plus a stack of pizzas and a compact sound system. The bike is the work of Portland’s Metrofiets, plus a handful of other craftsmen who customized the woodwork, plumbing, and electronics.
“The taps jiggle a bit when I hit bumps,” Ettinger says, “so I’m covered with a light sea spray of IPA.”
With the kegs half-empty, the bike is well short of its 400-pound limit, but getting it up on its kickstand still takes a bit of brawn. Once it’s parked, Ettinger steps behind the bar and reaches for the tap handles, fabricated from bicycle hubs. “Shimano XTR or Chris King?” he asks.
Flying home, I can’t wait to fetch my Jeep from of the airport parking deck and drive it home—so I can park it. There’s a new Xtracycle Radish waiting for me, a big long El Camino of a bike, decked out with saddle bags, running boards, and a seat for my kids. The thing’s even got a “fender blender,” which I can attach to the rear wheel for on-the-go margaritas.
The next day, I leave the blender at home and take my sons, ages seven and five, to school. The ride takes 15 minutes, instead of the 10 that it takes in the Jeep—and those extra five minutes are time well spent. Instead of being cooped up in the car (or in a bike trailer, which has always made me nervous), the boys are out in the air, chatting, laughing, pointing things out.
On a human-powered vehicle—even in car-crazed Michigan— the world seems to open up on a more human scale. Granted, it takes some doing—and patience—to get our 350 pounds of flesh and metal up to speed, but the pace somehow seems more reasonable, more flowing, more real. And when we pull up to the school, I feel like the coolest dad on the planet.
Soon, I’m using the bike to do most of my local transportation. Whether I’m headed to the library, the hardware store, or a party in a park, everything just seems better on a bike. One day, on a grocery run, it occurs to me that this is cycling as it was meant to be: a truly integral part of my life rather than just another type of workout.
A hundred years ago, humans used bikes to do the things that we now do in cars. Then, somehow, bikes became things we loaded atop cars. For many cyclists, the arrival of children means the beginning of the end of their days in the saddle. Bike time is something that cuts into family time.
“I love my bike,” more than one friend has told me, “but I’ve got kids now.”
One Saturday, as I’m taking my boys to their soccer games, I realize that I’ve got the solution to the bike-vs.-family dilemma between my legs (and no, I’m not talking about a vasectomy). Rather than prying me away from my kids, this big ol’ bike has brought us together.
As we ride through the packed parking lot and up to the soccer field, heads turn. Who are these people doing something so audacious as to actually arrive at an athletic event using their own muscles? Kids scamper over and demand rides (I manage to fit four on at a time), and parents gather round to see what the hell this strange machine is.
It’s then that I see, in the parents’ faces, what Dave Cohen calls “the politics of possibility.” I could tell them all how green my bike is, how cost-effective and healthy. But in the end, what they see—and take away—is how much fun it is to carry people and things around under your own power. In the delighted faces that surround me, I can see the possibilities opening up. In practicality, it seems, there is joy.