By TOM VANDERBILT
Updated July 5, 2013, 6:27 p.m. ET
ON A RECENT SUNDAY, Brandon Jones, a 44-year-old fund manager at 9W Capital Management, traveled from his home in downtown Manhattan with his wife and two children to meet friends for brunch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They were heading to Reynard, the popular restaurant in the neighborhood’s fashionable Wythe Hotel, where Manhattan-bound Town Cars regularly idle on the street outside.
Cargo Bikes by the Numbers
But Mr. Jones did not drive. Nor did he take the subway. Instead, he piloted his two children via the deck of his Yuba Mundo, a so-called “longtail” cargo bike. (His wife rode her own bike.) Picture a mountain bike, but with a stouter frame and smaller wheels, stretched out and lowered in the back. “We actually beat our friends who drove back to TriBeCa,” Mr. Jones said. While Mr. Jones does garage a BMW BMW.XE +0.53% X5 SUV, his car rarely sees daylight within the city limits. Rather, for daily trips like the mile-and-a-half commute from TriBeCa to his children’s school in Greenwich Village, he simply hops on another kind of SUV—one that actually includes a bit of sport.
Mr. Jones’s choice is becoming an increasingly popular one in the U.S. The country’s biggest seller of the Yuba Mundo is Joe Bike, a Portland, Ore., store specializing in “high-performance urban, utility and touring bikes.” The owner, Joe Doebele, said that when he began carrying cargo bikes—a catchall term covering a variety of bike styles built for functional hauling—five years ago, he thought they would be for just that, cargo. “But parents, mostly moms, were the ones who were buying them,” he said. “It quickly became a family bike.”
Mr. Doebele attributes the interest to Portland’s “mini baby boom” and the fact that many young families are choosing to stay in cities like Portland instead of moving to the suburbs—not to mention higher gas prices.
More on Cargo Bikes
- Most cargo bikes have a low gear ratio to make pedaling with heavy loads less taxing. Some are outfitted with electric-assist motors to carry the brunt of the burden.
- Trek, the largest bike manufacturer in North America, introduced its cargo bike, the Transport, in 2009.
- Since Yuba’s founding in 2006, sales of its cargo bikes have doubled year after year.
- Rick Oltman, a salmon-boat captain in Port Townsend, Wash., estimates that his company has delivered 300,000 pounds of flash-frozen fish via cargo bike.
Then there’s the expansion of cycling’s popularity in the U.S., with most cities reporting double- or even triple-digit gains from 2005 to 2011, according to the League of American Bicyclists. New York and Chicago have launched new bike-share programs. Indianapolis and Atlanta have ambitious walking-and-biking networks, the former an 8-mile “Cultural Trail” (with a planned bike-share program to boot), the latter a 33-mile “BeltLine.” And according to People for Bikes, a Boulder, Colo.-based national advocacy group, the number of bike lanes built nationwide through its Green Lane project is expected to double this year to over 200 across multiple cities.
Cargo bikes are a routine presence in cycling havens like Copenhagen. There, the “Long John”—a two-wheel bike, invented in Denmark, with a long cargo container in the front—as well as the bakfiets (Dutch for “box bike,” and the name of a brand), coast among the city’s protected bike lanes. The bikes carry families, groceries—even other bikes.
According to an estimate by Copenhagenize Design Co., an urban planning consultancy specializing in bicycle culture, there are about 40,000 cargo bikes in Greater Copenhagen. The city estimates that 28% of families with two children own one. But it’s hardly just family hauling: Cargo bikes are used by everyone from the Danish postal service to espresso vendors.
Bakfiets-style cargo bikes are gaining ground in the U.S., too, especially in cycling-friendly, flatter cities. (Electric-assist models—which have a motor to make pedaling less physically taxing—are expanding bakfiets’ range to hillier burghs.) In Brooklyn, John Sorensen-Jolink, manager of Rolling Orange, a store specializing in Dutch bikes of various stripes, noted that his cargo bike clients range from the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy (which uses them for landscaping) to a New Jersey massage therapist. The therapist stores his bike in a midtown Manhattan parking garage and, after commuting into the city on the train, pedals himself and his equipment over to the luxury hotel where he works. During superstorm Sandy the store lent several bikes to an Occupy Sandy relief group. “They came to us because there was no gas available,” he said, “and they needed a way to move debris and personal property out of damaged homes and to safe ground.”
But for various reasons—better price, the perception that they ride a bit more like “regular” bikes—it’s the less unusual looking longtail cargo bike that has taken hold on American soil. In addition to Yuba’s offerings, competing models, from Surly’s Big Dummy to Kona’s Ute, are proving popular. In a sign of mainstream market acceptance, bike giant Trek has joined the party as well, with a model called Transport.
“As with sport-utility vehicles, the market gradually expanded from off-roaders to everyday users.”
And then there’s the company that kicked the whole thing off: Xtracycle. Curiously, a bike used by urbanites in fashionable neighborhoods for the school run has its origins in a project to bring functional, affordable transportation to the developing world. Two decades ago, Ross Evans, a Stanford University student and longtime bike enthusiast, was doing economic development work in Managua, Nicaragua, trying to design and build a new-and-improved version of a locally popular three-wheel cargo bike called the Tadpole. But setting up new machining was expensive, as was acquiring new parts—particularly when donated surplus bikes seemed to be everywhere. Immersing himself in the field, he learned about not only European cargo bikes but also the prototype Ho Chi Minh bike, designed in the early 1980s by the Australian amateur bike-builder Ian Grayson (who was, incidentally, looking for a way to transport his children). Mr. Evans eventually hit upon the idea: Rather than building cargo trikes from scratch, he would bolt attachments to existing bikes.
Just as he was perfecting his design, his thinking shifted: Rather than change culture in Central America, he wanted to shift the way people did things in the U.S. “What was missing in our culture was the idea of bicycles for utility, just everyday riding,” he said. And so, in 1998, Mr. Evans launched Xtracycle and its signature product, the “FreeRadical,” a 45-inch longtail attachment that could fit on most mountain or touring bikes. As with the sport-utility vehicle, it was first adopted by outdoors enthusiasts, who used it to carry kayaks on “slowboating” expeditions or overnight camping rides, where all gear is carried by bicycle. In the wider market, the early response was “not particularly welcoming,” he said. “People would say, ‘It’s hard enough to ride a bike, why would we want to put stuff on it?’ ” The idea of hauling children was so nascent that “we were hand-strapping car seats on the back [of the bike],” he recalled. Without a dealer network, his visibility was hampered. “The average person doesn’t know how to adjust their VCR, much less the derailleur of a bike,” he said. “The bike shops are critical.”
As with SUVs, however, the market gradually expanded from off-roaders to everyday users. “Like any new idea, the more you see it, the less weird it is,” Mr. Evans said. “We’d sell into a town where we’d never sold it, and it would suddenly boom.” The longtail, he said, redefined what a cargo bike was—not heavy and slow, but agile, and eminently adaptable. He said its growth roughly parallels the rise of farmers’ markets. “It is the perfect farmers’ market bike.”
Just ask Rick Oltman, a salmon-boat captain in Port Townsend, Wash., who for the past decade or so has delivered flash-frozen salmon, packed in dry ice, to area restaurants and farmers’ markets via a fleet of cargo bikes. “I think we’ve probably shipped 300,000 pounds of food,” he said. One of his employees, he noted, racked up over 2,500 miles last year on a Surly Big Dummy equipped with a custom-built bike trailer made from a 20-foot aluminum extension ladder.
The bikes not only carry fish to the market stand, they are the market stand, thanks to an umbrella and a table that opens up onto the frame. For Mr. Oltman, the cargo bike answered a pressing question: “How do I get out of being stuck delivering the fish in a white van all day?”
Perhaps the clearest sign of the bikes’ presence—and acceptance—in the American landscape is that people have stopped noticing them quite so much. Mr. Doebele of Joe Bike noted that a threshold seemed to have been crossed last year when he rode a cargo bike, carrying 150 pounds of concrete, up Oregon’s Mount Tabor (a task made easier by the typically generous 21-speed gearing in longtails). “Nobody was actually looking at the bike,” he said, whereas previously, “people would have taken out their phones.”
Mr. Doebele was not, as it happens, engaged in some punishing exercise regimen, but preparing for the Disaster Relief Trials, an event intended to demonstrate the feasibility of using cargo bikes during emergency situations when supply chains have been cut off. This goes for carrying kids or concrete—that, he said, “is the wonderful thing about this niche of the bike industry. It’s wide open.”
These Bikes Can Really Haul Mass
SMOOTH MOVERS // We Test Three Novice-Friendly Models
Steady and sturdy: The base weight of the Xtracycle EdgeRunner is around 45 pounds—roughly the same as the bikes used in New York City’s new bike share program. The EdgeRunner’s 20-inch rear wheel not only sheds weight and aids in acceleration, it also puts the rear load platform some 6 inches lower than other cargo bikes. The lower center of gravity translated into a slightly smoother ride, not only for me but for my wife and daughter, who rode on the back as I pedaled, quite comfortably, to a local park. The EdgeRunner proved just as convenient to ride solo. The chromoly steel and Schwalbe Big Ben tires added to the sturdy feel. You could move construction material with this. Or two children and a few bags of groceries.
Ample add-ons: A number of optional accessories are available, ranging from an electric-assist motor to the Hooptie (a safety rail that keeps smaller children enclosed on the back deck) and the SideCar (“not intended to carry live cargo!” according to the website). I fared perfectly well with a MagicCarpet cushioned seat, and a set of aluminum-tube running boards (which serve as foot rests for passengers riding on the back). This fall, Xtracycle will release the second version of the EdgeRunner, featuring more options, a few design tweaks and, perhaps most importantly, a lower starting price: $1,599, including a pair of bags that connect to the rear deck. From $2,139 for current model (shown), xtracycle.com
Milano’s Milano Cargo Bike
Value proposition: A striking departure from the longtails, the Milano (exported by the Dutch company Bakfiets) is a classic box bike. One factor that distinguishes it from similar models is price: While others can run upward of $3,000, the Milano checks in at just over $2,000.
Smooth ride: Longtails essentially feel like normal bikes, with a bit of trailing weight that you primarily notice when turning. But a bakfiets has all its weight up front and down low. I got used to the sort of graceful, sweeping sensation of the ride—like driving a car with an elongated hood. The primary drawback for me, as a third-floor apartment dweller, is that there was simply no way to bring this bike inside (even with an elevator).
Carry the kids: My 4-year-old daughter was happy to climb aboard the two-person seating ledge in the box and don the three-point harness (the German auto club ADAC gave the bike a safety award as a child carrier). Riding with my daughter, I was of two minds about her position. On the one hand, it was reassuring to be able to see her. On the other, I felt slightly uncomfortable on my local streets, coming up to an intersection with the box projected in front of me. What was most striking about riding the Milano was the number of looks we garnered from passersby. My daughter, as if sitting atop a royal coach, began to welcome the attention, giving courtly waves as we cruised along the bike paths.$2,049, rollingorangebikes.com
Long and lean: Picking up a deluxe model of the Yuba Mundo, called the NuVinci Lux, I encountered a moment of dread: How was I going to pedal this 58-pound workhorse—its reinforced tires and beefy frame capable of supporting loads of more than 400 pounds—through the streets of lower Manhattan and then over the Brooklyn Bridge? Very easily, it turned out. So much so that I actually passed several riders, on ostensibly sleeker urban bikes, on the bridge’s incline.
Moderately maneuverable: What’s striking about a longtail cargo bike is how quickly you forget, once you’ve dispensed with your cargo, the extra bike you’re lugging around. The ride of the Mundo compared favorably to the EdgeRunner, although I did find the lower height of the rear platform of the latter a bit easier to control, with less of the whipsawing that can result when carrying a lot of trailing weight. (Yuba’s Boda Boda is a “midtail” model with less capacity, but it weighs just 35 pounds.) As an apartment dweller, I also found the lighter EdgeRunner somewhat easier to haul upstairs than the Mundo, and maneuvering it into my building’s elevator was less cumbersome. In terms of price, the Mundo line definitely has the edge: The base model costs up to half as much as some rival longtails.
Secure standing: Another nice feature is the strong and stable dual center kickstand. It let my daughter climb onto the rear deck unassisted, with no bike wobbling. And with a NuVinci N360 hub and Tektro mechanical disc brakes—upgrades that come standard on the NuVinci Lux model—starting and stopping the bike, even fully loaded, was surprisingly easy. From $1,250; $2,071 as shown, yubabikes.com