Carrying Your Stuff: Cargo Bicycles
There is more than one way to skin a cat just like there is more than one way to transport such unfortunate cats or other things on your bicycle. To be exact, there are three widely used, reliable ways to carry stuff on you bicycle. We’ve looked at carrying stuff by bike in Bicycling Bags and Racks and in Bike Cargo Trailers. Now we’re going to round it out with a look at the category of Cargo Bicycles.
There have been many interesting debates in various corners of the bicycle interwebs, breaking down the pros and cons of bike bags/racks vs. bike trailers, bike trailers vs. cargo bikes and bike bags/racks vs. cargo bikes. Here at Utility Cycling we like to embrace all things that give bicycles more use, so naturally, we are fans of all 3 approaches. While a specific approach can be distinctly better than the others in a particular situation, generally any method for carrying stuff on your bicycle dramatically increases the utility potential of cycling.
In many instances some combination of cargo bike, bike trailer and bike bags/racks will prove to be a very effective approach. Many utility cyclists utilize a combination of products mixing and matching depending on the requirements of their load. A good example is owning both a mid-size cargo bike and a bike trailer and hooking up the bike trailer to the cargo bike when the load gets larger.
To look at the variations in cargo bicycle design is to look at several branches in a design tree. The main trunk of a design tree is the basic cargo bicycle, a standard bicycle with heavy duty rear and/or front racks. This basic design branches off into standard length bikes with special setups like small front wheels that integrate into heavy duty racks or boxes. Branching beyond standard length designs, the bicycles frames stretch out either forward or rearward for accommodating larger loads. Generally these stretched out cargo bike designs, focus the load either to the front or the rear but not both, though it is common to have a standard length rack opposite the extended cargo area of the bike.
The other major branching is applying the forward and rearward load configurations of cargo bicycles to a tricycle configuration. While standard length cargo tricycles are possible, the balance and load carrying advantages of a tricycle generally lead to the inclusion a large, extended cargo area as part of the design. The two wheels of the tricycle support the cargo area. Front loading tricycles have the 2 wheels forward in a configuration that is referred to as tadpole or reverse trike, while rear loading tricycles have the 2 wheels rearward in the traditional tricycle configuration.
Beyond front and rear loads and two or three wheels, cargo bicycles, go into some odd extremities that are not very common. Anything you can imagine from side-loading to multi-person pedaling machines have been done though are generally more used for novelty, fun and community building rather than more work oriented utility cycling.
Standard Length Cargo Bikes
The standard length cargo bike is at its core just a heavy-duty bicycle. The vast majority of bicycles really can be converted into cargo bikes, though there are plenty of specific sport and recreation bicycles that should not be outfitted for cargo in any way other than possibly adding a bike trailer. That said, many an old mountain bike or town bike has been successfully outfitted for cargo hauling.
Most standard length cargo bikes have heavy duty bike racks on both the front and rear of the bicycle. Some standard length bikes focus the cargo area on just the front or rear rack. The use of a very heavy-duty front rack configuration can almost be considered a style of cargo bike in itself. The entire design of the Pashley cargo bike pictured above, is focused around an efficient placement of the cargo. The small 20″ front wheel and long head tube combine to offer up a nice area to place the cargo basket. This design offers a balanced ride where the cyclist has excellent visibility and accessibility to their cargo.
The distinction between a standard length cargo bike and bikes with front and/or rear racks setup specifically for bike touring or bike commuting is a slim distinction. Basically the intended use is in large part what defines it. Overall, it could be said that standard length cargo bikes have the sturdiest bike frame and components, offer up the most rugged racks designed for heavy and awkward load carrying and focus on reliability and balance over factors that are more emphasized in commuter and touring bicycles such as efficient riding positions and lighter weight design.
Rear Loading Bicycles: The Longtail
Longtail bicycles have been very popular over the last decade, popularized by the introduction and wide adoption of the Xtracycle longtail extension system which easily converts almost any standard bicycle into a longtail bicycle. The popularity of the Xtracycle was followed by a variety of companies building longtail bikes. The list of companies focusing on longtail bicycles now includes Yuba, Madsen, Surly with their Big Dummy, Kona with their Ute and Trek with their Tranport.
Longtail bicycles offer up a great deal of versatility in a design that is very similar to traditional bicycle design. Components and accessories designed for standard length bicycles work just as well on longtails. The essential difference is that the rear wheel of the bicycle is extended rearward generally from 5″ to 20″ extra by extending the chainstays and seatstays of the frame or effectively doing the same thing through the installation of an Xtracycle kit. Generally the only required changes to the bicycle components are a longer chain and longer rear brake and derailleur cables.
Longtails are popular as both cargo carriers and child transporters. The configuration of most long tails generally offers up side and top loading. Long loads such as ladders and surfboards are carried on the side of the longtail by having the load angled out past the cyclist. Most longtails offer a variety of racks, bags and other strapping systems to handle a wide variety of loads. For transporting children, most longtails can be setup for carrying up to two children on the deck. The Xtracycle PeaPod work on Xtracycles, the Surly Big Dummy and the Kona Ute. Two of these bike child seats can be installed or an older child can sit on the deck while the younger child rides in the PeaPod.
The Madsen longtail offers a unique approach in that the rear wheel is a small 20″ wheel that is extended close to 3 feet behind the cranks. A large multi-use plastic tub sits over the rear wheel and can be used for both kids or cargo or can be quickly removed for installing other cargo carrying devises.
The versatility on longtail bicycles extend beyond their ability to carry cargo and children. Most longtails offer a perfect spot to bring along an adult passenger. The Xtracycle Footsies and Stoker Bar Kit make the Xtracycle Deck a safe and fun spot for an adult rider to jump on and join the ride.
Front Loading Bicycles: Bakfiets
Maybe this style bicycle should be classified as longnose as a response to the term longtail, however they are best known as the Dutch style Bakfiets bikes. These bikes have long been popular in the Netherlands as family, grocery and all-around load haulers. They are now becoming quite popular in certain parts of the US.
The longnose offers the advantage over longtails that the load can be clearly seen and accessed by the rider. This has made the design very popular for transporting children, up to even 3 or 4 at once in some instances. The bakfiets has become an almost ubiquitous symbol of the wide adoption of cycling by the Dutch and has been dubbed the Dutch SUV due to its common use all over the Netherlands.
Bakfiets are purpose built bikes capable of not only transporting entire families but also easily carrying large and awkward loads. Where as on a longtail bike, the load often needs to strapped in place to be transported safely, on a bakfiets the cavernous cargo area can be used to just dump things in.
Unlike longtail bikes, there is not an aftermarket kit that easily tansforms a standard bicycle into a longnose. These bicycles are purpose built. This offers up the advantage that every aspect of their design is focused specifically on the task of efficiently carrying cargo. The disadvantages here are that these bicycles can be quite costly due to their low production volumes and the specialty parts required in their design. Recently there has been a rash of low quality bakfiets made in China flooding the US and European markets. Many customers have been left far from satisfied as many of these bicycles have not held up very well.
Bakfiets are specialty bikes with more complicated aspects to their design and more load and pressures being applied to them. While it is possible to get excellent use out of a very a basic and low cost bicycle, I highly recommend going with a well established manufacture when it comes to this style of bicycle.
Front Loading Tricycles
The front loading tricycle has a long tradition, with examples of this simple style of pedaling cargo machine going back almost as far as the bicycle itself. The long use of the cargo tricycle is likely due to the simplicity and easy usability of this design. Tricycles are ideal for many utility cycling applications because of their large load carrying capacity. Two front wheels allows for a large and unbalanced load to be easily transported. For many utility cycling applications such as street vending, delivery services, and factory parts delivery, the cargo tricycle solves use problems such as having to stay balanced at slow speeds and parking and accessing the load.
A simple cargo tricycle is effectively a hand cart with the rear of a bicycle attached. A horizontal pivot between where the rear section of the bicycle attaches to the hand cart area allowing for the tricycle to be steered. This simple straight forward design is ideal for any utility cycling application where a hand cart is used and its more efficiently used if you can pedal it.
While the simple handcart style of front-loading cargo tricycles is simpler to construct and maintain, more sophisticated steering systems offer smoother handling and control especially at faster speeds. Similar to the two-wheeled bakfiets designs, some cargo tricycles deploy a system of levers with coupling to turn the wheels. Recently their have been some interesting new developments in new front-loading cargo tricycles that allow for the tricycle to lean as well, allowing it to ride very much like a two wheeled bicycle, while offering up the balancing, parking and load carrying advantages of a tricycle.
Rear Loading Tricycles
Many of the load carrying, balancing and parking issues that are solved by front-loading cargo tricycles are also solved with the configuration of a rear-loading tricycle. While front-loading cargo trikes offer the advantages of being able to see what you are transporting in front of you, in some instances the load may be so large that it will block your view. This would be the case with the load of the pedal electric cargo tricycle that FedEx is currently testing in Paris as well as with every pedicab tricycle design that I’ve come across.
The design of a cargo tricycle is often simply the front end of a bicycle extended rearward to a custom installed framework that supports two wheels. I wonder if Xtracycle has considered the idea of designing an Xtricycle? The single wheeled steering mechanism on the front end can utilize simple, lower cost bicycle components while still yielding a vehicle that is more maneuverable than hand-cart style, front-loading tricycles.
Others: Side Loaders, Loaded Frames, Monster Bikes
Going beyond the standard array of cargo bikes leads us into the strange waters of bikes designed for amusement, very specific purposes or as experiments in design or construction. I lump most of these new styles of cargo bikes as being a bit on the whimsical side of things with less capabilities for typical utility cycling purposes. The utility of many of these strange bicycles can surface when deployed in parades and events as tools for community building. And we shouldn’t dismiss the power of inspiration that comes through experimentation. Yesterday’s strangely, awkward devise sometimes becomes the general-purpose tool that we don’t know how we lived without.
In creating this dumping ground for all of the odds and ends of the cargo bike world, I’m lumping in pretty much everything that falls outside of the parameters of standard configurations of cargo bikes, has some specific ability to carry cargo and utilizes a pedaled drivetrain of some form or another. I’m tossing in side car bikes and bikes with cargo container built into the frame as well as tall bikes where you are pedaling above the load. On the stranger and more complicated side of things, the list of cargo carrying monster bikes includes pedal powered parade floats and other large and multi-person pedaling devises.
Cargo Bikes In Use Far and Wide
In our article about bike cargo trailers, I focused on the use of bike cargo trailers more than on their design. While there are some interesting design differentiations with bike cargo trailers, their designs are generally similar enough that their usage had more interesting aspects to discuss from the Utility Cycling perspective. Cargo bikes on the other hand are quite interesting in their design differentiations and I hope that in explaining the different aspects of their design the different applications for Utility Cycling would be apparent.
Referring to my bike cargo trailers article and their utility cycling modes, is useful in this discussion of cargo bikes. For a moment, consider a cargo bike to be a bicycle with the bicycle cargo trailer built into it. A bike with a bike cargo trailer offers the ability to remove the cargo carrying portion, reducing down to just the standard bike. Conversely the cargo bike always has the ability to carry cargo but no ability to reduce down. So while a bike cargo trailer offers added utility to a bicycle, a cargo bicycle makes that function inherent to the design. While a bike trailer can be unhitched for storage and travel, the cargo bike is quite large. On the flip side, dealing with a bike and bike trailer means dealing with two separate things to maneuver, while maneuvering a cargo bike gets the whole kit-and-kaboodle sorted out at one fell swoop. In general, it seems that cargo bikes are an ideal choice when their use is more constant and less varying where as a bike with bike cargo trailer offers more flexibility in use as well as the ability for multiple users to share them among many bicycles.
Despite their major difference, the use of cargo bike and bike cargo trailers is quite similar. Both can be utilized in a wide variety of personal, service and business application. The larger versions of both offer up larger carrying capacities but are also heavier and generally designed for specific uses. Meanwhile the smaller versions are more versatile and maneuverable. Seeing how utility cycling has evolved in Europe and the US, it seems that in areas that offer up a larger cycling community and infrastructure, cargo bicycles are more widely used. The hesitation with cargo bikes is likely that with their larger relative costs, if there is not ample opportunity to use them, the return on investment may be to low. But with opportunity for plenty of use, cargo bikes are a great investment for efficiently accomplish utility cycling tasks.