Do It All Car-Free With a Cargo Bike
Since getting rid of the family car four months ago, I've been looking for easy ways to get my three kids around town. We picked up a bike trailer at a rummage sale that does the job, but my two younger kids (ages 5 and 3) feel cramped in it and can't enjoy the scenery as we cruise along our bike path on San Francisco Bay. So I've been exploring the many kinds of bikes that are built to carry passengers and loads. Called cargo or utility bikes, this type of bike was previously found mostly in Holland and Portland, OR — with more basic, workhorse models appearing throughout the Third World. But these days, you can find cargo bikes in a number of urban bike shops, and, of course, online. (See also: A Guide to Becoming a Part-Time Bicycle Commuter)
Check out the calculator at Michael Bluejay's Bicycle Universe to figure out how much you might save by going car-free. But even if you don't get rid of your car altogether, the financial benefits of riding a bike for at least some of your errands increase as gas prices head upwards. Besides the gas savings, biking helps you keep your car newer and reduce mileage costs by cutting the weekly miles you drive. Biking also provides benefits in fitness and flat-out pleasure — my morning ride to drop my son off at preschool leaves me energized and calm, feelings that I rarely get from driving.
On the downside, cycling may be more dangerous than driving if you live in an area without safe bike paths or lanes — this is a controversial question since it's difficult to compare the safety of driving versus cycling. But if you feel safe cycling in your area — and I do — a cargo bike can help you get more of your tasks done car-free.
Types of Cargo Bikes
Cargo bikes come in two basic types:
Longtail bikes are just like they sound — they're like regular bikes, only longer in back. The least expensive way to try out cargo biking is to purchase a Free Radical longtail conversion kit from Xtracycle and turn an ordinary bike into a longtail. The kits start at $224.99 for just the bare bones extension, but you can pay more than $800 for a set-up including accessories such as a baby seat and padded seating for older passengers.
I recently wrote an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Xtracycle and another longtail maker, Yuba, both of which also sell complete cargo bikes for $1,000 and up. You can set up your longtail to carry just about anything, from three kids (on Xtracycle's forthcoming Hooptie model) to multiple bags of groceries to surf boards and large plants, to more bikes with Yuba's towing tray.
The Long John or Bakfiets
Long john bikes carry their load in front of the driver. Many parents say they prefer this style of bike when carrying children because they can see and talk with the kids.
Liz Canning, a filmmaker who is creating a documentary about cargo bikes, likes the low center of gravity of the long john she uses to take her 4-year-old twins down a steep hill to preschool. She got the bike after finding that her kids — like mine — hated riding in a trailer.
"I was bribing them to get into the trailer," Canning said.
Emily Finch of Portland is famous for carrying all six of her children on a bakfiets that one writer called "a human-powered minivan."
Long johns can also handle heavier loads than longtails, but they tend to cost more — upwards of $2,000. Finch's set-up — which includes a tandem bike that one of her kids pedals behind her to add extra power — cost around $4,000.
Adding to Your Pedal Power
No matter which kind of cargo bike you have, you may find that you want to add electric assist. This gives you the freedom to bike a little faster when you're in a hurry — Paul Fischer, who sells bakfiets bikes in San Jose — says that electric assist can boost him from about 12 to 18 miles per hour. Electric motors are also a good idea if you live in hilly territory, like San Francisco, or need to carry heavy loads.
You can even get a bike that makes smoothies. Rock the Bike, of Berkeley, sells the Fender Blender Pro for $1,700, mostly to companies that use the bike-powered blender for events. The bad news? The Fender Blender doesn't go — it's a stationary bike.