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:

The Longtail

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.

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Guest's picture

This article was intriguing. Riding a bike definitely gives you exercise. I was surprised of how many people use the bike as transportation to get to different places especially with their children. I had no idea of the types of bikes that were out there that could cater to your children. That’s pretty neat. My favorite was the long john bikes just because it is more personable when you can see the people that are riding along with you.

Max Wong's picture

Since my city (Los Angeles) is not bike safe, I don't have a bakfiet because I wouldn't be able to do things like jump a curb onto the sidewalk to get out of the way of a bad driver. However, even people who don't need the extra hauling space should investigate Dutch-style bikes. They are the pick-up trucks of the bike world, they last a lifetime, and they ride like butter!

I own the classic Azor Workcycle bike that every Dutch grandma rides. It's super girlie and cute. I get compliments on it every day. That said, it can carry 200 pounds of cargo on the front rack alone!

Also, they are super comfortable to ride as you sit upright instead of hunching over the handlebars. Since they were designed to be ridden in street clothes, this is the perfect commuter bike. (I say this and I live in a bike-unfriendly city).

There are only two downsides to Dutch bikes. On top of its already hefty price tag, I paid an additional $400 to have my bike shipped from Portland to Los Angeles. My bike is worth more than my car. That said, this bike really can replace a car for most short journeys and it's a bike that will last me my entire life. I bought my bike 3 years ago and it's paid for itself in gas savings alone. The other downside is that even the smallest framed Dutch bike was designed for Vikings. My bike weighs 60 pounds and is too big to fit on the front bike rack of metro buses. So, if you have weak, noodle-y arms like me, live in a 5th floor walk-up or use the bus for part of your commute, this is an issue.

Carrie Kirby's picture

I'm also thinking about investing in an expensive bike, so I have a question for you -- do you worry about your bike being stolen? Bike theft seems so common that it scares me to drop over $1,000 on the new Xtracycle I want. I guess I would just make a claim to my homeowners' insurance if the worst happens.

Guest's picture

I have been researching bike trailers to carry my 2 kids for years and have come up empty handed. We have been using a standard bike trailer but at 4 and 5 my kids have pretty much outgrown it. I wish they would make a larger model instead of having to jump to a $1,000 bike. I can't bring myself to spend the money. I live in Louisville, KY and surprisingly this is a fairly bike friendly area, at least in my neighborhood. I'll take a look at the links on this page and see if I get anywhere. Great article.

Guest's picture

Dana, can any of your local bike stores order and install an Xtracycle kit on your current bike? That can be done for well under $1,000.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Carrie!

I made sure that my bike is covered under my homeowners insurance.

For people who cannot do this, I also have a Kryptonite Lock. My lock model covers loss up to $1500. This insurance through Kryptonite costs around $10 a year. (Check with Kryptonite before purchasing a lock, as their insurance varies by product and goes up to--I think--$3500).

I recommend being diligent about locking up your bike. My bike has a built in "Latte Lock" which allows me to lock the back wheel if I just want to park my bike and run into a store for a minute. I NEVER do this. Although, it's unlikely that someone could come by and just pick up my bike (because it is so ding dang heavy) I don't risk it. I use a Kryptonite U-Lock to lock my bike frame to the rack and I also have a cut-resistant cable that I pull through the tires, because tire theft is actually more of a problem in my hood than anything else.

Paying $1200 for a bike is a lot for just about anyone. But good bikes have always been expensive. But buying a bike should take as much thought as buying a car. Get the best bike for your needs. I always have a good time riding my bike, so that incentivizes me to use it over my car for short errands. Buy the bike that gives you the least amount of suffering.

Guest's picture

Yes, the fun factor is what is really inspiring me to live car free, at least for awhile. Most days, my bike rides are a highlight.

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