There’s never been a more important time to cut fossil fuels out of our daily lives. So, when nearly three quarters of car journeys are fewer than five miles in length and daily exercise makes us feel so much better, why not replace your car with a cargo bike or trike?
We’ll look at the benefits of owning a cargo bike, where they’re gaining traction, and what’s needed from the top down to boost uptake. We’ll also talk to community interest company Carry Me Bikes, which promotes and facilitates the use of cargo bikes in Hackney, east London.
“People should not think of them as expensive bikes. They should think of them as cheap cars, cheap vans; cheap and very flexible. You don’t need a driving licence, they require little maintenance, and you’re not going to be guzzling petrol or diesel. To think of them as expensive bikes is a big mistake. They are cheap utility vehicles, essentially.” – Alix Stredwick, Carry Me Bikes.
Choosing the cargo bike life
Having given up my car in November last year, I was determined to find an alternative daily transport solution that would have less of an impact on the planet. 2018 tolled some very loud warnings about the health of our planet: extreme weather events caused by global heating hit the headlines and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that we have just 12 years to arrest the worst effects of anthropogenic climate disruption. I felt the moral imperative to make changes to my life and this meant giving up my car – as miniscule an act as it might seem in the great scheme of things.
I toyed with the idea of an electric car but even secondhand they were too expensive and there simply isn’t the infrastructure where I live. I then turned to possible options ranging from an electric tuk-tuk to a pedicab rickshaw but roadworthiness, parking, charging and again, price, became barriers. That’s when I started settling on the idea of a cargo ‘box’ bike, or trike.
I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t shop around. Travelling from where I live in east Kent across the country to suppliers of all possible makes of what’s still a relatively niche vehicle required more time and money than I had. My car insurance was up, it was time to sell my motor, and having scoured the internet and watched some reassuring youtube videos, I settled on a Christiania cargo trike from London Green Cycles.
There are a range of vehicles that you could classify as a cargo bike, including the box bike, the longtail, pedicabs and various types of trike. The box bike design is a common sight in Amsterdam and Copenhagen – birthplace of my beloved Christiania bike – where they’ve become the vehicle of choice for 25% of families with two or more children.
The big benefits of cargo bikes for families
Alix Stredwick, founder and director of Carry Me Bikes, and one of Cycling UK’s 100 Women in Cycling 2018, highlights some of the big benefits of cargo bikes for families. “Compare a family using a cargo bike and, say, getting a bus or having to walk. There’s no competition in terms of the efficiency in getting door to door. With a cargo bike, you’ve got door-to-door personal transport. You don’t have to wait around at the bus stop, or slog along the pavement with your pushchair. That’s one main reason families come to us: they’re really sick of getting the kids on a bus and trying to find that buggy space.”
In terms of the carrying capacity of a cargo bike, Stredwick says: “You essentially have the family car in bicycle format. You’re not going to be doing journeys out of town, but you can hire a car for that. So for urban short journeys it’s like having a car, but with so many benefits – it keeps you fit and it presents a kind of outdoors lifestyle. Even when kids have grown up, families are hanging on to them because they’re so useful.”
I can’t argue with the points about capacity and practicality. It hasn’t just been my six year old riding up front in the two months I’ve owned my cargo trike: re-doing my bathroom recently meant collecting two 25 kg bags of plaster and a couple of 15 kg tubs of tile adhesive from my local DIY store, over a mile away. I’ve also done all my big grocery shops in it, usually with my son in there as well.
Another great point Stredwick makes is that cargo bikes keep their value: “The box bikes in particular keep their value. You could buy one new for, say, £2.5k and sell it five years later for over £1.5k or £2k.”
Compared to a car, a cargo bike has such low running costs. People might look at the upfront cost of a secondhand car and see it as the economical option, but factor in petrol, road tax, insurance and inevitable maintenance and servicing and you could have paid for a cargo bike within a year or so. Whilst it’s true you should insure your bike and ensure it’s serviced and well maintained, it won’t cost nearly as much as running a car.
And as Stredwick points out: “A cargo bike – the good brands – doesn’t need that much maintenance as long as you look after it: keep it dry and put a cover over it.” She says that every six months for a basic service will ensure a cargo bike runs as well as it should.
Encouraging uptake through policy and planning
Amsterdam and Copenhagen are often quoted as some of the best cities in the world for cyclists. Traffic planning in the Dutch and Danish capitals encourage, if not prioritise, cycling. In the UK, higher concentrations of cargo bikes can be spotted in London and Cambridge thanks to community initiatives and stockists such as Carry Me, which also co-runs the Hackney Family Cycling Project with the Hackney LCC (London Cycling Campaign) and the School Run Centre, which has been operating in Cambridge since 1999. But it’s evident that only when there’s support and investment in cycling infrastructure from government that a bicycle culture can truly flourish. So, what are policy makers in the UK doing about it?
Last October the government announced a review of the Highway Code, which includes a number of measures to make the roads safer for cyclists. This includes what’s called the ‘Dutch method’ of opening driver-side doors from the inside: the driver must use his or her opposite hand to open their door, forcing them to swivel in their seat and look behind their vehicle for oncoming cyclists. This reduces the risk of ‘dooring’ a cyclist, which can potentially be fatal. (Though, sat behind the sturdy wooden box and solid frame of my trike, I don’t think it would be me or my passengers I’d be worried about).
Changes in the code have been welcomed in the cycling community – and will certainly help to alleviate safety concerns of parents who are considering using a cargo bike – but campaigners say it’s still not enough. To make the environment more inviting for cargo bike users, local authorities need to do everything they can to encourage cycling in general. According to Stredwick, this includes proper cycling tracks, proper facilities, proper traffic management that enables cycling – but which also manages car use, managing car parking and managing the accessibility of driving. She says local authorities should do what the Dutch do: “Essentially make it easier to cycle than to drive in an urban area. There are lots of places where you have to go the long way around to go by car, but you can cut through by bike.”
Parking considerations are also really important. Stredwick pointed me in the direction of the London Cycling Design Standards (LCDS). Its section on cycle parking – with a strong focus on adapted bikes, trikes and cargo bikes – is a good resource for local authorities looking to encourage cargo bike use in their area. Being so wide, finding a practical and safe place to secure your cargo bike or trike outdoors is important. I’m lucky in that I have a very wide footpath out the front of my house so chaining my trike up there doesn’t get in anyone’s way – double buggies, wheelchairs and mobility scooters included.
Bringing cycle parking onto the carriageway is an excellent solution. A number of authorities in London, Bristol and Brighton are already doing this. By freeing up one car space, you make room for multiple bikes or trikes. There are also new innovations in bike racks, for instance loops that can be lifted out of the ground when they’re in use, but lie flat when they’re not. Leaving enough space for a cargo bike in public bike storage is an important consideration for local authorities looking to encourage uptake.
In other good news, Greater Manchester has recently announced its ‘Beelines’ cycling and walking network. It will be the largest of its kind in the country and link up more than 1,000 miles of routes, including 75 miles of Dutch-style segregated bike lanes.
Funding schemes for cargo bikes
The Zero Emissions Network (ZEN) in London, which is a collaboration between Islington, Tower Hamlets and Hackney Borough Councils, has been running for a number of years. It works with local businesses to help fund cycle parking and offer grant schemes to help businesses switch from scooters and motorbikes to cargo bikes. And in September 2018, the government announced £2 million in funding for commercial electric cargo bikes as part of a green last mile initiative. But currently, no schemes or funds are coming from government to encourage families to take on a cargo bike.
“There are subsidies on electric cars, but why not cargo bikes,” asks Stredwick. She agrees that the willingness to push cargo bikes as a viable mode of transport for families simply hasn’t existed. But she remains optimistic that things are changing and the willingness is starting to come through. To make a cargo bike purchase more viable, customers could make the most of the Cycle to Work scheme, which operates on a salary-sacrifice model. More and more bike retailers are offering finance these days too. However, it would be useful for local councils to offer funding schemes to help encourage uptake in their areas as part of a wider transport plan.
Electric is a game changer
When I decided on my cargo trike, there was no question in my mind that I’d need electric assist. There are a few big hills in my area, with one big dip on the way to my child’s school. The electric assist on my Christiania makes all the difference: it kicks in as soon as I start pedalling and I can usually get up to a good coasting speed of around 15 miles an hour. Getting up a long steep hill isn’t a problem, even with a full load.
Stredwick emphasises how much electric assist motors are changing the landscape of cycling. From my own experience, since owning my trike, people are really interested in the electric assist, older people in particular, and Stredwick confirmed to me that the uptake of electric bikes by older members of the community in places like Amsterdam has really helped to keep people mobile and active. The health benefits of cycling are immense but steep hills and long slogs can put people off. Electric can make what would have been physically demanding, almost effortless. And as for the families among us, children only get heavier and you’ll only get older, which makes electric a must.
Considerations when choosing a make and model
In deciding on a cargo bike, the first thing you might think about is whether you want a two-wheeler or a three-wheeler: a bike or a trike. Two-wheelers will generally be more stable once you’re up and running. A three-wheeler, whilst very stable when it’s stationary or pootling along at a leisurely pace, isn’t generally as stable at higher speeds. Turning corners takes a bit of practice and steep descents should be taken with care.
Stredwick stocks a number of cargo bike and trike models at Carry Me Bikes. One make is Bakfiets.nl from the Netherlands, which she describes as being really solid and well made but not over the top. Other brands include the Babboe, which is a bit more affordable, but still high quality, and the Nihola, which features a strong plastic front box and different steering mechanism, which makes for perhaps a more intuitive ride. Also check out the School Run Centre for a range of options.
For more information when considering a cargo bike purchase, you can read Stredwick’s in-depth guide for Cycling UK.
It’s been a brilliant decision
Since swapping my car for an electric cargo bike, I’ve not looked back. The shift wasn’t as severe as I expected and I don’t miss my car one bit. The freedom from owning and running a car, and being out of the automobubble, is energising.
Using a cargo bike as my primary mode of transport has opened up a better way of experiencing each day. I feel fitter, my son loves it, and we get a good dose of fresh air every day. In fact, in 2014, the Healthy Air Campaign in conjunction with Kings College London and Camden Council, showed that exposure to air pollution during commutes was lowest for cyclists, compared to being inside a car.
I’ve never felt unsafe using my cargo bike. Cars almost always give me a safe berth and, with electric assist, I can get moving quickly and not hold up the car traffic. I get numerous compliments each week, and have only had one bit of abuse shouted at me, completely unnecessarily, from a bloke in a car. The philosophical question of who owns the environment – and who has a right to be on the road – is one Stredwick raised. Sadly, the status quo has put cars (and let’s face it, blokes) at the top of the pecking order – which encourages a sense of entitlement to rule the road among some individuals. It’s time to make way for families in cargo bikes.
The message is clear
In early January 2019, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published a draft quality statement that highlights the need for local authorities to develop and maintain connected travel routes that prioritise pedestrians, cyclists and people who use public transport.
So, as Stredwick suggested, things are changing. But not quick enough. With the undeniable crisis of climate change – the planet is heating rapidly due to our addiction to fossil fuels, and we have a 12-year window to act – local authorities have a moral obligation to set to work immediately to develop pedestrian- and cycle-friendly transport and traffic plans, and highways infrastructure. If councils open the door, people will travel in a greener direction, by getting out on their bikes and legs.
I sense from the comments I receive that the real potential for cargo bikes is about to take off – and that’s in an unsuspecting seaside town in east Kent. One man even knocked on my door to ask me about the big green machine parked out the front of my house. But we need enlightened leadership to truly shift our unhealthy car-centric culture, to make it easy for families to make a brilliant lifestyle choice that carries with it so many benefits for themselves and for the planet – and feel confident on the road with their most precious cargo (or sacks of gypsum) up front.