Cargo bikes combine all the fun, excitement and health benefits of cycling with the practical uses of a minivan. Need to haul groceries, run errands, transport kids to school or carry your paddle board to the beach? Enter the cargo bike, a style of bike that is common in European cities and quickly gaining popularity in the U.S.
This article gives you an introduction to the basics of cargo bikes:
- What is a cargo bike and why get one?
- What are the different types of cargo bikes?
- Should I get an electric cargo bike? Pros and cons.
- General tips on riding a cargo bike.
- Tips for hauling kids or other passengers on cargo bikes
Cargo bikes are sturdy bikes built to carry heavy loads and often two or more people. The bikes vary in sizes and shapes, may have two or three wheels, and commonly have a longer wheelbase than a standard bicycle, with space for hauling cargo either in the front or back. Electric cargo bikes are equipped with pedal assists to make carrying big loads more comfortable and climbing hills easier. You can accessorize cargo bikes to fit your specific carrying needs, including adding child bike seats, panniers, boxes, rain covers, footrests or even racks to hold a surfboard or paddle board.
Why get a cargo bike? Cargo bikes allow you to do all the things you would do on a bike, but its sturdiness means you can haul more stuff without throwing everything and everyone off balance. The beefiest bikes have a cargo capacity of up to a few hundred pounds. (Check bike specifications for the maximum carrying capacity.) Families use them to haul kids (and all their stuff) to school, parks and other places in the neighborhood; they’re versatile because you can carry a smaller child and an older one at the same time. Cyclists are choosing them as an easy, environmentally fun way to zip around town without the hassle of finding parking.
There are three popular types of cargo bikes:
Longtail bikes: These let you carry children and other cargo on an extended rear rack that sits over the back wheel. They’re popular with families who have more than one child. Kids can ride in child seats that are mounted on that rack or sit on a bench on the rear rack.
Mid-tail bikes: These compact utility bikes are shorter than longtails. Some are about the same length of a standard bike but with better hauling capacity. They’re easier to store, transport and maneuver; some fold up. They may not be able to handle multiple kids so may not be as versatile for larger families.
Front-loading cargo bikes (sometimes called bakfiets, Dutch for “box bike”) let you carry your cargo in a box or container that sits low in the space between the handlebars and the front wheel. Families enjoy these bikes because they can carry kids and pets in the front where they can keep an eye on them, and conversations tend to be easier. Riding them takes some practice, but they’re surprisingly easy to maneuver.
The addition of electric assists has made cargo bikes more practical and approachable for many cyclists, especially those pedaling in hilly areas or those who aren’t accustomed to taking on heavy loads. On the plus side, electric cargo bikes allow cyclists to pedal farther and faster. Some cyclists find they ride more often because of it, and that it becomes just as easy to hop on an e-cargo bike than jumping into a car for a quick trip around town. Parents are also finding it easier and less of a hassle to ride an electric cargo bike than to tow kids in a trailer or carry them in a bike seat.
The downside of e-bikes is that they’re pricey. Some are nearly twice as expensive as a standard cargo bike, ranging from $2,000 to $5,000. They’re also heavier, so carrying them up a flight of stairs, fitting them on buses or transporting them on a vehicle can be challenging.
Depending on where you live, you may need a license for an e-bike, and the class you choose will affect where you’re able to ride. In the U.S., most e-bikes are categorized into three classes—1, 2 and 3—based on their top assisted speed and whether they use a throttle. People for Bikes, an advocacy group for cycling, keeps a state-by-state e-bike guide that describes e-bike regulations around the country. To learn more about e-bikes, read Intro to Electric Bikes.
While riding a cargo bike may feel different at first, most people pick it up pretty quickly after a few rides out. Here are some general tips as you ride:
- Mid-tail bikes ride a lot like touring bikes. They feel really stable, though it’s a good idea to avoid overloading the rear with cargo or the bike will feel out of balance.
- Starting and stopping may be the biggest challenge for new cargo bike riders. As you start pedaling, the bike may lean more to one side. The more you practice, however, the more intuitive it will become.
- Carrying heavy cargo also takes getting used to. You don’t want to immediately jump on it with kids or other passengers and start pedaling in traffic. Practice carrying cargo or a passenger in a flat, safe area before hitting the streets. Get a feel for how the bike maneuvers and stops. When carrying big loads, be sure to brake sooner and more gently.
- Make sure your cargo is stable, secure and balanced on your bike and doesn’t exceed your bike’s maximum carrying capacity.
- Longer cargo bikes are very stable, but as you ride, keep in mind where the rear wheel is behind you when you turn so you don’t cut a corner too closely.
- When riding an e-assist cargo bike, start in a lower assist and then work your way up to a higher assist. Starting out in a higher assist can be jolting and unstable. Baby it into position.
Tips for Maintaining a Cargo Bike: Generally speaking, cargo bikes need to be serviced more regularly, even if you’re doing short trips every day. They’re heavier bikes often with longer chains, and should be routinely checked for wear and replaced as needed. With heavier bikes carrying cargo, you’re asking more of your brakes, so check the brakes more frequently as well. Follow your manufacturer’s recommendations on maintaining your cargo bike.
For more information, read our series on Bike Maintenance Basics.
Families are embracing cargo bikes as a new fun way to explore on two wheels with multiple children. The bikes are sturdy enough to haul more than one child at a time; some can handle multiple kids. Kids can be carried in a number of ways, depending on the bike: Older kids can sit on a bench or shelf on a rear rack, in a front bucket, box or container; younger ones should be strapped into a bike seat.
- Check local and state bike laws for regulations on carrying passengers. (The League of American Bicyclists lists bike laws by state).
- Make sure your child bike seat is approved to work with your cargo bike. Children between 12 months to 4 years who can sit well unsupported and whose necks are strong enough to support a lightweight helmet can ride in a rear-mounted child bike seat, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Kids older than 4 should have a passenger handlebar or something to hold onto as well as a place to rest their feet. You can customize your cargo bike with accessories including handlebars, a ring handle, safety bars that encircle the passengers, or foot guards.
- Add panniers, wheel covers or other guards to protect little feet from the wheel and gears.
- Practice loading and unloading your kids onto the bikes. Do not leave children unattended on the bike.
- Be aware that carrying cargo will affect your steering. When pedaling with kids, talk to them about what you expect from them (no wiggling or leaning) and explain why (kids are helping to keep the bike stable and still for a smoother ride). You want them to be centered on the bike and not wave their arms around.