Explaining cargo bikes (mostly to other bike people)

January 14, 2022

So, I ride a cargo bike most of the time, have for about 15 years and 38,000 miles, I sometimes forget that lots of people only have experience with “normal” bikes (or worse, only with a car), and just work with that knowledge.  And I end up explaining this stuff, or parts of it, over and over again to people who think they understand what a “bicycle” is and what its “limits” are.

A bit on my background: I’m over 60, I raced bikes briefly when I was a kid, I worked in a bike shop for a year or two, I’ve tried a few bicycle trailers over the years.  I learned to ride rollers, I learned to ride rollers no hands, I learned to ride rollers no-hands and change my shirt.  But, like all red-blooded Americans, I also learned to drive almost as soon as I could and have driven cross country, in cities, in terrible weather, in snow, in floods, in orange groves filled with fluffy sand, I have repaired cars both at home and on the road.  I’ve driven rental trucks full of other people’s stuff, including in San Francisco.  So I know cars, I know actual racing bikes with silk sewups, plus I have a lot of experience with cargo bikes.  And like a lot of people in this country, I’m not small.  If your image of someone on a bike is Lance Armstrong, nope, not that.  

Cargo bikes are a useful thing to know about; they really do replace about 98+% of my car trips (not miles — the trips that I drive, tend long), I get a lot of exercise riding bikes, I don’t get stuck in traffic, I don’t waste time looking for parking, and it is a modest reduction in my carbon footprint.   It helps that I live relatively close to my current job (6 miles) and I have the option of visiting several grocery stores on the way home, depending on the route that I choose, but my rides aren’t actually “short” as most people in this country would understand them.

A cargo bike is a bike, but designed to carry as much as 200lbs of stuff or a passenger (or three, if small). Sometimes they have an electric motor assist, but I don’t have much experience with that. They tend to come in two flavors, either “front load” or “rear load”. Most of my experience is with the rear-loading kind (long tails); front loading (box bike or bakfiets) has its advantages, but long tails feel more like “normal bicycles” and that is what I like. Box bikes excel at carrying children and at easy grocery loading, but handle a little differently. From here on out, I’ll be describing long tails specifically, though both kinds of bikes have a lot in common.

How are these bikes different? Basically, they are bigger, stronger, heavier and more stable. Their frame, wheels and tires tend to be extra-strong. That means that you can load 200 lbs of cargo onto the bike, hit a few potholes, and not worry about it breaking the bike, or worry about losing control. These bikes are the answer to the question “but how would I do my grocery shopping on a bike? How would I get a kid to school/soccer/etc on a bike?” You load the bike, and you go, that is how. 3 bags of mulch, that is fine. This is probably the most important thing to know; for loads up to a certain weight and bulk, carrying something on a cargo bike is no big deal; that’s what it is designed to do, and it does it.  Experience helps, strength helps, but the design of the bike makes it easy and routine.  There’s a pretty substantial overlap between what most people actually carry, most trips, in their cars, and what you can easily carry on a cargo bike.

For cargo bikes, some bike things that people may have learned from recreational biking just don’t matter. Shaving the last gram off the bike is downright silly, given that the whole point of the bike is adding kilograms, sometimes a lot of them. Most cargo bikes, the rider does not ride in an aerodynamic tuck; if nothing else, that only matters a lot at racing speeds, and the cargo itself is often not terrifically aerodynamic. Being able to sprint above 25mph is not usually a priority, either; it takes a lot of work to accelerate all that mass, and then you might need to stop it; low-end gears are much more important because of hills and loads.  Super-skinny tires are a bad idea; not only do those actually have higher rolling resistance (why do racers use skinny tires? At racing speeds, wind resistance matters so much it’s beneficial to make tires skinny), they also require daily checking for inflation pressure, and if you hit a pothole when well-loaded, they may not survive. Fat (50-60mm, and smooth-ish, not knobby) tires roll easier, hold air for weeks, eat potholes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They also act a bit like shock absorbers.  In some cases, you may want to pick up or deliver a cargo “off road” (e.g., transplanting a shrubbery from your garden to a friend’s garden) and the wide tires are a huge help then.

There’s an obvious question, “are these bikes hard to ride”, and the answer is “not really, but…”. They’re heavy, but compared to the total weight of the bike and its rider, not that much more (for example, I weigh 50lbs more than I did in college, no matter how hard I try not to, and trying includes all those miles I ride). They’re longer, but it’s 7 feet versus 6 feet (or in wheelbase, 5 feet versus 4 feet), so not really a lot longer. Once you get them rolling, they continue to roll; not much more power input is required than riding a “normal” bicycle. It does take longer to get them rolling, so you will notice that. Hills are harder with a load of cargo, there’s no way around physics, but these bikes tend to have low gears, so you just slow down and work at it. Also, after 10,000 miles, you get a little stronger, and for lack of a better word, “tougher” — yes, you are exerting yourself to get up that hill, but so what, isn’t that what legs and lungs are for? There are of course hills that are so steep or tall that tough is not enough; with enough load or enough grade, you just won’t make it, or you’ll decide that no, that much sweat is just not acceptable. Climbing a hill is slow, slow means no cooling breeze, you’ll get a lot hotter and sweatier. I don’t have such hills in my daily commute, if I did, I think I would get an e-assist, which is another story but a very good idea for a cargo bike (or even a regular bike) if big hills are unavoidable.

In terms of comfort, long tails are exceptional. Because the rear tire is extended backwards, when the bike is empty your weight is split about equally between front and rear tires; this tends to reduce the maximum kick to your butt when you hit a bump, and the increased weight on the front wheel reduces the shock to your handlebars (i.e., your butt weight, redistributed forward by the lengthened rear, protects your hands). The weight of the bike itself also helps; before any shock can get to you, it has to go through the bike, acceleration equals force divided by mass, and there is more mass.

Longtail handling is more forgiving. I understand the physics behind this less, and can only judge by my experience on the bike, but when the bike goes into a skid, it happens more slowly; you have time to do something. The first time I really saw this I was riding my bike down an unplowed snowy hill, and the back end got kinda wiggly, and so I just steered into the skid, all the way down the hill, and it was easy, and it worked. All my long tail cargo bikes have been easy to ride no-hands, to the extent that I can do it continuously and confidently, changing lane position, turning, even swerving back and forth for fun. Add 100 lbs of cargo — no-hands still works. I was always pretty good at riding bicycles no-hands, but not like this.

Cargo bikes also tend to be designed for daily use, not fair-weather use, which means that accessories like fenders and hub-powered lights that are optional on most bicycles are more often standard on cargo bikes. Some of them include chain guards. What this means, if you own a cargo bike and another bike, is that the cargo bike is more likely to be your most-capable bike — if it rains you have fenders, if it’s dark you have lights, if you’re wearing nice pants, it will keep the grease off them. For someone like me who optimizes “am I using my bike as much as I can?”, this tends to have me using the cargo bike most of all — whatever I am doing, whatever the conditions, it is usually a good choice. If I’m not sure if I’ll be buying groceries on the way home from work, I might need the cargo bike, might as well ride it to work. If it might be dark when I come home, I’ll need lights, the cargo bike has the best lights, so take the cargo bike. Will it snow? Cargo bike handles best in the snow (and also I put a studded tire on the front, just in case). And so on.

Cargo bikes tend to have a few different-from-usual equipment choices. They often use internally geared hubs instead of derailers, may use a smaller rear wheel, often have a lower top tube, and tend to have either disk or drum brakes. Except for the brakes, none of these is obvious. First, a typical recreational bicycle has a derailer-based gearing; the chain runs over various cogs, and front and rear derailers move it from one cog to another. This in turn means that you can only change gear if you are moving; if, for example, if you stop a cargo bike without downshifting first and have a very heavy load, then you’ll unable to change your gear until you get that load moving again (in a high gear) and that is no fun. An internally geared hub allows you to shift while stopped, so that problem is avoided. The second reason an internally geared hub is better is that the rear wheel is not “dished” to make room for all the rear cogs; an undished wheel is stronger (better for cargo loads), and easier to keep true.  The third reason is that it makes it easier to include a chain guard, if there is no front derailer.  A smaller rear wheel has several advantages for a longtail. First, handling is better if the load is low and forward of the rear axle; for a given bike length, a 20” wheel moves the rear axle backwards 3 inches, and the rear deck (where passengers might sit; passengers are heavy) down 6 inches. Second, if you’re using an internally geared hub, these often come with input torque limits, and a sensible gearing for moving cargo might put you at or below those torque limits. Reducing the drive wheel’s diameter by 30% reduces all the gears by the same amount for a given input torque ratio.  For a disk or drum brake on the rear wheel, the smaller wheel increases the stopping force (it does not change things for a rim brake).  A lower step over helps because you want to keep a loaded bike upright, and cargo (people, children) in the rear may interfere with just flinging a leg over the back of the bike.  It’s also helpful when stopping, because it gives you the option to plant your feet pretty wide, if the load is not well balanced and that is more comfortable. Cargo bikes tend to favor disk and drum brakes because these provide large amounts of stopping power in all conditions; wet brakes are not a problem.

The sort of things that I have carried on a cargo bike include:

  • Small amounts of lumber (a few 8 foot 4x4s, e.g.),
  • A sheet of 4×8 plywood, but precut at the lumberyard down into smaller sizes (an uncut sheet is tricky).
  • Another adult and their luggage.
  • 4-6 bags of groceries plus a case of beer and paper products.
  • A shrubbery (all the weight on one side, bike was far from vertical, but I rolled it right up to its new hole).
  • All the packages we mail at Christmas.
  • Another bicycle (including, another cargo bike).
  • A few bags of mulch.

Some things don’t seem to fit well on my cargo bike (a front-loader would be different), so I decided to buy a trailer, which is much cheaper than a truck — and I don’t carry truck-worthy loads that often.  An unexpected advantage of a bicycle trailer is that it is low to the ground, thus much easier to load.  Example trailer loads:

  • A snow blower.
  • A friend’s large cargo bicycle with a seized rear wheel (hence, cannot tag-along in the usual way)
  • A half-dozen bags of mulch
  • The entire contents of my office (books, etc).

I haven’t tried to pack more than that.  I know that a lot of people will have the reaction “you bought a $1000 trailer just to haul that stuff?” because I had that reaction myself at first, which is why I delayed so long in buying it, but all the other choices are more expensive or wrong-sized or don’t actually work — a whole truck of my own is expensive, mulch deliveries come in much larger units, I could rent a truck to haul a snow blower to where it needs to be used, but it doesn’t take many rentals to total more than $1000, and loading the truck is actually a lot harder.  The trailer works, it’s easy to maintain, and easy to store (compared to a truck).

On the other hand, compared to a cargo bike, a two-wheeled trailer is annoying.  It’s wider, and it about doubles the length of the whole vehicle, and doesn’t track exactly the line that the bike does (so there is an increased risk of bumping things if I forget to leave extra clearance).  I’m really nervous using it in actual traffic, whether car, bicycle, or on foot.


One Response to “Explaining cargo bikes (mostly to other bike people)”

  1. Robert Brazile Says:

    Excellent writeup, as always. I will point out that there’s an intermediate option, the porteur. I have one, have carried heavy loads (not as heavy as yours) and boxy loads on it with little trouble. I put an IGH on mine (8-speed Nexus) and it is low maintenance and comfortable. Not as capacious as your cargo bike, but I expect somewhat easier to start, stop, and climb with, should that matter. Plus the load is in front of you, for the times when that’s convenient. I use it primarily for lugging bulky camera gear (think 8×10, plate holders tripod, and other accessories) to places not as accessible by car (or when I’m scouting an area that bike speeds do better for than car speeds anyway.)


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