Family Cargo Bike Tips and Tricks to Know
Cycling (in all its myriad forms) is a great way to get outdoors and maintain an active lifestyle, especially for families with kids. In urban centers, it can also be a quick way to get through the city without being stuck in traffic and contributing to congestion.
Whether for commuting or play, biking can produce less-tangible benefits in overall quality of life: traveling in your community by bike means saying hello to neighbors, easily stopping off to grab a book from your local Little Free Library, and sparking up a conversation with a fellow cyclist or interested pedestrian at the local park.
Bike commuting to school has a lot of great benefits for kids and can be a fun way to connect with your kids during a full workweek.
Getting started with cargo biking
While there are a range of options for the toddler and preschool-aged crowd to be carried on standard bikes in child seats and trailers, the options become more limited as kids get bigger. When kids are not yet riding confidently on their own (or when the streets aren’t quite safe enough for young cyclists), cargo bikes can be a great option to get around town and get outside.
Cargo bikes often feel cost-prohibitive to many, but when they replace a car as a family vehicle, you get savings not only in the purchase of the vehicle but also auto insurance, oil changes and other costly maintenance, and gas.
Our family fell in love with cargo biking in Denmark, where it’s a common sight to see families piled into buckets traveling to school, a playground, or the store.
Since that summer in Denmark, we have owned half a dozen different cargo bikes in four different cities.
Cargo bikes are becoming more popular in the U.S. every year, as new brands enter the market and affordable, quality options (even used!) pop up throughout the country. But the terminology, availability, and best uses can be confusing for a newcomer in a country where cargo biking is still relatively rare.
Electric assist vs. muscle power?
Many of the cargo bikes listed below can be purchased as both non-electric and electric versions. While those in flat cities or doing shorter neighborhood riding might be ok with a standard, non-electric cargo bike, carrying older kids, riding longer commutes, or living in a hilly city might necessitate an electric bike.
While we have owned several cargo bikes without a motor, electric assist turned out to be a game-changer for us in a relatively hilly city hauling two (now three) kids. For families in hilly cities, an electric bike would probably be a requirement in order to get the most use out of a cargo bike.
We also found that once we added a motor, we chose to take the cargo bike out far more often and for longer distances than we ever dared without it.
Choosing the Best Cargo Bike for Family
Box bikes for multiple children
Box bikes are bikes with a cargo bucket either in the front or the back. These are sometimes called bakfiets, (the Dutch word for front-loading cargo bikes), and they traditionally have a wooden crate on front. Bakfietsen (the plural form of bakfiets) are incredibly common throughout Western Europe and are catching on in the U.S. with brands like Bakfiets.nl, Larry vs. Harry (The Bullitt), Babboe, and Urban Arrow being imported from Europe.
Bakfietsen—sometimes referred to as longjohns, in the U.S.—are usually two-wheeled, and the steering of the front wheel is controlled similarly to a regular bike.
But cargo bikes with boxes can also come with three wheels, as cargo trikes. While the two-wheeled bikes ride a bit more like a regular bike, cargo trikes can provide added stability which may feel more secure with a heavy load of precious cargo.
While you don’t need to worry as much about balance, turning and steering cargo trikes can take a bit of getting used to in order to avoid tipping the bike over. Front-loading trikes (like the Christiania, Babboe Big, or the U.S.-based Bunch Bikes) are especially great for families with small kids and babies, as you can monitor the littler ones and interact with them as you go.
Madsen Cycles bucket bike
While most cargo bikes with buckets (either bakfietsen/longjohns or cargo trikes) are front-loaders, one of the most iconic U.S.-based cargo bikes is the Madsen Cycles bucket bike. They are based out of Utah and have been selling and shipping cargo bikes throughout the U.S. (and world!) for a decade now.
Madsen bikes are solid and well-made, even though they lack some of the higher-end components and fancy accessories of higher-end, more expensive bikes like the Bullitt and Urban Arrow. For this reason, they are much more reasonably priced than the others and are more readily available to purchase used as well.
Madsen bikes are fantastic for those with 2 or more children. There are two removable benches with four seat belts, and we have regularly filled it with that many! Although there are no approved baby accessories, we added a Thule Yepp Mini seat using the existing seatbelts for when our daughter was too young to sit on the seat with extra support.
Others have added five-point harnesses to the existing lap belt, or even installed infant car seats to carry younger babies. Of course, always use caution when biking with babies under the age of 1, considering the terrain and their neck strength.
Box bikes of all varieties are amazing kid and stuff haulers: we could fit a week’s worth of groceries in our Madsen, Babboe or Urban Arrow bikes with no problem. During a trip to Trader Joe’s several years ago, the checker asked me if I needed parking validation. I cheerfully replied, “No, we biked here!” and he glanced incredulously at my full cart and preschooler in tow.
He even had to come outside the store to see for himself the carrying capacity of our Madsen bike!
Longtail Cargo Bikes
The second type of cargo bike is a longtail. These are two-wheeled bikes with extended back decks that can hold multiple children (I’ve seen up to four on some of the full-size models!) Longtails are great for families with older children, who may be getting cramped in a trailer or even a box bike.
Once our kids hit the tween stage, it became more difficult for them to load up in the bucket bike and fit all those long legs. A longtail was then the best option for extended family cargo biking. While they ride their own bikes, there are times when the roads aren’t quite safe enough even for an experienced child cyclist, and so we take the longtail bike instead of their own.
The more established and popular longtail brands include Xtracycle, Yuba, Surly, and Bike Friday. These bikes come in both non-electric and electric versions. The longtails from these companies are made with high-end, well-thought-out components and parts from companies that have been in the longtail, cargo-biking world for decades.
While the above bike companies specialize in longtail bikes, companies that produce electric bikes have also branched into marketing their own electric longtail bikes, including Pedego and Tern. Two newer (and more affordable) options are the Rad Power Bikes RadWagon and the Blix Packa.
While bikes like the RadWagon and Packa may need a bit more regular maintenance than the more expensive longtail brands, they are still solid rides and have thousands of happy families using them as daily commuters and to explore their neighborhoods (or trails!)
Carrying capacity of Cargo Bikes and accessories
While longtails do not have quite the same carrying capacity as the box bikes, you can add pannier bags and front racks for more cargo space.
Most of the brands sell their own proprietary bags, but there are also companies like Carsick Designs Sling Bags that sell custom-made bags for many of the most popular brands. And we have found that many of the different company’s bags are fairly interchangeable: we have used Tern bags on a Blix Packa and Yuba Kombi, while putting Xtracycle sling bags on a RadWagon. We also love Kulie bike bags.
Many longtail riders also add a trail hitch to carry another kid (or two!) or even more cargo. It’s possible to attach a range of different trailer options, including the Burley Encore X or Hamax Outback.
When our toddler was younger and we wanted to keep the deck space open for two older kids to ride, we hooked up a Thule Chariot Cougar 1 to our RadWagon to bring her along. Hooking up a trailer like this would be impossible on something like a Madsen bike, but it could be done on the longjohns with front-loading boxes.
Weather and other considerations for cargo biking
If you live in a cold, rainy, or snowy climate, weather protection is important to consider when choosing a cargo bike. While Yuba has recently come out with a Pop Top Cover as the first longtail to offer a cover for kids on the back deck, most longtails do not have great options for keeping kids dry and warm.
On the other hand, box bikes have well-designed and easy-to-use waterproof covers that install easily over the buckets:
Cargo Bikes: Versatile Kid-Haulers
When considering a cargo bike, you really cannot go wrong. While some may be a better fit for certain family configurations and geographic area, most cargo bikes are versatile kid-haulers that will accommodate kids of different ages and be ridden for years on end.
There are a number of resources to consult to compare and contrast more closely the different cargo bikes currently available on the market in the U.S.
As more American communities see the value of promoting biking through infrastructure adjustments and investments, it seems we will continue to see a rise in the numbers of families utilizing cargo bikes on a regular basis for school drop-offs and library visits.
Family cargo biking tips
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