After I decided that now it’s time to buy a family cargo bike to transport kids, shopping, and the occasional boxes to back and forth the post office, the main difficulty came: how to choose from all those brands, models, and equipment variations?
Here I give you a summary of what I learned, hoping it makes your decision easier. The questions that came for me were the following:
- Do I live in a hilly or flat area?
- What distances I want to cover?
- Are there wide bicycle roads, or low traffic secondary roads; or I would ride mainly on narrow bike lanes, or to the side of traffic?
What doesn’t matter so much?
After trying out for more or less short and longer periods of time about ten different family cargo bikes, my experience is the following. Contrary to the advice of the shops, and the bicycle manufacturers, which tell you to choose depending which one feels safer, my learning was that any of the cargo bikes can be driven safely. I found that the even the most difficulty to ride, the Butchers and Bicycle MK-1, was ok for my wife after a couple of test rounds, or a heavily loaded two-wheeler Urban Arrow was OK to balance when starting and stopping. However, where I live, and how is the traffic and the elevation profile around me, and what distances I want to cover, your choice is influenced differently to a much greater extent.
What matters then?
I found that suburbs with many low traffic roads, or cities with wide bicycle lanes and heavy cycling traffic, and flat areas, are great for tricycles. However, narrow bike lanes, or manoeuvring in traffic and rolling ahead at red lights, for rides more than 30 minutes, I would choose a two wheeler cargo bike, and probably a model that is not wider than an average bicycle handlebar.
I would only buy a cargo bike without electric assist if there are no hills around, like in the Netherlands, Flanders (Northern part of Belgium), Denmark. If there’s even one hill around you that you want to climb, I would only by a cargo bicycle with electric assist, and lean towards a two wheeler model.
Is rain cover important? I found that rain cover makes life easier from many aspects. It protects the children from wind, it helps against light rain both for children or when shopping. Also, when stopping at red lights, I don’t worry anymore if someone passing by would pick out something from a bike.
Let’s see these main options in detail:
- Two wheeler or three wheeler?
- Electric or non-electric?
- With or without rain cover for the cargo (passenger) area?
Two wheeler or three wheeler
Most of the family cargo bikes come in a two wheel configuration, or a two in front – one in back wheel configuration. These two behave quite differently.
- Stable at higher speeds, instable at lower speeds – if you want to ride fast, or cover rides of 30-60 minutes, this is better
- Lower point of gravity, which is more stable
- Steering behaves like a long bicycle
- Easier to find the way in busy city traffic and narrow bike lanes
- Can make quick and sharp turns
- In rain and snow, the front wheel can slip easier
- Climbs hills better (both with or without electric assist)
- Stable at slow speeds, instable at high speeds and in curves – if feeling safe at standing is important, this is better
- Higher point of gravity
- Steering can have three different styles: Christiania / Nihola / Butchers and Bicycles, but feels more like steering a ship
- Cannot make quick and sharp turns
- Needs a lot of width in bike lanes and traffic
- Rain and snow doesn’t influence stability
- Difficult to drive on tram rails (“three lines to match”)
- In normal bike lanes, you cannot overtake others, and others cannot overtake you
- Climbing heels is difficult
My conclusion was that:
- Two wheelers are great for a hilly area, or a city with narrow lanes and needing navigation among cars.
- Three wheelers are great fur suburbs with low traffic roads, or in cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen with wide bike lanes, and flat areas.
We live in Brussels, which is a city with lots of cars, narrow bike lanes (if any at all). At the traffic lights, bikes have to move forward and wait in front of the cars. This is impossible to do with a three wheeler, so we would need to roll with the car traffic most of the time. Therefore, we decided for a three wheeler.
Electric or non-electirc
After trying a couple of bikes with electric assist, we came to the conclusion that all of our bikes should have electric assist. First I was afraid that with a bike with electric assist I would ride less, as it’s not a real exercise. However, the opposite happened: I ride my bike much more. I’m less afraid of being sweat, of climbing hills, or low energy levels.
A few things to consider, though: current technology (2016) I manage to climb a maximum of 1200-1500 m of altitude with one battery, and about 40-50 km with charge on a cargo bike. Climbing hills with charge reduces my range to about 30-40 km. Therefore we decided for a second battery.
Automatic shifiting is amazing – end we love it. It can be switched on and off. It’s offered in two systems:
- Shimano STePS motor + Di2 electric shifting + Alfine 8 hub (it’s not offered on Alfine 11 as of 2016, nor on Bosch + Alfine)
- Bosch motor + NuVinci hub + Harmony shifter
My experience of the motors and gears:
- Because of our attraction for hub gears, we only considered middle motor systems. I tried three versions of this: Shimano STePS, Bosch (various configs), and 8Fun. I loved the most the Shimano, switches quickly, and smoothly. Bosch has different power versions, also one that feels significantly more powerful (ex. Butchers and Bicycles), however it needed much more shifting up-and-down, like a sports car. 8Fun is an “added-after” motor, takes just a tad longer to engage and diengage, it helped to climbed up the hills, but in general I didn’t like it as much as the Bosch and Shimano.
- NuVinci is often found on middle motor cargo bikes. Although there are many positive reviews on the internet, I couldn’t replicate the benefits they talk about. It offers continuous shifting across a range (no dedicated speeds). I didn’t feel any advantage, as I couldn’t really adjust in smaller increments then the speeds of the Shimano Alfine. If very precise cadence is important for you, I think a 10 speed derailleur is still the best option. Another disadvantage of the NuVinci N360 was that I was not able to shift to “Zero” at red lights, the bike needed to start rolling to completely shift down to zero. Once I tried a city bike with Bosch + NuVinci 330 (less range vs. the 360), the gear simply failed on my first ride. After all these experiences, I decided to exclude the NuVinci from our list.
- For rear-motors, the BionX is the major player. It engages quickly, offers great power. In the past years, there were complaints that it can overheat on long climbs of hills, however this problem has been eliminated. Although this motor felt the best when pedalling (fast reaction time), because it needs an external gear (or a Pinion gear), we decided to exclude it.
Rain cover – with or without
First, it seemed as a valid question, however we found out that one of the main reasons for riding a cargo bike instead of a city bike + baby seat is to protect our children when it rains. So we excluded all models without a rain cover.
There are two main solutions: zip-around design (Nihola, Bullit), and a tent-poles design (Urban Arrow, Riese und Müller). I found that the zip-around design fits better conditions of lots of rain, when frequent open-close of the cover is needed. I found that the tent-poles design is great when it’s needed only occasionally, for example in dry or warm climates.
Here are some pictures from the manufacturers’ websites for both versions: