Cargo electric bikes
December 15, 2020 9:09 PM   Subscribe

What's your experience with electric cargo bikes? I would like to transition away from having two cars for our household down to one... trying to figure out what I can actually do by e-bike?

I work a couple miles from home so can mostly ride my conventional bike to work except I do get lazy about it at times. Groceries I've occasionally gotten by conventional bike + panniers but so far that's been rare. I'd like to do that more - maybe a cargo bike would help? I enjoy biking but I'm slow, middle aged and not especially athletic. ... Also don't love biking in the rain at this point in life. I'll probably continue to bike a couple times a week by conventional bike - but wondering if an electric cargo bike could replace some of my car trips, which I typically use for groceries, walking the dog, some errands, and as mentioned, when I'm lazy.

As mentioned, I have a 75 lb dog I like to hike with in the hills but I'm pretty sure there's no cargo bike I could make it up the hill with, with a dog, right?

I guess I just want your real life experience with electric cargo bikes. How much do you do with yours? I'd love to hear your specific real-world experience. Especially if you dumped a car for an e-bike.
posted by latkes to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My bike isn't specifically a cargo model, bit it is electric. I live in a famously hilly city, on too of one of those hills, and two years ago I bit the bullet and went for an e-bike. It has been an incredibly genius addition to my transit toolkit. I haven't had a car in almost 20 years, so I'm not a cycling novice, and making this jump genuinely opened the entire city to me. I use a messenger bag and panniers for... everything? Groceries from the farmers market, blankets and beer for the park, lugging packages to and from the post office, you name it.

Do yourself a favor and go test drive some models! You'll be surprised at how much pull they can have when you need it (I don't think you'd have a problem bringing your dog up hills). I got basically the least expensive model electric hybrid road bike and I can still sail up hills with heavy loads and, at maximum output, I can get a solid 6-7 hours between charges. I can ride to the ferry terminal, go over to Angel Island, ride every steep trail on the island, and still have leftover power to get home. Capacity and power goes up from there.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:48 PM on December 15, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have a knockoff bakfiets (box bike - box in the front) that I love and try to use for pretty much everything and got for more or less the reasons you mentioned. Groceries, hardware store - I can think of very little for which I *have to* use the car unless I'm just being lazy - so my trick is to play my own inertia against myself by making the bike my most convenient option. I have decent weather gear and little hand warmers I can stick in my mittens and since I live in the city half the time walking to the car takes 5 minutes anyway, so using it actually requires *more* effort than the bike.

E-assist is critical, I'd say, because cargo bikes are HEAVY, especially if you're, you know, carrying cargo, or contending with hills, as you say. I have a 4-year-old and have gotten stuck with a dead battery a couple miles from home and BARELY made it back with her + stuff in the front without falling over sideways. I do try not to rely on the battery unless I'm going up a serious hill or getting going from a dead stop. It's not a motorcycle, and you are allowed to use it for exercise.

The secondhand market is pretty good for these, because a lot of people get them when they have kids, and then outgrow them in just a few years, so they're still in good shape - though not as cheap as you'd think, being used. Some models are made specifically for pets, with a little door in the cargo section that makes getting in + out easier.
posted by catesbie at 9:51 PM on December 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

I thought of one thing I can't use the cargo bike for: taking the babysitter home. Only because she'd never let me, but I could do it otherwise, believe me.
posted by catesbie at 9:53 PM on December 15, 2020 [6 favorites]

My experience is a lot like late afternoon dreaming hotel's. "Genuinely opened up the entire city to me" is exactly how I describe it too. I'd really recommend trying as many as possible to get a feel for the differences: different motor systems (and the different models of, say, Bosch motors), chain vs belt drive, overall fit and feel, and so on. Once I had it narrowed down to one, I got the shop to let me do an extended test ride on streets I was familiar with, so you might try to arrange that so you can go up that specific hill and feel what it's like for yourself. I'd think about what you need to carry and how much cargo capacity you need, depending on how large a grocery trip is for you. The big cargo bikes aren't quite as suited to recreational use, but if hauling the dog is a requirement, you'll need serious space for that. If you decide you don't need to carry the dog, a non-cargo model with big panniers and a rack may work if your grocery trips aren't large.

One helpful realization for me was that they have different power settings for the electric assist, so you can kind of be more or less lazy in real time based on how you're feeling. It's not like riding a Vespa where the throttle just goes: you can set it on low and do 50 miles on a Sunday (less fun with a cargo bike, but there are lots of options), turn it all the way up when you have errands to get done or a lot to carry, or adjust it as you go if there's a hill you find annoying, and it's still a nice burst of physical activity that you can calibrate to your preferences either way.

It's worth working through some practical issues as you figure out how this can fit into your life. Secure storage can be an issue—cargo bikes don't fit in some types of bike racks in places like apartment buildings and offices, and if you're parking it in a garage, you'll need something solid to lock it to. They're big and heavy, so some of the usual situations where you'd carry a bike up/down stairs or into an elevator may pose a problem. Insurance (either through your regular insurance company or a special bike policy) can also be a good idea, but factor that into the cost.
posted by zachlipton at 11:10 PM on December 15, 2020

People I know who do a lot of commuting with kids in SF (hilly, as noted above) say it is incredible.
posted by Spokane at 11:42 PM on December 15, 2020

I have an electric cargo bike - an Urban Arrow - and I love it. I use it mostly for transporting two kids (ages 4 and 8 so a decent weight in total) around our (somewhat hilly) city, but also for errands, shopping (I can fit an entire trolley of groceries if I use the panniers as well), and commuting (i.e. even when I don't have any "cargo" to move). It makes hills a breeze - you will still get out of breath on big ones if you have cargo, but I liken it to being no more out of breath than if I was walking up the hill. I currently do a daily school run every morning which is about 6 miles each way, and takes less than 25 minutes including a pretty big hill.

In addition to hills not being a problem any more, you also get way less sweaty in general, so you can cycle in "normal clothing" (I never put on anything like lycra or cycling shorts to ride my e-cargo bike) and wear full waterproofs in wet weather without overheating. You also never need to find a car parking space or pay for car parking (although sometimes finding a space to lock a cargo bike is annoying as regular bike racks aren't always built with cargo bikes in mind).

As mentioned, I have a 75 lb dog I like to hike with in the hills but I'm pretty sure there's no cargo bike I could make it up the hill with, with a dog, right?

Not sure what you mean here, but my kids weigh approx that much combined, and I've previously carried an adult and a kid on my bike. IIRC the max cargo weight for the Urban Arrow is something like 125kg (275lb), not including the rider.

My bike hasn't replaced our car, but I use the car way less for trips around town than I otherwise would do.

I definitely recommend trying different models, and trying a longjohn (2-wheeled) and trike (3-wheeled) cargo bike to see which you prefer. They both have their benefits but often people strongly dislike one type but love the other type.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:01 AM on December 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

I realise Urban Arrows are at the pricier end of the market, off the top of my head some other brands of electric box-bike are:
Madsen* - this is a fairly unique bike as it's a longtail (cargo behind the rider) with a box.

*These two are US-based companies so might be easier to get hold of.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:27 AM on December 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

An e bike used in conjunction with a trailer? I have no experience with e bikes, but have seen plenty examples of conventional bikes with trailer and dog. Could be a flexible option?

posted by BrStekker at 4:50 AM on December 16, 2020

I had a Yuba Mundo that I used a huge amount. Mine was not electric but I was awed by how easy it was to haul big loads, even if they were unbalanced; sometimes I even used it as a pickup truck for things that didn't fit in the car! I loved it (and would still be using it if not for medical issues).

That said, for the uses you're talking about and since you'll still have a household car, BrStekker's suggestion of a standard e-bike plus a cheap kid trailer might work better for you. It'll be much less expensive and I think your dog might like it more, because the trailer stays more level while riding. It will be less heavy to move around and easier to store, and for trips you can do without the trailer it will be more manageable. My cargo bike took less work to pedal than a bike with a trailer, but since you'll be getting an electric assist, that won't be as big an issue.
posted by metasarah at 5:06 AM on December 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have a conventional (non-electric) cargo bike and it's ideal for groceries. (I've also bought 2x4s, cases of beer, a small tree from the nursery... it's crazy how much you can comfortably carry.)

I looked into upgrading to an electric, but the extra expense (and stress about expensive components wearing out or getting stolen) didn't seem worth it.

re: "cargo bikes are HEAVY" - i think the electric ones are heavy since you have the motor and battery. Mine is not light as it has a steel frame and a plywood box, but it's easy enough to maneuver.

Will you be riding up hills? That might be the deciding factor for electric-assist or not.

Weather might also be a factor. When it's -15C or wet and slushy out, i would be lazy and take the car (or just delay the trip). But otherwise, the cargo bike is my default mode of transport.
posted by kamelhoecker at 7:44 AM on December 16, 2020

I resisted getting a cargo bike for while, but we have a non-electric Benno Carry On (which has been discontinued, but the Boost is the electric version and is still made) and I LOVE it. We use it for kid-hauling, groceries, big library book pick-ups, and anything else where we need to carry something heavy or awkward a few miles. I often use it even if my load isn't huge, but its just shaped weirdly enough to be annoying in a pannier. It is way more comfortable and useful than I was expecting, and is going to be key to us reducing the number of cars we own.

Just a few tips about buying a cargo bike:
1. Go to a shop that specializes in these. We have a great one where we live and my husband and I rode basically every bike in the shop a few times, with the kid on the back, before we figured out which one felt best to us. They can handle very differently! The shop even let us borrow our top candidate for a few days before we bought it so I could try it out on my commute.

2. Don't cheap out on racks and accessories. Cargo bikes tend to be very customizable, so invest in actually getting it set up the way YOU want to use it. If you want to help yourself choose this bike instead of a car, you need to make it as easy and convenient as possible to use. I didn't know how much I would love having my big burly front rack with integrated water-proof bag, but it's so easy to just drop things into, I use it on almost every trip.
posted by juliapangolin at 7:54 AM on December 16, 2020

We've had a Babboe City bakfiet-style cargo bike for a few years. We got that cargo bike because I wanted a bakfiet--it seemed better for kids and, well, cargo--and it was a fairly inexpensive one available locally to us. It was good but heavy so we often didn't use it extensively.

After spending time in Holland in the early part of the year and re-falling in love with bakfiets (and noticing that a lot of them in Holland are e-bikes), I decided we should convert it to an e-bike. After a fair amount of research, I picked a Tongsheng middrive e-bike kit, because it looked like it would fit, it would allow me to keep the internally geared hub in the back wheel, and it was torque sensing (so it adjusts its output torque based on how hard you're pedaling). It was a pain to install and took multiple weekends because it didn't really fit initially, but after I got it working, wow! It's awesome. The first time I went to get groceries, I purposefully loaded it up. I think I got 9 or 10 x 12 packs of stuff, a gallon of milk, a gallon of juice and all manner of other groceries. I imagine it was about 100 or 120lb of groceries total and when I started pedaling, I literally laughed out loud at how easy it was. (It's also adjustable, so if I want it to be harder, I can.) On the way home, going up a moderate incline, I passed another cyclist on a regular bike with no cargo.

Also on one of my first test rides after getting it together, I went up a short but steep hill in our neighborhood and I was still going 18mph at the top. This was with full assist but even loaded with a dog, I imagine I could have gone up that hill pretty easily.

I wouldn't really suggest getting a regular bakfiet and installing an e-bike kit afterwards unless the process seems fun to you. But I do love having an e-bakfiet.

(BTW, one thing I discovered is with an e-bakfiet is that going down the hill can be something you should consider perhaps as much as going up the hill. Ours has roller brakes and, again, the bike is heavy so it can be hard to slow down. Once I didn't start braking soon enough and past a certain speed, I got into a speed wobble situation. After tightening a few things and pumping up the tires, it hasn't happened again, but if you go with a bakfiet, I'd check the brakes and maybe try to get one with disc brakes.)

BTW, I had a friend get a Rad Wagon long-style e-bike with all the fittings (seats, grab bars) for his kids and burly panniers and within 3 weeks his family had sold one of their cars.
posted by adrianb at 10:31 AM on December 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Second that if you're getting a cargobike you should absolutely get disc brakes if you live somewhere hilly.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:20 PM on December 17, 2020

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