In short, cargo bikes are fantastic! I think they will become super popular over the years. Anybody I know who tries them, decides to buy them - and I was no exception!
The other key learning: electric bikes make me cycling more and not less, they make life more sporty and active not less.
Does any of you travel with children by bike?
I would be happy to hear your experiences.
A couple (or more) of years ago, we decided with my wife to try a car free life for some time. The experiment went well, and we decided to extend it.
So we don't have a car, we travel all the time by bike, plane, train, on foot.
But mostly by bike.
Like 98% of the time.
Since Tea was born last year, the more and more we felt the need for a cargo bike, so we can use the bicycle and still have Tea with us. There are three main options to travel with children on the bike:
a) Child seat on the bicycle
b) Bicycle trailer
c) Cargo bike
The difficulty with the child seat and the trailer is that it's difficult to have a conversation, as the children are sitting behind us. We don't see them, and it's difficult to talk to, intervene if anything is happening. However, on the cargo bike, the children are sitting in front of us. We see what they are doing, where they are looking, we can explain and be present more easily. At the moment we favour the cargo bike from the above three options.
I have scanned the market, browsed forums, visited shops, read magazines, watched youtube, and have shortlisted a few models. We tried each of these, and we even rented the most promising ones for a weekend. I thought to give a very short summary of our experience.
We only look for bikes that:
- can take a car style safety-child seat, and
- has an electric motor built in,
- with internal hub gears.
URBAN ARROW - "the modern bakfiets"
(These are pictures from a weekend when we rented the Urban Arrow with a safety child-seat)
The first picture above is from our ride with the urban arrow.
I've found the Urban Arrow easy to pack, both with the child seat and to shop for groceries. The "tent" is practical and light, although not so easy to open-close on a stop-and-go.
I didn't like the Bosch motor with the NuVinci gear, it was slow to react to changes in speed, and the gear shifting had a delay. For a strange reason, I was not able to shift the gears to the easiest when stopped, the bike needed to roll a bit to be able shift to the easiest gear. This is a big negative, as one reason of using the hub gear is to change gears after stop at the red lights. NuVinci claims that the gears can be changed continuously (no realy steps between gears), but in practice the adjustments that I was able to make were similar to the Shimano Alfine 8 hub gear, in fact the Pinion or a derailleur offers finer adjustments in practice.
The child seat had fantastic iso-fix mounts, it even had built in spring for a telescopic effect. This is a big positive for this bike!
The whole bike feels comfortable and easy to ride. Start and stop is kind of an acrobatics with a loaded bike, but once it started to roll, it goes well. Riding the bike feels like sailing with a big ship on silent waters.
BUTCHERS AND BICYCLES MK-1E - "the tilting three wheeler"
I also rented the MK-1E for a weekend, and rode it extensively in city traffic and outside the city. The promised safety child-seat was not available, but this bike also offers standard iso-fix mounts for child seats.
This is tricycle, with two wheels in front, which can tilt. There are only a few tricycles that can tilt. This helps in steering the bike in turns, but it needs adjustment. Even after a day of cycling and 60 km behind me, I still didn't feel comfortable handling the bike. Although both in the shop and at the manufacturer they said it feels like a bike, it didn't. The tilting mechanism requires that I constantly pay attention to balance to keep the bike straight and going in forward (vs. turning). So in one hand the tricycle offers stability, and will never fall to the side (accidents, mistake), but steering it needs more practice.
The Bosch motor was the stronger version on this bike, which made a difference when going uphills, an advantage to tackle the hilly segments in Brussels. However, I felt the same lag as the Urban Arrow. Many things were unpolished on this bike, like the "glove compartment" lock was broken, there was no factory default safety lock, the battery needed a lot of fiddling to put into place, and so on. The advantage of this bike that children can step-in-and-out easily, and have a comfortable place facing front. I think this a great bike for the countryside, for the city, the extra width creates a problem (one way streets, tram rails, narrow bike lanes), at least 30% of the time I had to go with the car traffic.
The MK1-E had the Carbon Belt drive, which I partly like and don't like. I like that it is low maintenance, no dirt, however, I've never seen it in a closed compartment to avoid contact with clothes, it's not grease-oil dirty, but for office clothes it's still dusty-dirty.
Riding the bike in general felt like a sports activity.
The "tent" (canopy) of the bike felt nice and sturdy, I preferred this construction vs. the Urban Arrow. It had strong zips, and a good feel. Also the box in general, with the front opening door, feels thought has been put into it, to make it easy for children to step in and out. I think this is the biggest advantage of this bike (and not the tilt).
As for development, this bike felt the most controversial to me, and the less "finished". The Urban Arrow had all those little touches that during daily use make it feel "fluent". On the MK-1, I could feel that core is good, but those tiny 5% things that come with several years of iterative development, were still missing. For example, each time, it took me several minutes to insert the battery into it's place, because it's a crammed space, difficult to reach and see (on the other bikes, I didn't notice how I inserted the battery). This has improved compared to the early reviews, but it's still not a set-it-and-forget-it action. The rear-light is position so low and close to the tires that I was always worried weather cars behind me in traffic can see it, so I added a cheap red light to the seatpost.
We also made a trip to Coppenhagen and visited the manufacturer, it was great fun to talk to them, and we made some extra rides with the bikes there.
LARRY VS HARRY EBULLIT - "longjohn reimagined"
(These are pictures from the internet.)
(The eBullit is on the left, on the right is the Urban Arrow)
From the three bikes the eBullit felt the most polished, and ready to go. The Shimano STePS motor with the Alfine 8 hub, and automatic gear shifting changed gears fast, reacted quickly, and automatically changes to the easiest gear. I could really feel that the whole system was made by the same manufacturer. My touring bike has a Shimano Nexus 8, with several thousand km in it, and in general I like it. The range feels a bit short (similarly to the NuVinci 360), but when I asked Larry vs. Harry on facebook, they said the bike is also available with Alfine 11 if I want.
As a two wheel bike, it had similarly difficulties when starting and stopping, but not as difficult as the Urban Arrow.
The narrow design of the eBullit made it easy to roll in narrow bike lanes, or to pass between lines of cars (not as easy with a bike, but almost).
The load capacity/volume feels less compared to the Urban Arrow and the Butchers and Bicycles, but still in the comfortable range.
BABBOE - "traditional bakfiets with a motor"
This Dutch brand offers several tricycles and two wheelers for family cargo, with a motor. They use the Yamaha motor (well proven, established), and a NuVinci hub gear. Their bikes are robust and reliable, and more affordable than the above three, however much heavier. For example their electric tricycle is 65 kg (143 lbs), while the other bikes above are betwee 20-30 kg (44-66 lbs).
I talked to one of their developers, and he said they chose the NuVinci because it seems to be the most reliable. It can shift under load, can support 70-90 Nm torque (which is high), and needs little maintenance. However, in use, I still found the NuVinci very slow to shift, and not very precize, so I would be very hesitant to use it.
They offer everything imaginable need for a family, it shows they are in business for long.
Here we tried the bike with our baby, how she can fit in the child seat. This was her first time in bike seat, the first moments she didn't understand what's going on....
This bike is the lowest cost from what we tried, and looks like the most robust, with a timeless design. However, the other three just felt more modern and up-to-date.
uses the same general design as Babboe, but they use the Chinese 8fun (aka Bafang) motors. Depending on which generation the bike is, they have older or more recent motors. These motors do the a sufficiently good enough job at the lowest cost. It's far away from comfortable, but takes one up on the hills.
After trying several motors, the Bosch is our least favourite option. It requires a constant change of speed (like in a sports car), is mostly built together with the NuVinci hub gear, which in itself is hard to recommend. And the two together is a no-go combo for us. My preference at the moment is the Shimano STePS with hub grears, and Di2 automatic gear changing. I thought that automatic gear change is just a gadget, but it worked really well in practice, for commuting, it's simply fantastic. At the moment automatic shifting is only available with Alfine 8, not with Alfine 11, so pay attention. Also, the Alfine 11 hub needs oil change after the first 1000 km of usage, and then after each 5000 km or every 2 years
(whatever comes first). Another critical point is that although the Alfine 8 and 11 gears are not really able to switch gears under load. I mean they can, but it's not good for them. However the Di2 system handles this automatically by releasing pressure and/or switching only when I release the pedals a bit.
How about power? 250 Watts are just at the acceptance limit to take a fully charged cargo bike with 200 kg total weight up hill. A moderate pedaling would be around 80 W, with a bit more leg-work it can go up to 100-120 W, with the motor together it totals to 330-370W. A comfortable uphill ride would be with a motor power around 500W - some motors are able to output this power momentarily, but not for a long period.
THE GREAT SURPRISE
Another, unexpected personal discovery is that electric bikes are a game changer! I've never thought to buy an electric bike, I feared it would undermine my sports/exercise possibilities. However, it just had the opposite effect!
With the electric bike I wanted to go out to ride more often, and longer, and exercised much-much more, then with my "analogue" bikes.
We tried several non-powered family cargo bikes ("bakfiets") from The Netherlands, but in a hilly terrain they are difficult to use, and felt outdated compared to the above three, so I didn't include them in this post.
All bikes lack a well-thought through bicycle-lock integration. How to lock the bike? This should be integrated to the overall design for a 5-6000 Euro (or USE) bike, not an maybe-it-will-fit add-on. The shops usually offered an Abus motorcycle lock with a built-in alarm, but over the two days it was always the same fiddly manouver, while in daily use, I would lock-unlock the bike at every single stop in the city, so it can really break the otherwise good experience.
Going for two-wheelers or three-wheelers? This is also a difficult choice.
The two wheelers are narrower and more similar to a bicycle. They are more instable when standing, and get more and more stable when going faster. They turn and go uphill easily.
The three wheelers can transport more, and offer more stability when standing. They can get very difficult to turn, one has to really slow down when turning. Going uphill is exponentially more difficult with a three or four wheeler bicycle. Tram lines are tricky for a three wheeler bicycle - if you don't see what I mean, try to avoid your wheels slipping into the tram line when you have three parallel wheel-lanes, instead of one.
After riding in city traffic with both types in "narrow" Brussels, my discovery was that a three wheeler forced us to ride with the car traffic (and be stuck in a traffic jam) too often. We had difficulties in one way streets, at red lights, in narrow cycling lanes, at park entries. And the tram lines - a nightmare.
I would consider the three wheeler only in environments when the extra width is not a constraint. Like bike-heaven Copenhagen, where a bike lanes are often as wide as car lanes, and a three wheeler Butcher and Bicycles MK-1 E can overtake a Nihola in the cycling lane itself.
Based on these short tests, we would go for the eBullit. This is an interesting discovery, because based on my internet search, my first choice was the Butchers and Bicycles, then the Urban Arrow, and we didn't really consider the Bullit as an option at all.
Do you have a cargo bike?
Do you transport children by bike?
I would be interested in your experience!
UPDATE 05 Jan 2017:
We also tried some other bikes:
Nihola e-version (2h ride)
Winther Kangaroo Luxe (no e-assist) (1 day ride)
My overall conclsion was that these tyeps of two wheelers are not for me. They are great for slow speeds or for carrying really-lots-of-staff, but for our dynamic style they didn't fit.
Also, after one full day riding (pushing...) the Winther without electric assist, I was convinced that I would never buy a cargo bike without a motor!
Now we had our Bullit with STePS since July 2016, and clocked in about 1000 km, in our hilly-narrow-cobble-stoned-rai
ny Brussels. All in all, a great bike. Some minor points to improve: add suspension, add Big Ben tires, add Belt Drive. The rest is great!
UPDATE 10 Oct 2017:
About the car safety-baby-seat: we discovered this is not needed at all. A Weber made baby sling fits the purpose completely, is more comfortable, lighter, and easier to use. And it only costs around 70 Euro or USA.
I think the car safety-baby-seat is really for those who didn't leave the car-paradigm behind, and think like drivers think.
Here's my other blog post on the Bullit: