Regulars and Shorts

The Well-Tempered Bike Commuter: Cargo Bikes

By Steve Chambers

From food to furniture to mail.

There’s a quiet revolution taking place in the cycling world. It’s unorganized in every sense of the word. It’s happening in Portland, Oregon, but not Portland, Maine. You can find evidence of it in Berkeley and Queens and a few places in between. It’s a true grass-roots movement, growing from the bottom up without fanfare and promotion from celebrities or anyone supposedly “in the know.”

From the bicycle’s invention 200 years ago into the early 20th century, bicycles were used for purely practical purpose. After World War II, low gas and oil prices, urban sprawl and the ascendency of the car as the primary mode of transportation forced the bicycle industry to redefine itself as a provider of sporting and recreation equipment. Yet in Europe and much of the developing world, bicycles continued to carry everything from food to clothes to mail. Now bicycling is slowly returning to its utilitarian roots. In Eugene, Oregon, you can even take your final ride in a cargo bike hearse.

From transporting themselves and what little they can carry on bike racks or in panniers, people are now starting to think about moving by bicycle anything they can haul in a car. In Portland, Oregon, for example, Adam George recently used a home-built recumbent tandem cargo bike to haul a futon frame home from a yard sale. As he and his partner tied the frame down, they watched another cargo cyclist ride away with a sofa on a Long John cargo bike.

Bike trailers have been around for years. Nearly 30 years ago we bought a kiddie trailer, a plastic two-wheeled carriage that held two children and attached to the seat post of my bicycle. Trailers like this are still available, albeit in safer configurations, along with gear trailers. Coming back from Bear Lake over the Labor Day weekend, we passed two riders pedaling to the summit of Logan Canyon, pulling gear trailers behind their road bikes.

While a bike outfitted with a trailer can technically be called a “cargo bike,” a real cargo bike is a bicycle specially designed and built to haul cargo without a trailer. In 1997 Stanford engineer Ross Evans built the first modern cargo bike, the longtail, which carries cargo on a stretched out rear end. He came to the idea after watching people in Latin America struggle to carry large loads on conventional bicycles. Evans developed a bike extension kit as a “poverty-alleviation tool.” Just remove the rear wheel, bolt on the extension, and add a longer chain. The longer rear extension allows a heavier rear rack that can support a variety of loads. Specially designed boxes made of solid material, such as plastic or wood, or constructed of heavy-duty fabric like that used in panniers, can be attached to the racks. The racks can even be adapted to carry people.

While the longtail is still a popular design, other styles have popped up. Tricycles are especially popular for seriously heavy loads, in either the tadpole style (two front steering wheels) or the delta style (one front wheel and two rear wheels, the common tricycle configuration). In either configuration, the load is positioned over the two wheels to make the bike more stable. An Austral­ian manufacturer, Trisled, makes a quad cargo bike, basically a recumbent four-wheel bicycle with the seat mounted at the front of a roughly 30 x 31-inch flatbed which can be accessorized with side panels to keep the cargo from sliding off.

Hopworks Microbrewery in Portland, Oregon has perhaps the country’s only bike bar. A cargo bike carries two standard kegs of beer in front. On top of the kegs is a platform with two working taps attached to the kegs. Over the rear wheel is a cargo platform for carrying pizza. It isn’t entirely clear from their website whether the bike bar is a truly mobile bar that can come to your party, or whether it’s just a fixture at the microbrewery. There is certainly no physical reason the bar couldn’t be mobile, but local ordinances may prevent a moving bar.

Don’t expect to see cargo bikes replacing cars and trucks en masse any time soon. But you can expect to see many more utilitarian uses of bicycles.

The Specialized Transport, $1390-$2820, depending on the model:

There’s also Madsen Cycles, with a nice looking cargo bike for $1485:

Yuba Bikes has a couple for about $1100 (not as cool as either the Specialized nor the Madsen):

Last (and certainly not least), are the Metrofiets. AWESOME. But you pay through the nose ($5900):

Steve Chambers is a Salt Lake City lawyer and freelance writer. He has been commuting by bicycle part time for over 10 years.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2011.