The Practical Cargo Bike, or, are Cargo Bikes just the New Black?

Are cargo bikes practical? asked a denizen of recently (a more polite version of Reddit).

An interesting question, I thought, but whats a cargo bike, and whos to say whats practical?

If cargo is defined as anything in excess of the human engine, then any bike that can carry a water bottle is a cargo bike. Therefore, the time trial bike that Greg Lemond rode to victory in the final stage of the Tour de France would be a cargo bike, since it carried a water bottle. But with asymmetric wheels and a decidedly limited riding position, Gregs custom bike is not a grocery getter.

“Ceci n’est pas une bicyclette. Ceci n’est pas Coca Cola.” This is not a bicycle. This is not Coca Cola. This is a picture of Greg Lemond winning the Tour de France on a bicycle with a water bottle. (With Dadaist apologies to Ren Magritte.)

A more workable definition of a cargo bike might be, a bicycle with a frame adapted to carrying cargo in excess of water bottles. While just about every bike on the market has braze-ons for mounting water bottle cages, only half of them have braze-ons for attaching fenders or racks. But do braze-ons a cargo bike make? If that were so, then every cheap Chinese Huffy, Schwinn and beach cruiser sold by Walmart would be a cargo bike

A rack does not a cargo bike make.
A cargo rack does not a cargo bike make.

Thankfully, Wikipedia rescues us with a crowd-sourced definition: “cargo bikes, box bikes, or cycletrucks are human powered vehicles designed and constructed specifically for transporting loadsThe frame and drivetrain must be constructed to handle loads larger than those on an ordinary bicycle.”

The cargo bike then is to the common bicycle what a pickup truck is to the common car. It’s purpose is to not only transport people, but to transport stuff. And while you may see a mattress and boxspring tied to the top of a Toyota Camry, that does not make it an F-150 pickup truck.

Having defined what is a bicycle, let us turn our attention to the question, “What is practicality?” The most practical definition would be, how well does form follow function? To what degree does performance match necessity? In that context, practicality is an existential value: the value of a bicycle is not in how in was designed (its essence), but in how it is used (its existence).

Greg Lemond’s time trial bike is therefore supremely practical in the context of winning the Tour de France. And it is conversely supremely impractical in making a grocery run: it may win a 3,000km race by 8 seconds, but it can’t bring home the bacon and the milk. Vice versa, a “box bike” is supremely practical at carrying home a toddler, a liter of milk and a kilo of bacon, but supremely impractical at winning the Tour de France in the last stage by the smallest margin ever.

So, when we ask, “Are cargo bikes practical?” what we are really asking is, “Are cargo bikes capable of meeting my needs?” And the answer, for most of us, in most situations, is, “Yes.” For context in North America, how many of us ask, “Is a pickup truck practical, or can I get by with a station wagon or sedan?” Most readers of this blog will be self-selected to answer that question in the negative. If Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong set the standard for practicality in automobiles, then we would all be driving one-seater Formula One race cars. We would disregard how much we could carry, and instead focus on how fast we can move ourselves.

It's the station wagon of bicycles. Yuba offers electric-assist long-tail cargo bikes for parents who need a little help getting going in the morning.
It’s the station wagon of bicycles. Yuba offers electric-assist long-tail cargo bikes for parents who need a little help getting going in the morning.

Oddly, in North America, the low cost of gasoline has made it possible for drivers to be interested more in fashion than function; The cheaper the gas prices, the more likely we are to drive vehicles that exceed our needs. In Tidewater Virginia (this author’s locale) gasoline prices are amongst the cheapest to be found anywhere. And there is an inverse proportion of the cost of gasoline to the number of pickup trucks: the low cost of gas encourages folks to drive more truck than they truly need. The popularity of country music also correlates to the popularity of pickup trucks. As people move to the city, they yearn for the country. They listen to music and drive trucks that remind them of their bucolic halcyon hometowns. The flat, coastal-plain topography of Tidewater Virginia only exasperates the prevalence of pickup trucks: Southeast Virginia is home to not only the largest naval base in the world, but also home to the second most popular monster truck franchise in the world: Grave Digger. Thousands of patriotic Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines drive solo to their duty stations in jacked-up pickup trucks. More than a few of them are modified to be louder and dirtier than necessary, and fly the Stars and Bars. But yet the people that ask if pickup trucks are “practical” are marginalized as being Anti-American.

“Rolling Coal:” the stupidest reactionary trend since whatever…

What would happen if we approached our bikes the same way we approach our automobiles? “Well gosh, I probably don’t need that much cargo and towing capacity every day, but what if I do? Maybe I’d better get the bigger model, just to be safe…” If we bought bikes the same way that we buy cars, then we’d all be riding cargo bikes, or at least bikes like the LIFT Bike:

It's a Bike! It's a Cargo Bike! No wait, it's just a bike...
It’s a Bike! It’s a Cargo Bike! No wait, it’s just a bike…

The LIFT Bike promises to be the best of both worlds: a regular bike when you just need your regular bike, and a cargo bike when you need that. While any convertible, multi-purpose widget will have some compromises as compared to single-purpose widgets, the hope is that for the average, amateur user the convertible widget will be good enough. The LIFT Bike will never be able to match the weight capacity or stiffness of a traditional cargo box, and it will probably scratch your bike’s paint job, but it should get the job done.

For those who aren’t ready to commit to a part-time or full-time cargo bike, there are other options besides backpacks and messenger bags, and is the place to find them. The Surly 24-Pack Rack is the perfect first step into carrying cargo in style on your bike: it mounts to the front fork, allowing you to keep an eye on cargo, and avoid kicking it off while mounting and dismounting.

What could YOU carry on the Surly 24 Pack Rack?
What could YOU carry on the Surly 24 Pack Rack?

Cargo trailers are another popular option. Bike racks are a semi-permanent investment, and can’t be easily removed for a cleaner, lighter ride. But trailers can easily be detached from the bike, and often don’t require any permanent mounting hardware. This author’s favorite cargo trailer is the B.O.B. Yak, a single-wheeled trailer that is easy to load, rides low to the ground, and makes almost no impact on bike handling.

Is that a bottle of wine in your basket, or are you just happy to see me? The B.O.B. Yak offers stylish options for carrying cargo, including bonus panniers for those who just can't get enough.
Is that a bottle of wine in your basket, or are you just happy to see me? The B.O.B. Yak offers stylish options for carrying cargo, including bonus panniers for those who just can’t get enough.

The temptation with bike racks is to overpack them. While cargo bikes are designed to be loaded down, overloaded panniers can adversely affect handling, leading to human errors and mechanical failures. Cargo trailers minimize this by adding an extra wheel or two. The extra wheels help to spread the load, keeping the bike more stable. Granted, a bike trailer is going to slow you down, but when you’re carrying your groceries home, you’re not trying to set a personal best.

So, If we bought bikes the way we buy automobiles, then almost all of us would be riding cargo bikes. And if we bought automobiles the way we buy bikes, then we’d almost all be driving neck-snapping sports cars. So let’s consider, for a moment, an alternative world where we buy the car and the bike we need, not want.

Because, it’s a small world after all.

“Rolling coal” on bicyclists.

Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy John’s on his bicycle, he aspires to earn a Bachelor’s in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Lukes Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz. He promises that if he is elected to office he will not roll coal on anyone or anything.

Post navigation