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How to choose a cargo bike

Nighthawk cargo in action

There’s a myriad of cargo bikes out there. Each has its own purpose and a user alike, How to choose the right cargo bike for you?

Why are cargo bikes getting more and more popular?

Cargo bikes have been around for about a century. This is a fact that many are eager to dismiss – so why is it that it seems like a modern-day invention, where were the cargo bikes a couple of decades ago? The answer seems to lie largely in the legislation of different countries and also the shift in mindset. After reading It’s all about the bike by Robert Penn (highly recommended read) over the Corona lockdown, I can’t help but agree that the bike was a strange thing to use as a practical means of transport in many countries from about 1960s to 2000. Robert’s example in the book illustrates this well – he talks about living in Wales where you only commuted on a bike if you had lost your driver’s license. He describes going to a pub on a bike, a bloke pulled him aside and asked what he had done to lose his driving license, he replied he just likes cycling better. A year later the bloke pulls him aside again – did you kill someone with your car that you still don’t have your license? If regular exercise and commuting on a bicycle were seen like this, how odd would a cargo bike have been..? Luckily we are coming out of this tunnel from the other end, people want to keep happy, live healthy for longer, be environmentally friendly by traveling less distance without petrol and in the end saving money by ditching the car or public transport subscription.

Long John

Kaspar riding Nighthawk Cargo
Nighthawk Cargo

The first and perhaps most popular type is the Long John type cargo bike. This type of a bicycle was first invented in Odense, Denmark (oddly enough, that’s where we first started) in 1923 by the Smith & Co Company (known today as SCO). Long Johns are best for people who like to have a fast, nimble, and stylish cargo bike. The cargo area is relatively aerodynamic and since it’s in front of the bicycle, it’s perfect for not only hauling packages but also children as they are visible and easy to communicate with. Depending on a manufacturer’s geometry, riding this bike can feel like riding a normal bike or take a couple of hours to get used to it. Since it’s as narrow as a regular two-wheeled bike, a Longjohn is perfect for countries with not-so-many proper bike lanes.

Trike

Family riding Trike
Trike / Bakfiets / Kastenfahrrad

Probably the second most popular cargo bike type is a tricycle with 2 front wheels and a box in-between, also known as Trike / Bakfiets / Kastenfahrrad. This version of a cargo bike is often the choice for families when both parents share a bike as it’s more easily adjustable to fit a smaller and larger rider by only rising or lowering the seat. The handlebars stay in the same place as they are attached to the box. Another consideration is the number of children. Three or more children usually don’t fit into the front of a Longjohn. The down-side is that these bikes are usually slow, when steering the handlebars move away from the rider and at slightly higher speeds they will feel like tipping over because they don’t tilt.

Long Tail

Long tail cargo bike
Long tail cargo bike

A bike that’s not so popular in Europe, but seems to be no.1 choice of cargo bike in the US is a Long Tail cargo bike. Also a two-wheeler, this bike has effectively an elongated rack in the back. The ’rack’ itself is a part of the bike frame, making it rigid. The strength of this bike lies in its dimensions – frame as narrow as a regular bike and only slightly longer. This makes it easy to store the bike and to carry it up and down the stairs. However of course the cargo ability is not comparable to the forementioned bikes. It is easy to sit up to two kids on the back with child seats, but everything else like a school bag would need to be held by the child or somehow strapped to the frame. When hauling any other type of cargo, it needs to be in a bag, again strapped to the frame with no possibility of ’just tossing it on there’.

Sidecar

Bike with a sidecar
Promotional sidecar bike in action

Lastly, if you want to stand out, then there are options like a sidecar. They are relatively uncommon, but you wouldn’t believe the number of looks we have gotten in Copenhagen when riding this thing around. Every day, someone would pull up on the side and say ’Hey, wow… A sidecar… I’ve never seen one before… That’s super cool!’ With slightly less cargo space than Long Johns or Trikes, this option is perhaps not as practical, but it turns heads like nothing else. And when allowed to tilt, it feels like a normal bike, only a bit wider. However, carrying children is not safe because of the proximity of the wheels on either side.

Electric or not

I had been skeptical about e-bikes for years, but I love them now. For years I have been riding fixed gear, single-speed, road, and sidecar bikes, and loved it. But after commuting more than 10 km one way every day, in the evenings I felt like not wanting to commute much more, perhaps needing to take a third shower too. With an eBike I estimate that my yearly mileage has grown by 30-40% just because I never need to think whether I want to ’go there’ on a bike, I just do it because it’s just as fast and convenient as a car. So if you aim to live car-free, sweat-free 5000+ km per year everyday life then yes, go electric.

So how to choose the right cargo bike

Firstly, if you’re even considering a cargo bike, you’re already doing the best thing possible for your health, the city you live in and the environment in general – cheers to this! Next, think about what you plan to do with the bike – daily length of the commute, how hilly or windy is your region, what will you carry.

Choose Trike if: commute is up to 5 km / 3 miles one way and the road is not too hilly/windy and not too bumpy. Or if you need to carry 3 or more children, speed is not an issue and you want to share the bike with your partner.

Choose Long Tail if: your only cargo is a bag that can be strapped to the frame or a child on a child seat.

Choose Sidecar if: you want to stand out or advertise your business and you do not need to carry children.

Choose Long John if: you want a bike that feels like a normal bike and goes fast with enough cargo space for 2 children and space to spare.