Cargo Bike Faceoff
Posted on 01 February 2020
Riding a cargo bike through the city is a form of heightened conciousness and enlightenment. It may take a bit of a contrarian spirit to consider one (not really, they're everywhere now), but what was once a costly challenge through gridlock in a car becomes uninterrupted point-to-point ease in a cargo bike. What was once the endless search for a parking lots is replaced by front door arrival. Cars do their best work driving from city to city, but if you're negotiating short, gridlocked point-to-point intra-city distances a cargo bike will literally change the way you transport yourself.
Is a cargo bike safe? Absolutely. Barring longtail models (which we discuss below), each bike we sell is tested to absorb impacts of up to 40km/h; that's why they all have some sort of bin up front that is clad in wood, ABS plastic, or Lexan plastic. It's much safer than a child-seat or trailer, since neither of these even consider impact resistance as a feature. Unlike a child-seat or trailer, a cargo bike is designed for cities and not just recreational trails, although it can do both quite easily.
Are they expensive? A little math shows that a cargo bike is a way to spend in order to save. Operating a car costs per more year than most of the cargo bikes we sell. Consider that most city dwellers live up to 90% of their lives within 7km of home, and that most of those distances are too far too walk but also way too close to drive. A cargo bike safely links these points with less cost, more efficiency, and certainly more fun. You can keep the car, but you'll use it less, and that means less cost, a healthier life, and lots of great memories to share later on.
Cargo bikes are not unlike todays baby strollers, they are carefully-considered products with price tags that demand discernment. And, since we carry not just one cargo bike brand but several, it's worth discussing which one is right for you.
So, what to look for when buying a cargo bike? The key features are as follows:
- Longtail versus front loader
- Outdoor storability
- Weight & Efficiency
- E-assistance ( which we answer questions about here)
Longtail vs Front Loader
North America or EU?
Benno Longtail loaded up
This is a question we get asked a lot... what's the difference between a long tail and a front-loading cargo bike? The difference might be best described as the regulatory environment of Europe versus North America. In Europe, cargo bikes are required to sustain impacts of 40km/hr, which is why you'll see boxes made of ABS plastic, EPS foam, wood or Lexan plastic. In North America, no such legislation exists. In this regard, the longtail is very much a North American invention.
Why put the load in the back? After all, one of the great advantages of a front-loader is that space is carved out in the bicycle design to lower cargo as close to the ground as possible, so that if you do tip, the fall is shorter with much less impact velocity. Some ask: is a longtail really a cargo bike by definition? And, if not, what is the place of a longtail in the market?
If there is a "safety gradient" of cargo safety from a bike with a childseat to a front-loader cargo bike a longtail would sit right in between. With its longer wheelbase the extra weight of children or cargo is displaced over more surface area, creating much higher stability than a regular bike. And, unlike a bike with a childseat, a longtail can take significantly higher weight loads. A child seat usually has a weight capacity of 45lb max, whereas a longtail can carry up to 350lb (combined rider + cargo). That said, in terms of impact resistance a front-loader is still the best option.
Why were longtails invented? One reason is that they fit two older kids a bit better than a front-loader, although the front-loading Babboe Slim offers a serious challenge to this. But the big reason longtails were designed is for cities with minimal infrastructure; where bikes had tighter spaces to negotiate in their competition with cars. Longtails are indeed narrower than front-loaders (although the Bullitt cargo bikes offer another serious challenge here). We tend to raise an eyebrow at this reasoning. If a city has less infrastructure then this puts more burden of responsibility on the bike itself to increase safety. There's also good question to ask why a cargo bike shouldn't take up space in the competition with cars. The less space you take the more "like" a regular bike you are, and the greater chance drivers will take risks. In other words, why be timid? A front loader is the biggest "baby on board" sticker you could ever have, and in our experience - as the largest cargo bike retailer in North America - most drivers are happy to give you the room you need.
If you are interested in a longtail there is a really good reason we consider Benno the most evolved brand. With their smaller 24" wheels and wider tires, the centre of gravity is lowered for control and safety. The quality is much more to our standards than brands like Yuba, and they look nice too!
Bad weather requires a good bike
Urban Arrow in it's natural habitat
The problem with cargo bikes is that they're big, and unless you have a garage you can't exactly bring them inside. This is a problem in Holland and Denmark too, where people have no choice but to store their bikes outside year-round. A walk-through Amsterdam at night reveals thousands upon thousands of cargo bikes locked up to metal poles with big heavy chains. Holland and Denmark are good testing grounds for cargo bikes. Close to the salt water of the North Sea and Baltic Sea, both countries also get a lot of rain and freezing - which they handle by pouring salt. Hmmm, sounds familiar!
There are good cargo bikes and there are bad cargo bikes - and much of this is tied to all-weather outdoor storability. A bad cargo bike will have frames and parts that rust quickly and cheap wooden boxes that rot. A good cargo bike requires a chip-resistant overcoat and a rust-resistant undercoat to protect when chips and scratches do occur. Chip-resistance is accomplished by powder-coating the frame, an expensive process that creates strong paint adhesion by charging the frame and paint with electrical currents. All of the cargo bikes we sell are powdercoated. And, all of the cargo bikes we sell are also primed with some sort of rust-resistant undercoat, whether this is phosphate conversion coating, electrophoretic deposition, or galvanizing. In short, they're built for perpetual outdoor storage.
However, only a steel frame can rust, and that's why companies like Butchers & Bicycles, Bullitt and Urban Arrow prefer to use aluminum. Aluminum is lighter than steel, and also less flexy - and you can feel that stiffness especially on the longer two-wheeled bikes. The aluminum frames used on these brands employ larger oversize tubes to increase strength and weld-surface. They cost more money, but it's nice to have a lighter bike if you have longer rides - and the natural rust-resistance is a definite bonus.
The box also has to be weather-resistant, and this is true for all of the cargo bikes we sell. Urban Arrow uses lightweight EPS foam, Butchers & Bicycles use ABS plastic, Nihola uses Lexan plastic, and Bullit uses a honeycomb aluminum lattice. All of these boxes offer superior impact resistance and are made for all-weather outdoor storage. But, if wood is used it must be marine-grade. Brands like Babboe and Workcycles use fully immersible plywood that can weather decades of outdoor storage. We've seen cheaper brands use cheaper wood and the rot creates sharp edges in the wood that can catch small fingers and it's just not safe or nice to look at. Again, a quality cargo bike is one that can (literally) weather anything.
One thing to note: all the cargo bikes we sell have terrific resale value, so the more outdoor storable your cargo bike is, the more durable it is, and the more durable it is the more resale value you will get!
Babboe: options in three wheels or two
Nihola Family loaded with your most precious cargo
A cargo bike is designed to be safe, and safety in the city has to do with two often polarized dynamics: stability and handling. On most bikes, you generally get one or the other, rarely both. On a cargo bike, you really need some balance of both.
A three-wheeled cargo bike will always be more stable than a two-wheeled cargo bike. The only exception is the Butchers & Bicycles, since its tilt steering requires a foot down at all traffic lights, much like a two-wheeled cargo bike. Otherwise, a three wheeled cargo bike plant a wider footprint across three points thus gluing bike and rider to the ground. These bikes are the most approachable due to their low learning-curve.
Two-wheeled models achieve stability by increasing the length of the footprint, or wheelbase. Bikes like the Babboe City or the Urban Arrow Family both have long wheelbases, and both feel nearly as stable as a three-wheeled bike once the bike is under speed (say, 6km/hr and over). Below speed, however, the bikes do require a bit of 'oversteer' or extra handling to keep stability, and while gaining this stability entails a learning curve, the learning curve is easy for most to master. Then there are bikes like the Bullitt and Butchers & Bicycles. These bikes were built completely around highly responsive handling, and once you've mastered the learning curve, the bike feels like it's wired to your brain.
So, why would someone accept a learning curve in order to balance stability and handling? The answer often lies with those who have longer commutes or want to do longer rides with the family on weekends. These bikes feel more like a 'regular bike' and tend to have much higher efficiency (although, an e-assist on a trike gives you the same efficiency with no learning curve).
In sum, you might say stability and handling always involve a learning curve, and how much learning curve is a matter of approachability. A three-wheeled bike like a Nihola is the most stable and has practically zero learning curve, and that makes it remarkably approachable. On the other hand, bikes like Bullitt or Butchers & Bicycles depend more on rider experience for stability, and to faciliate this, they give the rider as much responsiveness as possible. It takes a bit of a learning curve, but if you have the confidence, hey, it's half the fun.
Butchers & Bicycles. Yes, you can definitely handle it.
Butchers & Bicycles MK1E: tilting towards you
Cities are made up of tight 90 degree turns and tons of variables that require constant steering (parked cars, pedestrians, other cyclists) - and that means handling is just as important to safety as stability is.
In terms of approachability, the Nihola cargo bike offers the finest out-of-the-box stability and handling on the market. A Nihola requires zero learning curve, and due to its light weight, is remarkably efficient for longer rides. The brilliance behind the Nihola's design is how it seamlessly combines the stability of a tricycle and the handling of a regular bicycle. Let us explain.
Most three-wheeled cargo bikes like the Babboe Big and Babboe Curve are stable, but they do lack something in the way of handling. This is because it's not the wheels that steer, but the entire box. The rider has to throw their weight into the handlebars as they literally swing the box left or right. It's fine for short rides, but on longer rides it can feel a bit burdensome, especially considering that these boxes are made of heavy wood. In this respect, Nihola is a game-changer. A Nihola uses independent steering, so it's not the box that moves, but only the front wheels. It's little wonder that Nihola is our best selling cargo bike brand and a solid investment. That said, the Babboe models do tend to be more economical, and they fit more kids in the bin for the money too.
Two wheeled bikes like the Urban Arrow and the Babboe City feel stable but require that the rider has a bit of a handle on things. Both bikes tend to feel a bit wobbly under slow speeds, but once you've figured out how to handle it (a couple of hours), its terrific - especially if you need a bike for longer rides since a two-wheeled bike is more efficient (one less wheel on the ground takes away a lot of drag). If you want this kind of efficiency with the stability and handling of a three-wheeled bike then consider an e-assist. We'll discuss more about e-assist bikes below.
Then there's bikes like Bullitt and Butchers & Bicycles. These bikes don't have natural stability but instead provide stability by giving the rider maximum handling. These bikes are all about handling, and they're an absolute thrill to ride, especially over long distances. The Bullitt is a short-wheelbase two-wheeled bike that was first designed for cargo-deliveries in Copenhagen. It's DNA is tied to rapid package delivery and that gives it performance in corners and acceleration that takes a bit of learning curve, but feels like an extension of your body once mastered.
The Butchers & Bicycles takes handling even more seriously. It's a three-wheeled cargo trike with tilt-steering and that means it's very different from other trikes. For instance, if you don't put your foot down at a stoplight, you will tilt right over. In this respect, it behaves much like a two-wheeled cargo bike. Except, the wheelbase is way shorter, and the two wheels up-front provide unparalleled traction, giving the handling a layer of safety and confidence unmatched even by Nihola. But, this needs some context. Yes, if you're doing deep high-speed turns on a Nihola it can go up on two wheels. This won't happen on a Butchers & Bicycles. And, while it's obviously not safe to be doing high-speed corners with kids in a dense city center (which is Nihola's argument), it can be a bit scary to turn a Nihola under speed when you're riding a recreational bike path to work or on a day off. If you can handle the short learning curve, the Butchers & Bicycles is remarkably versatile.
But, what if you want the independent steering of a Nihola for dense city traffic but the traction and cornering of the Butchers & Bicycles for recreational bike paths (or longer commutes)? The answer lies with Babboe and their new and amazing Carve model. The Carve takes the same independent steering found on the Nihola and Butchers & Bicycles but unlike the Butchers & Bicycles, it lets you turn the tilt-function off. With the position on "off" the Carve feels like a Nihola. You can keep both feet on the pedals at a stoplight and you get the same independent steering found on a Nihola. However, switch the Carve to "on" and the bike has the tilt steering of the Butchers & Bicycles. And, because it features an e-assist like the Butchers & Bicycles, its the perfect family bike for those long weekend adventures.
In sum, Nihola is the most approachable of the three-wheeled bikes while the Babboe Big and Curve come as a close second. In third place are the Babboe City and Urban Arrow, both of which are the most approachable of the two wheeled variety. But, if you want something that takes handling seriously - especially at higher speeds and longer distances - the Butchers & Bicycles offers a trike that's absolutely sensational while the Bullitt does the same in a more minimal, two-wheeled platform. And then there's the Babboe Carve. This bike is remarkable. It rides like a Nihola in the bike lane and a Butchers & Bicycles in the bike path. It may lack evolved materials like the aluminum frame and ABS box seen on the Butchers & Bicycles but in its functionally it's the most evolved.
Weight & Efficiency
Bullitt: a light bike for heavy cargo.
Bullitt: everyday high-performance
The difference in weight could once again be the difference between the Dutch and the Danes. The Dutch tend to overbuild things as a national obsession, maybe its because the whole country is surrounded by man-made dikes - so perhaps disposability is not the national ethos. The frame on most Dutch cargo bikes are built like a cannon. And, in the case of Babboe, the marine-grade wood isn't exactly light.
However, there is a wisdom to this weight. A Dutch cargo bike is pre-weighted for stability. This is especially true for two-wheeled cargo bikes: the more weight, the more stability. Dutch cargo bikes come already pre-weighted to some degree, that means they don't feel as unstable when they're unloaded and feel safer and safer once more precious cargo is loaded.
The Danes, who use three-wheeled bikes tend to think differently. They know that their three-wheeled cargo bike have more drag, so they make every step to make them lighter, which also makes them more efficient. But, this can be tricky, since one of the reasons Dutch bikes weigh so much is because they use wood boxes. And, they use wood boxes because cargo bikes must meet standards in Holland for impact resistance (see below). Impact resistance means there is a wall around the kids, protecting them from impacts (usually 40K/hr and under).
But, there's lots many other materials that are as impact resistant as wood, if not even more-so. For instance, Nihola uses Lexan plastic, the same impact-absorbing material used in hockey rinks while Butchers & Bicycles use the same ABS plastics used for impact resistance in automobiles. And, perhaps the most clever company of all is Urban Arrow, who use a EPS foam box, the same stuff used in certified bicycle helmets.
Finally, there is the matter of frame material. Most cargo bikes today still tend to be steel. That's great but it does mean that the frames need good finishes if they are to be outdoor storable (see above). The other option is aluminum, which is much lighter than steel and does cannot, by nature, rust. The trick with aluminum though is that it has to be pretty thick, lest it dent. Examples here are Butchers & Bicycles and Urban Arrow, each of who represent the best-in-class for three-wheeled and two-wheeled cargo bikes respectively.
The net result is that a bike like a Babboe, with its steel frame and wooden box, comes close to 130lbs. That's without an e-assist. To compare, you can get an Urban Arrow with an e-assist and that will only weigh 94lbs (easily the best two wheeled cargo bike on the market). Meanwhile, both the Nihola and Butchers & Bicycles comes in at a mere 70lbs - nearly half the weight of a Babboe. And the lightest of them all? No doubt about it, the answer is Bullitt.
So, while pre-weighting a two-wheeled bike makes sense, it does makes the bike more work to push, unless you have an e-assist. Because, when you have e-assist, it doesn't matter how heavy the bike is (although a heavier bike will drain the battery a bit faster). We'll discuss e-assists in more detail in a bit.
Bullit: low on space, high on speed
Babboe Carve: big on space and features
Well, you knew this was coming didn't you - you are after all buying one of these things to carry stuff. But, how much?
Nothing carries stuff quite like the Nihola 4.0, the Babboe Carve or the Babboe Big. This is why these bikes tend to be our best-selling bike for businesses. In both a Curve or Big you can fit four kids and then mount a child-seat in the back. These things are Dutch SUV's. Amazing. In the Nihola 4.0 you can also fit four kids, but unlike the Big or Curve, only the wheels steer (not the whole box) so it's much easier to steer with heavy loads.
Next in line would be the Babboe City and the Nihola Family. It comes very close to its three-wheeled brother and sister and is great if you have 1-3 kids (third goes on a childseat). The Urban Arrow comes in third place.
The Butchers & Bicycles, alas, is pretty snug. You can fit four kids, but they all have to be toddlers, otherwise two kids fit fine. The Bullitt is perfect for the single-child family. It fits one kid, maybe two tiny ones, with just enough room for a grocery run too.
We all need support
The Urban Arrow: pedal assist - right in the pedals
E-assist and cargo bikes go together like bread and butter. A cargo bike, after all, is always heavier than a regular bike, and while adding weight to the bike may add to the stability, the weight does make it more work to pedal - especially if longer distances are involved, or hills. Electric assist isn't cheating - you still have to pedal - it's just that the e-assist helps you pedal.
E-assist bikes have had their own genesis to arrive at where they are today, and there are multiple generations of systems on the market today, some more evolved than others. Because these e-assists are pedals-assists they need to sensors to collect data and computers to process and adjust power-feed. That's how a pedal-assist is different from e-scooters. On an e-scooter you have a stand-alone motor that is not connected to the pedalling in any way. On a pedal-assist there is a torque sensor on the crankset and two units measuring RPM's, one on the crankset and one on the wheels. Together these collect data and provide power assist. These bikes feel like they're reading your mind. It's incredible.
E-assist bikes began with front motors and we advise to stay far away from these. If the computer senses that you need assist while you're slowing down in a wet corner the chances are high that you can slide out. It's just not safe.
From there e-assist systems moved to the back wheel. This is a terrific place to put the motor but they limit your ability to use a low-maintenance internal gear hub, which is the essence of a European bicycle drivetrain.
Mid-drive systems are the evolution of e-assist systems. The pedal-assist motor is right there, attached to the pedals, and you can use any drivetrain system you want, whether internal gear hub or derailleur. The companies involved also show just how mainstream e-assist have become (it's nearly 40% of the market in Holland). Names like Yamaha, Bosch, and Shimano ensure that you'll always be well supported and they ensure our staff are supported too, with great training and certification.
With an e-assist you can pedal your cargo bike up hills at speeds close to 32km/hr. The range is upwards of 100km on a single charge, and the battery takes a short 4-5 hours to charge. If you prefer the stability and handling of a three-wheeled bike but are concerned about the reduced efficiency over distance and hills, an e-assist solves this problem immediately. If you prefer a two-wheeled model, the e-assist once again flattens hills and makes distance a joyful thing. Like we said, they go together like bread and butter!
Babboe City: loading up the family vehicle
Imagine transportation as relaxing
Ok, hold your breath. These things do cost money - especially if you want one designed to last (which all of ours do). The Butchers & Bicycles, with its remarkable tilt-steering, is explicitly out to do battle cars with more sensation, safety, and excitement. It costs as much as a good used car at $9000 for the hill-flattening e-assist model. But wow, it feels worth it. The Babboe Carve, loaded with many of the same features is $10000 and uses the ultra-powerful Yamaha e-assist. Bullit's, with their zippy frames and highly tuned performance are pricey, but worth every cent. If you want a cargo bike that rides like your road or mountain bike - and arguably even more fun - this is it.
The Urban Arrow is next. It really is the most accessible and modern two-wheeled cargo bike on the market with a thoughtful approach to materials (aluminum frame, EPS foam box) and a mid-drive motor that gets our full approval. Given that it requires the same foot-down approach when stopped as Butchers & Bicycles, it's arguable that these bikes really compete for the same customer. (Butchers & Bicycles does, however, assume the rider is sportier and tilts the rider more over the handlebars - the tilt steering is also far more performance focussed).
The Nihola's are next in line. They sit in the sweet spot between brands like Butchers & Bicycles and high quality (but heavy) bikes like the Babboe. And, while the Dutch are happy to buy Babboe because thrift and quality trump many of the concerns above, the Danes aren't afraid to spend a bit more money for better design. A coffee costs $6 in Copenhagen, and a cargo bike costs $4000. Perhaps this is why the one bike you see the most in Copenhagen is the Nihola Family. The e-assist models are easily the best balance of cost, function and safety and are by far our most popular bikes.
Then there are the economical Babboe bikes. They model the Dutch love for thrift, and thrift is a good thing! Thrift means spending money to save money, but not too much money. It's like buying a Honda. Good quality, made to last, but no Land Rover - which most people can deal with. The Babboes start at a modest $3500 and peak at $12000 (all prices in Canadian).
We hope this helps! And remember, we can ship the cargo bike of your dreams anywhere in North America! Make sure to check out our Ride Out Of the Box Shipping program!
|Cargo Bike Comparison:||Price||Outdoor storability||Stability||Handling||Efficiency||Weight||Space|
|Wike Box Bike||$1500||Low||Low||Low||High||Heavy||Low|
|Larry vs Harry Bullit||$4500+||High||Low||Excellent||High||Light||Low|