What is a Cargo Bike?
Why Are Cargo Bikes Important?
Inevitably, a lot of people ask us: “What IS a cargo bike?” In the strictest definition a cargo bicycle is, “A human powered vehicle designed and constructed specifically for transporting loads…” (1) and “…with a large container attached to it that sometimes has its own set of wheels.” (2)
Cargo bicycles can take many forms, some with the same relative size and footprint of a regular bicycle and others that exceed the standard shape and size of a regular bicycle. A good way to conceptualize what a cargo bike is, is to imagine every iteration of a cargo bicycle as a modified and otherwise extended version of a regular bicycle. A regular bicycle that has been modified with spaces, areas and platforms that facilitate the storage of a relatively wide range of stuff (cargo) which has been designed into the bike in such a way that transporting this cargo is not as encumbering to the rider as it would be without these features. To illustrate this point further, take the example of a regular bicycle with a front or rear rack installed onto it. Is this technically a cargo bicycle? Well yes, but we often do not think of it this way because it is very limited in the amount of stuff it can comfortably transport and the kind of stuff that can be accommodated by this design. Nevertheless, a bicycle with a rack is still more capable at carrying and transporting cargo than a bicycle without a rack is. Take this idea of growing the capacity of a regular bicycle to transport stuff into larger, burlier and more sophisticated proportions and designs and you get the many iterations of the cargo bicycle.
But why transport kids or cargo by bicycle? We see the cargo bike as the natural conclusion when you take bicycle technology seriously as a legitimate and revolutionary form of transportation. As it did in the 1930’s before the sordid history and proliferation of affordable automotive trucks began. (3) (4) (5) But then,why take bicycle technology seriously as a mode of transportation, especially if the technology to move larger and heavier payloads of goods and people over larger distances in a shorter time already exists in the proliferation of cars, trucks, buses, planes, etc.?
To answer this question we need to first evaluate our common, every day, taken-for-granted notions of energy usage in the contemporary world. Bicycle advocates, many bike people and some environmentalists often take for granted the conclusion in one study done by S.S. Wilson simply titled “Bicycle Technology,” which demonstrates that a human being on a bicycle is the most efficient mode of transportation in the world (animal kingdom included). 6 More recent studies continue to support his general conclusion which observes the profoundly magical energy-efficient capacity of the bicycle to transport people and cargo over distances. 7
Talking about efficiency is important here because as denizens of urban landscapes we take for granted the proliferation of infrastructure for electricity, petroleum etc. We use these forms of energy almost mindlessly in that we can plug in or fill up without thinking about where this energy is coming from. In essence: it comes from somewhere else for our expenditure and when we consume and use energy in this way, we become detached from its cost and consequences on the world. It is easy enough for us to plug in our phones or computers, fuel up our cars with gas or charge them up from the electrical grid and use these technologies to go to work and otherwise live our lives in this system, but it is incredibly hard on the world, many of its inhabitants and their natural systems. This is not to say that this is the fault of the average everyday person. Destructive extractivist practices of the contemporary world and its capitalist systems are those responsible for destruction of the world, change in global temperature and unprecedented ecological collapse. We bring up the efficiency of bicycles as compared to non-human powered forms of transportation not to shame the average person, but in order to shed light on the greater systemic issues of how we extract, consume, use and otherwise conceptualize how energy is used across the board in daily life.
(A bike in the middle of being refurbished at LA’s own Bicycle Kitchen)
We do not like to claim that bicycles will save the world. When the bicycle is greenwashed in this way, the true revolutionary potential of bicycle technology is covered over in a veneer of technological saviorism. More people on bicycles is a good thing, but simply adding more bicycles into an already congested system completely defeats the point. Rather, when we think of bicycle technology, we perceive a philosophy of responsible human practices that can be applied to other domains of life in late stage capitalism. It’s not so much the bike itself, but the wider efficient, equitable and responsible practical philosophy of life it stands to represent.
We advocate for bicycle technology in the form of cargo bicycles because we feel that the pace, lifestyle and community that can be built around a bicycle-centric urban landscape, as opposed to a car-centric landscape, is more efficient, equitable, accessible and healthy (for both ourselves and the world’s systems). To change these systems in order to have a bicycle-centric human environment, changes would necessarily have to occur across the entire spectrum of local and global systems to accommodate this change. If we set the pace of everyday life to the more slowed-down rhythm and practical travel distances of the bicycle, the whole organization of urban communities and beyond would be radically different and, we argue, contribute to a more equitable and just society. This is what we are advocating for, not just the bicycle, but for the world a bicycle centric society could be. In order to achieve any sort of functional bicycle centric society, the cargo bicycle and its proliferation is a necessity. Which is the crux of why Re:Ciclos exists and works to create more access to this amazing technology.
(Note: A normal day during the open hours of the Bicycle Kitchen serving the public to access a free/low cost bicycle maintenance DIY/DIT workspace).
Aside from efficiency: equity and accessibility are keywords within the philosophy of bicycling advocacy. The bicycle since its invention and throughout its lifetime have been a technology to aid the economically disadvantaged (source dandy horse, 8 suffragettes 9 etc). We advocate for the cargo bicycle because it exponentially increases the bicycles effect of accessibility and equity when it comes to urban mobility. Economically, bicycles and cargo bicycles provide a relatively low economic burden and efficient means of moving through the urban landscape. Community Bicycles Projects around the world, like LA’s own Bicycle Kitchen 10 , were established out of the observation that urban mobility is tantamount to social mobility. Bicycles require less initial investment to obtain, lower cost of maintenance and repair, lower barrier of entry to self-repair, require less space for storage and do not require purchase of gasoline to power. Overall they have a much lower economic burden on their users. Cargo bicycles on the open market however have a much higher barrier for entry easily costing 2,000-$5,000. Cheaper models are beginning to emerge on the open market for example the Clydesdale cargo fork by Crust Bikes ($325-345) 11 , but even this is still a barrier of entry and is not the standard for cargo bicycles. Given the standard price of cargo bikes on the open market, if one cannot afford a car one still may not be able to afford a cargo bicycle.
(Pictured above is a Long Jane in progress, going on its first test ride. See the salvaged materials used to construct the bay)
Cargo bicycles greatly increase the capacity for a cyclist to achieve most errands for daily life in an urban landscape. Doing laundry, getting groceries, getting kids to school or transporting any sizable object a good distance (more bicycles?). Attaining a bicycle centric society might also be a more practical goal than is commonly realized. In 2017, data collected by the Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy found that, “…the majority (59.4%) of [household car vehicle trips] were less than six miles,” and that “…95% [of all vehicle trips] were under thirty miles.” 12 Creating more availability of cargo bicycle technology could allow that majority of trips cited above to be done by bicycle. Then when combined with the rise of the electrical motor system, possibly even more of those household trips.
Cargo bicycles allow for a cyclist to have a more practical life in an urban landscape without an automobile. Given this and the prohibitive cost of cargo bicycles, Re:Ciclos was started to address this disparity which disproportionately inhibits access to cargo bicycles for those of whom it could actually make a real difference in their lives.
How we Make Our Cargo Bikes
At this early stage of our organization and operating on funds from grants, we work with a skeleton crew to design, fabricate and assemble different forms of cargo bicycles out recycled materials. We use salvaged and donated metal, donations of bicycle frames and parts and have a partnership with the Bicycle Kitchen to gain access to additional bicycle frames and parts.
We are currently growing capacity for our internship program where we strive to teach youth fabrication, design and mechanical skills as they assist in our work.
(Pictured is Yulissa, our intern for the fiscal year 2022. Cleaning up some welds for a rack she’s building)
We use recycled materials because of the abundance of bicycle trash in the urban landscape that would otherwise go unused. We take bicycles and parts that no one would want to fix and use, give them new life in a different form as a cargo bicycle and pair them up with people in the community to use as they will. Rather than contribute to the over congestion of stuff and contribute less to extraction of resources, we opt to work with what is available to us as “waste” in an urban landscape.
We also use simple methods and tooling. We employ a $200 Harbor Freight flux core MIG welder, angle grinders, hand tools and handmade fixtures to build durable and reliable cargo bicycles. We opt for simpler methods and minimal tooling because we want to create a lower barrier for entry for our interns and encourage others to do what we do as well. This is one of our solutions for creating more access to cargo bike technology.
Models/types of cargo bikes that we currently make.
We make several models of cargo bicycle in order to serve the varying needs and storage capacities for our clients. Cargo bicycles come in varying ranges and sizes: some are a good deal larger than a regular bicycle with a higher carrying capacity but can be more difficult to store for some living situations without a safe place to store the bicycle or if stairs are involved. So we make other comparable cargo carrying capacity bicycles that fit the same footprint of a regular bicycle for those who live in an apartment or up a flight of stairs etc. Any of our bicycles can be retrofitted with an electric motor system increasing its versatility and potential range.
The Long Jane (aka known as the Long John or Bakfiets)
The Long Jane is a mainstay of cargo bike design and has the highest carrying capacity of any of our cargo bicycles.
- With one large bay in the center of the frame, large bulky objects are easily stored and transported. Oftentimes we use one of ours to transport other bicycles from one space to another. But are great for laundry, groceries, dog food etc. Anything large, heavy and/or bulky.
- This model also has the advantage of being able to transport children or pets. Which is often used this way in other countries and in some parts of the U.S.
- It is a large bicycle. Can be cumbersome and difficult to move in tight spaces.
- It is almost impossible to carry up a moderate flight of stairs. So if your living situation does not have adequately safe ground level storage it is most certainly not the right fit.
The Cycle Truck
Our model with the smallest carrying capacity. The cycle truck is a 26” bicycle with a bay extending in front of the bike with a platform placed lower in the frame, which is accommodated by a smaller front wheel.
- Handles like a regular bicycle
- The same length of a regular bicycle, the cycle truck can fit in all the same places that bicycles are stored.
- Heavier than most standard bicycles, it still can be carried up stairs or fit inside an elevator
- With the bay placed lower on the bike than where a rack would be installed on a regular bicycle creates for better mobility and balance during transportation
- With the platform built into the frame, the carrying capacity is increased exponentially over a rack and also provides for better stability.
- Does not carry as much as a larger capacity cargo bike like the Long Jane, LongTail or Mr. T.
- Cannot accommodate the same large or bulkier materials as a Long Jane
A design which doubles the carrying capacity of the Cycle Truck, the MR.T employs two 20” wheels and platforms extending off the front and the rear, and reinforced with a tube or two passing through the main triangle.
- Handles like a regular bicycle.
- Still the same footprint of a regular bicycle like the cycle truck, the MR.T can fit anyplace bicycles are stored. Likewise it can be more easily carried upstairs and/or fit inside elevators.
- Doubles the carrying capacity of the cycle truck with two reinforced platforms.
- With two platforms instead of one provides the ability to distribute the weight across the bicycle, creating more balance in cargo loads.
While it does not have the capacity to carry bulkier items like the long Jane, the MR.T compensates
this by creating space to carry longer linear material by being able to strap them lengthwise across
two racks (pictured below):
(note the linear material laid across the frame and fastened down)
- It is almost impossible to carry up a moderate flight of stairs. So if your living situation does not have adequately safe ground level storage it is most certainly not the right fit.
The Long Tail
Another classic of cargo bike design, started with Xtracycle’s “Free Radical,” our take on the LongTail is a miniature model. The LongTail has an extended rear end that allows for a larger, built-in rear rack than can normally fit on a regular bicycle. Two oversized panniers can be strapped to the sides of the rack. This versatile model allows for a mixed style of cargo carrying capacity without sacrificing too much storage space.
- A relatively large cargo storing area, the LongTail can carry a number of different items between the two panniers or on top of the rack.
- The front end of the bike is the exact same as a regular bicycle and so handles just like one.
- The extended wheelbase offers the best riding stability of any of our models with or without a load.
- The storage capacity on the side of the bicycle and lower to the ground also contributes to the immense stability of this model.
- Like the MR.T with more careful fastening, the Longtail is capable of carrying linear material across its rear rack and behind the bicycle.
- With a footprint less wide than a LongJane with its large central bay, the Long Tail is easier to store than its front loading counterpart.
- With a regular front end, a more traditional bolt on rack can be installed on the fork for additional, albeit lighter, loads.
- With the storage bay consisting of two separate panniers on either side of the bicycle, the kind of cargo this bike is capable of carrying is more limited than other bicycles such as the Long Jane. Bulkier items such as dog food or dogs themselves do not fit as well in this bicycle.
- Like the LongJane, this model has a larger footprint over a regular bicycle, which can potentially make it more difficult to store in certain living situations.
A note on electric bicycles
While we understand the current trend of electrifying bicycles – and we are more than happy to install them for our clients if they want to purchase one – we advocate and encourage people to use human locomotion. Our approach is the mindful and appropriate application of technology.
We feel strongly in the mission of more efficient transportation practices, and while the electric bike is certainly more preferable than a car, nothing is cleaner than a human powered cargo bicycle. At Re:Ciclos we build with reclaimed and recycled materials, and this is because we are mindful of waste and global extraction processes. We have a self-conscious approach on how to best use what is available when we can rather than opting into ways which can contribute to more potential waste in our systems. There is already an abundance of bicycle waste in our systems which we have access to restore or repurpose. Electric systems with their lithium ion batteries present possible new forms of less-easy-to-recycle waste products. Not to mention an electric bicycle still runs on energy potentially generated by less than earth conscious sources, albeit significantly less than electric cars and especially fossil fueled cars. We also encourage regular bicycles because of its health benefits to body and mind, which gets significantly lost in electric bicycles.
That being said, we understand the immense usefulness of electric systems for transporting ever larger loads, traveling farther distances with less effort while still being more environmentally conscious and not to mention vastly cheaper overall than a car. And in the battle for safer, more environmentally conscious cities, we opt for one less car every time. All this is to say, if you can make do without an electric system, then please do that. If you ARE going to adopt an electric bicycle, then consider that bike being a cargo bike. An electric cargo bike is potentially the best technology to replace cars especially in the sprawl of Los Angeles. The kind of revolution they can potentially offer our cities is incredible and should not be overlooked. This is, again, all about the appropriate application of technology. Please see the video linked below for a very well done video by “Not Just Bikes” to hear their wonderful argument for the electric bakfiet as a car replacer. 13
(6) S.S. Wilson (March 1973). “Bicycle Technology”. Scientific American. 228 (3): 81–91. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0373-81
(7) (Wilson, David Gordon; Jim Papadopoulos (2004). Bicycling Science (Third ed.). The MIT Press. p. 44)