A bicycle built for three (plus groceries)

Good for carrying both people and packages, the cargo bike is enjoying a revival


For passersby, the sight of a man pedalling an odd-looking bicycle down busy Spadina Avenue in Toronto must have seemed more apparition than reality. People stared as they passed John Dimaras and his two passengers, a friend and his young son, sitting on a padded bench inside the large plastic compartment set between the two front wheels. They were out for an evening ride and to drop off the friend before heading back for bedtime.

Dimaras is one of a growing number of Canadians who have bought a cargo bicycle this summer so they can move about with both packages and passengers. In Vancouver, Mark Wilson, manager at Rain City Bikes, has sold twice as many of the oversized bicycles as he did last year. In Calgary, a city where sprawl is a barrier to commuting by bike despite the city’s network of trails, interest is growing, said Sean Carter, owner of BikeBike. “It’s got people thinking about how they can reduce their car usage. Maybe you can’t go car-free, but you can go car-light,” he said.

In Toronto, where you can spot the bicycles hauling, more often than not, children as well as stuff, Eric Kamphof of Curbside Cycle has sold all the cargo models he had imported from Holland this year. Now demand is high enough to bring over more. “People are obsessed with the fact that you can cycle with kids and groceries,” he said. “It’s nothing short of a paradigm shift.”

There are many varieties of cargo bikes: adult-sized tricycles with the cargo in the rear; three-wheelers like Dimaras’s with the two front wheels sandwiching a box; regular-seeming bicycles with an extra-long rack at the back to which you can attach a heavy load; bikes with a sturdy rack in the front to which you can bungee bags or even boxes.

Then there is the Long John, which is the strangest-looking, because the front wheel is located several feet out from the handlebars. In between is a box designed to carry inanimate or living cargo. The handlebars control the front wheel via a long mechanical arm that runs beneath the cargo hold. Though they appear ungainly, riding one is as easy as, well, riding a bike. The frame may be long but balancing is simple and the machines turn corners nimbly. At first, it is odd to steer the satellite wheel, but it is more of a challenge to the mind than the body. The Long John arrived soon after the bicycle was invented, in the late 19th century. But it fell out of use and has experienced a European revival only in the last decade, said cycling advocate and blogger Herb van den Dool.

The people buying cargo bikes are predominantly young families who aren’t necessarily cyclists, said Carter. The reason for their spread is not necessarily climate change or gas prices, said van den Dool, citing surveys that show that environmental reasons are not generally what prompt people to cycle. Rather, it is exposure to something new. “If they see a woman in a skirt biking, they think if she can do it, why can’t I? Especially if they see a woman in a skirt riding a cargo bike.”

Mari Rossi and her partner purchased a Long John with a box—called a bakfiet, or box bike, in Dutch—when their daughter was six months old. They live in Toronto and don’t own a car. When they installed a car seat in the box and Rossi started cycling with her daughter, she was euphoric. “I joke: let’s get into the minivan,” she said.

Emily Chan, who is five months pregnant, also travels by cargo bike with her husband and their four-year-old, even in winter. “People often say when you have a family, you need a car,” she said. Instead, they recently purchased a specially designed electric motor to attach to their cargo bike. It gets them up the big hill near their home.

At around $3,500, cargo bikes don’t come cheap (though a $1,500 model is available in Calgary). But those who ride them think they are a bargain. “They are not expensive. A car is expensive,” said Kamphof. The bicycles are fuelled by your lunch, and built well enough to last decades—possibly a lifetime, he said.

And there is the fun factor. While more and more people are using the machines, they are enough of a rarity that people turn to look. “When we are biking, a ton of people always wave,” said Dimaras.

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