Cargo Bike Faceoff
Posted on 21 March 2016
Cargo bike of royalty: Princess Mary of Denmark
Here's a very typical scenario for many bike shops. You want to try out these cargo bikes but you're scared they won't sell. So, you bring in the cheapest variety as a litmus test only to find that they don't sell because people actually want something safe and investment-grade. You quickly conclude that the market is not there rather than accepting that the customer is actually sophisticated (much like people who spend thousands on a road or mountain bike). When you're about to spend $1000+ on anything, we hope you do the research. And, at Curbside we do the research. Heck, we fly to Europe, visit bike factories, and watch what people use - which certainly beats going to bicycle trade shows in Las Vegas. Well, we go to those too.
Cargo bikes are not unlike todays baby strollers, they are carefully-considered products with hefty price tags that demand discernment. And, since at Curbside we carry not just one cargo bike brand but several, we can put them all under the microscope.
So, what to look for when buying a cargo bike? The answers are:
- Outdoor storability
- Impact Resistance
- Weight & Efficiency
- E-assistance (which we answer questions about here)
Bad weather requires a good bike.
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 persistent problem in Holland as well, where private garages are pretty much unheard of. A walk-through Amsterdam at night reveals thousands upon thousands of cargo bikes locked up to metal poles with big heavy chains. Holland is good testing ground for cargo bikes. Close to the salt water of the North Sea, the Dutch also get a lot of rain and freezing - which they handle by pouring salt. Hmmm, sounds familiar!
The problem facing most white-label cargo bikes emerging from China (like Birota or Wike), is that their frames rust, their parts rust, and their boxes rot almost immediately. To defeat this a cargo bike requires a chip and rust-resistant frame. That means a company needs to take finishes seriously. Chip resistance is best accomplished by powder-coating the frame - a process where the paint and frame are charged with electrical currents to create intense adhesion. All of the bikes we sell are powder-coated. And, if the frame is steel then rust resistance is usually some form of heavy-duty zinc undercoat (or galvanizing) under the paint, both used on Babboe and Nihola. As for the wood, the Babboe bikes we carry feature European marine-grade plywood. You could literally build a boat out of it. Hey, you could build an amphibious cargo bike! Or, you could just store your bike outside and worry less, which is really the point.
Babboe: offerings in three wheels or two
A cargo bike is meant to be safe, and safety in the city has to do with two usually polarized dynamics: stability and handling. Usually you choose one or the other. The issue of stability is really nothing more than a matter of two wheels versus three. Three wheels plant a wider footprint across three points and is therefore more stable. Two-wheeled models achieve stability by increasing the length of the footprint. You can see this, for instance on bikes like Babboe and Urban Arrow (which feel very stable at cruising speed), but not Bullit, which rides like a sports-car (a very fun sports car!). However, a footprint across three wheels will always be more stable than a footprint across two, and there's no changing the fact that three wheeled bikes are more stable. However, that third wheel will add extra drag (see: weight, below), which matters if you're doing longer rides or have some hills. But, of course, an e-assist (as found on the Butchers & Bicycles) would immediately change this.
Butchers & Bicycles. Yes, you can definitely handle it.
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.
Two wheeled bikes (like the Urban Arrow, Bullit and the Babboe City) have remarkable handling because of their independent front-wheel steering. The front wheel moves with the handlebar via a long steering rod, so it feels like a regular bike (especially the Bullit which assumes a longer commute and positions the rider in a performance position). And despite their wheelbase they have remarkable steering radius. Fun to ride too.
Three wheeled bikes like the Babboe Curve, Babboe City and Christiana Bikes are all in the "ice cream bike" variety. These all have a very cleverly placed pivot below the box which means you're steering the the whole box, not just the wheels. It does feel more unwieldy but then again, many people are fine with this, because good lord these bikes feel safe. And they are.
And then there's the Danes. Curiously, in Holland most people carry kids in a two-wheel and cargo in a three wheel. The Danes do the exact opposite. Their cargo bikes are two-wheeled affairs that are devilishly speedy. Perhaps the Danes carry less cargo and make more trips - kind of like a North American bike courier. Perhaps the Dutch like to make less trips with more goods - kind of like a dump truck. We don't know. But, the Danish three wheeled cargo bike is a thing of remarkable innovation. Like other three-wheeled cargo bikes, they are stable. But, unlike Dutch cargo bikes they also have independent steering - the box doesn't move.
Nihola is the company that invented this clever idea, while Butchers & Bicycles (so named for the meat-packing district they are located in) one-upped the Nihola with a independent tilt-steering three-wheeler. The idea with the Nihola is that you get the perfect balance of stability and handling. Butchers & Bicycles, meanwhile, is aware that you're not always doing short-burst chores on a cargo bike and may actually want to take the kids out all day for some fun (or you have a longer commute). The longer the ride, the more performance the rider needs, otherwise only the kids are having fun - and that's not fair. The Butchers & Bicycles features a 400W Bosch e-assist that minimizes the added cargo weight and best of all, has tilt steering that lets you smile as much as your kids. But, there's another rationale behind Nihola and Butchers & BIcycles, and that recognizes that after you drop the kids off at daycare the bike is ridden empty and now needs to become efficient on your way to work. While the Dutch own multiple bikes the Danes tend to own one, and that means the Danish cargo bike needs to be as enjoyable to ride unloaded as loaded.
However, one quick word between Nihola and Butchers & Bicycles. If you want a bike where you can keep your feet on the pedals while standing still, the Butchers & Bicycles isn't for you. Like two-wheeled cargo bikes it needs one foot on the ground as well as a tiny bit of speed before things feel 100% stable. So, while the handling may be arguably better than a Nihola, the Nihola still wins for overall stability. If you're a confident bike rider already, the Butchers & Bicycles is probably calling you. If you like the idea of zero learning curve: Nihola.
WEIGHT & EFFICIENCY
Nihola: a light bike for heavy cargo.
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 bike is 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 squirrelly 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 impact resistant other than wood. In Denmark, both Nihola and Butchers & Bicycles use polycarbonate sheets, the same impact-absorbing material used in hockey rinks. And, perhaps the most clever company of all is Urban Arrow, who use a EPS foam box, the same stuff used in expensive 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-of-the-best in 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. So, while pre-weighting a two-wheeled bike makes sense, it does makes the bike more work to push (unless, of course you have an e-assist). And, while three wheeled bikes have more drag, they are much lighter to push.
Bullit: low on space, high on speed
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 Babboe Curve or Big. This is why they tend to be our best-selling bike for businesses as well. 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.
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 in last place. While it has a clever locking glovebox, iPhone dock station, and a door so you no longer have to lift kids out, it has space in the box for two small kids, one big kid and one small kid, but two big kids gets a bit tight (a childseat on the back is an easy solution). Many urban families tend to be no bigger than 1-2 kids, so this may not be remotely objectionable. But, there's always the the issue of price.
Urban Arrow: gas for a year or fun for life.
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 $8500 for the hill-flattening e-assist model. But wow, it feels worth it.
The Urban Arrow is next. It really is the best two-wheeled cargo bike on the market with a thoughtful approach to materials (aluminum frame, EPS foam box) and the same mid-drive e-assist 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, has slightly more stability with a much shorter wheelbase which gives it the upper hand, but then, some people just like two wheels).
Nihola is next in line. It really sits in the sweet spot between bikes 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 only thing that truly stops this bike from competing with its higher priced cousins is the lack of a mid-drive e-assist.
The same is true for the 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 $2999 and peak at $3500 (all prices in Canadian).
|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||$3500+||High||Low||Excellent||High||Light||Low|