Deciding on a Family Cargo Bicycle

 After we rented a Madsen kg271/Bucket Bicycle on vacation, our family discussed the possibility of owning a cargo bike.  We weren’t 100% sure we would buy one, but we were taken in by the “cool factor” of hauling the kids in a cargo bike, as well as the design, practicality and efficiency of the Madsen.   We envisioned a day when we would rather take the bike than the car, when it wouldn’t take any longer to get the kids in the bike than the car, and where the car would only be used occasionally, and rarely for short trips.  We also thought that it would be a healthier way to live by biking more regularly.

Here are some of the different cargo bike styles we looked at, in addition to other bike solutions:

 
  For more info, see: Momentum Magazine

 We thought about a number of factors that went into the purchase decision.  We wanted a vehicle that could transport two young kids (4 and 2) and gear in a variety of situations, today and at least over the next 2-3 years.  

Our most common use would be traveling about 6 miles each way to the kids’ school on paved roads.  This included mostly flat terrain but also a few small hills and not perfect pavement in some sections.  Some small sections of gravel, sand or dirt road would be encountered, but nothing lengthy or worrisome.  Over half of the trip was on a smooth rail trail, but we also would need to navigate streets with some variety of traffic, including city and country roads.  

We wanted a possible replacement for our car for commuting situations, and a vehicle in case our car wasn’t available.  Having something that would give us a backup in case of an automobile’s flat tire, broken car starter or (perhaps) a massive EMP would be nice.  Being a backup vehicle wasn’t at the top of our list, but it did help justify the purchase.  Our bike and trailer did this, but it was more work to get it together and get the kids into it than we liked.

We wanted to be able to transport kids and/or gear quickly and easily.  We did not want something that was made exclusively for transporting kids, but offered some flexibility in case we wanted to haul something like big boxes to the post office or a piece of furniture from a garage sale.  It would need to allow us to run some errands while still having the kids with us on the bike, such as stopping at our local farm (CSA) and picking up our (sometimes large quantity) farm share produce.  We also wanted a quality long-term investment, if at all possible.  Getting people on the street to smile, wave, and ask questions every day the bike is used isn’t a bad part of the return on our investment either!

The following were the different solutions that we reviewed:
  • Separate bicycles – More of a future consideration, this was not realistically considered at this time due to the distances to be covered, safety, and the ages of our kids.  Perhaps in 5 years, or if we lived closer to the kids’ school(s).  In any case, one of the bikes would need to be a cargo bike to meet our requirements.

 

  •  Attached Riding Co-Pilot Trailer/Bike Seat Solution tethered behind the main bike – Our daughter would probably not be ready for an attached riding co-pilot trailer for at least another year (she is now 4).  We assumed both kids were too young for this solution right now.  This was an assumption - our daughter could probably ride one, but riding regularly for over an hour a day might be a little much.  In another year or two, a solution could be for an attached riding trailer (for our daughter) and a seat on the main bike for our son (now 2).  Although we see these around from time to time, we thought this wouldn’t allow the kids to interact with each other as much as other solutions, would not allow much in cargo capacity, and was not elegant.  Perhaps this could be used as a transitional solution when riding together as a family with a parent tethering the child in such a device, but I find them aesthetically unappealing and not ideal for regular use. They are inexpensive, usually under $100.  The main bike with co-pilot tethered trailer would need to be a cargo bike anyway to meet our requirements.

WeeRide Co-Pilot Bike Trailer, $74 at Amazon.com
 
  • Long Tandem Bike for 3 or 4 people – although this might be the bicycle version of a limousine (leaving out the world of cycle rickshaws and bike taxis here), we didn’t consider it seriously for most of the same reasons as the attached riding co-pilot trailer – the ages of our kids are too young.  Plus, these would be hard to find, fairly expensive, less flexible, built for a specific number of people, possibly a custom job, and don’t have a lot of cargo capacity like a real cargo bike.  They take some time to start up and stop, and there is a learning curve involved for everyone riding and the driver managing them when starting and stopping.  It is focused on transporting people more than transporting gear, and they can get very long (making maneuvering, storage, and transport difficult).  Adding a bike trailer behind it for gear makes it even longer, although it would help increase cargo capacity.  On the other hand, this bike would give the kids a purpose and some exercise while riding around.  Plus, this bike might be more efficient since there is some help in the pedaling among multiple riders.  The big thing these may have going for them is the “cool factor” where family synchronicity looks and feels great in addition to the educational experience of riding with others in a single cohesive unit where everyone contributes.  There are not many around, so one would get a lot of looks from passers-by.  Some may disagree and think that riding one may be embarrassing (e.g. teenagers being picked up from school on one).  I can understand both sides of this.  One of these didn’t make sense for our needs, but they look like a lot of fun.

Look ma', no handlebars! (not the best example)

  • Bike Trailer hauled behind a Utility Bike or Hybrid Bike – Although they are collapsible and portable, common, most are lightweight and inexpensive (<$300), and the kids can fall asleep in them (a benefit on longer rides), we didn’t like trailers for a number of reasons.  We also have had one for a number of years and find them limiting and less practical than other solutions.  

This was our solution for the past few years, and may still be used occasionally.  It is a 2008 Trek 7.2FX bicycle ($500+), and an Advent On The Go 2-child trailer ($600 new, although we purchased ours used).  The bike is aluminum and light, the trailer is steel and heavy.  Fatter tires on the bike would probably help improve traction, but the trailer is sturdy and worked well for us. 

Here are some of the downsides of trailers, when compared with other solutions: 
  • Kids are confined and do not interact with their environment, the driver of the bicycle, or others around them as easily.
  • Trailer solutions are always going to be 2 units – a bike+trailer – requiring additional hookups to be maintained as well as 4 wheels/tires to worry about.
  • Trailers are harder to maneuver in traffic than other solutions.
  • Many trailers have a bumpy ride due to the design.  I am sure this is highly variable, but ours is an older design that is bumpy.
  • Kids are close to the ground and away from the bike driver, plus accidents just seem to be more likely – maybe that isn’t really the case, but I just don’t like the kids that far away from me in traffic and having to maneuver a 2-section vehicle.
  • Limited in cargo capacity and load weight, but generally better than some other solutions (i.e. co-pilot trailers, tandem bikes) in this regard.
  • Heavily loaded trailers should probably have a bike with disc brakes for additional stopping power.
  • Somewhat inefficient and clunky design, in my opinion.

  • A tricycle, bike taxi, or cycle rickshaw (cargo mounted rear of driver) - Popular around the world, particularly in Asia and many large cities, these are used daily as taxis and transport instead of cars (which are often too expensive for most people in many 3rd world nations).  I classified these mostly as bikes with frame-attached cargo in a single unit (a single crank-driven bike without tethering a trailer), with the cargo in back.   
Double Seater, a custom tricycle - Reference: Lightfoot Cycles and CargoCycling.org


Classic Pedicab - Rickshaw Tricycle Taxi Bike, about $3500 for a base model.
For more info, contact: http://www.pedicab.com/

Some considerations:   
  • Bike taxis or cycle rickshaws are great for bike-friendly places, but not ideal for our commute.  They are probably fine for cities that cater to them, but we need something more efficient, quicker and more maneuverable.  
  • The smaller ones like the custom Double Seater version above might work for a lot of people if distances are shorter.  Finding or building ones like this might be a challenge, but I didn't look into it extensively.
  • Prices vary significantly, particularly with custom built tricycles.      
  • There are endless versions available… just visit an Asian city.  They can be found worldwide, but less so in the USA due to the transportation infrastructure and prevalence of automobiles.
  • These seem a little safer if one goes upside down (flips over) since they have a roll bar of sorts.  They are also wider in the back where one can easily install flags or reflective materials.
  • Three-wheeled versions of this bike with the cargo/kids in back were OK, but the Madsen had a more efficient design with similar functionality for our needs.  We would probably choose a tricycle for off-pavement terrain, if we lived in a city with shorter travel distances, or if we were older and less proficient bicycle riders. A 2-wheeled version would be preferable for us for any distance longer than a mile or two since we assumed it would take less energy to pedal heavy cargo.
  • Cargo (people sitting inside) have a luxurious and stable ride, possibly with some rain protection.
  • In general, these are larger, heavier, and possibly less efficient than what we were looking for.  However, the Double Seater tricycle (above) might work.  Unfortunately, ones just like this are hard (perhaps impossible) to find in our area.

  • A Bakfiets, front-cargo tricycle, or Long John bike (cargo mounted front of driver) – A Bakfiets is Dutch for “Box Bike”, and used as a generic and brand name.  A Long John bike has a low-slung frame in front of the rider and can have a box mounted on this low section of the bike.  I can imagine taking my kids to school on one of these, dressed like a chauffeur (but maybe not more than once or twice):
  

I classified these mostly as bikes with frame-attached cargo in a single unit (a single crank-driven bike without tethering a trailer), with the cargo in front.  These are elegant, stylish, have European roots, often well designed, stable, have good capacity, and the kids could interact with the driver.   They seemed to be among the “coolest” solutions.  I could even build my own customized version of one of these and take some pride in ownership.  A tricycle version would make a great farm vehicle or even a small business at a county fair.  I liked these, and one of these in a 2-wheeled version (such as the Babboe City Cargo bike below) would have been our 3rd choice overall.  However: 
  • These seem to be better suited for city travel than mixed distance travel – these would be great if we had a different living/commuting solution, say in a European bike-friendly city like Copenhagen or shorter distances to travel with mostly bike-path or bike-lane travel.
  • The turning and maneuvering of these seemed more difficult than the Madsen, but I didn’t actually try one so I can’t say if this was a legitimate concern.  I can’t imagine turning would be easier than in any bike with the kids in back, but talking with the kids in front might be worth it.
  • Overall, a bigger vehicle than most other solutions.
  • Wider than other solutions, but cargo capacity is good.
  • They are relatively expensive; a nice one was at least $2.5k.
  • Building my own was not realistic at this time.
  • A three-wheeled, larger and more stable version was not as efficient as a 2-wheeled solution for the distances we wanted to travel regularly, but would be nice for stability in unpredictable terrain. 
The following Nihola Tricycle seemed to be one of the top-end, more luxurious Bakfiets (that is not custom built with wood).  I like it much better than a Pedicab bike taxi, and assume it would be more efficient (wind drag and rain would be handled worse with the Pedicab, for example).  These retail over $3500.  It is a more realistic purchase, compared with the custom wood Bakfiets above.
 

  • A 2-wheeled Long John such as one of those below seemed almost as good as a Madsen kg271/Bucket bicycle, but with the kids in front.  I think the kids would like being in the front (in the Long John) almost as much as in the back bucket of the Madsen.  The Madsen bucket seating is slightly higher up, providing the kids with more visibility and interaction with the surroundings.
  • I think I would feel less comfortable riding one of these over 20 MPH (such as down hills), compared with the stability I feel where the kids are in the back, particularly the 2-wheeled version.  This is mainly due to the design of how this vehicle turns and what I am used to.
Here is the beautiful Babboe City Cargo bike, around $2500



Here is the Birota Long John, a slightly different design at $1500 and up.


  • Longtail Bike with Separate Seats for Kids – this is an efficient and organized bike.  The price for an average model like the XtraCycle Family version is around $1700.  It is ideal for the distances we expected to travel but lacked some flexibility and cargo capacity for us.  They also have conversion kits that allow you to add a large back rack and seats for kids to your own bike (see XtraCycle web site for more info, link below).  

It would take on the job of transporting the kids and some gear quite well.  I’m sure it would handle and turn well.  The kids couldn’t sway or move around as much as in the Madsen bucket, and they are high enough to see everything around them.  However, I didn’t like the fact that this bike was a little “busy” and not as elegant of a solution as the Madsen.  At least I didn’t have to worry about the kids moving around much once they were strapped in.  Everything seems to have its place, which is both good and bad.  The “good” is that everything (including the kids) is organized.  An engineer or perfectionist that likes everything in its place would probably love it.  The “bad” is that it lacks some flexibility of what you can carry, and if you wanted a longtail and had to carry a big box on top of it without the seats you would have to remove the seats – then lose the flexibility of having the seats until you put them back.  Riding directly on the back rack is an option, but doesn’t seem as comfortable to me as a real seat with backrest.  Overall, not a bad bike at all – a great bike in fact, but the Madsen with its bucket seemed to have a slight edge design-wise for our needs.  This was our 2nd choice and was a serious contender.

  •  A Madsen kg271/Bucket Bicycle (i.e. a Longtail Bike with a bucket) – elegant, stylish, unique, stable, relatively simple, good capacity (40 gallons, 271 kg/600 lbs in bucket), kids have plenty of room and can interact with the driver and each other, room for additional kids or gear (up to 4 kids total), steering and maneuvering in traffic is easier than other designs, customizable bucket with accessories in the future, front rack available, efficient since it is only 2 wheels, priced well under $2k incl. shipping.  It puts the “horse” before the "cart", attaching the cart to the horse, so to speak.   
 Possible downsides for us: 
  • No rain or sun protection available from Madsen yet – something that most bike trailers and some Bakfiets have.  We expect the rain cover to be available soon.  Of course, I could probably build a rain or sun cover.  Having to regularly put sunscreen on the kids takes extra time, particularly when deciding between car and bike.  This isn't any different with the XtraCycle or most other designs.
  • Back wheel is smaller than the front - perhaps making it slightly less efficient but more stable and "roomier" than the XtraCycle.
  • Kids can more easily get into trouble with the extra freedom of movement.
  • See post on "Experience Renting a 2010 Madsen Bicycle" for all the pros and cons we found with the Madsen.
Here is the Madsen kg271/Bucket bicycle, at $1650+shipping.



Decision Making Time
From this list of solutions, the Madsen seemed to be the right choice for us, at least for 2-3 years.  Resale value is assumed to be excellent based on uniqueness and quality, although we wouldn’t have any plans to sell such a great utility vehicle.  Even without transporting kids, it would be a good investment since it can replace a car for many short trips.  It can hold a lot of groceries, post office packages, or other random items.  It is quick to get the kids in and out of it for trips of any length.  It would be a unique vehicle that we would be proud to own.

Purchasing a cargo bike may have some other factors that we would want to consider:
  • Any heavily loaded vehicle needs to be rated for the weight being hauled, and have appropriate safety measures in place.
  • Just as truck drivers need to be careful with heavier loads, drivers of these larger human-powered vehicles need to adhere to the rules of the road.  They need to understand that it takes longer to stop, particularly in wet weather, and that it takes longer to climb hills.
  • Potential accidents, however unlikely, need to be taken into consideration.  If the driver is at fault and takes a fall, one would want the kids to be relatively unscathed, if at all possible.  The higher the kids are up, the further they can fall.  Seatbelts are a good idea, and integrated into the designs of most of the cargo bikes.
  • The size of the kid-carrying device (on whatever cycle it may be) becomes smaller as kids grow, making most of these vehicles a little too small after a few years.  That does not mean we need to get rid of it - it is still useful as a human-powered utility vehicle, but we'll need to come up with another solution for transporting the kids.
  • Build quality for long-term ownership will need to be determined, as with all bikes and trikes.  There are not a lot of long-term reviews out there.
  • There are no nearby dealers or other owners to talk to about most of these bikes, so we may be the ones people come to for advice in our area.  We also may have to get replacement parts from the manufacturers and do the work ourselves.
  • Price of the vehicle cannot be ignored, but it isn't as important for a long-term purchase like this one.  One needs to look at overall cost-effectiveness, which requires a broader approach with quantitative and qualitative measures.
  • Having a good locking process is important, and should be methodical, easy and convenient.  It takes little time for a thief to ride off with $2k worth of bike without something to deter him/her.
  • Electric power kits may make these vehicles even more fun to drive, will likely promote more frequent use, and change the safety factors of using such a human+electric powered vehicle. (e.g. being able to get out of traffic quicker and more frequently will improve safety, but going faster more often may reduce overall safety if not careful).
  • Will electric power kits, like other electric bike, make these vehicles questioned in areas that are posted “No Motor Vehicles”?

After a few weeks of discussion and research, we decided to purchase the Madsen kg271/Bucket bike in black.  It was an easy decision for us, once we figured out our needs.  Pink wasn't our color.  We placed an order. 

Feel free to leave your comments and viewpoints below!  Do you agree/disagree with some of these points?  Do you think we made the right choice?

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

So after 2 years- how is it going?
Do you feel that you made the right decision?
Any advices as I am in the same boat?

Family Bicycling said...

The bike has been great, and is still running strong after 2.5 years. We feel certain we made the right decision by buying this cargo bike. We recently used it earlier this fall on a 2-day 40 mile round-trip to go camping with friends. We carried much of our gear in the bike with the kids in it as well. We are planning on using it more next year, and hope to get an electric motor for it. Although expensive (we are saving up), an electric motor will give us more flexibility in our trips and fewer excuses for not using the bike. The kids are heavier now, but they still love riding in the bucket bike as much as ever! It hasn't given us any unexpected issues. Madsen could focus a little more on accessories, which would be very welcome to their followers, may of whom are passionate about their bikes. In general, we believe we made a good choice with this bike, and for the price we don't think we could do much better for what we were looking for. This year we haven't had too much new to post, but we do expect next year will bring renewed excitement in using this cargo bike in a variety of ways.

Nicole said...

I'm deciding between the Madisen and the XtraCycle. My oldest is 8 and I have a 2.5 yr old. I will be traveling the same distance, but with a very large/steep hill and heavy traffic so I imagine the oldest will be with me on the bike for a number of years yet. Can you see your oldest in the basket for many years still, or do you think if you need to keep them on your bike you would move to a long tail in the next few years?

Family Bicycling said...

In my opinion, the Madsen is great for kids up to about age 7 or 8, depending on the size and ability of the kid. After a child gets to be 6 or 7, they usually like to ride on their own bike, or are starting to get a little big to regularly ride in the Madsen day after day. This determination differs greatly based on your route, and your kids' preferences and abilities. Our oldest is in the 7 to 8 range, and she still loves riding in the Madsen. I would have no problem with my young child riding their own bike on the bike path, but not in city traffic. If they can't ride on their own due to safety of traffic or difficulty of hills, then you can still keep them in the bucket, but it will be more difficult for you as the driver - they are heavier. Battery powered drive-trains assist with hills and solve that problem, but they add a lot to the price of the bike. You can add one to the Madsen. There are other bikes that allow the child to pedal along, and are overall more efficient, but usually there isn't room for more than 1 kid on those bikes (example: http://www.tandemseast.com/frames/kidz.html). The Madsen is technically a version of a long-tail, so I am assuming you mean where they ride upright on a seat behind you like on the XtraCycle (where you physically see the long tail itself). I don't consider the style of the XtraCycle an improved alternative to the Madsen, but I haven't ridden one regularly, so I cannot comment more than “theoretically”. They accomplish the same thing, just in a different way. They have a narrower profile on the road, and may be slightly more efficient, which may be preferable on your route. I don’t think strapping the child into a seat that gets mounted on the “long tail” keeps them any safer, since they are higher up. XtraCyles have less capacity than a Madsen. The Madsen is a great all-around cargo bike, but it has some limitations in efficiency due to its design (i.e. it is hard for a truck made to haul heavy loads to be as efficient as a 2WD sedan, unless you’ve got some new technology under the hood, like an electric drive-train). I love the capacity of our Madsen, and the bike is still very efficient for what it is, particularly when compared to a 3-wheeler. Hope this helps. Sorry for the delayed response.

Meaghan Davant said...

I'm deciding between a Madsen and a Babboe trike (bakfiet). I have a very small 7 year old and a 4 year old and live in D.C. so I don't think I'll feel comfortable having the 7 year old ride her own bike to school for a number of years (traffic is nuts and we're in the thick of it). I'm concerned that the Madsen, while faster, will be hard for me to control and that I will be constantly tipping it. On the other hand, I'm worried that the Babboe will be super slow/ hard to peddle around. Any advice? Thx.

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