Precious Cargo – How Parents are Using Cargo Bikes as the New Minivan

We often ask community members in Santa Cruz County, “What are your barriers to biking for transportation?” When we do this, we commonly hear answers like “cars and traffic.” And from those who are parents, we invariably hear, “I have kids.” Kids are, for the most part, dependent on their parents for getting around. This means being shuffled to school, sports, friends, daycare, and everywhere else. With a list like that, it might be easy to think that a car is the only way to do it all…but, for a growing number of parents around the world and right here in Santa Cruz, cargo bikes are changing that narrative.

We have several families here at Ecology Action who have effectively made the shift to cargo bikes and are replacing a lot of car trips by biking. I was curious how the cargo bike, kid-hauling, and car-light lifestyle was working, so I caught up with a few coworkers to see what it’s all about.

Jenn + Darren – Two kids, Cargo Bike: Rad Power Bikes Radwagon

Andy + Taryn – One kid, Cargo Bike: Tern GSD S10

Aaron + Mel – One kid, Cargo Bike: Tern GSD S10

Why choose a cargo bike over something like a bike and trailer?

A trailer eats up space and affects the ride by being an attachment and not part of the bike itself, while cargo bikes are designed to carry the weight and move everything as one unit. The cargo bike rides better overall. Another issue is that the bike trailer is at or below the vehicle’s wheel and bumper height, so the higher elevation position for the kiddo on the back of the cargo bike is preferable.

Does the pedal assist e-cargo bike make it all work?

The answer to this is a big YES. The pedal assist definitely makes carrying heavy loads for a long distance or going up hills more appealing. Pedal bikes with trailers get to point where they have limited abilities as kids got bigger. The e-cargo bike has opened the door to new possibilities. Not only does the pedal assist help with the little hills along the way, it can quickly and confidently accelerate from a stop sign, which feels valuable from a safety standpoint. When fully loaded with dad, mom, kiddo, and gear, the motor really makes it a more enjoyable riding experience rather than a heroic feat of strength for every block you pedal.

What lifestyle adjustments have you had to make?

The cargo bike has helped Jenn stay out of her car and get on her bike WAY more, and it has become the go-to vehicle for local travel with the kids. For Andy and family, 95% of their trips together out of the house are on the Tern. The cargo bike has enabled them to commute, do grocery trips and other errands, AND drop off Sebastian at day care, not to mention increased local adventures like biking to trailheads and to the beach. For Aaron, the adjustment has been in the morning routine, fitting in more time to take the scenic and safer route to daycare and then work. It takes more time, but everyone wins!

Do your kids like the cargo bike?

Across the board, the answer is a YES! For Andy and family, it makes ordinary days feel extraordinary, allowing their kiddo Sebastian a rich sensory experience, interaction with neighbors and animals, and getting to play “I spy with my little eye.” Aaron’s kid, Arlo, absolutely loves the cargo bike and how it turns getting from point A to point B into an adventure. He’s learning the way of the bike by observing and riding with dad. Arlo’s classmates are excited to see the cargo bike in action, too! For Jenn, her kids have tons of fun, and it makes every trip to the store exciting!

What has been challenging about using the cargo bike for kid hauling and commuting?

There is a learning curve and certain limitations to the cargo bikes. Two kids on the bike can make it top-heavy and hard to maneuver. Some cargo bikes are built around a small wheel size and frame, which offers greater stability. The cargo bike is also long and heavy, so storage can be cumbersome. Taking the kid on the cargo bike isn’t universally awesome for all parents, and there is a range of comfort about safety on the road. If you and your spouse are not on the same page, working together to find that common ground is key for long-term success. It’s also hard to hear with the wind in your ears, so be sure to explain that to your kiddo and consider taking stops to let your kid explain their story to keep them engaged. In addition, talking to your small kid while biking can be hazardous.

What have you liked about adding a cargo bike into the routine?

Everything! I love how easy it makes carrying groceries and the kids. While taking extra-long bike rides and feeling confident, I can get to places quicker if needed by using the pedal assist. The versatility of these bikes is tremendous. Beach? Check. Swim practice? Check. Groceries? Check. Farmers’ market? Check. Firewood? No problem. Archery and fishing? Why not? Family bike camping? Bring it on.

What do you recommend to parents who are thinking about getting into this?

Cargo bikes aren’t cheap, but they bring so many benefits. Our cargo bike literally brought us closer together as a family, which was worth every penny in and of itself. You must consider where you’d store your bike. They can and do get stolen, which also means investing in a couple of sturdy locks.

Don’t take for granted that people see or hear you, even if you have on bright colors, flashing lights, flags, and bells. They often don’t, so make eye contact, be patient, and wave the ones who are in a hurry along. It’s also helpful to understand the geometry and center of gravity of the bike with and without the kid on the back. A flailing 40-pound kid on the back can throw you off balance.

A growing population of families are making the shift to cargo bikes as the go-to family vehicle. For a great recent review of different cargo bikes, check out this article on Bicycling.

After a community screening of Motherload during Bike Month and an engaging panel discussion with a great cast of characters made up of cargo bike parents, fabricators, the mayor of Santa Cruz, and the director of the film – it was clear that cargo bikes are making it possible for parents all over the world to leave their cars at home (or sell their cars) for biking wherever they need to go. It’s a movement.