Cargo Bikes and Stone Tablets Pt2

Alright, last week I laid down a system for categorizing cargo bikes, as God had commanded me. Perhaps the system doesn’t quite recognize every little nuanced variation of cargo bike, but we can’t have a different subgenre of cargo bike named for every butcher, baker, and candlestick-maker who pedaled his way to work.

What we needed was a way to get a handle on the types of bikes so we could discuss how the major variations compare against one another. Longtail cargo bikes get the majority of media coverage right now, but are they the right bike for everyone… all the time? Let’s look at where the new generation of longtails come from and maybe talk a little about their potential.

Without getting too deep into it, longtail largely started with Xtracycle developing the Free Radical system that modified a standard single bicycle into a longtail cargo bike. The idea came about from founder Ross Evans’ travels in underdeveloped world countries, where he thought about how to make the humble bicycle increase people’s employment opportunities. The Free Radical system creates a bike, with a long wheelbase and a sturdy area to strap cargo, that can transverse dirt roads well. Before the Free Radical, the only way to dramatically increase the carrying capacity of a bike would be to attach some sort of trailer to the bike. But a trailer introduces a number of handling issues to a bike. By putting the cargo section between the rider and the rear wheel, the Free Radical makes the bike a lot more maneuverable and shorter overall compared to a bike plus trailer. Xtracycle likened a bike equipped with a Free Radical to a bicycle analogue of a sport utility vehicle, coining the term SUB or “sport utility bike.”

Since then companies such as Surly have worked in partnership with Xtracycle to use their racks and other accessories on pre-made, unitary longtails. Other companies such as Yuba and Kona have developed similar longtails outside of the Xtracycle system. Compared to other cargo bikes, longtails do really well at carrying very large loads on unpaved surfaces. They can also transport any passenger that can keep his/her balance on the rear deck. Longtails can carry loads for which most people would consider a petrol-burning vehicle necessary, thus longtails are very popular among the car-free contingent. Surf the various cargonista blogs and you’ll find tons of epic transport runs, plus very detailed desciptions of complex component specs.

I think longtails definitely have their place as capable tools, but are they end all be all of cargo bikes? The issue I have with longtails is that they are big bikes that are often too mechanically complex and/or expensive to be the solution for everyone who wants to use a bike more often for load-bearing tasks.

These bikes are almost as long as tandems, trading the stoker’s crank for cargo capacity. There’s a lot of bike there. A fully loaded longtail is no picnic for a novice rider, but an unladen longtail is only nimble compared to a bike with a trailer. There is a variation of the longtail theme, called the Freight-8, that uses small diameter wheels to allow the cargo section to drop down low between the rider and rear wheel (possibly at the expense of offroad capability since big loads will roll better over dirt on larger wheels) , and it is reported to have better handling characteristics. Additionally, managing the load distribution should be easier since there is less issue of load asymmetry on the Freight-8’s load platform. This is an issue with typical longtails since the somewhat high platform dictates that you either strap the load high up or lash the it along side the rear wheel and try to balance it laterally. In any case, any longtail structure is obviously more complex than a single-rider diamond frame, which will prevent the frames from being dead cheap, but some people are tricking out their bikes to ridiculous extremes. A $5K cargo bike is not a workable model to get the average person to reduce car usage.

Plus, let’s get real. Society is not going to suddenly give up cars tomorrow and ride cargo bikes to a petrol-free utopia. Not after almost 70 years of the automobile being pampered by US infrastructure planning; it just isn’t practical for many people. A more realistic model is that we create pathways of multimodal transportation that integrate cycling. Maybe that means taking a bike onto a train, or driving to the city and leaving your car at the city outskirts while you ride your bike within the city limits. Remember, longtails are big bikes. Unless you have an SUV, station wagon, or an auto equipped with a tandem rack, you are going to have a devil of a time loading the bike in your car. As a matter of a fact, I can tell you from personal experience that I dislike lifting a longtail in any situation.

Even if you live in the city and only use one mode of transportation, you still have to store the bike someplace. If you have a garage or secure parking area, great, but if you live in an apartment building in my neighborhood, you’re gonna want to take anything of value inside. That means 4 flights of narrow stairs, and as I said, I hate lifting longtails. Do I even have to mention the problems of 2 people and a longtail in a 1-bedroom apartment?

If you operate in areas closer to what the modern longtail was conceived in, then it makes a lot of sense. Rural areas, unpaved roads, or places with wide-open roads and sidewalks to park. Certainly, if you’re going offroad with a large load, the longtail can’t be beat.

I hope to see more longtail designs in the future, maybe addressing some of the torsional rigidity issues that people have been talking about. Unlike a tandem stoker, cargo doesn’t keep itself balanced on the bike in the interests of self-preservation, so the longtail rider needs to do work against the deadweight to keep the bike upright. As a result, the bike twists noticeably from the headtube back. Also, these bikes are begging for better kickstands as a stock feature.

I aim to broaden the discussion of cargo bikes. Once a week for the next month, I’m going to talk about each of the configurations of cargo bikes I defined in Pt1.

Has anyone out there been attracted to longtail cargo bikes but been put off their size, complexity, and cost? Perhaps you did sell the car in favor of a cargo bike? Or would you be more inclined to buy a smaller cargo bike to compliment or reduce your auto usage?

(For part 3 of the series, click here)