The Car-Replacing Power of Electric Cargo Bikes
  • Electric cargo bikes are becoming more popular due to their heavy hauling capabilities and ability to replace cars for everything from shopping and deliveries to carrying children.
  • “Chores and trips that would be tedious or mundane by car become fun and healthy outdoor excursions.”

Of all the quotable lines in the cult classic movie “Repo Man,” one strikes me as the funniest--and most poignant--as a lifelong bike lover who has survived many instances of road rage. “The more you drive,” Miller tells Otto while philosophizing over a trash can fire, “the less intelligent you are.”

It’s a good-natured ribbing and cultural critique for a car-dependent nation where long commutes, gridlock, air pollution, traffic fatalities, rising carbon emissions, and the expense of motor vehicle ownership call into question our automobile addiction.  

Thus my passion for bicycles--and one type in particular: the electric cargo bike. All bikes and e-bikes have the capacity to replace car trips, but none more than electric cargo bikes. They are two-wheeled family minivans and pedal-powered delivery trucks.

Hauling dirt and harvesting vegetables with the Tern.

Sales of electric cargo bikes are surging, most notably in Europe where purchases of e-assist cargo bikes grew by 60 percent in 2019. Sales of all categories of cargo bikes (both electric and traditional) are growing at more than 50 percent annually in Europe, with Copenhagen alone having more than 40,000 in private use. And the size of the electric cargo bike market in Germany is forecast to hit $545 million by 2031.

My wife and I, who have no children and are thus freed from the safety concerns of pedaling kids on Seattle streets, are firm believers. For the past year, we had a Tern HSD S8i on loan from a friend. It changed our lives for the better. 

Camping, Shopping, Gardening and More

In the midst of the pandemic last summer, Katie and I deliberated taking a car-camping trip to the COVID-free safety of the woods. Instead, we loaded up the Tern and a second e-bike and pedaled 11 miles across Seattle to the West Seattle ferry terminal, where we boarded a ferry to Vashon Island and enjoyed a long weekend of riding, glamping, and outdoor adventure--no motor vehicle necessary. Read our blog post about that trip.

Katie points out the benefits of electric cargo bike glamping on Vashon Island.

The camping trip is just one example of how our year-long experience with the Tern helped us drive less. We grocery shopped, gardened, hauled large items, and even delivered Christmas presents on the Tern.

Ho ho ho. Loaded up and ready to deliver gifts on a drizzly Christmas morning.

All electric bikes have the ability to flatten hills, extend your range, and get to work without sweating, but for families or individuals seeking to drive less, no category of e-bike enables the car-lite lifestyle more than an electric cargo bike. Chores and trips that would be tedious or mundane by car become fun and healthy outdoor excursions. And due to Seattle’s traffic and parking woes, these trips sometimes take less time than by car. 

I owned a non-electric Yuba cargo bike for several years and loved it. If I lived in a flat small town with no traffic, I’d be happy plodding along at low speeds with a non-electric cargo bike. But we live in Seattle. We have to take the lane and power up steep grades while hauling loads. Charging up Seattle’s hills while carrying 100 pounds of cargo (the Tern is built to carry up to 375 pounds) or a week’s worth of groceries feels like a superpower.

We also spend a pittance on gas and car maintenance. The average cost of car ownership, for vehicles driven 15,000 miles, was $9,561 in 2020. We are also mindful of climate change and the fact that transportation—primarily from motor vehicle use—is the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States, Washington state, and Seattle. 

Front Loaders, Longtails, Kid Carriers, Trikes

There are a wide variety of styles, from Dutch “bakfiets” style models with the cargo hauler positioned in front of the rider, to long-tail models that have an extended wheelbase and long rear rack with the ability to carry oversized panniers. Many models can be accessorized for carrying children or even adult passengers. They can also be outfitted for use by businesses. 

In Europe, a growing number of delivery companies and postal services are employing electric cargo bikes. In Seattle, the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab has launched a logistics hub downtown, where goods can be loaded onto electric cargo trikes for “last-mile” delivery--reducing the need for trucks and delivery vans. 

Several years ago I participated in a film shoot in Berlin that used an electric cargo trike as a platform for the cameraman.

The rapid growth of electric cargo bikes in Europe is due in part to government subsidies and incentives. Similar subsidies are lacking in the United States, although Washington Bikes pushed for passage of a bill that would have eliminated sales taxes on e-bike purchases, though the bill ultimately failed. Unfortunate, as the federal government and state officer financial incentives for electric cars.    

I’m not the only Cascade staff member who is an electric cargo bike believer.

“I think that what these machines really do is open people up to ways of creatively solving problems without the use of traditional motor vehicles,” says Education Director Stephen Rowley, who owns a Bullitt.  

Patti settles in for an electric cargo bike cruise on Rowley's front-loader Bullitt.

“The logistical problems of future generations will need to be solved without the easy solution of fossil fuels,” Rowley says. “Riding a cargo e-bike is forward-looking, and I feel that way every time I load my dog Patti into her cargo box and head out for the day.”

Even though it’s a cargo bike, we used the Tern for bike trips even when we didn’t need to carry cargo. I rode to business engagements on the Tern when pressed for time. People drive full-sized SUVs to work, so there’s nothing wrong with riding a larger than necessary e-bike. 

The Tern has been ridden in multiple Peace Peloton events and for Cascade-related rides.

Katie occasionally used the Tern when I rode my lightweight road bike. She carried the water, food, tools, and a full-sized floor pump in case I flatted. I got to ride light and fast with no tools stuffed into my pockets. 

Firefighters and Food Banks

The Tern was also helpful during my volunteer food bank delivery rides with Cascade’s Pedaling Relief Project, which uses bicycles, cargo bikes, and bike trailers to transport and rescue food for food banks, as well as delivering books and supplies for schools. 

Pedaling Relief Project volunteer Kiril Glushko hauls a heavy load of food on his Riese & Muller electric cargo bike.

Professionals and tradespeople who must carry tools can also benefit from an electric cargo bike. Last year, I interviewed several Seattle firefighters who bought RadWagons from Seattle e-bike brand Rad Power Bikes.

Michelle Plesko of Kirkland owns an Urban Arrow front-loading electric cargo bike. With five children, she and her spouse also own an Xtracycle cargo bike. They recently bought their 13-year-old daughter a Tern HSD. “We use them for everything. We only drive if we are going somewhere too far or not safe to take the bikes,” she says. 

Michelle Plesko's Urban Arrow is a school bus and family minivan.

The Pleskos live in a bike-friendly area of Kirkland and ride to the grocery store, church, library, friends’ homes. “These are our first mode of transportation. It’s wonderful.”

I have too many bicycles, but if I could only have one it would be a compact electric cargo bike. You can ride it fully loaded or carrying nothing but yourself, at a cost of pennies per mile. 

The big caveat is that electric cargo bikes can be expensive. The RadWagon 4 is one of the more affordable models at $1,900. Prices go up from there. The Tern HSD S8i sells for $4,100. The Riese & Muller Packster 40 costs $6,500. These can be costly machines, but they’re worth the investment for individuals with the money and space to store them--and compared to the skyrocketing prices of used motor vehicles, cost way less overall. 

The good news is you don’t need to buy a cargo model. Any e-bike will do if you attach a trailer. The Pedaling Relief Project uses Burley bicycle trailers that can be attached to nearly any bicycle or e-bike for carrying kids or heavy objects.

Bike trailers are an affordable way to turn any bicycle into a cargo hauler.

Looking to buy one? For Seattle-area residents, G&O Family Cyclery is a cargo bike specialist with a variety of high-end European brands located in the Greenwood neighborhood. Rad Power Bikes, a Cascade sponsor, offers test rides at its showroom in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, and will also schedule mobile test rides.  

Sadly, we had to return the Tern recently. We will make do for now, but we are on the hunt for an affordable model that fits our lifestyle--and small home with no garage. One thing we won’t do, however, is drive more. To paraphrase “Repo Man,” that just wouldn’t be smart.

 

Paul Tolmé's picture
Paul Tolmé