If you’re just starting your cargo bike search, it’s exciting to discover the huge number of bikes that are available. It’s easy to get lost in hours of clicking around, taking in all the options. You’ll find all kinds of eye candy on Kickstarter and Craigslist, or popping up on your Ad feed. And gee is Google translate (sort of) useful for exploring interesting options out of Europe and Asia!
So why doesn’t/when will Vie carry all of those awesome looking other bikes? When we started Vie, our goal was to simplify the process for customers by choosing the best options for the Bay Area. We narrowed down a long list of possibilities using three criteria: procurement/maintenance/build, performance on the street and storage. We’re always on the lookout for useful additions to our collection, but you can be sure that the bikes that we do carry meet all of these criteria.
1. Procurement, Maintenance & Build
When my husband and I were first searching for a cargo bike for our family (pre-kids), we actually flew up to Portland specifically to try out some bikes at the very awesome Clever Cycles. My mother happened to be on the trip with us, and clearly thought that we were nuts to take such extreme measures to try out … bikes. We ended up buying an unassisted old school front carrier from an excellent local SF shop. We then waited many months for it to arrive. After we had a second child and moved up a steep hill, my husband spent about a year figuring out how to add an electric assist. His process involved graphing out the power to ensure it would be enough and designing and producing a custom metal bracket to attach the electric assist system to the bike frame — no big deal, right? He also dedicates hours every month to fine tuning the system he installed because it’s constantly out of whack and he happens to be handy and enjoy this kind of tinkering (sort of … most of the time). We also have to plan a few days a year purely dedicated to taking the bike in for a tuneup to the shop we got it from so that it’s well maintained. We love the shop and the quality of the maintenance work, but not the amount of time it takes to bring it to and from the shop. We’ve learned the hard way that, unfortunately, most other local shops are less than enthused to see us bring that bike through the door for a tuneup.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I discovered that ease of procurement and regular maintenance are really important when it comes to a family bike. If you love the look of a bike only sold overseas or outside the Bay Area, be aware that you’ll be paying a lot to bring it over in any sort of timely way, and then may have a lot of troubles maintaining it, particularly if it relies on components and/or an electric assist system from companies with no U.S. presence. This may be fine if you’re handy and willing to do a lot of DIY maintenance.
Similarly, before starting Vie, I personally dabbled with cargo bikes with compelling price tags; they were made with low grade components not designed for getting kids up and down San Francisco’s hills, which are especially hard on bikes. I vividly remember coasting down outer Noriega with both my kids on board, headed to Devil’s Teeth bakery, panicking because my brakes weren’t stopping the bike. I had to use my feet. NOT a happy memory. Even the high quality front carrier I mentioned above has given me moments of alarm because the brakes aren’t up to SF hills (and absolutely can’t be converted despite extraordinary measures we’ve taken to solve this problem); I can no longer ride this bike in the rain with both my kids because I can’t get it to stop.
My husband and I spent a lot of time having to research and upgrade key components on our cheap price tag bikes to get them to be reliable. I once fell over at an intersection with both my kids on board a bike because the brake upgrade we had just installed stuck in the “on” position and I couldn’t move the bike. We were at a full stop and no one was harmed, but I was really upset and my kids were in tears (for a few minutes). I had assumed that swapping in a brake upgrade at a shop I trust would be no problem, but the reality is that unproven component-frame matches don’t always work. For Vie, we have spent a lot of time obsessing over whether a potential bike addition will be hardy enough for the Berkeley or San Francisco hills, as well as the recommended upgrades we might offer and how to best ensure we’re pro-actively maintaining our customers’ bikes to prevent hair raising bakery trips.
Incidentally, one of our other co-founders recently took a trip to try out a cargo bike currently being advertised for a mind blowingly low price online, and confirmed our suspicions that it falls into the category of low quality bikes that do/should not give you peace of mind when riding with your children. No doubt that bike will do very well with sales thanks to its price, since most people won’t be able to tell how poorly it’s made. [Insert deep sigh of worry for those customers.]
This initial set of criteria rules out almost 80% of the cargo bikes on the market.
2. Performance on the Street
Always keep in mind that the actual people who design cargo bikes are by and large responding to their personal riding conditions where they live. So if they don’t live somewhere that looks like the Bay Area, the bike design — however cool looking — may not be comfortable for our local streets. For example, who doesn’t love the look of all the cool Euro parents riding around on their trikes, looking happy and at ease? But those trikes were developed for a very different biking environment.
While we were in Copenhagen, I made my husband ride various trikes out to the suburbs of Copenhagen, where my brother happens to live. (I had quickly discovered that I absolutely hated riding the trikes, and Jake was kind enough to take on the job.) There were actual moderate hills along the way! So I got to watch my husband white knuckle the bikes up and down the slopes, trying to control for the wheel wobble that came with any sort of decent speed on said hills. Turns were lugubrious. I was constantly having to stop and wait for him to catch up. The only exception to this experience was, of course, the Butchers and Bicycles MK1. That finally had the agility we had come to expect and love from a bike. I could imagine riding it down Market Street in San Francisco. But overall lesson quickly learned: it may look good and make perfect sense for certain cities, but be inappropriate for our city.
The other exception was the Bullitt, also made in Copenhagen — by very tall, friendly Nordic men who were fed up with slow trikes. Though the basic design concept is rooted in Danish history (see: the Long John), the Bullitt has become extremely popular in the U.S. because it jives so well with how many current bikers in our country want to bike. It’s agile but light (but sturdy), and just a ton of fun to ride. It’s first and foremost a bike. I have nothing but joy taking this bike at speed up and down hills and around corners. Thanks to its success the Bullitt has become well supported in the U.S. with a local supplier/distribution system that does a good job of taking the best parts of the bike and translating it into something that will actually perform well in the Bay Area. I test rode various Bullitt imitators while abroad and nothing felt as purely awesome. The imitators focused too much on gimmick and not enough on maximizing the riding experience. Incidentally, you’ll see a lot of gimmick bikes on Kickstarter.
The U.S. is better known in the cargo bike world for its companies that focus on rear carriers. Some of the most successful companies are, unsurprisingly, based in the Bay Area. They grew out of the California, though not San Francisco, lifestyle of beachy/mountainy bikes that let you go camping, to the beach, etc. As the founders of those companies have aged and had children, their designs have also evolved. Their bikes are increasingly geared toward true family needs — strong brakes, great weight balance on the frames, built-in child seat adapters, powerful electric assists, storage for groceries, etc. It’s been great to see these companies evolve, find success and expand into new markets. The smart companies are listening carefully to feedback from the markets they’re growing into and thinking more and more about the specific needs of families going up and down hills (as well as those riding on the flats in snow). And their bikes and company setup are evolving accordingly. They think about the details, and the details matter.
Be wary of companies that don’t have expertise in cargo bikes. We’ve had far too many people come to us looking for aftermarket help to solve for the fact that a rear rack doesn’t actually fit Yepp seats, as promised. We can only conclude that the people running the company that made the bike never bothered to ride it with kids.
We only work with companies that clearly design for families, and that put emphasis on the riding experience. The bikes we carry are fun up and down hills, on the flats, around the corner, heading to the beach, going to the skate park, fully loaded with groceries, etc etc. If you ride them on Market Street in San Francisco, you’ll feel special but also totally comfortable.
The final and extremely important part of this criteria is gearing and power support. The Bay Area’s steep hills require that we rule out all but a few bikes because they either lack an electric assist option or have an underpowered e-assist. I recall riding an underpowered bikes on loan to me up the steep hills to my home. I would get home, red and sweaty and eager never to see the bike again. I have no problem with exercise — lord knows I need it! — but I do have a problem with getting home feeling wrecked and having to deal immediately with two kids who need me to help them physically and emotionally transition back to being home. Let’s just say it’s hard to respond and not react to a misbehaving kid when you can barely breathe. And rushing a toddler about to soil their underwear up to the toilet when your legs are jelly takes more internal fortitude than I possess.
This criteria rules out about 10% of the remaining cargo bikes.
Part of the reason that big trikes are so popular in Copenhagen is that they fit in with the way that people store bikes in that country: on the street and in large internal courtyards. They’re by and large not trying to jam them into overstuffed garages or narrow apartment gangways. This different urban form also explains why both the Butchers & Bicycles MK1 and Bullitt mid-drive options have batteries that have to be removed for charging. Almost no one can park their bike near a power outlet in that city.
Pretty different from Bay Area living. Here we have to consider whether the bikes we carry are going to be relatively easy to fit in garages and apartments, and fit into crowded sidewalk bike racks. One of the many things that I love about the Bullitt is that the one kid box is actually incredibly narrow and easy to slink into tight spots. I adore the Haul a Day for its ability to be stored vertically. During my tenure with a much longer and heavier rear carrier a few years ago, the large elevator at my job broke. So I spent months having to take this enormous steel bike vertical in order to get it up and down on the small elevators. It got old fast.
There are some otherwise exciting cargo bikes that we have declined to carry because they are relatively cumbersome when it comes to storage in the Bay Area. We regularly hear our customers talk about the adjustment of maneuvering the Spicy Curry while walking, which is a relatively small and easy to maneuver longtail. They get it — very quickly — but it’s a reminder to us about the important physical and mental adjustment to a cargo bike. Too much bike is just too much for most new cargo bikers in the Bay Area, especially if they are women closer to 5′ than 6′ and living on a steep, inconsistently paved street.
This criteria rules out another 5% of the remaining cargo bikes.
We are left with about 5% of the incredible variety of cargo bikes out there. The bikes that Vie carries all have their pros and cons for specific families, but we feel confident that they represent the best options for the SF Bay Area. There’s really never been a better time to be shopping for a family bike!