Cargo Bike Buyer’s Guide

how to buy a cargo bike

Oh hey, I’m Arleigh, aka Bike Shop Girl. Thanks for sharing your cargo bike journey with me. That’s me with one of my kids. We were standing in front of my cargo bike shop in Colorado a few days after signing the lease in 2018. The shop was very successful, but it closed in late 2020 so that my family could move back to the East Coast during COVID-19. This article was written over the years of selling cargo bikes to help customers near and far figure out what they needed.

Your Cargo Bike Journey

We get to this path of searching for the perfect cargo bike for many reasons. I’ve actually ventured down this path twice; first, as I went carless in my early 20’s, I picked up a basic longtail cargo bike conversion to supplement my grocery and camping needs. Then again, after having kids so that I wasn’t stuck driving them EVERYWHERE and losing my soul in the process.

Every customer and person I’ve talked to has had a different moment that shifted them toward the cargo bike life. Still, everyone is looking for a better and more enjoyable life for themselves and potentially their family or business.

Using this Guide to Buying a Cargo Bike

I hope this article helps you in your cargo bike journey and breaks down some of the basics of cargo bike types. Here’s the key breakdown:
1. What is a cargo bike?
2. Different types of cargo bikes along with pros and cons
3. Questions you should ask yourself when looking at cargo bikes
4. Words of wisdom

What is a Cargo Bike?

Technically any bike can carry cargo, this could include your body weight to perhaps some additional goods, but a cargo bike is designed around carrying more.

Personally, I think a cargo bike should be able to carry the primary rider and at LEAST 120 additional pounds of cargo. Of course, other people’s opinions may vary.

Typically, cargo bikes have dedicated ways to carry children and cargo, and many are more upright for city riding in whatever clothes you are wearing for the day. Oh, and they must have a great stable kickstand to keep the bike upright and steady while you load your kids or cargo.

What are the Different Types of Cargo Bikes?

Here are the main types of cargo bikes you’ll find in the United States listed primarily by availability:   

Longtail Cargo Bikes

Xtracycle Edgerunner Longtail Cargo Bike
Xtracycle Edgerunner Swoop Longtail Cargo Bike with Bosch Electric Assist

Longtail Cargo Bike Basics

Take a normal bike (68″) and extend the rear end by 12-16″ and you have a longtail cargo bike. Most of these can fit 3 children, some only 2. Your main storage is your bags which may be under kids’ legs or a front basket/rack. Some of the most popular longtail cargo bikes available are Xtracycle (the originator of the longtail cargo bike), Yuba, and Surly. Longtails are available in a few different wheel size configurations including 26″ wheels front and back, 24″ wheels front and back, 26″ wheel in the front, and 20″ wheel in the back. (Each of these has pros and cons. I’ll write another article and link it here when it is live.) This style of bike was initially developed by Ross Evans of Xtracycle. 

Longtail Cargo Bike Pros

  • It rides like a normal bike, just really long
  • Non-electric versions are the most affordable cargo bikes available
  • Xtracycle makes a “kit” called the Leap to turn your current bike into a cargo bike
  • They can fit 3 kids on most Xtracycle and Surly models. Yuba fits 2.5 kids well.
  • Most bike shops are equipped to work on these bikes compared to the bakfiets (box bike) style below. 

Longtail Cargo Bike Cons

  • Hard to transport 
  • Harder to store
  • Not as much space as a bakfiets box bike for easily carrying large loads (but you can probably make whatever you are carrying fit!)

Midtail Cargo Bikes

Tern GSD Gen 1 Midtail Cargo Bike with Bosch Electric Assist
Tern GSD Gen 1 Midtail Cargo Bike with Bosch Electric Assist

Midtail Cargo Bike Basics

Not too big, not too small – a midtail cargo bike is a bit like Goldilock’s porridge. Back in 2018, I wrote an article about the Rise of the Midtail Cargo Bike. I claimed then that midtail cargo bike will fit into more people’s lives, and I believe this has been proven true. You have one or maybe two kids but need to be able to transport the bike or maybe you don’t want a huge Cadillac longtail on the days you don’t have the kids – enter the Midtail Cargo Bike.

I believe (tell me if I am wrong) that Kona MinUTE or Work Cycles FR8 were some of the original shorter wheelbase bikes designed to carry cargo. Since then a lot of the main cargo bike players have entered the market and I would say the most popular as of writing this would be the Tern GSD. 

Midtail Cargo Bike Pros

  • Not as long or “beefy” as a longtail cargo bike.
  • Easier to transport on a hitch rack or in a car.
  • Some even fit on the front bus rack or stand on end on a train!
  • Easier to store and find parking.
  • They are designed to carry cargo compared to a normal bike.

Midtail Cargo Bike Cons

  • They don’t hold as many kids as the other options.
  • Some midtails have a very low rear cargo (passenger area) weight limit.
  • I find them unsettling in the snow with kids on the back due to the shorter wheelbase and higher weight. Not unrideable but you have to get used to it at first!
  • My three favorite midtail cargo bikes are the Tern GSD, Tern HSD & Xtracycle RFA – all 3 are only available with electric assist.

Boxed (Bakfiets) Cargo Bikes

Two different boxed bikes rolling through Denver, Colorado

Boxed (Bakfiets) Cargo Bike Basics

I stumbled upon bakfiets (which means “box bike” in Dutch; plural is “bakfietsen”) for messenger use in 2012 but it wasn’t until my first child was born in 2015 and I saw an infant carrier attached in the front of one did I realize the potential. 

When I first started looking at the box style bikes, the only ones readily available in the United States were Larry vs Harry Bullitt Bikes, CETMA, and Metrofiets – the last two were custom with very long wait times. There were musings on the internet about the Urban Arrow Family as someone I followed on Twitter had one in philly but they were not available in the US when I was looking in 2015. These days there are MANY options for bakfiets in the United States and you are seeing them become more popular for car-replacement options, especially with smaller kids. 

Urban Arrow Family Bakfiets Cargo Bike
Urban Arrow Family Bakfiets Cargo Bike

On to the basics of just BOXED bikes (not two vs three-wheel, see below) – some style of “box” or front area that a box could be attached to. Your kids or cargo are sitting in front of you which is beneficial for you to be able to see them. Some boxed bikes are designed to hold cargo, baby seats, dogs, 3-6 kids, and accessories like benches, storage, rain covers, infant seat adapters and more.

Boxed Cargo Bike Two-Wheeled Version Basics

The front wheel is attached to your handlebar steering through a steering rod, cables, or even chains. The steering can take some time to get used to but once someone masters it the bike can feel the most stable out of all cargo bikes due to the length of the bike and your cargo weight being the lowest possible.

Boxed Cargo Bike Two-Wheeled Version Pros

  • “Throw it in the box” is wonderful. You don’t have to think too much about how to pack like the Longtail or Midtails that rely on cargo space in bags or a front rack. 
  • Cargo can potentially be covered from the elements with a rain cover
  • Some bakfiets have an infant attachment device like the Urban Arrow pictured all the way at the top. The Maxi Cosi seat snaps into a suspended clip on either side of the box, much like you would snap in an infant seat to a stroller. This also allows 2 kids to still sit on the bench and put their legs under the car seat. This all works with the Urban Arrow rain cover.

Boxed Cargo Bike Two-Wheeled Version Cons

  • The steering can take some time to get used to. I have a wonderful set up for people to get used to the handling of a bakfiets 2 wheel bike and walk through people to get them started but I have heard of incidents on the first test rides.
  • They are large which means difficult to store, transport and potentially find parking at your destination if you live in a dense place with terrible bike parking.
  • More expensive base price than the longtail or midtail bikes but once accessorized they aren’t too far from each other.
  • Harder to find at shops across the country.

Boxed Cargo Trike Three-Wheeled Version Basics

Bunch Bikes TRIKE Cargo Bike
Bunch Bikes TRIKE Cargo Bike

The original style of this trike cargo bike can be found on farms decades old. The entire front half of the trike like Christiania or Bunch as pictured above turns, and the frame is independent. It is much like attaching fixed wheel shopping cart, or wheelbarrow. I hope to capture a video soon of how this works!

Other bikes like Nihola or Butchers & Bicycles have unique styles of making the front wheels articulate or turn instead of being in a fixed position to the box. 

I found most customers either love or hate the trike experience. Turning them has a learning curve but there isn’t anything to balance at a standstill which is very handy! They have the ability to carry the most amount of kids from 4-6 (Bunch makes a preschool cargo bike model!) under a rain cover. The Urban Arrow and a couple 2 wheel bakfiets can carry 4 kids but one child is on the rear rack exposed to the elements.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Cargo Bike Shopping

This will probably become a standalone article but let’s just get started! 

If you were to book an appointment and visit my shop to talk about cargo bikes I would give you a brief rundown of the bikes as I did above, and then I would start asking you questions to learn more about your life and goals. 

  • Are you looking to replace car trips or replace a car?
  • Will you have a car available if the weather is very terrible?
  • Will you be carrying humans, cargo, or what mix of both?
  • Carrying kids? How many kids do you think you may want to hold?
  • Carrying an adult? How tall/heavy and how often?
  • Carrying cargo? For business or pleasure? Does it need to stay warm?
  • Where will you be storing it at home?
  • How about at work or wherever you frequent the most?
  • What do your roads/trails look like?
  • Do you want to be able to transport it with you by car? If so, what type of car do you have?
  • Do you want to be able to take it on the train/bus/etc?
  • Do you want it to be an electric assist or not?
  • Do you bike now? What type of biking do you like to do? (Specific to handling)
  • What is your budget for the bike and all the accessories?
  • There are more that I’ll add!

Time to Test Ride and Demo Cargo Bikes

Based on all of the above questions and conversations, you should start seeking out bikes to test ride. Often you’ll ride most of the options I carry because why not? You may be surprised what you end up loving! I’ve had customers come in looking for a solo electric bike for their commute and end up buying an Xtracycle Edgerunner Swoop with electric assist. 

This is where I suggest having an open mind and not too many biases (unless it is color which I do understand!) try all the things and ask a lot of questions. Please message me if you aren’t close by and if there is something I can help with. I hope to continue to add to this article and the “Cargo Biking Basics” category!

Words of Warning for Your Cargo Bike Journey

I do want to add some warnings as you go through your cargo bike-buying journey.

If you turn to large internet forums, be wary. Often your questions are going to be answered by people that don’t have varied experience and only experience with 1, 2, or maybe 3 bikes. Shops like mine and a handful of customers across the country that have multiple cargo bikes are unique due to our passion but also experience.

Not all cargo bike brands are created equal. I’ve tried dozens of cargo bikes, motors, and accessories for hundreds of miles, sometimes thousands. I’ve had to work on them, deal with warranty issues, and know not only the bikes but what the companies behind them are like. There are companies that I have decided NOT to work with because of constant warranty issues, failures, lawsuits, and more. I do not take lightly my role in helping people potentially put the most valuable things in their life, be it their children, pets or business cargo, in my hands. I need to be able to sleep at night and I ultimately only sell or recommend products that I would put my wife or own mother on. 

More Cargo Biking Resources

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