As promised, the lede in 6 words:
Like Bakfietsen? You’ll love Urban Arrows.
I have had a couple of recent conversations with cool bike people recently that brought up something that has been in the back of my mind for a while. My feeling is that the family biking market is still pretty nascent and as a result there are mostly two kinds of bikes out there.
On the one hand you have the macho bikes. The view of family biking by companies that make these bikes ranges from, at best, detached bemusement (e.g. Larry v. Harry, which developed some basic kid accessories like a child seat and rain cover, but has never seen any need to mention them on its website or anything), to disinterest (Kona—“oh, you can carry kids on a bike?”—and Brompton, which as a company seems unaware of the aftermarket Pere child seat), to outright hostility (e.g. Surly and its new kid-unfriendly Big Dummy deck, Trek and its no-kids-allowed Transport). But to their credit, these companies put a lot of effort into (relative) nimbleness. In the universe of cargo bikes, these bikes are lighter, have better parts, are fitted with gears that can handle hills, and are safer and easier to ride in challenging conditions, by which I mean any conditions other than a flat street on a sunny day. (Okay, I exaggerate. But still.) And these bikes can go fast. Relatively speaking.
On the other hand you have the land yachts. These bikes are definitely family-friendly. They offer awesome kid-carrying capacity (even for large families), provide multiple ways to haul stuff/other bicycles as well as kids, and often have user-friendly accessories like integrated lights, step-over frames, upright seat positions, rear wheel locks and internal hubs. On the other hand, they typically weigh a ton and have a limited gear range and weak stock brakes, making them a challenge to ride on anything but the mildest of hills. And they are slow, even in the let’s-face-it-cargo-bikes-are-tanks class. I include in this category Madsens, Bakfietsen, Yuba Mundos, and every tricycle and unassisted mamachari I have ever seen or ridden.
The cargo bike market reminds me a bit of the car market in the 1960s. You could buy a station wagon (so practical! so massive! so slow!) or you could buy a “sporty” car, and hope for the best as you stuck your kids in a homespun “car seat” or harnessed them to long straps above the rear seat that offered a non-trivial strangulation risk. My mom hauled us around in a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair for years in those harnesses, because my parents believed in buying older used cars and keeping them until they literally fell to pieces decades later.
There are exceptions, and I have ridden some. On the longtail side, Xtracycle’s EdgeRunner is both family-friendly and nimble. On the box bike side, Metrofiets customizes almost all the bikes they make, so they can be tailored to weird cargo and/or families large and small, plus they start out as more-than-decent hill climbers and can be turned into awesome ones.
And there is the Urban Arrow. Thanks to an integrated electric assist, Urban Arrow turns a bike that is completely land yacht in character into something with many of the capabilities of a macho bike.
The Urban Arrow is a hard bike to find, let alone to test-ride, and the only people we know who have one bought sight unseen. Fortunately for us, Motostrano in Redwood City imports them, and will allow test rides whenever it gets orders in, if you get on the wait list. Motostrano is an interesting shop. From the outside it’s all posters of scantily-clad women draped over motor scooters, which definitely gave me pause. On the inside it offers a huge selection of assisted and unassisted commuter bikes (plus other kinds of bikes that I don’t care about, FYI). And they had boxes and boxes of bike stickers that they handed over to my kids. Pasting those stickers all over their clothes and helmets completely obsessed both kids while we learned about the Urban Arrow, and made them happier than anything else they did all weekend. We were glad that we made the trip down, which was, frankly, a not-inconsiderable hassle.
What I like about the Urban Arrow
- First, the Urban Arrow is a box bike. Not everyone loves a front-loading box bike, but I do. It’s easier to talk to the kids, it’s simple to protect them from bad weather, and the kid seating is elegant. It’s also much easier to walk front loaders than longtails because the weight is near the leverage of your arms. There is a reason that people think of—in the words of one family friend—“those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” when they think of family biking.
The Urban Arrow’s child-hauling and commuting setup is unbelievably swank. The box is made of styrofoam [update: it's not styrofoam, it's expanded polypropylene, which is evidently better--see comment below] and forms a sort of roll cage in the event that you drop the bike. The manufacturer cut out step-holes in the front to make it easy for kids to climb into the bike, and the thick styrofoam serves as an arm rest on both sides. The bench seat, which had plenty of butt-room for my 8-year-old and 5-year old, is padded (there is an optional second bench seat if you have more kids than I do). The center stand has the same rock-solid design as the best-in-class bakfiets. The bottom plate has multiple holes for drainage. It has integrated front and rear lights and the wires run through the frame so they can’t be dislodged. The chain is enclosed, so you could easily ride this bike without incident while wearing palazzo pants. For that matter you could ride it in a maxi-skirt, because it also has a step-through frame. The battery sits unobtrusively under the bench seat. It comes with fenders and an Abus rear wheel lock. It shifts seamlessly using a Nuvinci n360 internal hub. Although the Urban Arrow normally comes with roller brakes, Motostrano automatically upgrades them to disc brakes. The bike we rode did not have a rear rack, but they are available.
- This bike looks so classy. I felt like I should have dressed up to ride it. To me, a Bakfiets, with its wooden box, looks practical, but not exactly stylish, while our Bullitt looks fast and sleek. But the Urban Arrow looks… polished, to the extent you can say that about any cargo bike.
- Considering all the features packed into it, the Urban Arrow feels shockingly light. I expect big bikes to be heavy bikes, and realistically, it is in fact a heavy bike, tipping the scales at 99lbs/45kg. However people who ride Bakfietsen tell me their bikes as weigh about that much, and that’s without an electric assist. Both the aluminum frame and the styrofoam box are shaving a lot of heft from this bike, and with cargo bikes that’s all to the good, especially given that most people are going to throw at least twice the weight of the bike itself in the box, and then push it around.
The Bosch electric assist is a fully-integrated mid-drive. It is also fully enclosed, so there are fewer worries about loose wiring, and it’s designed to work with the bike’s gearing. Mid-drive assists are powerful, although not silent. As usual with this kind of assist, I noticed a slight clanking as the chain ran through the motor, but it wasn’t offensive. The Bosch is a pedal-assist in the legal sense; turn it on and the bike just sits there, but as soon as you turn the pedals, the assist is immediately there. It won’t start without you making a (mild) effort. The controller offers three speeds, and the feeling of the assist ranges from “slight tailwind” at the lowest setting to “strong tailwind” at the highest.
- Not everyone loves this, but it has a super-upright posture, for a great view of traffic. And it’s virtually impossible to slouch. My mom would always hassle me when I was growing up to “sit up straight!” My mom wants you to ride this bike.
- At $5400, this is a competitively-priced assisted box bike, although I certainly would not call it cheap. An unassisted Bakfiets is now running about $3750. An assisted EdgeRunner longtail, comparably accessorized for hauling kids, would run $4700 in San Francisco. That price difference is not trivial, but it’s not outrageous either.
What I don’t like about the Urban Arrow
- The Urban Arrow is a really big bike. Matt and I both rode it, and we realized quickly that it would not be a practical commuting bike for us in San Francisco. Matt was vehement that he would never even consider riding it on Market Street, which has a semi-random bike lane layout and many, many people competing for space in it. It would be more of a ride-in-the-park bike for us. And it is big in both dimensions—width and length. Size was a deal-killer for us when we test-rode a Metrofiets as well, and it’s a large part of the reason we’ve been hauling 2 kids (and sometimes squeezing in more) by Bullitt for almost two years—the Bullitt is narrow. If we lived in a smaller city, or a place with wider streets, or rode different kinds of routes, we’d have no problem with an Urban Arrow.
- On a related note, turning and parking the bike is a production. It is possible to make a big bike with a (relatively) tight turning radius. This is not that kind of big bike. It is probably impossible to make a front-loading box bike that is easy to park at a standard bike rack. We bought a front loader anyway, because the advantages outweighed the disadvantages from our perspective, but it can be frustrating. However if you live in a less theft-prone municipality that we do, you could just park it without using a rack by relying solely on the rear wheel lock.
- All front loading box bikes are tricky to learn to ride, because of the linkage steering. We don’t have many issues with that after riding ours for a couple of years, but on a new-to-us model, we’ll still always wobble off the start. It seems safe to assume that it would be worse for someone who had never ridden this kind of bike before. The Urban Arrow has one advantage in this class, however, and that is that the box blocks the view of the front wheel (watching the front wheel is bad, it will confuse you and make you dump the bike).
I found the handlebar layout very odd and somewhat frustrating. The brake levers required a big stretch to reach and pull. I have large hands and long fingers—my ability to span a ninth is part of what made me a competent pianist and organ player in my youth—and so this is nothing I have ever experienced before. These parts could be swapped for smaller ones, but given that this is a bike marketed to both women and men, and women typically have smaller hands, I found it bizarre. In addition, the controller for the assist is located in the middle of the handlebars, instead of near one hand, so to turn it on or change the level of assist, we had to take one hand off and reach over. That’s annoying and it also feels like a safety risk. Even if the controller were moved closer to one hand [see comment below; this can be done], its design is such that it would be difficult to operate by thumb.
The Urban Arrow has what those in the bike business would call Dutch geometry, which basically means that you’re riding the bike in roughly the same position that you would be in while sitting in an office chair. I am comfortable riding this kind of setup but it is not something that Matt likes, and we share all the bikes, and so we must compromise.
- Caveat: San Francisco-specific concern. Motostrano told us that the assist would not be able to handle San Francisco’s steepest hills, even unloaded, but could not specify what kinds of grades it could climb. We had hoped to figure it out by simply riding up some hills ourselves, but unfortunately for us, Redwood City is as flat as Kansas. Furthermore, the Dutch geometry makes it impossible to bear down and crank up a hill on your own power. That’s because your chest will whack the handlebars—which is what happened when I tried to go uphill while test riding a Bakfiets. Hauling up hills on your own power is supposed to be a non-issue, because the bike has an assist, except that we were told that the assist might not be sufficient where we ride. And then it would be an issue.
- Speaking of hills, I found the brakes slow to respond. I assumed that it was just that particular bike and suggested to Motostrano that they tighten the brakes, but they said that they’d noticed it on all of the bikes they had built. They believed that it would settle after the bike had been ridden for a while. I would love to hear confirmation of that from someone who’s actually experienced it.
- The Urban Arrow would be almost impossible to get up to higher speeds. For quite a while this is something that I didn’t care about at all. However as time passed and we became more confident on cargo bikes, the appeal of one that can rocket along (relatively speaking) on occasion grew. It is useful when, say, the kids lock themselves in the bathroom and we end up leaving 10 minutes later than planned. The assist is not designed for speed either, but rather for steady help in the background. A BionX, in contrast, will match your effort, so you can use it to start fast and build up speed quickly. (This is fun, although BionX systems have their downsides.) Some bikes are just always going to be on the slower end—that’s just how they’re made—and the Urban Arrow is one of them. If you’re not compulsive about getting places early, this may not rank as high on your list of concerns as it does on mine.
- Last but not least, this bike is ridiculously elusive . There are only a few shops in the country importing them, and there is a lot of unmet demand, so getting an Urban Arrow almost always involves a deposit and a wait list. We have only seen two riding around San Francisco (which is one more than anyone I know in any other city has seen—except, I presume, Portland), and at least one of those was shipped from New York. Motostrano said they were able to get all the bikes they had ordered so far in a time period between 1-3 months, which is a big improvement over the waits I heard about last year, but is still non-trivial. And if you want to do a test-ride first, count on doubling that wait because whatever bike you test-ride will be a bike that’s already been sold.
So the Urban Arrow: not the right bike for us, but definitely a cool bike. It reminded both me and Matt of the Bakfiets, but upgraded. It was like a Bakfiets that had gone on a makeover show: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.
I find that people tend to have a sense of what they want in a bike, even if they can’t always articulate it. There are macho bike people and land yacht people. If you are the former, this isn’t the right bike for you (and you know that already). If you are the latter—assuming that you don’t live on Twin Peaks—it’s probably the most perfect cargo bike ever made.