One of the big advantages of going to Portland to try out a bunch of cargo bikes is the opportunity to test ride a lot of different box bikes. Box bikes, aka long johns, aka “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” are thick on the ground in Portland, with at least five different kinds, of which we tried riding four (Bakfiets, Bullitt, Metrofiets, and Winther Wallaroo, but we missed the Cetma Largo/Margo). The Bakfiets is the most storied of these, occupying the same place that in the world of box bikes that Kleenex occupies in the world of facial tissues. If people know only one kind of box bikes, they know Bakfiets. Heck, Bakfiets means box bike.
Box bikes put the load and the length in front, hence the wheelbarrow analogy, and this involves some mental adjustment, because you’re pushing the kids out in front at intersections. I found it easiest to think of riding box bikes like pushing a stroller. The length in the front of these bikes is in fact roughly comparable to the length of a stroller. As box bikes go, even the Bakfiets long (which is the one we tried) is on the shorter end, at 8 feet end to end. However, unlike a stroller, you can talk with your kids when you’re riding a box bike with them. I never really got the attraction of this until I actually tried it myself. Having the kids in the front of the bike is awesome.
The Bakfiets is a Dutch bike, with the traditional Dutch riding posture, which is bolt upright and gives an expansive view of the road. When I first got on the Bakfiets, I thought, “Whoa! This bike is tall!” Also traditionally Dutch is its design, which aims directly for indestructible without even a nod towards nimble or lightweight. The Bakfiets weighs about 90 pounds and is intended to live outdoors in the Netherlands. You can leave this bike outdoors in this country as well; weather won’t bother it. However bike theft insurance isn’t as developed in the US as it is much of Europe, so if that is a concern, you’d want to have some kind of walk-in storage for it, because no way would you want to haul this bike up or down any kind of stairs.
The Bakfiets’ indestructibility means that it has pretty nice components. That also means that this bike is not cheap. There is no free lunch in the world of cargo bikes. What you get for your money with a Bakfiets is kid-hauling capability and ease that no other bike we’ve ever ridden can match. However this bike was also designed for an environment where the only inclines are the dikes preventing the ocean from washing away the entire country, which no one has any reason to climb regularly. That means you’ll be hating life every time you hit a hill on a Bakfiets.
The pros of the Bakfiets:
- Kids love this bike. Love it, love it, love it. Our kids loved all the front-loading box bikes we tried, as well as the trikes, but they loved the Bakfiets most of all. When we walked into Clever Cycles it was the first bike they wanted to try, and once they got in, they didn’t want to get out. The heights of seats inside different box bikes vary, but after generations of testing Bakfiets apparently has it just right. Flip the seats up and there’s plenty of room to nap. With two benches and two kids there’s room to split up fighting kids (and they’re in front where they can be supervised anyway). The only downside of the Bakfiets box from our perspective is that the sides are high enough that my daughter couldn’t self-load, and my son, who could, wanted us there for security.
- The kickstand on the Bakfiets is incredibly stable. It has four resting points, and when it’s down, the bike is as solid as a building. It can be engaged and disengaged with one foot while you are on the bike and holding the handlebars, minimizing the risk of tipping the bike and dumping the kids. It locks up and down with a THUNK so there is no doubt whether it’s where you want it to be.
- Like all box bikes, it comes with a box, which means that you can throw all kinds of stuff in there without worrying about does it fit, did I tie it down, did I remember the panniers, and so forth. The Bakfiets has a big box, too, and the seats fold up, meaning that without a kid on board it’s actually larger than the trunk of many cars, and since it’s open on the top, it’s actually a lot more accessible. What’s more, you can drop a car seat in this bike and haul infants.
The back of the bike is like a normal bike, but because a Bakfiets is designed to carry serious weight, it can haul a lot more. That means that in addition to putting kids in the front box, you can stick a rear seat on the back, and/or a trailer-bike. The front box is supposed to hold up to three kids, but you can get four in there. That’s up to six kids on the bike, plus whatever cargo you can pack under the seats and on the rear rack. At which point you will move very slowly. But still! The bike can carry more kids than a minivan! And it’s a million times cooler.
- The payoff to all that weight is stability while riding. It offers a slow and stately ride. In addition, the Bakfiets has minimal startup wobble, even heavily loaded. It is certainly possible to dump this bike, but I didn’t manage it, and I was dumping my kids at a pace that was really starting to bother me on this trip—this is a hazard when switching bikes every few hours, because each one has a learning curve.
- The bike is designed to be grab-and-go for pretty much everyone. Everything you could want while riding is included. It has dynamo lights, an internally geared hub, a full chain guard, and fenders. The child seat and seat belts are built right into the box. The Bakfiets has a step-through frame that makes it accessible to riders of varying heights from very short to very tall. The box comes with a rubber (?) floor that keeps the box from echoing while the bike is moving. There are drainage holes in each corner.
- The Bakfiets has a rain/cold weather cover. It is so effective that one mom who had previously ridden in a cold-weather climate said her kids rode inside the box in t-shirts in freezing weather, and sometimes complained of the heat. But this was no problem, as it turns out, because the cover can also be vented from the back when it gets too hot inside.
The cons of the Bakfiets:
- All front box bikes have linkage steering. This involves a non-trivial learning curve. The wheel is way out in front, on the far end of the front box, and when you turn the handlebars, unlike a normal bike, the turn connects to the front wheel indirectly through the linkage. Family Ride told me that when she first got on a Bakfiets she ran it into a wall. I would have done the same thing myself if I hadn’t spent the previous two days figuring out linkage steering on other box bikes. (Don’t take a first test-ride of any cargo bike with the kids on board. Seriously.) That said, of all the box bikes we tried, the steering on the Bakfiets was by far the easiest to pick up. This is partially because unlike normal bikes, with these bikes you don’t really want to lean much into turns; this amplifies the turn and then the bike starts to oscillate until you hit something or fall over. But you sit up so high on a Bakfiets that it’s already difficult to lean much into turns. Anyway, when trying out a bike with linkage steering (a) try not to lean into turns, just move the handlebars, and (b) don’t look at the front wheel, look where you want to go. After a little while you get used to it, really.
- A much bigger problem is hills. The first time I hit a short incline on the Bakfiets I automatically leaned over to push, at which point I hit my chest on the handlebars. There’s that upright posture again. This bike does not climb. Although it is technically possible to stand while riding on hills it doesn’t help much. Going uphill on this bike involves suffering, and I didn’t even try it on a steep hill. Granted, Portland has many more hills than Chicago or Sacramento, but Bakfiets riders that we met complained about the kinds of hills that denizens of San Francisco like us only even think about when our son is on his single-speed bike, and which I would otherwise classify as an-incline-not-really-a-hill. Moreover, the roller brakes standard on a Bakfiets (which would be difficult to replace) will not effectively slow a bike of this weight on a steep downhill. I’m not sure that any brakes would. No one who sells Bakfiets bikes was willing to even consider putting an electric assist on one for us. It can be done and it has been done, and it’s certainly an option for people who want to extend their range in flatter locales. But we were informed that if we put an assist on a Bakfiets where we live there would be no safe way to get back down the hills that we could then climb. “This bike isn’t for you,” said people whose livelihood is selling family bikes.
- Like all cargo bikes with a box, this bike is wide and thus tough to park. I had also worried about riding with a box bike, after my experience feeling like the Yuba Mundo was too wide for San Francisco bike lanes. It turned out that that kind of width only bothers me when it’s behind me where I can’t see it. The Bakfiets has a wide box, but that never felt like a problem while riding, although it would be a tight squeeze through our narrow basement door (but possible).
- The Bakfiets is in many ways a car replacement. This comes at a price. The Bakfiets we rode was listed at $3500 for black, $3750 for cream. That’s not out of line if it’s actually replacing a car, and by comparison to a car it’s actually pretty reasonable. But it’s not cheap, even for a cargo bike; you can buy an assisted Yuba elMundo, for example, for almost $1000 less, and it can do some of the same things while also going up many hills. And you can stick a trailer on the back of a bike for far less than an elMundo, even if you decide to put an electric assist on that bike. And so forth. Cargo bikes tend to retain their value, so a Bakfiets will have decent resale value, but still, you’ve got to put down the money first (or get a bicycle loan) unless you find one used. And if you manage to find a used one it will still be expensive thanks to the fact that cargo bikes usually have good resale value.
- Finally, the Bakfiets is so well-designed for hauling kids that it is almost single-use. There are cargo-conversion accessories, but I found it difficult to imagine wanting to ride this bike much after my kids were old enough to want to ride exclusively on their own bikes. Most of the longtails and some of the other box bikes seemed more versatile; I could imagine using them for other things long after the kids outgrew them. You would definitely get a lot of years out of this bike no matter what; you can stick a car seat in the box from birth and kids seem happy to ride in it until they’re nine or ten, and with a couple of years between kids that’s an awfully long run. But it’s not forever, and our youngest is already three years old.
Overall, I liked the Bakfiets a lot. Matt liked it less, mostly because of the upright posture, which does not appeal to him much. We are conditioned to think about hills all the time. But we both agreed that this bike was absolutely amazing for carrying children. And as far as our kids were concerned, when a Bakfiets was in sight, other bikes might as well not exist. They could be coaxed into investigating other box bikes and the trikes, and a tandem always gets their attention, but the longtails were dead to them. The Bakfiets is the family bike that other bikes aspire to be.
And of course we will not be buying one. Nobody in Portland wanted to sell us a Bakfiets, and the reason was obvious. Hills and older children are the sticking points of cargo bikes (and bikes with trailers); the Bakfiets handles older kids without a hitch, but it cannot handle the steep hills of San Francisco. However if you happen to live someplace where a Bakfiets is a plausible option, it is definitely worth a ride.