“Why do cargo bikes cost so much?”

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

I usually talk about bikes with people who already ride bikes, often cargo bikes, and they don’t freak out when they see the prices of cargo bikes. They may not like the idea of paying for a bike (who would? free is always better) but they understand.

That said, I also hear pretty regularly from people who haven’t purchased a bike since childhood, if ever, and their usual response to the idea that any bike, no matter what it can do, might cost more than $100, is, “It costs HOW much?!?” Followed by the usual, “I could buy a used car,” “I could buy a moped,” muttering and suspicions of profiteering. [Note: for exact numbers, check my many reviews; I always list a price or a range of prices. That said, in general you’re looking at somewhere between $1,500 for an unassisted cargo bike at the low end to $7,500 to a seriously tricked-out, kid-hauling, weather-proofed and assisted cargo bike at the high end, although, as always, devotees can figure out ways to spend more.] This came up again recently, and so I am finally writing about it.

So for those who haven’t purchased bicycles for a while, first things first: All bicycles cost more now than they did when we were kids. That’s inflation. For those of us living in San Francisco, well, the bicycles people ride here cost more than the cruisers students ride around on in college because San Francisco has hills, and if you want to ride your bike up a hill instead of walking it you need gears, and once you introduce gears you are in a whole new world of parts and engineering and labor. So while a new Linus single-speed starts at $400 (curse you, inflation), by the time you get up to 8 speeds a new Dutchi (with no racks or lights) will run more like $850. That only gets us about halfway to the price of a cargo bike at the low end, though. What’s going on?

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

The demands placed on a bike that carries one person and a backpack are very different from the demands placed on a bike that may carry 1-2 adults, 1-4 kids, a cartload of groceries, school backpacks, musical instruments, toys, games, beach tents, a mattress, a bookcase, and tow a trailer, sometimes ALL AT THE SAME TIME. All hail the cargo bike, the minivan slayer! What’s different? Well, if you’re riding that cargo bike unassisted you may well want a wider gear range, because it’s hard to pick up speed with those kinds of loads. More gears=higher costs. The frame has to be stronger, because a cargo bike with a 250-pound load limit (common on bikes intended to carry one person) is ridiculously inadequate. That requires both more materials (=higher costs) and in most cases, a redesign of the frame (=higher costs, engineers have to eat too). If you are carrying those kinds of loads, you’ll also need a different kind of wheel, one with more or thicker spokes to support the weight (=higher costs). If you’re carrying kids, then getting more frequent flats in exchange for thinner, lighter weight tires is a bad deal, so you will probably want heavy flat-resistant monster tires (=higher costs). If you are heading down a steep hill with a heavy load, you will want much better brakes than are common on single-person bicycles (=much higher costs, and worth every penny). You can of course save money by building a bike yourself, but the relevant parts will still cost more.

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

And then there is the assist. There are the mighty-calfed among us, who laugh merrily at the very idea of putting an assist on their bicycles. “Why I carry 300-pound loads of construction materials up the mighty hills of Chicago all the time!” they crow. “You lazy bums don’t need to waste your money on an electric assist! You need the exercise!” And then there are the rest of us, who may be coming to riding after a long layoff, or in the wake of an injury (cough, cough), or who simply don’t view riding around town with kids as a way to achieve Maximum Heart Rate. And even if none of those things applied, the people who “see no reason for an assist” typically have no clue what’s involved in family biking. Carrying 300 pounds or more is a very different proposition with live weight than it is with dead weight, because kids have a terrible habit of not staying where you put them, and on a moving bike, an active kid, let alone two fighting kids, can sometimes overcome your pedal power. Moreover people in flat cities often have little idea what I mean when I say San Francisco is hilly. Here’s a hint: if it’s not taller than you are, then around here we don’t call it a hill. When you ride with (or without) kids up and down the hills of San Francisco, an electric assist starts to look very appealing indeed. Alas, an electric assist is far from free.

The prices of electric assists are pretty easy to understand, because they work almost exactly like the prices of bikes: the more they can do, the more they cost. You can get a low-end electric assist for $500. This is often a great option for a single person who needs an occasional boost, and who doesn’t mind the larger size, greater weight, shorter lifespan, and environmental consequences of using a lead-acid battery. (Yes, they sell e-bikes at Walmart that cost $500 together; these are the kinds of assists they have, and as one might imagine, the bike itself terrible.) Prices go up from there. You’ll pay more for a pedal assist that works almost without you noticing than you will for a twist-throttle assist on the handlebars that may feel like it will give you carpal tunnel syndrome. More powerful batteries that can easily push a cargo bike cost more than the kind designed for bikes with less intense loads. More range for a longer ride also commands a higher price. On the high end, the BionX D that we have on our Bullitt retails for $2,500; regular readers will know we paid less because fortune smiled and our battery died a week before its warranty expired. Again, you can save money with a do-it-yourself assist, but the parts suitable for a cargo bike are still going to cost more than the parts suitable for a lighter bike.

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers' market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers’ market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

All of this is before we get to accessories. Racks and baskets and bags to carry kids and gear cost money. Anyone who has every purchased a car seat knows that child seats cost money. Lights cost money, and you’ll need them if you’re riding at night. If you’re riding a bike for transportation, you might find it worthwhile to add dynamo lights to your bicycle, as they are very bright yet unappealing to steal, and these cost more money than clip-on lights. Some front loaders come with rain covers, which cost even more money, but can extend the number of months you ride in the year. And after spending all that money on the bike, it’s also rare than people feel comfortable locking up with a cheap lock; tougher locks cost much more than the cable I locked up my bike with as a kid.

In summary, the price of cargo bikes goes up more or less in lockstep with the quality of the parts. That means that what you are buying as the price goes up is (a) greater safety, to some extent, as with the wheels and brakes. We came to cargo biking relatively early in the scheme of things, which means, like, 2011, and made various screw-ups with crappy brakes and non-Clydesdale wheels and so on. If I can no other good in this world, I would be thrilled if I could prevent someone else from making these same mistakes, which have the potential to make family biking seem scary instead of fun. You are also potentially buying (b) greater convenience, to some extent, as with less flat-prone tires and dynamo lights, and (c) more ability to handle difficult terrain, as with the gears and the assist.

Your circumstances and skills may save you money. If you live in territory that’s flat and/or you have one skinny kid, and/or you are already very fit, you can save money by not getting an assist, and by choosing less powerful brakes. If you know how to build a bike or have electrical skills, you can save money by doing some of the work yourself (that said, I have met only one person who built her own battery instead of buying it retail and she was an electrical engineer). You may conclude on reflection that you don’t need the carrying capacity of a cargo bike, and a child seat on the bike and/or a trailer is sufficient for your needs. They are all good options.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

So cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes to buy and always will be. However there is good news. First, as those hoping for a price break may already have discovered, they last basically forever, retain their value well, and sell quickly on the secondhand market. Second, the maintenance costs are pretty much bupkis. Even if you ran down the entire battery on your brand-new assisted cargo bike and recharged it from zero every night and rode so hard that you had to replace multiple parts on an annual basis and insured it like it was made of platinum, you would still be hard-pressed to spend more than a few hundred dollars a year once you bought it. Compared to the “cheap” used car or moped people sometimes mention as “equivalent,” which can run up those kinds of expenses annually on insurance alone or oil changes alone, let alone the cost of gas and regular maintenance, and which depreciate at a rate that is equivalent to financial hemorrhage, cargo bikes are cheap at twice the price. All the cost is upfront. That’s not trivial, which is why bike shops are increasingly working on the financial side to spread some of that cost over time. Alternatively, you could do what we did and finance your new cargo bike(s) by selling your car.

So our bikes save us money, but more importantly they save us time and stress. They also make me the only parent at my office who gets regular exercise. There have moments in the last few years when we thought we might have to buy a car again at some point, and the thought filled us with despair. There’s no way to put a price on any of that, but altogether these things are worth much more than we’ve spent. All things considered, a cargo bike is a screaming good deal.



Filed under car-free, commuting, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

14 responses to ““Why do cargo bikes cost so much?”

  1. “There have moments in the last few years when we thought we might have to buy a car again at some point, and the thought filled us with despair.”

    This made me smile. 🙂

  2. Peter Kramer

    Hi There, I envy the whole cycling deal you have going for you where you live, here in South Africa we are light years behind.

    Regards Peter

  3. vgnsocjust

    We’ve gotten as a society far too used to the idea of cheap commodities versuses actual value. Here we have only a few fancy bike shops, most people bike because they are poor or because parking here sucks or they never bothered getting a license. Bike racks are covered with vintage Swinn road bikes. If a bike that cost 2k or so lasts me 3 decades I’d say its well worth it.

  4. Joe Laubach

    Good write-up. Thanks.

    I wonder if the growth in cargo bikes will result in some lower-end manufacturers (Huffy, etc) producing cargo bikes and selling in department stores like Target and WalMart. In my experience, the department stores sell bikes at about 30% the price of a bike shop. For example, a low end mtn bike at a bike shop is about $450 and a low(er) end mtn bike at Target is about $130. So if the least expensive cargo bike, say, a Kona Ute, is about $1,500 new at a bike shop, my guess is Target could sell a cargo bike for about $450.

    Please don’t get me wrong – there is a HUGE difference in quality, assembly, and support between a bike shop and discount retailer. But from a pricing perspective I would argue that cargo bikes from discount retailers could open up a lot of opportunities for people who simply wouldn’t consider the price of even a used cargo bike.

    • I have no idea whether this is even an ambition for department stores. Would there be liability issues around selling a cheap cargo bike, in the event that one couldn’t really handle the weight and someone’s kid got injured? It’s an interesting thought from a lot of angles.

      I remember that the Sun Atlas Cargo sold for ~$700 when it was available, so a $500 cargo bike is conceivable. Of course that bike obviously made a lot of compromises, much as you note department store bikes do. On the other hand, I think if cargo bikes were less of a niche market and more like a commodity there would be some reduction in prices.

      • Joe Laubach

        Just in the last year or so we’ve seen department stores start to carry fatbikes. (Bike with tires over 3 inches wide.) Also a pretty small niche. They are heavy and pretty junky from Walmart, but if you’ve only got $199 you don’t have a lot of choices.

        As for the liability of someone getting hurt – I’ve seen bikes at department stores with brakes so horribly assembled the brake pad doesn’t even touch the rim. Family/cargo bikes need a safety check due to the extra weight and fragile cargo. I suspect discount stores could be liable if someone got hurt. But maybe it’s the legal responsibility of the rider to make sure the bike operates safely.

    • Anything that you put on a kid, or anything that you put a kid in has a whole ‘nother level of product testing and liability from from regular adult-targeted products. A lot of times, these products need to be *more* durable than the adult counterparts because hand-me-downs are so common.

      I imagine that a cargo bike from Target would have to be plastered with “Don’t put your kids in the cargo box!” warnings all over it, kinda like a plastic bag.

  5. Brad Hawkins

    What a great read. There is value in doing it right the first time and getting it right the first time. I’ve tended to go the other route and often end up paying twice.

  6. One quibble: gears alone don’t cost $450. From your Linus examples, a Linus Scout singlespeed costs $400, and essentially the same bike with a rear derailer for 7 speeds costs $490. That sounds about right. The “Dutchi” variant that goes for over $800 has a better frame: Chromoly rather than hi-tensile steel. That’s most of what you’re buying with that extra $400. Cargo bikes, similarly, require better materials and more of them in their frames and wheels to add strength. And they don’t enjoy the economies of scale smaller bikes do.

  7. patrick lejeune

    You’re helping me in the process to spend all that money in a cargo bike.
    We just sold our car. It cost us around $2.000 per year just in insurance.
    So yes, is a Cargo bike can allow me to do “soft” sport, have fun (2 and 6 year olds to carry) and avoid buying a new car, even at $5.000 its a good deal.
    (Paris – France)

  8. Great article!
    One comment – these cargo bikes you talk about are made in US or Western-Europe. Design, engineering, business model, logistics, retail-selling, servicing – all are based at an economy at high prices. There are lots of models in India and China that we don’t know about, and are made at a lower cost, as design, engineering, business model, logistics, retail profit, servicing, etc. all cost less.
    Another factor, I think, is scale of economy – does someone actually know how many cargo bikes are sold, vs. how many bicycles are sold? In my view, cargo bikes are still speciality things, many shops build it by hand – in Western-Europe or in the US.

    Otherwise, it reminds me when I bought my first palmtop computer in 1997, a Psion 5. We were thought as crazy to buy such a thing, it was considered an exorbitant price. Still, I used it a lot, for many-many years, until I sold it second hand, still for a good price. Those people who were laughing at me and shocked by the cost of a Psion 5, now buy the top Apple phone e v e r y y e a r. And it is considered average, nobody is shocked to see it in the hands of the people.
    If most people would have a cargo bike, they would not be surprised by the cost, I guess.

  9. EBGuy

    Looks like we’ve got a new entry on the lower end, the Radwagon.
    Currently $1599 plus $175 for shipping. Some assembly required.

  10. Martin Elliott

    I’d love a cargo bike, but there is no getting away from it.. the prices are stupid, whatever the reasons. How will people be coaxed out of their cars and persuaded to try cargo bikes when they are so expensive? Oldies who haven’t bought a bike for a long time may well mutter ‘You could get a second hand car for less than that..’ and they are quite right. You can.

  11. Che

    I’m just amazed that you can buy a tricycle with equivalent carrying capacity for $700(aud) vs a front trike (Bakfiet) which sets you back a minimum of $3k(aud)!

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