Is it too good to be true?

Two kids on our Kona MinUte, not an everyday thing

Two kids on our Kona MinUte, not an everyday thing

Our path to all-bikes-all-the-time did not always run smoothly. At various points, we got crappy advice (I have refrained for years from listing “San Francisco Bike Shops That I Hate” by name so I won’t start now), and at other points, we were unwilling to listen to good advice. Probably the best example of the latter was the Co-Rider/Bike Tutor debacle. The idea of an inexpensive front child seat for older kids on a step-through frame seemed so promising that we wanted very much to believe it would work. Even though the quite reliable and well-informed owner of Ocean Cyclery was leery of this seat, he installed it for us. When it dumped my daughter in the middle of a ride into a busy street, we realized that reality didn’t always conform to what we wanted to happen. Another depressing example was our issues with the terrible brakes on the first-generation Kona MinUte, which kept failing on steep hills with a kid on board (I’ve been told that the brakes on newer models are better). Our local bike shop, for the record, advised upgrading to hydraulic disc brakes on the MinUte from the beginning. Thankfully our kids were never hurt, although we had some very close calls. We have gotten better about listening since then.

Ages 10 and 7 and they STILL squeeze into a standard Bullitt box

Ages 10 and 7 and they STILL squeeze into a standard Bullitt box

We started down the family biking road before there were many resources or options. Now we have two monster cargo bikes, a Bullitt and an Xtracycle EdgeRunner, which can handle whatever we throw at them. They were not cheap, although I maintain that they are a good value. Part of what we paid for was versatility, and part of what we paid for was safety: there is no question that these bikes were designed to do what we do with them, and both the manufacturers and the bike shops where we purchased the bikes are committed to quality. We learned the hard way that this is something that matters because it is what keeps our kids safe. There are national standards in the US that define what features make a car safe(r). These standards do not yet exist for bikes, and that means that finding an appropriate family bike remains a question of trust.

File under "questionable ideas"

File under “questionable ideas”

Even back in the early part of this decade, the prehistoric years of US cargo bikes, there were more and less expensive options, and rest assured that I desperately wanted to believe that the less expensive options would work for us. So when people I had come to trust told me that the bikes I liked were not suitable for San Francisco, and that ultimately a safe and reliable cargo bike would cost much more than I had imagined spending, it was a very difficult thing to hear. I suspect that the only reason we were able to accept it was that we had already had a couple of bad experiences that came from believing there was a way to do what we wanted at a price that we liked. And there was not. We had to decide whether we were willing to (a) make family biking a sometimes thing, (b) risk our own and our kids’ safety, or (c) spend a lot more money than we had hoped. The family biking equivalent of “fast, good, cheap: pick any two” is “versatile, safe, cheap: pick any two.” It’s easy to find an inexpensive bike that’s safe for recreational family riding (short distances, mellow terrain, no weather challenges), or an inexpensive bike that can be used in many situations if you don’t mind risking your life, or an expensive bike that’s safe for daily riding with kids (like every day commuting, especially in annoying terrain). But the Holy Grail of a family bike that is inexpensive, safe, and suitable for carrying kids every day? A bike like this does not exist (yet.) I wish it did.

The fact that cargo bikes are much more expensive than normal bikes is almost always the thing that makes people want desperately to believe in things that are too good to be true. I’ve written about why cargo bikes cost what they do before. Cargo bikes are not expensive because their manufacturers and the shops that sell them are making huge profits; they are not. In more than one case, I have learned that bike shops are run by people who have chosen to make less money than they could in order to make these bikes more accessible. They do it for love.

We've been seeing more and more bikes like ours around the city: Solidarity!

We’ve been seeing more and more bikes like ours around the city: Solidarity!

I have reviewed a lot of bikes on this site. I have avoided reviewing even more bikes. I haven’t mentioned it before, but some of those choices have to do with safety, because quite frankly we have made enough mistakes. I’m not always a huge fan of the bikes I review, but the fact that I write about them at all means that I believe that they are safe enough to ride for at least some kinds of families, even if they’re not a good fit for mine. Over the years, I’ve frequently gotten questions about whether I am going to review a bike that other families are interested in buying. In some cases I haven’t reviewed them because I haven’t seen them locally here in San Francisco, or in Seattle, where my mom lives and where we visit regularly, and thus I know nothing about them (one example: Douze.) In other cases it’s not ignorance that keeps me from writing a review. I have ridden certain bikes that I would not be willing to put my kids on, not even for a test ride. I have been warned off riding certain bikes by people that I trust and who know me well enough to advise that I would not be willing to put my kids on them, not even for a test ride.

The bikes that I avoid reviewing almost always promise the three-fer: they claim to be versatile, safe, and inexpensive. They are often sold direct to the consumer, without the intervening reality check of a bike shop. There is not much point in naming names on the internet, because the manufacturers never last very long. Eventually people realize that the bikes are either not really versatile or not really safe, though more often it’s the latter. In the interim, though, I never really know what to say about the inevitable excitement that accompanies each new cargo bike that promises all the things but that makes compromises that ensure that I will keep my kids from even coming near it. I know that in the absence of reviews, or in the presence of reviews written by people who don’t regularly ride cargo bikes (reviews based on test rides in which the rider did not carry cargo of any kind annoy me), that each new bike makes a wildly compelling promise. Many people are understandably eager to believe—I know that I was—and end up buying a bike that at best will disappoint them. Yet in the slightly-modified words of my beloved dissertation adviser, these bikes ultimately fall of their own weight. They are too good to be true.

(All that said, one of these days I will start checking my blog email again (sorry, it’s been a weird time), and yes, I’m willing to name names off the internet.)

Looking out over our neighborhood

Looking out over our neighborhood

If you are in the market for a family bike, there is no such thing as truly objective advice. Manufacturers and bike shops want to sell you bikes, and they’re pretty straight up about that. Periodicals rely on reviewers who often don’t ride with kids, and they make money from advertising bikes so they’re unlikely to say anything negative. Bike reviews by family bikers are typically written by people who test rode a few bikes, bought one of them, and really like it, which doesn’t provide much basis for comparison or offer a lot of insight into newer models. Speaking for myself, although I have ridden many bikes and am financially unconflicted because my job doesn’t let me make any money or even request discounts, I don’t have anything like the resources to review all the bikes on the market, I think everybody should ride bikes for transportation because it’s cool, I can’t speak to the reliability of any bike that I don’t actually own, and what’s more even on my best day I am wildly idiosyncratic, have kids who have grown out of peak family biking age, and live in a place with unconventional topography.

Who can you trust? A while back I decided to trust family bike shops. Although they definitely want to sell you bikes, they are informed enough to compare different types of bikes, and know a lot more than I do about manufacturing quirks and reliability, which are critical issues that go way beyond what anyone can learn on a test ride. I realize that not everyone has the luxury of living in the San Francisco Bay Area or Portland or Seattle, where good advice is at worst a trip across town away. Yet many of these shops are run by people who will send long emails or talk your ear off over the phone, even though they may not expect it to result in a sale. I took advantage of this long before we bought our first cargo bike. And I have learned that when they tell me something is too good to be true, even though I don’t want to believe it, they are right.

19 Comments

Filed under cargo, family biking, reviews

19 responses to “Is it too good to be true?

  1. craig

    Thanks for posting the pic of your two kids in the Bullitt box. I’m considering an assisted Bullitt, but am concerned how long it will reasonably accommodate 6yr old twins over the next few years. I could go with a wider box, but how is the leg room? Also, as your son gets taller will there be a problem with his head getting bumped by the handlebars? There are no Bullitts nearby to try, so getting one would be a leap of faith. I prefer the box bike over longtail for the weather protection and, like you often say, the ease of conversation with passengers.
    Thank you so much for all the information you’ve posted over the years. When you had the accident I thought you may be done with blogging, and maybe even biking, but I’m so glad you came back.
    p.s. have you had any experience with the Shimano Steps assist?

    • Hi, I have not tried the Shimano Steps assist. I think someone who tried both posted to SF Family Biking that the BionX D offered more torque for the hills here, but I am not sure. With respect to the box: leg room is not really an issue for our kids, as they are fine sitting with bent legs. With respect to head room, the height of the handlebars is instantly-adjustable on the Bullitt, so we have hiked them up an inch or so and had no issues. We have a friend who keeps her handlebars much higher that ours, even. However they would fight less in a wider box, which has been a bigger issue as they’ve gotten older. Such boxes weren’t widely available when we got our bike, and what we could get wasn’t compatible with the rain cover. If they had been we probably would have gotten one, even though it makes the bike somewhat less maneuverable.

  2. Vivian

    Hi Dorie, I was one who actually emailed you a while back asking your advice about a cargo bike I’d found on the internet, and even though you never responded (no worries) I feel like this post is almost a direct response to my question b/c I was looking at one of those “too good to be true” bikes. Anyway, we ended up going w/ a Bullitt, coincidentally the one w/ the Shimano Steps assist. We’ve been happy with it so far (but we do live in the relatively flat Richmond district) but it would be interesting to see how it compares on a steep grade against the BionX (possible subject for your next review?) Anyway, thanks for continuing to write and act as a resource for those of us new to family biking. Maybe we’ll see you in GG Park sometime!

  3. Hello! Dorie, thanks for all your wonderful reviews. I found your site tremendously helpful when shopping for a bike. Now I finally have something to contribute, and I hope it’s ok to do that right here in your space. 🙂

    I tried the BionX D500 hub-drive Bullitt for a week, then the Shimano STePS mid-drive Bullitt for a week on the same hills, and then I bought the BionX and have been very happy with it.

    The power felt about the same to me, but the Shimano was noisy, lacked a throttle button, had an awkward charger, and required the Alfine internal hub shifter, which felt clunky to me when I shifted gears (sometimes unsuccessfully). The only advantage of the mid-drive that I could see is the price. It’s $840 cheaper and comes with lights that retail for $300. That’s a big difference, even if you don’t care about the lights, but for me it wasn’t enough.

    I talked to someone at New Wheel who switched from a BionX Edgerunner to the Bosch mid-drive. He said it’s noisier, but he got used to it and doesn’t notice it anymore. Maybe the Bosch is not as bad as the Shimano, but I didn’t find it to be any less noticeable or irritating over the week I had it, and I don’t think I ever would. I often turned the assist off entirely just so I wouldn’t have to hear it. The BionX isn’t completely silent, but it’s pretty close.

    One of my main testing routes was from 18th St, up Eureka, up 21st to Grand View. Various map data tells me Eureka is a 14% grade there. (I think the turn from 21st to Grand View is steeper, but it’s too short to show up on the maps.) I can do it with a passenger on either Bullitt a little easier than solo on my unpowered bike, but it’s still a big chore. It felt about the same with either Bullitt.

    With the BionX, I tried going up Diamond St with no passengers or cargo, in lowest gear with maximum assist. I made it to halfway between 20th & 21st before I gave out. That’s a 22.7% grade according to Hillmapper. I didn’t try it with the STePS, but I mention it just to give an example of “too steep.”

    My other main route is up JFK from the beach to the panhandle. Here too, the motor power felt about the same to me, differing only in the noise and smoothness I mentioned.

    It occurred to me that the acceleration power of the BionX is inversely proportional to the wheel radius, so the same motor on a 20″ back wheel (e.g. Edgerunner) ought to climb hills better. Meanwhile, the high end is limited not by the motor but by the law that says it has to turn off if you’re going more than 20mph. So for hill climbing, I wonder if an Edgerunner (or Spicy Curry?) would have an advantage. But I don’t live on a 24% grade and I love riding the Bullitt so much more. 🙂

    • Thanks Seth! This is really helpful information!

      And yes, I noticed that the BionX on the EdgeRunner’s 20″ rear wheel has more hill-climbing chops than the same motor on a 26″ wheel (having tried both.) However I am pretty sure that you can’t (yet) put a BionX D on a 20″ rear wheel, because the motor itself exceeds the space available on a wheel that small. I asked.

    • craig

      Thanks for posting this Seth! I had been attracted to the Bosch and Shimano mid-drive units as they seem to be so well integrated with the bike, but the noise would turn me off. People (marketers) often refer to e-bikes drives as “silent” but compared to what, a gas motor? “Silent” to me means it can’t be heard at all vs an unassisted bike, which most times is not the case.

  4. Francisco

    Hi Dorie, Many thanks indeed for your brilliant reviews which have been extremely helpful in my current search for a family cargo bike which I intend to use on a daily basis for transporting my two young daughters (2.5 and 1 year old) and myself for a total distance of 10 km in Brussels, Belgium. Here streets are often narrow, we have to go through some hilly ways and there can be lots of traffic all daylong. I have tested a certain number of tricycles (Nihola, babboe, kagoo, etc.) which I rapidly left aside for both versatility and safety reasons. And I also tested Butchers & Bikes and Urban Arrow most recent models. Although the last two delivered a pleasant experience I remain a bit sceptic given their size and the traffic concerns mentioned above. I have not yet tried a bullitt but I did try a similar animal which is the load sport Riese & Müller (see: http://en.r-m.de/bike/load-sport/) which so far is the best compromise I have found having in mind Brussels specificities. In my opinion the load sport is both versatile and safe although it is a (very) expensive bike. I am not aware of any of your reviews on Riese & Müller cargos so I was wandering if such bikes fall in the category of unknown engines or whether you have had any experience on them?
    Many thanks again and kind regards from Brussels, Francisco

    • I have never heard of the Riese and Muller bikes; they do not appear to have any dealers in the US. It is a fascinating-looking bike. I wish I knew more. It sounds like you have ridden a lot of bikes and can probably trust your own judgment here.

  5. We haven’t gone through a ton of bikes going carfree 2011/12 (not sure when exactly). My husband had a folding bike for commuting by train. We have a bakfiets that we bought early on and has been really good for us. Nicely balanced, but if you have a really steep hill, expect to walk it up or install a pedal assist. We got nice bikes for the kids that have worked. My bike is an extremely comfortable step through, but I have been eyeing a Gazelle. The one I have lacks cargo capacity and I don’t always want to do a full bakfiets load of grocery shopping.

    My bigger issue is the complete lack of cycling infrastructure in my suburb. Direct routes require riding with fast moving traffic. Safe routes zigzag through parkland and double the trip length. Direct routes: I don’t like driver’s reactions when I take the lane. And I don’t like driver’s reactions when I move over. The roads are too wide, the speeds are too high and the driver’s are inconsiderate. I’ve been carfree for years and my perspective hasn’t improved with experience like I was reassured. It’s not a nice area to ride a bike. I see men riding in the road. I see women kitted out in lycra on the recreation trails. But not much in the way of women using bikes as transportation.

  6. Michael

    Great Blog. I live in San Francisco and I’m ready to buy the Xtracycle. Your New Wheel bike shop recommendation is spot on! My main concern about the Xtracycle is theft. I’m very nervous about locking up a $5,500 bike in SF. Beyond using high quality u locks, pitlocks and frame locks, what precautions do you take when locking up your bike on a street rack?

    • Great question and it’s definitely one we’ve thought about a lot. We do the things you mention (Pitlocks, Abus lock), plus we have insurance on our bikes, which if you’ve read for a while you’ll know we used when the MinUte was stolen. We also registered the bikes with the SF police (TNW has the form with their purchase packet and will mail it in for you) and put the sticker they sent us on the frame so it’s clear that it’s registered, which also decreases our bikes’ appeal to thieves. I also have UCSF parking stickers on our frames. No one could delude themselves: our serial numbers are in multiple databases, and our bikes can be tracked. I have even considered putting GPS trackers in the frames, but haven’t found a system I like enough to use yet.

      That said, ultimately we sort of came to grips with the fact that any kind of transportation is vulnerable to theft in SF. We hardened the bikes enough that they are usually less appealing than other bikes nearby and we park inside when we can (plus our neighbor has multiple security cameras), but we accept that they may be stolen one of these days, and have insurance to minimize the out of pocket cost. The policies on our assisted bikes run a couple hundred per year (technically they are moped policies, which is annoying but whatever) and it’s worth the peace of mind to us. I don’t know that there is much more that anyone can do. It has gotten easier from an psychological perspective to leave the bikes outside over time, especially since the inevitable dings to the frames also make them less appealing to thieves.

  7. EBGuy

    The RadWagon hits the mythic sub $2k pricepoint, but does beg the question: is it too good to be true? There is a pretty thorough review of the electric cargo bike here. Note also the mom-tested comments by “thatgirlkelly” below the article. Hilly Seattle tested, and kid approved. So tempted on this one…

  8. Eric

    I feel almost hopelessly overwhelmed with choices. I have two kids, 4 and 1, and I’m looking at getting one cargo bike for infrequent use and perhaps eventually car replacement. I live in the flatlands in Michigan, but probably will move to a hilly city in a year’s time.

    I’m leaning towards either an Xtracycle Edgerunner, or importing a Workcycles Fr8, possibly with e-Assist. My big concern ordering from Workcycles with the e-assist – they spec a mid-drive Schachner model, which I’ve seen very little about so I’d worry about longevity.

  9. Hey Dorie! We might be starting a journey that your family started many years ago. We just got back from 6 weeks in Copenhagen (some extra paternity leave + a family that wanted to house swap made for a great opportunity). We rented a cargo bike and spent most days just cruising around. It was hard to say goodbye to CPH, but maybe harder to say goodbye to the bikes!

    We are now shopping and are pretty sold on the Bullitt. People keep telling me the standard box and seat is too narrow for two, but I keep seeing kids happily crammed in that little box no problem. Ours are just turning 5 and t 3 and seem like they’d be fine.

    My biggest concern is their ability to nap in the bike in that seat+box. Any thoughts on this?

    Also have not been able to find anyone that uses the LvH Canopy that uses the same seat but replaces the side panels with a rigid canopy/box. It looks really well made and pretty ideal (seems great for sleeping too). Do you have any experience with their canopy?

    Thanks again for this blog. Invaluable info!

    • No experience with the LvH canopy! It came out after we got our bike, but it sure looks cool. Our kids will still squeeze into our standard box when we let them (which is rarely because they fight) at ages 10 and 7, so personally, I would not sweat the idea of their managing in there. Naps are easier with 1 kid than 2, but they still happened, back when my kids took maps.

  10. Hey Dorie! We might be starting a journey that your family started many years ago. We just got back from 6 weeks in Copenhagen (some extra paternity leave + a family that wanted to house swap made for a great opportunity). We rented a cargo bike and spent most days just cruising around. It was hard to say goodbye to CPH, but maybe harder to say goodbye to the bikes! We are now shopping and are pretty sold on the Bullitt.

    Bike shop owners keep telling me the standard box and seat is probably too narrow for two, but I keep seeing kids happily crammed in that little box no problem. Ours are just turning 5 and t 3 and seem like they’d be fine. My biggest concern is their ability to nap in the bike in that seat+box. Any thoughts on this?

    Also have not been able to find anyone that uses the LvH Canopy that uses the same seat but replaces the side panels with a rigid canopy/box. It looks really well made and pretty ideal (seems great for sleeping too). Do you have any experience with their canopy?

    Thanks again for this blog. Invaluable info!

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