“I want to ride it! I want to ride it!”
Oregon has a few homegrown box bikes, or at least did once. CETMA makes two cargo bikes that can be rigged to carry kids, the Largo (long) and the Margo (not long). However CETMA is moving to California and going off line for a while. Joe Bike used to make Boxbikes and Shuttlebugs, but doesn’t anymore. I realize I need to write yet another post (in my nonexistent free time, these cargo bike write-ups take forever): Bikes we didn’t try and why. There is also Metrofiets, a custom box-bike that appears to be a bigger operation than the other two.
There was, evidently, some controversy when the Metrofiets first came out, with claims that it was a knockoff of the Bakfiets. I can only assume that anyone who believed this has never ridden both bicycles, because although they look similar, they are so wildly different to ride that it was almost unnerving to try them back-to-back as we did. On a Bakfiets your posture is very upright, and the handlebars have almost an ape-hanger feel to them. On a Metrofiets everything is reversed, so you sit upright but everything is way down low. I had a little Goldilocks moment: “That bike is toooo high. This bike is toooo low.” Actually there are advantages and disadvantages to both postures, but seriously: you might get confused about which bike is which in the shop, but you’ll never have any doubt which one you’re riding.
Hanging out in Metrofiets. My kids view box bikes as couches; they kick back, get a little reading in, just relax, basically.
The Metrofiets is a box-bike, meaning that the kids are in front like they would be if you were pushing a wheelbarrow. As I’ve mentioned before and will probably continue to blather about ad nauseum, having the kids in front is awesome. The Metrofiets is one of the longest box-bikes we tried, at 8’10”, which the lovely people at Clever Cycles helped me measure, and then, because none of us could believe the Metrofiets was almost a foot longer than a Bakfiets, we rolled them right next to each other to check. It is. The box is also a couple of inches wider.
The Metrofiets is an American bike: designed in Portland, made in the Pacific Northwest, and built using U.S. steel. The Metrofiets guys, whom I kept messaging but missing in person, are incredibly nice, and I love that they are building this bike. It is intended to be sportier than the traditional kid-hauler. Portland is not without hills, and in a wild departure from the Dutch oeuvre, they actually imagined that people riding a bike like this might want to go up and down some of them.
The Metrofiets is largely a custom bike, and that has pros and cons and also makes assessing it significantly more complicated. It is also a very pretty bike, and I don’t think I would feel comfortable leaving it outside overnight, and I would lock it up very securely at any time of day in a city. Most cargo bikes weigh a ton, and this one is no exception, so once again if you got this bike, you would want some kind of walk-in storage.
The pros of the Metrofiets:
- The Metrofiets is a box bike that can climb hills, and it has disc brakes. Finally! Having the handlebars down low (at first there was a real bear-on-a-tricycle feel to it) meant we could lean up into an incline. It is a heavy bike and won’t be setting any land speed records, but it’s not going to feel like a death march. The bike we rode had an internally geared hub with a more limited range, so it wasn’t set up ideally for going up steep hills, and thus we only rode on pretty mild ones. However there is an option with a lot more gears on a derailleur and the potential was obvious. This bike was actually one we could ride in San Francisco with two kids on board.
- The Metrofiets was designed with the expectation that people might want to put an electric assist on the bike, and a lot of people do. Although Clever Cycles does not sell assisted bikes (right now), and Splendid Cycles had not yet sold an assisted Metrofiets, assisted Metrofiets are fairly common (given that it’s an uncommon bike) and can be purchased either directly from the company or from Bay Area Cargo Bikes.
- Kids love box bikes (and so do I). My kids liked this bike a lot. However the box has higher sides than the Bakfiets box and the kids sit much lower; neither kid could self-load into this box.
- The Metrofiets offers a very big box. The version we rode wasn’t set up with seatbelts, but it did have a bench, and seeing my kids on it made me realize that this box could comfortably hold two older kids side-to-side with a lot of elbow room. Although I was concerned that I would not be able to handle a wide bike, given that I’d had trouble with wide longtails, having additional width in front was not an issue for me because I could see it (however, we did have some concern as to whether this bike would fit through our narrow basement door). Kids, odd-sized loads: all of these would be no problem.
- The cargo space is very modular; although some people use this bike for hauling kids, there were lots of other ways to use it as well: Metrofiets bikes hold a beer bar, a talk show, a coffee cart, and so forth. People have an awful lot of fun with this bike.
- Like other box bikes, there’s room behind the rider for a rack or child seat or a trailer-bike, adding to its hauling capability and making it possible to separate squabbling kids.
- The Metrofiets moves pretty nimbly given that it’s really a gigantic bike. It has a 24” front wheel, unlike most other box bikes that put a 20” wheel near/under the box, which apparently increases the speed somewhat. The steering is pretty responsive, and so it turned much more tightly than seemed possible at first. That is not to say it turned on a dime.
- The frame, although not a step-through, has a lot of room above the top tube for shorter riders. The bike we rode came with fenders and dynamo lights, the kinds of things that decrease the hassle of getting on the bike.
- There is an optional rain/cold weather cover (which I’ve only seen in photos).
- The Metrofiets is primarily sold as a custom bike, which means that you can ask the builders to make it into the bike you want. Color choices are infinite, obviously, but more than that, you could ask for a second bench seat to pile in more kids, lap belts only, five-point child restraints, a locking bench, a keg dispenser: whatever. None of these things are likely to be free, but if you know that you want something specific, you can almost certainly get it made for the bike.
The cons of the Metrofiets:
- Like all front-loading box bikes the Metrofiets has linkage steering, meaning that the front wheel isn’t directly connected to the handlebars, but linked to them by a mechanism running under the box. Linkage steering is not intuitive and on this particular bike, even though I rode it after two days’ practice, it took a while before I was able to ride without weaving wildly across the street (please don’t let me dump the bike, please don’t let me dump the bike…) It’s harder to learn than a Bakfiets and easier to learn than a Bullitt (which: argh!) But it’s fun once it’s familiar.
- Even after you get used to the linkage steering, the Metrofiets tends to wander during a ride. The word that came to mind for me was “noodly.” The steering was noodly. When I came back to Clever Cycles they said that that word comes up frequently in test rides of the Metrofiets. For me this was a negative, but it isn’t for everyone; Matt (as well as many other people who try it) liked it. He called it “fish-heading” (as opposed to fish-tailing) and he said he enjoyed the way the bike tracked slightly back and forth like a sine wave while he rode, as catching the wave eased the turns. For me it was just weird.
- The Metrofiets is almost a foot longer than many box bikes and all of that extra length is in front of the rider. This can be unnerving at intersections, because we had to push the bike way out into the road to see oncoming traffic and whether it was okay to start after a stop (and a couple of times I guessed wrong). It was extremely unnerving at busy intersections with a kid in the box. I didn’t think that an extra ten inches would matter that much before I rode the bike, but after I did I realized it mattered a lot. This would probably not be an issue in the suburbs and probably isn’t even a big issue in Portland, but it would often be frustrating in San Francisco.
- The center-stand on the Metrofiets was the worst of all the box bikes we tried. It is way under the front box and not really accessible unless you get off the bike, hold the handlebars, walk forward while balancing the loaded bike, and then stab underneath the box with one foot for it. I asked Clever Cycles whether I was doing it wrong, because it was so frustrating, and they said no, that’s how it works. The stand itself is a very thick bent wire. It is hard to push down and it is not always clear when it’s fully engaged so that it’s safe to let go of the bike. To start riding, you can’t push forward to disengage it, you have to walk to the side of the box, raise it, and after that get on the bike.
- The box is all wood, even the bottom, and like the Madsen, that meant it echoed while we were riding, even with kids on board as sound dampeners. The box also lacked drainage holes (I’m guessing they’d drill some of those for free though).
- Like all the front box bikes this bike is very wide, plus it’s extra-long, and that makes it hard to park in traditional bike racks or even non-traditional spots. And as mentioned this is a big bike you don’t want to lift. People do lift it, there’s a picture of someone holding a bike over his head on the Metrofiets website, but I can’t see that being a daily thing.
No chainguard. Seriously?
Although the bike we were riding came with an internally geared hub and had a single front ring, there was no chain guard. WTF, Metrofiets? Again, this is a custom bike so adding anything is possible, but that was an odd omission given the collection of we-make-life-easier included accessories like lights and fenders.
- Front box bikes are expensive. Custom bikes are expensive. The total damage when you add the two together is sobering. The bike we rode was priced at $4200, and we would want to add an electric assist to that, which would set us back at least another $1400-$2000 (probably the higher end, because heavier bikes need more powerful assists). Not to mention the anticipated extra costs for adding seat belts for the kids and some kind of noise dampener for the box. And a chain guard.
- The Metrofiets is primarily sold as a custom bike, and that’s a con as well as a pro. You can ask it to be built into the bike you want, but a lot of people who aren’t experienced (family) riders won’t know what they want. If you want to start riding with your kids and still have questions like “Does my 5-year-old need a child seat or can she just sit on the rear deck of my longtail?” (Answer: put her on the deck with a pair of handlebars to grab off the rider’s seat; cheaper, more fun, will last longer), figuring out which options you might want on a custom bike is overwhelming. Xtracycle really nailed some of the issues involved with family biking when it started offering kits for different kinds of riding on their website (one child seat, two child seats, dog, groceries, surfboard, etc.) By the standards of people who order custom bikes, we ourselves are marginal. We know a lot of the things we want and my job description is “researcher” but we don’t have the years of experience with bicycles that we’d need to get the most out of a custom bike. I can’t see myself redesigning the kickstand, for example, even though I’d want a better one.
Gorgeous, but not necessarily making things easy.
So, the Metrofiets. It started out as one of the very few bikes we knew was a real possibility when we started investigating cargo bikes. Sight unseen, the Metrofiets was my brother-in-law’s pick for us. It could handle hills, could easily carry two kids (and much more), and could be assisted. Having a box bike would be a useful complement to our existing mid-tail bike, the Kona MinUte. And because we had just sold our car and gotten more than enough from that to cover buying this bike and then some, the eye-popping price wasn’t impossible. Yes, I realize that we’re incredibly fortunate.
On the other hand, we had some concerns about the bike that we didn’t expect: the Metrofiets is awfully long in front which makes it feel less safe at intersections, it would likely be the most difficult option to park away from home, we both disliked the kickstand, and the steering would take more getting used to than we’d hoped. Although the width of the bike wasn’t an issue while riding, it might not fit through our basement door. (At some point I realized it would be possible to ride around with our garage door opener hooked to a bike. It would be weird, but feasible, not to mention kind of funny; then again, maybe less fun after the novelty wore off.) Finally, getting this bike would require us to make some decisions about customization that we didn’t feel fully qualified to make.
After riding the Metrofiets I wasn’t left with a strong sense that this was the bike for us, but we didn’t rule it out either.