Sunday, April 15, 2012

Guest Post: When the Perfect Cargo Bike is Not Perfect...

It is such a pleasure to present this guest post by Philadelphia-based Marni, a bicycling mama of three and incredible designer, creator, upcycler, owner of Rebourne Clothing. I so appreciate Marni's honesty in sharing her tale of what happens when the first cargo bike really is not the right bike, being brave enough to admit it, and then trying again for that happy ending.

Hi! My name is Marni. I'm a wife and mom living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I'm here to write about choosing the right cargo bike for your family. 

First, a little background on me:

I was a cargo bike baby.  My mom hauled my little brother and me around our small Michigan town. Groceries and school drop offs were done via bike trailer! 

Fast forward to my early 20's. I was trying to get in shape and brought my mom's old bike into our local bike shop. My now-husband worked on my bike and the rest is history! Bikes have always been a part of our life together.  He is still a local bike shop manager and an avid mountain biker. 
We have three kids, Sage, 5, Fern, 4, and Ryder, 1. 

We were inspired to buy a cargo bike because our friends bought a Kona Ute. Our primary goal in having the bike was to get exercise, promote green transportation, ride a bike, save money, and be able to do trips to school, the YMCA, the playground, and the grocery store.

When we bought our first cargo bike, we had two kids. As I did research, I was drawn to the Surly Big Dummy (hereafter called the BD) and the freecycle setup. We bought the frame and my husband built the bike up. We designed and built our kids' seats

All photos credited to Marni @ Rebourne Clothing
We thought we had the perfect family bike!! 

And then I rode it without kids on it. I hated it!  It was even worse with the kids on the back!

Here's why: 

1) No step-through-- the top tube was super high!  For me, even at 5' 9" and with a strong upper body, it was incredibly hard to balance the weight of two kids, step over the top tube, and get the bike moving. It was equally hard to get off and park the bike. This was not as tough for my husband.

2) The weight of the seats and the kids was up high. The bike is made to haul weight mainly below the seat level in pannier bags. Having the weight up high made the bike extra-tippy. Again, this was not as tough for my husband to handle.

3) I couldn't see the kids. Is Fern pulling Sage's hair? Why is Fern crying? Is Sage choking? Did Sage take her helmet off?

 4) The bike had the same profile as a "regular" bike. In Philadelphia, that meant that cars didn't give me any passing room or attention. There were not many ways we could make the BD noticeable from the front/back to signify that there were small children riding.

5) The stop-and-go traffic meant balancing the bike a LOT. As stated above-- very challenging. Here in Philly, most drivers do the "Philly Roll."  When coming to a stop sign, they rarely come to a stop for three seconds. They just slow to a very slow roll and continue moving through the intersection. If you do come to a complete stop, you get honked at! This is not conducive to safe cargo bike riding in a city where bikes are often invisible. 

6) I couldn't ride the bike in snow.

7) I couldn't really load the kids and a pannier full of groceries, as I was already strapped trying to balance the kids. This defeated the plan to grocery shop by cargo bike.

8) I couldn't lift the bike if I needed to pivot it. It was impossible for me to pull the bike up close to a wall in order to lean against the wall to get the kids out. To store our bike, I had to lift the back wheel, which I could not do.

9) I fell with the kids on the bike. They were not scathed, but I was pregnant and terrified. If the bike had been easier to balance, they wouldn't have been at risk. 

So here is the moral of my story: Choosing a cargo bike a personal journey, and you don't have to marry your cargo bike. 

I started to feel bad about not loving the bike that I spent so much time researching, so much time convincing my husband to buy and build, and so much time trying to make work. It was really hard to accept that it just didn't fit our family. However, we sold the bike two days after listing it on Craigslist!

After welcoming our third child, I decided to look at cargo bikes again. A friend showed me Haley Trikes. We met with Stephen, the owner, and test rode a bike. I loved it! We got to put the kids in the box and get a good feel for how it managed with and without weight. 

Our trike was handmade for us, with our specifications in mind. The length of the box and the gears are customized to our kids and our terrain. Do note, however, that
Stephen does not do any modifications of his bikes for kids, and generally discourages the use of his trikes as a family bike. All modifications were done by us.

The Haley is a box trike, so it's always balanced. I can see all of the kids. I can carry cargo and kids in one area. There is total step through and I never have to get all of the weight of the bike balanced. I can lift up the saddle end of the bike and pivot it, which means I can move the bike wherever I want it, regardless of how much cargo is inside. I can move the bike, with all the kids inside, to where it needs to be locked up.

Because the bike is so unique looking, I (generally) get a lot of respect, space on the road, and attention from drivers behind, in front, and to the sides of us (retro-reflective stickers and lights also help!). There is a joy that people get when they see our bike; it seems to disarm some aggressive and impatient drivers. I am more confident and happy, which makes riding more fun for all of us.

In closing, remember this also: In choosing a cargo bike that's right for your family, remember that it's a personal, temporary decision. This means that your body type, your kids' ages and temperaments, your city, your daily usage, your ability to store a bike, the weather where you live, the hills where you live, your commitment to buy local/USA made bikes, your goals for riding, your budget, and many other factors personal to you will come into play. Researching on a computer is not the best way to figure out your ideal bike: test riding (on streets similar to yours, with your precious cargo if possible) is. 

Also, your decision can be fluid. Don't feel like you have to stick with the bike you first choose. I felt really silly for choosing the BD for our family, not using it, being scared of riding it, and then falling with my kids on it. If the bike you choose doesn't work out, sell it, move on, and find your perfect bike. We're now a one car family and we put gas in our car only one or two times a month. 

Lastly, you want to invest in a bike that you love riding, that is easily accessible, and that instills a healthy level of confidence. 

-Marni @ Rebourne Clothing


dorea said...

We had a similar path for riding with our two kids, though ours from an Xtra free-radical extension to a Workcycles bakfiets short. That said, the Xtra still gets a lot of love around here for hauling or only one kid at a time when we want something lighter (the heavy bike gets old on some hills, but we still find we ride much more than we used to because of the stability). Thanks for a great post!

Matthew R said...

It was refreshing to see such an honest post. I have the yuba Mundo and don't have kids at the moment. So it suits my needs. I don't think a Trike would work on many of the paths I ride. What I have noticed is that when I'm riding with the Yuba Go-Getter Bags they seem to command attention due to their profile seen from the rear and the bright yellow and cars seem to give me more space.- Matthew from

Chicargo said...

Oh love this guest post. Our motto is don't buy any cargo bike until you ride. Ride anyone else's rig that you can more than once!
Also we had no idea that Haley was making kid trikes. We have a second hand Haley we bought last summer that our kids are totally in love with but Haley told us that it was not not a kid carrying bike. Yea that you guys got together and built one!

Anonymous said...

we just bought a surly BD and put on the yepp mini seat. i can hardly get on the bike. not sure how it's going to work. found your post and wondered how your haley trike gets up hills? we are in a hilly area, which is why i chose the BD but now wondering if i might have made a poor choice saying no to a beautiful bakfiets a few weeks ago. also, did you look at the christiana bikes?

sara said...

I hope you'll contact Marni, the guest blogger here, directly. You can find her through her Etsy shop:

I am sure she'd be willing to share even more details about her cargo bike journey.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Haley doesn't make kids' trikes. He built us the box and we added the bench, harnesses, baby seat and harness. Great motto!

Anonymous said...

Hi! We don't live in a very hilly area, and I only have 3 speeds. I have to stand on small hills!
We saw Christiania online. I wanted the Haley because it was made here in the US and I liked supporting a local company. The Haleys seem very similar to christianias.
If we switch bikes again, I'll go to NYC and test ride as many bikes as possible.
Good luck on the BD! Maybe it'll be great with one kiddo.