The new family car...a bike?

Dave Cohen, right, and a friend ride two Yuba ElMundo electric-assist cargobikes to bring six kids to the Guilford Fair in Vermont. Courtesy photo. COURTESY PHOTO.

Over the past year my wife, son and I have been riding an odyssey of sorts – well, actually an electric-assist cargobike.

After 3,000 miles or so of getting around Brattleboro and our surrounding area nearly exclusively car-free, we can say that it has been a blast and that it’s changing the way we see our world. So it made perfect sense that back in July we were excited to see a Wall Street Journal front page article proclaiming: “Cargo Bikes: The New Station Wagon.”

Curiously, most folks in New England don’t know what a cargobike is – or as my grandmother would’ve put it, “They don’t know from cargobikes.” However, anyone who has travelled to Holland, Denmark, China or any number of countries where bicycles are used for daily transportation, perhaps noticed children and all manner of cargo being carried on bikes of a variety of shapes and sizes. You likely saw a cargobike.

The term “cargobike” can be a little confusing. A cargobike is sometimes called a cargo bike (I like to combine it into a single word.), a utility bike, a transport bike, a bakfiets (Dutch for “box bike”) or a myriad of other nomenclature.

They have anywhere from two to four wheels and are either exclusively human-powered or a hybrid of human-power and electric-assist. Cargobikes also typically have an area set aside for hauling things like groceries, kids, adults, refrigerators or whatever else.

With this in mind it may be good for you to know that there is a thriving cargobike movement in the U.S. and it’s bringing with it a whole new level of comfort, utility, carrying capacity and range compared to a standard bike. You wouldn’t know what’s going on by living in New England, but go visit a place like Portland, Ore., or Vancouver, B.C., and you’ll witness what’s happening. The bicycle is being redefined.

The first cargobikes appeared during the bicycle craze of the 1890’s, a time when there were more than 300 bike manufacturers in the U.S. alone. In Europe, where cargobikes were invented, they were designed for almost every job imaginable – for firefighters, carpenters, dairies, bakeries and an endless array of other applications.

Then along came the automobile which cannibalized much of the bike technology – pneumatic tires, chains and spokes. The promise of the unlimited mobility of the car ended the golden age of the bicycle and the bike then became a toy for kids, especially in North America.

Then, in the 1980’s a huge bike revival occurred in the U.S. with the advent of mountain bikes and super-light road bikes. This new “toyification” of the bike for adults has been vigorously promoted by the bike industry and bike shops, and it birthed a whole generation of performance minded enthusiasts that may ride feather weight bicycles for 100 miles over mountains, but outside of that, the bike is not an option for them as a true utility vehicle.

Thankfully, the new bike movement is shifting cycling into a radically different gear. While cargobike designs have primarily originated out of Europe for the past 100 years or so, the current cargobike movement is inspired by an American idea – the longtail bike.

The longtail is basically a stretched out mountain bike – some say a mountain bike on hormones. The original concept came from Ross Evans when he developed the Xtracycle Free Radical back in the early 1990’s in California. The Free Radical is an extension frame that will stretch almost any bike into a child carrying, stuff hauling cargobike.

The best longtails now feature fully integrated frames (see www.yubabikes.com and www.xtracycle.com) that can transport loads upwards of 400 pounds. They are packed with features like special kid’s seats, enormous panniers for carrying groceries, sidecar trailers, huge front baskets and an ability to tow another bike (great for bringing your kid’s bike along) and much more.

But the most exciting aspect of this revolution for us New Englanders dealing with mountains and distances is the electric-assist cargobike. Electric-assist means that you have a motor that’s powering either your front wheel, rear wheel or your chain drive.

You are still pedaling and offering to your bike the purest, cleanest form of energy available – your body – aided by a small, but powerful motor and battery that will help you up the hills with kids on board (with minimal sweat).

It will also help get you up to the speed of cars in some of the narrow stretches we have to navigate in our region. Suffice it to say that once you try out an electric-assist cargobike, you’ll see it as a “game changer.”

Strangely, it’s not the high performance cyclists, bike shop folks or, even more oddly, bicycle advocates who embrace and understand the potential of the cargobike and the amazing electric-assist options. The typical early adopters of the cargobike tend to be parents – people like you and me – yearning to bring their children into a healthful relationship with the world and perhaps looking to set an example for how we can use our bodies to get around.

When you get down to it, most kids love riding on cargobikes and they often recognize how ridiculously sane and ecologically appropriate a cargobike is for local transportation and a world in need of real solutions. We usually don’t think about it, but inherent in the very design and speed of the automobile are characteristics that foster a profound strain of sensory deprivation that dramatically restrict our emotional connection toward the human and more-than-human communities we encounter.

In an age of undeniable climate change and global ecological demise, we have to ask ourselves how we are responding. Should we be raising our kids inspired by a 1950’s vision of moving about our world or something else?

So, come join a growing number of us in Brattleboro and elsewhere who are taking off on our cargobikes and inspiring our kids and our communities to know what it means to literally and figuratively think outside of the box.

Getting started:

A must see energizing video that will bring you up-to-date in 10 minutes: ww.youtube.com/watch?v=2Yy3kXIaKp8

A guide to electric-assist cargobikes: electricbikereport.com/electric-cargo-bike-guide/

Great article in Bicycling Magazine about cargobikes: www.bicycling.com/bikes-gear/bikes-and-gear-features/coolest-bike-ever-made?page=0,0

Some wonderful photos of cargobike types: daily.sightline.org/2012/12/27/cargo-bikes/

Dave Cohen, a psychotherapist and an ecopsychologist, blends body-oriented and mindfulness therapies with approaches that draw on the healing potential of the natural world. In the early 1990’s, he founded Pedal Express in Berkeley, Calif., a nationally-recognized delivery service utilizing a fleet of cargobikes.

He can be reached at www.davecohencouseling.com.