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Place of cargo bikes on the road

Kaspar Koolstra (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences)[1] and Jos Sluijsmans (Fietsdiensten.nl)


Bicycles are flexible, fast and clean. However, cargo bikes are larger, heavier and require more power. The introduction of electrically assisted pedaling has opened up more potential for cycle logistics. What if we could replace half of all urban deliverances by vans with cargo bikes? Where will these cargo bikes drive: on bike lanes and bikeways, between other bicycles, or on the carriageway, between cars and vans… Therefore, the Dutch Province of Gelderland has asked us, in preparation of the International Cargo Bike Festival, to discuss the place of cargo bikes on the road.



Foto: Fietskoeriers.nl

What is a cargo bike?

With a ‘cargo bike’ we mean actually a number of different vehicles, all having in common that they have pedals and that they are designed for conveying freight:

  • Cargo bicycles
  • Cargo tricycles, quadricycles and bicycles with trailer
  • Heavy-duty pedelecs
  • Cargo speed pedelecs

Cargo bicycles

Cargo bicycles are two-wheeled cargo bikes and pedelecs – bicycles with electrically assisted pedaling. Denis Vermaut of French cargo bicycle manufacturer Douze Cycles, explains that their cargo bicyles can use bikeways and cycle lanes without a problem. In some countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, it is not a matter of free choice: if there is a separate bicycle track or cycle lane, cargo bicycles will have to use it. With respect to safety, defensive riding seems more important than helmet use according to the experts in cycle logistics we spoke. However, “helmets are controversial, but recommended as good practice”, says Nick Blake of Zürich based Imagine Cargo.


Foto: Gerard Verschooten

Cargo tricycles, quadricycles and bicycles with trailer

It is not just a matter of having one or two more wheels than a bicycle: tricycles, quadricycles and trailers are usually wider. How much wider they can be, differs from country to country. In the Netherlands, for instance, trikes may be 150 cm wide, against 75 cm for bicycles. Although the exact criteria differ from country to country, these wider cycles and pedelecs are free to use either cycle lanes or tracks, or to use the carriageway. Especially where cycle lanes and tracks are relatively narrow, the carriageway may be the better place. According to Gary Armstrong (Outspoken Delivery, Cambridge, UK): “since trikes are wider, we consider it to be anti-social for other cyclists to use cycle tracks which are not more than 2 meters wide”.

Heavy-duty pedelecs

Pedelecs with a maximum continuous rated power up to 250 Watts have the same rights and obligations in traffic as ‘ordinary’ bicycles. Although peak power may be higher, 250 W may be insufficient to keep up with other (bicycle) traffic when accelerating at an intersection or to negotiate longer and steeper slopes. That’s why some cycle logistic companies, such as Imagine Cargo in Switzerland, use tricycle pedelecs with a 1 kW electrical motor. In Switzerland, these trikes are considered Elektro-Rikschas. “This is a hybrid category regarding testing and safety standards”, says Nick Blake: vehicles have to be constructed like mopeds, but have the same place on the road as ordinary bicycles. Insurance, however, is mandatory. In the Netherlands, these heavy-duty pedelecs with a maximum assisted speed up to 25 km/h would be classified as a snorfiets: light mopeds with similar rights and obligations as Swiss Elektro-Rikschas. Light mopeds, however, are usually not pedelecs. Because these non-electric ‘light’ mopeds increasingly cause problems on the busy Amsterdam bikeways, all light mopeds will be banned from cycleways in the Amsterdam city center in the near future.


Foto: Gerard Verschooten

Cargo speed pedelecs

The heavy-duty pedelecs discussed above still have a maximum (electrically assisted) speed of 25 km/h. But what if you want to be faster? Then you may choose a cargo speed pedelec. Pedelecs with a maximum assisted speed up to 45 km/h are considered mopeds. That means that they are not allowed to use bikeways and cycle lanes, mandatory helmet use and registration (and taxation in the UK). Due this and higher construction costs, costs per kilometer are significantly higher. Therefore, these are not very attractive for cycle logistic purposes. And, according to Nick Blake, more power is desirable, but a higher maximum speed is not very useful in urban traffic.

Make way for cargo bikes?

Cargo bikes are relatively flexible, especially when they may choose to use cycle lanes or tracks as they see fit. You can park them virtually anywhere (on the sidewalk, if not blocking the way for pedestrians and wheelchairs), and usually you may enter one-way streets in the opposite direction. Therefore, “cargo bikes are more time-reliable than trucks”, says Nick Blake.

A remaining issue is the limited with of cycle paths in some towns, especially where they suddenly narrow down. Obstacles intended for preventing motor vehicles are often placed too close together, especially from the point of view of trike users. On the other hand, Arne Behrensen (cargobike.jetzt) argues in his blog that the carriageway might be the safer place for larger cargo bikes. Other vehicles are usually better aware of and keeps more distance to cargo bicycles than ordinary bicycles. So, regarding the place on the road of cargo bikes, there is ample food for thought – and for further investigation.

[1] For more information or questions about the place of cargo bikes on the road now and in the future, you may contact Kaspar Koolstra at k.koolstra@hva.nl.