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Short history of the cargo bike

The cargo bike: Undervalued all-rounder with promising future

September 2016 - Mark Kirkels - markkirkels@gmail.com

It has become a normal sight in the Netherlands: Thousands of so-called ‘bakfiets’ mothers and fathers kick the ‘bakfiets’ generation to school and the groceries home. They weren’t there fifteen years ago. But longer ago, the cargo bike was a critical part of the merchants’, craftsmen’s and factories’ business model. And while the cargo bike parents bike around in the Netherlands, the cargo bike’s star is rising in logistical systems in European cities. How significant has the cargo bike already been in the Dutch society, and what potential does it still hold?

Bakfiets = cargo bike  Literally, ‘bakfiets’ means box bike. Originally ‘bakfiets’ refers to the three-wheeled carriers (cargo bikes, trikes) but these days also the two wheeled carriers are called ‘bakfiets’. In urban logistics the ‘cargo bike’ is now the most commonly used term for any pedal- or pedal-electric-powered vehicle for carrying freight.

The cargo bike has become such an obvious option for young families that you almost forget what it means for public life that these families do not need a car. People sometimes grumble about the cargo bike, when it reduces their speed or when it blocks their sidewalk. But it reduces car parking pressure and car trips, so the cargo bike is quite a blessing for the public space. And it contributes to a positive image of the Netherlands abroad. Tourists in Amsterdam gaze at the flight attendant when she comes by with her kids on their way to school.


Figure 1. The Long John

The origin of the current Dutch wave can probably be found in Denmark. It was a brilliant idea to add a serious wooden tray to the good old Danish Long John and show the public that you do not fall over on two wheels with two children sitting next to each other. The two-wheeled ‘bakfiets’ was born. It made a big latent need visible. The Dutch were used to carrying children to school on their bikes, but with little room for luggage and at least one child out of sight, behind the back of the parent it was not really an ideal way of carrying children. So many parents were having a second car for that purpose. The two-wheeled cargo bike also aroused the interest for a handy three-wheeled cargo bike, for the same purpose. Again the designers looked to Denmark, apparently, where the Christiania is very common since it was designed in 1976. When the kids are old enough to bike by themselves, the parents sell the cargo bike. So the widespread idea is that cargo biking equals child transportation. Design and purpose have become closely associated with each other.

It seems that cargo bike design and the social need were also closely related in the past. Whereas the development of the bicycle was driven by the strong desire of human beings to move faster, the development of the cargo bike was driven by the need to move all sorts of goodies. The development of the regular bike initially aroused mainly recreational needs, but freight is by definition utilitarian. Something just has to be moved from A to B. Photos of 19th century street life show quite a few handcarts, dog carts and horse carts. People knew, of course, no better than that transport thus had to be like that and could not be faster. But yet the need, though latent, was there.

It started in… England

While searching for the origin of the cargo bike, the year 1877 pops up. A certain James Starley drew three carrier designs for transportation of people or goods.[1] At that time the wooden frames were replaced by solid iron copies with ball bearings. They were heavy, had no gear and little carrying capacity. Yet those old carrier designs remained attractive for a while after the invention of the Safety, the first bicycle as we know it, in 1888. The cycling technique was in fact quite expensive. Yet these technical developments were ultimately also indispensable for the further evolution of the cargo bike. The chain made direct transmission to the wheels redundant and created freedom in the positioning of the rider and the load. The wheels could be smaller. Carrying freight became energetically interesting, though it was initially still a basket or box.

Frame tubes and tires together were the next innovation to offer the cyclist speed and comfort. Also the carrier went back to the drawing board. The classic transport bike with rack and double top frame tube was quickly drawn, but it remained a bicycle, so anything more than a rack, basket or box was hardly an option. But early in the twentieth century, it was someone in England who got the idea to position a relatively large wooden box in front of the driver, right above a horizontal front axle hinging with a main frame. This simple construction did not need steering front wheels as the whole box or tray acted as the steering. The first classical cargo bike (still called carrier) was born. It was the cargo bike version of the Safety, so to speak. Though looking still fragile, it was a true milestone in the three-wheeled cargo bike history.


Figure 2. A typical carrier of the 1910s: This one was made by the firm of the Bergrijer brothers in Amsterdam (Source: www.rijwiel.net)

A mundane showpiece

Although the carrier would soon take over the role of hand, dog and horse cart in society, its design was nowhere near that of its ancestors. Instead, the carrier was more of a pedal-powered rather than horse-drawn carriage, like the cars in those days. It were apparently carriage builders who embarked on cargo bike design straight away as these became elegant creations with ornate leaf springs and delightful combinations of beautiful wood with iron fittings. Mahogany and elm were often used. A series of photos from the photo archive of Gazelle from the first decades of the last century (managed by the Velorama museum in Nijmegen) shows an impressive array of variations in box design for different applications always against the background of a city park, which apparently had to evoke an association with sophisticated, modern city life. From the outset, the traditional carrier was something to be deeply desired, offering status and marketed as such, pretty much like the ordinary bicycle.

An object for everyday use

Soon the cargo bikes became firmer and bigger. By placing two horizontal bicycle tubes further apart, the main frame gained rigidity and could be made longer, so that the box, tray or any other creation could be as long as about two meters. Wider rims and much better tires also made it less mundane. It became fit for the hard work faced by farmers, craftsmen, postmen, newspaper deliverers, garbage collectors, street sweepers). Though the twenties saw more and more cars, the common, biking man dominated the streets and the cargo bike were also a very familiar sight.

If someone wanted a cargo bike in those years, he probably went to the local bike seller/producer or blacksmith. They could order a standard cargo bike at the nearest bicycle manufacturer. Gazelle’s market was the Arnhem region, Burgers’ factory was in Deventer, Batavus’ was producing in Heerenveen, Maxwell in Amsterdam and so on. Given the many designs produced and the widespread lack of any indications of a brand, it was probably common practice that the cargo bike was custom made by blacksmith and carpenter though this cannot be ascertained anymore. Also in the thirties and forties the bicycle and cargo bike were the vehicles of the lower and middle class, during crisis and war respectively. Before, but especially after the war households were large and running on the daily supply of fresh food. The many vendors with their cargo bikes were crucial in keeping those businesses going.

It is well possible that cargo bikes replaced horse and hand drawn carts a while earlier in cities than in villages, as there was more capital in the urban economy. But it is also likely that, in the end, the number of cargo bikes per capita has been higher in rural areas. And they have probably been in service longer, in view of the absence of parking problems and the probability that urban entrepreneurs could afford a motorized option more timely.

During the winter famine of 1944 in the west of the country, many cargo bikes have done a critical service to members of hungry families by, not without danger, picking up food with farming relatives. Around that time trikes were also deployed for the evacuation of villages along the Meuse and elsewhere (like Pannerden). After the Second World War larger sizes of frame tubes could be produced and delivered. From the time that two bicycle tubes were replaced by a single big head tube, there were literally no technical restrictions anymore to the load that a cargo bike could carry, just the physical condition of the biker. The strength of the frame also allowed for an engine hence the arrival of motorized versions.


Figure 3. The bread carrier of Jacob Bruin, baker in Hauwert from 1929 till 1956 (Source: www.historisch-hauwert.nl)

 A declining business
The significance of the cargo bike in the urban and village economy did not last very long. It was not just the rise of pickup trucks and vans that made the craftsman and the merchant to abandon their cargo bikes. Also their clients changed. The arrival of refrigerators, smaller families, no one at home during the day and increasing car ownership eventually killed pedal-powered vending completely in the late sixties. Thousands of cargo bikes went one-way to the junkyard. Only the solid wheels were wanted by horse keepers. Some small business owners parked their trikes at the doorstep of their bakery, shop or restaurant, to emphasise craftsmanship or tradition. But during the eighties and nineties, also those bikes lost their representativeness and disappeared. Two-wheeled carriers were positioned among the flowers under the eaves of thatched farmhouses. The major manufacturers stopped producing the cargo bikes. In the early eighties, Van Raam in Aalten still produced about ninety traditional cargo bikes per year, under the name of Apollo which was a contraction of Accles & Pollock, a former bicycle tubes supplier earlier in the century. But vans took on the role of even the very last traditional cargo bike.

Yet even smaller, different meanings
When you realize how completely normal the cargo bike has actually been, it seems that the social, societal significance has been overlooked precisely because of that commonness. That significance is not limited to helping out with transporting and vending goods. The cargo bikes did great services for associations and political parties during the course of the seventies and eighties. Especially in Amsterdam, but also in other university towns cargo bikes were available to those who could not afford a removal van. Also in the seventies cargo bike races emerged in several villages. The International Bak- en Transportfietsen Race in Lith along the Meuse, with one hundred twenty teams, was the largest at that time. The annual races offered a new purpose for the abandoned cargo bikes until, after 27 times, the race in Lith was organised for the last time 2007.


Figure 3. Cargo bike race in and around the village of Lith, 2006 (Source: www.caubo.com)

The success of these races cannot be explained as if cargo bike racing is only the weird hobby of only a few. Trikes and transport bikes have a robust, nostalgic look. They are sturdy, and it is tough riding. The events were a complete show with a lot of variety in design and with fancy dressed participants, e.g. postmen with their mail delivery carrier.
The aesthetic power of cargo bikes has given a helping hand to their social significance, which may partly explain why the bicycle trailer has been so insignificant for so long. Apparently someone prefers to have his cargo or breed right in front of him, in sight, and connects the load mentally to the physical effort.

In hindsight, the eighties and nineties the darkest years for the cargo bike in the Netherlands. The twenty first century has started well, with the handy models, not only in the Netherlands but also in Denmark. The hip, bright Nihola of aluminum and polycarbonate became the best-selling cargo bike in Denmark. But the widespread association with child transport is creepy. So much more is possible with the cargo bike ...

The resurrection: the true Cargo Bike

And this is now actually happening. While the nostalgic transport bike is still the source of inspiration for one after another fashionable bike, and while the handy models do the children and the groceries, a new species is evolving rapidly: the true cargo bike that cannot be simply translated into bakfiets anymore; it should rather be vrachtfiets (freight bike). The cargo bike stands out from its predecessors like the giant gorilla does from the other primates. Again someone had a brilliant idea with the Long John: Put the rider in the mountainbike position, make the bike lighter, tougher and faster, and voila, the Bullitt was born. Many couriers fell in love with the design. The Bullitt marks the beginning of the revolution, taking place in pedal-powered logistics.


Figure 4. The Bullitt

There is a vibrant European community of passionate designers and enthusiastic producers who inspire each other during the annual International urban logistics conference and cargo bike festival (www.cargobikefestival.com) in cargo bike capital Nijmegen. While visitors admire and try out the latest two-, three- or four-wheeled creations from across Europe, professionals discuss the latest in urban transport logistics in European cities which, especially outside the Netherlands, are struggling with environmental and quality of life challenges. The cargo bike designers offer solutions. The trend is electric and large. Most new models are electric two-wheelers, with ever thicker tires, tubes and batteries. Existing models (Bullitt, Urban Arrow, Nihola, Velove) are being extended, raised, and widened. Pretty soon the cargo bike is inseparable from the reinvention of urban logistics systems.

In fact, the old cargo bike has a forked future: small for the individual, big for the company. The cargo bikes are there to stay, replacing many vans and hence contributing significantly to the goal of environmentally friendly urban economies.

[1]Norcliffe, 2011 in: Cox, P. Cycling Culture, 2015, p.133