Doing the figures: why can’t a bike be more like a car?

There is no point trying to avoid it: a cargo bike is an expensive bit of kit. When I made the financial leap into the world of ten-foot-long bikes, which was in the summer of 2012, the cost was just under £1,800 for the bike (a long Bakfiets) and some £160 for a rain hood (a much-used and highly recommended bit of kit). Add in a modest delivery charge and you are not likely to see any change from two grand. And while prices can go up or down, my bet would be on ‘up’.

Of course, it is possible to justify such expenditure as a sound investment and there is plenty of evidence to be submitted in support of such an argument. We could compare and contrast, for example, the annual costs of car or bus travel against using a bike, even an expensive one like a cargo bike. We could consider the health benefits and the time savings. We could go on and on about how brilliant bikes are and how particularly brilliant really big bikes are. However, while the arguments may be persuasive, the simple fact is that this is not a casual purchase, even for the most determined bike nut.

A Bakfiets going about its business of being useful

A Bakfiets going about its business of being useful

An excellent example of this dilemma – whether to forgo an efficient method of transporting your children and your shopping around town or spend a large amount of money – was provided recently a conversation with a friend. As well as offering an insight into the everyday problems of getting around town by car, bike or foot with children, the discussion also ended up presenting an intriguing challenge to those organisations seeking to promote cycling and the bike-based economy.

Here is the case study. Martin has three small daughters who need transporting daily to various sites for day care and school. By choice he uses a bike with a child seat but he works on one of Headington’s numerous hospital sites and while the distances between home and his usual destinations are fairly small – less than a couple of miles – the demands of his work, his partner’s work and the combination of multiple children and multiple locations means that he has to use a car more often than he would like. And the car presents a problem beyond his general preference for using a bike: getting around the local streets of this part of Oxford at busy times in a car is a time-consuming business and takes a lot longer on four wheels than on two.

When introduced to a Bakfiets, Martin immediately recognised the benefits of a cargo bike: room for all his girls and their school bags, considerable time savings, and a safe and enjoyable experience for all concerned. However, given that he was in the middle of a lengthy and very expensive house renovation, he was obliged to accept that the likelihood of him finding another two grand was remote. Nevertheless, inspired by the ease and elegance of a cargo bike, and being an imaginative and highly practical individual, he came up with his own solution that involved a tricycle, some plywood and a few carpentry skills. The result, as our picture shows, was a triumph of kitchen-table engineering (almost literally in this case) and a tribute to the simple practicality of cycle-based transport, albeit with a few minor compromises in light of the raw materials available.

Martin and his magnificent trike, going about the business of benig useful

Martin and his magnificent trike

A number of points arise from this tale:

  1. In the context of urban environments and/or shortish distances, bike transport is far quicker and far more efficient than any other mode, even if you need to carry children, shopping or bags of sand.
  2. You do not have to be a hardened bike evangelist to be able to recognise the benefits of being able move more than one child by bike.
  3. The economic realities of family life dictate that at the time a cargo bike would be most useful, the ability to make sizeable financial investments is often compromised.

While a cargo bike is an excellent answer to a great many transport questions, we must recognise that they are often beyond the means of a great many people who would find them really useful and who could, by using them, improve their lives and at the same time improve their local environments.

Of course, the cost of buying a Bakfiets is a fraction of the cost of buying a car (although I have owned some very cheap cars in my time) but it still represents a considerable outlay. And yet most families own a car or two. How do they do it? And if they can do it for a car, why can’t they do it for a bike instead of a car?

It seems that over time the financial sector and the car industry, with assistance from government that viewed affordable car ownership as a good thing, have evolved methods by which money can be made available to facilitate the purchase of a car. From traditional bank loans through to more recent leasing arrangements, systems are in place to make the acquisition of a car affordable, accessible and acceptable to huge numbers of people. We should therefore not be surprised to find that there are huge numbers of cars on our roads.

The challenge that we should now be setting those with a vested interest in the promotion of cycling as a method of everyday transport – and here we might include the financial services industry, the bike industry (manufacturing and retail), the transport departments of central and local government, health providers and health promoters, to name but a few – is to come up some workable financial arrangements that will allow more people to invest in better transport options. If you can lease a new car with an affordable monthly payment and some innovative purchase options at the end of a three-year contract, you should be able to do the same with a cargo bike. And were cargo bikes to become affordable and increasingly common, the scale of the market for finance providers would grow and a sustainable business model based on a sustainable transport solution would emerge.

If you know someone who works for a financial institution, or even a bike manufacturer, perhaps you could ask them: if you can lease a car, why can’t you lease a Bakfiets?

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4 thoughts on “Doing the figures: why can’t a bike be more like a car?

  1. 1. With the Cycle2Work scheme, one can pay for a bike in instalments, and save taxes.
    2. Why didn’t Martin sell his car to fund a proper cargobike?

  2. The Cycle2Work scheme could well be part of the answer, although I’m not too familiar with the details of how it works. It does presuppose, I presume, that you are employed and that your HR department is amenable, which might exclude those outside the more traditional work environments. With regard to selling his car, I suspect Martin’s answer would probably be: Because I’ve got three kids and I need a car, even though I don’t want to use it every day.

    Anyone have working knowledge of where best to find details of Cycle2Work?

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