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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Are we all riding the wrong bike?

As I fiddled with the locks that had kept my Bakfiets secured to the bike stand outside one of my local supermarkets I watched with interest, then wonder, then alarm as a fellow shopper carefully hung a bag on each end of her mountain bike’s handlebars and then lifted a shrink-wrapped case of six two-litre bottles of mineral water on to the crossbar. For a brief moment she considered the possibility of trying to ride away but before gravity was forced to illustrate the error of her ways she thought better of it and wheeled the heavily laden machine towards home.

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Amsterdam: the bike as an everyday tool

It was a relief to watch her walk away. It had been all too clear all too quickly that here was a shopping trip that could have ended in broken bottles, broken bags and, in all likelihood, broken bones. I suspect she would not have made it more than ten yards without mishap and whatever your thoughts on bottled water (and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that no one who lives within a 500-mile radius of where I live actually needs it) its transport should not involve bloodshed.

This little tableau was another small speck of grist to a mill that has been grinding in the back of my mind for some time. The question that has been occupying me on and off for months is simply this: are we all riding the wrong bike?

Now I’m the first to admit that not everyone wants to ride round on a skip on wheels but there does seem to be an obvious disconnection between the bikes that the majority of people are riding and the job that the majority of people want a bike to do. Even in Oxford, which is a cycling city, the off-road bike – or at least a bastardised version that has been inspired by the mountain trail – is prevalent. The majority of these bikes boast enough gears to allow you to tie your chain in knots and still ride up your roof but few seem to have anything that is specifically designed to enable the rider to carry anything that is not strapped to their person. While the wicker basket is not unusual (as I say, I live in Oxford and some traditions, however self-regarding, hold fast), it seems increasingly obvious that most of the bikes on our streets are not fit for the purpose of using a bike as an everyday aid to living.

If you are lucky enough to be choosing a bike that is going to accompany you on life’s great adventure there is a fairly simple question-and-answer session that you need to attend to before you saddle up.

Question one: do you want to get dressed specifically to ride a bike? If your answer is ‘yes’, you are a roadie and you will be carrying only the things that can fit into the three small pockets on the back of your jersey or in the bottles fixed to your frame. You will have no interest in going to the shops and, owing to your likely choice of pedals, no ability to walk round them if you did. Move on; there’s nothing for you here.

If your answer is no, it is more likely that you just want a bike to get about on, one that will save you the faff of getting on the bus or getting in a car and trying to find a parking space when all you wanted to do was go up the road to get something, visit someone or have a drink. And so to question two: are you likely to need to carry something on any of your journeys in the next six months? If your answer is no you have to go back to question one and face the fact that you are actually a roadie and condemned to riding only the narrowest of tyres and narrowest of saddles for the rest of your life, like a cycling Sisyphus.

The only possible answer to question two is ‘yes’; of course you are going to need to carry something. Whatever your purpose, be it work, pleasure or duty, you are going to need to carry a bag or some books, a coat or a bag of chips in the very near future. Therefore you are going to need a basket; or a rack with a springy elastic cord; or some panniers; or one of those natty, 1950s-style saddle bags.

So why do so many people ride around with countless gears but nothing in which to put their gear? There will, of course, be as many reasons as riders but among the most common factors will be happenstance (this bike happened to be available/handy/unlocked/still in the shed), cost (a Chinese-made pseudo-mountain bike with plastic brake levers was the cheapest thing I could find) or availability (I went into my local bike shop and it seemed to be full of high-end mountain bikes or road bikes requiring a specific, highly colourful and highly unflattering wardrobe).

If riding a bike is to become an everyday transport option for a sizeable proportion of the population, rather than a lifestyle choice for the committed, the bicycle has to be reduced to the status of a convenient tool, rather than shrouded in mystery or fetishised as the choice of champions. The everyday bike needs to be sturdy, upright and at the front of the shop. There should be a choice of sizes (small, medium and large should do it), a choice of colours (black, blue or red; anything else as a special order) and a variety of carrying options (basket, panniers or the common Dutch, which entails a folding, front-mounted rack designed to hold a beer crate or a friend; the full Dutch involves the aforementioned skip with wheels and need not concern us for the moment). There should be a minimum number of gears neatly contained within the rear hub (who needs more than three?) and a minimum amount of fuss surrounding the selection process. There should be a sympathetic individual to reassure the purchaser that, yes, while it is quite a lot of money to shell out on a bike, it will cost you next to nothing to keep on the road, you’ll still be riding it in 20 years and it will be a source of joy, all of which is in stark contrast to having anything to do with a car.

It is no coincidence that when you go to Amsterdam the first thing you notice after you have marvelled at the sheer weight of bicycle traffic on the streets is that all the bikes are almost identical. The two things that might dissuade you from hiring a bike to get around the city for a couple of days are first, that you will struggle to find anywhere to park it because every available stand and railing has a bike chained to it and, second, that if you did find somewhere to leave it you may well struggle to find it again among the massed ranks of black, sit-up-and-beg bikes. In Amsterdam no one really seems to care what their bike looks like as long as it does the job of getting them and their bag to where they need to go. It is a lesson we should learn in the UK as we strive to emulate our Dutch brethren.

So with two simple questions, you are on your way to a life of bicycling convenience, free from the necessity for special clothing or the dangers of things hanging from your handlebars. There is a third question: do I need a bike that can carry another three or four people, a month’s worth of groceries, three bags of sand or a barrel of beer? If the answer is yes we may need to talk skips.

Het regent!* Onboard and undercover

*Dutch for “It’s raining!”

If you use a Bakfiets virtually every day eventually you are going to have to deal with inclemency. This year we have been dealing with inclemency since the summer began but now that the winter is here with a vengeance biting winds have been added to the rain. What is the purveyor of a precious cargo to do?

With a really big bike as your chosen mode of transport you have a choice of two options and, given that the Dutch have very similar, if windier, weather to that of the UK, both options have been catered for by the Bakfiets design team.

Option one: the hardy approach

The first option is the hardy approach. If you are an adherent to the old adage that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, this one is for you. The hardy approach involves kitting out your cargo in their best wet-weather gear, jamming the hats firmly on the head of cargo and captain alike, and heading off into the squall. The Bakfiets design feature included as standard that will meet your needs in this instance are the four holes in the floor of the box, one in each corner. No matter how hard it rains, you can be confident that you won’t be pedalling with water in the bilge. How much weight is taken on board by the absorbency of the cargo is down to the appropriateness of the chosen clothing.

The second option may be termed the deluxe approach. This approach involves using a Bakfiets rain hood, an elegantly designed and sturdily constructed cover that fits simply and quickly to the Bakfiets box, ensuring that the cargo is warm and dry at all times. Freed from the worry of a dampening and increasingly disgruntled bikemate, the captain is left in peace to cope with the effects of side winds on a tall structure and marvel at the improvements to the drag coefficient that the rain hood appears to bring. There is also an added benefit in that the rain hood offers some protection for the pedaller’s legs, particularly if you are able to maintain a reasonable pace.

Option two: the deluxe

This second (deluxe) option does mean additional expense – some £160 – but this, having braved the first option during a very wet August, was our preferred option. Although the hardy option has much to recommend it and is still employed on those ‘will it, won’t it’ days for short trips, the rain hood has already seen plenty of use and has proved invaluable. No matter how bad the weather, you can be confident that your cargo will arrive at her destination warm and dry, although the warm, dry conditions do tend to create a very snoozy environment, which may or may not be a cause for concern depending upon your planned bedtimes.

Putting the expense to one side, the drawbacks of the rain hood might be said to include storage – away from the bike the hood comprises a large triangle of heavy-duty plastic that really needs to be hung somewhere that is both out of the way and accessible (a garage in our case) – and that fact that it does not stow – once it is attached to the bike it won’t fold down during the journey. However, the positives are plentiful and persuasive. It is very simple to install upon delivery, requiring only a few screws to fit the four clips and anchors. it is quick and easy to put on the bike on a day-to-day basis, which means you will actually decide to use it rather than thinking, “I don’t have time to fiddle about with that now.” Most attractive of all, it works. The cargo is warm. The cargo is dry. The cargo is happy. And so am I. Excellent value at almost any cost.

Staying safe on the road with Wiggo and Shane

When Bradley Wiggins and Shane Sutton, two of the most experienced and skilled road cyclists in the country, ended up in hospital within 24 hours of each other cycle safety was briefly elevated to front-page status. Questions were asked in the Commons and daytime television sofas alike, all asking why so many people riding bikes on UK roads are seriously injured or killed every year. Many talking heads or muttering hacks quoted Department of Transport figures that show 104 people riding bicycles have been killed on the roads so far this year, with a total of 107 killed in the whole of 2011.

It was a brief but welcome (apart, of course, from the incidents and injuries to Wiggo and Shane that generated the interest) moment in the limelight for an important issue and before the debate got superseded by other stories some progress seemed to have been made towards a recognition of the importance of cycling as a transport and health solution, and of the need to make cycling safer for anyone and everyone who chooses to turn a pedal. The downside of the debate was that it focused attention once again on the dangers of cycling rather than its benefits but given the origins of the story – Britain’s only Tour de France winner and a senior member of his coaching team put in hospital by errant drivers – this was hard to avoid.

As someone who rides a bike regularly, I am often asked by friends who might be considering taking to the roads on a bike, whether for the first time or as a returner, for a bit of advice. Top of the FAQ list is safety. While trying to be as reassuring and encouraging as possible, I also try to make sure that my answers are considered rather than flippant and realistic rather than dismissive of the risks and hazards associated with cycling on busy roads.

My most frequent response comes in two parts. First, in terms of your long-term health the benefits of cycling vastly outweigh the risks associated with being on a bike on the roads. Second, once you are on a bike on the road you need to make a conscious decision that you are going to be part of the traffic and ride accordingly; obey the rules of the road but do not be afraid to assert your right to be there. This first part is now a well-documented aspect of public health policy and is generally accepted by anyone who has read a newspaper or engaged broadcast media with any regularity in the last decade. The second part is a conclusion drawn after some two decades of regularly riding a bike at home and abroad on a great variety of roads and in a great variety of traffic conditions. However, it is easier said than done, or at least a lot more easily done by a confident, experienced cyclist than a novice.

Having been carefully honing this response over the years, I was delighted to find that there is now a third element to be added: get a copy of Cyclecraft, a guide to cycle safety written by John Franklin and published by The Stationery Office (what I still like to think of as HMSO); I’ve put the details on the links page of this blog. This excellent and highly readable book explains clearly and with great authority what I have inexpertly been trying to convey for years in my reference to deciding to be part of the traffic. In his succinct explanation of the primary and secondary riding positions Franklin explains for the benefit of novice and old hand alike not only why you should be riding in the middle of the lane on certain occasions (the primary position) but also why you have the right – and an obligation – so to do despite what some ill-informed road users (you know who they are) might think. This latter point should be a comfort and an encouragement to everyone riding a bike, as should the explanation of why the secondary position – slightly closer towards the kerb than the middle of the lane – does not involve riding in the gutter or making sure you don’t inconvenience drivers of motor vehicles.

Cyclecraft is not a radical publication. It is not written by or for road warriors, nor is it an anti-car diatribe. It is simply explaining to anyone using the road that a bike is a vehicle that is, as the Highway Code points out, entitled to the same consideration and the same space as any other vehicle. This issue of the same space is what should make the primary and secondary riding positions more acceptable and more readily adoptable to anyone whose limited bike handling skills and self-preservation instincts prevent them from adopting some of the more extreme tactics of the urban cycle militia.

Riding a big bike with a precious cargo brings the issue of road safety, and in particular road positioning, into sharper focus than it might have been when I was riding solo on a road bike or a pub bike. Perhaps as a parent I am now consciously or unconsciously less likely to take risks but certainly as the pilot of a bike with a passenger in it I am aware of my responsibility to deliver the cargo safely and comfortably to her (or occasionally my) chosen destination. For many less experienced cyclists the concept of riding out in the stream of the traffic, well away from the kerb and well in the way of the cars, vans and buses also using the road, is counter-intuitive; even experienced cyclists might feel that their instinct to ‘take the road’ is about competing for space rather than using the space that is legitimately available to them. However, for the rider of a cargo bike, it becomes a necessity.

Once I started riding a Bakfiets I quickly became aware that my riding style had changed. Sitting upright and pushing a significant weight meant my speed was generally going to be slow, so nipping in and around other vehicles was not going to be a feature of my journeys. The fact that a cargo bike is pretty wide also meant that I was not going to be slipping up the inside or outside of many traffic queues or squeezing between buses to grab a few extra yards. Instead I found myself taking my time and taking my place within the traffic, becoming part of the traffic rather than competing with it. I finally realised that I was actually following the advice I had been offering all these years: I had had the decision to be part of the traffic forced upon me by dint of the size of the bike I was riding.

By being obliged to travel more sedately I have taken to travelling more serenely. Now I take my place on the road in what I now know to be the primary position, offering generously exaggerated hand signals and cheery waves as I go. The reaction of motorists has been to respond in kind, almost without exception, offering space on the road and clearance as they pass. Such consideration from fellow road users is probably a reflection of their surprise at coming across such an unlikely bike or their incredulity that anyone would be so irresponsible to pedal their own child about in a small skip on wheels; it may be down to the fact that we have become something of a local talking point, although given that we live near the Headington shark locals are very hard to impress. Whatever the reason may be, I feel as secure on a bike on the road as I ever have.

On the odd occasion that I have had to remind a driver that they might like to reconsider their decision to take my space, I have been able to do so with the confidence of someone who has read Cyclecraft and is quite prepared to discuss its recommendations in detail. Which is enough to frighten even the most hardened motorist.