Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bakfiets – is Australia ready for the cargo bike revolution?

Note: I bought a Bakfiets long cargo bike in September 2010 from Dutch Cargo Bikes and couldn't be happier. A follow-up (3yr) review is here.  I am now a local ambassador for Dutch Cargo Bikes. If you would like to test ride this bike in Brisbane (or a three wheeler) email me at cameron@dutchcargobike.com.au  
Recent discussions on cycling culture and the imminent arrival of our second child have resulted in an obsession with cargo bikes or Bakfiets (Dutch for boxbikes). These bikes are taking the world buy storm, and have now made their way to Australia, with the market well served by DutchCargoBike.com.au, who offer a variety of models.

I want one, exactly like in the photo above, but I don’t know why.

Economists generally believe people know how to make decisions that maximise their welfare. But in many cases we can’t know how much we will enjoy our consumption decisions in advance, since we have never experienced them before – such goods are known as experience goods.

Having already test-ridden one and been impressed, I am now attempting to evaluate the bike's worth by first itemising the pros and cons. Any assistance or insight or suggestions are appreciated.

Can handle a load of groceries plus children for short trips
Can pick up hitchhikers
No parking or fuel costs and only minimal maintenance

$3150 for the bike
Over $4000 if you want electric motor assistance
Plenty of hills in Brisbane
Size and manoeuvrability
Extreme summer heat (can buy a shade for the kids though)

More importantly, to determine the value to our family of the bike I have been thinking in terms of marginal utility. Instead of thinking how good or practical the bike could be in isolation, I think in terms of how much better having the bike would be compared to our current situation.

Our family owns a car which this bike will not replace. Nor will trips by cargo bike replace trips by car. So cost savings for the same types of trips taken by car is not the main selling point.

To me the main selling point is practicality - the ability to commute in new and different ways. Moving two toddlers around the city by bike, with all the paraphernalia that goes with it is quite a challenge. Even with a rear-mounted bicycle child seat, you typically need panniers stuffed with goodies to take a day trip anywhere in the city. I know my wife can't handle that on her bike, so we don't take these sorts of trips. But I want to.

Bike trailers seem to offer similar versatility, but to me they appear very impractical in terms of loading, parking, visibility in traffic, but also in terms of the ability to communicate with the kids while riding. You also need a pretty decent bike to go with the trailer as well.

The big question in terms of the economic benefit of owning such a premium bike rests on its resale value. A bike worth $3000 has a lot of value to lose, but if it maintains value, then the actual costs of owning a cargo bike for, say 5-7 years while the kids are young, could be a lot less. Let's say you can sell the bike for $2000 after 5 years. That seems a pretty reasonable guess. The cost of ownership is then around $1000 in total over 5 years, or $250 a year. Add in a new tyre or two, a service or two at the local bike shop and you might get up to $300 a year. To me looking at it this way I can see gains in terms of marginal utility (the sheer fun and practicality of owning a bike) that far outweigh this marginal cost.

The bike is looking quite tempting.

In terms of whether Australia will embrace this global trend, I guess that depends a little on how well our cities embrace cycling in general. The capital cities are certainly becoming more dense, with more facilities living in what would be considered urban, rather than suburban, locations. Like many glob trends I see Australia catching on, but with a lag of 5-10 years. Time will tell.


  1. Hey Cam, good read and nice links.

    Was very curious after hearing about the bike from Cathy; Maybe it's shallow but one of my main 'cons' to the idea is I find it very unpleasing aesthetically.

    I find it hard enough wearing a new coat in public let alone riding a bike that could easily be displayed in an automotive museum.

    I also think the cost is prohibitive and aimed at a very niche market. With no personal reference of the manufacturing quality I imagine if motivated enough anyone with basic welding skills could build something very similar from recycled parts for a couple of hundred dollars - I'm sure I could, the only difficult part would be making an efficient power assisted copy.

    Considering the price of 10+ aH Li-ion batteries the cost increase of power assistance in retail models is very low.

    cheers, look forward to reading more on your blog.

  2. "If this group [young families living in apartments] is forgoing a second car (they may not have a parking space anyway), and using a cargo bike for work, school and shopping trips, their may be significant benefits."

    Where do they park their bike when not in use or overnight? It looks too big to take up the stairs, too open for the rain, and too expensive to leave out on a chain.

    1. The Dutch built ones are designed to sit out on the street in the rain/snow/sleet/salt/thieves for years on end when suitably locked. You can get a flat cover for the box to keep the rain and stuff out while parked. The Dutch ones at least come with a decent built-in lock, which if combined with a good chain lock (remember you have a wheelbarrow load of space to store it when riding), seems to do the trick. Also, if your one car is a small one, you might be able to park a 68cm wide bakfiets next to your car in your car park -- they really are only the same width as a normal bike, unless you get a 3-wheeler.

  3. David,
    Good point, but I actually like retro/vintage/traditional style. But, I do like the idea of making one to decrease costs. However, having made and modified bikes before you often come across the problem that parts are very expensive to buy separately. Just the components (excluding frame) would probably cost that much to buy separately.

    But yes, with recycled parts it's a different story. I probably have enough old bikes to do this - just need the time and motivation.

    However, I did read on a website that an Aussie guy found a manufacturer in China an ordered a cheaper version from there (but not sure how much, and the difference in quality)

    I reckon you could park the bike in the basement beside a car in a regular car space, or in a courtyard, or some other common area. I would have thought most apartments would have some space to store a regular bike without taking it up stairs, so a cargo bike could be kept alongside.

    Also, these cargo bikes are designed to withstand the weather and be left outside continuously (if you are confident that chaining it up will deter theft) That is the Dutch way.

    I also have added fun to the list of pros - which probably explains my persistent enthusiasm in light of all the cons.

  4. Andrew,

    I got a Workcycle Cargo Long recently. It is a joy to ride, our two little people love it and people beam with smiles when they see it.

    With a the additional front bench we get upto four in it! Great for trips to the park and pool.

    Chris Kenyon London

  5. Andrew_M_Garland, the bakfiets.nl bike comes (well, possibly as a necessary option) with a rain cover which we've used in heavy rain and snow. Child inside stays snug (with blanket in winter) -- driver not so much! Chaining this to something solid and locking the wheel is a very good theft deterrent in an environment of casual/lazy bike theft (Cambridge UK) -- so far. It's not for everybody, certainly, but for our 10-mile round trip with one small child it means no need for a car in a town where driving is a frustrating ordeal.

  6. You might consider the edgerunner from Xtracycles. Hard to get in australia, but it should be more comfortable when cycling uphill or downhill. A boxbike will give no comfort, you need a nice big wheel at the front imho.

  7. You should conjointly contemplate that you just might not be able to bike within the same places that you just have before. as an example, you will not be able to bike down a slim path with a trailer as a result of the trailer is wider than the bicycle. you will not be able to ride on the shoulder of a road that incorporates a ton of traffic if the shoulder is simply too slim. If you've got to taste any tight space, you ought to concentrate to the trailer behind you as a result of it should be too wide to urge through while not scraping up against one thing or obtaining stuck on one thing.

  8. Yeh I agree, you might consider the edge runner from Xtracycles. I do know they are hard to get in australia, but it should be more comfortable when cycling uphill or downhill.