A Cargobike in Chicago,
Cargo bikes can do the job of a minivan
Her two little girls seated in padded comfort with legroom to spare, Elsbeth Cool pedals off to her local Costco at speeds of up to 18 miles per hour and pulls into an open parking spot just steps from the store entrance.
Half an hour later, she re-emerges with $90 in groceries, including a 10-pound bag of flour and five dozen eggs.
"You're really organized," an onlooker marvels as she fills the roomy front bin of her 8-foot-long Dutch cargo bike with children and groceries, straps a 1,000-pack of napkins on the back, and, with an optional power boost from the bike's miniature motor, pedals home fast enough to beat a car-driving reporter who used a less direct route suggested by Google Maps.
Cool, of Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, is one of a growing number of parents who are embracing cargo bikes — extra-long bikes with big front bins, hefty back racks or additional seats — as minivan alternatives.
"You're faster, you're quieter, you're not congesting, you're not polluting, you're having a great time with your family," she says.
"You're exercising! I mean, what parent has time to exercise, right? When people say, 'Your bike must be so expensive,' I say, 'Well, I don't pay money for a gym membership, so I save money there.'"
Elsbeth Cool, of Chicago, gets ready to ride her imported cargo bike with her children, Madeleine, 4, and Aletheia, 2. Cool rode to Costco to shop and rode back. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)
Family cargo biking is on the rise nationwide, with Benjamin Sarrazin, founder of U.S. cargo bike-maker Yuba Bicycles, estimating that 5,000 to 7,500 cargo bikes are now sold annually for nonindustrial use, up from about 3,000 a year in 2010.
Filmmaker Liz Canning, who raised more than $62,000 via Kickstarter for her upcoming cargo-bike documentary, "Motherload," says there are about 30 cargo bikers dropping kids off at her children's elementary school in Fairfax, Calif., up from maybe five in 2013: "Everywhere I look, I see a new cargo bike."
Chicago, with its harsh winters, has been slower to embrace the cargo bike as practical family transportation, but Dutch-bike importer Jon Lind, owner of J.C. Lind Bike Co. in Old Town, says cargo bikes are an increasingly large portion of his business. Rebecca Resman, co-founder of the Chicago Family Biking Facebook page, used to recognize pretty much everyone she saw riding a front-loading cargo bike in Chicago, but that's no longer the case.
"They're definitely gaining popularity," she says.
Family-friendly cargo bikes typically cost about $1,500 to $6,000, and Sarrazin estimates that 25 percent are now sold with an electric option that gives you a battery-powered assist for hills or long rides. The bikes sometimes replace a second car or even eliminate the need for a car, users say.
Elsbeth Cool routinely takes her two kids with her on her cargo bike. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)
Many U.S. cargo-bike enthusiasts look for inspiration to Holland, where traffic and deadly car accidents led to widespread protests in the 1970s. Politicians responded by building networks of bike paths and lanes that helped make Holland a leader in biking-for-transit, with 26 percent of all trips now made by bicycle, according to the Dutch Cycling Embassy.
Lind, who grew up in Oak Park, fell in love with the Dutch biking lifestyle while working as an accountant in Amsterdam in 2006 and 2007.
He came home with the first inklings of a business plan: He wanted to bring Dutch bikes to Chicago. After five months of research and preparation, he flew back to Holland and purchased two big, bulky bikes, one of them a front-loading cargo model.
Madeleine, 4, plays on the bike while her mom unloads groceries. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)
"I actually imported them by bringing them home as checked luggage on a KLM flight from Amsterdam," Lind said via email. "(It) was to this day one of the more stressful moments getting my business started as there was a lot of debate among the burly guys in the 'oversized luggage' department as to whether or not they would allow the bikes on the flight. To my knowledge these were the first Dutch bikes in Chicago."
Cargo bikers offer a wide range of reasons for adopting the lifestyle, with fun, efficiency and adventure ranking high on the list.
"Kids are happier — way happier — on the bike," Canning says. "You can interact with your community in a different way, you can interact with your environment in a different way and you can get endorphins. A lot of moms will say, it feels like 'me time.' You're taking your kids to soccer, but you're doing exercise along the way, and you get to stop and talk to a friend that you would never see in a car."
Elsbeth Cool loads groceries into her bike alongside another biking shopper at Costco. Cool rides her imported cargo bike with her children, Madeleine, 4, and Aletheia, 2. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)
A small figure in a big gray bike helmet, Cool is in full command of her 100-pound bicycle, taking a 180-degree turn with ease as a reporter sits in the roomy front bin.
She says she worries when car drivers act irresponsibly, texting while driving or parking in bike lanes: "I'm a parent; it's my job to worry." But, for the most part, she feels safe when she cargo bikes. She favors off-peak hours and quiet streets, plans her routes for safety not speed, follows traffic laws and insists on bike helmets.
"There's a risk if you drive somewhere, there's a risk if you bike somewhere, there's a risk if you walk somewhere," she says. "I'm not going to let other people's unsafe, selfish behavior make me live in fear and not do something that I love to do with my family."
Cool says she started slowly, when her older daughter, Madeleine, now 4, was 1 1/2. Cool's husband, Nathan, an architect and bike commuter, acted as her urban biking guide, pulling Madeleine in a bike trailer as Cool, riding solo, got used to city streets. Cool moved up to pulling the bike trailer but worried that it might not be visible enough to car drivers and soon switched to an Xtracyle FreeRadical cargo bike extension attached to a folding bike frame.
Doing an errand here, a library trip there, she built up confidence and experience until she was cargo biking year-round.
In July, the Cools, who were already car-free, took the plunge and bought a state-of-the-art Urban Arrow Family electric cargo bike from Chicago Cargo bike boutique.
Cool says the bike, which retails for $6,000, can carry five small children, or two kids and $200 worth of groceries, or two kids and a grown-up. With the help of the bike's battery-powered motor, she can take Madeleine and her sister Aletheia, 2, 9 miles to Millennium Park, meet up with her husband, attend a concert and then ride home.
"What the bike can do is pretty amazing," says Cool. "And, Lord, I'm 5 foot 3 on a good day. I'm not some super-tall Amazon woman. I'm just me, and this is how we do it."
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