Why Are Cargo Bike So Expensive?

I usually talk about bikes with people who already ride bikes, often cargo bikes, and they don’t freak out when they see the prices of cargo bikes. They may not like the idea of paying for a bike (who would? free is always better) but they understand.

That said, I also hear pretty regularly from people who haven’t purchased a bike since childhood, if ever, and their usual response to the idea that any bike, no matter what it can do, might cost more than $100, is, “It costs HOW much?!?” Followed by the usual, “I could buy a used car,” “I could buy a moped,” muttering and suspicions of profiteering. [Note: for exact numbers, check my many reviews; I always list a price or a range of prices. That said, in general you’re looking at somewhere between $1,500 for an unassisted cargo bike at the low end to $7,500 to a seriously tricked-out, kid-hauling, weather-proofed and assisted cargo bike at the high end, although, as always, devotees can figure out ways to spend more.] This came up again recently, and so I am finally writing about it.

So for those who haven’t purchased bicycles for a while, first things first: All bicycles cost more now than they did when we were kids. That’s inflation. For those of us living in San Francisco, well, the bicycles people ride here cost more than the cruisers students ride around on in college because San Francisco has hills, and if you want to ride your bike up a hill instead of walking it you need gears, and once you introduce gears you are in a whole new world of parts and engineering and labor. So while a new Linus single-speed starts at $400 (curse you, inflation), by the time you get up to 8 speeds a new Dutchi (with no racks or lights) will run more like $850. That only gets us about halfway to the price of a cargo bike at the low end, though. What’s going on?

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

The demands placed on a bike that carries one person and a backpack are very different from the demands placed on a bike that may carry 1-2 adults, 1-4 kids, a cartload of groceries, school backpacks, musical instruments, toys, games, beach tents, a mattress, a bookcase, and tow a trailer, sometimes ALL AT THE SAME TIME. All hail the cargo bike, the minivan slayer! What’s different? Well, if you’re riding that cargo bike unassisted you may well want a wider gear range, because it’s hard to pick up speed with those kinds of loads. More gears=higher costs. The frame has to be stronger, because a cargo bike with a 250-pound load limit (common on bikes intended to carry one person) is ridiculously inadequate. That requires both more materials (=higher costs) and in most cases, a redesign of the frame (=higher costs, engineers have to eat too). If you are carrying those kinds of loads, you’ll also need a different kind of wheel, one with more or thicker spokes to support the weight (=higher costs). If you’re carrying kids, then getting more frequent flats in exchange for thinner, lighter weight tires is a bad deal, so you will probably want heavy flat-resistant monster tires (=higher costs). If you are heading down a steep hill with a heavy load, you will want much better brakes than are common on single-person bicycles (=much higher costs, and worth every penny). You can of course save money by building a bike yourself, but the relevant parts will still cost more.

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

And then there is the assist. There are the mighty-calfed among us, who laugh merrily at the very idea of putting an assist on their bicycles. “Why I carry 300-pound loads of construction materials up the mighty hills of Chicago all the time!” they crow. “You lazy bums don’t need to waste your money on an electric assist! You need the exercise!” And then there are the rest of us, who may be coming to riding after a long layoff, or in the wake of an injury (cough, cough), or who simply don’t view riding around town with kids as a way to achieve Maximum Heart Rate. And even if none of those things applied, the people who “see no reason for an assist” typically have no clue what’s involved in family biking. Carrying 300 pounds or more is a very different proposition with live weight than it is with dead weight, because kids have a terrible habit of not staying where you put them, and on a moving bike, an active kid, let alone two fighting kids, can sometimes overcome your pedal power. Moreover people in flat cities often have little idea what I mean when I say San Francisco is hilly. Here’s a hint: if it’s not taller than you are, then around here we don’t call it a hill. When you ride with (or without) kids up and down the hills of San Francisco, an electric assist starts to look very appealing indeed. Alas, an electric assist is far from free.

The prices of electric assists are pretty easy to understand, because they work almost exactly like the prices of bikes: the more they can do, the more they cost. You can get a low-end electric assist for $500. This is often a great option for a single person who needs an occasional boost, and who doesn’t mind the larger size, greater weight, shorter lifespan, and environmental consequences of using a lead-acid battery. (Yes, they sell e-bikes at Walmart that cost $500 together; these are the kinds of assists they have, and as one might imagine, the bike itself terrible.) Prices go up from there. You’ll pay more for a pedal assist that works almost without you noticing than you will for a twist-throttle assist on the handlebars that may feel like it will give you carpal tunnel syndrome. More powerful batteries that can easily push a cargo bike cost more than the kind designed for bikes with less intense loads. More range for a longer ride also commands a higher price. On the high end, the BionX D that we have on our Bullitt retails for $2,500; regular readers will know we paid less because fortune smiled and our battery died a week before its warranty expired. Again, you can save money with a do-it-yourself assist, but the parts suitable for a cargo bike are still going to cost more than the parts suitable for a lighter bike.

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers’ market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

All of this is before we get to accessories. Racks and baskets and bags to carry kids and gear cost money. Anyone who has every purchased a car seat knows that child seats cost money. Lights cost money, and you’ll need them if you’re riding at night. If you’re riding a bike for transportation, you might find it worthwhile to add dynamo lights to your bicycle, as they are very bright yet unappealing to steal, and these cost more money than clip-on lights. Some front loaders come with rain covers, which cost even more money, but can extend the number of months you ride in the year. And after spending all that money on the bike, it’s also rare than people feel comfortable locking up with a cheap lock; tougher locks cost much more than the cable I locked up my bike with as a kid.

In summary, the price of cargo bikes goes up more or less in lockstep with the quality of the parts. That means that what you are buying as the price goes up is (a) greater safety, to some extent, as with the wheels and brakes. We came to cargo biking relatively early in the scheme of things, which means, like, 2011, and made various screw-ups with crappy brakes and non-Clydesdale wheels and so on. If I can no other good in this world, I would be thrilled if I could prevent someone else from making these same mistakes, which have the potential to make family biking seem scary instead of fun. You are also potentially buying (b) greater convenience, to some extent, as with less flat-prone tires and dynamo lights, and (c) more ability to handle difficult terrain, as with the gears and the assist.

Your circumstances and skills may save you money. If you live in territory that’s flat and/or you have one skinny kid, and/or you are already very fit, you can save money by not getting an assist, and by choosing less powerful brakes. If you know how to build a bike or have electrical skills, you can save money by doing some of the work yourself (that said, I have met only one person who built her own battery instead of buying it retail and she was an electrical engineer). You may conclude on reflection that you don’t need the carrying capacity of a cargo bike, and a child seat on the bike and/or a trailer is sufficient for your needs. They are all good options.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

So cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes to buy and always will be. However there is good news. First, as those hoping for a price break may already have discovered, they last basically forever, retain their value well, and sell quickly on the secondhand market. Second, the maintenance costs are pretty much bupkis. Even if you ran down the entire battery on your brand-new assisted cargo bike and recharged it from zero every night and rode so hard that you had to replace multiple parts on an annual basis and insured it like it was made of platinum, you would still be hard-pressed to spend more than a few hundred dollars a year once you bought it. Compared to the “cheap” used car or moped people sometimes mention as “equivalent,” which can run up those kinds of expenses annually on insurance alone or oil changes alone, let alone the cost of gas and regular maintenance, and which depreciate at a rate that is equivalent to financial hemorrhage, cargo bikes are cheap at twice the price. All the cost is upfront. That’s not trivial, which is why bike shops are increasingly working on the financial side to spread some of that cost over time. Alternatively, you could do what we did and finance your new cargo bike(s) by selling your car.

So our bikes save us money, but more importantly they save us time and stress. They also make me the only parent at my office who gets regular exercise. There have moments in the last few years when we thought we might have to buy a car again at some point, and the thought filled us with despair. There’s no way to put a price on any of that, but altogether these things are worth much more than we’ve spent. All things considered, a cargo bike is a screaming good deal.

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