A friend recently told me that, with the birth of their second child looming, they’re looking at minivans. Thankfully, she told me via email so she couldn’t see the look that flashed across my face. Upon reflection, I can see why a minivan makes sense for her lifestyle. But I have also spent the last few days feeling more smug than ever that a minivan isn’t in my future.
Obviously, this has meant exchanges: less house for more neighbourhood, fewer comforts (like a clothes dryer…) for more ‘character'; and less car for more bikes. In our case, my husband and I have let our grace period lapse and are now no longer eligible for UK insurance, so we’ve settled into an entirely car-free lifestyle without even intending to. We live in a walking neighbourhood in a biking city, near a commercial street that caters to most of our needs (fruit, chocolate, and sushi) and near local retail that caters to the rest (pastries, pubs, dumplings).
We’ve spent our first two+ years here cycling, but our mobility is going to be seriously curtailed with the birth of our first child this spring. Newborns don’t ride bikes, and typically, neither do their mums. When I was in Denmark earlier this year, I saw an amazing cargo bike with bassinet and OH DANG DID I WANT ONE. In fact, I’ve always assumed that when the time came, I’d buy a cargo bike – obviously.
So why am I telling you this, rather than raving about my sweet new cargo bike?
How much do you think they cost?
No, seriously. Think of a specific number.
The bikes I have seen – via Google – tend to run about £2500, or $4000; the cheapest model I’ve seen is £1710. There is also a bizarrely anaemic resale market (though if you’re looking, Ebay seems to be your best bet). I’ve had my current road bike for a decade, but I can’t imagine that I’ll want a cargo bike after my children are old enough to cycle on their own steam – say, when they turn five or six. And these bikes are really the most useful when you have two children – when you have one, there are simpler, easier methods; when you have an older one, why would you ferry them around when they can power themselves? So the window of time in which cargo bikes are truly useful is very small – higher if you have twins, but five or six years at the outside.
I do not understand why these things are so expensive. Over the course of their lifetimes, they are more cost-effective than a car, of course, but the up-front cost is nearly the same (or at least, for $4000 you can buy a car. A car with a roof and a trunk and a gas pedal that requires no physical exertion to use). I am one of the most enthusiastic and committed cyclists I know, and if I’m balking…who are the people buying these things?
There are, of course, cheaper alternatives for those interested in cycling with kids. The Guardian Bike Blog did a lovely feature last summer about the various options for carting children around via bicycle, from age 9 months to 9 years (I tried to figure out how to embed the video and failed). Plenty of parents have carried children around on standard rear-mounted bike seats or in those pull-behind trailers, which are much more affordable alternatives. But it seems to me that the economics of cargo bikes are completely misaligned. If I could find a cheaper bike – especially new – I would snap it up tomorrow, and I suspect many of the people I know in my position would, as well. Obviously cargo bikes are a commodity, so this isn’t something that can be fixed by government policy. And there is a chicken-and-egg issue: without more demand, carriers are unlikely to diversify their supply. But I do wonder why the market, even in places where cycling is an established way of life, has been so slow to address the need for family-friendly cycling. And given that there is so little to do except wait for the market to catch up, what can cycling advocates and government-provided infrastructure do to help bridge the gap?
Cambridge has a unique policy where parents of young children can exchange their bicycle for a stroller/buggy at a city-run cycle parking facility, though its not well-publicised (and people are crazy snobby about strollers). Maybe providing cargo-bike specific parking would help; so would wider, or – better yet – segregated bike lanes, though Cambridge already has quite a few off-road cycle paths. The general wisdom in the cycling world is that if you make everything about cycling better, you will attract more women and parents of young children, which is undoubtedly true. But there’s been a major uptick in cycling in the last several years without a commensurate increase in cargo bike use, so I’m inclined to think that someone is missing a trick.