An Ode to Electric Cargo Bikes

I have a fever. And the only thing that can cure it is telling you about electric cargo bikes.

Like many e-cargo bike riders before me, give me an opening and I’ll chatter glowingly about the bikes’ potential. I’ll tell anyone about my bike whether I’m on or off it, and pretty much everyone who encounters it in the wild wants the story. Every single time, the story I tell is this: Go get one. It will change your life.

Yuba FastRack electric cargo bike with passenger seat onboard. Photo by author.

The Yuba FasTrack I bought is a newish model, my first e-bike and my first cargo bike. It has an integrated, multi-position, multi-purpose, tool-free rear cargo rack that I couldn’t resist. If bike storage space is a challenge, it stores vertically on its rear rack and can be moved around in its vertical position on its cute little integrated wheels. It’s an elevator-apartment dweller’s dream.

On an electric cargo bike you’ll really start to notice SUVs. Their drivers will mostly be doing the exact same thing you are, except in vehicles vastly larger and at least 70 times heavier. They certainly won’t be chatting with their neighbors or building their muscles or taking it easy on the local potholes.

Why E-Cargo Bikes Make Sense

I shopped around before making the investment. The check I wrote was not remotely close to what I’d pay for a car, truck or SUV, especially one with a seven-year, 5% to 21% loan and immediate 20% depreciation. But it was still enough to make a person consider their options carefully. And I already owned a couple of bikes that got me around just fine.

But none of my bikes could carry 440 pounds of rider, equipment and cargo, with disc brakes, an electric-assist motor and a solid suite of components. And that’s what I was after — the bike of my future was not expressly for touring, exercise or speed but would instead replace my car. And if I could find one capable of it, I wanted to take a passenger on the back for date night, because that sounded amazing.

Did my new e-cargo bike become the magic carpet of my dreams?

Yes, friend, it did. Since buying the FastRack 10 months ago I’ve ridden 681 miles, the great majority of them on short hauls of less than 12 miles round trip through St. Paul and Minneapolis neighborhoods. Since short trips are my most common trips, my actual station wagon now has a trickle charger hooked to its battery to keep it from failing from disuse as it sits lonely in the cold, dark garage.

Cargo bike loaded with 78 pounds of bird seed and dog food. Photo by author.

It feels as if I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this bike can do. For starters, I chose a bike without a throttle. I’m still pedaling at various rates of effort and I love that, because I appreciate getting exercise throughout the day.

At its top level of assistance my bike cruises easily at 18 to 20 mph on flats and gets a bit peppier on downhill rolls. I ride gently around pedestrians and dogs, keeping a relaxed pace of 14 mph or so and using exemplary manners, because with great power comes great responsibility.

Hills are nothing to worry about no matter what the load and that’s a huge plus when you live at the top of the Mississippi River valley.

This bike also makes every trip a potential shopping trip, and this surprise benefit cannot be understated in its utility and joy. Instead of trying to predict what I’ll need on any given ride and matching the bike to the prediction, I just take the cargo bike on most local trips, even if they’re not expressly intended for provisioning. Oh, the local delights you will discover and bring home!

The Cargo Is the Point

Learning to carry cargo is a process. You can either buy a bunch of bespoke add-ons, which are wonderful, or MacGyver your own. Grocery shopping is my most common errand, so I experimented with various-sized plastic crates on the back rack — easy to affix with bungee cords or straps — and now leave my favorite installed most of the time.

Cargo bike with groceries. Photo by author.

I tested several loaded reusable shopping bags within each crate to find a perfect custom fit and now just bring the bags into the store. That way I’ll never overload my carrying volume.

Now I can stop to shop anywhere — whether planned or not — from neighborhood bakeries to liquor or big box stores. Honestly, it feels as if I’m using the station wagon, because I can toss the lock, my helmet, extra clothes, shopping bags, my biking companion’s extra gear, a laptop, cases of spring water and 36-packs of toilet paper right in the crate and I barely have to think about it. 

Unlike a lot of happy e-cargo bike riders, I don’t haul children. Carrying kids is a perfect use case, especially when they are many or unable to bike on their own. As far as carrying adults or bigger kids, be mindful about weight when specifying your bike and definitely test drive your finalists to determine whom (and what) you can and wish to comfortably haul.

Cargo bikes make great family haulers. Photo by Lisa Nelson. Used with permission.

Establish the Maximum Gross Vehicle Weight (MGVW) rating for the bikes you’re looking at, then reduce that amount by:

  1. The weight of the bicycle itself.
  2. The weight of the pilot, any passenger(s) and their clothing.
  3. The weight of attached equipment.
  4. The weight of the lock(s).
  5. The weight of intended cargo.

The number you end up with must be greater than zero.

The 440-pound MGVW for my FastRack means the bike can carry me, one or two children or one adult, as long as their combined weight is under 200 pounds. I’m not going to lie and tell you that date night is effortless: Carrying an adult passenger and cargo near the MGVW limit makes for a doable but somewhat shaky trip, especially during take-off. 

My tall, handsome passenger also reports a little awkwardness from his back-rack position in which his knees ride high and his seat rides low. If carrying passengers is a priority, don’t overlook a full-on long tail or superb front-loading cargo bike — or even a preschool-ready bike bus for six.

Cargo bike as a sports fan limousine. Photo by Matt Haskell. Used with permission.

Overall, though, loaded or unloaded, riding this bike is a blast. You are guaranteed to smile like nobody’s business when out and about, without a care for formerly sweaty hills or a week’s worth of groceries. You will take longer routes than usual because you’re not ready to stop the joyride.

Honestly, How Could This Be Better?

What’s not fun about cargo biking? It’s a short list. First, my relatively petite bike is still a beast, weighing 76 pounds and requiring a heavy-duty rack if transported on the back of a car. Bike parking is still woefully underbuilt practically everywhere. The bike also requires a bit of strength and balance to take off with extra heavy loads. Once underway, though, even big loads are smooth sailing.

Finally, security can be a concern with this precious ride. A German-made hardened steel chain lock provides definite peace of mind against angle grinding thieves, and I often unlock my battery and carry it with me for longer stops. I’ve registered the bike with Bike Index and put an endorsement on my homeowner’s insurance. Anyone can buy extra bicycle insurance.

Trip to the Christmas tree lot. Photo by Dante Casali. Used with permission.

This spring I’ll be looking into adding a sturdy bike trailer, which I expect will complete my cargo-hauling goals. For me that means easy sailing with dog food, bird seed, drywall, leaves and branches for the compost site, cases of sparkling water or wine, packed coolers and camping set-ups and, eventually, the dog and small watercraft.

Unlike braver friends, I haven’t installed studded tires this winter. First, there hasn’t been much winter, and I’m also reluctant to ride at all when streets are icy. But give me protected bicycle lanes that are maintained as well as those in Oulu, Finland, and I will ride all year long.

And that’s the goal. Electric cargo bikes are incredible game changers in our global effort to transform car-dependent places into healthy, safe, equitable, affordable, vibrant and climate-stable communities. This is an inclusive goal, since there are e-cargo bikes suitable for all kinds of riders, from solo adventurers to parents with multiple children to people with disabilities who ride alone or with friends and helpers. Winter riders of electric tricycles approve!

Cargo bikes are awesome, and those with electric motors are a revelation. People love cargo bikes. New cargo bike technology means there are few remaining reasons (other than misguided car supremacy) to continue to prioritize driving in cities, towns and even suburbs.

Learn More!

If you’re curious about cargo bike life, consider joining me and other riders at a free online cargo bike skill share on Thursday, February 8, from 7 to 8 p.m., sponsored by Perennial Cycle; the event is welcoming to enthusiasts and the bike-curious alike. We’ll talk about cargo bike successes and failures, and it will be great.

Minnesotans can also apply for excellent new state e-bike rebates of up to $1,500 starting on June 1 of this year. If the experience of other e-bike rebate programs applies, there will be a crush of applicants for limited rebate funds. State rebate FAQs will be published on April 1.

In closing, some advice: if you are ready to ride, and can afford to buy a bike that meets your needs without waiting for a rebate, by all means visit your local cargo e-bike dealer for a test ride as soon as you’re able. Tell ‘em Mary sent you.

Mary Morse Marti

About Mary Morse Marti

Mary is the former executive director of Move Minneapolis, an original founder of HOURCAR, and a writer and book author (Wonderful Without Religion, Women Changing Science) based in the Twin Cities.