May 29, 2017

Let’s All Ditch Our Cars and Start Riding Cargo Bikes

When I first climbed on the Yuba Supermarche cargo bike, it felt like an unwieldy beast compared to my light and agile commuter whip. But after a couple of weeks riding it all over San Francisco, I clearly see that it is the future of urban transport.

Think of a cargo bike like this as a light-duty utility vehicle. Use it to take the kids to school, load up on groceries, or carry stuff home from Costco.

Yuba, based here in California, offers a variety of cargo attachments. The bike I rode is the most versatile option, with a large bamboo box up front that can handle 220 pounds. The cargo rack on the back can support another 80, and includes brackets for a child seat and clip-on cargo bags. Altogether, this beast can haul 300 pounds—plus the weight of the rider.

I found the Supermarche tricky to pilot on busy streets at rush hour. But it’s much easier to handle on bike-only paths or protected bike lanes or while riding through quiet neighborhoods. Take it slowly and keep an eye out for anything bigger or faster than you and it feels remarkably safe. The slower speed feels more natural anyway, given the bike’s excessive mass (curb weight: 58 pounds). I enjoyed taking it easy, looking around and soaking up the sun. I zip-tied a compact Bluetooth speaker (a UE Wonderboom) to the cargo box so I could jam some reggae as I tooled around.

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An eye-catcher, the Supermarche earned me lots of thumbs-ups. Every dad at the farmer’s market wanted to take a photo, and every kid wanted to climb inside. And I never tired of pranking pedestrians who craned their necks curbside, phones in hand, as they searched for a hailed ride. I’d roll up, point at the basket, and ask, “Did you call an Uber?”

Passengers enjoy a cushy ride. (Just ask my wife; I made her take a spin in the box, and she confirmed it.) The 20-inch wheels sport wide tires for extra stability, and the limo-like wheelbase of nearly 7 feet dampens bumps and makes for a stable ride. The bike I rode featured a 24-speed traditional drivetrain, which proved sufficient even in hilly San Francisco. Yuba offers an optional electric-assist motor, so you can juice up your morning commute and fly the kids uphill to school if you want.

Pedaling Forward

The Supermarche starts at $2,600 and the cargo options cost more, so it’s not for everyone. But for families in an urban environment—or any corner of the world with modern cycling infrastructure—it provides a smart alternative to a car. One adult can haul up to three kids and complete most of the family’s errands in one, and the Supermarche is a whole lot more fun than a fume-spewing hatchback.

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More importantly, a cargo rig like the Supermarche shows how to make cycling work at scale. Bikes like these can replace delivery trucks and small cars in city centers, easing congestion and keeping the streets safer. They are low-maintenance and low-impact, so they stay on the road longer than a car and cause little damage to the streets’ surfaces. The Dutch know this—regulators in the Netherlands define their bike-first planning policy as “sustainable safety.”

Utility bikes could represent the future of transport in American cities. Making that happen requires resisting the myriad forces conspiring to relegate bicycles to the edges of the roads, if not push them off entirely. Cities must build the infrastructure needed to safely support more bikes. San Francisco is getting there. New York, too. But to go further, city planners, chambers of commerce, and, most of all, motorists must be convinced that a bike-first future is a smarter future.

It’s going to be an uphill battle. But after a couple of weeks on the Supermarche, I can tell you that it is definitely one worth fighting.

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