Dude, where’s my cargo bike?

Kindergarten
Image by Mikael Coleville-Andersen of Copenhagenize.

Elly Blue recently published an article on grist.com, “Bicycling’s gender gap: It’s the economy, stupid“, about women cycling in lower numbers than men, highlighting that perhaps it is not a fear of the roads or fashion that keeps women off bikes, but instead the high costs of the requisite parental motorcade and the financial and practical strain this system of kid and stuff transporting puts on parents and their bank accounts.

As a bike riding papa and the owner of LA’s only cargo bike shop, I’d like to weigh in on the discussion. I have a gut feeling that low female ridership numbers have something do with, in part, a large gap between women’s needs and retailers product selection. Few bike shops think of customers as parents, with the need to haul kids and lots of stuff. The reasons for this are two-fold: first, the cargo bike and utility bike markets are pretty low margin; second, prices for quality cargo and utility bikes are quite high, but not high enough to justify various financing schemes. However low margin a part of the business this segment is, it is still essential for health, economic, and social reasons. How do we get around the economic barriers to provide quality bikes for families?

Cargo Supermum
Image by Mikael Coleville-Andersen of Copenhagenize.

Retailers don’t service this end of the market because the capital costs are the same or greater than regular bike stuff, but the margins are often much lower than even the cheapest bike shop can handle. The floor space to store and service these large and heavy bicycles takes a big chunk out of the more profitable parts of the bike business – which means that small retailers can’t fit the stuff in the shop and big retailers don’t see the value of it.

Then there are the prices! The typical cost of an off-the-shelf high quality cargo bike equipped to carry kids and lots of other stuff is stuck in a horrible nether zone due to the price of these bikes: too expensive for most families disposable income to bear and too cheap for banks to finance.

Flying Pigeon bakfiets w. baby and baby momma at CicLAvia

Most families end up annually sinking $8,000+ into at least one car that they own (in LA that number is easily 2+) – leaving very little room in most budgets for a $2,000 or $3,000 bike purchase on any given month. When you buy a car, the sticker price is high enough that a 4 to 7% interest rate on the principle will ensure anyone offering to finance your car will make a tidy return on the time and money invested in the transaction. A cargo bike sold at $3,500 with a 4 to 7% interest rate isn’t worth it for a financier.

Gazelle Bloom
Image by Elly Blue via Flickr.

The price point of high quality off the shelf cargo bikes means that families either: don’t buy one or they suffer on a shitty DIY contraption. In rare cases, income and a zeal for living a happier life as a parent shuttling your kid around town conspire to push a family into buying a cargo bike.

Super Cargo Mum
Image by Mikael Coleville-Andersen of Copenhagenize.

As a result of the lack of purchasers and financiers at the $2,000 to $3,000 price point, cargo bikes cost a retailer a lot of capital, and floor space, with a very low turnover – making any sort of price break an impossibility unless they are willing to lose money, or come close to it, on every sale. The brutal logic of this tiny slice of the bike market shows why retailers have been slow to adopt cargo bikes and cargo cycling into their inventories and on their showroom floors, all sexism and gender bias aside.

Street Music
Image by Mikael Coleville-Andersen of Copenhagenize.

Perhaps what we need is a cargo bike collective/co-operative that is sponsored by a large health and well-being agency, private company, local government, or health insurer to provide cargo bikes to families that otherwise couldn’t afford the $2,000+ purchase since they are already dumping over $8,000+ a year on average into each car they own. Just a thought (that might turn into a business plan).

20080330_17-12-21

The positive effect my own bakfiets has had on my life is second only to the massive amount of money I save on car-related expenses each year. At Flying Pigeon LA we still carry cargo and utility bikes because we believe in them. The market for these awesome machines (like the Christiania, Gazelle Cabby, Yuba Mundo, Gazelle Bloom, and others) is so new that moms and dads don’t even know what exists – but we’re going to stick with it for the foreseeable future. The economics don’t quite work out, but the ethics do – and for now that is enough for us. Let’s hope that the gender gap gets closed in LA cycling – one good cargo or utility bike at a time.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted June 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Well thought out and articulated article Josef. Being in the same biz this is all stuff we’ve run into including looking for a factor to finance larger cargo bike purchases. We recently sold a set of bikes to the City of Fort Collins for their “Bike Library”. This is the closest thing I can think of to the idea you have towards the end of your post.

    http://www.fcgov.com/bicycling/library.php

    Thanks for posting this, you are verbalizing a lot of thoughts I’ve had since moving into the Utility Bike Biz.

  2. Posted July 1, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    This is a great article. I think that one of the other issues with the financing would be that there is no title to bicycles, so any loan for bikes would be basically an unsecured loan. It’s interesting to think of the whole auto title system as a giant state subsidy to motor vehicle interests, making it cheaper and easier to go into debt (or to repossess) automobiles.

  3. Posted July 1, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    I see other cargo bike riders themselves as being a part of the solution.

    In Tucson we’ve started a Facebook group called Tucson Cargo Bikes where we are hoping to organize cargo bike riders.

    One of our thoughts is that we’ll eventually have a cargo bike show where people who are interested can check out all the different bikes available to them.

    I know from my own experience the only reason I ordered a CETMA Cargo Bike, was because someone in town had a Bakfiets and let us try it out.

    No one in Tucson stocks a Bakfiets, so without the test ride from the gentleman who had one, I would have no idea how well it worked.

    If you have a core group of cargo bike riders who are willing to help people interested, bike shops don’t actually have to stock them, they just have to be able to get them.

    There is another Tucson Facebook group called the Tucson Bicycle Belles and their plan is have a workshop where they bring in people to show off various ways to carry children and gear.

    Real word examples are going to be better than seeing a bike on a showroom floor.

  4. David
    Posted July 1, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    There’s a couple of credit unions in Portland that offered bicycle financing a couple of years ago; do they still? Also, search ‘bedrijfsfiets’. It’s a Netherlands thing.

  5. sc
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I should probably read Elly’s post before commenting, but on first glance there’s an assumption here that seems in conflict with demographic data.

    It is that women are singularly focused on family and hauling a bunch of stuff around town. Call it the ‘cargo bike as the new minivan’ argument.

    A recent Pew Report suggests that childlessness is up among women from 25 to 45, and most particularly among educated women. If you remove economic barriers, and focus on local, green and health movements, I still think you find a trove of independent women interested in bicycling — but perhaps the focus is on self-sufficiency as opposed to the large scale hauling of dependents.

    If we see bicycling, and the bicycles we choose to ride, as either utilitarian or as an expression of self, then perhaps the appeal of a cargo bike is limited to a shrinking audience of women owners.

  6. Posted July 12, 2011 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    SC, that is a fascinating contribution to this discussion!

    Thank you for bringing the demographics.

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