To Bakfiets or not to Bakfiets, That is the Question...
LA Bike Mom skipping the school carpool drop-off line on the Urban Arrow.
Should you buy a really expensive bike with a big bucket in the front and an electric motor that helps you pedal?
First, answer these questions:
Where are you planning to ride and for what purpose?
How many kids do you have & what are their ages?
Do you like sweating?
Do you have a car or could a bike replace it?
Second, check out humofthecity since she has the most comprehensive, unbiased reviews of cargo bikes on the interwebs. Then filter her opinions through the differences in her family’s needs and your family’s needs.
Now do the same with me. My answers to the preceding questions are:
95% of my bike trips with kids are within five miles of home just outside of downtown Los Angeles where the weather is warm and the topography is pretty darn hilly.
Two kids: a five-year-old & fourteen-month-old.
I like to incorporate lots of exercise into my commute.
I own a car.
What follows is my anecdotal experience owning a Workcycles FR8 & an Urban Arrow.
TL;DR: I prefer riding the FR8.
The thing that I value most about riding the FR8 with my boys is how we get to experience the ride together. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: riding that bike transforms the mundane into an adventure and expands the amount of quality time we get to spend together. Riding the FR8 with my older child often sparks conversations we wouldn’t have had otherwise. When the baby is riding on his front-mounted Bobike Mini seat, he gets inundated with colors, buses, garbage trucks, fire trucks, ducks, doggies, birds, trees, flowers, bins – a cornucopia of enrichment for his developing brain.
Connecting with the boys is not quite so simple on the Urban Arrow. When riding the UA, I have trouble hearing what my (very loud) five-year-old is saying over the wind and traffic noise much less hold down a conversation. The baby will be transitioning out of the car seat to the bench seat soon, so I'll have even more trouble talking to him than his older brother. In short, the Urban Arrow doesn’t facilitate connection the way the FR8 does.
(Extra credit points also go to the FR8 for the fact that the front-mounted seat is not only great for conversation, but also perfect cheek kissing distance when stopped at red lights.)
Advantage: Workcycles FR8
Another obvious advantage (and disadvantage) to the FR8 is that it takes up far less space than an Urban Arrow. It’s self-evident when it comes to parking the bikes or carrying stuff, but less obvious is how much more time I’m forced to spend riding in traffic on the Urban Arrow. Let me explain:
I’ve ridden bikes many thousands of miles in urban environments, so I’m pretty comfortable “taking the lane" when needed, but riding with my kids is a different story. I want to minimize riding with them on arterial roads unless there is a protected bike lane (of which there are none in my part of town) or a quiet, residential street. Furthermore, in my neighborhood, the ONLY east/west connector is Sunset Blvd. which carries five lanes of traffic whizzing past at 35-50mph. All other parallel streets dead-end or require riding over brutally steep hills. Thus, I spend a lot of time riding on the sidewalks abutting Sunset Blvd or reluctantly riding on Sunset’s “door zone” bike lanes.
The key to staying safe on a bike is minimizing interactions with fast moving cars. The Urban Arrow is too fat for most LA sidewalks, so the UA forces me to ride alongside speeding cars more often than on the FR8. Consequently, it is safer to ride the FR8 along the routes I need to ride. This may not be true for where you live, so take it with a grain of salt.
However, the size of the bucket and low center of gravity make getting out of the house with children MUCH EASIER on the Urban Arrow (Dutch for “bucket bike”). All a parent has to do is throw all the crap in the bucket and strap the kids down. It’s as easy as loading a minivan.
On a “regular” bike like my FR8, loading the kids and the crap on the bike is a bit of a production. Invariably, I am carrying a baby, snacks, food, milk, diapers, wipes, jackets, etc. Therefore, to get the baby strapped onto the front of my FR8, I must first make sure the bike is on level-ish ground. Then I must put down all the crap I am carrying to free up my other hand. Then I must use two hands to wrestle the baby into the seat. If I haven’t put on his helmet, I must also have two hands for that action. Then I must load the panniers (fancy word for bags attached to the side of the bike) or strap stuff down on the front rack and, finally, spot the bike as my five-year-old climbs on. Like I said, way more effort than the Urban Arrow. It’s a logistical challenge that also requires a fair amount of upper body strength. My 120lbs wife would definitely choose an electric-assisted bakfiets over the FR8.
Safety advantage: FR8
Convenience riding: FR8
Convenience loading: Urban Arrow
Costco run: Urban Arrow
Riding with big bro on the sidewalk would've been a lot more challenging on the bakfiets.
One thing that makes me a bit of an outlier is that I really, really like the extra exercise riding an unassisted bike gives me. Studies have shown that people riding electric-assisted bikes get just as much exercise if not more than people riding unassisted bikes. I have not found that to be true in my case. I lack pedal-assist self-control.
The fact that the FR8 forces me to grind my way up hills makes me happy in a weird way. On the other hand, when I’m tired or sick or have extra groceries and two kids on my bike there are definitely days I curse not having electric-assist on the FR8. When our children gift us every cold, flu, bug - what have you for four months of the year electric-assist would be absolutely necessary if I didn't already have a car. Also, if I had a regular 9 to 5 job that required me to race from school drop-offs to my desk, I could see the value in having an Urban Arrow shave a few minutes off my commute, but in the absence of that, I prefer pedaling my FR8 a little bit harder.
Yet, there is another aspect to speed that isn’t readily apparent: the FR8 allows multi-modal travel. I can bring the Workcycles on the subway or light rail or Metrolink in LA whereas a bakfiets would never fit. The Urban Arrow may save me five or ten minutes within five miles of my house over riding the FR8, but it can’t travel to Union station; board a train; then bike around Santa Monica or Pasadena or fit on my car’s bike rack to be taken on vacaction…
Big bro riding the train out to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade floats. Little bro was on my lap.
Ready for adventure.
The number one reason we purchased a bakfiets is it’s the only kind of bike that could carry the baby before he was able to sit up on his own. The system to mount a maxi-cosi cars seat on the Urban Arrow is just as easy as clicking your baby into a minivan. Technically, there are a few bike trailers that could accomplish the same thing, but trailers are too cumbersome in my neighborhood and it’s good to have an eye on the baby when riding.
The Urban Arrow can also carry five kids (4 in the bucket with an optional second bench and a kid seat mounted on the rear rack) vs. the FR8 carrying three kids. Amazingly, because of car seat laws in the state of CA it’s easier for me to carry three kids on the Urban Arrow than fit three car seats in the backseat of our hybrid SUV.
If the route is relatively flat I can carry three kids on the Workcycles FR8 with ease, but on inclines there’s no way. I would have to get off and walk.
Advantage: Urban Arrow.
This is where all Workcycles bikes SHINE. The FR8 is engineered to survive a lifetime of winters parked outside in the Amsterdam. All of the parts are low-maintenance and bomb proof. One of my hesitations in purchasing the Urban Arrow was a fear of becoming a beta tester for electric bikes. Which has kind of come true. It is inevitable that a bike with more parts will need more maintenance and electric-assist adds complexity to the bike, so more time is expected in the shop. The Urban Arrow has not been nearly as reliable as the Workcycles. It is currently in the shop as I write this post…If I’m charitable to Urban Arrow, part of the reliability issue is simply Los Angeles mechanics lack of familiarity with the bikes, so each repair is more time consuming than would otherwise be expected.
Also of note is I have had to replace the brake pads every six hundred miles on the UA vs never in thousands of miles on the FR8. Although, the hydraulic disc brakes on the UA are grabbier than the FR8 roller brakes FWIW.
The Urban Arrow is approximately $6000 + tax new and $4000 used. A FR8 is $2500 new and $1200 - $1500 used. Although those numbers would be closer if the FR8 had electric-assist. (Workcycles also sells a box bike with electric-assist called the KR8.)
Two kids & groceries...
In some ways it’s been an unfair comparison since many of the areas where the Urban Arrow outperformed the FR8, it would’ve been a wash if I had ordered a FR8 with electric-assist. Both bikes are a tremendous blessing for which I'm grateful every single day. Yet, I do subscribe to the belief that simplifying leads to more happiness than accumulating. It’s hard to justify owning two cargo bikes when I only need one. On the other hand, another part of me looks forward to the day when the baby is a little older & the focus of the boys attention can change from talking to Dad to talking with each other – they’re going to be allies long after I’m gone. The Urban Arrow bench seat would better facilitate that connection (unless my children grow up to argue every minute of the day and then I would immediately unload the Urban Arrow). Either way the FR8 will be with us. I can see keeping it around until my boys are old enough to have their own kids and passing it down. It’s that well-made. I know how scary it can be trying to decide whether it's wise to invest a shockingly large amount of money on a bike when there are so few shops that carry family bikes in the U.S. where they can be test-ridden. I hope you treat my impressions not as the final word on the subject, but one more data point with which to make your decision.
Then you can bike to the park and enjoy watching this...