The History of the Cargo Bike

Though some claim the earliest sketch of a bicycle can be attributed to Gian Giacomo Caprotti, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, in around 1500, the sketch has been deemed a purposeful fraud by professor of physics, museum curator, and author of Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History, Hans-Erhard Lessing. The first practically used bicycle was the velocipede developed by German Baron Karl von Drais in 1817, perhaps as an alternative to owning a horse after many horses starved due to a crop failure the year before. Although two-wheeled and steerable, the Laufmaschine (German for "running machine") was propelled by pushing with alternating legs. Rotary cranks and pedals were added to the front-wheel hub by a French metalworker around 1863.

Early bicycle designs were given derisive nicknames like hobby-horse or dandy horse and seen as luxury toys for foppish men. Increasing numbers of crashes resulted in many cities banning or fining their use on paved pathways. Bicycles of various designs were developed throughout the 1800s. It wasn’t until the Bessemer process reduced the price of steel and the invention of the pneumatic tire in 1888, however, that the modern style, which was known as the “safety bicycle” (or simply “safety”) because it was marketed as a safer alternative to the penny-farthing it made obsolete, emerged and propagated.

            Once bicycles were established as reliable movers of individuals, the natural progression was to increase the amount of cargo that could be transported. The earliest designs contained heavy-duty frames to handle the increased weight, and a sturdy rack or box attached to the front of the frame. Sometimes the front wheel was smaller to accommodate an especially large storage box. This design came to be known as the Butcher’s Bike or Baker’s Bike in the UK due to its ubiquity in these and similar industries which, at the time, had a business model that required frequent deliveries of perishable goods. Often a sign advertising the business would be mounted in the main triangle of the bike frame.

            The need to increase and specialize the carrying capacity led to further innovations. The Long John Bicycle had a cargo platform or box that was mounted low to the ground in front of the driver but behind the front wheel, which was extended forward. Placement of the cargo load in this location not only increased the size and weight that could be carried, but the low center of gravity also made this design safe enough to transport small children.

            Adding a third wheel, either in the back or the front, increased both the carrying capacity and the stability of cargo bikes, especially while loading freight on a parked tricycle. These designed relied on the chain drive and linkage steering to position the driver and payload in a balanced position while still maintaining mobility and steerability.  Eventually the amount of freight that could be transported was limited not by the design of the bike, but by the strength of the driver. Power assist motors, often electric hub motors, are sometimes added to reduce the mechanical energy required to propel the bike, which is especially helpful when going uphill or starting the bike from a complete stop.

            During the Industrial Revolution cargo bikes became a useful addition or replacement for carts pulled by hand, horse, or dog. Their cargo boxes can be specialized for any industry and used to transport mail, tools, food, people, or anything you can imagine. Because they a do not create air pollution they can be used in enclosed buildings like warehouses and factories. They are also quiet and safer to operate in densely populated areas. With the proliferation of the internal combustion engine after World War II they became unpopular in industrialized nations.

            In recent decades, however, ecologically-minded developers and small-scale manufacturers have begun to recognize the benefits of human-powered cargo transportation. Many cities are adapting their infrastructure to once again accommodate bicycle travel. This is best exemplified by Freetown Christiania in the Danish capital city of Copenhagen.

            Christiania consists of the former military barracks of Bådsmandsstræde and parts of the city ramparts, which were abandoned in the late 1960s. Due to a lack of affordable housing in the city, the area became a self-proclaimed free town inhabited by hippies, squatters, artists, and anarchists. Despite attempts to remove the community from the government owned land, the commune developed its own set of rules, which included the allowance of cannabis and the forbiddance of stealing, violence, and, most notably in this case, cars. Road block robots at both entrances to Freetown Christiania prohibit any personal vehicles in the area. This forces the residents to use alternative methods of transportation to traverse its 19 acres.

            In 1984, Christiania blacksmith Lars Engstrom built a cargo bike as a birthday present for his girlfriend, Annie Lerche. Though she had asked for a ten-speed, Lars custom built a practical bike that had room for her kids. The design is a tricycle with two front wheels on either side of a large cargo box. As soon as Annie and her kids took the bike out on the street, neighbors began requesting their own. Each new bike built included minor improvements, though the basic design remains the same. The steel frame is stronger than stainless steel and can accommodate riders over 100 kg (220 lbs). The cargo box is made of 9mm plywood protected from the weather by the same water-resistant varnish used on boats. Rain covers are available to further protect from the elements. The wheels have reinforced aluminum rims and bearings, and puncture-resistant kevlar tires. Electric assist motors are available customization is available for transporting wheelchair users, bike taxis, event bikes, and bicycles for tradespeople.

            The Christiania Bikes gained notoriety first within Freetown Christiania itself, then within greater Copenhagen, and are now exported to over 20 countries. In the mid 1990s demand surpassed what the Christiania forge could handle and production was relocated to a larger premise on the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. The bikes are still handmade to incredibly high standards. Lars is still in charge of production and Annie handles the calls and emails. In 2010 Christiania Bikes won the coveted "Classic Designs Award" from the esteemed Danish Design Center for their robust design, fantastic concept, and contribution to green and innovative transport.

            Though historically used by tradespeople and customizable enough to be used to serve food, it is estimated that 90% of the freight bicycles sold in Amsterdam are used primarily to carry children. In fact “two kids and a week’s worth of groceries” seems to be the industry standard for determining cargo box size. This allows some couples to remain car-free even after growing family demands increase the amount they need to haul.

As a low contact form of cardio exercise, cycling has been shown to not only promote weight loss, build muscle, and improve lung health, but also strengthen the immune system, improve handling and spacial awareness, decrease heart disease and cancer risk, and improve mental well-being. There are financial benefits as well. The cost of purchase and maintenance of a bicycle is significantly less than an automobile, and cyclists are spared the costs of fuel and parking. Storage is a factor that ought to be considered more than it is, seeing that vehicles spend 95% of the time parked.