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Carrying Copenhagen: the wonders of the cargo bike

LA Times Bottleneck Blog, September 30, 2008

By Mikael Colville-Andersen

We've posted plenty in the past about how the Southland could be a lot more bike friendly and perhaps there are lessons to be learned from places that have embraced bikes -- such as Copenhagen. The following is a guest post from Mikael Colville-Andersen, who publishes two bike-related blogs, Copenhagenize and  Copenhagen Cycle Chic:

The transportation of goods and children through an urban landscape is a universal need. In Copenhagen many our of citizens choose the self-propelled transport option and cycle to work, school and on errands.

On any given day you'll see people moving things about on their bikes. A ladder, a newly-purchased bean bag for the living room, heavy bags of groceries dangling from the handlebars. It's what we do.

In Copenhagen, however, we have our own version of the SUV. We call it 'ladcyklen' or 'the cargo bike'. Often there are goods too large or cumbersome for convenient bicycle transport and if you have a child or two or three, they have places to go and things to do and you are the one who has to get them there.

In Denmark the three-wheeled cargo bike is the vehicle of choice for moving things about and the cargo bike market here continues to enjoy steady growth. A cargo bike is a generic term for any bicycle that is designed to carry 'stuff,' whether it has two wheels or three.

The necessity for cargo bikes is as old as bike culture itself. Since the early part of the last century, cargo bikes have moved things around the city. A little sub-cultural group formed rather quickly in cities, namely 'svejerne'. They muscled their heavily-laden cargo bikes through the streets and were known for their rowdy tone and for whistling at girls. Half a century before the modern bike messengers.

My Dad was a messenger boy during World War II, fetching fruit and vegetables from the market and transporting them back to the green grocer's where he worked. The two most widespread bikes were the Long John and the Short John - or Chimney Sweep bike. Both designs are almost a century old.

Since then, the Danes have expanded their fleet of cargo bikes and there are currently a dozen or so different brands competing for a market share and Denmark has rightfully become the Cargo Bike Capital of the world.

It was in the early 1970's that the first cargo bike of the modern era was developed. It is called the Christiania Bike and named after an abandoned military area which became Europe's largest anarchist town. Large, chunky and functional, with a big box placed in front of the cyclist, the Christiania bike quickly became a generic name for cargo bikes in Denmark.

Inevitably, other brands started to pop up and today the list is long and it includes; Nihola, Sorte Jernhest [Black Iron Horse], Bellabike, Triobike, Esimex, Larry vs. Harry, Long John, Short John and Kangaroo Bike.

At any daycare in the city you'll see parents dropping off and picking up their kids in cargo bikes, with the cargo bays equipped with small benches to sit on. There's room for groceries, too. Deejays and musicians use cargo bikes for transporting gear, kindergartens have them for taking kids on outings and companies use them for moving goods about.

Amazingly, only about 40 percent of Copenhageners own cars, even though this is the capital city of one of the richest countries in the world. Sure, vehicles are taxed heavily but the reason is simply because we have the infrastructure in place for bicycles and we have a rather good public transport system. Even 50 percent of the citizens of Berlin do not own a vehicle, for the same reasons. Fifty eight percent of Copenhageners, when polled, say that they ride their bike because it is easy and fast. Only one percent say they do in order to help the environment. Basically, we're not environmentalists. We're just people who need to get around the city, like anywhere else.

I often say that we don't have cyclists in Copenhagen. We only have Copenhageners who get around by bike. We have a cyclists' union, sure, but I don't anyone who is a member. Nor do I know anyone who wears woolen socks in sandals, which seems to be a prerequisite for membership. The vast majority of us merely ride our bikes because we can and because we get there quicker if we do.

The continued growth of our cargo bike culture has contributed to the improvement of our bicycle infrastructure. On average a separated bike lane – by that I mean separated from the sidewalk by a curb and from the traffic by another curb – measures 7.2 feet wide. The city of Copenhagen is increasing the average width to 8.2 feet. For reasons of increasing safety and to accommodate the bicycle traffic, but also because cargo bikes are so popular. And wide.

Cargo bikes may be our version of the SUV but they are an aesthetic addition to the flow of bicycles. They glide along at a slower pace and can sometimes be difficult to pass but it's always lovely to see kids sitting in the box reading a book or munching on an apple or even having a nap. So many families in Copenhagen invest in a cargo bike when they have kids, in lieu of a car. The kids learn to ride bikes, sure, but the cargo bikes are practical for many reasons. Even many families who own a car have a cargo bike instead of a second car.

When I write 'invest' in a cargo bike it's because they can be pricey compared to regular bikes. The average price for a sturdy carry-all three-wheeler is about $3,000. Most of them, however, will keep a high percentage of their value and even second-hand models with 10 years on the bike lanes are much sought after.

Cargo bikes may now be the domain of the family but new variations are constantly popping up in the city. A mobile coffee bar, a newspaper rack, fresh fruit, bike messengers, ice cream freezers, you name it. Anything you need to sell or transport can be done on a custom-designed cargo bike.

Bike trailers are still seen on occasion but the cargo bike beats the trailer for so many good reasons. Heavier loads, kids seated up front where you can talk to them, more stability while cycling. But the trailer still serves the people. IKEA of Denmark found out that 20 percent of their customers arrived at their suburban big box stores by bike or public transport. They have now provided free Velorbis bikes and trailers for their carless customers who need to get home with purchases. Just leave a deposit, ride home with your stuff and return the bike. Cheaper than a taxi and easier than the bus or the train. This idea is now spreading to IKEAs in other European countries.

The import of cargo bikes to America is also experiencing an period of growth as the bicycle continues its march back into the public consciousness. It's mostly an East Coast/West Coast thing at the moment in North America. With more than a century on the road, the Danish cargo bike shows no sign of stopping and we're only too happy to share a good idea.