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Bakfiets – is Australia ready for the cargo bike revolution?

Recent discussions on cycling culture and the imminent arrival of our second child have resulted in an obsession with cargo bikes or Bakfiets (Dutch for boxbikes). These bikes are making their way to Australia, with various businesses now selling the contraptions (such as Good Concepts in West End, cargocycles.com.au, and more here).

I want one, exactly like in the photo above, but I don’t know why.

Economists generally believe people know how to make decisions that maximise their welfare. But in many cases we can’t know how much we will enjoy our consumption decisions in advance, since we have never experienced them before – such goods are known as experience goods.

Having already test-ridden one and been impressed, I am now attempting to evaluate the bike's worth by first itemising the pros and cons. Any assistance or insight or suggestions are appreciated.

Pros
Can handle a load of groceries plus children for short trips
Can pick up hitchhikers
No parking or fuel costs and only minimal maintenance
Fun

Cons
$1650 for the bike
$2450 if you want electric motor assistance
Plenty of hills in Brisbane
Not many safe streets to take this slow and slightly less manoeuvrable bike
Cannot jump off or up gutters if necessary (probably off but it won’t be pleasant
Extreme summer heat (could make a shade for the kids though)
Summer storms and bad weather in general

More importantly, to determine the value to our family of the bike I have been thinking in terms of marginal utility. Instead of thinking how good or practical the bike could be in isolation, I think in terms of how much better having the bike would be compared to our current situation.  And by this analysis, the cargo bike falls short.

Our family owns a car which this bike will not replace, nor will trips by cargo bike replace trips by car. So cost savings are not a selling point. However, even if car trips were being replaced by trips by cargo bike, the savings would be minimal since the marginal cost of a car trip is quite low.

Most of the cost of car transport is a cost of ownership – depreciation, registration and insurance etc – while only small costs can be attributed to extra kilometres. For example, it would cost our family about $3,000 to drive 4,000kms a year – or 75c/km on average. But if I reduced driving by 1,000km I would not save $750 because the registration, insurance and depreciation are somewhat fixed. I might only save 20c/km or less.

Replace a 5km car trip with cycling might only save $1 – a somewhat negligible amount in hilly terrain in the heat of a Brisbane summer with a family of four, especially given the likely time savings of driving.

Furthermore, our 2 year old can already walk to the grocery store, so it is simply a matter of taking the new baby in a stroller (which is also good for luggage) for that regular trip.

However, while the marginal benefits for our family do not yet warrant the cost, I do believe Australia is ready for the cargo bike revolution.

Drivers for change include urbanisation and young families losing the ‘must have a house to raise a family’ attitude, instead opting for well located apartments. If this group is forgoing a second car (they may not have a parking space anyway), and using a cargo bike for work, school and shopping trips, their may be significant benefits.

I want to leave you with a short story that demonstrates the difference between cycling culture in Australia and the Netherlands.

The two agents in the car look at me as if I have “Cops are Dicks” written in bold letters across my back and motion for me to stop and talk. They don’t get out of their car nor do they want to see my ID or anything official. The driver, obviously angry, leans over and asks some pointed, rhetorical question to the tune of “what the heck was that, asshole?!”. The female agent in the passenger’s seat is giving me that “Yeah, duhhhh!” look… though I was thinking approximately the same in reverse.

I’m no genius but I can put two and two together; It’s pretty obvious he’s referring to my riding through a red light a few meters back. A quick assessment of the situation suggests that admitting guilt and feigning embarrassment is my best approach. But the cop continues before I’ve had a chance to test my acting skills: “How do you think it makes us feel when you ride through red and everybody giggles and looks to see what we’ll do? You show no respect!” They don’t seem to have a problem with a cyclist breaking the law. The problem is that I did it in front of a police car. Oh, now how do I react? I can’t exactly say “Sorry officer, had I seen that you were there I wouldn’t have continued.” Likewise, admitting guilt to jumping a red light is a pointless since he’s already noted that it’s accepted.

A couple moments later they still hadn’t stepped out of their car so I figured they’d no intention of giving me a ticket or fine unless I did something stupid. I played it safe, sticking to “Yes, that was dumb of me.” and “I see your point… Understood.” Then they drove away, apparently satisfied that they’d made their point.

6 comments:

  1. Hey Cam, good read and nice links.

    Was very curious after hearing about the bike from Cathy; Maybe it's shallow but one of my main 'cons' to the idea is I find it very unpleasing aesthetically.

    I find it hard enough wearing a new coat in public let alone riding a bike that could easily be displayed in an automotive museum.

    I also think the cost is prohibitive and aimed at a very niche market. With no personal reference of the manufacturing quality I imagine if motivated enough anyone with basic welding skills could build something very similar from recycled parts for a couple of hundred dollars - I'm sure I could, the only difficult part would be making an efficient power assisted copy.

    Considering the price of 10+ aH Li-ion batteries the cost increase of power assistance in retail models is very low.

    cheers, look forward to reading more on your blog.

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  2. "If this group [young families living in apartments] is forgoing a second car (they may not have a parking space anyway), and using a cargo bike for work, school and shopping trips, their may be significant benefits."

    Where do they park their bike when not in use or overnight? It looks too big to take up the stairs, too open for the rain, and too expensive to leave out on a chain.

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    Replies
    1. The Dutch built ones are designed to sit out on the street in the rain/snow/sleet/salt/thieves for years on end when suitably locked. You can get a flat cover for the box to keep the rain and stuff out while parked. The Dutch ones at least come with a decent built-in lock, which if combined with a good chain lock (remember you have a wheelbarrow load of space to store it when riding), seems to do the trick. Also, if your one car is a small one, you might be able to park a 68cm wide bakfiets next to your car in your car park -- they really are only the same width as a normal bike, unless you get a 3-wheeler.
      Paul.

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  3. David,
    Good point, but I actually like retro/vintage/traditional style. But, I do like the idea of making one to decrease costs. However, having made and modified bikes before you often come across the problem that parts are very expensive to buy separately. Just the components (excluding frame) would probably cost that much to buy separately.

    But yes, with recycled parts it's a different story. I probably have enough old bikes to do this - just need the time and motivation.

    However, I did read on a website that an Aussie guy found a manufacturer in China an ordered a cheaper version from there (but not sure how much, and the difference in quality)

    Andrew,
    I reckon you could park the bike in the basement beside a car in a regular car space, or in a courtyard, or some other common area. I would have thought most apartments would have some space to store a regular bike without taking it up stairs, so a cargo bike could be kept alongside.

    Also, these cargo bikes are designed to withstand the weather and be left outside continuously (if you are confident that chaining it up will deter theft) That is the Dutch way.

    I also have added fun to the list of pros - which probably explains my persistent enthusiasm in light of all the cons.

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  4. Andrew,

    I got a Workcycle Cargo Long recently. It is a joy to ride, our two little people love it and people beam with smiles when they see it.

    With a the additional front bench we get upto four in it! Great for trips to the park and pool.

    Chris Kenyon London
    www.chriskenyon.eu

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  5. Andrew_M_Garland, the bakfiets.nl bike comes (well, possibly as a necessary option) with a rain cover which we've used in heavy rain and snow. Child inside stays snug (with blanket in winter) -- driver not so much! Chaining this to something solid and locking the wheel is a very good theft deterrent in an environment of casual/lazy bike theft (Cambridge UK) -- so far. It's not for everybody, certainly, but for our 10-mile round trip with one small child it means no need for a car in a town where driving is a frustrating ordeal.

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