Marriage. Kids. Bakfiets. It’s life changing.
PSA: Follow the Instagram account @cargobikemomma for amazing shots of biking around NYC. Like this one
In September 2019, my wife and I decided to get an Urban Arrow Family electric cargo bike. We now use it for tons of activities as an alternative to the bus, subway or taxis and have incorporated into our family routine.
How we use it
This bike is our own teleportation device. Simply put, it is the most fun, easiest, cheapest, most convenient way to get around NYC with kids. Instead of taking 40 minutes on the bus to go 30 blocks, we can bike 10 minutes. Instead of walking 15 blocks to or from Karate class (a 20 minute walk), we can bike 5 minutes so our son has time to eat.
Simply put, it is the most fun, easiest, cheapest, most convenient way to get around NYC with kids.
Instead of taking a stroller and (unlike every European public transit system) having to collapse it to board an MTA bus, as per their rules, we don’t have to deal with a stroller or a bus. Instead of navigating the subway, attempting to only go to stations that have elevators, and praying that those elevators are working and maybe aren’t filled with urine, we simply don’t take the subway. Instead of walking a stroller up 285 stairs because the escalator doesn’t work… you get the idea.
My wife primarily uses the bike to:
- Shuttle the kids from school to extracurriculars
- Grocery shop / Costco / Whole Foods / Trader Joes
- Pick-up or drop off stuff around the neighborhood
- Go to a gym class
- Do more weekend activities like street fairs and farmer’s markets, which are much more enjoyable with a bike
- Show up to our kids’ friends’ birthday parties in style
Why we did it / How we got here
For a while, we wanted to get a bike that could hold our 2 kids, as getting around New York City by bike is frequently much easier, more fun, way faster and cheaper than by subway, bus or taxi. My friend Choresh, fellow bakfiets parent, put it this way: “We use cargo bikes not because of the environment or the cost. We use it because it is the most efficient and fast way to get around with children in NYC. Period.” For years, he had not-so-subtly tried to get me to join the club by sending me Craigslist and ebay links for inexpensive cargo bikes.
In the summer of 2019, we spent a month in Amsterdam and had access to a wooden, non-electric bakfiets.
We went on many biking adventures but also used the bikes as part of our normal daily routine. One day we’ll move to the Netherlands, but until then, we wanted to bring a taste of Amsterdam to NYC!
Funky looking bike! what is it?
This is a “long john” style bike, also known as “bakfiets” in Dutch. They are common in the Netherlands but incredibly rare here in NYC. These bikes are a little tricky to ride at first but then you get the hang of them and realize just how insanely useful they are for everything from errands, grocery shopping, and shuttling kids around. In fact, there is a documentary out right now (funded on Kickstarter) that speaks to this, called Motherload.
Why not just get a more common longtail style bike?
This style of bike is exceptionally rare in NYC. Far more common are the “longtail” style bikes — electric and non electric — as Brooklyn Spoke describes in this 5 year old blog post. This is what New Yorkers imagine when they hear the term “cargo bike”.
My wife Maddy is 5 feet tall and we knew that she’d be the primary rider. A bike with 2 kids on the back who are up high is challenging to stabilize and not much fun to ride up hills. So we also knew we’d want an electric. But an electric Gazelle, for example, outfitted with room for 2 kids & space for groceries etc ended up being quite expensive.
A bakfiets, where the cargo and kids are front loaded and with a lower center of gravity, is actually quite a bit easier to maneuver in terms of balance. Throw in the electric motor and it becomes a blast to ride around. Other key differences: parking it is very simple. You can’t knock it over. It weighs a ton and is big so it’s more like a vehicle that demands some distance and respect from drivers (or at least that’s our perception!). So it is a bit pricier but the convenience of it all made the difference.
This is a great FAQ from a cargo bike mom in Vancouver discussing a lot of the points in this post.
Test riding these bikes
Soon after returning from Amsterdam, we decided to explore our options. We visited 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn (which moved locations in late 2019) and test rode a Gazelle e-bike. Joe, the owner, was super nice and helpful. I really appreciated the bike advocacy paraphernalia and decals as well.
The following weekend we visited Propel, also in Brooklyn, which specializes exclusively in e-bikes and carries several models of cargo bikes you can test ride in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They were extremely knowledgeable and friendly and really went out of their way to assist us, answering all of our 1,000 questions.
Note: These are the only 2 dealers for Urban Arrow in all of NYC!
We did a ton of research to prepare for this — I watched countless videos of people stealing bikes in NYC, learned about locks, learned about Carbon belts, Bosch motors and batteries, etc. We joke that we put more thought, care, research and time into making this bike purchase than we did for either having children or buying our home. It’s funny cuz it’s true.
As a couple, Maddy and I have experienced several major life events together. There’s engagement, getting a dog, marriage, our first child, our second child, buying an apartment. This bike is just as much a “things will never be the same afterwards” life event.
This bike is transformative. We are now a bakfiets family!
Ok so now for some of the most common questions…
Where do you park it?
This is a big bike. It is very long and weighs over 100 lbs. So we sidewalk / street park it — that is, leave it outside overnight — with the following safety measures:
- Cafe lock. The Urban Arrow comes with an Abus Cafe Lock which goes around the back wheel, through the spokes. These are very common in the Netherlands but surprisingly rare here in NYC.
- Abus chain lock. We chain the frame of the bike to an iron gate.
- Remove the display. The electronic display is the “brain” of the bike. Without it, you cannot power the bike.
- Remove the battery. The battery of an electric bike is among the most valuable parts. It is locked as well but to be safe (and to protect it from the elements) we take it inside.
- Motorcycle tarp. For $25 we got a big motorcycle cover that easily covers the entire bike making it look either like an oddly shaped motorcycle or a barbecue. We credit this with having the most impact of all.
Some additional thoughts
NYC is basically a parking lot, filled with parked cars occupying roughly 5.3 million parking spaces, 3 million of which are on the street and free. Because cars are parked all along the streets, they appear to be the only vehicles that can occupy that space. That’s self-fulfilling and it has become hard to imagine anything other than cars lining the streets. But it’s our public space, and bikes have every right to that space as some guy’s Chevy Tahoe gas guzzler that takes up the equivalent of 3 regular car spaces. Curb space should be used for bike parking and a multitude of uses other than personal car storage.
Won’t it get stolen / vandalized / destroyed?
A lot of people think NYC is the NYC from the movie Death Wish where everything on the street is either burned or stolen. Street parking a bike comes with risk. I’ve spoken with a lot of bike owners, most of whom had stories of theft or vandalism. So the short answers is, it certainly could.
It’s worth noting that the Urban Arrow is not a typical bike so the parts are actually quite complex and hard to remove (attached with wires or part of the frame, etc).
In addition to the locks, we also got Hexlox. These are little magnets that go into where a hex key would go — handlebars, seat, wheels. So a thief with a hex key who normally could quickly loosen a seat and steal parts could not get access to ours.
When out and about, my wife has a “go bag” and a “lock up” routine: chain lock, cafe lock, remove display, and box cover.
Is biking kids safe?
But isn’t biking unsafe? No, biking is obviously not inherently dangerous. (See the Netherlands) No, the danger is almost always drivers who drive their multi-ton vehicles and trucks and garbage trucks into people riding bikes or people walking on the sidewalk or in crosswalks.
Awful or non-existent cycling infrastructure (like protected, clear lanes, bike only traffic signals, clear paths to make turns, traffic calming so drivers aren’t compelled to speed down massive avenues… and so on) is equally to blame.
God didn’t come down to NYC and create 6 lane roads for cars. Robert Moses did. We can change that, and part of the process, I believe, is to be the change you wish to see. We believe it should be considered perfectly acceptable to ride a bike to get around the city, particularly with your children.
Aren’t we scared that we’re putting our children at risk?
Everything has risk. Walking across a street is risky because our streets are hostile and dangerous. I do not believe biking with our kids is any more risky than walking with them. Every time I cross the street in front of my apartment, I am concerned that a reckless or inattentive or speeding driver will take our lives. Stories like this one are why I am hyper vigilant as a pedestrian.
Drunken, unlicensed NYC driver fatally strikes 20-month-old child in stroller: cops
The driver was headed north on White Plains Road when he lost control and jumped the curb trying to make a right turn…
I am always on edge when I walk with my kids. I don’t trust our streets to protect us because they are designed for speed and the city does little to limit vehicle access.
In 2018, drivers killed more than 100 pedestrians and 10 cyclists in NYC.
Take a look at Streetsblog’s 2018 In Memorandum — a compilation of all the lives lost due to traffic violence. Too many people are killed or injured while walking in a crosswalk with the walk signal or walking on a sidewalk where they should be safe. Being on a bike doesn’t make our streets less hostile for people. But I’d argue that being on a bike makes me as a parent control variables more than if I were walking.
My twitter feed focuses primarily on street safety and bike and pedestrian advocacy.
How much did it cost?
This is a question we constantly get. It’s expensive, not gonna lie. But let’s start with some baseline numbers. Compare the price point of this bike to a car not to a bike and it starts to look extremely inexpensive. The AAA says the average yearly cost to own a car is $8,500. This bike is pricey but not remotely as expensive as a car.
An Urban Arrow has a base price of $6,000. We upgraded to the Bosch CX motor (from the Performance line) because it can then handle a 2nd battery if we choose to get one later, upgraded from the 400WH battery to a 500WH, and got the box cover, Abus chain lock, hexlox. It totaled $7,700. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but again, we got a top of the line bike and then upgraded it. We probably went overboard with the CX upgrade, but let’s check back in a year and see.
What will you do when it rains/snows/isn’t sunny?
A common refrain is that NYC isn’t conducive to biking because it gets cold, it snows, it rains a lot, etc. It’s a good point so I looked up the data.
Turns out, NYC has about 224 sunny days per year and 119 days with precipitation. That doesn’t sound great, except when you compare it with Amsterdam, which has 182 days with precipitation per year! Clearly, the weather hasn’t slowed them down.
Propel Bikes produced this great video about a cargo bike mom in NYC:
- Box Cover: This is a cover specifically for the cargo part of the bike. Great protection for the kids from the cold. $120
- A super loud horn: Look, I hate car honking and traffic noise probably more than the average person. I even built Reported originally to report taxis honking in front of my apartment all the time. But the sad truth is that, unlike civilized countries where cyclists interact primarily with other humans on bikes or foot, New Yorkers have to interact quite frequently with impatient, frequently distracted humans encased in 4,000 lbs of metal, looking at phones, listening to music, and not paying attention to the other humans around them. I hate to contribute to the noise problem but until NYC starts getting some fietspads, that’s where we are. Hornit 140dB (world’s loudest bike horn): $30
Our existence invalidates the “can’t bike with kids” arguments
The simple act of riding a bike with children, taking care of chores, shopping, picking up and dropping off kids is impactful to the common discourse on urban biking, particularly family biking.
The other point is that act of biking sets an example, demonstrates to casual observers that cyclists exist, and when bikes line the streets, it conveys a sense that these streets are not just for cars. I’m tired of cyclists being handed scraps and by effectively hiding a bike from public view we end up living in the shadows. Consider just how many people on their personal bikes came out for Summer Streets. The city has a tremendous amount of cyclists.
Hopefully this post answers most questions but please, ask us anything in the comments and we’ll happily answer and update the post accordingly!
April 26 (6 weeks into COVID “lockdown”): Thank god we have this bike. We go for rides every weekend with the kids. There are also stores that are a bit too far to walk to. Even if you could, social distancing on our narrow sidewalks is challenging and stressful. Our bike has made those necessary grocery trips significantly easier and less stressful. We can also relatively easily bike into Central Park and find less-crowded spots for the kids to run around. That would be impossible without a comfortable bike. Since March 15, we have not boarded a bus, a subway or any vehicle (friend’s car or Uber).
September 14: After a full year and 1300 miles later, we’ve revised some of the above decisions.
- Hornet is overkill. This horn not only isn’t that loud (the standard bell dings much louder) it is *really* doesn’t like rain. So this got wet since it’s outside a lot and several times it short circuited and would not turn off! There’s nothing more annoying than a siren-horn that won’t turn off. So I had to unplug it (since there’s no “off” button either!). I can see this is helpful if you want to get the attention of other cyclists or pedestrians (although it’s just obnoxious sounding) but it isn’t nearly loud enough to get the attention of drivers in their cocoons. For that, I’d recommend an air horn like AirZound. The only problem is you can’t run a cord so it would need to be right where the kids’ ears are and that would be very bad. But other cyclists have this and love it since it’s basically a truck horn.
- Battery doesn’t need to be brought in all the time. We were always nervous about the battery being stolen so we’d bring it inside every night but we’ve become more comfortable with leaving it out overnight. We have never found the motorcycle cover messed with, so the risk of the battery being stolen seems negligible.
- Probably don’t need the cafe lock locked with the motorcycle cover. The motorcycle cover appears to be the biggest deterrent to theft. So far, no one has appeared to even try to mess with it. Which means we probably don’t even need to lock the cafe lock under it. That feels like overkill since it already has a chain lock.
- Hex Lox is overkill. HexLox are little magnets that can stop opportunity theft, where someone with a hex key could easily lift your seat post in 5 seconds. I know I said this was valuable but now realize the right way to protect your seat is with a simple wire that just conveys “this will be a little more challenging than pulling the seat off”. With this one change, we replaced the seat post adjuster (which required a hex key) to the quick release one (which doesn’t require a hex key) and now it’s way easier to adjust the height of the seat if we want to take turns riding. We got this “seat post leash” but a “seat post collar” (the kind that keeps Citi Bike seats from being stolen) seems pretty awesome too.
- Saddle wore down quickly. Our saddle frayed a few months ago and gel oozed out and it just wasn’t that great. Propel Bikes was awesome and replaced the saddle with this Selle Royal 3d for no charge.
- Auto gear shifter. Bosch recently came out with an automatic gear shifter that looks incredible. You don’t need to shift gears and it will automatically adjust based on your effort. I love the idea of one less thing to worry about while riding. NYC streets are unforgiving so any chance to simplify the ride can be really helpful. (Bosch does not offer a throttle option so you always have to pedal.)
- It’s all about the motorcycle cover. The motorcycle cover, in our opinion, is everything. If you put a cover on any bike parked anywhere, I think most of the time in most situations it’ll be fine. Since most of the time no one wants to attempt to look under a cover and deal with that extra hassle. Even better: A locking motorcycle cover. I think you can park anything on the street under that and you’ll be fine.
- But just in case… get insurance. If you have homeowners insurance, check the policy for the deductible and the amount they’ll replace up to. Otherwise, just get lemonade and get a specialized policy to protect your investment. This seems like a no brainer to me especially for bikes over $1,000, but it sounds like most people don’t have insurance.