Friday, August 27, 2010

Cargo culture - two kids and a case of beer perfect!

Cargo bikes making inroads
Three-wheelers with a box for kids or grocers are rolling into many countries
By Allison MacGregor



Frederik Frouments talks to his son, Taiga, as his wife, Yuko Toda, gets ready to transport him in a cargo bike last month. The couple are importing the Danish bikes and selling them in Montreal. (Photograph by: John Kenney The Gazette)

Marke Ambard and Eartha Dupuis were in a quandary. Their son had become too big to go in a baby carrier, and they wanted a practical way to get around their Mile End neighbourhood without resorting to using a stroller or toddler bike seat.

They settled on the perfect solution for their car-free lifestyle: a cargo bike, also known as a "bakfiets," Dutch for "box bike."

Long popular on the streets of Copenhagen and Amsterdam, these three-wheel bikes have a wheelbarrow-style box in front that is typically large enough to carry two or three children and some groceries. Some bikes have been configured to carry as many as 12 children -or even bigger items, such as refrigerators.

"It just seemed ideal for what we needed," said Ambard, a 36-year old sociologist. "It's a way to get around with our son and run errands and that sort of thing -a replacement for an automobile."

Cargo culture is finally making inroads in North America. The bikes are becoming increasingly common on the streets of major cities like Portland, Seattle, New York, Toronto and Montreal.

Reasons for their adoption include a general rise in the number of people taking up biking and the desire to lead a greener, car-free lifestyle.

Some people have imported the bicycles after seeing them on the streets of Amsterdam or Copenhagen; that, in turn, has led to more widespread curiosity about the bikes in North America. Some firms use cargo bikes as a "green" alternative to delivering goods by car.

Hoping to cash in on the trend, at least one Montrealer has begun importing the bikes.

Frederik Froument and his wife, Yuko Toda, started selling bakfiets after bringing one with them when they moved to Montreal from Paris in 2007 with their infant son.

"Every time we went out, 10 to 15 people would stop us," said Froument, a freelance photographer and community activist. "Since everyone asked us where they could get one, we decided to see if we could bring it to Canada."

Widely read cycling blogs such as Copenhagen Cycle Chic, which are brimming with photos of healthy-looking families going about their daily lives on cargo bikes, have also helped fuel the trend. There are "cargo bike championships" in which riders compete in races and obstacle courses.

Investing in a cargo bike seems like a normal part of family life in these cities -Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark even uses one to take his children to daycare.

Cargo bikes were originally developed after the First World War in Europe when people used them for deliveries and to transport children.

The main drawback to mainstream adoption in North America has been the high price tag and a lack of local outlets -something Froument hopes to change. At more than $3,000 for most European-made bakfiets, the bikes can seem too costly for most families. And though some manufacturers in North America have started making them here, they still usually cost at least $2,500, and sometimes even more than the European imports.

Some cheaper Chinesemade models have appeared on the market. But they still usually cost at least $1,500 and the workmanship of these models has drawn criticism.

Froument considered importing a cheaper model from China but there were quality control issues, he said. "There were problems with the paint and problems with the mechanics," he said.

They eventually decided to import Nihola's Cycle3 bike from Denmark. The bike was designed after the Danish government held a contest for the design of a bike that could carry two kids and a case of beer. After winning that competition, the Cycle3, which can carry up to 100 kilograms and a rider, went on to become one of the most popular models in Europe. It can be configured take a car seat and comes with a rain cover. It retails for $3,500.

Froument sells the bikes through the other business he runs with his wife, Cafe Falco, a Mile End restaurant. He also rents the bikes at this location.

The bikes are just as expensive in Europe, but because they are sturdy and well built, there is typically a robust second-hand market fuelled by those whose children have outgrown them.

"Our goal is to get them out in the community and in a few years to have a secondhand market," Froument said.

The high price tag did not deter Ambard and Dupuis from buying one.

"It does a lot of things -it combines a number of purchases all in one," Ambard said, adding that when he pedals the bike his wife and son will ride in the box making it equal to "two adult bikes and a transport mechanism for our son -so it is three things."

Some families won't think twice about spending a similar amount on multiple items like strollers, bike seats, bikes and bike trailers -and Ambard points out that not owning a car makes the cost easier to absorb.

The bike is also lightweight enough to be ridden to the top of Mount Royal -and easy to manoeuver, he said. "We'd rather pay a little more up-front and have it last for a long time."

Froument and his wife, Yuki, who recently opened a Mile End cafe, are using cargo bikes for delivery and rent them to people who want to try them out.

As for Ambard, he says the bike has become an integral feature of his family's daily life. They use it for everything from grocery shopping to trips to the park.

"Noah will go in the box, and toys or groceries will go in there too," he said. "On weekends, we'll all jump in together."

For more information, contact Frederik Froument at cafefalco@gmail.comor info@cycle3.ca

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