In June 2020, Richard Silke posted photos on his Twitter account of his mother and her neighbour cycling in their housing estate in Galway. The photos quickly went viral and it’s easy to see why. Richard’s mother, Marie, 79, and her friend Mary were on two trikes. When interviewed a few weeks later, she explained that ordinary bikes are not an option for her as a result of hip operations and she was finding walking to be exhausting. Richard noted that seeing his mother on the bike has brought joy to the entire family. If you haven’t seen the photos yet, it’s almost impossible not to smile when you see them.
Trikes are just one example of how non-conventional bikes open up cycling to more people. Perceptions about cycling tend to be dominated by concepts of able-bodied, young, or middle-aged men on racing or road bikes. Road bikes are great if you want to cycle far or fast but for a lot of us, they are ill-equipped for day-to-day life or inaccessible due to age, ability, injury, or disability.
One type of non-conventional bike that is poised to become a far more common sight in our towns and cities over the next few years is the cargo bike. The modern cargo bike can trace its roots back to Copenhagen in the 1970s where people living in the Christiania commune started using trikes with a low box on the front of the bike. Before this, goods or children tended to be ferried by bike in trailers at the back.
Although typically associated with parents who have young children, cargo bikes are also becoming an option for business and commercial users. A number of businesses already use cargo bikes in Dublin and Cork. Earlier this year, both Cork City Council and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council launched pilot schemes to allow businesses to trial cargo bikes to deliver products or services to their clients.
A small number of friends and acquaintances of mine who have kids are owners of cargo bikes. In the Netherlands, they might be referred to as a ‘bakfietsmoeder’ or a ‘bakfietspapa’: cargo bike moms and cargo bike dads. In Dutch and Belgian cities, cargo bike parents are often singled out as a yardstick for neighbourhood gentrification or an influx of left-wing liberals. A 2011 piece in a Belgian newspaper that accused cargo bike parents of having their ‘hearts on the left but wallets on the right’ drew sharp criticism from media commentators for fuelling a ‘cargo bike full of clichés’, Similarly, a 2018 piece in The Atlantic claimed that the cargo bike was becoming a symbol of urban displacement in Rotterdam.
A researcher in the Netherlands at the University of Amsterdam has investigated why cargo bikers are portrayed as ‘yuppies’ or ‘elitist’ and suggests cargo bike parents challenge existing norms about motherhood or fatherhood and therefore provoke an outcry.
Stereotypes of others often come laden with negative views and we don’t have a great history in Ireland of positive stereotypes involving people on bikes. The most well-known existing cycling stereotype here, the ‘Mamil’ (Middle-Aged Man in Lycra) is, in my opinion, a highly pejorative term and I’d hate to think that cargo bikers will fall foul of a similar fate.
So why do people buy a cargo bike? More often or not, cargo bike purchases don’t compete with bicycle purchases, but with car purchases. That alone is enough reason for me to welcome cargo bikes into the cycle lanes and make space for them at the bike parking racks. I messaged a friend who has an Urban Arrow e-cargo bike to confirm exactly how much one can cost. “Around €5,000 with the add-ons” was the reply. If you are spitting out your tea at the thought of handing over €5,000 for a bike, here’s some food for thought: the AA estimate that the average cost of running a family car for a year in Ireland is over €10,000.
Action can be taken to help ensure that cargo bikes are not associated only with middle-class families and environmentally-minded businesses here in Ireland in years to come. The Finnish city of Joensuu has found one potential solution to this issue and offers free e-cargo bike rentals at the public library. Similarly, Irish dockless bike-share service Bleeper announced plans for a testing phase of its ‘Bleeper Box’ cargo bike offering earlier this year.
A few times a month, I have a pang of envy that I don’t have a cargo bike. This usually happens when I’m sitting in my car in traffic on a sunny day with a bag of compost in the passenger seat.
However, I reserve my real envy for all the cargo bike kids out there. I’ve sat with friends over the years enjoying a coffee or a catch-up while their kids treat their cargo bike as a second home in the city. They read, eat, daydream, climb on, people-watch, and sleep in their little private domains in the most public of places.
Cargo bike moms and dads are bringing their kids around the city in a way that works for them, financially, physically, and ethically. Most cargo bikes come from the Netherlands and as we import more and more in the coming years, hopefully, we’ll leave negative stereotypes outside the box.