Are cargo bikes the next big thing?

Chinese copy the classic Dutch 'bakfiets' as European sales soar

It’s a sign of a bike's success when companies in the Far East start producing cut-price copies of it – and that’s just what’s happened with the classic Dutch ‘bakfiets’ design.

At this year's China International Bicycle & Motor Fair Show in Shanghai, Ningbo Nanyang Vehicle Co. displayed a complete range of carrier cycles which were difficult to tell apart from their made-in-Holland counterparts.

The powerhouse of bakfiets sales (bakfiets literally means ‘boxbike’) is still the Netherlands. But, even though the design seems to have been around for ever, sales have exploded over the past few years.

"When we started six years ago, we sold about three a week," said Jan Rijkeboer, head of Azor, which manufactures bakfiets big enough to transport two or three small children. "Now, we sell thousands per year... and we export a containerful to the United States every three months."

According to Rijkeboer, the average bakfiets buyer is a young parent in the upper-middle income range – but not always. "For some it is a display of wealth but some, like my single-mother clients, don't have a choice," he said. "It's still cheaper than a car."

The trend seems to be catching on in the UK too. Huw Salt of the School Run Centre, Cambridge, specialists in bakfiets called Cargobikes, says sales have taken off over the past couple of years, and the last three months have been 100 percent up on the same period of last year.

Cargo bikes can be used for carrying goods as well as children, in this case in Coventry

What’s behind this mini-surge in popularity? Salt says: "While Cargobikes have always appealed to those with a green conscience – we actually sold one to Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth – the rise in petrol prices last year and the credit crunch have made Cargobikes especially appealing to those looking to replace the second car on the school run."

Perhaps surprisingly, 99 percent of Salt’s bakfiets purchasers opt for the two-wheeled version rather than the tricycle option. "Despite what people might think about difficulties in handling a heavily loaded two-wheeler, they soon realise a tricycle – loaded or not – requires a whole different set of skills to riding a bike," he said.

While sales of bakfiets are strongest in flatter areas, especially in the south-east of the UK, Salt thinks there is potential for the bikes in hillier areas now that his company has started selling an electric version of the Cargobike.

MP Susan Kramer with members of Richmond-based Pedal Power for Parents

One particular bakfiets project has proved a long-term success. The Richmond-based Parents for Pedal Power Project was given £5,000 funding by Transport for London to provide four bakfiets at Stepping Stones nursery in May 2007, to be borrowed by parents for short trips.

Jessica Anderson, one of the project founders, uses a bakfiets to carry her children, Jemima, four, and Hugo, three. She said: "The bikes have changed our lives and the children love it. We have a cover for when it rains, and while I might get wet, the children are cosy. I've used it for grocery shopping, getting to after-school activities, trips to the park and even to the recycling bank with a load of cardboard and bottles. It's the ultimate eco-friendly people carrier."

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