Biking ruminations

Cargo bikes are expensive right now

Cargo bikes, in particular those with electric-assist motors, are life-changing.  They are also, unfortunately, expensive.  (Mostly.  For now.  Which I’ll come back to).  The price tags of most brands put them out of reach of many potential riders and make them appear to be toys of the comfortable.

This came up in discussion at a cargo bike group ride this weekend: we all field constant questions about the bikes from strangers and the one that makes us pause is, “how much did it cost?”  To the owner of an average adult bike, a thousand-dollar bike can seem unfathomable.  And even if you compare it to the cost of purchasing a(nother) car – which is often a fair comparison, say, for Hum of the City‘s family – the very top-end cargo bikes from Riese & Muller or similar can be half the cost of a subcompact car.  And said Toyota Yaris can get you to your job 30 miles away, which the bike cannot.

This week I did 50 miles of bike commuting, mostly moving my kids around, and 0 miles of driving.  It was delightful.  And I remain confident that e-cargo bikes are the future.  Here I want to put the high price tags in what I hope will be the accurate historical context and explore factors that will make them universally accessible.  Time will tell.

As cars were at first a luxury good, so now are e-cargo bikes

The first cars were made for the wealthy.  They were expensive and held novelty appeal, which remains true of luxury and sports cars that are sold today as toys for wealthy  adults.   Automobiles existed for decades before the Ford Model-T made history as the first affordable car, accessible to the masses.

Today, we still have luxury cars, like we did in 1900 – just today I biked for blocks behind a Porsche Panamera 4 (an e-bike is just as fast as a car in downtown Ann Arbor) – but unlike then, we also have mass market cars.  I hope and expect that 2019 for e-cargo bikes is like 1899 for automobiles.  E-cargo bikes will similarly benefit from mass production and the efficiency of scale to hit a price point that works for anyone.

They’ll also benefit from other parallels to the car market: financing options and used vehicles.

The current state of non-luxury models

While the variety of cargo bikes continues to multiply, the market is still in its infancy.  I’d compare most of the flagship cargo bike brands – like Riese & Muller, Butchers & Bicycles, Larry vs. Harry, Urban Arrow – to luxury auto brands ranging from Lexus to Ferrari.

Yuba seems to differentiate a little on price, especially in a few models, like the Mundo Classic starting at $999.  An aftermarket motor would make this a great e-cargo bike at a fraction of some other bikes’ costs.  But Yubas are still generally expensive bikes.

The most affordable e-cargo bike may be the Radpower Radwagon, at $1,599 for an electric-assist longtail.  Yes there are meaningful differences between this bike and say a Yuba Spicy Curry ($4,499) – but compare the price tags.  I bet there are a lot of people who don’t care so much about a hub motor vs. a mid-drive and DO want to take their kids to school via bike, and can afford the Radwagon but not one of these fancier bikes.

It will be interesting to see what models and companies compete in the budget cargo bike space, what their staying power is, and how reliable and ubiquitous their models get.  Will the Radwagon be the Toyota Corolla of bikes?

EDIT: A reader pointed out to me the Blix PACKA, which blew past its Indiegogo goal this month.  It’s a longtail e-cargo bike that is currently priced at $1,349 for just the bike or $1,899 with all of the accessories, including a second battery.   Looks like healthy competition for the Radwagon.

Beyond cash sales

It’s not just about the models for sale.  Only one in six new automobile purchases are outright cash payments; the vast majority are financed with loans or leases.  Just like most new car buyers aren’t plunking down five figures up front, there should be a similar shift in cargo bike purchasing.

Many bike brands have started working with Affirm to offer financing.  For instance, the aforementioned Yuba Mundo Classic ($999) is $88/month when financed.  I haven’t seen anyone leasing a cargo bike, but that could be a promising model.  People new to the lifestyle could try one for a year with less risk, and those who want to rotate between different models without owning many bikes could experience more variety through leasing.

Buying used

The last parallel I’ll draw to the automobile market is the availability (or lack thereof) of used models.  Most automobile sales aren’t of new models at all – they’re people buying used.  This is the most important factor making cars more affordable.  And “used cars” span a huge range, from like-new to ultra-affordable beaters.  (Like my first car, a decrepit Ford Taurus where my dad and I riveted a coffee can to the front door to cover rust holes).

The market for used cargo bikes is tight, especially outside of big cities.  It should grow as the popularity of these bikes increases and the needs of early-adopting families change.  My local cargo bike shop, Urban Rider in Ann Arbor, has started selling used models and can help facilitate sales by those looking to part with a used bike.

Cargo bikes for the people

I’m hopeful that as more people discover the magic of e-cargo bike commuting and hauling, we’ll see new models emerge and prices fall at all levels.  New ultra-luxury bikes, pioneering tech that will eventually be standard?  Sure.  A drop in price on the current top-tier bikes mentioned above?  Please.  And most of all, huge volume and new entries in the bottom of the market that will make family bikes that can compete in traffic affordable to everyone.

Yes, I swoon at the Riese & Muller Load 75, like I goggled at the Acura NSX when I was a teenager.  But the more important question is, who will be the Ford Model T of cargo bikes?

New models, more used bikes, and better financing options should lead to e-cargo bikes eventually being more affordable than automobiles.  I don’t know any manufacturers or have access to their market research, which is unfortunate as I’d love to know what sales volume they forecast and how low the price can go.

Even Henry Ford probably didn’t think he’d sell 16 million Model Ts.

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