Cargo Bike Buyer’s Guide

Are you looking to buy a cargo bike? Start your cargo bike journey here to decide on the right cargo bike for you.

Every person and business we’ve talked to about buying a cargo bike has experienced a specific moment that shifted them toward the cargo bike life. A more connected life outside of a windshield.

Using the Cargo Bike Guide

This cargo bike guide is to help you find the perfect cargo bike for your unique needs by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the intended use of your new cargo bike?
  2. Which type of cargo bike is best for you based on your intended use?
  3. What are the basics of e-bike motors and drivetrains you need to understand?
  4. What type of accessories should you be thinking about?

What is your intended cargo bike use?

To set yourself up for success, you must define your needs before even looking at bikes. It is easy to be caught up in marketing or crazy sale pricing, which may lead you to the wrong bike. The most important question is, “What do you want to do with your cargo bike?”

There is a clear separation between bikes used strictly for cargo use and bikes used for passengers AND cargo. Sometimes this is simply a difference in how you accessorize the bike, and sometimes it is a completely dedicated bike for carrying cargo. In our cargo bike directory, you’ll see that the FIRST defining filter is how you intend to use it.

The next question to ask yourself is, “What type of cargo do you want to carry?” This could be weight or size specific or defined by the number of passengers, their ages, and what else you need to carry with them.

A family cargo bike may be defined as carrying two children, ages 1 and 4, including all their bags for daycare.

A business cargo bike may be defined as one that needs to carry 200 lbs separated into stacked euro crates, which are easy to remove.

The last question, “Where will you be riding and storing the bike?” Sometimes, this question completely changes what type of bike you should be looking at and restricts what and how you can carry it, so it is very important to include this question before discussing the types of cargo bikes and their specific details.

What are the Different Types of Cargo Bikes?

Here are the main types of cargo bikes you’ll find in the United States, listed primarily by availability:   

Longtail Cargo Bikes

xtracycle edgerunner longtail cargo bike
Xtracycle Edgerunner Swoop Longtail Cargo Bike with Bosch Electric Assist

Longtail Cargo Bike Basics

Take a normal bike (68″) and extend the rear end by 12-16″ and you have a longtail cargo bike. Most of these can fit 3 children, some only 2. Your main storage is your bags, which may be under kids’ legs or in a front basket/rack. Some of the most popular longtail cargo bikes available are Xtracycle (the originator of the “longtail” cargo bike), Yuba, and Surly. Longtails are available in a few different wheel size configurations, including 26″ wheels front and back, 24″ wheels front and back, 26″ wheels in the front, and 20″ wheels in the back. (Each of these has pros and cons; we will write another article and link it here when it is live.)

Longtail Cargo Bike Pros

  • It rides like a normal bike, just really long
  • Non-electric versions are the most affordable cargo bikes available
  • They can fit 3 kids on most Xtracycle and Surly models. Yuba fits 2.5 kids well.
  • Most bike shops are equipped to work on these bikes compared to the bakfiets (box bike) style below. 

Longtail Cargo Bike Cons

  • Hard to transport 
  • Harder to store
  • It does not have as much space as a bakfiets box bike for easily carrying large loads (but you can probably make whatever you are carrying fit!).

Midtail Cargo Bikes

Tern GSD Electric Cargo Bike Review
Tern GSD Gen 1 Electric Cargo Bike

Midtail Cargo Bike Basics

Not too big, not too small – a midtail cargo bike is a bit like Goldilock’s porridge. Back in 2018, I wrote an article about the Rise of the Midtail Cargo Bike. I claimed then that midtail cargo bikes will fit into more people’s lives, and I believe this has been proven true. You have one or maybe two kids but need to be able to transport the bike or maybe you don’t want a huge Cadillac longtail on the days you don’t have the kids – enter the Midtail Cargo Bike.

I believe (tell me if I am wrong) that Kona MinUTE or Work Cycles FR8 were some of the original shorter wheelbase bikes designed to carry cargo. Since then, a lot of the main cargo bike players have entered the market, and I would say the most popular as of writing this would be the Tern GSD. 

Midtail Cargo Bike Pros

  • It’s not as long or “beefy” as a longtail cargo bike.
  • It is easier to transport on a hitch rack or in a car.
  • Some even fit on the front bus rack or stand on end on a train!
  • Easier to store and find parking.
  • They are designed to carry cargo compared to a normal bike.

Midtail Cargo Bike Cons

  • They don’t hold as many kids as a longtail or bakfiets
  • Some midtails have a very low rear cargo (passenger area) weight limit.
  • I find them unsettling in the snow with kids on the back due to the shorter wheelbase and higher weight. It’s not unrideable, but you must get used to it first!
  • My three favorite midtail cargo bikes are the Tern GSDAventon Abound & Xtracycle RFA – all 3 are only available with electric assist.

Boxed (Bakfiets) Cargo Bikes

Two different boxed bikes rolling through Denver, Colorado

Boxed (Bakfiets) Cargo Bike Basics

The boxed cargo bikes have some style of “box” or front area that a box could be attached to. These are also known as Bakfiets in Europe which translates to cargo or freight bike. Your kids or cargo are sitting in front of you which is beneficial for you to be able to see them, can handle some of the most extreme loads of bicycles, and are a lot of fun to ride. Some boxed bikes are designed to hold cargo, baby seats, dogs, 3-6 kids, and accessories like benches, storage, rain covers, infant seat adapters and more.

Urban Arrow Family Bakfiets Cargo Bike

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Boxed Cargo Bike Two-Wheeled Version Basics

The front wheel is attached to your handlebar steering through a steering rod, cables, or even chains. The steering can take some time to get used to but once someone masters it the bike can feel the most stable out of all cargo bikes due to the length of the bike and your cargo weight being the lowest possible.

Boxed Cargo Bike Two-Wheeled Version Pros

  • “Throw it in the box” is wonderful. You don’t have to think too much about how to pack like the Longtail or Midtails that rely on cargo space in bags or a front rack. 
  • Cargo can potentially be covered from the elements with a rain cover
  • Some bakfiets have an infant attachment device like the Urban Arrow pictured all the way at the top. The Maxi Cosi seat snaps into a suspended clip on either side of the box, much like you would snap in an infant seat to a stroller. This also allows 2 kids to still sit on the bench and put their legs under the car seat. This all works with the Urban Arrow rain cover.

Boxed Cargo Bike Two-Wheeled Version Cons

  • The steering can take some time to get used to. I have a wonderful set up for people to get used to the handling of a bakfiets 2 wheel bike and walk through people to get them started but I have heard of incidents on the first test rides.
  • They are large which means difficult to store, transport and potentially find parking at your destination if you live in a dense place with terrible bike parking.
  • More expensive base price than the longtail or midtail bikes but once accessorized they aren’t too far from each other.
  • Harder to find at shops across the country.

Boxed Cargo Trike Three-Wheeled Version Basics

Bunch Bikes TRIKE Cargo Bike

The original style of this trike cargo bike can be found on farms and are decades old. The entire front half of the trike like Christiania or Bunch as pictured above turns, and the frame is independent. It is much like attaching fixed wheel shopping cart, or wheelbarrow.

Other bikes like Nihola or Butchers & Bicycles have unique styles of making the front wheels articulate or turn instead of being in a fixed position to the box. 

It seems that many customers either love or hate the trike experience. Turning them has a learning curve, but there isn’t anything to balance at a standstill, which is very handy! They can carry the most kids from 4 to 6 (Bunch makes a preschool cargo bike model) under a rain cover.

Cargo Bike Motors and Batteries

The majority of cargo bikes now sold are electric bikes, and high-quality electric bike systems are spurring the adoption of cargo bikes for car trip and car ownership replacement. Here are some key things to know about cargo bike motors and batteries:

E-Bike Safety First

UL Ratings
Most electronics sold in the United States must undergo third-party safety testing. If you open your fridge, look at the battery on your drill, or read the fine print on the computer charger, it has a UL label on it because it had to meet those requirements to be sold. Electric bikes don’t have the same standard in the United States (yet), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for UL ratings for your e-bike, battery, and charger.

UL 2849 is the standard for the complete e-bike system, from charger to battery to controller and the wiring in between. This is the safest option, and we endorse it. Cities like NYC are moving to require it as the standard for e-bikes.

UL 2771—This battery-specific test does not include the entire system. It is a step in the right direction, but at Cargo Bike Life, we don’t believe it is enough, as we have seen controllers and chargers be the source of fires.

When you are looking at bikes, make sure to ask the brand or dealer what UL rating the bike has. If they don’t know then it may be a bike you should avoid even if the price is very attractive. Based on CPSC recent recommendations, it feels like all electric bikes will be headed towards a required UL 2849 testing.

Motors, Torque, and Assistance

Generally speaking, you want a powerful electric bike motor that handles lower cadence, which is your pedaling speed, and gives you the most torque and assistance. There are different types of motors; some are built into the bike frame called mid-drive motors, and others are built into your wheel called hub drive motors. They both have pros and cons.

Mid-Drive Electric Bike Motor Pros and Cons
It feels the most like a bike but with extra power in your legs.

Hub-Drive Electric Bike Motor Pros and Cons
It feels like you are being pushed or pulled. These are typically the most affordable and what you’ll need if you want a throttle

Battery Sizes and Charging

Batteries are identified by watt-hours, or Wh. This is how much juice is in a battery; the bigger the number, the more energy it can give you. The more load you carry, the terrain of your riding, and how much assistance you need will change how much energy you use.

Batteries are typically one of the most expensive parts of your bike and should be treated well. Store them inside, charge them inside, and never drop them!

Not all Cargo Bikes Are Created Equally

We’ve tried dozens of cargo bikes, motors, and accessories for hundreds of miles, sometimes thousands. We’ve had to work on them, deal with warranty issues, and know not only the bikes but what the companies behind them are like. There are companies that we have decided NOT to work with on Cargo Bike Life because of constant warranty issues, failures, lawsuits, and more. We do not take lightly our role in helping people potentially put the most valuable things in their lives, be it their children, pets, or business cargo, on a cargo bike we have recommended.

Cargo Bike Database

We originally built this website to bring the cargo bike and family biking community together. Use Our Cargo Bike Database!

  1. Great article but there are mid drive bikes using Bafang motors that offer throttles. To say that only hub drive motors feature throttles is inaccurate.

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