The most fun you can have with a door
If you still think cars, even electric cars, are the future of urban transportation, the Carqon electric cargo bike is here to convince you otherwise.
Cargo bikes are a way of life for many European families. For a decade, I bicycled my three kids everywhere in Amsterdam using a traditional “bakfiets.” My three-speed Dutch cargo bike with its large wooden box attached low to the elongated frame was something of a spectacle to tourists but very much the norm for cities that recognize the primacy of people over cars. The problem with cargo bikes has always been weight and bulk, making them difficult to maneuver when fully loaded. Adding an electric motor completely transforms the experience, making even the daintiest of parents feel superhuman.
I just spent a week riding Carqon’s first production bicycle here in Amsterdam. It’s an 88-pound (40 kg) electric cargo bike designed to transport an adult and up to four kids a distance of up 75 miles (120 km) before needing a recharge. I came away a believer in the transformative power of the electric cargo bike to replace both diesel-gulping delivery vans and family cars in the world’s cities.
While helping me review the Carqon, I also witnessed owners of the extremely popular Urban Arrow electric cargo bike come to regret their purchases. When the Carqon goes on sale in June for roughly the same price as the Urban Arrow, I fully expect parental circles to split into Carqon versus UA cliques with a ferocity not seen since Mean Girls.
Carqon’s first incarnation of the electric cargo bike focuses on families, just as cities begin to emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns. Mayors across the globe are urging residents to avoid public transportation to prevent a resurgence of infections. But they’re also limiting travel by car, converting miles of roads into protected bike lanes and pedestrian zones in order to encourage healthier modes of transport that will help maintain air quality advances made during the pandemic. An electric cargo bike allows families to ditch both subways and cars, while still getting kids to school, parents to work, and all the errands run.
I can’t overstate the convenience of a cargo bike in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. There is simply no better way to move precious cargo between points A and B. For years, I used my thigh-powered cargo bike for at least 95 percent of all my transportation needs, occasionally supplementing the bike with trains, busses, or car hires as needed. Not once did I feel the need to own a car. Adding an electric motor takes that hauling convenience to a whole new level while extending the range of what’s considered easily bikeable.
My kids have all outgrown my cargo bike, so I enlisted three sets of new parents to help me with this review. Andre, Lisa, and Linda each own an electric cargo bike made by Urban Arrow, by far the most popular brand of electric cargo bikes used by parents in Amsterdam.
Carqon, like Urban Arrow, is a bicycle brand born in the Netherlands and purchased by a large Dutch transportation conglomerate. Carqon is owned by the Accell Group, Urban Arrow by Pon Holdings. These are not white-label bikes assembled from a catalog of Chinese parts and sold on Indiegogo.
Carqon first made a splash in the bike industry with a well-received three-wheeled cargo bike way back in 2016, but it never made it beyond the concept phase. The Carqon I reviewed is a near-final version of the two-wheeled aluminum cargo bike that’s available to purchase on June 2nd in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, and Denmark. Sales will be made through its network of dealers, but it can also be purchased online. It just won’t be delivered directly to your home. Dealers are responsible for the final check before handing the bike over to new owners and for dealing with any service and warranty issues. That makes sense for a bike used to transport your family that’s priced between €4,999 (400-watt battery, with 10-speed derailleur) to €6,499 (dual 500-watt batteries, gear hub, and belt drive). My review bike is priced at €5,299 (about $5,800) before any state subsidies are subtracted. (More on that later.)
The Carqon electric cargo bike has a few standout features — three, in fact. Foremost is the child door. I know, it’s just a door. But it’s a remarkable addition, according to both the kids and parents who helped me test. Kids love the door because it gives them a sense of independence, allowing them to easily climb into the box and buckle themselves up (a child safety lock can be engaged if the parent desires). The kids who helped me test the door, aged from two to 11, absolutely loved it. For parents, there’s no need to lift a child into place. The lower point of entry also creates less risk of the bike toppling over as the children enter the Carqon compared to the Urban Arrow. Carqon kids aren’t at risk of falls either because they don’t have to climb up and over the dirty sides to enter the box.
In theory, the door does present a pinching hazard, I guess. But every door is a risk to little fingers, and no child was pinched during testing.
The second standout feature is the HDPE plastic box. All three parents who rode Urban Arrows loved that their youngest children sat deeply in the box, as they felt it offered more protection to the head, neck, and shoulders in case the bike tipped over. The higher lip was also nice for their youngins to sleep against, instead of being subjected to that limp-headed rag-doll effect every parent dreads. The box is also wide like cargo bikes from sister company Babboe, allowing two kids to sit on the bench side by side more comfortably than the UA.
The third standout feature is the option for a second battery. That’s an extra 45 to 60 km of range, according to Carqon, depending on how you ride. (I’d get closer to 45km per battery.) The Carqon is built around a Bosch Performance CX Gen 4 Cargo line mid-drive motor and choice of either dual 400Wh or 500Wh batteries. That range, which I couldn’t test, sounds about right for these ubiquitous Bosch motor and battery combinations.
There was plenty more to like as well. My test bike provided ample power to drive an adult and three kids up the biggest hill I could find in Amsterdam (which isn’t very big) at a top European speed of 25 km/h (or 16 mph, which isn’t very fast), although Lisa and Linda found the motor whine in the lower gears to be annoying (as did I). My review bike was also fitted with a Gates belt drive and Enviolo gear hub, which shifted in one continuous motion. (A 10-speed derailleur is also available.) No complaints there.
The Carqon also comes with a double-cable steering system that feels more responsive than the Urban Arrow’s clunky steering rod assembly, at both high and low speeds. The Carqon also has a very tight turning radius that helps you maneuver the 2.6-meter-long (8 feet, six inches) bike. All three parents preferred the wider handlebars of the Carqon, which they said gave them a greater sense of control over the steering.
One parent, Andre, who rides fast motorbikes, was a big fan of the adjustable front suspension. You can deliver kids to kindergarten at full speed over the cobblestones, he told me, without them getting beat up. He was also a fan of the Tektro Dorado HD-E730 hydraulic disc brakes, calling them “rock solid” and stable when braking at top speed. Andre also said that the Carqon felt reassuringly rigid, without flexing during high-speed cornering even when going over bumps.
There were some complaints, though.
The biggest criticism was aimed at the center stand on my near-final version of the bike. First, it’s harder to pull the Carqon onto the stand than the Urban Arrow, especially if there are kids in the box. Carqon tells me that they’re experimenting with different springs for the production run “with positive results.”
The stand also pinched my toe once as I rolled the bike back on top of it. That’s due to a short nub that you’re meant to step on to leverage the bike into place. I inadvertently stepped on the piece of metal below that, causing the nub to fold back and trap my toe between it and the pavement. Fortunately, the bike was empty — it could have been very painful had the 88-pound (40 kg) bike been loaded with kids or equipment.
Most troubling perhaps is that both Andre and myself managed to scrape the stand on the ground when cornering under certain conditions. It happened to me when turning from a flat street to an uphill one, as is common when turning to cross one of Amsterdam’s many canals. I wasn’t being aggressive at all. It didn’t cause any dangerous control issues, but it was enough to startle both my daughter and myself. I’m told that a redesigned stand is coming, but it won’t be ready until 2021.
So yeah, the stand is problematic in practice and in comparison to the Urban Arrow which engages with only minimal effort. There were other minor issues as well.
The Carqon is mostly silent outside of the Bosch motor whir when riding on paved bike paths. Riding on bricked streets or cobblestones causes the door to shake, however. I’m told that the production bikes will have tighter tolerances that should reduce door rattle. I hope so because persistent bike rattles are super annoying for the rider and those around them.
Andre wasn’t happy with the child restraints on the bench seat that require two hands to close, as well as a cooperative child willing to sit still. Lisa and Linda both immediately voiced concern with the higher top tube on the Carqon compared to the Urban Arrow, which could interfere with skirts and dresses, they said.
The Carqon’s wide box also takes some getting used to, especially when navigating stopped traffic. Urban Arrows use slimmer boxes, allowing them to squeeze through smaller gaps created by taxis, trams, and busses in snarled traffic. I also noticed that the wrap used to finish the box can be easily scratched and torn. After just a week of riding, I already had four visible tears in the wrap.
Despite these faults, both Linda and Lisa thought the Carqon was superior to their Urban Arrows. Andre had an even stronger reaction. “Would I trade in my Urban Arrow for the Carqon? Yes,” he said, “I would without hesitation!”
Carqon might be a newcomer, but established electric cargo bike brands like Riese & Müller, Douze Cycles, Bullitt, and Urban Arrow should take notice. And this is only its first attempt. Carqon is already building out its cargo bike platform, with plans to launch a Carqon Flatbed and specific cargo bike boxes for businesses by the end of this year.
Demand for last-mile delivery services will grow by 78 percent as we near 2030, requiring a 36 percent increase in delivery trucks, according to an e-commerce report published by the European Environment Agency. That means a shit-ton of extra CO2 emissions pumped into the air, and another 11 minutes tacked on to the average urban commute, according to the agency. Cargo bikes have the potential to avert that nightmare scenario, moving an estimated 25 percent of all goods or up to 50 percent of light goods in European cities. Other research suggests that cargo bikes can replace vans in 32 percent of all delivery trips and in 50 percent of service trips. Such optimism has led one group of experts to predict that cargo bikes could be sold at a rate of 2 million per year by 2030. And that was all before cities began rethinking transportation modes following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has created the perfect storm of opportunity for electric cargo bikes: spiking demand for e-commerce deliveries, families seeking healthy modes of tansporation, and cities building more bike lanes to support social distancing efforts and the EU zero emissions and carbon neutrality strategy. It’s no wonder electric cargo bikes are such an intense area of interest right now.
Electric cargo bikes are expensive, to be sure. Thankfully, some European countries are stepping in with subsidies to help offset those costs, as many have done in the past to promote the adoption of electric cars.
What fortuitous timing for Carqon to be launching its new electric cargo bike in Europe, and what luck for urban families who now have another reason to sell that car.
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