Expert cargo bike insight - interview

Sylvia Gauthereau (@CricklewoodMum), member of ‘Beyond the Bicycle Coalition’ and cargo bike enthusiast explains ‘the good, bad and ugly’ side of cargo bike riding in the following interview with Stolen Ride.

Sylvia’s expert insight includes five top tips for those looking to start riding cargo bikes in London.

Expert cargo bike

Fun onboard

How long have you been riding cargo bikes?

I bought my cargo bike in September 2011 when my eldest started primary school. So coming up to 10 years. I cycled as a child and a student then very occasionally in London. Stopped when I fell pregnant because at the time, I thought I couldn’t. I know better now!

What journeys in London do you use your cargo bike for?

Mostly the school run. Like many other families we were not allocated the school next to us, so we ended up in one, 3.5 miles away. I started with the bus, but it took far too long, and we all felt miserable. The cargo bike was the obvious solution to me. It cut the time in half and I felt much happier, so did my children.

We can easily fit other trips with the school run, like errands, shopping, going to the park, meeting friends after school, etc. I also use it for work, to go to meetings or when I work on sites.

Our social life is greatly enhanced too as it allows us to go places as a family, outdoors or meeting friends somewhere. We haven’t got a car and mobility with small children means you end up carrying quite a lot of stuff with you, they fall asleep often. So it really makes life easier than relying on public transport.

Cargo bike picnic in London

A picnic with the cargo bike

Please provide your insight into the ‘good, bad and ugly’ side of cargo bike riding in London?

It gave me the luxury to still be spontaneous with – my then – small children. It gave me back my autonomy and control over my movements. When you have children in a big city without family nearby, there’s an overwhelming sense of feeling stuck. Limited. So, the cargo bike gave this freedom back to me. Pregnancy and the first year of sleepless nights also takes its toll on physical and mental health, so cycling with the children addresses all of this at once.

It’s just amazing. People smile when they see us, from the oldest to the youngest person.

There seems to be an instant understanding that this unusual looking cycle makes complete sense. So many people have said to us, they wished they had one when their children were little. Complete strangers will talk to us, it creates a connection which is rare in big cities. I feel my children have a better understanding of road use and traffic rules. They regularly point towards really, silly things and correctly identify how it could be made better. I hope, when they look back on their childhood, they have fond memories of the cargo bike and all the things we did with it.

We are a long way from having fully inclusive cycling provision in London. Cycle lanes are too narrow, too few apart, disconnected and not always conveniently placed. Narrow minor roads have too many cars on them and parked on both sides. I have a three-wheeler which is considerably larger than a standard bicycle, so for instance, if there is a big traffic jam, it’s harder for me to filter through. I can still dismount, walk a bit on the pavement and continue but due to the size and the weight it’s not ideal. Parking is completely inadequate and far below what we need in quantity, quality and security. For both short and overnight stays. Where to keep your cargo bike, when not in use, is a major drawback for families who would otherwise consider buying one.

Bad cargo bike cycle parking

Lack of cargo bike cycle parking in London

Thankfully, cycle hangar providers are starting to catch up with this and they are finally offering solutions for non-standard cycles.

The one-off price of buying a cargo bike is also a barrier. In the big scheme of things, it does the same job as a small family car at a fraction of a price but it feels steep. Thankfully, there are some solutions to help with financing the purchase now, including cycle to work schemes. It would be good for the government to catch up with the rest of Europe and offer some incentives or a swapping scheme that include family use. There’s been some progress for replacing small vans with cargo bikes for freight, or swapping to an electric vehicle but nothing to help families swapping a car for a cargo bike.

Lack or obstruction of dropped kerbs in locations I am unfamiliar with makes it difficult to get off the road when we need to, so adds a bit of uncertainty I don’t need. The kissing gates, the not spaced enough bollards, and other physical barriers that local authorities keep erecting, are a pain. They seem to assume we are all physically able to dismount, manoeuvre up and down, left to right. I had such a kissing gate installed on my route, I had to change it because it just isn’t convenient to have to do that on a regular journey. Had it been there when I started it could have influenced me against considering a cargo bike for the school run. Because that was my quiet route.

Most cargo bikes come from Copenhagen or the Netherlands where they are used only up to a certain age because conditions there enable children to cycle independently from age 5. In the UK, that’s just not possible. I had to carry my children all the way though primary school, so age 11. This means, for instance, I had to adapt the hood so they would still fit under it.

The ugly is probably not inherently linked to cargo bikes In London, it’s the usual really aggressive drivers who want to pass you at all costs, even though it’s quite obvious, the cargo bike is much wider and slower than a standard bicycle. Also, those people who give you unsolicited parenting advice about the way you look, what you wear and despite knowing nothing about cargo bikes and cycling, they feel it’s appropriate to share their misguided opinion. In front of your children. We are told to be assertive on the road, but I found this to be so at odds with the frame of mind you find yourself in when you cycle with your children.

I am a member of Beyond the Bicycle Coalition which is a working group of non-standard cycle users to discuss the barriers to cycling with such cycles. Family cycling on cargo bikes, disabled cyclists on adapted cycles and delivery cycle users have common grounds in the everyday challenges they face, so it makes sense to try to change that for the better, together. If my cargo bike can’t use a cycling facility, it means disabled cyclists won’t be able to do either. For me, it amounts to an annoyance, but for them, it’s a discrimination that is punishable by law. It’s a failure of the local authority to uphold its duty towards a protected characteristic, as mandated by the Equality Act.

In London, what can be done to encourage more people to start using cargo bikes?

We need to have fully inclusive infrastructure and full awareness of what this means in practice.

Borough officers must consider the different shapes and sizes of cycles available and the wide range of ability levels among cycle users. They need to inform decisions and make design considerations based on inclusiveness, so turning ratio, allowances, gradients, level of comfort on a speed hump.

If it works for a disabled cyclist on an adapted cycle, it will work for everyone else, this must be the starting point of any design. The same goes for housing and commercial developments. When you have a cargo bike, you will also be using it to go to the shops, and to access your home, but it’s difficult if the parking area is far away from the entrance, not secure and not suitable. And you can carry a lot of bags in a cargo bike, as much as in a car boot, so it makes sense to support those customers/residents too.

We need financial incentives to support families, wanting to switch. We need to support disabled cyclists in their choice, who would benefit from an adapted cycle or a cargo bike – most of them find cycling easier than walking – by recognising their needs, just like drivers have a blue badge.

We need a cargo bike sharing scheme. There are already organisations and retailers offering rental schemes, which is a great way to see whether this is for you and how it would fit in your family logistics.

We need the police to take theft seriously. It’s bad enough when your bike is stolen but when it’s a cargo bike, the entire family logistics collapse, it’s highly disruptive.

We need more bicycle shops to sell them and mechanics to learn about them so it’s easier and quicker when we need a quick repair, a spare or a service.

What five top tips would you give someone wanting to start (or try) riding a cargo bike in London?

  1. Do your research: what’s the intended route, who will ride it the most, where will it be kept, at home and at destination, will you soon have more children, will they be able to cycle by themselves, etc.
  2. Try a few models before you buy and then do trial runs without the children. Find a cycle buddy to help with route planning and to boost your confidence.
  3. Join the wonderful Family Cycling Facebook group for tips and advice.
  4. Join your local cycling/walking/active travel organisation and campaign for a better built environment. The more of us that ask, the less likely we will be ignored.
  5. Go at your own pace, you know your body, you know your level of comfort. Don’t feel bad if you have to stop halfway, walk at times or if you get lost. You are doing the right thing by cycling all or some of your trips and you are a wonderful example to your children and others.

The following video clip shows the standard of infrastructure we need to enable more cargo bikes and more family cycling.