The ultimate guide to electric cargo bikes
Olympians, future Kings - TV presenters even. Choose to ride a cargo bike or electric cargo bike and you'll be in good company. And it's not just the private user that's enjoying the fun, freedom and fresher air - businesses are pedalling too. In today's world of traffic, parking woes, pollution and running costs these two-wheeled (sometimes, three or four) bikes are a genuine solution to the transport requirements of many. Welcome then, to Velorution's ultimate guide to electric cargo bikes.
What is an electric cargo bike?
Whilst there's no hard or fast definition of an electric cargo bike we'll give it a stab. Broadly speaking, electric cargo bikes can carry more (think heavier or bulkier) than a traditional bicycle. The electric motor initiated by the rider helps negate the extra weight of passengers or cargo on board.
What can you use an electric cargo bike for?
Once again we'll pick up our broad brush to answer this question. Electric cargo bikes are a genuine alternative to a car or other modes of transport. Own one and wake up every day knowing your bike will help you experience the mundane, as well as the magnificent, in a completely new light.
Drop the children at the school gates, head off to complete your weekly shop, pootle over to a friend's house for coffee, all this and more without wasting time in traffic. And thanks to the assistance from the electric motor, you'll have a blast doing so.
Electric cargo bikes can also be a green, cost-saving solution for businesses up and down the land. Perhaps it's a boutique bakery delivering lunch in the centre of town, or a small business delivering yesterday's online orders to the courier. No time wasted in traffic nor looking for a parking spot just draw up right outside on an electric cargo bike!
The different types of electric cargo bikes
Most electric cargo bikes can be split into two categories.
Long-tail or beavertail
The first type of electric cargo bike is the long-tail variety, also called beavertail. The rear portion of the bike is extended with what is essentially an elongated pannier rack. These bikes are usually sold in one frame size. Riders of different heights are accounted for by using adjustable seatposts and handlebars.
Unlike a box bike, some long-tails will carry a full-sized adult passenger, plus with further adaptation some cargo to the side and front too.
Smaller long-tail electric cargo bikes can be roughly the same length (or wheelbase) as normal bikes making storing and living with them, no more of a headache.
The general consensus of opinion is that a long-tail electric cargo bike rides like a normal bike. The handlebars operate the steering through the front fork, the only thing to contend with is the extra weight on the rear.
One final footnote as we search fruitlessly for total knowledge and understanding: Beaver's tails support the animal on land when carrying heavy loads in their teeth. Well, well, well - that explains it.
Box bikes, front load, bakfiets or long john
The second type of electric cargo bike is the box bike. In other cycling parlance, you'll see them referred to as front-loading, bakfiets (Dutch for 'box bikes' but also a brand too!) or long john cargo bikes.
These bikes are designed to have their cargo in front of the rider, sat or stored in a box or bucket. Generally speaking, these bikes will carry more than longtails but are heavier and more difficult to manoeuvre. Some versions have two wheels out front rather than one to offer more stability.
Box bikes are great for cycling with children but they're also incredibly attractive to businesses too. With the right knowledge and skills, the front section can be adapted to suit almost any situation.
Long-tail vs box bikes a comparison table
In order to help you choose between the two bike types, we've summarised things in the table below.
|Capacity||Decent but eclipsed by the box bike. Cargo needs to be balanced equally to prevent toppling. Carrying options up front are limited by weight.||The front-loading section is easy and quick to load. Most bikes also have a traditional pannier rack at the rear too.|
|Weight||Usually lighter than a box bike. Extra batteries and carrying options can quickly add weight.||There's no getting around it, they are heavy.|
|Size||Can be long but some bikes are the size (wheelbase) of normal bikes.||Long. Makes storing and navigating tight spaces an issue.|
|Ride Feel||Very much like a normal bike, but with added weight.||Could take some getting used to. Many bikes use a linkage to steer the front wheel.|
|Year-round use||Children and/or cargo can be exposed, although new products are developing fast. e.g. Tern Storm Shield.||The advantage is with the box bike here. The main storage zone often blunts the worst of the weather.|
|Child Friendly||Conversing (negotiating!) can be difficult with children behind the rider. Longtails are best for older children, or those with longer legs!||With young ones in front, a beady eye can prevent arguments and keep the peace!|
|Adaptability||Can be adapted as children grow or quickly altered to lugging cargo.||The box/bucket tends to be integral to the bike and difficult to customise when needs change.|
|Availability and choice||Decent variety of bikes is available and growing.||Arguably less variety and choice.|
|Price||Can start as low as £2,000. Do account for any extra accessories that may be required.||More expensive but usually sold with a carrying option already fitted.|
Electric cargo bike drive systems
With their fancy motors, batteries and display systems electric cargo bikes are one up on their non-electric cousins. The assistance these systems provide is a godsend on normal bikes, let alone electric cargo bikes when weights are likely to be much, much higher.
We've set out all the electric bike motor need to knows, but if that's all a bit TL;DR, most electric cargo bikes use a mid-mounted or frame-mounted electric motor. Bosch is the most popular brand you'll spot with their Bosch Cargo Line motor, whilst Shimano and others are also available. Irrespective of which brand of motor a bike is fitted with, these motors have more torque than those used on standard electric bikes.
To support that powerful motor and longer or more frequent trips, electric cargo bikes are fitted with larger capacity batteries - sometimes more than one. In our opinion, a 400Wh battery is a bare minimum you should be looking for.
Electric cargo bikes frequently asked questions
Do I really need an electric cargo bike?
It's a good question and one worth pondering. With a little prodding and poking almost all bikes (electric and non-electric) will carry a child or a few goody bags. For example, the Gazelle Bloom will happily carry two children whilst Kalkhoff Advance+ electric bikes are rated for loads up to 170kg. Perhaps the keyword is or. An e-cargo bike will happily zip two children (and bags) to school before bounding off to the office with Dad and Dad's work bag in tow. Electric cargo bikes come into their own when loads are heavy, numerous and bulky.
Passenger comfort is a factor too. E-cargo designers have cleverly integrated handholds, footplates, safety harnesses and accessory mounting points into their bikes - things you're unlikely to find on standard urban, hybrid or town bikes.
Finally, could a (non-electric) cargo bike be an option? Riding on flat terrain or with lighter cargo could mean that electric assistance may be unnecessary.
What electric cargo bike should I buy?
There's no substitute for speaking to us directly in-store or giving one of our e-cargo bikes a test ride, but here are some questions for you to consider...
- What would you like to carry when riding and how heavy is it?
- How far and how often will you ride the bike?
- Will your riding demands change in future? Will you continue riding as your children grow?
- Where will you store the bike during the day and at night?
- What is your budget?
Can an electric cargo bike really replace a car?
Yes! Electric cargo bikes are extremely versatile. They're great in situations when you'd usually rely on a car or public transport. Some electric cargo bikes can carry up to 4 children and the rider - some bikes can carry up to 200kg in weight.
And it's not just that - electric cargo bikes could save you time, save you money, improve your health and ultimately make your life more enjoyable. Two more seeds to plant before we move on: 60% of car journeys in the UK are undertaken with a single occupant and in London 1/3 of all car journeys are under 1.5 miles. Madness!
Are electric cargo bikes hard to ride?
The good news is that if you can already ride a bike, you'll be able to ride an electric cargo bike - they just require a little getting used to, that's all. In our experience, there are five things to consider when riding an electric cargo bike:-
- Riding with extra weight: Head out with a cycling backpack or a pair of pannier bags and you'll quickly notice the difference as the tarmac rolls beneath with your wheels. It is no different with an electric cargo bike. The extra weight at the front or back of the bike can affect the way the rider turns, navigates obstacles, slows and accelerates.
- Size and turning: Longer bikes have larger turning circles - fact! It also means that corners, road junctions and the like have to be taken wider than a standard bike. The long length of electric cargo bikes can also pose a problem when crossing roads or waiting at junctions. Be careful that your front wheel isn't sticking out into the road!
- Get a feeling for electric assistance: If you've never ridden an electric bike before, the thrill of the electric motor kicking in is really something to behold. Our advice? Familiarise yourself with the various support modes and build your way up to the maximum setting.
- Understand braking distance: With up to 200kg on board, you won't be surprised to hear that electric cargo bikes can take longer (further) to stop. Most have extremely powerful brakes to compensate but distances can easily change according to the weight on board or the road conditions.
- Be ready for unexpected movements: "That's my lolly." Cries. Argument erupts! Jostling children or cargo slopping around requires extreme riding caution. Be ready to steer into any weight changes as they happen.
Before dropping a chunk of change, it's a good idea to give one a test ride - both with and without weight and as we mentioned earlier, long-tails and box bikes tend to ride differently.
How much weight can electric cargo bikes carry?
It varies. As a guide, the majority of bikes will sit somewhere between 175kg and 250kg. Most manufacturers stipulate maximum weights for their bikes, some will even split the figures into total, rider and cargo amounts. When calculating, do account for the weight of accessories like locks, additional front racks or an extra battery.
How should I store an electric cargo bike?
Open your front door and lean the bike against the hallway wall. Clip open the side gate and wheel the bike into a shed. Fold your Brompton and hurry on inside. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as this with an electric cargo bike. Obviously sheds, garages or secure communal spaces are ideal places to store your new runabout, especially if there's step-free access.
Some bikes try to negate any storage quandaries through clever design. The Tern GSD and Moustache Lundi 20 can be hoisted on their rear ends and stored vertically. Wherever you store the bike just promise you'll do so securely, using multiple bike locks! Installing a GPS tracker could also offer further piece of mind.
How do I maintain an electric cargo bike?
A functioning, fun-to-ride electric cargo bike is a well-maintained one. In this regard, electric cargo bikes are really no different to other bikes and electric bikes. A yearly service should cover most things and in the process prevent unfortunate breakdowns from occurring.
One part of an electric cargo bike that does take a battering is the brake pads. A crucial safety component, brake pads can be checked with a quick glance and with a bit of know-how changed in a jiffy.
Best electric cargo bikes 2023
Widely considered the best long-tailed electric cargo bike money can buy the Tern GSD uses a Bosch Cargo Line motor and runs on 20" wheels. The bicycle is semi-foldable (handlebar) and can be stored vertically, thanks to a flat-ended rear rack.
There are a variety of different models available, starting at £4,900 and rising up to £8,400. In 2020 we wrote about the generation 2 Tern GSD in more detail. There are also the Tern HSD and the Tern Quick Haul electric cargo bikes. Our journal explains the difference between those and the GSD.
Gazelle Makki Load
Our favourite box bike and one from a country with oodles of cargo bike knowledge the Gazelle Makki Load is family first cargo bike. The large child-carrying sections are easy for little ones to get in and out of and should be comfortable when going places.
Moustache Lundi 20
Back to a long tail now and Moustache's Lundi 20. The bike is available in four different packages. All bikes use the Bosch Cargo Line motor and are controlled by the Bosch Intuvia display unit. Each bike also has lights front and rear (the rear brightens when slowing down), mudguards, rear-wheel cover and Magura e-bike brakes. Comfort is at the heart of the Lundi 20. There's a comfortable step-through frame, sit-up Moustache handlebar and a plush suspension-dropper seatpost. We covered the bike in greater detail when it was released in November 2021.
The Yoonit Mini is a compact, lightweight (from 26kg depending on carrier) and agile electric cargo bike, which comes in four different colourways and offers a robust, customisable load area. The bike uses Shimano's powerful EP8 motor and 504Wh battery. Thanks to three quick-release mounts, different carriers for the Yoonit can be assembled quickly and without tools. It takes only a few seconds to transform a Yoonit cargo bike from a load-carrying monster into a family taxi.
Cube Cargo Hybrid
A load-lugger for the 21st century: clean, green and powered by Bosch - the Cube Cargo Hybrid Electric Bike is ready to carry your exact requirements.
That's the end of our bumper electric cargo bike guide. If we didn't answer your question, send us an email or pop it in the comments below.