Family Biking: ‘Bakfiets’ cargo bikes for special needs

Posted by on September 29th, 2021 at 9:18 am

2012 photo of a Portland mom who has realized the joy and utility of the bakfiets.

Looking at the front box of my bicycle, she saw solutions to all of her conundrums.

Sometimes I think of myself as a family biking ambassador. I love my front box cargo bike, and I love sharing the joy of it with others. For many Americans, a front box (a.k.a. box-bike or “bakfiets”) style of bicycle is an unknown wonder, which I guess makes me something akin to a bakfiets missionary. It’s most fun when I get to meet people who have never seen such a bike before.

Often while riding, I meet another person whose face lights up, as they encounter the bakfiets for the first time. They glow, as I am sure I did, as the image of us riding this beautiful vehicle sparks their own imagination for what they never knew was possible. It immediately speaks to them, captivates them, sets them dreaming. This bike can change their lives.

My favorite such encounter (thus far), was with a mother of two from Iowa, who had a toddler and an older boy with special needs. She approached me as soon as she saw me park my kid-full cargo bike at the playground. She was pushing her eldest around in a stroller, because he couldn’t manage long walks to the park, but he wouldn’t fit in a stroller for much longer. She had been thinking about biking options to help him get around, but he was too big for a trailer, and she worried about not being able to properly monitor him if he rode behind her.

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Looking at the front box of my bicycle, she saw solutions to all of her conundrums. Here was a way she could transport an older, bigger, heavier child, along with his younger sibling. Here was a way she could keep an eye on both children, relieving her fears about not being able to see them. Here was a way she could continue enjoying the outdoors, exercising, and visiting parks with her kids, using an active transportation device that could meet the special needs of her whole family–while being really fun at the same time. (I hope she finds such a box bike to meet her family’s needs, but we did bemoan together the fact that she is unlikely to find a used–and thus more budget-friendly–cargo bike in Iowa…)

I was particularly excited to meet this Mama, as I have been thinking that the bakfiets style of bicycle could be a fabulous mobility aid to families with a special-needs child. I recognize how difficult it can be to transport a bigger kid–a stroller only lasts for so long, and a wheelchair could feel like a dull ride after a while. I love the idea that the front box bike could be a mobility aid to families with special circumstances. Does anyone have this experience to share? Or perhaps another bike or bike adaptation has fulfilled your family’s special needs?

To all of the special-needs families out there: I would love to hear about your biking/mobility experiences and what has worked (or not worked) for you. Please feel free to share below or send your reflections (and photos!) to me via shannon4bikeportland@gmail.com.

— Shannon Johnson, shannon4bikeportland@gmail.com
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 JasonShannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)Matt RootKath YouellSERider Recent comment authors
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Dan
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Dan

They are very cool tools, it’s unfortunate the price point is so challenging. I kicked the tires on getting one for my 75 lb dog, but found that a traditional trailer was so much cheaper that a bakfiets didn’t make sense. For the right application though, I’m sure they’re worth the money.

 Jason
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 Jason

The nice thing, and this is a safety factor, the bakfiets puts your precious cargo in your line of sight at all times. Whereas, the drag along carts leave you wondering what’s happening back there. From that perspective, the cost is less challenging for me.

Mike Quigley
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Mike Quigley

If you can afford to get one of these, get a Brooks leather saddle with springs. Much more comfortable than the stock saddle (according to a guy who has one, not me).

Kath Youell
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Kath Youell

Mine came with a Brooks. I’d add you should get a new Brooks saddle. We were the 3rd family to own that bakfiets and that saddle had been broken in by the 2 dad’s that rode it before me. It’s like wearing someone else’s Birkenstocks! I couldn’t understand why people said Brooks are so comfortable until I replaced it with a new one. I swear with only an hour of riding it was amazingly comfortable. Highly recommend one that’s been broken in by one’s own bottom.

EP
Guest
EP

I’ve had a few box cargo bikes and they’ve all been great. I’ve tried to get friends to buy one for their kids. “Oh, they’re so expensive and we’ve already got a trailer.” NOPE, you don’t get it! It’s such a better experience with the kids up front.

The same friends decided they “needed” a pickup truck, but all they really needed was a trailer for their SUV…and a cargo bike!

Whyat Lee
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Whyat Lee

The cost issue is an interesting one. I used to be on the lookout for a used bakfiet or other cargo bike, but in recent years with the push towards electric bikes it’s hard to find a non-electric bakfiet/cargo ride, which makes them even more expensive.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
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yeah the cost is definitely a thing. I miss having Tom Labonty around. He was a dude who lived near Lents Park who would build custom bakfiets out of used parts and sell the bikes for super cheap. That’s actually where Shannon got hers! I did a profile of him in 2009 https://bikeportland.org/2009/08/25/tom-labonty-and-his-custom-cargo-bikes-22663

I wonder if Rad Power Bikes has a bakfiets planned?

SERider
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SERider

Curious what are the added benefits of this style (versus drawbacks) that would entice RadPower to make a bakfiets-style bike?

 Jason
Guest
 Jason

Curious what are the added benefits of this style

I think you mean bakfiets as the style. The simple benefit is being able to see where your precious cargo is at all times, while riding.

A long tail as well as a drag along cart both put your cargo behind you. As you can imagine, seeing behind you is not as easy as seeing in front of you. So, being able to see if a car is going to conflict with your cargo before it happens is priceless.

 Jason
Guest
 Jason

I did a quick chat with a guy riding an acoustic bikfeit up the small Ankeny hill from SE12th to SE13th. He said if he had it to do over, he would have gotten the motor. It was a real slog for this guy, and his cargo bin was empty. E-motors seem expensive, until you realize how much difference they make for bikes weighing more than 50lbs.

SERider
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SERider

Up here in Seattle, I see VERY few of these styles. WAY more “wagon”-type bikes (like the Radwagon, with cargo/kids on the back). It’s hillier here in Seattle than much of Portland, so maybe the E-bike aspect of them are a bigger seller here.
price points seem to be much more reasonable for the wagon-style bikes to. Even the E versions can be had for around (or under) $2K.

Kath Youell
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Kath Youell

Up there in Seattle you will see the bike in Jonathan’s photo. We sold it when the our kids got too tall and our son refused to sit on the bottom of the box instead of the bench. It had become a bike I used for our Christmas tree once a year because the Bionx’d Haul-a-Day I replaced it with is easier on my knees than this 90-pound beast.

Kath Youell
Guest
Kath Youell

Hello, Shannon!

Yes, I have experience in this to share. That’s me and our kids in our bakfiets in Jonathan’s photo. Our son, Evan, has Down syndrome and we specifically picked a Bakfiets.nl because at the time (2011) it was the only box bike that had a seat for him which would keep his hips and knees at 90-degrees as suggested by his Occupational Therapist. A longtail was out of the question then for the same reason.

I wrote a piece about Evan and our bakfiets in Elly Blue’s Taking the Lane series, Volume Eight: Childhood. I still have an author copy and if you’d like to read it I’d gladly send it to you for the small price of an email with your mailing address in it. 😉

Eventually our daughter learned to ride her own bike and Evan grew and learned to sit on a longtail, so we ended up selling the bakfiets to a family in Seattle. It is living its best life with its fourth family, hauling kids.

Madi Carlson did a profile on me and how we are car-free here on Bike Portland after we’d had the Haul-a-Day for about 2 years.

Then the pandemic happened and we all stayed home for a long time. Now Evan will not get on the deck of my bike no matter what the bribe. Since he’s basically non-verbal and he can’t explain to us what is wrong I’m at my wits’ end. I’m considering taking a test ride in an Urban Arrow for school pick-up. It may turn out that a box bike is the solution for our family’s special needs (a lovely phrase).

If you have more questions I’d love to chat about this; getting families on bikes is my passion. Either here in the comments or email me.

Matt Root
Guest
Matt Root

This is a great read from Perth, Australia.

3yrs ago we made the best investment for our family and upgraded our bike trailer to a cargo bike.

Anyone interested in what cargo bike life is like for the kids (and me) – you can listen to a short interview I gave to Radio Adelaide on all things family cargo biking.
https://radioadelaide.org.au/2021/09/10/urban-planning-for-those-under-95cm/

I’ll be presenting ‘Cargo bike kids – from the front box of a family cargo bike, how do our streets and built environment look and feel to a 2 & 4 year old?’ at the Australian Walking and Cycling Conference tomorrow (1 Oct 2021).

 Jason
Guest
 Jason

Cooee, from the north.