9.13 Transportation: Cargo Bike Evolution

Author: Eka Jeladze

ABSTRACT: This paper talks about the evolution of cargo bikes and the reasons why Cargo bikes are seeing resurgence in today’s world in everyday lives of regular citizens, as well as in the logistical systems.



The origins of the cargo bike dates back to as early as 1877 and to the name James Starley, who have sketched three tricycle designs. All of these tricycles could be used to transport either passengers or goods. Later, in the late 1880s the “safety” bicycle was developed. It had smaller wheels, which made the rider much more grounded and was easier to pedal, therefore carrying loads was much more facilitated. This bike offered possibilities for the development of the new working bike styles. Two of most famous and commonly used working bikes were called a Long John and “backfiets” or box bikes. The Long john was a two-wheel bicycle characterized by a long wheelbase where the cargo was placed. Whereas the Backfiet was characterized by shorter wheelbase and had three wheels.

One of the reasons why cargo bikes were so popular among the retailers as a means of goods distribution was due to the nature of the retail business itself. The retailer was a salesperson mediating between the customer and the object. And as the mediator, the retailer would also usually be expected to deliver as well as supply. Besides, during this time the act of purchase and the actual acquisition of the goods was separated from one another. Therefore, a delivery service was quite an integral part of a successful and efficient business. The cargo bikes were especially popular among butchers, bakers and grocers.

After the World War II the new kind of consumer society emerged, where self-service started to re-shape the shopping experience. The customer now had the direct contact with the goods and the delivery responsibility shifted from the retailer to the purchaser. Therefore, the need for delivery services for retailers has declined.  Besides, the increase of private cars have also contributed to this change. Now the customers could choose to go to many different stores, which broke down the direct link the local suppliers.

As a result, by the 1970’s the cargo bikes as means of goods distribution was extinct.

But nowadays, in the 21st century we see a resurgence of all types of cargo bikes.  Today One of the most commons ways in which cargo bikes are being used, especially in Europe, is for child transportation. The so-called “backfiets” mothers and fathers take their children to school and bring the groceries back home.

Cargo bikes or rather Freight bikes are also becoming more common in logistical systems in European cities. One specific example would be the Bullit – this is a Long John in its traditional sense, but it’s lighter, tougher, and faster, with the rider in the mountain bike position. Lately, the popularity of e-cargo bikes has been increasing. Companies such as DHL, UPS, etc., started using e-cargo bikes to deliver freight in the cities. The reason is that electric cargo bikes deliver about 60% faster in the city center. Moreover, cargo bikes cut carbon emissions by 90%. According to an article published in The Guardian, “with the 100,000 cargo bikes introduced in Europe between 2018 and 2020 estimated to be saving, each month, the same amount of CO2 needed to fly about 24,000 people from London to New York and back.”

Nowadays, there are variety of cargo bikes, which offer different maximum permissible weight, ranging from 30 kg to as much as 300 kg. And the possibilities of these bike improve quite rapidly.

Every year, an international urban logistics conference and cargo bike festival is held, where young designers discuss the new possibilities of cargo bikes. The growing trend is electric and large. Most new models are electric two-wheelers with ever thicker tires, tubes and batteries. Cargo bikes are fundamental part of future urban logistics system.

There are number of reasons to choose cargo bikes over private cars. Several of which include:

  1. They are environmentally friendly – cities produce 40% of all transportation related carbon emissions. A single cargo bike replacing a diesel transporter can save 5 tons of carbon emissions per year.
  2. They are affordable and convenient – the price of a basic cargo bike can be as low as 1000-2000 euros. More heavy duty once can cost up to 10,000 euros.
  3. They alleviate urban traffic congestion.
  4. They make the streets safer.


Carrington, Damian. “Cargo Bikes Deliver Faster and Cleaner than Vans, Study Finds.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Aug. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/05/cargo-bikes-deliver-faster-and-cleaner-than-vans-study-finds.

“Back to the Future.” EPOMM Newsletter December 2012, http://www.coavn.org/coavn/Avnau/Boletines/Bol19/EPOMM.html.

Kirkels, Mark. “Short History of the Cargo Bike.” International Cargo Bike Festival, 2 May 2019, https://cargobikefestival.com/news/short-history-of-the-cargo-bike/.

Cox, Peter. Cycling Cultures, University of Chester Press, Chester, 2015, pp. 130–152.


Eka Jeladze is currently a 3rd year student of Integrated Digital program at School of Image arts at Ryerson University. Eka Also holds an Accounting diploma from Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, but she has never practiced accounting.

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