What if bikes could save the world? The notion is as old as the bicycle itself, but it gets a refreshing new spin in the recently released documentary Motherload, produced and narrated by veteran filmmaker Liz Canning. The film—which is an official selection at the San Francisco Green Films Festival, the Breckenridge Film Festival, and others—celebrates the humble beginnings and revolutionary potential of the utilitarian cargo bike, those iconic, long-tail steeds designed for schlepping kids, groceries, gear, and pretty much anything else you can lash on top or on the side.
Cargo bikes aren’t sexy—at least not yet—but neither is the world in which Canning finds herself after giving birth to twins in 2008. A former commercial filmmaker turned work-from-home mom, she’s tired and despondent, mourning the freedom of her life pre-kids and the ease with which she used to take to the roads on her bike. The message in the movie’s opening scenes is familiar: child-rearing is an exhausting enterprise, and if you’re not careful, you’ll spend 18 years behind the wheel, driving your kid to baby sing-along class and varsity soccer practice. Wake up when it’s over, and you’ll be a shell of your former self.
Fortunately for Canning, she lives in Fairfax, California, the self-professed birthplace of mountain biking and a hotbed of cycling culture. When she begins noticing other parents pedaling cargo bikes online, she immediately wonders: Why were there no cargo bikes to be seen in Fairfax?
When she finally breaks down and buys the long-tail (her indecision serves a cinematic purpose, allowing her to digress into a brief but compelling history of bicycles and feminism), Canning discovers a fringe world of industrious, bike-obsessed individuals determined to improve their family’s health and happiness—and the planet’s—by trading four wheels for two. They ride bulky Bakfiets made in Holland with wooden kid carriers that look like miniature dump trucks; jerry-rigged townie bikes with handmade planks for seats; and $5,000 electric-assist cargo bikes from companies like Xtracycle, whose founder, Ross Evans, developed the first long-tail cargo bike in Nicaragua in 1995.
You may not be able to live in your cargo bike, but you can live on it.
Canning is careful not to portray these parents as hardcore eccentrics or extreme athletes but as ordinary people in ordinary towns making out-of-the-ordinary choices, just like her. “I’m not an athlete. I’m not superhuman,” says Brent Patterson, a father from Buffalo, New York. “I’m just a completely normal person like you.” It’s a heartening takeaway: if she can do it, so can we. She introduces us to people like Emily Finch, who carts all six of her kiddos around on two wheels, and Patterson's family that sold its car and travels by cargo bike year-round, even in snowstorms. Many of the people she meets—especially, it seems, the moms—endure all-too-rampant “bikelash” from aggressive drivers who shout profanities out the window, accusing them of endangering their children. Not all live in bike-friendly communities like Marin County or Portland, Oregon, and not all are as comfortably off as Canning; some had to sell their car or take out a no-interest loan in order to afford a cargo bike.
Motherload is the story of one woman’s emancipation from the drudgery of the carpool, the drop-off line, the grocery run, but it’s ultimately an aspirational look into a global movement of alternative parenting. Cargo bikers are a pared-down version of #vanlife or #tinyhome devotees, who sell their houses and possessions to live with less. You may not be able to live in your cargo bike, but you can live on it.
And therein lies the film’s deeper appeal. What if it’s possible for the humble cargo bike to rewrite the script for beleaguered American parents? Could a two-wheeled revolution be the antidote to our increasingly sedentary, tech-driven, risk-averse indoor lifestyle?
These are lofty claims, and Motherload stops just short of making them. It doesn’t need to. The movie’s enthusiasm for biking is contagious, and by the time the credits roll, you’ll be crunching numbers and fantasizing about selling your car and becoming a cargo convert, just like Canning. “I love my life!” Finch exclaims. It’s a sentiment echoed by almost everyone in the film. Bicycling might be the answer to much that ails us, but at its heart, it’s freedom on two wheels, a pure embodiment of joy, and quite possibly the closest we grown-ups can get to being kids again.
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Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed two quotes to Canning that actually came from two of the people profiled in the film. Outside regrets the error.