Do You Want to Buy an E-Cargo Bike? Read This First.
Compact townie e-bikes are finally gaining popularity across the U.S. Here's where they've been, where they're going, and how to get in on the rise of electric yourself.
After an initially chilly reception, the U.S. bike industry has embraced e-bikes and in almost all styles, including high-end road and mountain bikes. As a result, e-bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the domestic bike market. But e-bikes really got their start as utility machines for everyday commuting and errand running, and it’s still there that they have their greatest potential to get people on bikes. Choices range from speedy, lightweight e-commuters to ponderous kid-hauling land barges called cargo bikes. There’s even a new class of crossover e-bikes that combine the best of both worlds.
Cargo bikes in particular are the perfect application for e-assist technology. Their compact, powerful motors strip away the burden of carrying heavy loads and give you a smooth, swift push that flattens hills and shrinks city distances. As a result, the once tiny category is thriving. In Europe, e-cargo bike sales in grew 60 percent last year, spurred on by interest from package-delivery giants, like FedEx and UPS, and governments alike (Paris has a 500 Euro rebate for residents who buy one). Figures for the U.S. are a little squishier, because the trend is only just catching on and total sales are still relatively low, but anecdotally, cargo e-bikes are becoming more popular in cycling-friendly cities, like Seattle; Portland, Oregon; and Boulder, Colorado, where it’s now common to see parents toting kids and groceries, sometimes at once. One forecast last fall estimated that the global market could see two million more bike sales in the next decade.
The point of cargo bikes isn’t to get a workout (ahem, e-bike shamers). And while they can replace a car outright, that’s a commitment few are willing to make. Really, these bikes are meant to replace car trips—as many as you can feasibly switch from four wheels to two. That means they’re among the most important kinds of bikes to make and sell.
What I hear from people who have bought them is that they change life in small but profound ways. Such an e-bike becomes a family adventuremobile for exploring greenways and parks; kids ask to go to school on the “big bike,” not in the car; running errands becomes something other than sitting in stressful traffic and hunting for parking spaces. Life seems simpler.
Personally, I want to join them. I run lots of errands on two wheels, but my townie is an ancient converted mountain bike with a standard rear rack. With limited cargo capacity and no motor, it was adequate for pre-pandemic grocery shopping. Now I shop less frequently and buy more per trip. It’s difficult to fit a week’s worth of groceries and other household items into a backpack and two panniers, and grunting it all back home is a chore. A midtail cargo bike (more on those later) seems like the perfect solution.
But cargo bikes aren’t always easy to find in shops. Almost universally, they’re made by brands on the periphery of the conventional bike industry and its independent-dealer sales channel.
In large part, this is because many major brands in the bike industry that dominate floor space at most U.S. stores—including Cannondale, Giant, GT, Schwinn, Specialized, and Trek—ignore the cargo segment. Walk into any bike shop and you’ll see road, mountain, gravel, casual, and commuter bikes, and e-versions of all of these, but likely nothing made for carrying more than the rider and a modest amount of stuff. There are brands that sell cargo bikes via bike shops, like Benno, Tern, and Yuba, but they have limited dealer networks that tend to cluster in certain geographical areas. Other brands are largely sold online. (One exception is Pedego, which is available through franchise stores and can be easier to find.)
Why is it so difficult to find an e-cargo bike? Bike companies owned and staffed by enthusiast cyclists care most about making bikes for recreational riding. E-cargo bikes, on the other hand, are as much for non-cyclists as they are for dedicated riders. John Peters, an e-bike industry veteran, notes long-standing disdain by manufacturers for features like a throttle. “A lot of core bike guys, it just makes them cringe,” he says. “But I’d rather see someone on an e-bike twisting a throttle than taking their SUV to the grocery store.”
Of course, access isn’t the only barrier to entry. Two relatively low-priced direct-to-consumer options for compact cargo bikes are Rad Power’s RadRunner 1 ($1,200) and Blix Bike’s Packa ($1,600). Those are affordable prices for a quality bicycle and damn great for an e-bike but, in real economic terms, still serious money. And bear in mind that the accessories you’ll need to really make use of your new bike’s broad utility—child seats, panniers, front racks—cost extra. Compatibility is sometimes brand specific, and outfitting your ride may run you another $500.
All of this means that choosing an e-cargo bike can be particularly difficult and overwhelming—let alone deciding whether you really need an e-cargo bike. For some, a lighter, smaller, and more nimble utility e-bike may be enough. Here’s an overview of the various kinds of utility e-bikes, followed by tips that will help you how to decide what’s right for you.
Understanding the Different Types of Utility E-Bikes
Utility e-bikes generally fit into one of three different categories, based on their carrying capacity and how fast or sluggish they can feel to ride.
Light, Zippy Commuters
The sporty sedans of the e-utility-bike world, these rigs are ideal for getting you from point A to point B. They’re typically the lightest e-bikes, weighing between 28 and 40 pounds, and boast the longest battery life, defined by the bike’s range off a full charge. (And range can vary widely, from 20 miles all the way up to 80-plus miles, depending on the bike’s battery size and motor power.) They’re also the easiest type of utility e-bike to find in shops, and are where you’ll find the biggest variety of Class 3 options (more on this below). But they aren’t great for carrying things, due to limited space for accessories like racks and pannier bags. The racks themselves are seldom rated for more than 35 pounds, which is about equal to what you could carry in a backpack; however, if you mostly want to get to work and back, join friends for dinner out, and run light errands, like grocery shopping for a few people every couple of days, they’re an excellent pick. The Vado SL ($3,500 to start) is a high-priced example, but Aventon’s Level ($1,600) or Detroit Bicycles’ new E-Sparrow ($900) are more affordable (the E-Sparrow hitting my mythical $1,000 target for a commuter e-bike).
Kitchen-Sink Cargo Haulers
At the other end of the spectrum are true utility models—the full-size SUV of bikes. Some, called longtails, have a stretched-out rear rack for hauling stuff, while front loaders carry things in a big box located in front of the rider. Both will fit groceries from a reasonable Costco run or one to two human passengers, not including the pilot. The total weight capacity of these bikes can be up to 450 pounds, including the rider and bike. But they are a load themselves—as much as eight feet long and 80 pounds—so you’d better have a nice big spot to park them in. Some good longtails include Surly’s Big Easy ($5,000), Yuba’s Spicy Curry ($4,750), and Rad Power’s Radwagon ($1,500). Good front loaders include R&M’s Load 60 ($8,100) and the highly regarded Urban Arrow Family ($4,800). There are even trikes from specialty companies like Juggernaut.
Midtail Cargo Bikes
Straddling the first two categories is a style commonly known as midtail. Like a compact SUV, these try to split the difference between commuter and full-size cargo bikes. Depending on the configuration, most midtail cargo bikes can haul almost as much as longtails and front loaders, with a total weight capacity of up to approximately 400 pounds, including the rider. This is particularly impressive, since many are about the same size as regular bikes (though they use smaller wheels) and weigh around 55 pounds. Because of their versatility, they lose a little bit of utility at either end of their use range. They’re not ideal for carrying huge, bulky items or for long, fast commutes. But if you need a bike that can do a little bit of everything, they’re hard to beat. Good examples include Tern’s new HSD ($3,800) and Benno’s Boost E ($3,500).
What You Need to Know About Motors
The most important step in choosing a utility e-bike is figuring out what categories and feature sets—cargo capacity and accessories, sizes, weights, and more—fit your needs. But there are a few other things, specific to the motors, that might also inform your decision.
In the U.S., e-bikes are governed by state law but generally fit into one of three categories.
Class 1: Pedal-assisted up to 20 miles per hour. The motor only propels the bike when the rider is pedaling, and it cuts off when speeds reach 20 miles per hour.
Class 2: Pedal-assisted or throttle-driven up to 20 miles per hour. The motor assists when the rider is pedaling or when the rider uses a throttle to accelerate without pedaling. The motor cuts off at 20 miles per hour.
Class 3: Pedal-assisted up to 28 miles per hour. This class is the same as Class 1, just with a higher motor-cutoff speed.
Whatever the class, federal law restricts “low speed electric bicycle” motors with 750 watts of power. There are e-bikes for sale in this country that exceed that rating, as well as motor systems made for retrofitting conventional bikes, but they’re not legal for street or path use in many places.
There are two broad types of motor-assist setups. In hub drive systems, the motor is housed in one of the wheels. In mid-drive systems, the motor is bolted to the frame at the bottom bracket. Their basic function is almost identical. The big difference is that mid-drive motors apply power through the drivetrain, while hub motors do so directly through the wheel, usually the rear. Some bike brands offer models in both styles, but most stick to one or the other.
Hub motors don’t create the wear and tear on drivetrain parts, like the chain, that mid-drives do. They’re also essentially the only option for Class 2 (throttle) bikes, because hub motors bypass the drievetrain, which means you can accelerate while coasting. There’s currently no good system for mid-drive Class 2 bikes. The downsides? They’re generally less efficient, so they don’t go as far on a single battery charge. The motor weight at the rear hub can make a bike feel oddly balanced. And some repairs can be a hassle, like fixing a flat—you have to disconnect the wiring between the hub motor and the frame-mounted battery in order to remove the wheel.
On the other hand, mid-drive systems operate more efficiently, so they have a better range and often a more natural-feeling assist. The downside is that they’re more expensive, and the bike frames and motors are made to match each other, so any decision about which bike to buy has to include a serious consideration of which brands use the motor system that you like.
Power Versus Torque
In addition to normal bike components, like the frame and wheels, e-bike data sheets list motor specifications, a factor that can be helpful in picking between different rides. But there are caveats: the most prominent specification bike makers list is a motor’s power output in watts. That’s not very useful. There’s no single standard for that rating, which means companies can list almost any figure they want, be it momentary peak power or a more sustainable figure called nominal power. Watts also aren’t a great gauge of how powerful a motor feels. “Think of watts as the energy a motor will consume, not what it puts out,” says Steven Sheffield, who leads e-bike product management for Bosch Americas, which makes some of the most widely used e-bike motors. Because motor efficiency varies, more power isn’t always better, he says. Peters, the bike-industry veteran, concurs, saying he’s ridden motors rated at 250 watts nominal power that feel peppier than units with higher nominal power ratings.
So what should you pay attention to instead? Torque, battery size, and support levels are much more telling.
Torque is essentially rotational force, or the actual work a motor can do, expressed in Newton-meters (Nm). Higher torque ratings mean that a motor provides power more quickly from a low speed or dead stop, such as when you want to accelerate at a stoplight. “In real-world riding, more torque, especially at lower pedaling cadences, will help at startup and with carrying heavy loads,” says Sheffield. Some brands, like Bosch, list torque for each level of power assist. Others, like Shimano and Yamaha, just list a max torque, which is what the bike puts out in the highest assist setting. Unlike watts, torque is directly comparable between brands.
Battery size, expressed in watt-hour capacity, is a measure of the amount of energy in the system. Everything else being equal, a battery with a higher watt-hour capacity gets better range. Again, says Sheffield, software management plays a role in tweaking range. As with torque, watt-hours is an apples-to-apples comparison. Look for batteries that are listed as UL certified, which means they’ve been tested to safety standards. Take claimed ranges with a grain of salt: they’re intended to represent ideal conditions, riding flat terrain, unloaded, and at modest speeds that don’t require big doses of power.
Support modes, which are the fixed levels that pedal-assist bikes use to multiply the rider’s own power output, usually go by names like eco, normal/touring, sport, and turbo. Support specs tell you how much power the motor adds in each mode. If a motor in sport mode offers 170 percent support, and the rider is putting out 100 watts, the motor adds 170 watts, for a total of 270 watts. These figures are a clue about how powerful and zippy a bike will feel in each mode. The catch is that many brands don’t break down support by mode (although Bosch does), or you have to dig deep into technical information to find it. Like watts, this is a category where the industry could—and should—be much more clear about its products.
So How Do You Decide?
Once you’ve decided that an e-commuter is worth the cash, the other problem may be harder to solve: taking test rides. Why should you test-ride a bike? Aside from handling and fit, e-bike test rides give you a sense of how a motor feels. Specs tell you a fair bit, but it’s worth noting that figures like power output, torque, and battery size are all moderated to some extent by the motor maker’s software. For example: software often tunes the motor to soften and control a high torque output, so it feels a bit smoother on startup, or tailors the motor’s own rotations per minute to your pedaling cadence, which wrings out a bit of extra range on a given battery.
You can talk with people who own the bikes or read reviews, but these are personal judgments, best developed from actually riding.
Ultimately, choosing a bike comes down to figuring out what you want to use it for.
If you want powerful, fast acceleration from a dead stop to get up to speed in traffic or with heavy loads, a Class 2 throttle-assist bike with a motor that has a max torque of 60 Newton-meters or higher might be the right approach. Want a bike you can use for long commutes? Look for a system with a maximum assist of around 300 percent. Higher assist levels have a sporty feel but come at the cost of range. Personally, I don’t need a full-size cargo bike, and I want to keep some versatility for non-cargo trips. I also want something that doesn’t take a ton of space to store. I’m eyeing Tern’s HSD, which can stand vertically on its rear rack, with fold-down handlebars for the smallest storage footprint possible. Benno’s E-Scout and Boost E are also at the top of my list. All of them fit my needs and my living situation. (I’m also lucky to have dealers nearby.) This will likely be my next bike purchase. I don’t know yet who’s going to get my money, but I can tell you who’s not: companies that don’t make these bikes.