‘In at the deep end’: ditching the car for a cargo bike on the school run

It’s been 20 years since I last used a bike every day. But I’m returning to cycling because I want to take my children to school and nursery without the horrible sense of guilt from dropping them off in the car, complaints about walking or the juggle of pushchair and public transport at rush-hour.

To replace my car on the daily school run, I need an electrically powered workhorse that will carry two smallish children and the bags of stuff that we lug around wherever we go.

The options, I’m told, are an elongated cargo bike that fits two children on the back, a detachable trailer, or a trike/bike with a giant child bucket on the front.

In an ideal world, it will be powerful enough that I don’t feel dragged down by 30kg of offspring while chugging the household around my hilly London neighbourhood. The longtail electric cargo seems like the best fit for this brief.

There are various “car replacement” bikes on the market with eye-watering price tags. The Tern GSD retails at £5k-plus at the top end. The model I choose to try out is a RadWagon, at the cheapest end of the market, though not actually cheap at more like £2,000 with all the necessary attachments.

My main concern is whether I can keep my wriggling cargo safe. I spend a long time poring over Google maps to figure out a route that avoids buses and sticks to cycle paths and parks as much as possible.

Rowena Mason and children.

I also research parking, endlessly. And it seems this is one of the main disadvantages of a big, expensive bike. The advice is pretty much never to leave them unattended or on display for long. You can lock them up with as many locks as you like but nothing can stop a determined thief with an angle grinder – even in a public place in broad daylight. I decide it will have to be parked only at home, school or work.

Finally, I am ready to borrow the bike from one of the handful of RadWagon partner outlets in London. It has been shipped and taken a week to “build” – the lead time for an order is usually about 10 days. The bikes are extremely popular in the US and mainland Europe but have not been without their problems, including a recall over tyre issues requiring new kit that took some months to be sent. In the UK, there are more than 500 RadWagon owners, and a handful of service outlets in London.

Turning up at the shop, I admit I’ve never ridden an electric bike before and the assistant laughs, telling me the RadWagon is going “in at the deep end”. It is a beast, at 2 metres in length and 35kg in weight. But after a short trial round a nearby park, I decide to take the plunge and cycle 45 minutes home.

It is in turns both exhilarating and terrifying. At top speed, I am approaching the 25km per hour with little effort on my part. The electric motor makes cycling feel like you’re gliding along. A nimble turn of the “throttle” is enough to almost flatten most hills, with major physical exertion required for only the steepest climbs.

The tech is impressive. It has inbuilt lights that switch on with the electrics, a range of 55-88km a charge, an easy-to-read display and the ability to charge your phone on the go.

The first hitch comes, though, in deciding where to put it. Outside seems too risky and it won’t fit in the shed. I settle for the hall although this could not be a long-term solution given its bulkiness. This is really a bike for people with garage space or the nerves and insurance to keep it chained in the garden under cover.

When it comes to loading on my children, they give it a very positive review as comfy and fun. There are no complaints about the ride to school apart from when I take a speed bump too fast. I’m worried about fights breaking out behind me among tired passengers sitting close together, but they are too busy holding on and enjoying the ride for this to be a problem.

The RadWagon is built to fit two Thule Yepp Maxi child seats for the youngest riders up until the age of about five. They are also not cheap and can be tricky to find secondhand but lovely, durable seats and easy to fit. Older children can ride with legs astride the central seat pads if they are confident holding on. Its maximum weight is 54kg, which is equivalent to about two children up to the age of eight or nine.

Child-carrying cargo bikes are on the increase in London but they are not prevalent everywhere. The RadWagon attracts a lot of attention and compliments. A teenage boy stops to tell me I have “nice wheels” and I get curious looks from other parents. Several friends come round for a test. One who transports her children by non-electric cargo says she likes it but finds it a bit less responsive than her non-electric bucket bike. I still feel it is quite steady, if slightly cumbersome to wheel because of its size, with a low centre of gravity and thick tyres.

It’s time to return the RadWagon and I’m considering whether to buy one of my own. The pull factors are the ease, fun and speed of travel, and the fact the children love it. The downsides are the price, parking and hassle if things go wrong. It feels like this type of cargo cycling is the future in cities – I think this really could replace a car, and be more enjoyable as a vehicle, for most local travel. But on a mass basis, this is only really going to happen as the cost comes down further.

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