Until recently, many Berliners could only identify cargo bikes as those bright yellow tanks pedaled by hard-working Deutsche Post employees. Today, cargo bikes can be spotted hauling everything from packages to children just about everywhere in the city. The rise in cargo bike popularity across Germany is the result of eco-conscious efforts to cut back on smog emissions as well as combat increased traffic congestion in major cities. As the highest populated city in all of Germany, Berlin has wholeheartedly embraced cargo bikes—a trend that shows no signs of slowing.
According to Gaya Schuetze, co-owner of Fahrradladen Mehringhof in Kreuzberg, cargo bike sales have seen an uptick in recent years. “In the ’90s, we were happy to sell one a year,” she says, “then we noticed more interest, first from families and then companies.” Today, the exact number of Berlin bicycle shops carrying cargo bikes varies, but thanks to the advent of online retailers, many Berliners have greater access to them, and are now considering the benefits of cargo bikes as their primary mode of transportation.
Traditionally, cargo bikes were used by tradesmen to transport necessities such as milk and bread, and were instrumental in delivering mail as far back as the 1870s, though their original designs were awkwardly heavy and required considerable leg strength to pedal. Cargo bikes fell out of favor after motorized vehicles came into vogue in the late 1880s, and remained on the fringes of bicycle culture until well into the 20th century. However, their popularity remained in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where flat roads and a strong cycling infrastructure made them a popular choice for many car-less families and small businesses.
Seeking to emulate the cycling culture of the Netherlands and Denmark, Berlin-based company VELOGUT rented out 150 cargo bikes to small businesses free of charge for a period of 1–3 months beginning in May 2017. VELOGUT joins other cargo bike initiatives such as the ADFC’s Die fLotte free cargo bike rental program, with the aim to raise awareness for cargo bikes as “a modern, economically sensible and environmentally friendly means of transport,” and to influence how commercial enterprises strategize their mobility in cities like Berlin. Some of the businesses who signed up included: photographers, coffee baristas, florists, chimney sweeps, beekeepers, and Christmas tree deliverers.
According to the European Cyclists’ Federation, cargo bikes could feasibly replace fleets of delivery vehicles across Europe by accommodating upwards of 50% of all light deliveries within cities. Beyond their potential in the business sector, cargo bikes are now becoming more accessible to individuals in the private sector. Cargo bike sales in Germany are on the rise, with some industry figures claiming over 21,000 cargo bikes were sold in 2017, a 42% increase over the previous year, with expectations that number will increase in the near future.
However, as anyone who has ridden a cargo bike can attest, their size does not make them easy to navigate down roads without safe bicycle lanes, and finding secure parking is no easy feat in a city where bike theft is rampant. Finally, not all bike shops are equipped (or willing) to service cargo bikes, meaning a mechanical issue could become a major obstacle to your mobility.
Nevertheless, the German government is keen on encouraging citizens to consider cargo bike transportation, even going so far as to offer financial incentives for e-cargo bikes. With price tags ranging anywhere from €1300 to €5000 depending on the model and its features, government subsidies are strong motivators for parsimonious buyers. The federal government currently offers rebates up to a maximum of €2500, while the Berlin government offers subsidies between €500 and €1000.
Even with cargo bike prices considerably higher than the average bicycle, many cycling advocate groups are actively integrating them into the Berlin cycling zeitgeist. In April 2018, the International Cargo Bike Festival—traditionally held in Nijmegen in the Netherlands—relocated to Berlin as part of the VELOBerlin bicycle festival at Tempelhof, which brought together more than 50 cargo bike manufacturers to promote their models for demonstration, and to put them through their paces in a cargo bike race.
Berlin continues to pushing for greater sustainable transport in the city, with cargo bikes now the latest trend in the city’s constantly evolving cycling culture. While the hefty cost and considerable size of many cargo bikes limits their accessibility among cash-strapped and space-conscious cyclists, manufacturers are producing more models comprised of lightweight alloy tubing and custom build options at a variety of price points. Expect to see more cargo bikes taking over the streets of Berlin, ushering in the next wave of eco-friendly transportation throughout the capital city.