One of the biggest surprises of parenthood has been dealing with the overwhelming amounts of stuff. Take going to the beach, for example. Before kids, a quick beach trip was as complicated as putting on a pair of shorts over a bathing suit, tossing a tallboy in a backpack, and biking to the water.
Now, I do a 30-minute scamper around the house while grabbing and stuffing items in a bag like a hamster stockpiling for winter. Water bottle? Check. Toddler bathing suits and towels? Check. Diapers? Sand toys? Check. And that’s before I get to all the pandemic-related gear, like child-sized masks and hand sanitizer.
Luckily, for the past week, I’ve been riding the Urban Arrow Family. For sheer convenience, nothing beats a Dutch-style front-loading cargo electric bike. Rather than carefully tucking all our gear into different packs and panniers, I can just toss everything into the big cargo box, and that includes my kids.
“Isn’t that terrifying?” my neighbor called out one day, as she saw me set off down the street with the front box full of UPS packages.
Weirdly enough, it isn’t. Urban Arrow is a Dutch company, the land from whence the front-loading cargo bike (also called bakfiets) originated. So it’s not surprising that I found the Family to be both comfortable and surprisingly maneuverable, even though it has a cushy seat, curved handlebars, and a sit-up style frame instead of the straight handlebars and more forward-leaning style that I prefer.
A lot of that maneuverability is due to the shape and style of the cargo basket. Unlike other bike boxes, the floor (which is an easy-to-clean grate) sits at the bottom of the front chassis, instead of lying on top of it. This puts the box—and therefore the cargo—several inches lower than on other front cargo bikes, which makes it feel more stable.
The box itself is about 27.5 inches across, which includes a few inches for the protective aluminum top tube (like a kiddie roll bar) and two inches of heavy-duty expanded polystyrene foam, which is the material often used to pad motorcycle helmets. My kids felt pretty secure inside, and it was wide enough for both the 3- and 5-year-old to sit side by side on the included padded seat. I do have gangly spider children, though. It would probably be a tight fit if they were much bigger.
Over the past week, I’ve been merrily bouncing around, leaning into turns, maneuvering around potholes, and steering through cement planter road barriers. The Family has been a much easier ride than the Riese & Müller Load, another front-loading cargo bike I tested.
It’s powered by a Bosch Performance CX drivetrain, which has allowed me to take it up and down steep, 20-degree hills without a problem. The drivetrain has four levels of assistance, which I can toggle on a small Bosch Intuvia display. The screen also shows the odometer, lights, and battery level.
The Family has a very cool Enviolo continuously variable transmission gear hub. Instead of click-shifting from one gear to another while in motion, you can turn the shifter when you’re at a standstill. A cute, tiny display on the right handlebar shows a person pedaling up a hill that gets steeper or flatter as you shift. Rather than wobbling as I furiously downshift while moving, I can use walk assistance to push the bike to a safe, convenient spot, shift before getting on the bike, and then start pedaling. I’ve beaten people on non-cargo electric bikes uphill with this system.
And, of course, it has all the commuter necessities that you need to keep your family safe on the roads with a bike, like fenders, a weather-protective chain case, a kickstand, a headlight, a rear light, and a quick, convenient Abus wheel lock to keep someone from walking away with your bike if you have to leave it parked to chase after a 3-year-old who hopped out.
My 5-year-old also found the large, two-tone bell to be very impressive. It’s the little things that count—most bike bells make my heart rate spike and really piss off cars. But for some reason, the second, lower tone is a lot more cheerful and less alarming.
It doesn’t have the Riese & Müller Load’s full suspension on the front and back ends, so I do feel the bumps much more, especially when the cargo basket is full. And it has only one 500-watt-hour battery. I had to recharge it after 30 miles. But to be fair, most of my rides involved going up and down very steep hills on maximum power while carrying lots of cargo. Still, for a 500-Wh battery, a 30-mile range feels very small. There is an optional dual-battery kit if you plan to drive much farther or live in very hilly terrain.
Scratching the Beach Itch
My brother-in-law broke my garage door last summer. God bless him. Having a functioning garage door makes having an electric bakfiets much easier. Every time we leave the house, I factor in 20 minutes of 45-point turns to wriggle the Urban Arrow Family out of the shed in my backyard and through the front gate.
I have to note that it’s a very specific demographic that lives in an area that’s urban enough to warrant a lot of travel by bicycle, can afford a $5,000 electric bike in lieu of a car, and also has the ability to safely and conveniently store a valuable vehicle of this size. It’s not for nothing that the Netherlands now has a term called bakfietsmoeder (bakfiets-mom) that is a symbol of ambitious, upper-middle-class striving.
But like a lot of things that are expensive, the Urban Arrow Family is just … really nice. As the weather has gotten warmer, we’ve found the Family to be the ideal vehicle. In Portland, it’s been harder than ever to find unoccupied stretches of river beach. Bikes are the perfect exploratory vehicle for rambling down promising abandoned gravel paths, looking for a spare bit of coronavirus-free outdoor space that we can call our own. It’s really, really hard to say that it’s not worth it.