Add to Collection
Tools Used




Honors Research project on daily transportation of cargo in cities.
This is an extended portfolio entry of my Honors Research Project (Mech. Eng. H194) with Alice Agogino. It's more wordy than other entries, as it goes into my process of needfinding, benchmarking, and research through design. Though I don't present a single, final concept at the end, I'll identify what I see are opportunities for further exploration and innovation in the bike cargo space. The online design journal can be found at
Some Background 

With bicycling poised to be the next transportation revolution in Western cities, riding the livable cities wave are Portland, New York, and San Francisco. These, among other US cities, follow in the footsteps of Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and many German cities in trying to prioritize (or at least give equal infrastructure to) bikes over cars. In Copenhagen, for example, there are an enormous number of cargo bicyles, which are likened to "Danish SUVs" by the blog Copenhagenize, a proponent of everyday transportation cycling.

It was a fascination with cargo bikes used in everyday life that compelled me to look at urban cargo transportation. We see cars as indispensible in American cities but do we really need to carry a ton or two of steel around when we are getting groceries? This question can go endlessly deep into development patterns of cities and urban transportation infrastructure.

To keep the scope simple, I focused on urban areas, where bicycling is a competitive mode of transportation (for example, in San Francisco, it can be much faster to bike across parts of the city than any other mode of trasnportation). I wanted to explore how people carry daily cargo by bike, create and use some solutions for carrying cargo, and search for opportunities for further improvement in how people get themselves and their stuff around. Solving the "stuff" hurdle is one more step towards a more bike-friendly trasnportation culture, and a cleaner, more livable city.

I'll go over my process by method in roughly chronological order, and then conclude with my thoughts on what could be the best areas to focus in. This process wasn't by any means strictly linear, though.

Background Research

Before I officially began the project I had a passion for bicycles, and read many transportation- and bicycling-related blogs like Copenhagenize and StreetsblogSF. As I learned more about Portland's blossoming cargo bike culture, the various products that exist for carrying cargo, etc, I came across a few helpful summaries. Treehugger ran some lists of racks/baskets, trailers, and cargo bikes, which gave a comprehensive starting point to my research, and an idea of the possible scales I could focus in on: carrying a few small items, to carrying a couple kids and a week's worth of groceries? This was a good starting point for competitive benchmarking. Eventually, the background information and products that I found while doing secondary research became primary research in first-hand observations and experiences. I also began a Tumbr Blog to document my research.
Existing Solutions: Racks & Panniers

Rack and pannier systems are readily available and relatively versatile, but can be expensive. Racks run $30-$150, and panniers $30-$100+. Because the more durable pannier brands (like Ortlieb) and fashionable brands (like Brooks) are expensive, panniers are seen as a valuable accessory that can be stolen easily (on the one hand, panniers need to be easily removable, on the other, they need to be secure). As with all things, the cheaper racks and panniers are less attractive to people who care about how their bikes look. According to Josh Boisclair, the mechanic at MyDutchBike in San Francisco, rack manufacturers are a little slower to keep up to customer needs than basket manufacturers.
Clockwise from upper left: Brooks Brick Lane roll-up panniers, Ortlieb waterproof panniers, Velo Orange Porteur rack, and Soma front rack. All images from respective companies.
Existing Solutions: Baskets

This basket includes a clever mechanism to secure it to the handlebars: when you lift both handles to pick up the basket, it is unlocked from the mount. Baskets can be cheaper, around $30-$50, but hold much less weight. Mechanisms like this have signalled that basket manufacturers are willing to keep up with market trends, designing innovative new mounts to address security, and many different looks to appeal to a wide range of bike personalities. There are also baskets specifically designed for men, since many (especially the wicker variety) are seen as being too feminine.
top left: Eleven81 bike basket with quick-release handle, Wald rear side baskets, unknown front basket, Wald basket zip-tied to a rack.
Existing Solutions: Cargo Bikes & Trailers

Cargo bikes in the US are normally long-tail bikes, which move the rear wheel further back in order to provide 
more space for cargo. Xtracycle has been successful in creating an open-source platform for these, while European manufacturers focus on designs with the cargo in front of the rider. This is seen as preferable for being able to talk to children riding in front, and keeping an eye on cargo. These are specialty bikes and run $1000 or more. Many types of trailers exist, but are usually used for infrequent and short-distance carrying of large items.
top: long-tail Oregon Manifest entry, with open-source Xtracycle cargo platform in back. bottom: a cargo bike with a cooler on the front to sell Tara’s Organic ice cream, Bancroft & Telegraph.

After benchmarking, I observed as many types of cargo systems as possible in the wild. I test rode cargo bikes, observed people at Trader Joe's, talked to experts, talked to lead users, talked to everyday people, and built and used my own prototypes, in order to narrow the scope of my research.

Spending time hanging around Trader Joe's you'll see a lot of people loading groceries onto their bikes. Among the current methods are panniers, flat fold-out baskets, baskets, hanging groceries from handlebars, and stuffing them into backpacks. There is always a process, and everyone's is unique to their setup and how they ride. Some unlock the bike, toss groceries in a basket. Some carefully transfer groceries in their panniers, then unlock and go. Some use TJ's paper bags, some use their own bags. Few who carry bags in with them directly attach them to their bike, though.

From other observations while riding around and seeing bicycles that have some type of cargo carrying capacity, I noticed there is a fairly strong DIY aspect to carrying cargo. Milk crates and buckets attached to racks are surprisingly common. I wondered if these solutions were chosen because they were cheap, or because they were durable, weatherproof, what?
top: two people leaving Trader Joe’s by bike. left is using foldable flat-pack wire basket panniers that are sized for paper grocery bags. right is using the Wald rear side baskets. bottom: DIY carriers, the ever-so-common milk crate, and buckets attached to sides of a rack.
top: many observations of people riding with cargo, mostly in panniers, sometime hanging the bag off handlebars, sometimes strapped to a rack. bottom: a common infant carrier in Northern Europe, spotted in Berkeley, and a beautifully customized Porteur rack. A plywood platform with a heart cutout is added to make it more practical for carrying small items which may fall between the rails (see previous pictures of Porteur racks above.)

To learn more about bikes & cargo, I posted an ad on Craigslist, asking to ride people's cargo bikes. I also contacted the mechanic and MyDutchBike, which carries many different european models of cargo bike. At MDB I had the chance to ride a Short John, Long John, a couple truck bikes, and a Gazelle made for carrying children. Talking with the mechanic, he said that these types of cargo bikes were catching on, but were still relatively unsuited for the San Francisco style of riding. The bikes, designed and used in Northern Europe, are extremely heavy, and feature very upright riding positions. The only sportier option available is the Larry vs Harry Bullitt, which is lighter, but also much more aggressive in its riding position, and marketed towards messengers, not moms.

After riding so many of these bikes, I had some realizations. First was: not everyone needs a cargo bike. It's the SUV of bikes, after all, and not everyone needs an SUV. These bikes can haul 2+ children, plus groceries. It's the sort of thing where there should be one available to you to borrow (via bike-share, a bicycle club, or from Ikea), but not everyone needs to own one — this is why they're primarily used by families in Portland. This is the point where I decided to focus on everyday cargo, and shoot for Honda Civic over SUV.

I also interviewed someone who owned an xtracycle, and got to ride it around. It was easier to handle, but not having the cargo area in front of you was less assuring. The one I rode had a child seat on it, and when i got to the end of my first block, someone joking said "you're missing your child!". She had a point, however, in that the European models allow you to keep your children and things in sight while you're riding, at the sacrifice of a small learning curve to get confident with handling & stability. What I thought was most interesting about the xtracycle was it's versatility: it's an open-source platform that allows you to buy specific parts and build it to your needs.

I also met with Mich
ael Cleaver, who hand-makes bicycles in Oakland. He went over some specifics on geometry with me, and I got to ride a truck bike and a long john that he made. For normal bikes carrying a load on the front wheel, the shortened version is that low mechanical trail (distance perpendicular from the steering axis to the axle), makes for better handling when carrying a load. In reality, there are many conflicting reports from people who have high trail and claim to carry front loads with no problem. After reading the chapter on Steering Dynamics in Bicycling Science, I learned these dynamics are extremely hard to fully understand.
Finally, Todd Hindmarsh, a carpenter in Oakland, showed me his setups. He does all his work by bike, using trailers to haul hundreds of pounds of lumber and tools. He also experiments with his own rack building, having built some racks for touring and some baskets for his own bikes. He made a large front basket, which he says he can carry 60 lbs of chicken feed in without too much compromise in stability. He and his friend (who had a porteur rack) both preferred front racks over rear, for keeping better control of what you're carrying.
Oregon Manifest
Oregon Manifest bills itself as the ultimate urban utility bike challenge. Builders create their vision of an "ultimate utility bike" which ranges to a beautifully handcrafted bike with standard rack & panniers, to student entries from art schools hastily welded together, to some pretty unique cargo bikes. The 50 mile road test, however, is seen by some as less the test of a utility bike than a reference to the French Constructeur Challenges of the 50's, when constructors created and raced the first lightweight racing and touring bicycles. I went to see the bikes in Portland so I could experience what the experts did with their own bicycles.

The Oregon Manifest entries were almost all beautiful. There were even some bikes entered from design firms teamed up with bike builders (IDEO, Fuseproject, and Ziba). Many of these constructors were probably aware of the tradition of porteur bicycles, because the majority of the bikes had front racks to carry their main cargo (I tallied them up). These bikes were highly customized, and I loved the beautiful details that each builder included based on their experience with how people used their bicycles, or how they used their own bicycles. ExAMPLES!!!jQuery16207042470960877836_1324422300484? Outside of the Oregon Manifest show, in the event's parking, were many examples of home-made racks (one clever porteur rack made from a roasting pan), and all types of cargo bikes.
left: a large front rack that includes a bag and child seat. The kid rode all 50+ miles. right: a clever rear rack that flips up to reveal a small “trunk” for carrying tools and patch kit. The panniers are very classy (read: $$$).
top left: Fuseproject’s entry to OM, “The Local”. I loved the brass, canvas, & unfinished plywood of the platform and bags, which had a nautical feel to it. top right: the Clever Cycles entry, a long tail Xtracycle style frame with large front rack. bottom: the IDEO entry, “Faraday”, probably the sexiest electric bike ever made. Batteries are in the double top tube, motor in the front hub. The rack is detachable, and one could foresee many different front attachments. Instead of a throttle, you set a level of assist, and the bike helps you pedal depending on the speed and difficulty.
Research through Design

Now that I was focusing on carrying smaller amounts of cargo, I wondered why front rack were preferred by many people I talked to, and so prevalent on the Oregon Manifest bikes, but not very common in my observations. The only front racks I saw in the wild were porteur racks, usually on more classic-style road bikes. I decided to prototype a variety of front racks to understand this simultaneous desire for, and lack of, front racks. I wanted to experience the handling characteristics of a front rack under varying load conditions, so I built a basic platform out of plywood that I could extend to try different types of load carrying.

My first rack was simple, but allowed me to strap my backpack onto my handlebars so I could experiment with the dynamics of a load. I found the change wasn't too bad, even on my bike with higher trail. It was easy to adapt to handling a loaded front wheel: to steer, you lean your body and the handlebars turn to follow (thanks to mysterious dynamics of bicycles). It was actually pretty intuitive and made the bike feel very stable. I adapted the rack to fit with many different types of loads. I carried a 2' x 4' piece of plywood, vertically clamped to the side of the rack (it was a little unstable just by nature of it acting like a sail in the wind). I carried large boxes, groceries, a small christmas tree, and even a person sitting on the rack, for a little over a mile.
Experiments in adding a low platform. I thought an Xtracycle-style open-source platform would be interesting on the front wheel. I found that there was little need for a platform, since bags do a pretty good job of holding weight lower down. It may have been the implementation, using hinges and cord, that made it less stable, so it might be worth it to revisit this method, but it requires a good way to strap your load into the bike. The low platforms also provided footrests for when a person rode on the rack. Under heavy load, you had to ride slowly, and being careful not to overcompensate on steering.
A simple Free Body Diagram that explains why the low platforms weren’t as successful. The water jugs were 40 lbs. each. When that much weight was placed on the low platform (brown lines), it flexed (red lines) under the load. With dynamic weight, steering becomes much harder, as it disturbs any quick corrections you make. Large, heavy items must be secured very well to the rack.
Experimenting with a removable platform rack. The platform isn’t any more useful unless you have a way to strap and keep things on it.
A platform rack with foldable sides. The paper prototype is a stiff cloth basket that keeps items in place without the need to tie them down. If needed, it can be folded flat for use with larger boxes or bags on the front rack. Finally, it can also be folded up to provide a sort of “trunk” (perhaps even lockable), as shown in the upper-right photo.
Final Thoughts

After so much research through observations, interviews, and design, I can see there are some areas in which the bike cargo space could see significant innovation. A bike rider carrying cargo needs...