As some readers will already know, I work in the office of a London courier company. 4 years ago, my boss was finally persuaded to buy a cargo bike. The deal was that we would supply a bike, with a secure, waterproof box, emblazoned with the company livery, and the rider would pay a daily fee to cover the costs (initial & continuing) of the bike.
The experiment was a success. Over short distances, carrying loads too big for conventional courier bikes, the cargo out-performed the vans. The riders made money, easily covering the rental fee they were charged for use of the bike. (I’m not going to go into the detail of the rental fee, but it covers the out-goings on the bikes more or less – mostly a little less.)
A success, but qualified by the reliability of the bike that we had bought.
Every part of the bike (frame, components apart from handle-bars and levers) broke at least twice, and some parts 4 or 5 times, over a 15 month period. As the bike was pretty much hand-made, and had a number of one-off fabrications fitted, this meant that the bike was often off the road for days, sometimes weeks.
The following summer, 2009, the Bullitt cargo bike became available for purchase in the U.K.. We had been thinking of buying another cargo bike, but wanted something that would be more reliable, and was easier to repair, which meant mass-produced frames & parts. The Bullitt frame was not only mass-produced, but was fitted with conventional parts, and was much lighter than anything else available, barring the 8 Freight, so we bought a Clockwork, i.e. fitted with hydraulic disc-brakes and an Alfine transmission (the Clockwork is now specced with Nexus 7).
We are now on our 3rd Bullitt, having replaced our first cargo bike with another Bullitt, and having suffered frame failure on the 2nd Bullitt after 2 years. In that time, we have replaced pretty every part on the 2nd Bullitt, apart from the handle-bars and levers, including the kick-stand. The front-hub was replaced not due to failure, but simply because I wanted to have a dyno hub fitted to the bike, so that the riders never have to worry about having lights on the bike.
Overall, I am very pleased with the way that the Bullitts have performed.
The spec was just about right, although I would recommend that any commercial user swap out the front hub for a dyno as soon as possible, and expect to replace the tyres straight away, as the tyres that come with Clockwork / Bluebird spec are seriously rubbish, and last about a month. You do not want to spend any time at all dropping the wheels out of a cargo bike, so puncture resistance and durability are even more important than on conventional bikes. I don’t actually like Marathon Plus at all, but they are perfect for this application, and well worth the money.
We did break stuff, but it wasn’t a big problem, as even when the kick-stand snapped (the kick-stand broke on both Bullitts – something I think Larry vs Harry have sorted out now, as a decent kick-stand is very important on a cargo bike – it’s seriously inconvenient to have to prop a loaded cargo bike up on a regular basis), L vs H sent us out a new one, which arrived within the week.
Notably, we broke the gear mechanism on one bike twice. I suspect that this indicated a mixture of misuse, and insufficiently frequent servicing, rather than inherent unreliability of the part, as the 3 year old bike’s hub is only now in need of replacement. Again, because mass-produced and widely available parts are used, it was a matter of days to get a replacement mechanism fitted.
Did I say stuff got broken? I think we replaced most of the moving parts at least once (calipers, discs, rims, chains, chain-sets, head-sets etc – there are two on a Long John style cargo bike etc etc), but over a two year period, this is exactly the sort of wear & tear I would expect from any pedal bike used for couriering most days, most weeks in London. My very conservative, not at all well-educated, guess at average daily mileage for the bikes is around 30, so allowing 48 weeks continuous use a year, so I reckon that each bike does at least 7 200 miles a year, in all conditions – even snow, ice & salt.
As I mentioned above, we fitted secure, water-proof boxes to all our bikes, and this is probably the most problematic area for commercial cargo bikes. You want to be able to secure the load so that it’s safe on the bike whilst the bike is unattended, and you want to be able to carry as much as possible, but clearly the box can’t be wider than the bike (this will make the bike a lot less manoeuvrable, and ideally the box will be light, as well as strong, water-proof & secure. Too big and heavy a box will demoralise the rider, especially if the rider is asked to ride 4 miles to deliver an envelope only a little bigger than his (or her) hand. This is important, because, as the old courier proverb has it, “a turning wheel is an earning wheel”, so sometimes it’s good to get some work on board, no matter how small the item, as long as it’s not wildly out of the way. It’s not a great idea to send a cargo bike to Greenwich, if most of your cargo clients are based in Clerkenwell, and send stuff into the West End.
Our first bike (8 Freight) was fitted as big a box as we could reasonably fit, and this was a big mistake. The weight destroyed the rack, and this was a big reason why the bike was so unreliable.
Repeating the mistake, we initially fitted a flight-case style box, custom made by Quentor to fit the Bullitt. Even though the box was very light for its size, it was (is) relatively heavy, and the weight dramatically affects the handling of the bike, to the point where I dropped the bike on its side the very first time I tried to ride it.
We looked around for alternatives, and considered getting an aluminium box fabricated to our spec, but the cost was not considered by me to be worth the benefit. Bullitt now sell a box for £300 (more or less, at it is priced in Euros).* We fitted this box to one of our Bullitts, and with the dyno-hub, I would say this spec is pretty much perfect for courier work. Still light enough to make envelope delivery economic and durable enough to give acceptable reliability (I find the idea of fitting carbon fibre parts, or, indeed, any race-quality parts, to commercial cargo bike ridiculous). The commercial (as opposed to domestic) cargo bike is the epitome of the old truism of ‘light, cheap and strong – pick two’. On our spec, the total cost is over £3000, which is an absurd sum for what is basically a sophisticated shopping bike, but for the heavy commercial user, it compares very, very favourably with the alternatives (which would be a small car). So you could say, at least by one measure, that the Bullitt is all 3, i.e. light, cheap AND strong.
* Big Blue Bike, who are based in Cardiff, got completely fed up with the weight of a hard box, and have developed a different solution, a foldable, secure, waterproof bag-box hybrid. I haven’t seen it close-up, but they tell me it will be on sale shortly.