From helping with the school run to carrying the weekly shop, e-cargo bikes can make life a good deal easier. Growing numbers of businesses are discovering they're the best option for local deliveries too.
The best e-cargo bikes
Our pick: Tern GSD - £4,700
Best on a budget: Rad Power Radwagon 4 - €1,899
Best of the rest:
- Orbea Katu-E - from £2,199
- Benno RemiDemi 9D - £2,999
- Tern Quick Haul P9 - £3,000
- Tern HSD S8i - £3,499
- Babboe Slim Mountain - £4,099
- Raleigh Stride 2 Family Cargo Bike - £4,395
- Riese and Muller Packster 40 Vario - £5,192
Cargo bikes come in different shapes and sizes and can weigh anything from 20 to 40kg; cheaper ones are normally heavier. On top of that you might put another 30-40kg of children, dog food, cement or whatever on top of your beast of burden, so getting the right bike and the right gearing for your local terrain is critical. A non-electric cargo bike can work really well even fully loaded if you live somewhere flat, but start to add hills and growing children and you begin to need help.
The emergence of decent electric motors for bicycles comes at a time when the number of manufacturers of cargo bikes is at an all-time high. This is obviously a good and exciting thing: Helping you do more by bike are what cargo or utility bikes are all about, and an electrically assisted cargo bike can flatten the hills and shorten distances. The advent of reliable and powerful e-bike systems has been a gamechanger for the cargo bike. You might find you can ditch that second car!
The cargo bike isn’t a specific thing. There’s a wide range of bikes available, both in terms of their design and their price. Below we'll discuss the four main styles of e-cargo bike, talk a little about motors and batteries, and finally give you our top current e-cargo recommendations if you're thinking of making one of the most useful purchases you will ever make... (trust us on this!)
Box bikes (or Long Johns)
These two wheelers are probably what springs to mind when someone says ‘cargo bike’ to you. They have a front wheel that’s moved forward, with a low slung box in front of the rider. The steering is operated via cables or a linkage. First made in the 1920s in Denmark it is perhaps the most useful load lugger and most are capable of carrying two kids or a big supermarket shop.
Two bikes spin this on its tail by putting the box at the rear: the Madsen (no longer made), and the Mike Burrows 8 freight. The advantages and disadvantages are well-argued, but the consensus is that box forward is the preferred style because you can see your cargo. That’s especially important if your cargo is kids or dogs: it’s nice to have eye contact.
Longtail (or Beavertail)
Imagine a conventional bike with the rear wheel pulled back a bit, with a longer rear rack. This is originally an African load-carrying design, made popular by a group of young men in San Francisco who created the xtracycle and the Yuba Mundo (from a German design). The longtail can take plenty of cargo in custom panniers, or you can strap stuff to the extended rack. It’s the most versatile bike for carrying two children once they are able to sit in a child seat, and you can easily carry another adult too. In between a normal bike and a longtail there’s the midtail Min’Ute from Kona, which is just that little bit longer for carrying more shopping.
Three wheelers generally have two wheels at the front. The best ones come from the continent, especially Denmark and Holland. Those trikes come at a premium but they still remain popular, and at lower prices there are numerous models built in the far-east. Once you’ve stopped moving, three wheels are obviously a lot more stable than two, which makes an e-trike very good for market stalls and ice-cream bikes. Learning to ride a trike takes a bit of time; the steering and cornering feels very different to a two-wheeler because you can’t lean into the turn, with the exception of Danish bike builders Butchers & Bicycles (above) who do a cool crank drive electric leaning trike!
Whatever you’ve got!
The fourth style of e-cargo bike blurs the line; many e-bikes can be put into service as e-cargo bikes, it could just be your daily ride with a rack on! We are used to pannier racks at the front and the rear but the porteur style rack – where the front rack is attached to the frame rather than the fork – is a way of adding a flexible platform on which to place a laptop bag or a few bits of shopping.
Raleigh's Roundsman uses porteur racks on a standard wheelbase bike
Because the load is separated from the steering it doesn’t affect the handling as much, and the rack gives useful extra capacity but without adding to the bike length or much to the weight. Winora, Civia, Soma, Omnium and Bicicapace are some of the companies currently making porteur-style bikes.
On top of the choice of cargo bike style, there’s also a decision to be made about what kind of drive system to use. There’s three basic options.
Front wheel hub motor
Front hub motors are the cheapest to fit, and they can be retrofitted to more or less anything. However, they’re not so good at pulling a weight up hills at anything but their optimum speed. What tends to happen is that as you slow up a hill, the motor give you less push/pull. And the last thing you want is to run out of oomph halfway up the hill back home! Front motors can also struggle for grip if you have a bike that’s heavily weighted towards the rear.
Rear wheel hub motor
Rear hub motors usually work with a derailleur gear system which is light and commonplace. Derailleurs can give you a good range of gears and the motor working with the derailleur is usually more efficient. Most of your weight is over the motor, too, and the steering of the bike isn’t affected. Rear hub motors are relatively easy to fit, so they’re ideal for retrofitting to a cargobike.
The main disadvantage of a rear hub motor is that they do not allow for you to use a hub gear system like the Shimano Alfine, who strengths include low maintenance but also allowing you to shift gears when stopped, which can be a big bonus when riding a heavy bike that might stop suddenly in top, and not be able to shift gear without moving.
Mid motor (crank drive)
This is becoming the norm for good production cargo bikes, as well as more expensive e-bikes generally. The motor sits in a specially designed frame where it replaces the bottom bracket, driving the chainring directly. Mid-motor systems are generally smooth, powerful and a pleasure to ride. The main manufacturers are currently Bosch and Shimano, with other manufacturers eagerly trying to gain a foothold in a growing market. Mid-motors will work with any gearing system including hub gears, with Bosch generally matched very nicely with an Enviolo Nfinity infinitely variable hub drive and Shimano Steps motor using Di2 technology with its Alfine hub.
If you have a non-powered cargo bike with a standard bottom bracket, you can still retrofit a mid-motor system to your existing ride. The two main systems from Sunstar and Bafang are both capable of propelling you and your gear up the steepest of hills. Either system fitted to Shimano Nexus, Alfine or Sturmey Archer Hub gears can cause you problems because shifting under load will stress the gearbox and can damage it irreparably; for that reason Shimano’s Di2 hub gears, when integrated with a Shimano or Bosch mid motor, will ease off the power when shifting. For retrofit crank drive systems it’s a good idea to play safe and budget for an Enviolo hub straight off the bat; these hubs don’t have set ratios and work really well with a mid motor.
Bafang's MM G31 motor can be fitted to a normal frame
The choice of mid motor cargo bikes available in the UK at the moment is limited but fortunately what’s around at the top end price wise is good, each with their own character and strengths.
Battery choice is also important for any style of motor, although unlike the motor it’s something that you can easily upgrade as your ownership continues. When buying an e-bike you tend to be limited to what comes as standard, although some manufacturers are now adding the option of a range of battery sizes so you can spec the bike according to your needs. A bigger battery means that you get a little extra range with a little bit extra weight, although the extra bulk is not really an issue on a heavy cargo bike.
The general rule of thumb with all things battery is that that the higher the number, the further your potential range. The battery is the most expensive single part of the bike, though, so extra range will cost you more money.
E-bike batteries range from around 200Wh to over 600Wh in size; in fact Spanish brand BH have recently introduced a 720Wh battery to the UK market. For a cargo bike you really want a minimum of 400Wh. This will last you about 20-25 miles, and a bit less on hilly or heavily loaded rides. Lots of owners are not going to need a massive range anyway. The school run might just be a few miles, and the nearest supermarket isn’t usually far away.
Our top e-cargo bike buying recommendations
Where possible, we only recommend bikes that our trusted reviewers have already tested thoroughly and awarded high scores. Here are our top choices.
Its huge bags a racks and massive versatility have made the Tern GSD a popular choice. The new updated GSD is still the pick of the bunch.
If you want a versatile, easily-adjustable load carrier and you’ve got the pockets for it, the Tern GSD S10 is as good as they come, carrying people and packages with consummate ease. The updates from the first version have made it a better overall bike, at the expense of, well, some extra expense. This remains, though, the best option for nearly anyone doing normal things on a bike, assuming you can afford it. The other builds are even more expensive than the S10, which starts at £4,700, but for me this is the model to go for.
If you’re looking to dip your toe into the waters of cargo biking, then the RadPower Radwagon 4 is a brilliant first bike. It’s very usable and easy to ride, and you can get accessories to carry all kinds of things. The motor’s not powerful enough to haul big loads up big hills, and some of the bits won’t survive too much heavy use, but it’s still a bargain.
Orbea's Katu-E 10 is a compact urban e-cargo bike with great acceleration
The Benno RemiDemi 9D is a good quality compact cargo bike that can be built with a range of luggage options.
The Benno RemiDemi is a fun and versatile bike that’s just the kind of thing you need if you’re hankering after a cargo bike but you really don’t have the space for one. It’s not as versatile as Benno’s Boost or Tern’s GSD but it’s quite a bit cheaper than either and will offer enough carrying capacity for many people in a compact package.
The Tern Quick Haul is a really capable compact alternative to the GSD and HSD. It's aimed at people who want the same versatility offered by those bikes, but at a lower price. Its main selling point over the cheaper RadWagon is a powerful Bosch Performance Line motor. (There's also a Quick Haul D8 available for £2,800 with an Active Line Plus motor.)
The Quick Haul can carry 150kg in total, with the Atlas Q rear rack rated for up to 50kg. It works with most of Tern's accessories too, including panniers, bars for passengers, toddler seats and seat pads for older children. Unlike its larger siblings, the Quick Haul looks and behaves like a city bike when unloaded.
If you only need to take one passenger then this could be all the cargo bike you need. If you’re looking to replace car journeys with bike journeys the Quick Haul makes a solid case for your cash.
Tern's HSD is a very easy cargo bike to live with, and has some surprising tricks up its sleeve
Tern's GSD remains our favourite everyday cargo bike, but the HSD is a bike you should definitely consider if you don't need the GSD's huge load capacity. While the HSD is compact, you can still carry loads of stuff, and it folds down for storage. It’s a great addition to the range and for many people will be more attractive than the larger GSD.
Tern has worked with Suntour to develop a custom short-travel suspension fork for the 20-inch wheels. You can lock it out if you want to, but we didn’t ever bother, because it goes about its business in a pretty unobtrusive way. Suspension forks on e-bikes often suffer from flex fore and aft under braking, but because the small wheels mean short stanchions it’s not really an issue here. The bike is better for having the fork, which isn’t always the case.
The larger GSD is the kind of bike that you’d buy because you wanted to replace a car. The HSD you’d buy just as a city workhorse, and then eventually you’d realise that it was capable of doing 90% of the journeys your car did.
The Babboe Slim Mountain is ideally suited to carrying small humans
The Raleigh Stride 2 Family Cargo Bike is a highly practical, spacious, and powerful e-cargo bike. It's also massive. At 2.6m, it's the length of a small car - but then that is what it's designed to replace.
The Stride 2 is fitted out with Bosch’s top-of-the-line Performance Line CX motor and a large reinforced polystyrene ‘bucket’ at the front, which is protected by large metal bars. This has a cargo capacity of 80kg and can be fitted out with harnesses, child seats and the like. There’s a rear rack too.
One advantage of a long john design over a longtail is that you can more easily see your cargo, which may well be particularly appealing if they’re related to you.
The smallest of Riese & Müller’s e-cargo bikes, the Packster 40 is nevertheless still 2.23m long. You’ll often need to do three-point turns when walking it around, but it handles remarkably well once you’re in the saddle with Bosch’s Performance Line CX mid-motor providing plenty of assistance.
While the front storage space isn’t actually enormous, it’s plenty big enough for a small child or the weekly shop. It’s available with different cargo options too, such as a rigid box or with just a bare frame. As with most of these bikes, the accessories can have a big impact on cost. The starting price for the Packster 40 is £4,099.
The Riese & Muller Load 75 is a superb and versatile cargo/family bike for those with big garages (and deep pockets)
It's mighty expensive at £7,000 with a decent selection of add-ons, but also a mighty investment that is incredibly versatile and customisable. This is one of the few e-cargo bikes we've seen with full suspension, and it makes for a very smooth and comfortable ride. The Bosch CX Performance motor will get you up any incline, and the rain cover allows you to keep passengers comfortable, out of the rain and cold. It's a very impressive piece of engineering and one of the best around if you want to carry lots of people (up to three) and gear alike.