Building A Cargo Bike Dream

A silver and black bike sits in front of a dark grey bridge. It is on a hard surface next to green grass. The bike has a large basket area in front of the steering tube that then connects to the front wheel which is at the other end of the basket from the handlebars. It is best described as a long john bike, but is a more modern take on it than the wooden box Dutch bike.

Cargo bikes can haul an impressive amount of stuff and serve as a car replacement for many folks around the world. While there are more models every year from bike manufacturers, the siren song of a custom build has led [Phil Vandelay] to build his own dream cargo bike.

The latest in a number of experiments in hand-built cargo bike frames, this electrified front-loader is an impressive machine. With a dual suspension and frame-integrated cargo area, this bike can haul in style and comfort. It uses a cable steering system to circumvent the boat-like handling of steering arm long john bikes and includes a number of nice touches like (mostly) internal cable routing.

The video below the break mostly covers welding the frame with [Vandelay]’s drool-worthy frame jig, so be sure to watch Part 2 of the video for how he outfits the bike including the internal cable routing and turning some parts for the cable steering system on the lathe. If you get an urge to build your own cargo bike after following along, he offers plans of this and some of his other cargo bike designs. [Vandelay] says this particular bike is not for the beginner, unlike his previous version built with square tubing.

Looking for more DIY cargo bikes? Checkout this Frankenbike, another front loader, or this Russian trike.

54 thoughts on “Building A Cargo Bike Dream

  1. I’m not a fan of that design, tt does not float my boat.

    ** it is too long. That is difficult to navigate. Low practicality in urban settings.

    ** every load is more or less (more more than less) in the middle of a looong structure. Creates the “worst possible solution” of transmitting forces. Lots of cyclic stress, Wöhler is greeting and probably visiting very soon.

    ** cargo bay is not very wide. Do two beer crates fit in?

    I prefer the solution with two front wheels and a cargo box between them. So at least two loads (cargo + battery) go directly into the wheel, driver load is distributed via a much shorter beam structure.

    With the above kickstand solution, a two wheel solution is not so much wider, too.

    1. This seems like a perfectly sound set of design decisions to me. Though I’m not a fan of cable steering as an idea, cables will stretch from new, even pre stretched ones and that seems like a pain to keep adjusting…

      However that frame is (assuming the welds/brazes are halfway decent and the tubes have wall thickness) way way stronger than most commercial bikes I’ve seen… Very similar tube layout to a normal bike really but now with a left and right side tube at the top rather than just one central and otherwise similar tube and some extra bracing from the bottom of the frame to the top too. Might end up being a little more springy, but really shouldn’t be a structural problem. And ultimately you really don’t need much to take the loads put upon a bicycle, even an electric assisted one with cargo.

      It isn’t that long either – actually looks to be shorter than a normal bike frame with normal bike size wheels suited to a person my size (diddy little wheels helps lots there), and that was never a problem in an urban environment. Plus the load on basically all bikes is entirely in the middle of the wheels somewhere, and the odds are really really good you mass vastly more than the cargo…

      Also the kickstand in the design in narrower than the bikes cargo bay… So a similarly sized cargo area with two wheels on either side of it would have to end up wider, probably by rather more than just the two wheels, as I presume they still have to steer which means room for linkages and suspension (if any).

    2. I’m looking at commercial cargo bike designs, and this is so thoroughly beyond them in terms of number of supports and tube diameter than I’m liable to think you’re completely wrong about this. I’ve seen motorcycle frames with less heft than this thing. You could probably schlep an engine into that cargo bucket (but you’d want to get bigger, stronger tires and wheels and obviously some other changes along with it).
      That said, there’s a lot of designs with two wheels up front and the cargo between them as you mentioned as well.

      1. This is a beer crate:

        All others are just sad tries.

        For my taste, the cargo space is not well-thought-out. I don’t see how to handle large boxes. If they are put on top of the frame and tied down with a strap, it will tend to glide to the front wheel/steering wheel stub and might be damaged. A guard frame would be nice. And fixtures for tie down straps.

        But perhaps the focus is more on speed. Then I think the design is a good choice.

        1. I am familiar with German Beer crates. Equal to 5 American 6 packs, for those considering arbitrage. By my math…I don’t drink enough to justify moving to Germany.

          The only advantage American ones have is cardboard, so you can put them in a saddle bag, one end down and so the beer doesn’t get light struck instantly. Green glass sucks for beer.

          For a German market, you’d have to make the saddle bags just big enough to hold one local crate, with a cover or bottle retainer of some sort. I’d assume a local had already done so.

        2. I’d say 40cm x 60cm euroboxes are pretty standard and the design looks like it even lets them “register” in so they don’t slide at all. Pretty embarrassing to be German and see someone complain about it not holding an old beer crate design that’s not even produced anymore, while the new design is 40cm x 40cm and would definitely fit twice on it.

    3. Regarding using two front wheels: where I live nearly 100% contraflow lanes permit two-wheelers only. Being forced to drive around (literally) the congested city center often defeats the purpose of using a bike.

      1. Where I live, such a looong bike would often need the entire bike lane width while going through a turn. There are some turns that would need a part of the sidewalk, some the entire sidewalk, while reducing speed to minimum.

        So driving on the street would be way better and safer.

        But that is a totally different discussion and opens another can of work. “Bike friendly cities”, talk to the Dutch.

  2. Different I must say. Nothing wrong with getting creative!

    But, what is the advantage of this compared to a simple pull wagon on a conventional bike which you can disconnect when not using?

    1. The obvious answer there is you will never be out on your bike and wish you brought the trailer/ a big backpack/pannier when you didn’t. (Something I have done before).

      But I think the real advantage is being entirely fixed you know where every part of your bike is relative to you at all times, while also always having some reasonable cargo capacity. That fixed nature also means it is probably rather more nimble for those awkward narrow spaces in practice. You might be able get a tighter turn on a regular bike and trailer, but always having to ask the question ‘where is the trailer?’ and if it ever does try to get stuck it won’t be as easy to recover.

      1. Ask yourself: If you weren’t planning on picking up cargo would you EVER ride this thing anywhere vs your normal bike?

        Folding metal mesh saddle bags is what you want. Not on a road bike, something practical.

        1. I don’t why see you wouldn’t just ride this. It seems like it will be nimble and practical enough for the day to day use, and with electric assist the extra mass it is hauling around doesn’t matter much either.

          It would probably be your daily driver bicycle, maybe even your only bicycle, as there seem to be so few downsides and very little point in having extra bikes.

          1. Its not really any wider than the person riding it, doesn’t look to be any longer than the bike I rode on my daily commute, seems to have more than functional enough steering and steering angle, and with the electric assist you won’t know it is carry all the extra mass really.
            Though yes I don’t love the cable steering concept there is no reason the cables won’t work just fine. It is just more of a pain in the maintenance and initial setup and may take a tiny bit of getting used to for the rider…

            So yeah few downsides, it is I would say about the same to ride through the urban environment as any normal size standard bike. At least so it seems (and this sort of layout is very common – so it must work alright). Possibly nicer to ride being full suspension with electric assist… Never going to match the BMX for nimble, but then nothing matches those, and they are about as practical to commute on as a brick…

  3. Wow … that bike is a horrible design. Putting the cargo weight that far in front of the driving force is a terrible, terrible idea. Rear wheel drive on a car works moderately OK because of having two front wheels and two rear wheels … there is some built in travel stability. Not so on a bike like that with a single point point vector for the driving force … it’s going to wobble like crazy … and with all the weight up front turning is likely to be as slippery as the front engine real wheel drive muscle cars used to have. The mass overrides the ground friction of the front wheel. I find it especially crazy since cargo trailers for bikes have been around for decades and make far more sense.

      1. I have … and honestly it required some getting used to.

        That said, this design looks a lot like what is common in Germany for cargo bikes and “kiddy as cargo” bikes right now.

        … that said … my MIL works in an ambulance and apparently accidents with this type of bike are fairly common.

    1. The cargo, even if you load it with heavy stuff isn’t going to have nearly the leverage and probably falls massively short of the total mass of the rider – they will be dictating the COM of the vehicle significantly by their body position…

      All Bicycle would wobble like crazy if it wasn’t for that closed feedback loop of the rider forever balancing it! The same is true for Motorbikes as well, two wheels by their nature just don’t have the same stability as 3 or more wheels, nor the same traction area but as soon as you put a functional brain in the mix they work just fine. In many ways better than a car, as any muppet can try to drive a car without any feel for its current traction level and probably get away with it as there is so much traction, so much mass to accelerate and so little power to do it with. But act like a pillock on a two wheeler and you will have a bad time.

      1. I’ve seen several configurations for cargo bikes, but I don’t have any experience with any of them.  One I saw once had something like huge, long baskets on each side, behind the rider, and he was carrying a roll of chain-link fence on one side!  I’ve also seen a lot of those recumbent tricycles where you’re sitting hardly above the ground, with your feet out in front of you, and the two front wheels are beside your legs.  I have no experience with those either, but I’ve thought that if I ever get to the point of having balance problems on a normal bike, I might get one of those.  However, I _have_ ridden our tandem by myself, which handles kind of strangely, but it’s not a problem after you get used to it.  One thing I have to keep in mind though is not to use the rear brake when there’s no one back there weighting the back wheel, especially in a turn, as the back tire would easily lose traction and slide out from under you!

        Normal upright single road bikes can have wobbles, and their causes and remedies took a long time to identify.  Calfee (a prestigious carbon-fiber bike manufacturer) figured out that one cause is a fork that’s not symmetrical, ie, that the center of the steering tube is not in the center plane of the front wheel.  I have found also that a load up high behind the seat can cause a wobble even at low speeds.  I had a gizmo back there to carry two extra quart water bottles.  After one bottle was empty, the reduced weight in that area came below some critical threshold, and there was no longer any wobble tendency.  High-speed wobbles, as in taking a fast downhill, have even killed people who didn’t know how to stop it or prevent it.  The simple solution is to just clamp the top tube of the bike between your knees or legs, producing a damping factor too great to allow oscillation.  It doesn’t look like that would work on the cargo bike presented on this page though.

        He sure has nice equipment to work with though!!  I would have had to make much of it out of wood.  I made a very elaborate sidewalk car that way for our kids when they were small, with McPherson-strut suspension, steering that was about four turns from full right to full left, a trunk and hood that opened, floor with carpet, center console, and dashboard.  Later I made a bike trailer—mostly, as I never finished it.  Its suspension is similar to that of the Ford pick-up I-Beam front ends.

      2. Eyeballing the volume, I think you could reach a similar mass as a man if you were to fill the space with containers of water or things similar to water. So it depends on what arrangement of things you can reasonably stack in the area and might end up wanting to carry at the same time.

        1. Manage to go maximum density water in that space and yeah maybe the mass would be similar to an average-lighter end human, doubt it would get up to the above average humans, probably not even average male human. But even then it doesn’t have the leverage to outmass your shifting body position, even if the cargo was twice your mass you would still very much dictate the COM of the whole structure (at least as far as stability is concerned), though at that point its going to be much harder work to control it.

          1. I am not that good with two wheels, but I rode something that might be a similar weight as what we’re talking about except it reached that weight with very heavy mud tires and a somewhat heavy frame. Above a certain speed with the gyro effect it was very easy to make gradual sweeping turns. A small radius turn with a large wheelbase needs a larger steering angle. That goes with low speeds, but a lower center of mass actually requires more lean angle for a given speed because of leverage. In addition, when your bike and cargo are not incredibly light compared to you, the center of mass is between them and you, rather than inside of your body. The heavier they are, the further you need to move your body in order to move the center of mass by the same amount.

            To make that kind of turn on the one I had, it was very easy to over-lean and lose traction. It seems like both mine and the one in this article would make it harder to maintain perfect balance when making tight slow turns associated with being nimble, especially since there’s no gyro effect at low speed. I’m sure motorcycle riders are perfectly alright with that, but it’s more skill than what you may have learned riding a regular bicycle as a kid.

    2. I replaced the front wheels of my rear engine lawn mower with solid wheels intended for gimbal wheels on zero turns.

      It’s really fun, mowing is like nursing home an ill handling race car. Pushes real bad in left turns, understeers in rights. ‘I am the Stig’.

    3. Let’s see you build something as cool as this David. You cannot possibly know that without building a bicycle yourself and testing it. The beauty of these designs is that you have to build and test them–theory is not enough!

  4. Seems neat. Like the machining of course, though I don’t think the design has a large niche.

    I saw a bunch of trikes used by maintenance crews on a college campus; they worked quite well with the extra wheel and regular steering – shorter wheelbase, they balance on their own, and pretty well too with the load kept low between the rear wheels. That lets the front wheel have an easier time with bumps and steps and things. Of course, trikes not being a universal favorite, you could do a sidecar. That might let the main bike stay mostly unmodified and you can electrify the sidecar without touching the regular drive. Of course, you could electrify a front wheel hub motor, and then you could still apply power when steering at severe angles like this one uses to make up for its length. Though it may not help as you’ll still have to balance carefully, idk.

    1. This layout is pretty popular in many European cities. I’ve also started seeing a bunch of them in some west-coast US cities, they seem to make for very popular bikeshare vehicles.

      I saw a bunch of cargo trikes (of the 2-rear-wheel variant) in a number of factories I used to visit. I think the front-load cargo bike is getting more seeming success because it rides more like a regular bike, and you don’t have to worry about transitioning to 2- and then no-wheels on hard turns. I think there’s plenty of room on the roads for any kind of cargo bike, though.

        1. As with all transport machines bikes and trikes are compromises. In the case of a trike though you’d at least be increasing the contact area and the rolling resistance with the additional wheel. To get better cornering I’d guess you’d need some pretty capable suspension.

          1. (Replying to HaHa’s comment)
            I’ve seen the exact thing shown in your video link happen on one of those upright trikes you sometimes see old people riding with a single wheel in front, two behind, and they’re sitting up high.  However, a trike seems to work out pretty well when you have one behind you and the front two beside your legs, and you sit down low, as shown at .  I’ve never tried one myself, to be able to speak from experience.

          2. @HaHa, top gear was not a documentary. I can’t swear that they faked that particular clip, but when they featured cars I was familiar with, I could tell that they were driving to get a certain result rather than to give the cars a fair shot. E.G. doing an acceleration test at half throttle. That makes me think that robins are not nearly as tippy as that clip implies.

            That said, I think the best that people have gotten out of 3-wheel vehicles has been with two front wheels, equalized weight on each tire, and (in cars) stability control. Roll in a corner does move the forces around, and a single front wheel isn’t necessarily great for unstable control, but if it loses traction while the heavily loaded rear wheels keep it, then while you don’t make the corner I have to imagine it’ll reduce your roll tendency, won’t it? I dunno.

            The main point was, it seems like it’d be trickier to keep small narrow wheels planted in a severe lean, to the point where I’m not sure it would actually be reasonable to corner tightly at low speeds. It might work better at higher speeds, but I don’t know if I want to try difficult things at higher speeds with cargo.

            I could go either way on this though. Obviously people seem to find that in practice the two-wheeled things work for them! I think I’ll stick with four; much rather that kind of weight transfer than trying to balance on a knife edge.

      1. Saw this design in use in the States yesterday. Alameda California (San Francisco Bay Area) is very bike friendly. I was amazed to see all the bikes at one of their schools on a school day.

  5. Nice setup. As a user ( google them) i would say: please consider using a arm from the steer bar to the front wheel. Those are way stronger. You will be biting concrete when the cables fail and have way more feeling of what your front wheel does. You can also change the steering ratio so you have more control. That is an essential part of driving a bike. Also check the kick stand designof the cargo bike. You can releas it with your toe while still standing at the driver position. It will fall down and by pulling your bike backwards it will form a stable stand.

    About tricycles: try going around a corner with full speed. You will tip over. This bike just leans in the curve. Very natural.

    1. If you watch the video, Phil does go through the pros/cons of steering arm vs cables (he used a steering arm on the previous iteration), but there is a redundant set of cables on the bike so it won’t fail during use unless you paid zero attention to the bike and managed to lose both cables on a single side before noticing. Yuba’s Super Cargo uses a cable steering system as well (and presumably others) and reportedly works well.

      I agree a steering arm is more robust, but you can have a tighter turning radius on a cable system since you don’t have to worry about interference like you do with the steering arm. Kinda depends on what you’re looking for in steering feel, I suppose.

      Haven’t ridden a cargo trike, but I’ve heard they’re wildly unstable at any amount of speed as you said. I would be curious about a longtail recumbent though as the regular recumbents are quite stable. I had a friend with one that he let me ride and he only managed to flip it once when goofing off on a slick surface in the rain.

      1. I expect that like is so often the case, the stability problems would be figured out and solved if there were enough of a market to motivate a lot of investment and development and get feedback from the field.

        Cables can be very reliable if done right.  In a hundred thousand miles of bike riding, I’ve never had a cable failure.  Cables are use for the control surfaces of light aircraft as well.

  6. Definitely more sought after in certain parts of the world, be more of a popular item if there was a way to minimize storage space when not in use. Could make the cargo area collapsable / adjustable and functional at the same time.

  7. Steering cables yet alone any cables with a “U” trap for water to fill and rust to form. Pop! Little rubber booties try to keep them dry but wear or rot out. Avoid at any cost on any bike. This mistake made again and again.

    1. Cables can be very reliable if done right.  In a hundred thousand miles of bike riding, I’ve never had a cable failure.  My cables never rust, so although I’ve never thought about what they’re made of, I suppose it’s some kind of stainless steel.  Cables are use for the control surfaces of light aircraft as well.

  8. The maintenance guys at the large plants I inspected typically had either golf carts or industrial tricycles to haul heavy tool chests and machine parts. Of course this was a shop floor, not a public street.

  9. To the people who complain about the design:

    This is a very common design here in the Netherlands. Bicycles that look exactly like this are used in all major cities by tons of companies and you can buy bicycles that look like this off the shelf. It’s a famous design that works. There have even been races organized with these bicycles.

    Now, I prefer carrier mopeds. We use them to transport anything and everything. I can carry 5 meter (16.5 feet) wooden boards with ease, i have carried 800kg (1763 pounds) in one. It’s also a lot faster (mine can do 70kmh (43mph) and it’s a regular 4stroke. The ones running 2 strokes are a lot faster, especially off the line. But it is a machine you buy after you learn how to weld. No shop will repair them as they are bigger than the average car.

  10. Does the video have a bit where he goes through a corner? I mean a 90 degree one,
    Because the thing looks pretty nifty but seeing him swing a bit from side to side to demonstrate makes me wonder if the steering can do tight corners.
    Also: can it go in reverse? That is something that in practice is a requirement in my experience.

    But I guess it’s not for real use anyway else it would have fenders, even if you live in a permanently dry area you don’t want all the street dirt up your rear, you’ll look ridiculous

    1. Been riding in the UK for 30 years and rarely have fenders – if it’s raining, you take waterproofs. Dust doesn’t really get flung up at cargo bike speeds. Reverse? What’s that for? Is it any different to putting your feet down and pushing backward?

      1. Yes reverse is that, but when you attach an electric motor and assorted gears designers sometimes overlook that and it becomes impossible or pretty hard to do so. and with a cargo bike you can then get stuck when you parked it.

        As for fenders, I remember a guy who came to my school every day on a bicycle without fenders and whenever it rained he had a long wet streak that reached all the way down his back to his neck.
        And I’ve seen people with dust steaks on the back too.
        And you can’t always predict the weather.

        On the plus side, this bike does actually have lights, something such projects also neglect sometimes, so kudos to that.

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