The Five Best Cargobike Cities in Europe — and some Honorable Mentions
The return of the bicycle to urban landscapes across the world continues unabated. I have previously described the armadas of bicycles in our cities as an orchestra composed of beautiful wind and string instruments providing the soundtrack for the future — and past — of our cities. Over the past few years we have seen a rolling accompaniment continuing to blossom and develop in the form of the cargo bike — the powerful percussion to accompany our bicycle orchestra.
Knowing what I know about this inevitable renaissance, I expected cargo bikes to make an appearance and to expand their reach in our urban lives. Nevertheless I continue to be amazed at just how fast cargo bikes have been growing in European cities.
Bicycle traffic has increased exponentially in those cities that have chosen to provide the necessary protected infrastructure required. Just as it has stagnated in cities that have failed to deliver the necessary space required to promote urban cycling and keep cyclists safe.
Over the past 15 years I have been deeply involved in many aspects of this cargo bike renaissance. Everything from testing the different models available on the market — both established brands and newcomers — and using cargo bikes in my daily life in Copenhagen, to participating for several years in European Union projects designed to promote cargo bike use and establish proof of concept in many of the areas where cargo bikes are relevant to urban life. Our research determined that 51% of all goods transported in a city could be moved by bike and cargo bike. That is a great statistic and a usable goal.
I have also published a book entitled Cargo Bike Nation with hundreds of photos of how urban citizens around the world integrate the cargo bike into their daily life. For €5 you can Buy Me a Coffee and choose a pdf of the book as an extra perk.
Basically, I have cargo bikes on my mind.
While we are still a long way off from seeing the massive and impressive fleets of cargo bikes that dominated European cities for decades before WW2, it is safe to say that the cargo bike is back.
As with many aspects of urban development there are cities that forge ahead, just as there are those which lag behind. In a conversation with a colleague here in Paris where I’m living at the moment, we discussed what cities are leading the way and how to measure the level of cargo bike life in a city.
I have decided to make a short list of the top five cargo bike cities in Europe and include some honorable mentions, as well as highlighting what cities outside of Europe are making the most progress regarding integrating the cargo bike in the daily life of a city. I possess a great deal of data on my computer as well as in my head and all of it combined with my international experience.
As I have learned far too well during my urbanism career, the quantity and quality of data collected by cities varies greatly. I know that while many cities are getting more game face on for collecting data about bicycle traffic growth there is still a gap in the data sets regarding cargo bikes. Many cities haven’t even begun to include cargo bike counts in their existing data collection process.
Add to that the challenge of recording data about all the different types of cargo bike use in cities. Families with children using the cargo bike as an urban SUV, shops and supermarkets that use cargo bikes for local delivery of goods and the role of the cargo bike in last-mile logistics.
The parameters I have looked at in order to determine what cities have been ready and willing to place their faith in a cargo bike future include the following:
- The number of cargo bikes in a city. Depending on the data source this can be an actual number or what percentage of the total bicycle fleet is made up of cargo bikes.
- A diversity of uses. There are cities with great numbers of privately owned cargo bikes and there are cities that, so far, have primarily focused on logistics. As you would expect, a mix of the two would indicate a more solid cargo bike foundation.
- As an extension of that, I look at what kind of services are provided to citizens by cargo bike. Clearly a broad diversity of services would be regarded as a positive thing.
- Regarding logistics, I looked at what facilities and policies have has been implemented in order to further cargo bike use. This includes micro-distribution points, a positive approach to allowing cargo bikes to navigate a city and to park where needed, as well as the scale of the usage.
- Not a lot of cities include information about gender when doing bicycle counts and this certainly applies to the modest amount of data about cargo bikes. So I’ve used the data I have from the cities that have recorded it and used my personal experience and knowledge of other cities in order to form a credible picture.
- I explore the cargo bike market and my information about the number of brands in a number of countries. Brands that have been on the market for a long while and also — as an indicator of growth — the number of brands that have emerged over the past few years as a response to the growth of this market.
So let’s do this as a reverse countdown and, after the top five European cargo bike cities, I will include some honorable mentions and interesting cities farther afield with a strong cargo bike culture.
#5 — Barcelona
I recall with great clarity spending two weeks on holiday in Barcelona back in 2011 with my children. Our primary trajectory each day was getting from the Gracia neighborhood to the beaches. I have a friend who owns a bike shop in Gracia and he provided my son, who was nine at the time, with a bike and a two-wheeled cargo bike for me and my three and a half year old daughter.
There were some bike lanes in the city back then and we quickly found our preferred route to and from the beach. On every journey we quickly realized that cargo bikes were not yet ubiquitous in Barcelona. Pedestrians and people waiting at bus stops saw us rolling past and would ooh and awe and point at the cargo bike — and especially the adorable blonde child sitting in it. The pointing and staring were positive. Regular bicycles had started to appear in Barcelona back then and this two wheeled cargo bike was a curiosity but not one that was completely foreign to people.
You only have to fast forward a few years to really see the growth of cargo bikes in Barcelona. While there is not yet a firm and broad foundation for regular citizens and families to use cargo bikes in the city — finding a place to park them in a city with many small apartments remains a challenge — Barcelona was a first mover regarding cargo bike logistics. A decade ago, the city of Barcelona enabled an organization — Vanapedal — that had a vision for increasing the cargo bikes role in local and last-mile logistics by providing a space in the heart of the city that would act as a micro-distribution point. Trucks from different companies would arrive in the morning and drop off packages at this location and a fleet of cargo bikes would further distribute the packages to homes and businesses.
In more recent years I have seen how the number of local shops and supermarkets that have acquired a cargo bike for local deliveries has increased exponentially. It is no longer an oddity to see a cargo bike parked outside a local shop with the company’s logo emblazoned on the cargo bay. I find it fascinating how in so many cities it has quickly become a normal thing — and Barcelona is ahead of the European curve.
#4 — Berlin
The German capital has been experiencing a positive bicycle development for many years thanks largely in part to citizens who insist upon safer and better infrastructure and facilities as well as an impressive activist culture that has successfully established bicycle urbanism in the minds of the city’s politicians.
There are neighborhoods in the city where the modal share for bikes easily surpasses the 20% mark. Squint your eyes in some areas and you’d be forgiven if you thought you were in Copenhagen. Add to that a fast growing fleet of cargo bikes. In the neighborhoods where bicycles are flourishing you see more and more cargo bikes rolling past or parked outside of apartment buildings.
Berlin enjoys a healthy combination of private cargo bike use by citizens and families and small goods delivery. The brands of cargo bikes that you see in the city vary greatly which would indicate a healthy market. There is a good mix of brands from Denmark and the Netherlands as well as a growing number from German manufacturers.
Berliners just seem to get it. While anyone who rides a bike or plans to ride a bike in the city will complain that the infrastructure network is severely lacking in quality and safety, the many temporary bike lanes implemented during Covid, combined with newer infrastructure in the couple of years before the pandemic, have encouraged bicycle traffic to grow. Because bicycle planning, when done right, also allows for a growth in cargo bike usage.
Like in many other European cities, cargo bike logistics providing last-mile delivery service is well established in Berlin. It’s not unusual to see cargo bikes painted in the livery of major logistics companies moving about the city like industrious worker ants.
#3 — Amsterdam
As one of the world’s great bicycle cities, it’s hardly surprising that Amsterdam is no stranger to the cargo bike. Interestingly, it is two-wheeled models that seem to dominate the market. This is a development stemming from the 1980s when the cargo bike returned to Dutch cities. The models that were reintroduced back then were, by and large, two-wheelers with a cargo bay in the middle between the bicycle user and the small front wheel.
When you know Amsterdam, you understand that these lighter, more agile models are dominant. Small apartments and a lack of backyards for safe parking are conditions that cause the two-wheeler to be preferred.
Regarding private use, the number of cargo bikes in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities might be far greater if it weren’t for the uniquely Dutch culture of squeezing as many people as possible onto one normal bicycle. You’ve probably seen the photos of a parent with two or three kids all hanging precariously off the frame, as well as groceries dangling from the handlebars and it’s always impressive. It’s not uniquely Dutch — you see this in cities where cycling is mainstream transport — but they do take it to the next level because unlike other places, it’s legal to double or triple or quadruple on a bike.
But when this is an established modus operandi then yeah, perhaps a cargo bike is not as needed as it would be elsewhere. While there is a lot of real estate dedicated to bicycle traffic in the form of bike lanes in Amsterdam, it is more often than not a rather chaotic system lacking in Best Practice and intuitiveness. While you can ride a cargo bike with ease in the city, it could also be considered less handy and convenient than a normal bike.
With all that said, an amazing 2% of all of the bicycles in Amsterdam are cargo bikes. An impressive number that is far ahead of most cities in the world.
Regarding cargo bike logistics, it was in the Netherlands that the enormous logistics industry first started to re-embrace the cargo bike as an integral piece of the delivery puzzle. The Dutch branch of DHL realized that there was some serious money to be saved by selling vans and instead buying cargo bikes for last mile delivery. That was the primary motivation but they soon learned that their delivery times improved. In short, they were now also more competitive in a fiercely competitive market. It didn’t take long for other European offices of their competitors to get on the bandwagon. UPS, FedEx and national brands are all now firmly on board.
Indeed, cargo bikes are delivering last-mile deliveries in over 150 cities in Europe because of this development.
It is not unusual to see micro-distribution points in the city, including floating versions on the canal, all in place to support the growing cargo bike logistics industry.
#2 — Paris
If you’re surprised to see Paris here at number two, you are not alone — I was just as surprised. If we talk about first movers in the reestablishment of the cargo bike in our cities, Paris really tops the list. My surprise began as far back as 2008 where, on a visit to the city, I saw the first large cargo bike providing last mile delivery. It was a curiosity and an anomaly back then — even for me who has wedded myself to such matters in urbanism.
The fact that Paris was involved in a pilot project to figure out the usefulness of providing micro distribution points on barges on the river from where cargo bikes would pick up packages for local delivery is also way ahead of the curve. Since then, Paris has continued to further develop as a cargo bike capital.
Like many places, Paris was no stranger to cargo bikes back in the day. Every local shop worth its salt would have a three-wheeled cargo bike — a triporteur — for local deliveries. There were even popular cargo bike races in this city in the 1920s and 1930s, where the delivery boys from the different shops would compete for honor and glory against their mercantile rivals.
In a similar vein to Amsterdam and Barcelona, there is still massive room for growth in private cargo bike use which is restricted by the challenges of finding safe places to park them. Other kinds of bikes have also proven popular on the market, including long tail bikes with room for a couple of kids on the back. Nevertheless there are neighborhoods in Paris where you will see respectable numbers of cargo bikes roll up and drop off kids.
It is interesting how the perception of cargo bikes in a city really is an indicator about how normalized or not they are. I’ve ridden cargo bikes in numerous cities around the world where they had been long forgotten. What is encouraging is how positive the perception is when people see a cargo bike for the first time. I have had so many conversations with strangers in these cities about the bike I was riding. Curious and enthusiastic questions about all the things you can use it for.
Here in Paris they have quickly moved past the novelty and now cargo bikes are firmly established as vehicles on the urban landscape. Just integral and yet unremarkable cogs in the urban transport machine. There are even cargo bikes on offer in the Veligo bikeshare system — three-wheelers, two-wheelers and longtail bikes. I included a cargobike in my urban design exhibition Aux Vélos, Citoyens! at the Danish Cultural Center and it was hardly a sensation. Parisians had seen it all before.
I‘m living in Paris at the moment as I write this and I look out on a local neighborhood street which connects to larger boulevards. It is a very unremarkable stretch in Paris with the traffic on the one-way street primarily passing through. But just in the course of this one morning as I’ve been writing this, I have seen scores of cargo bikes roll past. A few were used by private citizens with kids, but the bulk of them were providing delivery and services.
My surprise continued recently when looking at an incredibly comprehensive data set compiled by a good colleague of mine, urban designer Romain Loubiere from Cyclable by Design. He has studied numerous intersections in Paris and done highly detailed bicycle counts totalling around 80,000 cyclists. He can determine that cargo bikes make up 3% of the total bicycle fleet here in the French capital. That is a number unrivaled in most cities in the world. The French cargo bike market is healthy and it is growing and local brands are emerging. Another healthy sign.
There have been numerous incentive schemes implemented by the authorities to encourage the purchase of cargo bikes as a replacement for cars in and around Paris, as well as in other cities in France. When you see municipal commitment on that kind of scale you can be sure that cargo bikes are being taken seriously and increasing their numbers is a priority.
The future is bright for the cargo bike returning to the streets of Paris.
#1 — Copenhagen
At the risk of stoking the fires of irrational wrath within the Dutch bicycle nationalist tribe, I have to go with Copenhagen at number one. There are many parallels between Denmark and the Netherlands and the resurgence of the bicycle starting in the 1970s and the 1980s. Where the Dutch started to once again make cargo bikes, they placed their focus on two-wheeled versions in the 1980s. In Copenhagen it was a return to three-wheelers.
Leading the charge back then was the Christiania bike — a solid and reliable upgrade on the model of cargo bike that was ubiquitous in so many European cities for decades. For many Copenhageners “christiania bike” has become a generic term for any kind of three-wheeled cargo bike and the brand has been awarded the status of Danish design icon at the Danish Design Awards.
But it is important to remember that it is only one brand in one of the world’s largest cargo bike markets, where over 40 companies compete. Even if you are well versed in the subject of cargo bikes there are still a couple of dozen brands on the Danish market that you’ve never heard of.
Research that I did a number of years ago revealed that there are easily 50,000 cargo bikes in daily use in Greater Copenhagen. At drop-off time outside any Copenhagen daycare you’ll see more cargo bikes than you’ll see in, for example, ten randomly selected North American cities in total. The most impressive historical photos of cargo bikes are usually from Copenhagen, where a massive fleet formed the backbone of transport in the city for decades.
Private cargo bike use has been dominant for a very long time in Copenhagen. 26% of families with two kids or more have a cargo bike. Many families have a cargo bike as a supplement to their car but in a city where car ownership is below 30%, these cargo bikes are the families’ primary urban SUV for getting stuff done in the city.
While the number of cities providing cargo bikeshare systems is slowly but steadily increasing, there has been a form of cargo bikeshare in Copenhagen at least since the early 1990s. Back then I would go down to one of the locations in each neighborhood, hand in my driving license as security and borrow a cargo bike for free for the weekend. In order to go to the hardware store to buy paint, tools or supplies or to move apartments or to transport things for an event like a birthday party.
As Copenhagen worked hard to re-implement its bicycle infrastructure network, which started in earnest in the 1980s, the cargo bike early on became a vital tool in the conversations about the width of the average cycle track. In political and planning discussions where widening cycle tracks was feverishly discussed, someone would raise their hand and say “yes, but what about the growing number of cargo bikes in the city?”
On a narrow bike lane, a slower moving cargo bike would block the faster moving regular bicycle traffic. It was imperative to widen the cycle tracks to allow for bicycle users to be able to pass a cargo bike user. It was quite simply a question of flow, capacity and safety. If you couldn’t get around a cargo bike you would be inclined to hop off the curb of the cycle track into traffic in order to overtake it. That safety factor could be fixed with wider infrastructure.
Well there are stretches of bicycle infrastructure that are now incredibly wide — 4 to 5 m — it is certainly not across the board in the Danish capital. I have always said that the ideal width of a cycle track would be allowing two people on regular bikes engaged in a conversation to freely pass a cargo bike. Yes, conversation cycling is a thing. Always has been.
So while for many years private cargo bike use was dominant, we have seen businesses and industry gain massive momentum in the city. Whatever household service I need in my apartment — be it a locksmith, plumber, carpenter, window washer, electrician, etc — I can find someone who provides that service on a cargo bike. Most packages I order arrive on one, as well.
A walk through the pedestrian friendly city center will send you past stationary cargo bikes selling all manner of food and drink. It’s been like this for a very long time. You can eat and drink your way through the city center with products sold from cargo bikes. Coffee, hot soup, corn on the cob, crepes, you name it.
The rich diversity of cargo bike culture in Copenhagen offers up some unique and quirky solutions. If you make a donation at a sperm bank, your swimmers can be transported to the fertility clinic on a customized cargo bike. Blood tests performed at clinics and hospitals are moved around on cargo bikes each and every day. Add to that the dedicated cargo bike parking in neighborhoods and at supermarkets and shopping malls.
I stare at it all day long and it never ceases to amaze me. It is no surprise that cargo bikes make up 6% of the total bicycle fleet in Copenhagen.
While there is still room for improvement for Antwerp as a bicycle city, it is still one of the world’s great examples, with over 30% of the population choosing the bicycle as transport each day. The rise of the cargo bike has been well underway in Antwerp for many years. Private use, local delivery and logistics. What is holding the city back from exploiting the opportunity to exponentially increase the number of cargo bikes in the city is the width of much of the infrastructure as well as its connectivity. More cities are implementing cargo bikeshare programs and the one I’ve seen in Antwerp is one of the more extensive ones. A municipal willingness to find the necessary space for the cargo bikeshare stations would indicate that the city on some level is looking to expand its fleet.
Sweden’s third largest city is located a short 30 minute train ride from Copenhagen and its proximity to the Danish capital means that it has developed into the best cities for cycling in Sweden. The influence from across the water on the development of a bicycle infrastructure network is one thing but it also has enjoyed a proximity to the much larger Danish market for cargo bikes. The cargo bike is a normal and accepted feature on the urban landscape in Malmo.
There are many similarities between Vienna and cities like Berlin and Antwerp. They all host populations that time and time again show their willingness to support the further development of infrastructure and facilities to enable more people to ride bikes. The cargo bike increasingly asserts a larger and larger role in this development. It was one of the first larger cities to try its luck at a cargo bikeshare system and in many residential neighborhoods, cargo bikes are a normal feature in the daily lives of citizens. Like everywhere else, better infrastructure will enable more people to consider a cargo bike either for private use or commercial.
Rio de Janeiro
While this list is focused on European cities you cannot have a cargo bike conversation without mentioning Rio. Through extensive research in the Copacabana neighborhood of the city with its 500,000 citizens, it has been determined that there are over 11,000 cargo bike deliveries each and every day. It is almost exclusively commercial usage. You don’t see many citizens using cargo bikes for daily life but pretty much anything you can imagine ordering can be delivered to your home on a cargo bike. Dry cleaning, pet food, double mattresses, water in water cooler jugs, all manner of food and drink, you name it. I have seen the wildest things every time I am in Copacabana.
It’s a very similar vibe in Mexico City. An impressive fleet of commercial cargo bikes doing the heavy lifting of local delivery as well as acting as small, rolling markets for the sale of food and drink. Solid and reliable cargo bikes are locally made in a design that is timeless and effective. For about €300 you can buy a trusty workhorse. Every time I am in Mexico City I vainly try to calculate what it would cost to ship one of these bikes home to Copenhagen but the €300 ticket price rises off the charts once shipping comes into play.
I have singled out Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City for honorable mentions on this list but there are so many Central and South American cities that still enjoy a respectable cargo bike fleet, be it Sao Paulo, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Lima, etc.. In the case of these cities it’s not so much a resurgence but simply the fact that cargo bikes never really disappeared. Their numbers may be drastically reduced compared to the 1920s and 1930s but they’re still there on the streets of these cities doing what they do best: moving stuff around and getting things done.
It is also relevant for me to mention Asian cities in this article. Despite a modal shift to motorized vehicles there are so many places where cargo bikes are used efficiently to move things around. Unfortunately there is a lack of data from many Asian cities about how widespread cargo bikes are, which makes it difficult to single out one or another city.
Looking at this topic here in early 2023, I am optimistic about the future development of the cargo bike as an attractive and reliable addition to the urban transport equation. Even in North America — of all places — there are growing groups of cargo bike users who are changing the question and showing the way forward.
The cargo bike is back. More than ever before, let’s get the infrastructure that we need and the policy we deserve in order to encourage and enable people to embrace this timeless urban transport form.