Max Capacity

With the number of cargo bikes on the market on the rise, and with a number of those bikes having maximum capacities into the multiple hundreds of pounds, it has me wondering how much capacity is really necessary for the typical commuter/utility bicyclist. For those who are 100% car-free or use their bicycles to carry heavy equipment in a work environment, “as much as possible” is probably the right answer. For others—particularly those who only need to carry a commute load or a few days worth of groceries—something far less is probably sufficient.

We’re “car-lite”, which, for the uninitiated, means we use our bicycles as our primary mode of transportation, but we keep a single, small, fuel efficient motor vehicle in the garage for those times when we need it. “Those times” might include transporting a carload of teenagers to a concert or ball game, rushing to the next county to help out an elderly parent in a pinch, or on the rare occasion, hauling something extremely heavy back from the hardware store.

“On the rare occasion” is the operative phrase for us. The fact that we so rarely have the need to move large, heavy objects makes me wonder whether a person should purchase a bike for those rare occasions, or if they should choose a bike based upon their typical daily loads. Certainly, if a person has the regular need and they don’t mind a larger, heavier bike designed for carrying large loads, then a dedicated cargo bike is the clear choice. But, for those like us who rarely need to carry more than 75 lbs., and who also enjoy the ride quality of more lightly built bikes, a more conventional frame and component mix along the lines of what is appropriate for touring might be in order.

A conventional touring or commuting bike with quality racks can carry at least 100 lbs. For example, the popular Tubus Cargo rack is rated for 90 lbs., and the Tubus Duo lowrider front rack is rated for 33 lbs. Substituting a high-quality porteur rack like the Pass & Stow for a lowrider on the front can increase the capacity of a conventional bike to over 150 lbs. — easily double my typical load.

There’s no right or wrong here, but it’s worth pointing out that a full-fledged cargo bike capable of carrying hundreds of pounds is not an absolute necessity for a car-lite or car-free lifestyle. In some circumstances it may be the perfect tool for the job, but in others, a conventional bike outfitted with a pair of quality racks will get the job done well enough.

26 Responses to “Max Capacity”

  • Tali says:

    I’m car free, but can’t imagine needing more capacity than two panniers. After all, for the rare medium sized load there are taxis, and for the really big stuff, many retailers will home deliver (in the UK anyway).

    To justify the extra cost of a delivery type bike, or something like the Big Dummy, I’d feel like I’d need to be using its capacity quite regularly. I ride a bike that is good enough for 99% of bikeable journeys (in turms of distance). Investing for that 1% doesn’t make sense, and this is something that car owners could better understand too.

  • BB says:

    With the LHT if the panniers aren’t enough a 2 wheel trailer (croozer) covers everything else I’ve ever needed. The trailer is a fraction of the cost of a cargo bike.

  • Ralph Aichinger says:

    Stupid question: What brand is that cargo net in the picture with the red plastic hooks? Seems so much nicer than mine with paint-scratching metal hooks.

  • voyage says:

    We restored a Joesler using a cell phone and craigslist. Same with the house we actually live in. In both cases the hauling was done using Home Depot rental truck, friends’ trucks and the trucks of unemployed/underemployed construction workers (for some reason these people feel the need to buy the biggest baddest trucks when times are good, trucks that go begging when the bubble bursts). No cargo bikes were used and the nearest Home Depot is within walking distance for the many little things and the many screw-ups. The only cars we own are a Ford Explorer (once a month my wife has car pool duty using it and it’s also a quarterly stock-up grocery getter; the children are quite young) and a couple of restored BMWs. Plenty of bikes, but no cargo bikes. Did we misbehave?
    I think what falls out of this is that if cargo bikes are economically viable, then there would be such services offered by enterprising local business persons. But they are up against unemployed pick up trucks. It’s interesting.
    Links that might interest you:
    “Hauling It”



  • Alan says:


    “What brand is that cargo net in the picture with the red plastic hooks?”

    Here you go:

  • Doug says:

    The reason I built up my Xtracycle three years ago is because I had tried to haul things on my traditional bicycles. But it wasn’t the best solution in my opinion. When I get a load above 40-45 lbs, I prefer my Xtracycle for the task. The fact that it carries the load much lower to the ground makes heavy loads much more manageable….and safer. Take into consideration that live in an urban area that is hilly with very poor roads. Lots of bumps and holes. I feel much safer hauling big loads on the Xtracycle than on my Long Haul Trucker or Cross Check. Granted the LHT can carry some decent weight, I still prefer the Xtracycle when I’m carrying 4 full bags of groceries.

  • Sharper says:

    I’ve owned small Japanese pickups since I first got my license specifically because of their cargo capacity. I figured that among my friends, one of us should have a reliable too-big-for-the-trunk vehicle, and I think I’ve helped more people move than I’ve put miles on my cars.

    That said, I can’t imagine what I’d need a dedicated cargo bike for. Groceries for my girlfriend, great dane, and I, are easily taken care of with, at most, two panniers and a milk crate. We don’t really buy furniture or appliances (and those would be trailer jobs anyway), and our version of “car lite” is probably going to be keeping my pickup to make trips with dog + bikes + other stuff easier.

  • DerrickP says:

    Great thoughts, Alan. I have a friend who really questioned my need for an Xtracycle. “Isn’t that for people who don’t have cars and need to carry furniture and stuff?” Well, yes. It can do that. But we have three kids under the age of five. And the Xtra is the perfect tool (at the price point) to do that. I agree, though. I got 90% of the same stuff done on my Cross Check with front and rear rack before I had the cargo bike… with cargo, not kids. The kid factor is why we have a cargo bike. And we are glad we do.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    Part of the benefit of a cargo bike is the volume of stuff it can haul. The other part is the weight of stuff it can haul. I weigh 300 pounds. Unless I want to void the warranty on the bike, I’d better buy a cargo bike. Of course, there’s not much weight capacity left for cargo.

    I have been known to use a 2-wheel trailer for Costco runs and such.

  • kaniska new england says:

    the rare, intermittent need sounds like a zipcar style cargo bike system would be ideal.

  • Pete says:

    you beat me to it! Just like a lot of people only occasionally need a car, a lot of cyclists only rarely need a serious cargo bike or trailer. A rental scenario is perfect for that. If your table saw or load of plywood is totally un-bikable then rent a truck.
    To answer Alan’s question, I’d say max capacity is the abilty to haul what you need 95% of the

  • Pete says:

    You know, now that i think of it, the whole car problem is the issue of the 1% solution. The Chevy Surburban, Ford F350 crew cab, and Corvette ZR1 all are purchased for the 1% of the time they can utilize their designed capacity. The rest of the time they are just wasteful.
    Even though an under utillizef Extracyle or Mundo is order of magnitudes less wasteful than s car, if it’s my effort that’s being wasted then I care a whole lot!

  • prinzrob says:

    I’m sure it is not the case for most areas, but here in the SF bay area many of the bike coalitions have trailers or cargo bikes that are available for members to borrow or rent. I haven’t used the service yet but I think it is a great idea, and one that every local bike advocacy group with a paying membership should consider.

    I don’t personally have a need for a cargo bike, and prefer to own bicycles that can be downscaled as necessary which is not possible with such a specialized frame. My set-up changes depending on how much I’m carrying, but it typically goes: large messenger bag for small hauls, rear rack and panniers for medium hauls, and heavy duty trailer for large hauls. In each of these cases, however, when I get the stuff home I just detach the rack or trailer from the bike and I’m ready for business as usual without the extra weight. About one or two times a year I will need to carry something my trailer can’t handle (400+ pounds) and in those cases I just rent or borrow a truck for the day.

    If I had a kid 5+ years old I can see how an Xtracycle might come in handy for pick ups and drop offs, as opposed to a trailer or tandem, but for cargo it doesn’t seem like the ideal solution.

  • Mike says:

    I just bought a bakfiets (Workcycles Cargobike). I have two small children to transport, and the goal of getting rid of the car. Oh, and I’m in Winnipeg, where the winter is long and very cold. I’ve been using a Chariot trailer, but it is not sufficiently waterproof (from the underside). I need a way to shield the kids from the wind and rain, and at ages three and one, their clothing alone can’t do the job. There aren’t any commercial canopies for keeping passengers warm and dry on an Xtracycle.

    Hauling modest amount of stuff with “standard” bicycles isn’t really very difficult. If you need to carry small passengers — especially if they’re numerous and in cold weather — a cargo bike of some sort is really a different class of vehicle.

  • Roland Smith says:

    Since I do rack up more milage on my bike than in my car (I commute by bike), I consider myself car-lite.

    Typically I carry only one bag on my recumbent bike. A Radical Design large rack bag. Every couple of days I drive by the supermarket on the way home from work for groceries. This bag’s 30 L (8 gallon) capacity is usually ample for my needs.

    The rack on my ‘bent can hold 55 lb, so weight is rarely a problem. If I take the car, it more often than not has to do with the size or shape of the load. E.g. a couple of months ago I had to bring a 4 by 7 foot matrass to the recycling point in town. There was no way I was going to carry that on my bike. I had enough troublefolding it and shoving it in my (smallish) car!

  • jnyyz says:

    I’m with DerrickP. If you have young kids, a longtail like an Xtracycle makes an ideal kid hauler. It feels much safer carting the kids around than with a trailer (which the kids have outgrown anyway), or herding them along on their own bikes.

    Also, the fact that it can carry two kids and six bags of groceries means that I can do a large shop once a week to cover most of the basics, just as I would with a car.

  • Cassi says:

    My own biggest obstacle in choosing my “car-alternative” was the ability to haul groceries for our family (which includes several teen-age boys with voracious appetites). I finally decided to do a LHT Xtracycle conversion and never looked back. After 3 years, I haven’t found a load I couldn’t carry – from Christmast trees to broken vaccum cleaners. And yes, groceries. And when I’m not hauling, it rides beautifully as “just a bike”.

    Although I own a set of panniers for another bike of mine, I find it’s much easier to carry everyday items (handbag, laptop, camera equipment or whatever) in the Xtracycle “slings” – easy to acces, and I never have to worry about removing them when I head inside (office, store, etc).

    All this said – I still lust after a Civia Loring … it’s just so incredibly beautiful! :)

  • Dwainedibbly says:

    Anything bigger than a standard 2-wheeler isn’t going to fit in a lot of elevators, so for someone living in an urban environment there may not be many options. A “ZipBike” solution is a great idea. OTOH, if you have a place to park it, having multiple bikes sounds like a good idea. I’m guessing that most people have >1 bike as it is. Ride something lighter & better handling for your work-week commute, then get out the bakfeits or Big Dummy for those weekend hunter/gatherer excursions.

    If you consider having more than one bicycle to be wasteful (and I won’t argue that it isn’t) then a trailer makes a lot of sense and might work for an apartment dweller.

  • Dweendaddy says:

    When I lived in China I always saw friends riding on the rack of their friends’ bikes. I know this happens in the Netherlands all the time, too. Are these racks much stronger than ours, or are the weight limits of these racks sold in the US super conservative?

  • Alan says:


    From what I understand, most racks sold in the U.S. are under-rated for the sake of liability.

  • solatic says:

    If you hang around college campuses in the US on Saturdays in the Fall you’ll understand exactly why many Americans buy larger vehicles – tailgating. Of course, this only applies some 6 days out of the year, assuming such a fan only tailgates home games, but that’s…. about 1.6%, not 1%, of the year… hehe.

    What I guess I’m trying to get to is that there’s a ton of uses for pick up trucks etc. that most of us won’t even think of. Yes, we should try to promote cycling for day-to-day commutes and usage. But if someone decides to drop $5,000 on a pick up truck so that they aren’t spending $200 a day * 6 days a year = $1,200 = make up the cash difference in 5 years which makes a ton of sense for life-long football fans. If they keep it in the garage until game day (although I understand that it doesn’t work like that in the real world), why not?

  • Pete says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that nobody ever has the need to own a large vehicle. If your job or recreational needs make a pickup worthwhile, that’s fine. It’s just that a lot of times this isn’t the case.
    I was thinking that for some people who need it, owning a cargo bike makes sense. For others, it might not make sense to own one, and renting one would be ideal.

  • CedarWood says:

    If you live in town, a cargo bike might be optional, but I live in rural farm country. So when I need to haul toolboxes, jumper cables, auto batteries, 5 gal. gas cans and so on, the heavier frame lowers the center of gravity enough to help balance the heavy load. It just feels more stable and the wide tires provide better control on rough ground.

    In this area, having a cargo frame with enough clearance for wide, studded tires, and equipped with internal gears and brakes, provides hauling capacity in snowy/icy conditions when a lighter frame with trailer might be unsafe.

  • Doug says:


    “and renting one would be ideal”

    Being able to rent one is a nice thought. However, how many cities do you know of where you can rent a cargo bike? Certainly not mine. I don’t expect that to happen unless I start my own rent-a-cargo-bike business.

    It took me two years to come up with the justification to build up a cargo bike. Now that I have it, I can’t imagine what I did without it. Trying to carry things on a traditional bicycle doesn’t even compare. Plus my Xtracycle rides like a regualr bike when it’s not loaded.

  • Pete says:

    I was speculating about an ideal world, not describing the one we have!:-)
    Actually, bike share is becoming more common in large cities, so I don’t see why there couldn’t be some cargo bikes in the mix. It’s especially hard for many people in cities to store even one bike, let alone a 50 lb, 7 foot long bike. Might work great there.
    Of course, if you have the ability to store multiple bikes, and are committed to being as car free as possible, having a cargo bike in the “stable” makes perfect sense.

  • Adrian says:

    I definitely fall into the “rare occasion” category described in the main post, excepting the frequent weekend rides with a kid on my longtail’s deck. I’m “car-lite” as well and most of the time my bike lives life as a commuter.

    However, besides the appeal of being able to carry any load anytime, the main reason it’s my primary ride is that the ride characteristics are my favorite of any bike I’ve ever owned. I think the wheelbase combined with the rake of the fork and the lowness of the loads make for a nice relaxed, stable, mellow ride. Taking a long, balletic curve at speed on my Big Dummy is just one of the most sublime experiences. Nimble, light and fast it’s not, but that’s not what I’m looking for. Think “full ahead trundle” rather than “full tilt boogie”. ;)

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