Entrepreneurs are discovering markets for the iconic Danish cargo bikes in the US and UK, though their cost and eccentricity factor are hard to overcome
Cities across the world are looking to Copenhagen for inspiration on how to get their inhabitants out of cars and onto bikes – so much so that a new term has been coined for the trend, ‘Copenhagenisation’.
But even in cities that actively encourage cycling, the prevalence of self-powered transport is still mostly limited to the conventional two-wheeled variety. Cargo bikes, such as the Christiania, Trio or Nihola, are still a rarity outside Copenhagen despite offering a practical and relatively cheap alternative to a car for transporting people and cargo.
One American entrepreneur hopes to change that, however. Through his distribution company Boxcycles, Will Kearins has been selling the iconic Christiania bicycles in the United States for a year now, where they can be found in about 20 specialist bike stores across the country.
Like many foreigners in Denmark, Kearins moved to Copenhagen after meeting a Danish woman, who is now his wife. But after selling everything and moving over in 2007, he found it difficult to find work.
With plenty of time on his hands, Kearins was able to wander the streets and soak in the bicycle culture – which is when he noticed the cargo bicycles.
“I was intrigued by the bikes. It’s such a great idea and we had not seen anything like it in the US,” he told The Copenhagen Post.
After taking a course in entrepreneurship at CBS, his initial plan was to design his own bike to manufacture for the American market. The high costs involved forced him to change tack, however, and he instead drew up a business plan to export Christiania bikes to the Unites States.
“I liked the Christiania bikes the best because they have this cool edge to them and they weren’t being imported to the US at the time,” he said, explaining why he targeted the most iconic, and expensive, cargo bike manufacturer.
The company took a bit of convincing, but after Kearins demonstrated that he was as interested in exporting the whole culture of cargo bikes and was not just in it to earn a quick buck, Christiania Bikes relented and let Kearins send over some test bikes to the US.
“I quickly realised there was more pent-up demand for them than I had thought,” Kearins said. “I didn’t think people knew about them but there were a lot of people who had been to Copenhagen and had seen them.”
With over 100 sold in the first year and double that expected for the second, the business has found the majority of its customers in cities with established bicycle cultures, such as Portland in Oregon, New York and coastal towns in California.
But while the bikes, which retail for approximately 14,000 kroner in Denmark and about $2,700 in the US, are slowly finding a following, convincing people to pay the same cost as a small car for a tricycle with a wooden box attached to the front is still proving a difficult task.
“What’s interesting is that in Copenhagen everybody has them from rich to poor and I am trying to relay that – because people often look at the price-tag and think they can’t afford it,” he said.
And even if he manages to convince his customers that it is a sound economic investment – that the low running costs easily pays dividends when compared to the cost of petrol and maintenance of a second car – there is still work to be done convincing some people that Christiania Bikes are practical and not an expensive gimmick.
“It’s still seen as side-show in the US. People seem to like it but they don’t see it as a viable option. But the task is to transfer the Copenhagen model to the US not just the bike. I want them to look at Copenhagen and say: ‘It’s great, people use them all the time.’ It’s not just a toy or contraption. People still say ‘What’s that?’ when you ride past them on the street. We need to get beyond that novelty,” he explained.
“That’s going to be the key to its success. You can go on about the specifications but people want to see it in practice so we use social media showing pictures from Copenhagen to show them in their setting.”
To Kearins, owning a cargo bike is a lifestyle choice that offers a raft of health and environmental benefits as a result of being active and not consuming petrol, but whose primary selling point is the freedom of movement and mobility that cars once offered before congestion became the norm.
“I had that helpless feeling out in the traffic. That’s why the bikes are so great, having the opportunity to be outdoors,” he enthused. “For me it’s the fun factor that I like the most about it. The health and environmental effects are just side benefits.”
Cargo bicycles have also found a market in the United Kingdom where the same marketing problems face Carolyn and Martin Roberts who run ‘Kids and Family Cycles’. Their online business based in Devon is the sole UK distributor of the Bella cargo bikes that are similar in style to the Christiania.
“I was looking for some way of not using the car and transporting children to and from daycare. One day I was searching on the internet and came across them. They changed my life,” Roberts told The Copenhagen Post.
Just as in the US, the bicycles are viewed with a degree of scepticism.
“I think people are quite shocked at the cost of them and people do see them as a little bit odd,” Roberts explained. “But people are beginning to understand the concept, and with the high petrol prices right now it’s a rational solution to transportation, especially as their resale value is quite high.”
With the company in its third year selling the bikes across the country, Roberts described the business as viable, while her presence on the streets of her town ferrying her children to and from school garners plenty of attention and free publicity.
“I get stopped everywhere and asked about them, and we get emails from customers saying that it’s changed their lives,” she added.
But just like Kearins, it’s the freedom of being outdoors that is the major selling point.
“I get to be outside biking through the forest home with the kids, which is a route I could never take in a car.”
Entrepreneurs like Kearins and Roberts have identified cargo bicycles as a transport solution that is practical, fun, healthy and environmentally conscious. The question still remains, however, whether car culture has too much of a grip on the US and the UK for people to take the plunge and invest in something as eccentric as an adult-sized tricycle. Should they be successful, however, it will only reinforce Copenhagen as a leader in intelligent design and transport solutions – something we in Copenhagen already know too well.
Originally published in the Copenhagen Post.