Sunday, July 22, 2018

Seeking Cargo Bike Cultures: Rio and Beyond

When I flew to Rio de Janeiro in June to attend the Velo-city conference I looked forward to reconnecting with my bicycle advocacy colleagues from all over the world. What I didn’t expect was my discovery of a bike culture so deep and proud as Rio’s cargo bike riders and craftspeople.

Within my first steps along a Rio street I encountered a cargo bike. It was draped with gadgets for tourists, but my gaze landed on the springs under the front cargo box that looked just like the coil springs from a car. Not far away in an open, car-free square I saw another cargo bike. That one had leaf springs, also from a car.

As I walked through the square I checked the frames and fittings of every cargo bike I encountered. From the springs to the dropouts to the gearing to the cargo boxes, every one of these bikes was unique, built, or at least repaired, locally! And every one of the riders sat proud upon their steads. In my first hour in Rio I had encountered the tip of an extraordinary bike culture.

Since returning to Arizona, I’ve tried to find anything in writing or video about Rio’s cargo bike culture. The helpful advocates at Transporte Ativo sent me some papers like this one that demonstrate the benefits of their city’s cargo bikes. You can also find some of these numbers posted on the Velo-city Rio site. Research and papers like these are extremely important for influencing government policies to enable cargo bikes to function well in a city. Such studies have clearly helped to increase cargo bikes in Europe. Find many of the studies here.

What I can’t seem to find is anything from the perspectives of Rio’s cargo bike craftspeople and riders. There is a quiet culture there of making, caring for, and riding these vehicles. With that sort of care follows a desire to be part of the culture, including to ride the bikes and incorporate the bikes into businesses. That’s a support system that no government policy or funding can cause.

My personal experience with such a culture was as a bike messenger in San Francisco in the 1980s. That’s where delivery by bicycle was born in the U.S. And the 1980s were the heyday of bike messengers right before the fax machine and then personal computers hit. I rode the peak of the wave and will be forever grateful.

Last month, as I walked and bicycled amidst Rio’s cargo bikes, was my first encounter of that level of bike culture since my messenger days. I know there are other proud pockets of working cyclists and craftspeople around the world, too. Perhaps Europe’s cargo cyclists have it, though their fancy bikes and mega companies cause a bit of doubt. I suspect Cuba could be another enclave, after discovering this story, which I posted about a few years ago.

Pedicabs and cycle rickshaws seem to create their own proud cultures in some parts of the world. One example is Rickshaw Bank in India. This video gives a good overview. I hope that Rickshaw Bank is inspiring similar social enterprises in other parts of the world.

Think of your own experiences with working cyclists. Have you ever had a package delivered by someone riding a bike? Have you seen mail carriers delivering by bike? Have you watched from an airplane window as airport workers pedal heavy bikes under wings and across an ocean of tarmac? Have you encountered entrepreneurs perched on sidewalks peddling goods or pedaling bicycle machines that sharpen knives, grind corn, or mix drinks?

Strong cultures of working cyclists are very dear to me because I was part of one. But they should be dear to all of us because they are the support systems that enable these cyclists and craftspeople to thrive even in places where motorized transport still dominates. They are silently shifting transport from noisy, polluting, and dangerous trucks to quiet vehicles ridden by people who take pride in their self-propelled occupations.

Quiet is the unfortunate term here. I can’t find anything on Rio’s cargo bike craftspeople or riders. For that matter, besides some edgy books and movies about bike messengers and a few video interviews with rickshaw drivers at Rickshaw Bank, I’ve found next to nothing from the human side of working cyclists.

Do you know of any? If so, please email them to me at sue{at} If I can pull together several more resources, I’ll use them in a follow-up post and, who knows, perhaps something even bigger.