Parents rediscover 'bakfiets' for toddler transport

Sunday, August 20, 2006

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Jennifer van den Broeke tried toting her son and daughter around Amsterdam on her old bike with two child seats, but the weight buckled the wheels and the stand snapped. That was when she decided to join the growing Dutch army of pedaling parents using so-called transport bikes.

Now Van den Broeke's 18-month-old son Jasper and 3-1/2-year-old daughter Benthe can clamber into the sturdy wooden box of her new transport bike so she can ride them around town.

"With the kids and the shopping bags and everything, this is just easier," said Van den Broeke, a 30-year-old student at Amsterdam University. "It's a very robust bike."

The transport bike -- called a bakfiets (pronounced backfeets) in Dutch -- is making a comeback decades after butchers, bakers -- maybe even the odd candlestick maker -- first began using them to carry their wares around the narrow streets of this nation's towns and cities.

The bikes, sporting two or three wheels, have a sturdy wooden or plastic box on the front or between the front and back wheels, and are often kitted out with a rain cover, seats and even seat belts for pint-sized passengers.

Nowadays cars and vans clog city streets, making progress slow and parking a nightmare. Regular bikes have remained popular, but for parents with a couple of children, the car was often the only option.

Not anymore.

Maarten van Andel, 46, started making cargo bikes in 2001 when he was looking for a cheap way to transport his two children around Amsterdam.

"It's a timesaving device," he said. "It's a lot quicker to get around town with your kids in a bakfiets than in a car."

These days it's also a fast-growing trend fueled by glossy magazines showing celebrities and even members of the Dutch royal family riding them. The extensive Dutch network of cycle tracks also helps -- keeping bikes and cars safely separated.

The resurgence may stem from the use of the clunky, heavy, original transport bikes by left-wing Amsterdam residents and squatters.

"People started turning up on them at organic markets and people would say: 'That's sweet, even if it is being ridden by hippies,"' said Henry Cutler, who runs an Amsterdam cycle store that specializes in transport bikes.

In the past, Dutch parents like Van den Broeke have attached a small seat to their front handlebars and another over their bike's back wheel. But the new generations of transport bikes are much more stable and easier to get children onto and off, says Van Andel. His best-selling Cargobike model -- a two-wheeler that can carry up to 80 kilograms (175 pounds) -- sells for around euro1,400, or about $1,780 .

Cutler estimates there are 5,000-10,000 floating around Amsterdam, and they are gaining popularity in Denmark too.

"It is a growing market because many families with small children want to try it because they believe it is a better and easier way to get around in the cities and leave the car at home," said Erik Oddershede, the manager of the Danish national bicycle shop organization, Danske Cykelhandlere.

Now the question is, can the bakfiets break into overseas markets?

Cutler, 39, an American who remembers riding around Brooklyn on the back of his mom's bike, says that while it's growing fast the market is still small even in Europe and almost nonexistent in many other parts of the world. His is one of the few stores that exports transport bikes.

But overseas sales are expected to pick up in coming years as more people turn to bicycles as a way of beating skyrocketing fuel prices and congestion taxes slapped on motorists by cities such as London.

In the United States, "In places like Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Portland, Oregon, we're starting to see them show up," Cutler says.

Cutler sometimes sounds like he's selling not just bikes, but a way of life.

"We are trying to promote products that change people's perspective about living. Bikes are not fast, but does life have to be fast?" he says.

For Van den Broeke there's also a feel-good factor.

"People always smile at us," she said. "Every time we ride it people smile and tourists take lots of photos."

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