January 04, 2014

Why Cargo Bikes Face a Tough Market in Japan

Recently cargo bikes such as the Yuba Mundo, the Xtracycle, and Surly Big Dummy have been receiving a lot of press particularly in the US where they're billed as being the perfect family bicycle and as a replacement for the family car. Love it or hate it cargo bikes have been labelled the SUV of the cycling world. When it comes to carting about kids and groceries cargo bikes make perfect sense in cities around the United States, but in Japan I believe they will struggle to capture a market for a number of reasons, some being cultural and others being practical.

Japan is less car centric.

In cities such as Tokyo where public transport is king and private car ownership is low the population have already adapted to using the bicycle for daily transport, shopping and ferrying around one, two or sometimes even three children at a time. Japanese neighbourhoods are compact and self contained meaning all the necessities for daily life are a short cycle away. As a result the majority of people do not need a SUV replacement as they've never owned a car, and already have a perfectly good bicycle that is up to the task.

Given the low level of private car ownership there exist many cheap and sometimes even free alternatives to getting large items home delivered. Most stores will deliver items for free, the local courier services are cheap and will pick up and drop off packages at your door, and online retailers such as Amazon and Nittori all provide free delivery.

As a result of a lower dependence on automobiles and cheap delivery services I believe that most Japanese citizens may not grasp the need for a bicycle capable of transporting a refrigerator when the refrigerator can be easily and cheaply delivered.

Japan already has a family station wagon.

Japanese families have been reliant on the domestically designed mamachari bicycle for decades for transporting children, groceries and goods. Over that time the the design of the mamachari has been adapted to suit the needs of Japanese families with today's models sporting longer wheelbases, smaller wheels, a lower centre of gravity, child seats with seat belts and baskets that can be quickly converted into child seats for smaller passengers. They also feature wide stable kickstands, dynamo lights, mudguards, step through frames and convenient frame mounted locks, all small features but ones that make the mamachari exceptionally convenient. Not having to mess about with cable locks or attaching lights while struggling to control a toddler and loading groceries is a huge design feature.

Given the overall satisfaction with existing bicycle design and the expectation of certain standard features, I believe it will take considerable marketing effort to make Japanese citizens consider an alternative.

Japan's alternatives are cheaper, much cheaper.

A mamachari bicycle with a basket and child seat, capable of transporting two children or one child and a pile of groceries can be purchased in Japan for less than one third of the price of a cargo bike. That means enough money left over to buy your children bicycles once they're old enough to ride by themselves.

An electric assist mamachari, which gives a welcome boost to your pedalling power, handy when you're pedalling about kids and their luggage, can still be purchased for half the price of a cargo bike, although the "deluxe" models are comparable in price.

When it comes to carrying children and luggage electric assist bicycles have been booming in Japan as Japanese families consider them safer to wobbling about on an overladen, under powered bicycle. Increases in the popularity of electric assist bikes has increased competition in the market and as a result prices have dropped drastically. I believe cargo bikes are perceived as overpriced and they will have a hard time competing against cheaper electric assist mamachari.

The Mamachari has just enough carrying capacity.

Surely a single front basket isn't enough carrying capacity compared to cargo bikes, right? Wrong, and here's why; Japanese homes have traditionally been quite small, many lacking a pantry, large refrigerators and freezers which means that families in Japan make more trips to the supermarket than their overseas counterparts. Due to the lack of space to store food in the average Japanese home, and the close proximity of supermarkets to residences, many families visit the supermarket almost daily purchasing only what they need for the next day or two. One upside to this being food is always fresh and rarely frozen.

Given this lifestyle, the basket of a mamachari provides just enough space to carry the average families grocery haul as they buy less groceries, but buy them more often.

Carrying cargo on the mamachari is convenient.

A standard cargo bike has a large rear rack, but that is not sufficient to transport even a single bag of groceries. How do you secure it on that flat surface that has no walls? Of course the solution is to strap bags (usually expensive optional extras) to the rack for carrying shopping.

Not everyone in Japan enjoys the convenience of a garage, and bicycles are often left parked in the elements. This means at the end of a shopping trip the bags must be removed from the rack and taken inside lest they fill with rainwater, or turn mouldy in Japan's humid summers. Having to constantly attach and remove bags, along with (possibly) having to attach and remove lights, and fiddle with wire locks, makes using a cargo bike much more inconvenient that  a mamachari.

With the mamachari's basket, dynamo lights and frame locks going to the supermarket is as easy as putting the key in the lock and getting underway.

I commute on a mountain bike with a rack and choose to use a side mounted basket because attaching and removing panniers is an inconvenience I can do without.

While the cargo bike has unprecedented cargo carrying space, in it's off the shelf configuration it is essentially useless for daily usage in Japan without the addition of optional extras, themselves inconvenient compared to the mamachari alternative.

Cargo bikes, well they're big.

Even newer model mamachari with their longer wheelbases are not a great deal different in size than a standard bicycle making them easy to park.

Cargo bikes, on the other hand, may be more difficult to park in Japan's tight spaces. On the sidewalk their tails will obstruct pedestrians, in crowded unstructured parking areas their size will cause hassles and they will be difficult to manoeuvre, and a cargo bike may simply not fit in some of Japans more creative or high tech parking solutions.

You'd think that in a country that transports so many children by bicycle every day would have warmed to the concept of the child trailer, but its sheer size, making it inappropriate for narrow Japanese roads, sidewalks, and cramped parking conditions and the aforementioned problem of outdoor parking means it never took off in Japan. While a cargo bike is not nearly as large or inconvenient as a bicycle trailer, it must be remembered that bicycle facilities in Japan have been designed with bikes of certain dimensions in mind and being outside those dimensions may cause inconvenience.

Similar to the difficulties large foreigners have finding clothing in Japan, or the fact that they're constantly banging their heads on low door frames, an over sized bicycle will experience similar inconveniences around Japan.

Carrying adult passengers is illegal in Japan.

One of the great attractions of the cargo bike is romantic bicycle dates during which you ferry your partner, and picnic supplies, around on the back of your bicycle. Unfortunately "futari-nori", or carrying an adult passenger on a bicycle is illegal in Japan (Luckily picnics are not) and thus one of the more attractive features of the cargo bike is lost.

I love cargo bikes.

Don't get me wrong, I love cargo bikes. I would love to own one, I would have loved to own one when my daughters were younger so I could have carried them, their lunch, and all the sports equipment we own to the park for a picnic and afternoon of games. Even now they're growing up I still see an advantage in being able to carry EVERYTHING when we go out. I would carry insanely large loads on the back of my cargo bike, but I'm not representative of the majority of the Japanese cycling public who want nothing more than a bicycle that is capable of cheaply, safely and conveniently transporting themselves, their children and luggage around the local neighbourhood.

While I love cargo bikes I believe the Japanese public are entirely satisfied with both the price and practicality of the bicycles currently on offer and see very little need for a bicycle with the kind of carrying capacity cargo bikes provide.

Of course there will always be an enthusiast market, but I can't imagine cargo bikes earning a larger market share in Japan unless they borrow some ideas from the millions of mamachari bicycles currently in use in Japan today.

This article features photography by James Szypula of Yokohama Rides and Rentals. James is the proud owner of a Yuba Mundo and has provided some insights into cargo bike ownership in Japan which I will publish in a future article.

For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.


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