Cairgo Bike
The Cairgo Bike project is designed to boost measures being applied by the Brussels Capital Region to structurally improve air quality in the city. It targets reduction of transport related emissions by mainstreaming uptake of cargo bikes as a real and clean alternative to replace use of private cars and Light Goods Vehicles (LGVs). This article focusses on describing some early results, concrete actions already operating to help deliver Cairgo Bike project objectives.

Training, Testing and Trial

The project offers an opportunity to introduce the cargo bike as a realistic and emission free urban transport option for a wide target group - from private citizens to even large professional companies. This involves organisation of information, testing and training sessions: to familiarise people with types of cargo bike; to explore potential utility in terms of their day to day transport needs; to provide guidance on how to ride and use (technique and safety) these alternative “vehicle” solutions. Interested individuals or businesses can then register to take a cargo bike away for a trial period of two to three weeks. This activity is a very tangible and visible element of the project but is not carried out in isolation, it is a product of communication, it connects with awareness raising and conversion - moving people away from the use of fossil-fuelled vehicles to  active transportation. It is linked to the possibility of grant subsidy for SMEs offered by Brussels Capital Region, it opens the door to facilitate take up of sharing (loan or share of trailers, cargo bikes through other actors in the Cairgo Bike partnership). Finally it is not a completely free ride because candidates are asked/required to log their experiences and some to wear an aethalometer to monitor black carbon levels encountered during their day to day activity.

As Covid restrictions eased during the summer of 2021, the actions planned to implement a programme of test and training sessions finally reached previewed cruising speed. Test/trial and training involves a two pronged but collaborative approach: 1. mobilising citizens, households, families. 2. targeting economic opportunities - self-employed, contractors, trades-men and women, small businesses, service providers but also service segments of large corporations and public authorities (i.e. municipal services). The organisations Pro Velo and Urbike take responsibility for this coaching and mobilisation component of the project. It’s a crucial aspect in terms of lowering thresholds and breaking down perceived barriers in respect of the transfer to cargo bike.

As a non-profit making, campaign group set up in 1992, Pro Velo has been championing the interests of cyclists and cycling in Brussels almost since the establishment of the Brussels Capital Region (1989). Despite early and important authority effort to create a Regional Cycle Network, such activism was essential to help build a cycling community within a city mobility pattern dominated by intense vehicle flows, perceived as unsafe for vulnerable road users and with little infrastructure provision (and consequently at that time very few cyclists). Today the organisation offers: support to company mobility plans and local authority services; training (i.e. “cycling in traffic” courses, cycle mechanics, coaching in schools); study services (i.e. Annual Cycling Observatory Report for the BCR), and; organisation and facilitation of promotional events; services for sale, exchange, rental and repair of bicycles (including cargo bikes). Currently the group has a staff of 93 and is now also active in a number of Belgian cities (Antwerp, Liège, Namur…).

Learning for the school run

Urbike is a relatively recent social enterprise start-up, a cooperative that has grown out of the BCklet project which ran from 2018-2020. The mission statement to progressively replace van and light goods vehicle transport by cargo bike transportation, is a perfect fit for the aspirations of Cairgo Bike. Principally Urbike offers delivery services by cargo bike (and trailer) for private and professional clients (in this a single trip can deliver up to 280kg, equivalent of 1-2m³ - also temperature controlled where required). In parallel however the 11 full time staff (6 delivery rider employees) offer 3 additional and complementary services: providing advice and support for businesses and firms wishing to transform their logistic and service operations; delivering training and coaching programmes for new take-ups; renting, sale and maintenance of cargo bike material.

Urbike delivery core business

In Cairgo Bike, Pro Velo takes charge of the citizen target group. Training sessions for individuals and households are organised across, and with support, of the 19 municipalities, ultimately providing cargo bikes for free home trial periods. Urbike focusses on bringing potential professional users up to speed, - informing and coaching one person businesses, SMEs, sections of larger companies or local authorities interested in exploring cargo bike potential for certain operations. There is though crossover, and considerable exchange and interaction between both partners, with for example Pro Velo providing “cycling in traffic” guidance for Urbike “clients”.    

So why is testing and training such an important keystone of the project? The simplest answer of course is encapsulated in the expression used by Mark Twain (mid-19th century US timber industry) “as easy as rolling off a log” and adapted more commonly now to “as easy as falling off a bike”. It is indeed easy to fall off a bike especially, but not only, when uninitiated. Falling off a cargo bike transporting goods or children in traffic, can though have far-reaching consequences. On the other hand another frequently used English expression reminds us of the advantage of taking some time to master the art “It’s just like riding a bike” implying that something once learned is never forgotten.

Personally I have some experience. This is my cargo bike - no gears, braking by pedalling backwards, no handlebar… It runs well, but with a load on, turning circles, braking and uphill trips present some interesting challenges. Many years ago, I took quite some time practising in a yard, without loading and then with addition of weight, before venturing out onto the road.

Been there, done that

Comparison between my bike and today’s models is not however very instructive. Now the different types of cargo bike and trailer (also in combination), the advanced technology (including e-support) require an adapted skill set even for those who cycle frequently. Road and rider safety and adopting efficient techniques undoubtedly benefit from the chance to familiarise and practise both in a safe non-conflictual context and then with accompaniment in on-road initiation.

Equally, and both for private and professional users, testing and training sessions allow candidates to try out different vehicle options, which type is most adapted to a particular business activity, with which form do you feel most comfortable transporting two or three children, for example.

So armed with the popular words of wisdom, an invitation from Pro Velo and Urbike, and the knowledge that other EU cities like Bremen and Stockholm have successfully organised such programmes I set out to see what it was all about.

With a little delay caused by the rain, I was able to closely follow the training session of three candidates for a cargo bike trial. A meeting room explanation of the aims of the initiative, the programme for the day and the offer of test and trial. The participants were enthusiastic, a little apprehensive perhaps but openly committed: one who made his own fresh fruit flavour ice cream who wanted a cargo bike which could accommodate his high tech freezer so that he could go and sell at weekly markets and events; a young woman who with her partner had started production of soja and tofu products here in Belgium and wanted a bike to market and distribute to small greengrocers and markets in the city, and; a guy who serviced air bnbs, check out, cleaning and maintenance, supplies, check in.

Which one to choose?


So then out into the car park with an Urbike instructor, to get to know the bikes and collect practical tricks and tips. The morning moved from manoeuvring the bike on foot - simple things like body position to park the bike on its stand, negotiating a kerb (these without weight and then with weight), battery charging and use of electric support control -  to cycling, first without load and then with load – speed control, turns and turning circles, braking and emergency braking… All three were used to cycling in the city and from an initial unease, even clumsiness, they were soon whizzing round the car park, testing different formations two wheel “Long John”, Tricycle, Trailer. Lunch arrived with broad smiles and confidence, “I can do this”, to prepare them for an afternoon on-road session, final paperwork and acquisition of a preferred cargo bike for the agreed trial period.


All loaded up

I arrived in the park of the Abbey of Forest at 4.40. As minutes passed there didn’t seem to be any activity or potential cargo bike users, just a quiet green space, a few people strolling, walking the baby, sitting on a bench. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake about the appointment even the location. Then five minutes before 5 o’clock suddenly everything changed, like a flash mob, cargo bikes seemed to appear from every entrance of the park, couples and singles gathered from nowhere drawn to the set-up of an array of bikes and the Pro Velo team. As with Urbike the session began with open air explanations, familiarisation, informal exchange.

Taking the plunge


Here again most, but not all, were experienced cyclists, though not necessarily happy or comfortable with the Brussels traffic and infrastructure conditions. But this was a different group whose motivation was primarily for transport of children, the school run, after school activities, short journeys and shopping – the demanding topography of the municipality was a point of animated discussion. The preference here was for a two wheel “Long Tail” or trailer solution, and mums and dads were quickly on the bikes, few with inhibitions. So a quick two hours later, the whole assembly was ready to face an accompanied in-traffic session, and take their chosen option home. Just as quickly as the whole cavalcade had appeared, all at once they were gone, and the park returned to its normal more sedate use pattern.

Then off into the traffic

Urbike has produced four very instructive feedback reports on trial periods organised for services of 2 municipalities (Ixelles: Culture Department, Building cleaning service, and; Jette: Public cleansing Dept., Parks and Gardens) and two large companies (VRT, the Flemish radio and television station and Proximus, the state supported telecommunication company). They provide a clear picture that behaviour change and transfer to cargo bikes is not a done deal. For certain tasks trialists found the cargo bike ideal. For others it didn’t work for them. Some users stated that they felt better with the cargo bike than with a car, they had more freedom to plan and fill in their day’s work, they felt safe in traffic. Others, perhaps not accustomed to cycling in a city environment, found the riding in traffic experience, stressful – it made them anxious.


"Me and the city on a cargo bike, its colmplicated - too much stress and anxiety" a cyclist not used to biking in Brussels traffic


Technicians working for Proximus said they could visit 1 to 2 more clients per day with the cargo bike, more direct routing, avoiding congestion and parking problems. Conversely for the VRT 3 person team (journalist, sound, camera – one cargo bike and 2 e-bikes) it posed real problems if a sudden incident required reporting at a distance outside the city, with quick response part of their daily routine. Rapid editing for transmission, usually done in the van was very difficult to organise and there was no opportunity for journalist preparation when travelling from one mission to another. The Municipality of Ixelles were so convinced by the Culture Department experience and enthusiasm that they placed an order for 2 cargo bikes with subsidy from Brussels Capital Region.

"In fact I felt at ease, the positive aspect of a cargo bike is that it gets noticed in traffic. Motorists are forced to acknowledge my presence, which sadly is often not the case with a normal bicycle". Employee of the Municipality of Ixelles 

While the pluses outweigh the minuses across the board this demonstrates the need to evaluate, make adaptations, tailor vehicle type, form and volume of capacity to respond to the real needs and capabilities of the users. That is therefore the object of the exercise, to understand which use patterns are immediately adapted to this specific modal shift, to explore what conditions need to be in place, available to facilitate specific activities and achieve transfer in more challenging situations (public space, infrastructure and hubs, volume and form of cargo bike storage compartments or trailers, laptop charger, review of the way services are delivered…). In this sense the work that Pro Velo and Urbike are doing is already building valuable understanding of both real potential (and exploiting low-hanging fruit) as well as obstacles to be tackled. As the project moves forward it will be interesting to make economic comparisons between “business as usual” and the operation of the cargo bike as alternative, and here the seeds for this are already sown in the feedback rounds.

"At the end of the work day, I reached the depot 15 minutes earlier than my colleague in the company van,  who actually left the site before me" Technician of the Brussels Water Company, Vivacqua

At the time of writing (November 2021) 320 people have participated in 20 test and 24 training events (theory and practice) organised by Urbike. Some 60 organisations have been guided through a cargo bike trial, including 7 large companies (including Proximus and the Brussels water agency Vivacqua).

Pro Velo activity has resulted in 130 families (so far) taking up the offer of a free two week test (half with a cargo bike and the rest with a longtail). These households were accompanied by an instructor providing theoretical training on the highway code, practical guidance on cargo bike cycling in traffic and bicycle repair and maintenance sessions from a Pro Velo mechanic. Events have already been organised in, and with the collaboration of, 8 Brussels municipalities (8 of 19). In order to meet a surplus demand for participation (more than 500 requests set against a previewed 350 available places over the 3 years of the project), an additional 15 test dates have been programmed for this winter period and over the summer holidays with the support of Brussels Mobility.

Mum on a mission 


During the sessions described here all participants were made aware of the obligation to record their experiences. Representatives of the Brussels Environment agency and the university, VUB, responsible for evaluation and monitoring, were at the Pro Velo event to explain and mobilise the candidates. Urbike organises feedback sessions with firms and businesses during the trial period. The logbooks and evaluation experience will be subject of a web article in 2022 once a sufficient critical mass of material has been gathered to report on user experience, any adjustments and draw useful conclusions.  Within the contours of the project, Urbike is in the process of finalising a draft  document “How to choose  the Cargo Bike for you” and a link will be provided in a future article. They are also developing an online "Conversion Tool" which will allow interested, familiar or uninitiated, individuals or organisations to explore cargo bike options and take them through a process of evaluating how a cargo bike could fit into their lifestyle and mobility needs.

I can do this, so can you!

About this resource

Philip STEIN, UIA Expert
Brussels Capital Region, Belgium
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

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