Side-by-Side Buyer's Guide: Front Loaders vs. Longtails
In this side-by-side buyer’s guide we will be comparing front loader cargo bikes to longtail cargo bikes.
Front loader cargo bikes are those with a cargo box located in front of the rider. Passengers sit on benches inside this box. Younger children sit in bike seats installed on these benches. Cargo also goes inside the box, either at the passengers feet or on the benches. A front loader bike may also be called a bakfiets (pronounced: “bock-feets”), box bike or long john.
Longtail cargo bikes are those with the passenger area in the back, behind the rider. On a longtail cargo bike, passengers ride on top of a deck on a padded cushion while holding onto a hand rail. Younger children sit in a bike seat installed on the deck. Cargo can be stored in bags along side the deck under the passenger’s legs.
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While riders of all ages can ride as passengers on longtail cargo bikes and front loaders, longtail cargo bikes tend to be more comfortable for older passengers or those with longer legs.
MAXIMUM PASSENGER AGE – Front loader
In our research, we were able to find no hard set maximum recommended age for passengers in the front of a box bike. Maximum weight was more of an issue – for the Urban Arrow, for example, the maximum weight in the front box is 275 lbs. / 125 kg. So technically, as long as a passenger is 275 lbs. / 125 kg. or under, they can ride in the front box.
That said, it appears that the low placement of the box can make riding in the front uncomfortable for passengers’ legs as they get older. In the pictures we encountered of tweens, teens and adults riding in the front box, the placement of the passenger’s legs looked rather cramped and uncomfortable for long periods of time. While this might not matter for infrequent trips or might not bother some riders, based off of these pictures, we feel like this would not be an ideal, daily transportation option for older children and adults.
A note about minimum age: Children can safely ride from birth in a front loader with a proper seat and adapter. The minimum age that children can ride as passengers on bikes varies by state – it can be as young as “newborn in a safely secured car seat” or, in some places, “9 months old, when neck stability is strong enough to sit in a bike seat unassisted”. Front loaders excel here in that many of them have adapters that allow you to securely attach a car seat inside the box so children can ride on the bike starting at birth.
MAXIMUM PASSENGER AGE – Longtail
There is no maximum recommended age for rear passengers on a longtail cargo bike. The only limit is the rider weight + the passenger weight. For an Xtracycle longtail cargo bike, the maximum rider weight plus passenger weight is 400 lbs total.
As for comfort, riding as a rear passenger on a longtail tends to be more comfortable and feel more natural because of the higher placement of the sitting surface. The passenger’s legs naturally fall to the side and can rest on the U-tube foot rests. For passengers, this feels very similar to how one would sit if they were riding a bike.
A note about minimum age: Children must typically be 9 months or older to safely ride as a passenger on a longtail cargo bike. The minimum age that children can ride as passengers on bikes varies by state – it can be as young as “newborn in a safely secured car seat” or, in some places, “9 months old, when neck stability is strong enough to sit in a bike seat unassisted”. We are aware of no longtail cargo bike manufacturer that makes an adapter that allows a child car seat to be safely secured to the rear deck. Children must be old enough to sit in a child bike seat that is then installed on the bike. Be sure to check with your pediatrician for more information on the safest minimum age for your child to ride as a bike passenger.
Front loaders can carry 1-3 passengers; a longtail cargo bike with hand rails installed can also carry 1-3 passengers. *Please note: Some front loader manufacturers recommend no more than 3 children be carried in the front box; our numbers are based on that recommendation.
PASSENGER CAPACITY without child seats – Front loader
A front loader can carry between 1 – 3 children depending on their age, combined weight and the manufacturers recommendation for maximum passenger load. Typically, a front loader can carry more younger children. Having a child seat installed in the box or carrying older children can limit the amount of passengers that can comfortably fit in the box.
PASSENGER CAPACITY without child seats – Longtail
A longtail cargo bike set up with a hand rail can carry 1 – 3 passengers. Most families can comfortably carry 2 older children, an adult and a child or one adult on the back. The 3 passenger set-up works best with smaller children. As with front loaders, a longtail cargo bike can carry more younger children. Having a child seat installed on the deck or carrying older children can limit the number of passengers that can comfortably fit on the rear deck.
With the use of child seats, both a front loader and longtail cargo bike can carry up to 4 passenger
PASSENGER CAPACITY with child seats – Front loader
With a rear rack mounted child seat, a front loader can carry up to 3 children in the front box and one child on the rear rack. The rear bike seat is best for a child 6 years old and young OR 40 lbs. and lighter. Typically, a front loader can carry more younger children. Having a child seat installed in the box or carrying older children can limit the number of passengers that can comfortably fit in the front.
PASSENGER CAPACITY with child seats – Longtail
With a front mounted child seat, and three children on the back deck, a longtail cargo bike can carry up to 4 kids, depending on the ages and sizes of the children. A front child seat is best for children 3 years old and younger OR 33 lbs. / 15 kg. and lighter. A longtail cargo bike can carry more younger children on the rear deck. Having a child seat installed or carrying older children can limit the number of passengers that can comfortably fit on the rear deck.
Front loaders and longtails can carry around the same weight of cargo but large cargo can be obstructive in a front loader.
CARGO CAPACITY – Front loader
Front loaders can carry a wide variety of cargo, from small to extra large, in some cases even with passengers on board. The maximum weight limit on many front loaders is rather high. In the case of the Urban Arrow, the max load is 500 lbs., including the weight of the rider. Assuming the rider weighs 180 lbs., this means 320 lbs. of passenger weight and cargo can also be carried on the bike. Having an enclosed box can make it easy to simply toss cargo in the box with no need for strapping down. When it comes to larger cargo, however, the size of the box can limit what can fit inside it. For example, while a longtail can carry a kayak, this type of cargo would be much more challenging to carry in a front loader. Carrying cargo in the front of the bike can also limit the size of cargo that can be transported without obstructing the view of the rider.
CARGO CAPACITY – Longtail
Longtail cargo bikes can carry everything from small to extra large cargo, in some cases even with passengers on board: kayaks, multiple bales of pine straw, large furniture, lumber. Max weight capacity on an Xtracycle is 400 lbs., including the weight of the rider. Assuming the rider weighs 180 lbs., this means 220 lb.s of passenger weight and cargo can be carried on the rear. The Hooptie can help contain cargo on the rear deck and the U-tubes can help support the weight of cargo stored lower on the bike. Adding storage bins on the rear deck can create an open box on the rear of the bike that cargo can easily be thrown into for hauling.
Longtail cargo bikes tend to weigh less than front loaders configured to carry kids.
BIKE WEIGHT – Front loader
Most front loaders weight in excess of 100 lbs. when configured to carry kids. Many front loaders are available without the actual box; the base weight of an aluminum frame can be anywhere between 50 lbs. (for non-electric) to around 75 lbs. (with electric assist). To adapt a front loader to carry children, it would likely be over 100 lbs., depending on the bike brand and accessories added.
BIKE WEIGHT – Longtail
Most longtail cargo bikes weigh under 100 lbs. when configured to carry kids. With no accessories added, the base weight of an Xtracycle EdgeRunner steel frame Swoop is 45 lbs. When set up to carry children, the total weight of a Swoop is 80 lbs.
Longtail cargo bikes are shorter in length than standard front loaders.
LENGTH – Front loader
Box bikes vary in length but most standard box bikes are between 8′ and 8.5′ long.
LENGTH – Longtail
Longtails also vary in length but most will be shorter than a standard front loader. Xtracycles, for example, are roughly 7′ long.
The widest part of many front loaders is the front box. The widest part of many longtail cargo bikes is the handlebars.
WIDTH – Front loader
The widest part of a front loader tends to be the front box which means the width sits mostly in the front, down low. Many front loader boxes tend to be between 27″ – 30″ wide by ~30″ long. This width also stretches along the length of the box.
WIDTH – Longtail
The widest part on most longtail cargo bikes is typically the handlebars. In the case of an Xtracycle EdgeRunner, this is 26″. This means the widest part sits high and is easier to maneuver since it’s just a small, movable part on the bike. The second widest part of a longtail set up to carry kiddos is the Hooptie rails. On their widest setting, these rails are 23.5″ wide and 29.75″ long. On the narrow setting, the Hooptie rails are 20.5″ wide and 29.75″ long.
There are various steel options for longtail cargo bikes (i.e. the entire Xtracycle line up). Most front loaders are made of aluminum.
FRAME MATERIAL – Front loader
Many front loading box bikes are made of aluminum, presumably because of the material’s lighter weight. Aluminum frames have the benefit of being lighter weight and stiffer but they can be brittle and more easily damaged. Once bent or broken, aluminum frames cannot be mended. Aluminum is like glass – it breaks before it bends.
FRAME MATERIAL – Longtail
There are various options for steel longtail cargo bikes, including the entire Xtracycle line up of bikes. While slightly heavier in weight, steel frames are stronger and can absorb more vibrations, making for a smoother ride. Steel frames bend before they brake and can be mended if they bend or dent.
Electric and non-electric longtail cargo bikes tend to have a lower price point than comparable electric and non-electric front loaders.
COST – Front loader
A lower cost front loader can cost around $3100 = $2700 for the non-electric bike + $400 for the box and passenger bench. Make that an electric bike and your cost would be $6300 = $5999 for the electric bike + $400 for the box and passenger bench.
There is the option to convert a regular bike with an Argo front loader conversion kit ($1000) but we were unable to find good spec data for these kits (namely, the maximum passenger weight and the maximum number of passengers you can carry) so we don’t have much to share about them as a viable, lowest cost front loader option.
Finding a used front loader is another option to keep your cost low but there are a few things to consider when buying any secondhand cargo bike. Many used specialty bikes tend to be sold in large metropolitan areas (New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, etc.) and can be difficult to find if you live in a smaller town or more rural area. eBay and AdHuntr (a site that lets you search Craigslist posting throughout the US) are ways to find used cargo bikes for sale outside your city but possibly close enough to drive and pick up. Most bike warranties only apply to the first owner so a used bike will likely not come with a warranty. The condition of a used bike is something that should also be closely looked at since it’s impossible to know in what condition the bikes was kept. This is something a bike shop might be able to help you with prior to purchase.
COST – Longtail
One of the lowest cost ways to get a cargo bike is to buy a Leap conversion kit and convert a bike you already have. If your bike is able to be converted (more details on that here), this would roughly cost: $599 for the Leap kit + $400 for kid hauling accessories (which includes a MagicCarpet seat cushion, Hooptie hand rail, U-tubes foot rests) + roughly $100 for shipping (this would be $0 if you purchase from a dealer who has one in stock), totalling $1099. A non-electric EdgeRunner Swoop set up to carry 4 years old+ kiddos (with a MagicCarpet seat cushion, Hooptie hand rail, U-tubes foot rests) starts at $2,522.00. An electric EdgeRunner Swoop set up for carrying kids in the same ways would start at $4902. If you order this bike through our website and have it assembled by our staff and shipped directly to you through our BBOH program, this would add $200 to your total.
Finding a used longtail cargo bike has similar pros and cons to finding a used box bike. They tend to be sold in large metropolitan areas (New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, etc.) and can be difficult to find if you live in a smaller town or more rural area. Most bike warranties only apply to the first owner so a used bike will likely not come with a warranty. The condition of a used bike is something that should also be closely looked at since it’s impossible to know in what condition the bike was kept.
Both front loaders and longtail cargo bikes can require placing a special order or going to a local dealer for that bike brand.
AVAILABILITY – Front loader
Front loaders are not typically available from larger retail stores or online. Most front loaders must be purchased or special ordered at a local bike shop that is affiliated with that cargo bike brand.
AVAILABILITY – Longtail
As with front loaders, longtail cargo bikes tend to not be available at larger retails stores. Most longtail cargo bikes must be purchased or special ordered at a local bike shop that is affiliated with that cargo bike brand, or ordered online. Xtracycle cargo bikes are available at our flagship store in Mill Valley, California; through certified local dealers; or for those not near a dealer, through our Big Box of Happiness home delivery program.
Front loaders offer more out of the box protection or custom rain-cover canopies whereas longtail cargo bikes require additional gear or aftermarket modifications.
WEATHER PROTECTION – Front loader
Most front loaders have the option to purchase a custom built rain cover or canopy. Most of these canopies are easy to install and remove or keep installed on your bike at all times, which can be helpful if you get caught in a drizzle or flurries. The rider will still be exposed to the elements so the rider will require some kind of rain protection like rain pants and a good rain jacket. Cargo sensitive to moisture (like laptops) should be stored in water-proof storage bags just in case. As with most bikes, if a rider finds themselves caught in a down pour, their best bet for safety and comfort would be to find cover until the rain lets up a little.
WEATHER PROTECTION – Longtail
No longtail cargo bike manufacture currently makes a custom rear passenger rain cover. The Xtracycle team tested out a moped cover and we found that with some slight hacking, it was a wonderful fit for the rear of an Xtracycle paired with a Hooptie. You can find that article here. Other options for rear passengers on longtail cargo bikes include high quality rain gear, like Muddy Buddy rain suits. Some aspects of riding in the rain on a longtail are similar to a Front loader: the rider will still require some rain gear like rain pants and a good rain jacket; keep important gear or paperwork in water-proof bags; riders should find cover if they are caught in a real down pour.
Longtail cargo bikes require less space length and width wise whereas front loaders require more space to store.
STORAGE – Front loader
Due to their increased length, width and weight, front loaders can be more challenging to store than longtail cargo bikes. They often require access to exterior covered storage or a garage. Sheds are an option as well but the shed would need to be long enough to accommodate the length of the bike. Since front loaders are hard to carry up stairs or fit inside elevators, storage inside can be very difficult for those not living in a single story dwelling.
STORAGE – Longtail
Longtail cargo bikes are essentially like a regular bike, just a little longer. It is very similar to storing a regular bike but requires slightly more horizontal space than a regular bike, and significantly less space than a front loader. Cargo bike owners tend to avoid storing their bike outside and exposed to the elements long term so this means having a dedicated space like a garage, shed, carport, landing space in your dwelling, or cover / enclosed dedicated storage or bike storage area in your apartment building. Longtail cargo bikes are easier to fit into elevators and while carrying one up stairs can be challenging because of their weight, it is possible.
Longtail cargo bikes are easier to maneuver in crowded spaces and some are easier to fit in elevators and on train platforms. Most front loaders cannot be loaded onto public transit due to their length and width.
USING ON PUBLIC TRANSIT – Front loader:
Maneuvering a front loader in tight spaces can be a challenge. Most front loaders cannot be loaded onto trains or buses. It also can be challenging to fit them in elevators and up escalators to reach a train platform. The only public transit option that might accommodate a front loader is a ferry, depending on the ferry crowd and available space.
USING ON PUBLIC TRANSIT – Longtail:
Because a cargo bike is essentially just a regular bike but a little longer, maneuvering in tight spaces can present a challenge but is much easier than doing so with a front loader. The Xtracycle RFA (a midtail cargo bike) is especially great for those looking to take it on public transit since it can fit in elevators and on trains. The longer Swoop or Stoker can also fit on a train but getting them in a small station elevator isn’t always an option.
Longtail cargo bikes feel more like riding a regular bike whereas front loaders take getting use to with their linkage steering.
LEARNING CURVE – Front loader:
Because of their linkage steering, front loaders can take more getting use to since they steer differently than a regular bike. On a regular bike, the front wheel is directly attached to the handle bars so you would want to turn the handlebars based off of what is immediately in front of you. With linkage steering, the wheel is a few feet ahead of you and under the box so you have to learn to turn the wheel based off of what is a few feet in front of your handlebars. Carrying weight in the front box will take some balance but the lower center of gravity of the box will help with balance. Front loaders are also wider and longer than regular bikes so this can take some getting use to when riding. These are all things riders can learn with practice. Before heading out on a long ride with a fully loaded cargo bike, it’s best to take the set up for a ride around the block to get a feel for how the added weight and width will effect your ride.
LEARNING CURVE – Longtail:
A longtail cargo bike rides very much like a regular bike. The main difference between a regular bike and longtail is the added length of the bike and balancing the weight on the rear deck. For those not use to carrying a lot of weight on the rear rack of a regular bike, having a lot of weight on the rear of a cargo bike can feel odd at first but it’s something you can get a handle on in a very short time. Before heading out on a long ride with a fully loaded cargo bike, it’s best to take the set up for a ride around the block to get a feel for how the added weight and width will effect your ride.
Front loaders and longtail cargo bikes require no special maintenance and can be serviced at your local bike shop.
MAINTENANCE – Front loader*:
Mechanically, front loaders are very similar to regular bikes. Most maintenance requirements are nothing outside of regular bike maintenance. The linkage steering components can require a knowledgeable mechanic. That said, any local bike shop can repair and maintain a front loader.
MAINTENANCE – Longtail*:
Mechanically, longtail cargo bikes are essentially a regular bike – just longer – so they require no special maintenance outside of regular bike maintenance. Any local bike shop can repair and maintain a longtail cargo bike. When it comes time to replace the chain, a longtail cargo bike would require two chains to be pieced together to create a chain that is long enough. This is the only additional repair cost a longtail cargo bike would require.
*Please note that this applies to non-electric bikes. Any part of an electric bike that is mechanical (i.e. chain, chainrings, brakes, etc.) can also be serviced at a regular bike shop. When something involving the electrical system on an electric bike needs repair, this can require more specific maintenance from a bike shop certified to service the system in question. For example, if a Shimano powered e-bike needs new brake pads, a regular bike shop could service this. If a Shimano powered e-bike is having issues with the speed sensor, a bike shop certified to service Shimano bikes would be needed to service this.