Urban Arrow Family cargo bike long-term review: A pickup truck on two wheels
Immensely useful, heaps of thoughtful details, and plenty of smart accessories make this my favorite bike I’ve ever owned.
Immensely useful, heaps of thoughtful details, and plenty of smart accessories make this my favorite bike I’ve ever owned.
“Cool ass bike, bro!”
Those were the words cheerily directed my way as I dropped my kiddo off at school one morning.
I’ve ridden a lot of incredible high-end bikes over the years, and here in Boulder, Colorado, not a lot of fancy hardware goes unnoticed. But that was the first time I’d heard someone say something to me like that, and it’s noteworthy that it came from someone who didn’t appear to be a “cyclist” in the traditional sense of the word.
I’ve now spent more than two years with the Urban Arrow Family, and I agree wholeheartedly that it is mega cool. But it’s also a legitimate game-changer in terms of what it allows you to do by bike, and without question, it’s the best bike I’ve ever owned in terms of how it’s affected my day-to-day life.
As unusual as the Urban Arrow might look, it’s actually not that uncommon at all. In fact, these sorts of bikes are practically standard-issue for two-wheeled transportation in the company’s home base of the Netherlands. They fall into a class of cargo bikes called “bakfiets”, or “box bike” in Dutch. Basically, this just means the cargo portion of the bike is situated in front of the rider instead of behind.
“[They’re] incredibly common [here],” Ray Maker (of DC Rainmaker fame) told me. “Most streets in Amsterdam will have at least 2-4 parked outside at night, with many more tucked away inside in gardens or sheds. I’d have to count our street, but I’m guessing there’s 6-8.”
There are countless variations of front-loaders out there, but what helps set the Urban Arrow apart is its trademark expanded polypropylene cargo box. Whereas most bakfiets use boxes made of various hard-sided materials — wood is particularly common — or less structured arrangements like woven nylon over an internal frame, this one is sort of like a giant psuedo-rectangular bike helmet, which not only saves weight, but also makes for a softer environment for passengers. At the rear of the box is a small bench with two sets of three-point seatbelts.
That box is mounted inside a curvaceous aluminum step-through frame with an instantly recognizable silhouette. The rider position is very upright — and notably laid-back — and the bike is offered in a single one-size-fits-most format. The 20″-diameter front wheel is placed way out in front of the cargo box, and there’s a long linkage connecting the steering column to the fork. Without question, it’s a dramatically lopsided setup and what I imagine it’d be like to drive a Top Fuel drag car.
Just as you’d guess, this sucker is not only extremely long at about 2.5 m (about 8’ 2″) from tip to tail, but also very heavy at about 50 kg (110 lb). Helping move this unwieldy monster is a Bosch Performance CX mid-drive motor with four assist levels and up to 75 Nm of torque. There’s 250 W of sustained power driving the 26″ rear wheel (current Urban Arrow models now get updated Bosch motor units), all fed by a single 500 W-h lithium-ion Bosch PowerPack 500 battery. Need more juice? There’s an optional dual-battery kit, too.
Component-wise, the utility-minded spec sheet is certainly very different from what you might be accustomed to seeing on a high-end road, gravel, or mountain bike. Urban Arrow offers several options, but my sample is outfitted with an Enviolo stepless internal rear hub transmission, Shimano Deore single-piston hydraulic front and rear disc brakes, and sturdy tube-type aluminum clincher wheels built with 40-hole Ryde Andra rims, a Shimano M525 front hub (with adjustable cup-and-cone bearings), and burly 13-gauge stainless steel spokes, all wrapped with 55 mm-wide Schwalbe Big Ben Plus tires.
Going along with the function-over-form theme is a basic aluminum handlebar with lots of backsweep, an adjustable stem, and a big, puffy Velo saddle mounted to a basic aluminum seatpost. Standard issue is a monstrous two-legged kickstand, front and rear fenders, and front and rear LED lights powered by the Bosch battery.
Current retail price for the Urban Arrow is a substantial US$7,000 / €6,690 already, and the company offers a long list of available (and very useful) accessories that further hike up the final total. To further supplement the bike’s inherent utility, I added a cargo box cover, a rain cover, a rear rack to mount panniers, a front bench (for even more passengers!), and a padded floor mat, which inflated the grand total by nearly another US$1,000 (Australian and UK pricing is to be confirmed).
In other words, it’s not cheap. But when you consider that the Urban Arrow can potentially replace an automobile for many buyers, those figures become a touch easier to swallow.
I brought this bike in for review way back in late November 2019, and I wasted little time putting it through its paces. One of the very first rides I did on it was in a support capacity for former CyclingTips editor-in-chief Neal Rogers’ “MAMIL battle” with Jonathan Vaughters. I rode from home to the start of the climb at the base of Flagstaff Mountain here in Boulder, and escorted the crew all the way up to the top (the real top, mind you, not the halfway point that many locals consider to be the “top”). I then rode the bike back down and then clear across town to pick up my kid from school.
By the time we got home, I’d covered more than 34 km (21 miles) and 850 m (2,800 ft) of elevation gain, and still had about 10% of battery life remaining.
Life hasn’t gotten much easier for the Urban Arrow in the 2+ years since then. Aided in no small part by the comparatively excellent cycling infrastructure here, the Urban Arrow quickly became my daily driver for any and all trips in town.
I regularly shuttle my kid back and forth to school in it (and never have to deal with the chaotic melee of other parents in cars in the pick-up/drop-off lane). I’ve comfortably packed four kids in the box for play dates at parks. I use it for grocery store runs (six shopping bags, easy!). I’ve hauled huge bags of dirt for our garden beds. I’ve used it to carry other bikes. I’ve gone on ice cream runs with my kiddo — and then we used the box as our personal seating area.
I served as a taxi driver for associate editor Abby Mickey one day when she needed to get somewhere downtown, and for Beta contributor Kristin Butcher, who’d broken her ankle and needed to get home from a physical therapy appointment. I’ve lugged full-size bike boxes to UPS and FedEx. I’ve done multiple-family Costco runs covering 32 km (20 miles) and 240 m (800 ft) of climbing round-trip, with the cargo box and my Ortlieb panniers filled to the brim.
So far, I’ve come close — but not exceeded, I think — the official maximum box capacity of 125 kg (276 lb).
Despite the wide range of cargo sizes and weights, the Urban Arrow has taken it all in stride. By pushing that front wheel so far out front, the load floor of the cargo box can be situated just barely above the ground to keep the center of gravity nice and low. As a result, a heavy load doesn’t swing side to side as much as if it were mounted up high (like on a longtail cargo bike).
In fact, once you’re moving, it isn’t even always obvious that you’ve got a lot of weight in the box. If anything, that weight helps the Urban Arrow feel a little more planted than when it’s empty, but this also highlights one of the bike’s handling quirks.
I’ve learned to think of the Urban Arrow as being akin to a two-wheeled pickup truck in terms of its capabilities and usefulness. However, that also applies to how its lopsided weight distribution affects the laden-vs.-unladen handling.
Without anything in the box, the front end is light and chattery, bouncing over road imperfections and skittering through bumpy corners. It’s not bad in dry conditions, but it can be very sketchy when it’s slippery. Current CyclingTips editor-in-chief Caley Fretz (who bought his own Urban Arrow this past September) has resorted to leaving a 9 kg (20 lb) sandbag in the front of his.
Regardless, the Urban Arrow has become my everyday mode of transportation in town. It may not be as efficient as a conventional e-bike or my regular townie, but I’ve also never worried that I wouldn’t be able to get something home if I decided to spontaneously drop into a store for something. Again, just like a pickup truck, you’re lugging around a bunch of empty space much of the time, but there’s no substitute when you need it.
Despite the comical dimensions, the Urban Arrow has proven to be fun to ride, too.
At about two full meters, the wheelbase is twice as long as a regular bike, which makes the Urban Arrow unflappably stable (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a bit). Steering inputs almost seem to happen in slow motion — which is usually a good thing for a bike like this — and because the whole thing is so long, if one wheel slides out a little, rarely does it result in an actual change in direction. Caley has installed studded tires for his Urban Arrow, but says it’s “less about really bad conditions and more about not worrying about little ice patches in the morning.” It’s less consistently snowy here in Boulder as compared to Caley’s new digs in Durango, Colorado, so I’ve never bothered with studs since it’s so easy to manage those little slides as is.
Those stable manners and the optional rain cover even make the Urban Arrow quite the all-weather workhorse. Colorado has quite an arid climate, and while the rain cover isn’t insulated, it still blocks cold air and windchill, and as Caley puts it, acts “like a little greenhouse in the winter.” Combined with the little down blanket we keep in the box, my kid has never been chilly on the way back and forth to school. It’s even become a running joke.
“Are you nice and warm in there?” I always ask.
“Yes, are you nice and cold out there?” she replies with a naughty grin.
Throughout it all, the Bosch motor provides more than enough oomph to get this thing up to its 32 km/h (19.8 mph) maximum assisted speed. The Urban Arrow is no rocket ship, but the e-assist motor is impressively torquey and responds instantly to pedaling inputs to help mask the substantial mass. And while I didn’t think I’d use it much initially, the walk mode has proven surprisingly useful. When activated, walk mode uses the motor to slowly drive the bike forward as you walk next to it. In other words, it basically pushes itself so you don’t have to. Perfect for maneuvering this thing fully loaded up my modestly sloped driveway …
The range on e-bikes is notoriously variable, but Urban Arrow’s claim of 50 km of “average range” feels about right. Twice-daily school trips and regular in-town errands typically add up to about 50 km, so the typical schedule is to just plug the thing in on weekends. Charge time from nearly zero is about 4 1/2 hours. I’ve never worried much about range for everyday tasks, and only once did I run out of juice for real (and yes, it was a major bummer).
All told, this amazing machine has covered over 3,700 km (2,300 miles) so far, which is all the more impressive considering there’s been a pandemic tossed in there with a full year when my kid was out of school and I wasn’t going many places at all. Best of all, many of those kilometers were ones I otherwise would have traveled in some sort of automobile. Since September, Caley has tallied more than 930 km (580 miles) on his.
And can I remind you how much attention this thing draws? I’m not talking about from “serious” cyclists, either, but rather from everyday folks like the construction worker I mentioned at the beginning of this review. I’ve lost count of how many conversations I’ve had with other parents at school during drop-off/pick-up, other customers at the grocery store, when dropping off boxes, and so on. Almost without fail, the usual reaction is that they couldn’t believe the things I’m doing by bike — but now they’ve seen it being done, and heard face-to-face how feasible it is.
Nearly everywhere you look on the Urban Arrow, there are small touches indicating the brand’s long history in the category.
Often overlooked, the kickstand design is superb. The wide-legged stance is so stable that I no longer worry about kids when they climb into the box, and the rectangular footprint even works well on modest slopes. And when the box is heavily loaded, you can stand on the end of the L-shaped leg and use your own body weight to set the kickstand into place.
The built-in frame lock is brilliant. Granted, this is an Abus thing and not something exclusive to Urban Arrow, but it’s a smart design nonetheless and I’m glad to see it featured as standard equipment here. Built into the seatstays, it’s a cinch to just lock the rear wheel to keep someone from rolling the Urban Arrow if you’re in a low-risk area or you’re just popping in for a very quick errand. Otherwise, you can also plug in a heavy-duty chain for more security. A single key handles the whole lot — including the Bosch battery cradle.
The cutouts at the front corners of the box are a nice touch as they provide a handy foothold that make it easier for smaller passengers to get in and out.
There’s a standard handlebar-mounted bell that’s both loud and friendly so pedestrians know you’re approaching from behind.
The front and rear fenders have flap extensions to minimize spray.
The lights? The ones on newer Urban Arrows are thankfully brighter, but I appreciate they’re there, and it’s nice that they’re hardwired into the main Bosch battery (again, not something exclusive to Urban Arrow, but good to see regardless).
Operating costs have been very low, too. I replaced the rear brake pads after about 18 months, and the rear tire made it about the same amount of time. But the full-length chain cover has kept drivetrain wear at an impressive minimum since it’s always shielded from dirt and debris (and the belt-drive kit I have at the ready now comes standard). Aside from that, it’s been pennies in recharge costs, and of course, no other fees typically associated with automobiles like registration and insurance.
On that note, it also helped me put off purchasing a car for more than two years, and by Caley’s estimates, it’ll save about 2,400 km (1,500 miles) of fuel and wear-and-tear on his truck.
As much as I’ve come to rely on this bike, the Urban Arrow Family is not without fault.
On bikes like this, there are two commonly accepted solutions for connecting the steering column to the front fork: a set of cables and housings (like what Yuba uses on its Electric Supermarché), or a rigid linkage. Urban Arrow has opted for the latter, and it’s generally well done with smooth operation and minimal slop thanks in part to the beefy industrial-strength ball-ends. However, the linkage rod itself is more prone to flex than I’d prefer, especially when the bike is loaded.
It’s not a big deal in most riding situations, but mid-corner bumps tend to flex — and then unload — that rod. When that happens on milder corners, there’s just a bit of steering correction required. But when in slower and tighter turns, it can be downright unnerving (especially if you’re carrying precious human cargo) as you struggle to keep the thing upright.
By my estimation, it’s that roughly 120° kink in the rod that’s the source of the issue here, since the rest of the rod sections are straight and there are no other obvious flex points elsewhere in the system (notably, German cargo bike brand Riese & Müller adds a welded gusset to the steering linkage on its front-loader models). Urban Arrow makes a heavier-duty version of this bike that’s designed more for commercial use, and I’ve been curious if that model’s thicker and stiffer steering linkage rod might be a better solution (assuming it’s compatible, of course).
Perhaps related to that linkage flex is the bike’s well documented speed wobble issue. Urban Arrow incorporates a small plastic pad that presses directly on to the front of the fork steerer tube to damp oscillations. It’s absolutely as goofy as it sounds, but it’s far sketchier to run without it. There are no issues at lower speeds, but let me tell you, if you don’t have the steerer damper adjusted properly and this beast of a bike starts violently shaking side to side at 30 km/h (with your kid in the box, no less), it sure wakes you up in a hurry. I installed a Cane Creek Viscoset headset damper a few months into this test, and while it has helped, it hasn’t gotten rid of the problem entirely.
As good as this bike is in so many respects, it’s absolutely unforgivable that this problem is allowed to exist.
The lack of redundancy in the steering system gives me some pause, too. In my head, flex in a structural system goes hand in hand with fatigue, and while I’m accustomed to periodically inspecting all of my bikes from head to toe, that won’t be the case for most Urban Arrow owners. Heaven forbid something fails in that linkage rod — or the bell crank arm on the underside of the steerer tube, or the little tab that’s welded to the fork blade — as it’d undoubtedly result in a nasty crash. A second linkage rod on the other side of the bike would obviously add some cost, but it’d also provide some peace of mind.
As tricky as those cable-operated steering systems can be on some other box bikes, one major advantage they have over linkage designs is steering angle, which is so poor on the Urban Arrow that even many American residential streets aren’t wide enough for a U-turn (and let me tell you, we Americans like really wide streets). It’s a good thing this step-through frame has such a low standover height, because I guarantee any Urban Arrow owner spends a decent amount of time straddling this thing as they slowly roll it back and forth in a multi-point turn.
Another feature on the commercial version of the Urban Arrow that’s missing here is front suspension. I’m finishing up my review of Tern’s second-generation GSD cargo bike, and one of the most dramatic improvements over the first version is the newly added suspension, not just in terms of rider (and passenger) comfort, but also how it makes the bike so much easier to manage on the road. Granted, such a thing would be tricky for Urban Arrow to tune given the huge variation in loads and wacky weight distribution, but I’d like to see the company figure something out here.
I eventually installed a Cane Creek Thudbuster suspension seatpost, and it’s been a godsend, particularly given how the laid-back seat tube angle and short chainstays practically put you directly over the rear wheel.
I have some spec complaints, too.
The Shimano Deore hydraulic disc brakes don’t have enough power to rein this thing in, especially when heavily loaded (something Urban Arrow has thankfully since rectified with a switch to more powerful four-piston brakes). I love that I can shift the Enviolo continuously variable rear hub transmission at a standstill since it’s not always practical to downshift before coming to a stop. However, the twist shifter’s dual cable arrangement feels vague, and if you’re running the Bosch motor at one of the higher assist settings, it’s very difficult to shift gears while pedaling unless you really back off the power.
The stock Schwalbe tires have been great: they’re smooth-rolling, they’ve got good grip, and they’re remarkably puncture-resistant. It’s only very recently that I finally had to replace the rear, which is impressive given how hard it has to work on this bike. But while the heavy-duty wheels haven’t given me any problems at all, I wish there was at least the option to run this tubeless. Few cycling disciplines are better suited to the self-repairing nature of tubeless than utility bikes, and the one flat I’ve gotten on this bike was a small puncture that would have sealed itself with the benefit of some liquid latex sloshing around inside. I’m now running extra-thick butyl tubes.
Other complaints are more minor.
I love how you can stand on the end of the kickstand leg to get it to engage, but Urban Arrow doesn’t plug the tube before installing the rubber feet, and it doesn’t take long before it punches through the end (I’ve since replaced one foot with a new one, but installed a handlebar plug first).
Kudos to Urban Arrow for upgrading the front light on this bike relative to what I got. But while I understand this is a limitation of some European regulations, neither the front nor rear lights can operate in flashing mode to enhance daytime safety, so I still run with a supplemental Bontrager Flare R out back.
I love good cup-and-cone hubs, and the old mechanic in me appreciates the Shimano front hub specified here. But a quick-release axle on a bike like this? Seriously?
And in some serious nitpicking, those little cutouts in the front of the box are great, but why aren’t there cutouts in the rear of the box, too? After all, that’s where the main bench is located, and if the rain cover is installed, those front cutouts are useless since the cover opens at the rear.
Last, but not least, the sheer size of the Urban Arrow presents some interesting challenges in terms of storage (it’s 2.74 m / 9 ft long!). A proper garage — or some other form of truly secure ground-level storage — is strongly suggested since you’re not getting this up even a handful of stairs, and it can’t perform the neat trick of standing up on end like the Tern GSD. Sorry, apartment dwellers, but this probably isn’t the cargo bike for you.
There’s also the issue of service. Although most of the components are standard items that can be repaired by many shops, anything specific to Urban Arrow will require a certified dealer, and unless you have an actual pickup truck (with a full-sized bed, no less) and a reliable friend with a strong back to help you load the thing into it, it’s not very easy to get this somewhere.
I should mention that it didn’t take long for me to decide that this bike wasn’t just going to be a long-term loaner. Blown away by its immense utility, I bought this Urban Arrow a few months after bringing it on board. And yes, I maybe had some help with the decision. Many other parents can attest to how difficult it can sometimes be to get your kids into the car, but my kid never objects to getting into the “bucket bike.”
Just like human family members, this Urban Arrow Family has its pros, cons, quirks, and things that drive me crazy. But just like those people, I can’t imagine my life without it, either.
More information can be found at www.urbanarrow.com.