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Picture a vehicle that can carry around the kids and the groceries efficiently and does not burn any fossil fuel. You power it yourself. Cargo bicycles are designed to haul several hundred pounds. They've been popular in Europe for a while, and as Deena Prichep reports, they're starting to make their way into the U.S.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

DEENA PRICHEP: Carie Weisenbach-Folz is picking up her two kids, ages five and two, from school. But instead of loading them into the usual minivan, she's using a cargo bicycle.

Ms. CARIE WEISENBACH-FOLZ: OK. You need to put your helmet on.

PRICHEP: Between the handlebars and front wheel, there's a stylized wheelbarrow-type box with a sturdy, see-through cover. Bicycles like this can cost a lot, over $3,000.

Ms. WEISENBACH-FOLZ: Random people walk up to me at the grocery store, how much did you pay for that? Well, how much is the cost of gas and how much is insurance and how much do you pay for a parking spot?

PRICHEP: Weisenbach-Folz bought her bike at Clever Cycles. They're a local bike shop specializing in utility bikes that can carry a load. And what kind of cargo are people looking to haul?

According to store owner Todd Fahrner´┐Ż

Mr. TODD FAHRNER (Owner, Clever Cycles): Children and groceries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAHRNER: Families are probably 70 percent of our customers.

PRICHEP: Most of the cargo bikes are made overseas, in Europe or China. But in recent years, a few manufacturers have sprung up in the U.S., including one here in northeast Portland.

(Soundbite of banging)

PRICHEP: Philip Ross and Jamie Nichols started turning out bikes for their company, Metrofiets, about a year ago. They were inspired by European models, but adapted the design to make it easier to tackle the hills of Portland.

Mr. PHILIP ROSS (Co-owner, Metrofiets): It has a slightly different geometry, and we were able to shave off about 30 pounds from the frame without affecting the amount of weight we could carry.

PRICHEP: Their workshop is pretty small, with a wait list of nearly a year, and the bulk of Metrofiets' customers aren't families. They're businesses.

Mr. ROSS: They can absolutely get rid of one of their fleet vehicles and use one of these bikes within a certain geographical area around their shop or business.

PRICHEP: Metrofiets has built a custom cargo bicycle for a floor refinisher to carry his sander, and for a brewery to transport their beer kegs. And they're not the only ones predicting a rise in business cargo biking. Andy Clarke is president of the League of American Bicyclists.

Mr. ANDY CLARKE (President, League of American Bicyclists): The urban freight issue is one where I think cycling has a huge role to play and which, at the moment, is really relatively untapped.

PRICHEP: Clarke predicts that bicycle commuting will continue to rise, as well. Today, over 750,000 Americans bike to work. And that may seem like a small number, but it's a nearly 50 percent jump since the 2000 census.

Clarke credits several factors: rising gas prices, concerns about health and climate change and bike-friendly initiatives included in recent transportation bills.

Mr. CLARKE: Sometimes we take the love affair with the car that we think we have to a bit of an extreme. We really have a love affair with the quickest, easiest, most convenient way of getting around.

PRICHEP: But it's not always so simple, according to Cotten Seiler. He teaches American studies at Dickinson College and authored a book about the relationship between driving and American society. He says that how Americans use cars is about more than just a rational weighing of the pros and cons.

Professor COTTEN SEILER (American Studies, Dickinson College): It's highly emotional, it's psychologically charged, and it gives us a sense of identity. The utilitarian choice about how to get from point A to point B is often obscured by all these other emotional and psychological resonances that cars have for us.

PRICHEP: Seiler sees Americans starting to let go of some of these attachments to their cars. He says it can be an uphill battle, especially in cities that don't have the density or infrastructure to support cycling.

But in bike-friendly cities like Portland, bike builders and riders are hoping that the cargo bicycle can become the new minivan. For commuters like Carie Weisenbach-Folz, it's already happened.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Ms. WEISENBACH-FOLZ: Scoot over so Eve and Jean(ph) can have some more room.

Unidentified Child: Bye, Henry. Bye, Cody.

Ms. WEISENBACH-FOLZ: See you tomorrow.

Unidentified Child: We'll see you tomorrow.

PRICHEP: For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Oregon.

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