In the Netherlands, it’s hard not to be impressed, or even overwhelmed, by the sheer number of bicycles in all forms, colors, and sizes. People here see cycling as a normal mode of transportation, not just a weekend leisure activity. The Dutch use their bikes to carry groceries, electronics, and sometimes even furniture. It’s not uncommon to see a parent biking with one child up front, another one in the back, and a third one cycling on his or her own, the parent’s hand on the back for guidance.
But for the Dutch, the bicycle is more than just a mode of transportation; it is also a status symbol. And nowhere is this more visible than in the case of the bakfiets—Dutch for “cargo bike” (literally, “box bike”). According to a recent study, this mode of transport has become particularly popular among highly educated, urban, two-income families.
It hasn’t always been this way. Before cars and cargo trucks were easily available, cargo bikes carried people and their goods, such as milk, potatoes, and meat. Painters, construction workers, and cleaners used them for work. During that time, the bakfiets was associated with poverty because they were cheaper than cars. But now, cargo bikes are seen as a sign of upward socioeconomic aspiration in Dutch cities—along with the gentrification that accompanies it.
Cargo bikes have been available in the Netherlands for a long time. “If I was a student and I wanted to move, then I would rent a cargo bike to carry stuff on there and then move. You don’t need a car to do that,” explains Wouter van Gent, an urban geographer at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in gentrification. “But it wouldn’t be for carrying your kids around town. They were used for more practical stuff.”
But the more modern, lighter models used for transporting children were actually imported from Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen’s so-called “anarchist” district. They became popular in the 1990s among young families in Amsterdam. As they spread across the Netherlands, the bakfiets gave rise to a new stereotype: the bakfietsmoeder, or cargo-bike mother.
Unlike the American soccer mom who ferries children to and from school and extracurricular activities in her minivan, her Dutch counterpart is considered more ambitious and career-driven. At the same time, like many women in the Netherlands, she’s very likely to work part-time. Statistically, the bakfietsmoeder has two or more children and votes for progressive parties such as GroenLinks or D66. She stands for equality but is mostly associated with gentrification.
Like other countries, the Netherlands has been dealing with the fallout of urbanization, including rising property prices and the displacement of working-class families to the suburbs. But Rotterdam has welcomed gentrification in a desperate attempt to leave its harbor-city image behind. It is now actively trying to reinvent itself as a city of opportunity and culture. To achieve that goal, Rotterdam has invested heavily in attracting middle-class residents, especially families with children and money to spend. Since it’s more expensive than other bikes, the bakfiets has become a symbol of reaching that goal.
While Rotterdam has long been seen as a city of male, working-class immigrants, that perception is changing. “What you see happening now is that the city is once again imagined as a space for children and also as a place for women who are mothers,” explained Marguerite van den Berg, a sociologist at the University of Amsterdam, who lives in Rotterdam.
One of the ways Rotterdam is encouraging gentrification is by establishing nine bakfietswijken—or cargo-bike neighborhoods. These areas are imagined as attractive green spaces for families with small children in densely populated urban environments. They are meant to feature playgrounds, parks, and excellent schools. It sounds great, but realizing the vision is more complicated. Some 18 percent of children in Rotterdam grow up poor. The efforts to make the city more child-friendly have not been targeted at families who need the help the most. “These nine neighborhoods, these nine bakfietswijken, were not surprising at all to me because these are all areas where some gentrification has already happened,” van den Berg told me. “So, what you see there is that the administration of the city of Rotterdam is very explicitly using public funding in order to create space for people who have substantial capital already.”
This became particularly obvious when, in November 2016, the people of Rotterdam held a referendum on the city’s suggestion to replace 20,000 units of affordable social-housing units with 36,000 properties for middle- and upper-income households. In the end the referendum failed due to low turnout and the unclear nature of the question posed (whether the public agreed with a proposal to attract residents with more spending power). The properties were eventually destroyed, despite the fact that 72 percent of those who voted did not support the measure. In the Netherlands, direct displacement hardly ever happens and very few, if any, of the families ended up on the streets thanks to the country’s strong welfare system and extensive tenant rights. As van Gent pointed out, many were even able to improve their housing situation. Still, this was seen as a highly controversial move.
“It’s kind of scandal in my view,” said van den Berg, “to say to your population, ‘This city would be so wonderful if only some of you would leave.’ And I would say, with these very explicit gentrification policies in place, this is exactly what the city is saying. So they have child-friendly city efforts, which is wonderful, but if you focus them primarily for middle-class families, then that means the displacement of working-class families.”
This is one of the reasons why cargo-bike riders, especially mothers, are sharply criticized from all sides of the political spectrum. The right sees them as yuppies, out of touch, soft, feminine, and elite. “It’s the same kind of aggressiveness as toward hipsters,” van Gent explained, “because cargo-bike moms also represent urban change. They also represent affluence.”
From the left, bakfiets mothers are accused of promoting segregation by using their cargo bikes to transport their children out of the diverse neighborhoods where they reside into schools in more affluent areas, where the majority of students are ethnically Dutch.
The bakfiets is associated with femininity, but fathers also use it. When they do, the bikes’ association with women comes along for the ride. The bakfiets has also become a symbol of new fatherhood: Cargo-bike dads are seen as “soft,” cool, and highly involved with their children. The bakfietspapa also takes a papadag, or a day off of work to spend with his family, and he is very likely to work part-time. Gender equality in these kinds of families may be higher than in the general population due to the fact that both partners work four days a week.
That being said, it is common for Dutch women to work part-time, participating in what is known as the one-and-a-half earner model. While this often seems like achieving a perfect work-life balance, the reality is much less rosy, and this has to do with ideas the Dutch have about mothers and parenting. There is still a “Dutch culture of care,” which expects mothers to stay at home and do the majority of parenting and house chores. Sending children to daycare for more than three days a week is considered to have negative consequences on their development. Moreover, schools and sports clubs rely on women to provide skills (and unpaid labor). And so, even in the seemingly gender-equal Netherlands, mothers still work the so-called second-shift of parenting, care work, and house chores. As a result, they are stressed out, and at the end of their tether. For this reason, the heavy, unwieldy cargo bike has also become a symbol of the impossibility of work-life balance—the Dutch version of “having it all.”
Another recent study analyzed the current situation in three of the nine bakfietswijken. In these neighborhoods, the population boomed, as did the local economy. Moreover, the inhabitants of these parts didn’t feel displaced as of the time of the study. Both the original inhabitants of these neighborhoods and the middle-class newcomers saw the gentrification of Rotterdam as positive, mentioning among other benefits the new, hip cafes, restaurants, and boutiques, as well as the fact that the city was becoming greener, richer, and more pleasant. According to the study, there was a noticeable lack of communication between the two groups, and inhabitants also felt discontented when they saw their familiar shops and cafes taken over by new, immigrant owners. The jury is still out on whether the city has made the right decision in encouraging gentrification.
It’s easy to blame the bakfiets and its riders for the inequalities that have come to be associated with it for the segregation, gentrification, and displacement of the working class that affect many families in Rotterdam. After all, the bakfietsmoeder is most likely white, privileged, and well-off. But Marguerite van den Berg made a case in defense of cargo-bike moms. “You can’t really blame these individual bakfietsmoeders,” she said. “In the absence of any real policy for tackling the problem of ‘black’ and ‘white’ schools in the Netherlands, we can’t really blame them.” The same goes for claiming the cargo-bike users are culpable for gentrification and displacing working-class families. “Bakfietsen are not cars. If the city would promote bakfietsen as a measure to become more ecologically sound, that would be a very different issue.”
The cargo-bike mother and her family arrived with the bakfiets (as well as several other, more regular, bikes), attracted by the affordable housing created by the city, and ended up transforming it. And for better or for worse, she is here to stay.