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February 1st, 2021

Electric Cargo Bikes Can Be a Key Tool for Freight Mobility

By: Kimberly Kinchen, contributing writer

Biking related image

Electric cargo bikes proved more efficient than delivery vans for redistributing the inventory of USEFULL, a company that functions like a bikeshare system for to-go containers. However, in seeking secure overnight storage and recharging, Founder and CEO Alison Rogers found that commercial garages’ EV charging outlets and meters weren’t outfitted for bikes. No public charging options existed, either.

Thankfully, there are signs this lack of infrastructure is changing. Established last-mile logistics titans like UPS, DHL and Amazon are also testing the freight-mobility potential of electric cargo bicycles, primarily as complements — not replacements — to their trucks. In big cities without the capacity to expand roads and curbs, bikes offer a nimble vehicle with a small footprint that can navigate around congestion while minimizing emissions. 

Amazon initially used cargo bikes for Whole Foods grocery delivery during a pilot program in New York City, then expanded their fleet and began standard package delivery in September of 2020. UPS has tested electric cargo bike delivery around the U.S. in recent years, after success in Europe, and has plans for another pilot in New York City in 2021, according to Michael McDonald, director of maintenance and engineering for sustainability and government affairs. “Some of the primary reasons for it being so difficult to get e-assist bikes launched are inconsistent laws that govern speed, continuous power and width,” said McDonald. “In order to reduce the hurdles, there needs to be comprehensive legislation put forth that would address the issues and be used as a template across the country."

Generally, larger companies use electric cargo bikes no differently than trucks, delivering the same types of goods to the same customer base. In smaller cities where space is less constrained, local operators tend to serve their local B2B market — but developing the regulatory consistency McDonald points to could also help these smaller operations and startups like USEFULL more easily establish themselves.

In their Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) developed recommendations for how cities could mitigate issues and develop more efficient policies for high-demand urban curbside space.  Cities could begin work on many of the guide’s urban freight recommendations today, which include developing curbside asset databases that, coupled with GPS and sensor technology, could balance predictability and flexibility to accommodate electric cargo bikes with semi truck microhubs. Cities could charge variable rates for loading zone use, based on demand and availability, and incentivize the use of e-assist cargo bikes by offering lower loading zone and parking rates for e-assist cargo bikes with semi truck microhubs associated with the operators’ e-assist program. 

 Related issues that lawmakers should prepare to address to eliminate barriers for the widespread  commercial adoption of e-assist cargo bikes include: 

Definitions and standards

Cities that have already adopted some e-bike regulations like Chicago and New York City may be better positioned to embrace e-assist cargo operations due to lawmakers having a less steep legislative learning curve when refining existing definitions and standards. Even then, among these “earlier adopter” cities, speed caps, permitted widths and power limits still vary greatly, creating a potentially large burden on freight operators to customize bikes on a city-by-city basis. A set of model recommendations for speed, width and power for commercial e-assist cargo bike operations would encourage less variation while helping the bike industry better anticipate market demand. 

Use of bike lanes, general purpose lanes and sidewalks

Creating clear, easy-to-understand policies in busy cities where competition for public space is unavoidable is important to establish consistent policies and training, ensure safety and avoid contributing to conflicts between bikes, pedestrians and vehicles. 

Charging

Cities must incorporate electric bicycle charging into their existing EV programs and look for opportunities to retrofit, as they already did for electric cars. In late 2019, Boston adopted an electric vehicle readiness policy that included recommendations for electric bicycle charging in new infrastructure. An even better policy would be to include retrofitting recommendations and the development of public charging stations comparable to those for electric cars.  

Other permitting requirements

New York City requires that riders take a bike safety course, while Chicago requires a bike messenger permit. Consistent rules between cities would make it easier for large operations to streamline their internal hiring and training requirements for e-assist cargo bike drivers. 

Insurance

E-cargo doesn’t have an established risk profile, so insurance companies may be hesitant to craft liability policies for operators. Support to develop actuarial data to fill this gap could ease the burden of securing insurance, particularly for smaller commercial operations.

Skilled innovators excel at problem solving, and Alison Rogers ultimately improvised a storage and charging solution that worked for USEFULL. However, she emphasizes that to reduce barriers, cities must answer some important questions: “How can we truly reduce congestion and do more agile last-mile deliveries?” and “How can we incentivize entrepreneurs to launch businesses that fulfill that need?” The use of electric cargo bikes as freight mobility tools is an amazing opportunity to spur innovation — the time is now for cities to embrace the benefit and potential of electric cargo bikes on their streets.

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