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December 15, 2022

Electric Cargo Bikes Deliver Big

By: Kiran Herbert, PeopleForBikes’ content manager

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Governments, corporations, and nonprofits alike are betting on a cheaper, greener, and more efficient way to transport goods.

In the Pacific Northwest, there’s a contingent of preppers bracing for the Big One, a massive earthquake that’s predicted to affect more than seven million people from Seattle, Washington, to Eugene, Oregon. The odds of it happening in the next fifty years are roughly one in three but if it does strike, participants in the Disaster Relief Trials are ready to help. 

The trials, which launched in Portland in 2012, are essentially a disaster drill in the form of a cargo bike competition simulating a four-day supply run. Locals with electric cargo bikes are encouraged to participate. When the pandemic struck, Maxwell Burton was part of a small Seattle contingent working to organize the city’s next event. Burton, who works as a project manager for the nonprofit Cascade Bicycle Club, watched as Seattle shut down, including any planning for the Disaster Relief Trials and his day job’s volunteer programs. 

At the same time, food banks also lost longtime volunteers — most of whom were 55-plus and vulnerable to COVID — just as unemployment rates and food insecurity began to rise. In preparing for the next trials, Burton had already started to build out an organizational structure for how to respond to a natural disaster on bikes. The timing seemed fortuitous. 

“I quickly rewrote [our plan] for how to connect to food banks and respond to the disaster that was happening in real time,” says Burton, who reached out to those who had participated in Seattle’s 2016 Disaster Relief Trials and his regular Cascade volunteers for help. The group began working with one small food bank to coordinate and deliver donations from nearby grocery stores. “Most places only have one van, one staff member, and maybe one volunteer — it really helped with their logistics.”

While local food banks were initially skeptical, it soon became clear that a small force of e-cargo bikes could make a big difference. As the group began working with more food banks and expanding to include food rescue and deliveries, the Pedaling Relief Project was born. Housed under the Cascade Bicycle Club and overseen by Burton, the project is a testament to the effectiveness of using e-cargo bikes for dense urban deliveries. While not necessarily more efficient in terms of manpower, Burton has found that it’s much better for the health of the volunteers and the planet. 

“[Delivering groceries] is such a stressful experience for one person in a car that volunteers only last a few times before being asked to be taken off a route,” says Burton, who organizes his team of bike volunteers in small groups. “You can have five volunteers go up into an apartment building and deliver groceries and one volunteer watch all the bikes. That has ended up being a lot more sustainable, both in terms of CO2 and mental health.”

One of the Pedaling Relief Project’s volunteers is Dr. Giacomo Dalla Chiara, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center. Chiara not only delivers food to those in need using his own personal e-cargo bike but for the past three years, he’s worked as an investigative research lead, studying urban logistics and the best way to distribute goods and services within a given area.

“I really try to bring the human aspects into operational research and systems,” says Chiara. “So when we’re talking about optimizing a fleet of vehicles or understanding the best curb allocation policy in a city or how to deliver food to a bunch of people, I try to bring the human aspect into these things.”

Chiara serves as a research lead at the Urban Freight Lab (UFL), a working group housed within the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center. A public-private partnership, the research lab brings together academic researchers, major private industry players, and public transportation agencies to solve urban freight management problems. The thirteen members include Amazon, UPS, Bosch, and General Motors, to name a few, all representing different facets of the urban freight space.

“[The lab] is an acknowledgment of how complex the urban freight system is,” says Chiara, noting that there’s often a mismatch of information between private companies that operate in the right of way and the entities that oversee that space. “We bring everyone to the same table, identifying common problems and bringing an academic solution.”

The UFL is focused on last-mile distribution and has increasingly been working on e-cargo bikes. Many studies show that in urban areas, the speed of delivery by cargo bikes is the same — if not faster — than that of trucks, which spend much of their time looking for parking. In 2020, the UFL decided to pilot a microhub in downtown Seattle, which would support different zero-emissions deliveries including e-cargo bikes. Today, the Seattle Neighborhood Delivery Hub serves as a testing ground for sustainable delivery solutions.

As part of the pilot, the UFL places cameras on top of cargo bikes in order to record how often the driver was using infrastructure — how much time they were spending on the sidewalk versus the street, and if there was a bike lane, what factors helped or hindered use. Findings from the pilot will inform a white paper that the UFL plans on releasing in partnership with PeopleForBikes in early 2023.

The paper will offer a definitive definition of what qualifies as a cargo bike and offer resources for cities interested in their adoption for last-mile deliveries. There will be numerous case studies of different operational models across sectors, as well as actions — think financial incentives, infrastructure, education, and regulation — cities can take in order to make cargo bikes successful in an urban environment.

“Cargo bikes can play a key role in moving goods in urban areas, not only from the large parcel distribution perspective but especially for small and medium local distribution networks and individuals using cargo bikes to go shopping or bring their kids to school,” says Chiara. “Change will only come with a joint effort between the cargo bike industry, cargo bike users, and cities.”

Like most things bike-related, Europe is far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to cargo bikes. In Rotterdam, you can borrow an e-cargo bike for free to transport bulky waste, while in Cologne and Hamburg, UPS is already piloting the use of e-cargo bikes for deliveries. In Germany as a whole, DHL/Deutsche Post manages a fleet of more than 17,000 cargo bikes and trikes throughout the country. One Parisian business has even deployed an e-bike hearse, taking final mile deliveries to a new level. 

In London, one borough replaced its diesel-powered street cleaners with a fleet of electric quadricycles, while throughout the city, start-up HIVED is on a mission to build out the first mass-market, zero-emission parcel delivery network. One of its main competitors is Amazon, which has expanded its own e-cargo bike deliveries. In fact, Amazon is using e-cargo bikes to replace thousands of van deliveries in London, expanding e-cargo bikes and on-foot deliveries across the U.K., and doubling the number of European cities with micromobility hubs overall.

Europe’s advantage is partially geographical: the continent’s historical city centers tend to be smaller and more concentrated, making e-cargo bikes — which protect city streets, keep pollution and traffic low, and appease tourists — all the more appealing. European cities were designed for horses and bicycles, whereas U.S. cities were made for cars and trucks. Plus, Europe far outpaces the U.S. when it comes to quality on-street bike infrastructure, as well as charging hubs and safe bike storage, necessities for e-cargo bike adoption. 

There’s also a political component to Europe’s embrace of micromobility solutions. European municipalities are more inclined to incentivize adoption while simultaneously restricting trucks in some capacity or making parking permits very expensive. Whereas European cities typically take a “carrot and stick” approach, the U.S. environment relies almost entirely on carrots, or incentives, rather than on penalties (the sticks). The 2021 Inflation Reduction Act is a testament to this phenomenon. Even when cities do impose penalties, such as fines for parking illegally, they’re often insufficient and written off by companies as a cost of doing business. 

That doesn’t mean that the U.S. hasn’t had some movement toward e-cargo bikes. The explosion of e-commerce has been a game changer and corporations and cities alike no longer see the status quo as sustainable. USPS is testing deliveries using e-cargo bikes in New York City, a place where bike messengers have long been a mainstay. More recently, the city’s department of transportation has begun reaching out to logistics companies to launch cargo bike microhub pilots.

Cornucopia Logistics, one of the largest final-mile logistics companies, has been working in NYC and the larger tristate area for more than 60 years. A member of the Urban Freight Lab, Cornucopia was among the first logistics companies to employ a fleet of walkers, electric vans, and e-cargo bikes to fulfill last-mile deliveries for its customers, one being Amazon. This year the company launched Net Zero Logistics, its zero-carbon, last-mile company arm.

“Last-mile deliveries are one of the biggest contributors to global carbon emissions,” says Mark Chiusano, who serves as the company’s owner and CEO. “We have decided that our real focus in growing our business is in helping the environment and in doing so we’re utilizing platforms that are net zero, hence the name.”

For Chiusano, e-cargo bikes just make sense. While expensive, they cost a fraction of what a van or truck does, and they take up way less parking and curb space, valuable commodities in any urban environment (in cities where the government is collaborating closely with the logistics industry, such as NYC, bike corrals are also more common). With the right design, an e-cargo bike can also handle a lot of weight.

When asked why Net Zero remains an outlier in the logistics industry, Chiusano says it’s a numbers game. The fleet of 400 bikes his company has was a $2.5 million investment, something many aren’t willing to take on when city governments aren’t cooperating, infrastructure is lacking, and government incentives are nonexistent. Net Zero also has an employee model — meaning all its bikes and walkers are company employees — whereas many companies employ independent contractors, folks who are even more reluctant to invest without some sort of financial motivation. 

“I've done it without any incentive other than to help the environment — I've got two daughters and I want to make sure that there's a planet around for them and their kids,” says Chiusano. “I think that more businesses would move quicker if state and federal and local governments gave tax credits, tax incentives, or some type of business incentive to make these investments.”

As with most things climate-related, comprehensive change in the U.S. will require collaboration amongst private and public sectors — as well as an emphasis on the business case.

Boston is one of America’s densest cities, with a historical footprint that more closely resembles Europe’s pre-automotive-era street layouts. The city also ranks among the worst in the U.S. when it comes to traffic congestion and, like many places, has had difficulty effectively managing its curb space. Boston also has a commitment to being carbon neutral by 2050 and a mayor, Michelle Wu, who’s been proactive about thinking outside the box to fix a broken transportation system. Enter the Boston Delivers pilot, a “neighborhood-friendly delivery service powered by electric cargo bikes.”

The 18-month e-cargo bike pilot, which is funded through the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the state’s Department of Energy Resources, will focus on the Allston neighborhood and offer subsidies for participating small businesses (in fact, many of the companies that participate will be able to do so for free). In order to execute the project, the Boston Transportation Department partnered with Net Zero Logistics (at the time, Cornucopia Logistics), who will provide the electric cargo bikes, make the deliveries, and coordinate delivery logistics. The plan is to launch in spring of 2023.

“While this is a service that could be used for food delivery, we’re also focusing on small-to-medium parcel delivery — groceries, retail, that sort of thing,” says Harper Mills, program manager at the City of Boston. “The city is playing the role of funder and convener, connecting local businesses to this project and being there as a liaison to make sure things are going smoothly.”

The city chose Net Zero as a partner for various reasons but was especially keen on the company’s plan to be self-sustaining once grant funds ended. By conducting surveys and collecting data, the city hopes to make a compelling case study for why e-cargo bikes should be a mainstay of the city’s delivery landscape (it’s also working with the local Metropolitan Area Planning Council to develop a framework for scaling the pilot to outlying municipalities). 

“Boston is a relatively small, compact city and we want to provide access to safe, accessible, and comfortable bike facilities so that you can get where you want to be without using a car,” says Mills. “We’re seeking to demonstrate that there’s interest and a lot of value to using bikes and e-bikes to perform all sorts of activities and functions.”

Consumer culture and our society’s emphasis on accumulating more stuff — ideally, with next-day delivery — has left us at an impasse: if we don’t fundamentally change our consumption habits, there won’t be anything left to covet. While not a perfect remedy, e-cargo bikes are an incredible tool already at our disposal, with research showing that they have the potential to substitute between one and four private car trips a week. In the public space, there’s a growing understanding that e-cargo bikes will help our cities cut emissions and congestion, all while helping to move goods in a greener, timelier, and more efficient manner.

If you’re interested in being part of the solution, stay tuned for our 2023 white paper. To ensure it’s delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our “Building Better Communities” newsletter.

Related Topics:

Electric BikesSustainable TransportationBike Business
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