Are Cargo Bikes the Future for Urban Deliveries?

©. UPS

Carlton Reid thinks so, but the cars won't make room without a fight.

Last fall we asked Which is the future of delivery: e-cargo bikes or drones? Now bike expert Carlton Reid answers the question, concluding that Cargobikes Not Drones Are The Future For Urban Deliveries. He relies on a big study out of the Netherlands, which suggests that electric cargo bikes could change deliveries. Reid writes:

E-cargobikes fit the bill. Their 350kg [770 lbs] capacity is not weedy – in the Netherlands, the average van carries as little as 130kg per trip. And e-cargobikes are nimble, which will become increasingly important as more and more of us opt to live cheek by jowl in cities, where road space will always be in short supply.

weighing the benefits

City Logistics: Light and Electric/CC BY 1.0

The study, City Logistics: Light and Electric, concludes that Light Electric Freight Vehicles (LEFVs) could replace 10 to 15 percent of delivery vehicles. "The industry sectors with most potential in city logistics are food, construction, services, non-food retail and post and parcel delivery. It is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the trips with a delivery vehicle in cities are suitable for cost-effective deployment of LEFVs."

There are questions of where they would go and how they would integrate with existing traffic. Certainly, nobody wants them clogging the bike lanes or parked on sidewalks.

Urban infrastructure and traffic rules are not yet prepared for an increase in the number of LEFVs. There is uncertainty over which part of the streetscape LEFVs will be allowed to use to drive, load and unload; and furthermore there is a shortage of parking facilities. Further speed limits on the road, the construction of bicycle streets and installation of loading and unloading spaces for LEFVs offer opportunities for better integration of LEFVs in traffic.

Of course, in many cities there is lots of room for bikes, e-scooters and cargo bikes; you just have to take away a bit of car storage and make some decisions about what the future of transportation and logistics are. The UK Roads minister is quoted by Reid: "Encouraging electric delivery bikes on to our city streets will cut traffic and improve air quality, and will show how these vehicles have the potential to play an important role in the zero-emission future of this country."

In the USA, everybody is writing about Amazon's test of a new delivery drone, six of which are rolling around a suburban neighbourhood with wide smooth empty sidewalks on a nice sunny day. The customer has to come out to the sidewalk and open it to get her package, and it doesn't actually hold very much. All of these new technologies suffer from the same problem: they are all competing for space in the road allowance. I wrote about earlier when the Starship Robot was launched:

hello robot

© Starship Industries

We all know the story about how a hundred years ago, roads were shared. People walked in them, kids played in them, vendors set up pushcarts in them. Then along came the car, the invention of jaywalking, and people were pushed off the roads onto sidewalks. Then more cars came and they even took away most of the sidewalks to widen the roads.

Reid does discuss the issues of sharing road space and quotes the study, which notes that “there are questions about the safety of LEFVs when they use the road together with regular car and bicycle traffic” and “resistance to their use on already crowded cycling infrastructure, especially when the LEFVs involved are large.”

In the end, the most serious issue in our cities will not be whether we are getting delivery by truck or LEFV or drone or e-bike, but whether the politicians, the police and the public will make room for them.

life in the fedex lane

Lloyd Alter/ Life in the Fedex lane/CC BY 2.0

It isn't about the vehicle; it is about a fundamental reassessment of how our road space is distributed and regulated. Until then, I will still be riding in the Fedex lane.

fedex lane

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0