Cargo E-Bikes Take Killer Trucks Off City Streets

"It's just like driving a truck," says cyclist Bill Hewitt on an overcast Monday morning as he deftly maneuvers a fully loaded, pedal-assist cargo bike through the streets of Portland, Oregon.

Hewitt is a lean, permanently tanned 59, and he's an enthusiastic cycling cargo delivery employee at B-Line, the "sustainable urban delivery" company that formed in Portland three years ago in February 2009.

This morning, Hewitt is probably talking more than he normally would on his bike delivery route, which starts in SE Portland's industrial district at a loading warehouse, where about 500 pounds of fresh food - from seafood to strawberries - are packed into the rectangular back box of his B-Line cargo bike.

Hewitt is chattier because he's training a 'new' driver, the company's business development consultant Eric Loebel, 42. Loebel is going to take a route, to experience the company's business model first hand.

That model, of taking fossil-fuel driven trucks off the streets and replacing them with pedal-assist cargo bicycles, means that B-Line can boast of having "offset" 15,000 deliveries in Portland's inner city – 500,000 pounds of goods – that otherwise would have required fossil fuel to get to their destination.

While those are nice factoids to fling around, the really beauty of B-Line cargo bike delivery can be experienced on the streets themselves. Instead of spewing a mix of water vapor with a serving of carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone (O3), and particulate matter (mostly soot) as many trucks do, a B-Line bike emits only a gentle whirr when its driver turns on electric pedal-assist.

B-Line bikes are actually three-wheelers, made by the UK's Cycles Maximus and tinkered with endlessly by B-LIne's creative mechanic. The bike-trikes' back boxes have about 55 cubic feet of cargo space, and Hewitt's is packed neatly and to its edges when he rolls out of the warehouse toward his first delivery, on the other side of the Willamette River in Portland's Pearl District.

As critics point out, a B-Line cargo bike's 600-pound capacity is dwarfed by the 'payload' capability of even an Econoline van, which can carry about 4,000 pounds. But for dense urban environments, a cargo bike has another advantage - it doesn't need the parking space or loading area freight vans and trucks do. Hewitt can roll the bike directly into the warehouse at many stops, something regular freight vans or trucks can't manage.

The tangible benefits of B-Line cargo bike delivery – reduced air pollutants and CO2 emissions, alleviation of traffic congestion – should behoove logistic experts to figure out what part of city deliveries could be sustainably shifted to bike delivery.

In addition, it is the social benefits that make the B-Line model admirable. Trucks kill between 4 - 5,000 people each year in the U.S. (that's less than 10% of the total deaths due to traffic collisions), so taking every last truck off the roads might be seen as a huge cost versus a small benefit. Truck freight, after all, in total delivers a truly whopping 70% of U.S. goods.

Yet when a freight truck does kill a pedestrian or cyclist, as happened with Katherine Rickson in May in Portland, Oregon, the community mourns and is bewildered. Why, people wonder, do these huge trucks (sometimes riding half-empty or empty) need to rumble around narrow inner-city streets.?

The answer, if there are many more B-Line style delivery services out in the world, is that they really don't.

Office Depot, which has the contract to deliver office supplies to the City of Portland, began using B-Line for its downtown area deliveries in 2010. Office Depot can do this cost-competitively by offering the delivery to other downtown-area businesses; B-Line for its part is becoming expert at keeping the cargo bikes' back boxes full whenever possible. 'Reverse logistics' is what marketing consultant Loebel calls this skill.

B-Line is just starting to make plans to expand its model to cities other than Portland, and the company has a final sweetener to its business model. In aiming to keep the cargo bikes filled at all times, owner Franklin Jones came upon a socially-beneficial solution. His bikes collect slightly-past-prime produce from grocery stores, and deliver it to local kitchens such as Sisters of the Road Café to benefit those in need. Jones has created a structure that lets consumers purchase tax-deductible B-Shares ($20 delivers enough food for $40 meals) to help support the surplus deliveries.

It is all of these features that makes Hewitt happy to be a B-Line bike delivery person. "It drives like a truck," he had told Loebel at the morning's start. After dropping off boxes of veggies, fruits, and nuts at another non-profit and backing the empty bike into a narrow alley to pick up fresh loaves of bread, Hewitt added to that thought.

"And it takes a truck off the roads," he said as he prepared to climb onto the seat of the bike. "That's what I like."

Cargo E-Bikes Take Killer Trucks Off City Streets
Reducing traffic congestion, lowering air pollution and CO2 emissions, even feeding the homeless while moving major amounts of goods. How one cargo bike company does it all.

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