Cargo Bikes Are Faster, More Effective Than Vans for Urban Delivery

The benefits aren’t just environmental.

Two cycle couriers ride their cargo bikes as they deliver food.

Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

I picked up a cargo bike recently—I'll review it in the coming weeks but I can tell you that I did feel somewhat invincible riding it. I’m beginning to understand why Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter says electric cargo bikes will eat cars

Any time we make a claim like that, we hear from skeptics who question whether a bike really can compete with the power and supposed "speed" of a fossil-fueled automobile. But what those skeptics fail to take into account is the fact that in urban and even suburban environments, nimbleness and convenience are often more valuable than sheer power or top speed. 

That’s certainly what the charity Possible found in their just-released report, "The Promise of Low Carbon Freight." Looking specifically at the potential for cargo bike deliveries in London, the report delivers a powerful case for using bikes for business purposes. Using GPS data, the report compares routes taken by cargo bikes in London with routes that vans would have to take to deliver the same parcels.

Here are some of the key findings: 

  • The bikes were, on average, 1.61 times faster than an equivalent journey by van
  • They were able to deliver more packages in the same amount of time as their motorized counterparts
  • In the 98 days of work sampled, the bikes helped save a total of 3,896 kilograms of carbon dioxide and over 5.5 kilograms of nitrogen oxide 
  • Extrapolating these numbers, replacing just 10% of van freight with bikes would save as much as 133,300 metric tons of carbon dioxide and 190.4 thousand kilograms of nitrogen oxide per year. 

The study started by sampling journeys that were taken by cargo bikes so it is likely that there was a selection bias in terms of journeys that are well suited for this specific purpose. It’s fair to say, however, there are likely plenty more such journeys that could be transitioned to bike freight. In fact, the authors point out that previous studies have estimated that “just over half of all motorised freight logistics in urban areas could be done by cargo bike.”

Furthermore, the benefits aren’t just environmental. From the physical health benefits to the delivery personnel from active transportation to the reduction in road deaths, the social benefits would be enormous too. The reduced demand for road space and parking facilities should also be taken into consideration:

“In London alone, between 2015 and 2017, vans and HGVs together were involved in 32% of total fatal collisions. The 213,100 vans owned by Londoners, when parked outside, occupy around 2,557,200 sqm of road space, the equivalent of just under twice the size of Hyde Park.” 

 We’ve already seen the example of a London plumber who conducts 95% of his business by bike, but we probably shouldn’t rely on voluntary efforts or ‘hero entrepreneurs’ alone. The report concludes with a set of policy recommendations that include: 

  • Developing a consistent and clear government strategy in support of urban non-motorized freight distribution
  • The levying of charges and taxes on motorized freight transport to more accurately reflect the societal costs
  • Increasing the current 250-watt power output limit on e-bike assists to 1000 watts for unlicensed commercial delivery bikes with a top motor speed of 15.5mph 
  • Introducing clear regulations and procedures for operator licenses for cargo bikes to carry fare-paying customers 
  • Developing secure, adequate, and convenient parking facilities to deal with the increase in thefts

There are plenty more ideas and recommendations where these came from. And it’s worth digging through the whole report. Too often, cargo bikes have been thought of as a “nice” example of innovation for niche or "hipster" businesses, but what this report makes clear is that, for many applications, they are simply a more practical and realistic alternative to vans. They are also an incredibly cost-effective place to invest public money. 

From libraries loaning out e-bikes to cities providing grants to buy bikes, it’s hard to imagine a more cost-effective way for public entities to invest in their environment, their people, and their economy at the same time. 

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