This Plumber Conducts 95% of His Business by Cargo Bike

Shane Topley rented an e-bike during lockdowns as a way to help clean up the city’s air.

Shane Topley
Shane Topley.


Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter looked at the long history of using cargo bikes for business and asked an interesting and critically pertinent question: “I wonder what combination of difficult parking, high fuel prices, and congestion charges would make this way of doing business viable again.” It’s just possible the answer to that question may simply be "whatever they are doing in London," because cargo bikes in general (and e-bikes in particular) are becoming ever more commonplace on the streets of the United Kingdom capital.

And then there's the story of West London plumber Shane Topley, who rented an e-bike during the COVID lockdowns as a way to help clean up the city’s air. His story, first shared by Transport for London (TFL), spotlights how many businesses can embrace e-bikes.

What’s remarkable about this video, to me, is Topley spends most of his time extolling the huge personal and professional benefits of the move. This isn’t about sacrifice or "doing the right thing," but rather a logical tool for a very specific job. And it’s clear that Topley himself has been surprised by just how practical the switch has been.

Topley tells Treehugger: “I expected to do something between 50 and 60 percent of my business by bicycle, but I’ve actually discovered that it’s closer to 95% of my business can actually be done by bike. Every time I get on it, I’m blown away. It’s amazing.” 

Having connected with Topley by phone, we pointed out to him that his profession isn’t the first one would think of as being suitable for bikes and biking. He 100% agreed but reiterated that he himself has been surprised by just how rarely a van is necessary.

“It’s been a real eye-opener—and a big education—to realize how much of my business can be done by bike," Topley explains. "The only thing I need the van for is taking big, heavy ladders. And realistically I could hire those and have them delivered. I could almost get rid of the van entirely.”

Of course, the switch to a bike is not simply a like-for-like replacement for a van. Topley reports having to plan his days a little more carefully and makes repeated trips home to pick up more supplies. But here too there are benefits, meaning he’s home more often for lunch.

“Since the first lockdown and getting my first electric bike, I’ve used the van on two other occasions," Topley said in the TfL video. "However, both times I’ve been seriously disappointed. One time it took me 40 minutes to park. Another time, it was wall-to-wall traffic. I feel rather smug, I have to say, as I cruise down past all the cars that are nose to tail.” 

Topley was assisted in his transition to e-bikes by London-based social enterprise CarryMe Bikes, which helped advise on what type of bike would be suitable for his specific business needs. It seems likely that many such services will be needed if we’re to see a larger-scale switch to e-bike and cargo bike-based business models.

Yet while electric cars and vans are subject to tax credits and incentives in many countries around the world, bikes are often an afterthought. When asked to share what—if any—support he was seeing from the local or national government for a cargo bike and e-bike based commerce, Topley kept it candid.

“Really, I am not aware of any tax credits or government support. There are some cycle-to-work tax schemes, but they are mostly aimed at employees and employers," he says. "I haven’t seen grants for e-bikes and cargo bikes for businesses like my own. I also don’t see much of the business or biking world focused on this either. All the articles and marketing I see about cargo bikes are aimed at families with kids. Nobody is promoting these for people like me, and it’s crazy! It’s such an efficient way of getting around.”

Shane Topley's e-bike

Shane Topley

Noting that his profession has—deserved or not—a reputation for sometimes arriving late, Topley jokingly points out that the efficiency of the bike in traffic has obliterated excuses for not being punctual. 

That said, it’s not all clean sailing, or pedaling for that matter. Topley notes the lack of secure parking and the rise of bike theft as a significant impediment to cargo bike adoption. Clean transport thinktank Fare City published an interesting report with a raft of policy and infrastructure recommendations for supporting both business and personal use of cargo bikes, which includes secure on-street parking as a major priority. It also highlights the need for public support of no-commitment cargo bike hire schemes, which can help to overcome hesitancy at what seems like a significant financial risk: 

“For many, the final step prior to purchasing a cargo bike is a longer-term hire, as part of a supplier – or borough – run initiative. CarryMe Bikes offer up to £500 worth of hires on different cargo bikes, which can then be taken off the overall cost of any subsequent purchase. Similarly, west Londoner, Bori, has used a partnership between Richmond Council and supplier Peddle My Wheels to trial a cargo bike for £90 per month, for up to three months. If Bori chooses to keep the bike, the balance of the payment will be spread across an interest-free installment plan; if she chooses not to, the bike will be returned.”

Having previously lived in Copenhagen, where cargo bikes were already ubiquitous back in the '90s, I’ve witnessed what it looks like when cargo bikes reach a tipping point and go mainstream. But it took Copenhagen a long time to get where it was then, and the rest of the world has a long way to catch up. 

Given the huge social, health, and quality-of-life benefits delivered (sorry) by businesses like Topley's, the pro-cargo bike policy seems like a pretty safe place for governments and local authorities to invest their money. Not only would it help clean the air and reduce traffic congestion, but as Topley’s experience attests, it offers huge benefits for health and quality of life too.

“I’m a mad keen climber in my spare time, and yet that hasn’t really been possible during the pandemic," says Topley. "Getting around by cargo bike as part of my workday has been a great form of exercise, a way to get out in the fresh air, and a really lovely way to see London from a different perspective too.”