When rethinking the streets, don't forget the power of cargo bikes

A man rides his cargo bike in Bordeaux, France, in February. (Photo by Georges Gobet/AFP via Getty Images)

As cities radically reconsider their needs for the future, many have gone to great lengths to improve their cycling infrastructure. With pop-up bike lanes and car-free zones proliferating during coronavirus lockdowns, much of the focus has been on bikes as vehicles for commuting. But with the right steps, this could also be a moment to help cargo bicycles gain a footing to compete against large, polluting delivery vans and trucks.

Cargo bikes, especially the electric-assisted kinds, have already shown their value as a means for freight transportation under the right circumstances. One company in New York City made headlines in 2015 when it started delivering mattresses by cargo bike, and during London's lockdown, startups like Pedal Me have used a fleet of e-cargo bikes for essential deliveries of food and medical supplies.

Where cargo bikes have already served as a viable logistics method – one that can genuinely cut down on costs, traffic, and emissions – they’ve largely done so in urban environments that weren’t made for them. Roads that are already hostile to cyclists can be even more intimidating on cargo bikes, which tend to be larger and less agile. Those qualities can also make them less suitable to narrow, neglected, and incomplete infrastructure that cyclists know well.

But major European cities in particular have been repurposing their central streets in recent years, and especially since the pandemic began. With dual goals of reducing air pollution and reserving more street space for pedestrians and cyclists, large vehicles are finding their access to city centres threatened by new regulations. Cargo bikes in London, it so happens, can carry heavy loads quickly and efficiently whilst avoiding the Ultra Low Emissions Zone and Congestion Charges.

Before Covid-19, society was largely oblivious to the supply chain and the need to improve it, though some innovative methods of “last-mile” delivery – like Amazon’s much-hyped concept for delivery drones – managed to capture people’s attention. While e-cargo bikes might be a more humble workhorse, there’s a lot that makes them right for this task.

Bike couriers have existed for more than a century, and e-cargo bikes represent two improvements on that tried and true model. First, they can carry larger loads: Most models offer a 350kg allowance across a two-, three- or four-wheel setup. And second, electric pedal assistance allows riders to more easily ascend hills and cover long distances, while remaining a quiet, emission-free and congestion-reducing alternative to motorbike and van deliveries.

Costing £4,000 to £8,000, compared to around £20,000 for a small diesel van, they are also cheaper to refuel (by recharging an electric battery), store, service and insure. And the continued growth of online shopping means more packages are moving around city streets, proving there is demand for delivery services that isn’t always best performed by large vehicles.

According to EU-funded project Cyclelogistics, 50% of motorised trips transporting goods in European cities could be shifted to cargo bikes or e-cargo bikes. The 2014 study found that motorized delivery vehicles vastly underutilised their storage capacity, and that bikes are also better equipped to tackle denser urban road networks. In particular, the study found that e-cargo bikes are best for trips under 7km, with a focus on everyday food supplies and other household essentials.

Of course, some places are more ready for this than others. Germany and the Netherlands already have widespread, functioning cycle networks and a positive cycling culture, fostering a smooth transition to e-bikes. Germany is a market leader on e-cargo bikes, with over 50,000 sold there last year, outselling electric cars. In the Netherlands, cargo bikes are a common feature of the school run, and cycle paths can already accommodate their width. A study by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences has shown that a bike using cycle lanes can complete a trip within the Dutch capital six times quicker than a vehicle using the roads.

City authorities can take certain steps to encourage adoption of cargo bikes as well. Design features like designated space for cycling, dropped kerbs, and simple, direct routes will aid the efficiency of inner-city deliveries, and programmes can be set up to encourage people to use them. In 2017, Maastricht was part of a select group of cities chosen for a trial scheme that allowed local businesses to buy or lease e-cargo bikes for a six-month period. If the company made at least four journeys a day and agreed to log GPS data on their usage, they would qualify for 100% reimbursement of up to €4,000.

Cities should also be mindful of how much space they can offer to accommodate secure e-bike storage and maintenance facilities in order to further encourage takeup. Berlin, for example used city and federal funding to open the KoMoDo microhub, a central storage unit shared by a number of major parcel operators. And in Paris, the eco-friendly delivery service Vert Chez Vous uses barges on the Seine to store freight, which can then be distributed around the city via e-cargo bike, and also serve as floating charging stations.

Thoughtful regulation on e-bikes can also help facilitate takeup. While the UK may lag behind some of its European neighbours in terms of cycling infrastructure, the government has so far been benign to the e-bike industry and aimed to incentivize it. In 2015, weight restrictions were removed from regulations, allowing bikes to carry heavier loads. Just this May, it was announced that 18 local authorities and 146 organisations had taken up the Department for Transport’s £2 million eCargo Bike Grant Fund to help purchase e-cargo bikes.

New York City, on the other hand, has long taken a hostile approach to e-bikes. Throttle-based versions were long outlawed, though they remained a fixture of the city’s estimated 2 million daily deliveries. Last December, the city launched its Commercial Cargo Bike Program during the holiday season to replace delivery trucks with e-cargo bikes in the city's busy midtown and downtown districts. Then came a boost for food delivery riders over lockdown as state lawmakers reached an agreement that would end the city’s crackdown on throttle-assisted e-bikes, which disproportionately affected immigrant delivery workers.

Industry leaders, meanwhile, are starting to take note. DHL piloted a fleet of four e-cargo bikes in Miami this month, after successfully pivoting much of its European operations for last-mile delivery in the past few years. Last year, DHL Americas Express CEO Mike Parra said the DHL Cubicycle – the company’s flagship e-cargo bike – “has enjoyed great success in Europe, with each bicycle deployed taking at least one conventional delivery van off the road, helping to relieve congestion and increasing our service levels”.

Going forward, policymakers will need to continue thinking about e-cargo bikes within the frame of city planning. The pandemic has reinforced cities’ dependency on global supply chains, even down to the last mile. Governments and companies are paying greater attention to their carbon footprint and social responsibility, and as cities take bold moves to reallocate street space, planners and road users alike should keep in mind how cycling networks can be used to move goods as well as people.

Hugo Greehalgh is a freelance writer based in London.


Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.


It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).

Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.