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.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.