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.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.