Cargo bikes can replace far heavier vehicles for a substantial share of urban deliveries. But should you buy a cargo bike for personal use? Probably not.
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In North America we think in extreme terms when it comes to last-mile freight delivery. Whether the cargo is a couple of bags of groceries, a small parcel, a large-screen TV or a small load of lumber, we routinely dispatch vehicles with hundreds-of-horsepower engines.
This practice has never made sense, and there have always been niche markets where some products and parcels have been delivered by bicycle couriers instead of truck drivers. Historically, cargo bikes were in wide use in many cities in the decades before cars and trucks cemented their death grip on most urban traffic lanes.1
Today the cargo bike industry is growing rapidly due to several factors. Many cities are establishing zero-emissions zones. The cost of gasoline and diesel fuel has risen rapidly. Congested traffic means powerful expensive vehicles typically travel at bicycle-speed or slower in downtown areas. Last but not least, the development of low-cost, lightweight electric motors for small vehicles dramatically boosts the freight delivery capacity of e-assist bikes even in hilly cities.
Thousands of companies, from sole-proprietor outfits to multinational corporations, are now integrating cargo bikes into their operations. At the same time there is an explosion of new micro-powered vehicle designs on the market.2
Where a diesel-powered urban delivery van will have an engine with hundreds of horsepower, an electric-assist bike in the EU is limited to a motor of 250 W, or about one-third of one horsepower.3 Yet that small electric motor is enough to help a cyclist make typical parcel deliveries in many urban areas at a faster rate than the diesel van can manage.
A great many other deliveries are made, not by companies, but simply by individuals bringing their own purchases home from stores. In this category, too, North Americans tend to believe an SUV or pick-up truck is the obvious tool for the job. But in many car-clogged cities and suburbs a bicycle, whether electric-assist or not, is a much more appropriate tool for carrying purchases home from the store.
This is an example of a change that can be made at the device level, rapidly, without waiting for system-level changes that will take a good bit longer. When it comes to reducing carbon emissions and reducing overall energy use, the rapid introduction and promotion of cargo bikes as delivery vehicles is an obvious place to make quick progress.
At the same time, the adoption of more appropriate delivery devices will become much more widespread if we simultaneously work on system-level changes. These changes can include establishing more and larger urban zero-emission zones; lowering speed limits for heavy vehicles (cars and trucks) on city streets; and rapid establishment of safe travel lanes for bikes throughout urban areas.
The environmental impact of deliveries
The exponential growth in online shopping over the past twenty years has also led to “the constant rise in the use of light commercial vehicles, despite every effort by cities and regulators to reduce congestion and transport emissions.”4
Last-mile urban delivery, notes the New York Times, “is the most expensive, least efficient and most impactful part of the supply chain.”5
Typical urban parcel delivery trucks have an outsize impact:
“Claudia Adriazola-Steil, acting director of the Urban Mobility Program at the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, said freight represented 15 percent of the vehicles on the roads in urban areas, but occupied 40 percent of the space. ‘They also emit 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and account for 25 percent of fatalities ….’”6
Since vehicle speeds in downtown areas are typically slow, most parcels are not very heavy, and the ability to travel in lanes narrower than a typical truck is a great advantage, a substantial portion of this last-mile delivery can be done by cargo bikes.
Both Fed-Ex and UPS are now building out electric-assist cargo bike fleets in many Western European cities. UPS has also announced plans to test electric-assist cycles in Manhattan.7
How much of the last-mile delivery business can be filled by cargo bikes? A report by the Rapid Transition Alliance says that “In London, it’s estimated that up to 14% of small van journeys in the most congested parts of the city could be made with cargo bikes.”8 City Changer Cargo Bike estimates that in Europe “up to 50% of urban delivery and service trips could be replaced by cargo bikes….”9
It’s important to note that big corporations aren’t the only, or even the major, players in this movement. Small businesses of every sort – ice-cream vendors, bakeries, self-employed carpenters and plumbers, corner grocery stores – are also turning to cargo bikes. The City Changer Cargo Bike report says that “It is important to highlight that the jobs created by cargo bikes are mainly created by Small and Medium-size Enterprises.”10
For small companies or large, the low cost of cargo bikes compared to delivery vans is a compelling factor. The New York Times cites estimates that “financial benefits to businesses range from 70-90% cost savings compared to reliance on delivery vans.”11
The cost savings come not only from the low initial purchase price and low operating costs of cargo bikes, but also from the fact that “electric cargo bikes delivered goods 60 percent faster than vans did in urban centers, and that an electric cargo bike dropped off 10 parcels an hour compared with a van’s six.”12
It’s no wonder the cargo bike industry is experiencing rapid growth. Kevin Mayne of Cycling Industries Europe says sales are growing at 60% per year across the European Union and could reach 2 million cargo bike sales per year by 2030.
Delivery vans in European cities are typically powered by diesel. Replacing a few hundred thousand diesel delivery vans with e-cargo bikes will obviously have a significant positive impact on both urban air quality and carbon emissions.
But what if diesel delivery vans are switched instead to similar-sized electric delivery vans? Does that make the urban delivery business environmentally benign?
Far from it. Electric delivery vans are just as heavy as their diesel counterparts. That means they cause just as much wear and tear on city streets, they pose just as much collision danger to cyclists, pedestrians, and people in smaller vehicles, and they produce just as much toxic tire and brake dust.
Finally, there is the significant impact of mining and manufacturing all that vehicle weight, in terms of upfront carbon emissions and many other environmental ills. There are environmental costs in manufacturing cargo bikes too, of course. But whereas a delivery van represents a large amount of weight for a much smaller delivery payload, a cargo bike is a small amount of weight for a relatively large payload.
In a listing by Merchants Fleet of the “5 Best Electric Cargo Vans for Professionals”, all the vehicles have an empty-weight a good bit higher than the maximum weight of cargo they can carry. (The ratios of empty vehicle weight to maximum cargo weight range from about 1.5 to 3.5.)13
By contrast, a recent list of recommended electric-assist cargo bikes shows that the ratios are flipped: all of these vehicles can carry a lot more cargo than the vehicles themselves weigh, with most in the 4 – 5 times cargo-weight-to-empty-vehicle-weight range.14
One other factor is particularly worthy of note. The lithium which is a key ingredient of current electric-vehicle batteries is difficult, perhaps impossible, to mine and refine in an environmentally benign way. Lithium batteries will be in extremely high demand if we are to “electrify everything” while also ramping up storage of renewably, intermittently generated electricity. Given these constraints, shouldn’t we take care to use lithium batteries in the most efficient ways?
Let’s look at two contrasting examples. An Urban Arrow Cargo bike has a load capacity of 249 kg (550 lbs), and a battery weight of 2.6 kg (5.7 lbs)15 – a payload-to-battery-weight ratio of about 44.
The Arrival H3L3 electric van has a load capacity of 1484 kg (3272 lbs) and its battery is rated at 111 kWh.16 If we assume, generously, that the Arrival’s battery weighs roughly the same as Tesla’s 100 kWh battery, then the battery weight is 625 kg (1377 lbs).17 The Arrival then has a payload-to-battery-weight ratio of about 2.4.
In this set of examples, the e-cargo bike has a payload-to-battery-weight ratio almost 20 times as high as the ratio for the e-cargo van.
Clearly, this ratio is just one of many factors to consider. The typical e-cargo van can carry far heavier loads, at much higher speeds, and with a longer range between charges, than e-cargo bike can manage. But for millions of urban last-mile deliveries, these theoretical advantages of e-cargo vans are of little or no practical value. In congested urban areas where travel speeds are low, daily routes are short, and for deliveries in the 1 – 200 kg weight range, the e-cargo bike can be a perfectly adequate device with a small fraction of the financial and environmental costs of e-cargo vans.
Cargo bikes, or just bikes that carry cargo?
A rapid rollout of cargo bikes in relatively dense urban areas is an obvious step towards sustainability. But should you buy a cargo bike for personal use?
Probably not, in my opinion – though there will be many exceptions. Here is why I think cargo bikes are overkill for an average person.
Most importantly, the bikes most of us have been familiar with for decades are already a very good device for carrying small amounts of cargo, particularly with simple add-ons such as a rack and/or front baskets.
A speed fetish was long promoted by many bike retailers, according to which a “real bike” was as light as possible and was ridden by a MAMIL – Middle-Aged Male In Lycra – who carried nothing heavier than a credit car. Cargo bikes can represent a chance for retailers to swing the pendulum to the opposite extreme, promoting the new category as a necessity for anyone who might want to carry more than a loaf of bread.
In spite of bike-industry biases, countless people have always used their bikes – any bikes – in routine shopping tasks. And with the addition of a sturdy cargo rack and a set of saddlebags, aka panniers, a standard-form bike can easily carry 25 kg or more of groceries. Or hardware, or gardening supplies, or a laptop computer and set of office clothes, or a stack of university textbooks.
The bikes now designed and marketed as cargo bikes can typically carry several times as much weight, to be sure. But how often do you need that capability, and is it worth the considerable downside that comes with cargo bikes?
Cargo bikes are typically a good bit longer and a lot heavier than standard-model bikes. That makes them more complicated to store. You probably won’t be able to carry a big cargo bike up stairs to an apartment, and you might not sleep well if you have to leave an expensive cargo bike locked on the street.
If you only occasionally need to carry larger amounts of cargo, you’re likely to get tired of riding a needlessly heavy and bulky bike the rest of the time.
If you occasionally carry your bike on a bus, train, or on a rack behind a car, a long cargo bike may be difficult or impossible to transport the same way.
Depending on the form factor, you may find a cargo bike doesn’t handle well in spite of its large weight capacity. Long-tail cargo bikes, with an extra-long rack over the rear wheel, can carry a lot of weight when that weight is distributed evenly on both sides of the rack. But if the load is a single heavy object, you may find it difficult to strap the load on the top of the rear rack so that it doesn’t topple bike and rider to one side or the other. (As one who has tried to load a big reclining chair onto a rear rack and ride down the road, I can attest that it’s harder than it sounds.)
The large box style cargo bikes known as bakfiets solve those balance problems, but are typically heavy, long, and thus difficult to store. They can be ideal for moving around a city with children, though many parents will not feel comfortable doing so unless there is a great network of safe streets and protected bike lanes.
For people who have a secure storage space such as a garage, and the budget to own more than one bike, and for whom it will often be helpful to be able to carry loads of 100 kg or more by bike – a cargo bike might be a great buy. Or, perhaps a cargo trailer will be more practical, since it can add great cargo-carrying ability to an ordinary bike on an as-needed basis.18
Ideally, though, every urban area will soon have a good range of cargo-bike businesses, and some of those businesses will rent or loan cargo bikes to the rest of us who just occasionally need that extra capacity.
• • •
In the next installment of this series on transportation, we’ll look at a sector in which no significant device-level fixes are on the horizon.
1 See A Visual History of the Cargo Bike, from Mechanic Cycling, Haverford, Pennsylvania.
2 For an overview of a wide range of new cargo bikes and urban delivery initiatives, see the annual magazine of the International Cargo Bike Festival.
3 In North America wattage restrictions vary but many jurisdictions allow e-assist bikes with motors up to 750 Watt output.
4 Stakeholder’s Guide: Expanding the reach of cargo bikes in Europe, published by CycleLogistics and City Changer Cargo Bike, 2022.
5 “A Bicycle Built for Transporting Cargo Takes Off,” by Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.
6 Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.
7 Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.
8 Large-tired and tested: how Europe’s cargo bike roll-out is delivering, 18 August 2021.
11 Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.
12 Tanya Mohn, New York Times, June 29, 2022.
13 “5 Best Electric Cargo Vans for Professionals”, Merchants Fleet.
14 “10 Best Electric Cargo Bikes for Families and Businesses in 2022,” BikeExchange, Sept 1, 2022.
15 “10 Best Electric Cargo Bikes for Families and Businesses in 2022,” BikeExchange, Sept 1, 2022.
16 5 Best Electric Cargo Vans for Professionals”, Merchants Fleet.
17 “How much do Tesla’s batteries weigh?”, The Motor Digest, Nov 27, 2021.
18 One example is the Bikes At Work lineup. I have used their 96” long trailer for about 15 years to haul lumber, slabs of granite, voluminous bags of compost and many other loads that would have been awkward or impossible to move with most cargo bikes.
Photo at top of page: “Eco-friendly delivery with DHL in London: a quadracycle in action,” by Deutsche Post DHL on flickr.com, Creative Commons 2.0 license.