Service and deliveries logistics often gets raised as a problem when discussing plans to make urban areas safer for walking and cycling. We want to reduce the presence of vehicles in community centres and neighbourhoods, but how can we provide for services and deliveries that come by truck, van and car?

Stores’ needs for deliveries are variable. Some only need once- or twice-a-week restocking. Some restaurants might manage with one or two scheduled deliveries of fresh produce each day. Other stores might need frequent or emergency top-ups of goods throughout the day. Services can mean anything from tradespeople to emergency service like fire and ambulance.

Van unloading a delivery on High St, Auckland City Centre

The city is full of road users whose job involves multiple trips between different destinations. It is obviously important that they’re able to get where they need to go quickly and efficiently. For many of these services and deliveries, they and the businesses they service like access to be as close to the destination – the shopfront, the supermarket loading bay, the restaurant back door – as possible. For a tradesperson, their vehicle is their tool shed, so being able to park it near the job means ready access to the equipment they need to work. Emergency services need unimpeded access to the emergency they are attending.

All of this can make it sound like yet another reason that vehicles need to access every storefront, at all times, so that businesses can keep running. But in a city that’s trying to become safer and more accessible to all, and in a warming climate which demands reduction of VKT, perhaps there are better ways to manage services and deliveries.

The vehicles

There are countless different examples of electric cargo bikes. The family-wagon cargo bike with a barrow in the front that fits a couple of small kids is becoming more common on Auckland streets. Beyond New Zealand, the cargo bike market is in expansion mode. A Bloomberg CityLab article on the rise of the electric delivery bike finds that the growth has been particularly strong in Europe:

In Germany, DHL/Deutsche Post now manages a fleet of nearly 17,000 cargo bikes and trikes, with another 5,000 on order. “The change in the last five years here has been extraordinary,” says Kevin Mayne, CEO of Cycling Industries Europe, an industry group. “Most of the cargo bike manufacturers now have two divisions: one for consumers and one for businesses. If anything, growth in the business-to-business side is bigger.”

Front-barrow courier bikes are relatively common, used by DHL, Fedex and others to get mail to destinations quickly. They’re not the ultimate heavy-haulers (see below), but they’re fast, nimble and efficient.

DHL delivery bikes in London. Source: Bloomberg

This style of delivery bike is already operating in New Zealand: Urgent Couriers have just deployed 5 similar bikes on the streets of Auckland.

One of Urgent Courier’s new cargo bikes, downtown.

Slick versions like the Sunrider cargo bike blend storage with solar power technology to create something truly futuristic.

Sunrider charges as you ride, and can carry up to 150kg. Source: Sunrider website

In Paris, bikes are used to pull trailers of groceries between the warehouse and Carrefour supermarkets many times per day.

Articulated trailer systems can give bikes serious carrying capacity – some of these rival a decent-sized van.

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Bikes are also being turned into specialised delivery vehicles for medical purposes. A friend of GA spotted a ‘Corona Bike’ in Berlin, one of ten super-mobile testing centres rolled out in the city.

‘Coronabike’ on the streets of Berlin

Paris’ emergency medical bikes have been developed to cut through traffic and get urgent medical supplies to hospitals and patients.

Emergency medical delivery bike in Paris. Source: Twitter

It’s not just deliveries that e-cargo bikes are useful for. Wellington has a cycling electrician who gets around by bike with his tools modified steel pannier attachments. The German version of the AA has mechanics on e-bikes with tools in the trailer.

German AA – servicing cars by bike. Source: Twitter

Los Angeles has a cycling paramedic who uses a kitted-out bike to get to medical emergencies in tight places.

Bicycle ambulance in LA. Source: Twitter

The last mile

Creating mode shift in the services and deliveries sector is all about the last mile. The last mile concept is a completely different way of thinking about delivery and logistics. It recognises that our towns and cities should be people-first, and that vehicles must contribute to making the places we live in safer and easier to get around.

What does this mean?

  • Instead of one big vehicle completing the entire trip from origin to ultimate destination, several small vehicles (like cargo bikes) travel between an intermediate collection point and final destinations, many times per day.
  • Instead of courier vans doing circuits between spread-out businesses, e-cargo bikes make quick direct trips within a local area.
  • Instead of driving long distances between call-outs, a tradie on a bike works within a cycleable radius, and doesn’t get stuck in traffic on the way to a job.
  • Operations that require bigger vehicles and infrastructure are managed so that they occur late at night or early in the morning, when they’re not going to disrupt normal daily activities.
Creating the last-mile infrastructure

In Berlin, the Senate is looking at adding freight carriages to the S-Bahn, the urban metro system. As this article notes, that project is not without logistical headaches.

For the logisticians, the additional intermediate stage via local rail transport would make it a lot more complicated with additional loading processes. How the agreements between companies and transport companies can be structured in a meaningful way also seems absolutely open.

In Frankfurt, work is underway to test the potential of the city’s urban trams – yes, its light rail – to be part of a deliveries logistics network. The concept was announced at a ‘National Bicycle Logistics’ conference in September.

The containers with a capacity of 2.1 cubic meters and a length of 1.7 meters fit into the multi-purpose area of ​​trams. Where otherwise prams are parked, the containers the size of Euro pallets could soon find their place instead. After transport by tram, the containers on rollers should be picked up by a cargo bike courier at the usual stopping points. The cyclists can then deliver the goods to companies or households.

A container being unloaded from a Frankfurt tram

Cargo bikes are providing last-mile deliveries in the Canadian cities of Montreal and Toronto. One of the pioneers, Project Colibri in Montreal, uses an old bus depot as a loading and distribution hub.

Hubs, such as the one used in Project Colibri, are also “critical” infrastructure, [cycle logistics consultant] Sam Starr said, and require partnerships between governments and businesses.

“It can’t just be done by the private industry,” he said. “It really needs public collaboration.”

In Portland, Oregon, ‘micro-delivery hubs’ may be publicly funded under a federal Covid-relief fund. The concept has a network of pickup/dropoff points on the ‘Green Loop’, from which last-mile deliveries would begin.

The Portland ‘Green Loop’ is a possible starting point for last mile infrastructure. Micro hubs shown in blue on the city’s east side.

Familiar barriers

European cities are embracing e-cargo logistics because they are often already working with decades’ worth of investment in cycling infrastructure. When cycling is the easiest way to get around, it just makes sense to run a business by bike too.

On the other hand, car-dominant North American cities are facing the same kinds of challenges that Auckland is looking at. The Bloomberg CityLab article referenced above highlights the spectrum of infrastructure needed to support a mode-shift for services and deliveries, from the physical space, to the charging infrastructure, to the software companies use to plan trips:

The other pressing infrastructural issue is the lack of U.S. “microhubs” — physical locations where shippers can consolidate vehicles and parcels. “You need charging infrastructure and overnight storage for the bike,” Dalla Chiara says, “as well as space for a van to deliver packages to the microhub in the morning.” Inertia favoring the status quo of van delivery also presents a challenge. “The big shippers are running software that isn’t designed for cargo bikes,” Dalla Chiara says. “It doesn’t take into account the presence of bike lanes or the steepness of the road.”

A pilot project in Seattle found that replacing delivery vans with cargo bikes within one neighbourhood reduced the overall emissions of deliveries by 30%, but that inadequate infrastructure made  the bicycle couriers’ jobs harder.

Improved bike lanes could help, though Goodchild adds that in most cities, the bike system has been designed for commuters, and so might not be amenable to cargo bikes that have to make frequent stops.

Businesses will respond to the context they are given. In Auckland, the City Centre Master Plan aims to make the City Centre a ‘zero-emissions area’. This means making it more difficult to drive a car into and through the City Centre. Each of Urgent Couriers’ 5 ebikes is replacing a car, because they had found that traffic and reduced loading zones were making the cars unviable.

Bikes are already looking like the better option for some businesses, and that’s without any real last-mile infrastructure or a genuine cycle lane network.

This map of central Auckland shows very little dedicated cycling infrastructure in the City Centre and surrounding areas. Source: AT online maps

Businesses that operate services and deliveries will respond to the context they’re provided. Getting the urban places we want is about building the infrastructure they require and then stepping aside so that businesses can adapt and innovate. It’s happening all over the world: we can beg, borrow and steal ideas from all sorts of places. All we need to do is jump on the (cargo) wagon.

Innovation in multi-modal deliveries is just around the corner. Source: Twitter
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  1. Seems to me the E cargo bike is a city centre sort of a thing the courier companies and warehouses are in the suburbs. We would need some kind of city centre drop off depot to make this work. Even then it would add an extra layer of complexity to the logistics. Delivery times would be effected.

    1. The City Centre has about the same population as Invercargill. The courier companies mostly have a depot in Invercargill so I don’t think a CBD operation would be excessively complex.

      There are already a number of cycle couriers in the CBD, so it’s clear there are some efficiencies already. It would probably only take a couple of street closures to tip the balance for finding alternatives to delivering larger items.

      1. I was just thinking out loud it will be interesting to see how it pans out. One reason I seldom use on line shopping is I figure my bus and walking trip to collect purchases is more environmentally friendly than having a courier van deliver them. Is that logical or is there a bigger picture.

        1. Royce, that’s my approach, too. Harder during the lockdowns.

          Overseas, the direction things are heading in some places is neighbourhood hubs with lockboxes. Given in-the-flesh shops are getting harder to find for some items. So people can order something and rather than it come to their house, it goes in a consolidated delivery to the neighbourhood hub along with other items. And they can pick it up on foot (or bike, or when hopping off public transport next to the hub on their way home).

          I think this would work really in Auckland.

    2. Yeah, I think a drop-off depot is the same sort of thing as the micro-hubs described in the article. I can imagine a network of depots throughout the city, one or two in every suburb, and this fits the low-traffic-neighbourhood concept. It’s a shift in the way we think about logistics infrastructure – finer-grained, perhaps – but the complexities and challenges are not necessarily any bigger than the challenges faced by cars, vans and trucks. They’re just different. What if we planned for the effects that we want? Transitioning as many essential vehicle trips as possible to other modes will make our neighbourhoods and centres better for everyone. So how can we provide the infrastructure to make things work for those other modes?

  2. Another advantage of bikes for services is how they add to the general biking momentum. Those five courier bikes are bikes that absolutely will be on the streets and bike lanes of Auckland pretty much every day, no matter the weather. They will be visible and help change drivers’ perceptions of things like whether bike lanes are actually being used.

  3. AT ,l imagine is the sort of organization, where you have to “do your time”,if you want to advance yourself,any proposals about modern methods and technology,gets flushed away as unproven. They ,AT ,appear to be maybe 20 years behind,in their thinking,judging on what is routinely offered up as traffic design. Not helped of course by councillors,who are also stuck in the past,one area where you would hope some vision would come from, need the 16 year olds to vote, to change that.
    It will ultimately come down to a mixture of embarrassment, Urgent Couriers,leading the way,and blood, Vision Zero, that will drive the change that is required

  4. Thank you Marita for the interesting post. I was interested in the slideshow of the different e-cargo bike. Look pretty impressive to me.

  5. Great to see Urgent Couriers try this out, it’s a logical extension of e-bikes.
    It would be interesting to know how these would compare to the NZ Post “Paxter” electric buggies.

  6. Thanks, Marita. The cycling map of central Auckland shows the barrier to modeshift, for businesses and residents alike.

  7. My package dream is to see some pickup service run near one of the major rail stations. Ideally with a way to get there without crossing fare gates.
    It would be awesome if I could get off one train, walk upstairs at Mt Eden, pick up my package, and make it back downstairs before the next train. Way more convenient than home delivery, way safer.

  8. In one of the recent addition of the Railway Observer there is an article on Dunedin Trams. The author as an eleven year old had an after school job as delivery boy for a Stationary shop. He used the tram and bus network for transporting the deliveries. He preferred the trams because they were quicker and had easier access because of wider doors.

  9. Thanks for a great article. There needs to be a further invention – an e-scooter for rent that is capable of carrying packages. I’m not going to buy an ebike because they are priced ridiculously high – but I’m a frequent user of escooters, to quickly zip around town.
    But escooters are not a good vehicle on which to carry packages. If you hang things off the handlebars then they are too heavy and front heavy, and the view of the front wheel is lost. But there’s no room on the base board for two large feet and a box of wine. Need some sort of panier system for the groceries !

    1. I have seen someone towing a shopping trolley on an e-scooter. This was not the owner’s own e-scooter but the e-scooter hire version, the purple one. I was gobsmacked! He was going quite slow

  10. Hub location is the critical thing. Downtown car park Illustrates the problem. If location is too central, for final delivery, the truck traffic to feed the hub becomes a problem. Hubs need to be near the road network but far enough in to optimise delivery. Finding sites is tricky.
    Also – kneeling trolleys are used for local deliveries eg. On campus. E-trolleys would extend this concept.

  11. Last-mile delivery sounds like the sort of thing that would lend itself to an Uber style app. Stay-at-home parents with time between school runs, the active retired needing to get out of the house, teenagers after school, or even commuters heading home could all pick up from a local hub and deliver. You’d need to make sure the pay and conditions don’t become exploitative, but a bit like delivering junk mail now, it could be a good way for some people to get out and about and interact with their neighbours.

    At a future point in time it might be possible to teach these (quiet) electric vehicles to go around town making deliveries while the rest of us are sleeping.

  12. The major players already have courier depots in the Auckland cbd. NZ Couriers is at St Georges Bay Rd, DHL in Quay Street and Deadline is in Union Street. So no excuses.

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