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.
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.
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.
This style of delivery bike is already operating in New Zealand: Urgent Couriers have just deployed 5 similar bikes on the streets of Auckland.
Slick versions like the Sunrider cargo bike blend storage with solar power technology to create something truly futuristic.
In Paris, bikes are used to pull trailers of groceries between the warehouse and Carrefour supermarkets many times per day.
"Paris is doing the modal shift. The supply of supermarkets takes place with these carts. They ride 10 to 50 times between warehouse and shop, electrically assisted." #cargobike https://t.co/8OKgkzQtDo
— Bicycle Mayor of Bath (@SaskiaHeijltjes) August 25, 2021
Articulated trailer systems can give bikes serious carrying capacity – some of these rival a decent-sized van.
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.
Paris’ emergency medical bikes have been developed to cut through traffic and get urgent medical supplies to hospitals and patients.
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.
Los Angeles has a cycling paramedic who uses a kitted-out bike to get to medical emergencies in tight places.
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.
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.
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.
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.