The bike-truck is coming ’round the corner, says Selwyn Parker
The rapid development of electrically powered cargo bikes promises to slash pollution in last-mile deliveries in the world’s most crowded cities.
As e-bikes are muscled up to take the bigger loads that result from the explosion in online sales, delivery giants like FedEx, UPS and Amazon are turning to low-cost, low-emission two, three and sometimes four-wheelers in preference to the diesel vans that currently bring the vast majority of goods from warehouse to doorstep.
Fleets of cargo bikes from a dozen or more manufacturers already operate in some of the biggest cities in the US, Canada, UK and Europe. Amazon, for instance, operates them in a dozen cities in France and Germany, with London next in line.
Looking ahead, logistics companies believe they will take over short-haul deliveries in the teeming city centres of Sao Paulo, Barcelona and the many traffic-choked capitals of the East such as Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok and Mumbai, to name a few where noisome and overloaded scooters are a common sight.
When Travis Katz, the chief executive of BrightDrop, GM’s e-logistics project, sees “a new era in delivery”, it is hardly an exaggeration. The bicycle industry is doing its best to meet the demand. The latest models can take loads of up to 400 kg and zip through city streets at up to 25 km/h or more. Even the bigger e-cargo bikes can cover more than 60 km on a single charge while some will run for 80 km.
Last-mile deliveries are a problem in need of a solution in the wake of the boom in e-commerce in the last 20 years. According to a variety of studies including one by UK’s Department of Transport, commercial deliveries by vans contribute a disproportionate amount of pollution, about 30% of all transport emissions and over 50% of nitrogen oxide. Roughly half of these deliveries could be done by pedal or electrically powered bikes, the studies suggest.
“When it comes to last-mile logistics electrification strategies,” predicts Mobility Weekly newsletter, “in the next decade two or three wheels could be as important as four.” If anything, that’s too cautious in view of the explosion in the development of e-powered bike trucks.
The revolution is well underway. Between 2018 and 2020 the fleet of e-cargo bikes in Europe alone had grown to 100 000-strong and the pandemic has served to greatly boost numbers. Always on the lookout for more efficient and economical modes of delivery, logistics behemoths like DHL Express started piloting solar-powered bicycle deliveries as early as 2015 in several big cities, including Hong Kong and Singapore, and is now growing its fleet of e-cargo bikes.
The bicycle isn’t exactly new as a mode of freight transport. The Dutch have used pedal-powered bakfiets – box bikes – for years to move kids and groceries, and French postmen were delivering mail in the early 1900s. But e-cargo bikes are rapidly scaling up an historic form of transport. As electric motors deliver more watts, their load capacity increases almost by the year with technology to match. The latest models feature hydraulic disc brakes, 500-watt motors, lightweight but robust materials, three and sometimes four fat-tyred wheels. One US start-up has just launched a collapsible trailer that, towed behind an e-bike, can take a load of 400 kg.
Most of today’s models are open to the weather, but UK manufacturer EAV, an industry leader, puts both cyclist and goods undercover. Half-bicycle, half-van, its 2Cubed has a maximum payload of 150 kg and space for up to 2 000 litres of goods. An environmentally virtuous company, EAV uses bio-recyclable materials for the bodywork, the batteries are interchangeable, and top speed is 25 km/h with a range of 65 km.
Compared with diesel vans, the environmental benefits of e-cargo bikes are inarguable. A study by the University of Westminster estimates an e-cargo bike emits 90% less carbon dioxide than a van. And of course it’s almost silent.
The business case is compelling too. Apart from increasingly generous government subsidies in many countries and cities, e-cargo bikes don’t consume fuel, can be recharged within a few hours, require little maintenance, and don’t incur congestion taxes. And since these are workhorses, logistics companies report that they can make as much as 25% more deliveries in a day than a van, especially in “vertical” cities, mainly because bikes can use dedicated lanes to get to high-rise buildings. They also park more easily and – a vital consideration in many cities – don’t attract fines.
The sticker price for a big-box bike runs from about EUR 4000 to 8 000, depending on load capacity, overall weight, technical sophistication and the power of the motor among other factors. EAV’s enclosed e-cargo machine comes in at over GBP 12 000 (EUR 14 000). But these prices come before subsidies. Also, logistics groups point to low through-life costs. Spain’s BKL group estimates energy costs for its e-tricycle at a paltry €0.1/100 km. “And it carries lovely pets”, a spokesman tells ITF.
Having seen where last-mile deliveries are heading, automobile giant GM has in record time – less than two years – developed BrightDrop, a division devoted to the development of an “ecosystem of electric first-to-last mile deliveries”. Working with Coaster Cycles for the final haul, it is taking thousands of orders for its Zevo, an all-electric cargo van, that links up with the former’s e-trikes. Simultaneously, Coaster Cycles’ three-wheelers are being trialled by the US Postal Service.
And an entirely new concept, GM has added an e-cart called Trace for the last few steps from van to front door. According to GM’s tests, the e-cart cuts “curb-side dwell time” by half.
Clearly, the days of the diesel van are numbered.
Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.
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The International Cargo Bike Festival celebrating #DecadeOfTheCargoBike is on 27-29 October in The Netherlands: https://cargobikefestival.com/