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Logistics, Deliveries… Can We Really do Everything by Bike?

Logistics, Deliveries… Can We Really do Everything by Bike?
Logistics, Deliveries… Can We Really do Everything by Bike?
June 10, 2023   //   

By Eric Dupin

The rise of e-commerce and online shopping has for many years made it possible to experience the famously complex bag of knots of last-mile delivery – the portion of delivery that brings the item from the depot to your door – in urban areas. But emerging trends are changing the future delivery landscape.

Among them, electrically assisted bicycles are not only environmentally friendly ways to get around. These lightweight motorized vehicles also open up new possibilities for transporting goods in urban environments, allowing cyclists to carry more weight more easily than with a traditional bicycle. You should in fact know that cargo bikes can transport up to three times their weight, with a transport capacity ranging from 40 to 250 kilograms. Quite impressive figures for a layman.

Large logistics companies facing the challenge of the last mile… by bike
Large delivery and logistics companies are aware of this. While consumers still represent the majority of cargo e-bike buyers, according to market research company EMR, more than a quarter of the supply is used by commercial entities. DHL, FedEx, Amazon and UPS have all announced trials or pilot programs over the past five years to use Cargo eBikes for last-mile deliveries, the final leg of the delivery journey as the package passes from warehouse (usually by truck or van) to the consumer.

In fact, the use cases for electrically assisted bicycles in logistics – and even tourism, we will come to this later in this article – are already extremely varied and diversified, and constitute a reality for many companies and specialized structures.

At first glance, using cargo bikes for package delivery seems like a great idea. They are smaller and more maneuverable than standard delivery trucks. They take up less space on a city’s already limited and often congested streets. Additionally, while an average diesel delivery truck emits nearly 19 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, an eBike produces no direct greenhouse gas emissions on its own, which is essential for businesses looking to reduce their environmental footprint and meet emissions reduction targets.

More agile cargo bikes, but with less capacity
But the picture is not as idyllic, at least as one might believe at first glance. Among the disadvantages, the most important remains the carrying capacity, because the bikes are much smaller than most vans and light utility vehicles. For example, it will be quite difficult to have an assembled sofa or a freezer delivered with a bicycle. The latter also have a slower maximum speed, even if this notion – valid in peri-urban areas and on expressways and ring roads – is largely questionable in high-density central urban areas. The question that arises is therefore the following: can the cargo bike really replace the delivery van or truck? And if so, to what extent? And or ? How effectively?

To shed light on the subject, there’s nothing like a study, such as that carried out by researchers from the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington, who collaborated with UPS to compare the performance of a single assisted cargo bike. electric with a standard delivery truck over a period of one month in Seattle and published their results in a report in 2020. Or this is already a bit old, but studies this documented in the field are rare, and in the large masses , the results and conclusions remain perfectly relevant in 2023.

The cargo bike used by UPS was a tricycle capable of transporting up to 200 kilos in its 2.70 cubic meter container. Its speed was limited to 32 km/h according to local regulations. Data for a UPS truck was not provided, but the Commercial Carrier Journal, a trade publication, says a truck can carry up to 6.5 tons.

While the cargo bike in the study visited five delivery locations per hour, the delivery truck could visit 20 per hour, meaning the truck would win out pretty clearly in terms of outright delivery efficiency. However, that number alone doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Giacomo Dalla Chiara, co-author of the study and head of research at the Urban Freight Lab.

“Yes, you can carry a lot more with a truck, but it spends about 80% of its time parked on its routes,” said Dalla Chiara. “But the driver has to get out and walk, and once you do that, it’s a mode of transport much less efficient, which the total number of packages delivered does not show.”

Meanwhile, cargo bikes can generally be used much closer to the package delivery destination, reducing walking. The bike can cover a greater distance of each delivery route than a typical van or truck.

Cargo bikes deliver 60% faster, and without polluting
In another study, using GPS data from London-based delivery company Pedal Me, researchers found that cargo bikes deliver packages 60% faster than vans , with a fraction of the carbon emissions.

Another factor to consider for delivery and logistics companies is cost savings. Cargo bikes require fewer components and maintenance than vans and trucks, even electrified ones, and require less energy to move. They are also less likely to incur large fines for prohibited parking (although they may incur smaller fines for parking on sidewalks). According to a 2015 study, businesses could save 45% on the costs of an average delivery by switching from a full-sized delivery vehicle to a cargo bike in urban areas. This is especially true since European cities also tend to have a much denser footprint than American cities, making them much more bike-friendly to begin with.

Finally, the environmental argument becomes crucial at a time of the movement towards the decarbonization of transport and the desire to move towards greater energy sobriety. Here again, a study makes it possible to obtain interesting comparisons in terms of pollution. In late 2019, New York launched the Commercial Cargo Bicycle Pilot to test cargo bike deliveries with the participation of UPS, DHL and Amazon. In two years, the number of bikes increased from 100 to more than 350. The New York City Department of Transportation concluded that using cargo bikes saved 7 tons of emissions of CO2 per year per bicycle, a total of 2,450 tonnes of CO2 emissions, which is equivalent to 532 passenger cars driving for a year.

Looking at different similar programs around the world, the Transport for Quality of Life report found that, depending on where they were deployed, cargo e-bikes could reduce CO2 emissions by 35 to 95 percent compared to cargo vans. delivery, and nitrogen dioxide (NOx) emissions from 65 to 100%.

Less noise pollution
The difference is obviously clear. And does not take into account another pollution which unfortunately we talk about much less, noise pollution, more insidious and yet as toxic as atmospheric pollution, even if its effects are less immediate and less spectacular.

So, will cargo bikes and other light delivery vehicles be able to replace all delivery vehicles?

However, even though the use of cargo bikes can significantly reduce CO2 emissions and improve air quality in urban areas, this does not necessarily mean that bikes could replace all delivery trucks everywhere. Longer distances, adverse weather conditions, larger cargo volumes and unsuitable roads can make the use of cargo bikes difficult or ineffective in some cases.

Cargo bikes only for parcel deliveries?
Well actually, not really anymore. If these machines are multiplying and seem to have a bright future, as evidenced by the cyclo-logistics experiments carried out in particular in Lyon by the TOUNVELO collective, other uses are possible, which would also make it possible to decarbonize and calm the centers -cities. Thus we see the emergence (or re-emergence) of meal delivery services by VAE (no need for a bulky cargo bike), or even by electric scooter, advantageously replacing the unbearable thermal scooters which have become the cancer of city ​​centers, often also, it must be said, due to the bad behavior and incivility of some of their pilots.

In fact, last mile delivery could become even more granular with finer segmentation based on the weight and size of the packages delivered. For many of them, a simple electric bike might be enough. For example, you can easily transport around fifty mobile phones and gadgets of equivalent size in the (secure) bags of an e-bike.

More anecdotal, but also developing, is the transport of people by tricycle, or even by electric tuk-tuk , which we see flourishing in certain city centers. It remains to be seen whether these replace panoramic buses and taxis and VTCs, or whether they are added to other “individual” means of transport, in which case the virtuous effect would be questionable.

Cargo bikes can therefore play an important role in urban logistics and last mile delivery, complementing delivery trucks. They may be particularly suited to dense urban environments where package sizes and delivery distances are limited. By reducing greenhouse gas emissions and offering a more efficient alternative to certain delivery routes, cargo bikes contribute to more sustainable and environmentally friendly mobility.

But there is still a lot of progress to be made, both in mentalities and in urban planning. There are still gaps in most cities when it comes to bike-friendly delivery routes. Necessary infrastructure data, from cycle path widths to sidewalk heights to live information on obstacles such as outdoor events, roadworks or protests, is usually not available at all or not at all freely accessible.

This is how the political will must be expressed, which will lead to a profound transformation of cities to make them increasingly “bike-cargo compatible”. There are certainly interesting opportunities for companies specializing in the creation and publishing of specialized software and applications aimed at streamlining the use and logistics of new urban mobility intended for professionals.