Cargo on Wheels

Cargo on Wheels

By Tracy Moran

SourceMerten Snijders/Getty


Practical and profitable solutions to very modern problems don’t always require high technology. 

By Tracy Moran

The Western consumer is a rapacious breed. We want everything. In 30 minutes or less. And we don’t want to do the fetching; we want it delivered to our doors. That puts delivery companies in a rather tight spot, especially in European cities like London, Milan and Stockholm. There, to reduce pollution and congestion, vehicles are either banned or must pay higher fees to roam in city centers during peak times.

But a new kind of delivery service is peddling a solution: Europeans can open their doors now to find wine, groceries and even brides delivered by cargo bikes.

Much like mountain bikes did for your old Schwinn, cargo bikes and trikes are ratcheting the bike courier trade up a speed. Two-wheel cargo bikes have boxes to hold 130 pounds, while tricycles don lockable boxes holding 550 pounds. It might seem like pedaling backward in time, but it’s a practical — and profitable — solution for city centers that can’t handle the traffic, especially in many congested older European cities with narrow lanes.

Cargo bikes could handle a quarter of trips now made by motorized vehicles for freight delivery into Europe’s congested areas.

Of course, the cargo bike trend has been a part of the delivery scene in Brooklyn and some other U.S. cities for a while. But the growing restrictions across the pond add obvious urgency to this. That and the fact that getting goods to shops by motorized vehicle is only getting more costly as outlays for trucks, gas, taxes and parking charges grow. The logistics industry is responsible for 5.5 percent of global CO2 emissions, and with urbanization expected to hit 80 percent by 2050, an overhaul for city freight is unavoidable. “People don’t want lorries going through their streets, so there’s pressure on local councils to restrict access to city centers,” says Gary Armstrong, manager of Cambridge, England-based Outspoken Delivery. At the same time, Armstrong points out, people downtown still want to buy things. 

An EU-funded project, Cyclelogistics, has provided support to aspiring cycle delivery businesses and advised governments on greener transport policies. It has also promoted cargo-bike solutions to truck-based delivery firms for the last mile into city centers — and the companies are jumping on. Cyclelogistics found that cargo bikes could handle a quarter of trips now made by motorized vehicles for freight delivery into Europe’s congested areas. With nearly all trips still done by motorized vehicles today, growth potential is huge. The project led to the formation of the European Cycle Logistics Federation, which boasts 140 cycle-based delivery services as members. Among them is Outspoken Delivery, the U.K.’s largest cargo bike fleet.

Like many congested city centers, Cambridge restricts motorized access during business hours, making van delivery between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. a pain. But while drivers hoof it from outside the city bollards with boxes in hand, Outspoken’s bikes whiz on by, thanks to unfettered access to bike lanes. Of course, while the explosion of cargo-bike deliveries is novel, cycling perils are not. More bikes weaving in and out of heavy traffic during peak periods does little to lower the cycling death and injury toll, which hovers around 19,000 a year in Britain alone. The cargo bike manufacturers are also struggling with heavy loads and bike durability. “Our bikes have been rebuilt multiple times. … We get stress fractures, spending a fortune on aluminum welding,” Armstrong tells OZY. 

Green Link delivers 3,500 packages a day in the City of Love, boasting that it finishes the job for firms like DHL and TNT.

When Outspoken Delivery launched in 2005, it mostly waited by the phone for a call to pick up or deliver. That’s now evolved into a proactive business of 12 part-time riders serving scores of businesses with pickups and deliveries each day. The company offers same-day service for everything from pay slips, legal documents and transplant organs to antibiotic reagents, office supplies, sushi and, yes, brides. Whereas Royal Mail can no longer guarantee business post by 9:30 a.m. — unless a premium is paid — Outspoken Delivery can, and does so, for less.

Huge delivery firms TNT and APC pull up outside Outspoken Delivery’s depot each morning, unloading hundreds of packages that are sorted and piled onto cargo trikes. Armstrong says his customer base is growing by 20 percent a year, providing nearly $350,000 in turnover, and he’s eyeing the last-mile market for bigger margins. In Paris, Green Link delivers 3,500 packages a day in the City of Love, boasting that it finishes the job for firms like DHL and TNT. And Ecopostale has offered last-mile service throughout Brussels with a growing trade since 2010. DHL has taken to its own bikes in the Netherlands, while Germany’s mail is increasingly being delivered by Deutsche Post cargo bikes. London Green Cycles’ sales manager Chandra Southall tells OZY that sales of cargo bikes for delivery have spiked by nearly 50 percent this year.

Next step: electric-assist cargo bikes as e-bike technology develops. In Copenhagen, Denmark, delivery firms “wouldn’t consider running a cargo bike there without electric assist because they’re competing against conventional motor transport,” says Bill Chidley, courier controller at London’s Creative Cars & Couriers.

In the U.K., however, legal restrictions have stalled electric-assist bikes. Once an electric bike weighs more than 175 pounds unladen, it’s classified as a motorized vehicle, requiring licensing, taxing and — in Cambridge’s case — remaining outside the city center’s bollards. So until designers come up with a lighter solution, or the law changes, most British delivery firms will be peddling their wares the old-fashioned way. 

Still, if the rate of growth is akin to Outspoken Delivery’s 20 percent annually, it will encourage even more delivery drivers to hit a different kind of pedal.