It’s Time for Cities to Ditch Delivery Trucks—for Cargo Bikes

"The software that exists is for vans that pick up at the beginning of the day and then do eight hours of deliveries," says Nicolas Collignon, cofounder of Kale Collective, a startup focusing on technology for cargo bike logistics. "But a cargo bike can't carry eight hours' of deliveries, so the routing needs to be more dynamic." Plus, cycling rather than driving across the city requires a more athletic profile of worker, and there's the added expense in training them. Because cargo bikes are heavier and wider than conventional bikes, and have wider turning circles, riders need to be taught how to handle them, says Chris Dixon, director of training at Pedal Me.

"If we were in an ideal world and accounting for costs not just in terms of running a business but the environmental and social costs like CO2 emissions and road safety, cargo bikes would be a lot more viable," Verlinghieri says. "But because those things are not taxed, it becomes harder to drive change, because delivery by vans is an established model that enables big firms to conduct deliveries affordably." The emissions benefits could be considerable. Verlinghieri and the team at Westminster calculated that between 2018 and 2020, around 100,000 cargo bikes were introduced across Europe, and each month saved the same amount of CO2 as flying around 24,000 people from London to New York and back.

Potential emissions savings are even bigger when factoring in how cargo bikes, if widely adopted, might lessen the demand for manufacturing vans in the first place. To accelerate cargo bikes' adoption "requires governmental support," Collignon says. This might include the development of urban consolidation hubs like in Prague and stricter restrictions for vans, but it would also mean investing in cycling infrastructure, because negotiating with traffic is the major issue that riders face.

In colder regions, support would also mean ensuring that back alleys are cleared of ice, enabling bikes to pass through them. "If we don't have these shortcuts, it's easy to side with e-vans," says Adne Dybdalen, a civil engineer who coauthored a recent study looking at the efficacy of cargo bikes on Norway's winter roads. Governments also need to keep riders safe. An absence of legislation means there's been a lack of standards for cargo bikes, raising questions about how stable and controllable some models are.

They also need to protect the working conditions of riders, as cycle couriers have been particularly vulnerable to having their rights infringed in the past. "Cargo bike logistics remains a young industry with few certifications," Collignon says, "and this might need to change." But as home deliveries rise, the pressure on delivery companies to lower their emissions will grow. The advantages of cargo bikes are clear, and these "will become more acute as cities introduce more infrastructure for biking," says Verlinghieri.

The real question, then, is not so much whether cargo bikes should become an integral feature of the local delivery landscape, but whether they will.

And that, experts agree, is one of policy--of making changes that incentivize their adoption.

"At the end of the day, the adoption of cargo bikes comes down to money," says Dybdalen. "If companies can't make money from using them, then they'll find a cheaper way."