Big problems, micro solutions: electric cargo bikes to the rescue

By Annie Butkiewicz, Content and Communications Officer, Autonomy

For the average city-dweller, a bicycle might seem like a single-use mode of transport, useful for getting an individual from one point to another. However, there is a growing demand for innovation in micro mobility, especially to combat climate change, congestion, air quality, human interaction, obesity, noise pollution, traffic safety and service quality (to name a few). One rapidly growing micro mobility trend is the use of bicycles for last-mile logistics and postal and delivery services all over the world are experimenting with electric cargo bike delivery services.

Interestingly, freight bicycles were used frequently by tradesmen for local deliveries in the early 20th century (maybe the answer to some future innovation is to recycle old ideas). But one difference between early “freight bicycles” and modern bikes or trikes (a tricycle) is electrification, which helps delivery people carry their parcel load. Consider the number of electric cargo bikes currently working with post companies. Velove’s Armadillo is used by an impressive list of parcel services, including DHL, DB Schenker, Deutsche Post, DPD, Hermes, and Swiss Post. Centaur Cargo has developed a modular cargo bike for PostNL and AN Post, Urban Arrow works with Coolblue and Truck Trike, a Portland-based company, is working with UPS.

Velove’s Armadillo as part of a DHL fleet

The Armadillo, Velove’s electric cargo bike, has a containerized cargo box inspired by sea containers. When sea containers were initially introduced, they created efficiency gains, damages decreased, and theft dropped. And ships and trucks could be loaded at a fraction of the time. With this system, e-cargo bikes make city logistics more cost efficient because parcel sorting is done once at a terminal, where they are also placed in containers. The containers are then transported by a big vehicle to handover points, where “last mile delivery vehicles” or e-cargo bikes pick up the containers to deliver the packages inside the containers. According to Velove’s website, it’s “smarter, faster, safer and more efficient than today’s solutions.”

The Armadillo has had good traction in Berlin, Oslo, Utrecht, Ghent and Antwerp, CEO Johan Erlandsson said via email. Similarly, Dutch company Centaur Cargo was also approached by Royal PostNL to develop an electric cargo bike along with other e-cargo bike companies. Wim Leder, the sales manager at Centaur Cargo, said this was the start of Centaur Cargo. Originally, the company produced bikes for parents to travel comfortably with their children in tow (this division is called Babboe bikes, but it’s the same company as Centaur Cargo)

Not long after we starting selling [Babboe bikes], people wondered whether it would be possible to exchange the box that’s for children with a cargo box which is closable with a top with a lock for companies to deliver goods,” Leder said.

The Centaur Cargo Trike XL

Centaur Cargo worked on developing these cargo bikes with PostNL and starting this summer, 60 – 70 of their electric cargo models of the Centaur Cargo Trike XL will deliver post throughout Holland. Centaur Cargo is also working with Irish postal service, An Post, to develop a similar service. These bikes are also modular, like the Armadillo, and will similarly pick up their container at a distribution center outside of the city center.

But while delivery and postal services might be the most obvious use for cargo bikes, especially as eCommerce is forecasted to increase 17-28% annually, cargo bikes only make up a small minority of these companies fleets. International Cargo Bike Festival director, Jos Sluijsmans, said there are lots of other uses for them, and they could help smaller companies save a lot of money. Take, for instance, Cyclo Plombier, the plumbing company getting around Paris by cargo bike. This method allows them to carry all their tools while eliminating fuel costs, parking, repairs and all the associated stresses. And, it’s responsibly helping reduce pollution. Their website explains this choice, saying “Your craftsman travels by cargo bike to be faster, but he also makes that choice for you, your kids and the planet.”

For these reasons – eliminating fuel costs, parking and repairs – Jos Sluijsmans said companies can easily reduce their monthly costs. The only major issue Sluijsmans thinks companies might face as they start to integrate cargo bikes in with their traditional fleets is getting delivery men to switch from vans, which use less physical effort than cargo bikes. This might mean looking for younger or more active delivery people. But overall, it is a win for the environment, and it’s a win for companies.

“It’s simply cheaper in a lot of ways for companies,” Sluijsmans said.

The International Cargo Bike Festival takes place roughly a month from now in Groningen, from June 14-16th. While it’s grown in recent years to have a long list of partners and sponsors, the original cargo bike festival in 2012, wasn’t really a cargo-bike festival. Rather, it was a gathering in Nijmegen to celebrate a wood-fired pizza on a cargo bike. (A client had bought a second-hand cargo bike from Sluijsmans and built a wood-fired pizza oven in the back – another innovative use for a cargo bike).

“I thought it was very special,” Sluijsmans said. The cargo bike community from around the world showed up for the pizza party, and it even attracted some electric motor producers from China.  “At that moment, I thought, there is something about this event. So a year later, we did it again.”

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the International Cargo Bike Festival takes place in the Netherlands, the biking capital of the world. In fact, there’s been a strong market for cargo bikes for at least 30 years in the city of Groningen. The site “RIPPL” (Register for Initiatives in Pedal Powered Logistics) write about an “unfussy,” straightforward, volunteer-run cargo-trike hire service called Stadswerkplaats.

Stadswerkplaats cargo bikes for rent

“In Groningen there has been an unfussy, straightforward way to get hold of a cargo trike for the day for over 30 years,” article author, Tom Parr writes, “Long before the buzz phrases ‘mobility-as-a-service’ or ‘sharing economy’ were coined.”

These non-electric trikes are instantly recognisable to Groningers, as it’s become an institution in the city, available for hire for just €12 per half day. The highest demand for the cargo trikes is typically for moving needs, especially in student-oriented Groningen, where a quarter of the city’s residents are studying at one of the two universities.

Despite the promising future of the budding e-cargo bike industry, there are some obstacles and challenges to overcome. For example, in a report with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Nick Dekker with The Office Service said when outsourcing transport, the prices offered by light electric freight vehicle startups can be more expensive than what’s offered by traditional supplier with a delivery van. Additionally, the current processes in place for logistics are largely geared towards vans and trucks. Using cargo bikes for major logistics would require different operations overall, due to the smaller payload of the bikes. The cargo bikes are a good way to explore sustainable business operations, but it will take more work to make them an efficient form of transport that provides the same service as vans and trucks.