When a bike messenger showed up at a Manhattan warehouse on a recent weekday, he picked up five deliveries instead of his usual three. He was using new bike trailer, called BicyLift, that can hold as many packages as a minivan; the trailer, which also doubles as a forklift, can also carry an entire pallet. The courier company using the new technology–made by a French startup–sees it as a step toward replacing trucks for deliveries in crowded cities.
“I’ve been searching for the perfect trailer for a number of years, in the context of a city with the density of Manhattan, to do e-commerce deliveries that are nonpolluting, more flexible than a van, and easier to park,” says Andrew Young, general manager of Breakaway Courier Systems.
The company has used custom-made trailers in the past, along with cargo trailers from other companies. But the new trailer, made by a company called FlexiModal, easily handles bigger loads, key in a business where the goal is to make as many deliveries as possible in an hour.
“If we’re doing commission-based work on it, you suddenly have a guy on a bike and a trailer who has lower cost,” says Young. “So the client’s charged less, because there’s no vehicle cost, and the courier can hold more. If he’s on his commission, doing a tight route, he earns more per hour because he’s holding six deliveries instead of three deliveries. Suddenly the economies of scale kick in.”
At first glance, he says, the trailer and container are so large that might seem unmanageable. But it’s possible to pull a full load of nearly 400 pounds of cargo–with an electric bike–and to maneuver through busy traffic. Pulling the brake on the handlebar of the bike activates disc brakes on the trailer, keeping it stable. It doesn’t necessarily fit easily in a bike lane, but it can avoid obstacles in heavy traffic that larger vehicles can’t.
“I have 40 drivers in vans making deliveries in New York,” he says. “A client can be like, ‘He’s only two blocks away,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, he’s in tunnel traffic, what are you going to do?’ This gets around that.”
“It’s replacing trucks, already, in France,” says Charles Levillain, the founder of FlexiModal, who designed both the trailer and the container that can be used on the back. Some logistics companies in France are beginning to pack the containers at distribution centers outside cities, then deliver them ready to go on the back of a bike inside the city center, making the process of bike delivery smoother.
Young envisions the containers eventually becoming standard in the way that cargo containers are packed to go from ships to trucks. “You then have same-day e-commerce deliveries from a warehouse in Jersey–you have 40 of these trailers loaded up with deliveries, they come into Manhattan, you just set them onto a bike trailer and they all get delivered in a few hours,” he says.
As cities like New York try to minimize pollution and traffic congestion, he believes that this type of solution will become common. New York may soon implement a fee on drivers entering Manhattan, giving added incentive for bike deliveries.
“You put in congestion pricing, you limit the number of vehicles on streets, and then you give incentives to companies like FlexiModal or others like it to provide the perfect kind of transport vehicle in a dense place to do these deliveries and bring goods to people,” he says. “It’s an all-inclusive vision. In a place like Manhattan, it’s going to work. It’s a matter of who gets there first and if government goes along with helping that happen.”