When UPS launched in Seattle in 1907, it made deliveries on foot and by bicycle. Five years later, it had its first Model T delivery car. Today, the company brought a delivery bike back to the city in an experiment that–if successful–it hopes to replicate throughout the U.S.
“This is our first iteration of what a modular urban delivery system might look like,” says Scott Phillippi, senior director of maintenance and engineering at UPS.
The company’s new custom-designed electric trike is narrow enough to fit in a bike lane or even on a sidewalk, avoiding traffic in dense urban areas–and, unlike a regular delivery truck, it can also avoid blocking traffic and creating gridlock itself. A cargo box slides easily on and off the chassis of the bike. “You can load [packages into] the container boxes back at the UPS facility–preloaded with a route already in mind–so you don’t have to rehandle the packages,” says Phillippi.
In Seattle, a regular delivery vehicle will tow a trailer with four of the bike-size cargo boxes from UPS’s distribution center into the city’s downtown. Then it will drop them off for a bike delivery person–UPS calls them “industrial athletes,” though an electric motor can do some of the work–to transfer onto the bike and bring into congested areas, like Pike Place Market, that trucks can’t currently access directly. Right now, trucks are often forced to double-park on the periphery as drivers walk back and forth. (UPS is increasingly switching to electric trucks, but they can’t solve the challenge of traffic congestion.)
UPS tested an earlier version of an e-bike in Portland and Pittsburgh, but Seattle’s new modular system and the ability to preload boxes at the distribution center makes it different. “It has a lot more flexibility in this regard,” says Phillippi. “That’s something we learned along the way–it needs to be a bigger scope for an operating plan to have a chance to be efficient. It needs to be more than just a standalone bike.”
The earlier bikes, he says, could only operate at a small scale. But the new system could perform as efficiently as driving, perhaps even more so. Although the small cargo box has only about a tenth of the capacity of a regular truck, at 95 cubic feet and 400 pounds, because the vehicle can easily fit in places where other trucks can’t, it can potentially save time.
The company already uses e-bikes in some congested European cities, including some modular versions with cargo boxes that can come off the bike. But because the European design wasn’t compatible with American trucks, UPS worked with Silver Eagle Manufacturing, a Portland-based truck and trailer manufacturer, to make a new version for Seattle.
UPS partnered with the city on the project. The University of Washington Urban Freight Lab, an initiative that pairs transportation engineers and urban planners with transportation companies, will study the vehicle’s performance over the next year–particularly whether the bikes can reduce the company’s overall “dwell time” of trucks, helping cut both pollution and traffic.
After the pilot, the company may further iterate on the design, but hopes to understand if the system works well enough to expand to other parts of Seattle, and then other cities. “I think in a short amount of time we’re going to know how efficient it is,” Phillippi says.