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Cargo bikes can deliver packages faster than vans—and with less pollution

Your delivery could come 60% faster by cargo bike instead of a van, cutting down on both congestion and pollution, according to a London-based study.

Cargo bikes can deliver packages faster than vans—and with less pollution
[Photos: Derick Hudson/iStock, NosUA/iStock]
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As online shopping grows, so do the number of double-parked delivery vans blocking traffic in cities and adding carbon emissions into the air. To curb both pollution and street congestion, a new report suggests that logistics companies should be investing more in electric cargo bikes as an alternative. In city centers, the study found that such bikes can make deliveries 60% faster than vans and also have a lower carbon footprint, even compared to electric delivery vans.

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The report, part of a U.K.-based project called Car Free Megacities, was spurred by the growing number of delivery vans on the road, a trend that has grown even more during the pandemic. In the U.K., the number of van miles traveled has doubled in the last 25 years, contributing to air pollution and crashes that kill pedestrians. “We believed it was important to look at alternatives to this damaging model of urban freight,” says Ersilia Verlinghieri, a research fellow at University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy and lead author of the report.

Using GPS data from Pedal Me, a cargo bike company that makes deliveries in central London, the researchers calculated how long it would have taken a delivery van to make the same trips, accounting for differences in speed, payload capacity, and the time to unload the vehicles. Because cargo bikes can more easily cut through heavy traffic, take shortcuts on streets that are closed to car traffic, and spend less time trying to find parking, the report found that they can make deliveries more quickly.

Still, less time searching for parking may not always mean more packages make it to doorsteps. When UPS tested electric cargo bikes in downtown Seattle, a study from the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab found that even though delivery truck drivers spent around 50 minutes each day looking for parking, they were able to deliver more packages than cargo bikes on the same route. The bikes delivered only between 20% and 25% of the packages delivered by trucks. The pilot took place in the busy holiday season, when the delivery vans had an extra helper to make their deliveries faster; and only lasted a month, so the results may have changed over time. The Urban Freight Lab is now working with more companies to study a neighborhood delivery hub and gather more data about the efficiency of using cargo bikes, along with lockers, that customers can use to pick up packages themselves.

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Whether or not a city has a good network of bike lanes will also impact how well cargo bikes can work. “Good bike infrastructure is crucial both for enabling cargo bikes to deliver safely and rapidly to various destinations,” Verlinghieri says. “It is also a necessary investment to support active travel adoption. London has been taking important steps in this direction, but much is still needed.” Governments can also do more to help cargo bikes grow, she says, including subsidies for bikes and reduced taxes on their operations, support for infrastructure like charging stations, and low-emissions zones that discourage the use of other vehicles.

As Amazon, FedEx, and other delivery companies roll out more electric delivery vans to help lower their carbon footprints, cargo bikes could help even more. Even if electric trucks run fully on renewable electricity, the vehicles still have a larger environmental impact than bikes when they’re manufactured. Cargo bikes cut total carbon emissions by about a third compared to electric delivery trucks or vans, and by 90% compared to diesel vans, which still make the vast majority of deliveries today, the report found. If cargo bikes replaced just 10% of the miles currently traveled by delivery trucks in London, they could cut more than 133,000 metric tonnes of CO2 and 190,000 kilograms of nitrogen oxide pollution a year.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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