All of a sudden, cargo bikes have become a ubiquitous sight across Europe. They are busy delivering mail in Germany, Amazon packages in the UK, collecting food waste in Paris, and even handling unconventional tasks like sperm donations in Copenhagen, thanks to custom-built liquid nitrogen tanks shaped like human sperm. In contrast, in the United States, whether you order a massive flat-screen TV or a week's worth of groceries, it typically arrives at your doorstep via a delivery truck or van with a robust engine. While these vehicles get the job done, they also emit significant carbon emissions, occupy substantial space, and pose safety hazards, resulting in injuries and fatalities. This has prompted cities and businesses worldwide to consider replacing some of these large vans with electric-assist cargo bikes.
However, despite a few test runs by companies like Domino's Pizza and small pilot projects in select cities, the adoption of cargo bikes in the US remains limited. This raises the question of why Americans are so deeply attached to this singular delivery tool and whether it's possible to change this trend.
Even before the pandemic, online shopping was steadily increasing its share of total retail sales worldwide, a trend that has persisted even as physical stores reopened. In cities like London, commercial vehicles account for approximately 19% of overall miles driven but contribute to 30% of the city's transport-related CO2 emissions. Beyond pollution, these vehicles congest streets, from narrow one-way roads to busy intersections, leading to severe traffic problems. Shockingly, delivery trucks in London were involved in 41% of fatal cyclist crashes and 19% of pedestrian deaths between 2018 and 2020. Similarly, in New York City, large trucks, which make up just 3.6% of vehicles, are responsible for 32% of bicyclist fatalities and 12% of pedestrian fatalities.
To understand the delivery process better, it can be divided into two phases. Phase one involves the long journey of a product, such as an iPhone cover, from the factory to a hub and then via air, sea, or long-haul truck to a warehouse outside the recipient's city. Phase two, often referred to as the "last mile," involves delivering the package within the city. Surprisingly, this last phase, though shorter in distance, accounts for 30 to 50% of a package's carbon footprint. The inefficiency in this phase is striking, as a London study found that most vans utilize less than half of their capacity. Here is where electric cargo bikes play a crucial role.
While using bicycles for urban transportation is not a new concept, modern cargo bikes come equipped with small electric motors activated by pedaling and powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. This additional power enables electric cargo bikes to outperform delivery vans. A 2021 study comparing cargo bikes to delivery vans found that despite making more trips back and forth to the pickup point, cargo bikes covered roughly the same distance in less time. They could easily navigate traffic by parking anywhere and using bike lanes. Furthermore, cargo bikes delivered more packages per hour while emitting significantly less carbon. Another study estimated that over half of all urban trips related to transporting goods could be efficiently accomplished by cargo bikes.
These efficiencies have led to substantial investments in Europe and the UK, with companies like DHL, UPS, FedEx, Amazon, and IKEA adopting cargo bikes on a large scale. However, in the US, such initiatives remain limited, with DHL's cargo bike fleet doubling from four to eight in Miami making headlines, and New York City's cargo bike pilot featuring only 350 bikes shared among multiple companies.
Several factors contribute to the US lagging behind in adopting cargo bikes. One notable factor is the absence of strict zero-emission zones like those prevalent in European cities, such as Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, Oslo, Prague, and Budapest. These zones incentivize businesses to switch from vans to cargo bikes by offering generous subsidies and investing in infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, to enhance cyclist safety. In contrast, as of fall 2023, the only zero-emission zone in the US was a voluntary pilot project in Santa Monica, which ended in 2022 and covered just one square mile with no fines for rule-breaking trucks.
Additionally, the presence of interstate highways running through many American cities, unlike in Europe, makes vans on the highway a seemingly convenient choice for freight companies seeking swift transportation of goods. While transitioning from gas-powered to electric vans can help reduce CO2 emissions, these vehicles are no safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The US has witnessed a 54% increase in pedestrian deaths and a 55% increase in cyclist fatalities between 2010 and 2021, attributed to high speeds and larger vehicles that are more likely to cause fatal head and neck injuries.
To facilitate the transition to cargo bikes and realize benefits like cleaner air, safer streets, and a more sustainable planet, significant changes are required in the US. These include the removal of urban highways, the establishment of zero-emission zones, and the provision of subsidies to incentivize companies to make the switch. Without such transformative measures, the US will continue to face challenges in adopting cargo bikes as a viable and environmentally friendly delivery solution.