Deliveries from online shopping orders and subscription services are clogging already-crowded city streets around the world with delivery trucks and vans, adding to greenhouse gas emissions and causing safety and traffic concerns by blocking bike and bus lanes.
Online retailers, delivery companies and cities are all looking for solutions.
Amazon is betting on new technology — drones and electric delivery vans — to solve at least some of those problems.
But in many cities around the world, including Montreal and Vancouver, a different technology is being tried out: electric cargo bikes.
While Amazon is testing drones to deliver just 2.3 kilograms, cargo bikes can carry up to 350 kilograms — more than some fully loaded vans are carrying, advocates say. An electric motor helps the operator with loads that are too hard to move by pedalling alone.
Drones have mostly been tested in rural areas due safety regulations. Concerns that have been heightened by the crash of a Swiss postal drone near a group of children last May. Cargo bikes, meanwhile, are touted as being safer than cars, trucks or vans in urban areas, due to their lower speed and the operator’s better range of visibility, although safety standards are still under development.
The City of Montreal is one place that’s currently testing the potential of cargo bikes for the “last mile” of delivery to the customer — a logistically challenging step that represents 30 to 60 per cent of the cost of delivery, according to Robert Beaudry, councillor for the city’s Saint-Jacques district and head of economic and commercial development on the city’s executive committee.
The city launched a pilot project called Project Colibri (colibri is French for “hummingbird”) in September that has turned a former bus depot into a consolidation hub. Goods can be transferred there from larger trucks to electric cargo bikes from five courier companies, including Purolator.
Beaudry says delivery trucks currently have a “huge impact” on traffic, emissions and pedestrian safety downtown, especially since many people get their online deliveries sent to work instead of home.
The pilot project aims to test technologies that reduce those kinds of problems so the city can adjust bylaws and infrastructure to enable them if they work, said Beaudry.
“It’s really a way to reduce the negative impact in downtown Montreal generated from delivery.”
It’s also a good fit with the city’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve pedestrian safety, he said.
From cloth diapers to mattresses
By the end of October, the project had already delivered 5,000 packages — even large items like mattresses. And it’s being used for a cloth diaper-delivery service to exchange clean diapers for dirty ones and take them to be laundered.
Beaudry said later, the project aims to include:
- Refrigerated containers for things like perishable foods.
- Night-time deliveries, since the electric vehicles are so quiet.
While some of the bikes are partially enclosed to protect the driver from bad weather, Beaudry says the project will try some other options to cope with Canada’s winter, such as deliveries with small electric cars.
So far, it appears that during peak hours, when traffic is heavy, cargo bikes — which are allowed to use designated bike lanes — are a very efficient option, Beaudry said.
Montreal has also found that they have an easier time parking without obstructing traffic, compared with larger vehicles.
However, he said, it looks like the city will probably need to develop other consolidation hubs around the city to shorten the distances that the bikes need to travel.
Similar systems have been tried by cities across Europe, where many streets are narrow, parking is limited, delivery trucks and vans are only permitted at certain times of day, and air pollution from diesel vehicles have prompted many cities to designate low-emission or zero-emission zones.
In Paris, an e-cargo bike delivery service called La Petite Reine, which delivers mostly groceries, has been operating since 2001 using three transfer depots around the city.
London’s local transport agency announced in April that it would subsidize the cost of e-cargo bikes by 20 per cent and hopes 15 per cent of businesses will switch their central London deliveries from diesel powered vans to cargo bikes.
In the Netherlands, e-cargo bikes have been successful for grocery delivery and logistics, largely because their travel time is much more predictable than for cars and vans, sinces they can use bike lanes and smaller streets to take shortcuts and bypass traffic jams, says Walther Ploos van Amstel, professor of city logistics at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and lead author of a recent study on the potential of light electric vehicles for urban deliveries.
They can also park more easily — on the sidewalk or right up at the front door — and load and unload more quickly.
All that leads to a cheaper cost per delivery.
Because of that, in the Netherlands and Germany, courier giants like UPS and DHL are outsourcing to e-cargo bike couriers in some urban centres. In Amsterdam, DHL has a mobile hub operated from a boat that sails down the canals and transfers parcels to e-cargo bikes at different locations, Ploos van Amstel said:
“It’s a very smart system.”
That said, e-cargo bike delivery systems work best when the delivery distance is under five kilometres, he said.
That means lots of logistics hubs are needed, and may require partnerships between governments and businesses to be set up. It also means this type of delivery works best in business districts and high-density residential areas.
It would only be suitable for about five to 10 per cent of deliveries in Germany, for example.
But in high-density areas, the advantages mean companies are starting to consider e-cargo bikes for more than traditional parcel delivery.
In the Netherlands, the country’s biggest cable provider, Ziggo, is using them instead of vans to send equipment and parts to engineers doing installation for customers, Ploos van Amstel said.
Darnel Harris, a Toronto urban planner who has been advocating for the use of cargo bikes and infrastructure to support them, also sees their potential for use as mobile food trucks or taxi services that can move people and their shopping around.
“These are ultimately practical devices. They allow you to carry groceries. They allow you to carry kids. They allow you to carry other adults and … allow you to get around much quicker, because you don’t have to be waiting in long traffic queues.”
Harris says the reason cargo bikes aren’t used much right now in Canada comes down to several challenges.
One is infrastructure. While cargo bikes are technically allowed in the narrow bike lanes in many cities,”most cargo bikes would struggle to fit in that lane or turn properly,” Harris said. “That’s a massive inhibitor.”
Also, cities are reluctant to invest in infrastructure for cargo bikes because they have trouble modelling or calculating what the devices could be used for and how they would impact traffic.
“Right now, they’re not really considered in planning.”
Part of the problem is that regulations covering what kinds of cargo bikes are allowed — based on factors such as weight and speed — aren’t very comprehensive and vary from province to province, unlike the harmonized rules for cars.
Meanwhile, Harris noted, federal laws ban four-wheeled bikes, which are best for carrying containers of goods.
Devan McClelland is the director and member of Shift Delivery, a co-operative delivery company based in Vancouver that uses e-cargo bikes to deliver food, linen and dry-cleaning, and parcels like office supplies, mostly in the city’s downtown east side. It’s been operating for about eight years.
McClelland agrees that considering e-cargo bikes in city planning would make a big difference: “The biggest challenge for our business is city design.”
Roads prioritize cars and trucks, and urban sprawl makes things difficult for bikes in some areas.
On the other hand, he sees bike-friendly city design as making urban spaces more livable for everyone.
“You can picture a street having more trees, because it doesn’t have to be as wide,” he said, adding that there could also be room for wider sidewalks, more car-free zones and patios.
McClelland says customers already choose Shift because not just because it provides reliable and efficient logistics, but also because it generates a lot of social benefits — it’s zero emissions; provides healthy, active jobs; and its vehicles take up less space, produce less noise and are safer for pedestrians than vans, due to lower speeds and the operator’s better range of visibility.
Given that, he thinks cities should encourage similar businesses with incentives such as discounted licences for businesses with lower emissions and energy use.
“We can create and design spaces that are really beautiful and spaces that people will want to be in,” he said, “and using cargo cycles in those spaces will help that be a reality.”