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With rising congestion returning to UK cities, can cargo bikes not only act as a green logistics solution but also beat the traffic to ensure rapid deliveries? Katie Searles reports… 

The last-mile logistics landscape is changing. Diesel delivery vans are no longer the only way to transport goods around the UK’s towns and cities, and delivery companies are being invited to switch to cargo bike solutions, with the promise that these pedal-powered systems are greener, cheaper and faster.

A report released last year by the Local Government Association, Transport decarbonisation by travelling less, suggests a switch to cargo bikes will address concerns about the rise of fossil-fuelled delivery

vans operating in busy urban areas and residential streets, in doing so contributing to poor air quality, congestion and loss of local amenity. The report also states that courier bikes can replace up to 10% of conventional vans in areas where the final delivery route is no more than 2km (1.2 miles), without changing the overall network efficiency.

Slicker cities
One UK city that’s looking to benefit from such savings is Brighton and Hove. In September 2020, the seaside resort on England’s south coast launched the ‘eCargo Bike Accelerator’ project – as part of World Car-Free Day – to support local businesses and organisations to switch to cargo bikes for deliveries of goods and services.

“Car use is ingrained within the UK general public and business sector attitude, but there is a movement for change happening,” says Daniel Bianco, transport planner for Brighton & Hove City Council, and member of UK Cycle Logistics Federation.

Closed cargo boxes are designed to ensure deliveries remain secure, clean, and dry during fast urban journeys

It is not only local councils that are calling for change, however. The logistics industry itself is also witnessing a shift in what its customers want, as businesses deal with an e-commerce boom.

Oxfordshire-based micromobility manufacturer Electric Assisted Vehicles (EAV) developed its 2Cubed eCargo vehicle in direct response to a large increase in e-commerce deliveries, with a focus on responding in a socially responsible way. “None of the big corporates want to be seen delivering in diesel vans anymore,” says Leo Bethell, head of partnerships at EAV. “They want a new, innovative but crucially zero-emissions vehicle delivering their goods.”

That feeling of social responsibility is being driven by the consumers themselves, according to Sam Keam, co-founder of zero-emission delivery firm Zedify. “Younger, more environmentally savvy and conscientious consumers especially have been showing distinct preferences for retailers who can demonstrate performance on a sustainable  procurement supply chain, sustainable distribution models and ethical employment practices.

“Retailers up and down the country and across all sectors are actually responding to that quite quickly.”

These retailers are actively able to replace small vans with cargo bikes and are quickly seeing efficiency benefits, including the capability to travel a shorter route than a van, not having to look for parking and access to alternative avenues.

“Our vehicles are classed as e-bikes, so they can go down cycle lanes, you can walk them through pedestrian zones, enabling drivers to deliver straight to the customer’s front door,” continues EAV’s Bethell.

Furthermore, cargo bikes are also grabbing more people’s attention. “Riders around London are often asked questions about their use and we regularly receive positive comments from customers, saying how pleased they were that their package arrived via an e-cargo bike rather than a van – showing just how top of mind sustainability is for everyone right now,” says Alun Cornish, managing director, ground operations UK at FedEx Express. The delivery company is currently running 10 e-cargo bikes in Bermondsey and Hornsey, London, and is planning to launch a Cambridge city centre fleet this summer.

Delivery company Fedex currently has 10 e-cargo bikes in Bermondsey and Hornsey, London, and is planning to launch a Cambridge city centre fleet later this year

It is not only the public’s heads that have been turned by e-cargo bikes, the users too are ebullient in their reactions: “This is because we have well supported and enthusiastic staff who like their jobs and who haven’t had to sit in traffic and struggle with parking tickets and congestion issues,” says Keam.

Micro-fulfilment hubs
Rolling out cargo bikes to contend with such issues is just one part of the vast ecosystem of last-mile logistics. This recent shift to e-commerce is also seeing businesses trying to increase the speed of delivery. Customers no longer want to wait days – they barely want to wait hours!

To achieve such a rapid turnaround, more companies are turning away from large warehouses in industrial parks towards a “city-centric delivery solution”, as Rayan Bannai, innovation and development manager of Swedish logistics company Urb-It, labels it. Last-mile logistics suppliers such as Urb-It are developing centralised docks that enable fleets of e-cargo bikes to serve the immediate community, to be even closer to the customer.

“What we’re trying to do is create very efficient and fast logistics within city centres – to not have to take up too much space or contribute to congestion in any way,” says Bannai. “We want to use these hubs in a way that allows us to quickly consolidate, turnaround and provide efficiencies within.”

This has also led to some creative locations for such hubs, including unused underground parking spaces in both residential blocks and office spaces, as well as repurposed railway arches. This is especially important with the historical decline in the availability of land for urban logistics facilities in UK cities. Keam describes its microhubs on the edge of city centres as “gateways for inbound goods from last-mile carriers and retailers”.

Additionally, it is not just about speeding-up the delivery; the microhubs also provide customers with choice. While conventional carriers tend to be limited to fixed delivery schedules, using a local micro-fulfilment model provides increased flexibility, which allows consumers to select a delivery slot when they know there are going to be in.

“What having a local hub enables us to do is leverage that localism,” Keam says. “We can have staging areas for pre-advised delivery rounds determined by the customer.

“On bikes, we’re able to do morning rounds and then come back for afternoon rounds – we can collect and deliver at the same time, which gives us a lot of service flexibility.”

Keam goes on to stress that – although extremely fast delivery slots are being promoted by some companies, promising grocery deliveries within 15 minutes – Zedify is not looking to enter the rapid delivery market. “It doesn’t seem like a very scalable, ethical way to conduct deliveries in cities. Giving customers control over when something arrives is often more desirable or as desirable as saying it can be done in 15 minutes. And we’ve tried to encourage or demonstrate the benefits of a more sustainability approach.”

Consumers are even looking at which delivery slots are eco-friendly, adds Bannai, with people willing to pay more for ‘green’ delivery times.

As a certified B Corporation sustainability is at the heart of Urb-it’s green delivery model, which features a range of zero-emission transport modes

This sustainability benefit for such microhubs is showcased in Accenture’s report, The Sustainable Last Mile, published in April. Looking at London, Chicago and Sydney, this found the use of micro-fulfilment centres (MFCs) could reduce traffic volume and harmful vehicle-related emissions by 16-26% by 2025. According to the report, London would likely see the largest delivery traffic reduction from the use of MFCs: a 13% drop equates to about 320,000,000 fewer miles travelled by delivery vehicles. The study also identified substantial and achievable reductions in the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO₂), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM10) arising from a reduction in delivery vehicle volumes through the increased use of MFCs. London also saw the greatest CO₂ reductions equating to 144,000 tonnes of emissions, simply through the use of these micro hubs.

Miles to go?
Although the benefits of using such hubs and cargo bike innovations are clear, the industry is still in its infancy. “We’re trying to be a step ahead and reinvent from the ground up,” says Bannai. “From day zero, we’re going to deliver solutions that will be here for years to come.

“Within cargo bike logistics – which we can use in existing and new bike infrastructure – we can walk through pedestrianised areas, we can even wheel a bike through a less noisy area, if we’d like to, that’s the sort of extent of where our type of operation allows us to go to,” he adds.

As well as additional routes for the bikes to take, there are new avenues for the businesses that run cargo bike services to go down. “The type of upscaling we’re looking at when it comes to the economy bike industry could involve billions of pounds,” claims Bianco. “There’s a second-hand market, there’s maintenance, there’s training, and then, of course, there’s the purchasing for cargo bikes.”

For this developing industry to grow, Bianco believes there must be further investment and the “big players” such as Amazon and DPD need to be seen to be embracing these modes and sharing what they have learned.

Furthermore, collaboration is needed between the private sector and the likes of the UK Department for Transport, with funding being supplied by both. However, Bianco laments that securing cash is often challenging, with grants coming sporadically. “For local authorities such as us, we’re playing catch up and we’re having to work really quickly. And this is what I’ve done with the eCargo Bike Accelerator project; I want it really visible and out there.

“A lot more work needs to be done and it needs to be done now,” continues Bianco. “People are switching on to the fact that cargo bikes can do so much more. We need people to recognise this.”

Keam is in agreement and goes further by emphasising that businesses need to look at the bigger picture. “Currently, many of these discussions happen in silos,” he concludes. “We talk about passenger logistics and public transport, and then we talk about freight transport, and cycling in isolation. We need to think far more in terms of the broader system.”

Case study: Stampa

Stampa harnesses Zedify e-cargo bikes to reduce both its mileage and carbon footprint

Stampa Print & Design is a Brighton-based digital print company that prides itself on the use of sustainable recycled paper. Thus, it was an easy decision to, in turn, offer a green solution for deliveries. Director Lucy Smith explains that the use of Zedify e-cargo bikes enables them to reduce both mileage and carbon footprint.

Conventional logistics methods would see parcels collected and sent to a central distribution centre, which in this case is 25 miles from Brighton, near Gatwick Airport. The use of a local e-cargo service eliminates the need for the parcel to make this unnecessary journey, which then has the added benefit of speeding up delivery. “A rider will collect from us in the morning and an order is delivered to our client the same day,” Smith explains.

The use of bike riders also enables better customer services. “Zedify offer an excellent personal service, as opposed to working with a larger corporation,” she adds. “A parcel is hand-delivered by the bike rider with every care.” And to top it all off, Stampa knows that, through working with Zedify, it is supporting another local independent business. “Lowering our footprint at Stampa with zero-emissions deliveries can only be beneficial to our lovely city of Brighton.”

The potential of hydrogen
Although the majority of e-cargo bike solutions feature an electric battery to give the operator a boost, a project in Aberdeen is looking to validate the use of a hydrogen fuel-cell technology in its vehicles for sustainable last-mile deliveries.

The trial sees Aberdeen City Council team up with Oxfordshire-based Electric Assisted Vehicles (EAV) to develop a hydrogen-powered version of its 2Cubed electric bike.

The trial would see hydrogen fuel-cells installed in EAV’s 2Cubed delivery platforms

According to EAV, adding a fuel-cell to the lightweight 2Cubed platform has the potential to increase the range of the delivery solution by tenfold that of the lithium-ion battery-powered model.

This could put the hydrogen-fuelled 2Cubed on the roads for close to a week without the need for recharging. And with concerns over raw materials for EV battery production, could hydrogen fuel-cells be the answer?

Unfortunately, it is not as straightforward as replacing one power source with another as hydrogen also comes with its own problems. “The lack of hydrogen infrastructure at the moment is the main challenge and coupled with the lack of commercialisation of it, too,” explains Leo Bethell, head of partnerships at EAV.

“Currently, it is also still very expensive. The Aberdeen project has a few different stakeholders involved.”

As well as stakeholders enabling the project to go ahead, Aberdeen is also one city that does have the infrastructure in the form of its hydrogen hub. Moreover, the city council is planning to further invest in the hub to create a delivery model for the production, storage and distribution of renewable hydrogen.

This makes Aberdeen an ideal UK city to join seven other European cities for this 12-month trial. Whether or not the solution will be commercially viable remains to be see, but Bethell is adamant it is certainly an avenue worth investigating as “every town and city across the world must now look at drastically reducing emissions and providing a cleaner, safer environment for its inhabitants.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of CiTTi magazine. 

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