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Freight delivery by bicycles

At the end of May we hosted a really interesting webinar on the role of cargo bicycles in last-mile delivery of freight in cities and small towns. We heard from Simon Mitchell from BNE Messengers on the urban perspective, and from Antony de Heveningham and Beate Kubitz of Cargodale on their cargo bike delivery co-op in one of the UK's hilliest rural areas.

In all my years in active transport planning I don't recall ever having a conversation on the role of bicycles in the last-mile delivery of freight. Sure we all know about the important role bicycle couriers serve in getting documents delivered in the inner city. But most of us have the mind-picture of the crazy inner-city bicycle messengers rushing urgent documents across the congested city in their crumpler shoulder sling-bags - think Premium Rush from 2012.

Most people can't imagine a bicycle replacing the delivery-van in getting freight to its destination. But cargo bikes have the ability to carry sizeable packages and with electric assist they can carry a decent weight up a steep incline (the biggest of Cargodale's fleet can carry up to 80kg).

The fact is that small freight delivery has a sizeable impact on our urban areas increasing traffic congestion and taking valuable kerbside space. There is limited research on their impact, but Anthony shared some interesting findings from the White Van Cities report by the Urban Transport Group. Research found that the kilometers travelled by light commercial vans in London almost doubled between 2006 and 2016 and 66% of them are less than half full. Around 35% of these vans are making deliveries (the rest are mostly tradies) and with increased online shopping that proportion is increasing rapidly.

But this issue is not just a phenomenon for the inner cities. Antony and Beate shared how Cargodale was established in 2020 in Calderdale, UK in response to the COVID lockdown explosion in online shopping and the rapid growth on delivery vans impacting on the town streets and rural lanes. Most deliveries are small and can easily and more efficiently be delivered in a cargo bike.

Simon shared an interesting history of bicycle courier service and how it has evolved over time. He recognised that trucks play an important part in the transport of bulk freight, but bicycles are the most efficient way to serve as a first/last kilometer freight delivery services. Bicycle courier and cargo bike delivery service allow for rapid and efficient collection and distribution of small parcels in the inner city where they are far more efficient than delivery vans.

Key to realising the potential role for bicycles in freight delivery is the need for a freight hub where freight can shift between bicycle delivery and consolidated long distance haulage by delivery vans. The hub could either be a fixed location or mobile (in a delivery van), depending on the needs. This model allows for the efficient delivery (or collection) of goods without the time wasted looking for parking and the congestion impacts of delivery vehicles in city traffic.

Road space, parking and loading space is valuable real estate in cities and towns with strong demands to reallocate the space to improve urban amenity, pathway capacity and/or cycling safety. There is opportunity to reduce or remove the need for kerbside loading areas if the city develops a modern freight plan that creates an accessible freight hub and uses bicycle and cargo bikes for the first/last kilometer distribution. In 2021 Cargodale established their freight hub in Todmorton Markets to allow customers to easily access their service, and to have direct access to the suppliers.

Cargo bikes create the opportunity to haul larger goods between the freight hub and the customer, with electric propulsion extending the range. Because of the hilly topography in Calderdale the Cargodale service uses electric cargo bikes. BNE Messengers operate a fleet of cargo bikes in Brisbane and they soon will be upgrading to electric.

As an engineer and planner there is a need to expand our understanding of the role bicycles to include freight transport. Our city planning and kerbside management needs to re-examine the long-held convention that all deliveries need to be made to the front door/storefront by light commercial vehicles. We need to design our cities and towns to use a sustainable freight system that makes more use of active transport for first/last mile freight movement. To make that happen we need freight hubs in our centres to allow the efficient transfer of freight between bicycle delivery services and freight haulage. We need to support the safe movement of bicycles throughout the road network through the reallocation of more road space, parking and loading areas to protected bicycle lanes.

If you use a courier service or are getting deliveries, ask whether there is a sustainable transport option available. The best way to support active transport is to support businesses like BNE Messengers and Cargodale that are transforming the way freight moves.


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