Why your next truck is a bike

Alex Mitchell
Jan 14 · 4 min read

On Sept 19, 2019, Amazon stunned the automotive world when it announced an order of 100,000 electric delivery vans from the startup Rivian, the largest EVs order in history. In fact, it may have been the largest automotive fleet order of all time.

For many, it marked the tipping point in the electrification of the medium-duty van, the workhorse of last-mile delivery responsible for ensuring that parcels, food, furniture and almost anything else gets delivered to homes and businesses in our cities. Many of these vans run on diesel, with diesel exhaust linked to any number of adverse health effects, including asthma and lung cancer. So it was no surprise that many celebrated Amazon throwing down the gauntlet to take tailpipe emissions out of their last-mile delivery vans.

But even with the electrification of vans in our cities, the battle for sustainable delivery may be just beginning. In New York City, for example, the average number of daily deliveries to households tripled from 2009 to 2017, resulting in worsening congestion. E-commerce is still only 10% of all retail sales, so we’ve only just starting to see the impacts that our shopping habits are having on congestion.

Enter the e-cargo bike. Just as the lowly bicycle is poised to take make share away from passenger cars in cities, the e-cargo bike is poised to displace zero-emissions vans in urban cores.

A tentative taxonomy of e-cargo bikes

First and foremost, startups in North America and Europe are leading a wave of innovation, taking the traditional cargo bicycle and adding the benefits of electrification. Urb-E, for example, takes the innovation further by creating a foldable e-cargo bike and trailer, allowing for significant economies in dense urban areas where overnight vehicle storage comes at a premium.

Pilots undertaken by UPS and Urb-E demonstrate the potential increase in driver deliveries per hour, especially when serving traffic-choked neighborhoods where a van might get caught in costly delays. Parcel delivery behemoths like FedEx and DHL may soon create a new type of hub-and-spoke model where mini-depots, scattered throughout a city, serve as hubs for teams of delivery drivers riding e-cargo bikes.

So how are we actually going to get to a more sustainable urban goods delivery model, with a hub and spoke system powered by e-cargo bikes?

First, cities will need to invest in micro-mobility lanes for traffic. For years, cyclists have advocated for more and better bike lanes. Then came the e-scooter explosion of 2018, raising a host of questions about who got to ride where. Ultimately, cities will recognize the need to de-emphasize the role of traditional cars and trucks in urban areas, or ban them completely. Instead, cities must promote active mobility and protected lanes for those using lightweight, low-speed transit means such as bikes, e-scooters, and e-cargo bikes. Without such protections, most delivery operators will be too concerned about driver safety to make the switch to e-cargo bikes.

Second, cities will need to begin pricing the curb. For much of the last century, parking in cities has been free or massively subsidized. No surprise, then, that parcel delivery operators choose vans weighing about five tons, capable of carrying a full day’s worth of deliveries. But all that bulk traveling in our dense urban core comes at a real cost, especially when parked for delivery, taking up valuable curb space that could be used to park multiple bikes. To capture the true cost of the curb, cities need to start charging every vehicle and mode its fair share for use of curb space. Once that happens, delivery operators will be incentivized towards more efficient e-cargo bikes instead of the oversized van.

Third, cities need to start linking e-cargo bikes into their overall strategies for urban mobility, rather than keeping people and goods movement so divided. For example, many cities are beginning to experiment with mobility hubs to improve first and last-mile connection to public transit. As long as they are installing infrastructure for shared bikes and e-scooters, it makes sense to think about creating similar opportunities for local businesses to rent e-cargo bikes.

VW’s contribution to the e-cargo bike category
VW’s contribution to the e-cargo bike category

Not all the heavy lifting has to come from cities, however. This new hub-and-spoke model will require a significant rethinking of where and how to locate these mini-depots serving as hubs. Some startups are experimenting with permanent mini-depots, for example, taking abandoned retail spaces and turning them into mini-warehouses to support last-mile delivery. Others propose an asset-light approach, attempting to work with cities to create designated street space for temporary staging centers. Still others are crafting a middle ground of moveable hubs created from materials such as re-purposed shipping containers, capable of moving from one parking lot to another overnight.

Our cities were designed for an era where parcel delivery was the exception, not the norm. We’re only just beginning to feel the effects of what happens when e-commerce becomes the default for entire categories of retail goods. We’re not going to get over our love of e-commerce, so our best bet is to start ensuring that goods flow to our homes and offices in the most sustainable way. For that, your next delivery truck may very well be an e-cargo bike.

Alex Mitchell

Written by

Startup incubation in LA. Formerly: PSA, World Economic Forum, Coda, McKinsey, Toyota. Mobility and energy. Opinions are my own and not those of my employer.

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