Whether transporting people, food or for a professional activity, an electric cargo bike is increasingly becoming a practical, economical and ecological means of transport in everyday life.
While there were only a handful of them a few years ago, exposing themselves in back alleys, in front of which the narrow-minded truck driver passed by taking an amused look at these machines, the designers of cargo e-bicycles have, not so far ago, invaded the space of Hall A1 at the Eurobike show in Friedrichschafen.
In the past, the Eurobike show welcomed brands such as Shimano, Campagnolo, Wilier, Santini, Selle Italia, Zéfal. This year, the brands on display are: Twelve Cycles, Yuba, Dolly Bakfiets, Urban Arrow, Winther Bikes, Johnny Loco or Bici Capace. New players whose number has increased again this year (32 compared to 24 last year), and who have taken power today to create a real Cargo Area, dedicated to the promotion of the cargo e-bikes. This shows a flourishing market.
For Dirk Heidrich, the exhibition director, the passion for cargo bikes, or freight bikes and their wide presence at the show, is a little similar to that of the mountain bike in the 1990s.
Cargo electric bikes form the new wave
“Many brands have been created in recent years,” says Robin Paradis, one of the founders of the Paris Cargo Bikes association. New models have appeared and now come from all countries in Europe, Italy, Germany… There must be five freight e-bike manufacturers in Berlin, which did not exist ten years ago. »
Robin Paradis points out that the practice of cargo electric bicycles is gradually winning over the rest of the world: “Bergamont, for example, a major designer of all-road and mountain bikes, is launching its first cargo bike. Several brands are also emerging in major cities in Brazil and Colombia, with engineering offices that manufacture real bicycles or are inspired by existing models. »
France has also become more democratic in a short period of time, with the emergence of many firms in the sector, as well as specialized stores. In 2011, there were only scooters and Bakfiets, the traditional Dutch bicycles, literally the wheelbarrow bicycle,” explains Robin Paradis. Steel bicycles with a wooden box, 30 kg… Now we are overwhelmed with an incredible number of brands distributed, especially, in Parisian stores. »
Inspired by the culture of cargo and e-cargo bike in Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark, the practice of cargo bike has also been spreading in France for several years. It is estimated that there are more than 5,000 of them on the streets, and it is no longer uncommon to come across these funny bicycles, which are becoming more and more sophisticated and seem very practical.
Transporting cargo by e-bike is a new way of life
As an alternative to the use of a car, cargo bikes appear to become a transport of its time, full of common sense in many circumstances. Logistical transport, of people, of foodstuffs, for certain professions (plumber, mason, cheesemaker…), catering services or alike, with certain physical activity. More than a mode of transport, it seems to start becoming a new way of life.
In reality, it is a return to the spirit of transportation that ruled the city centres in the 1930s, and which disappeared with the political will to offer accessibility to cars, a symbol of speed and the future at the time, in urban areas.
While delivery scooters and bicycles were left out of the landscape in France in the 1950s, the tradition has never been interrupted in countries like the Netherlands or Denmark, where it has been possible for years to participate in traditional cargo bike races, the “Svajerlob”. In France, the average number of cargo bike trips with children is lower than in its European neighbors with 6 kilometers round trip/6 kilometers return.
All types of bicycles for all types of rides and routes
But today, cargo electric bike is making a strong entry in catalogs and specialized stores. The modern version benefits from the technological innovations of the cycle market. “There are all types of bicycles depending on how you ride and the routes you take,” says Robin Paradis. There are now utilitarian, family, long-tails (extended bicycles) of different configurations. »
Aluminum frame, classic or Di2 transmissions, an electric power-assisted model for the less dashing or heavy load transport, hub gears, specific wheel, and tire sizes, cable brakes or hydraulic disc brakes. The 2020 cargo bike has nothing to do with the object often imagined as being tinkered with at the bottom of a garage.
Handy and stable
A bike with such dimensions can cause concerns with its handling. However, it only takes a few minutes to learn how to ride one. “You just have to take into account the length when turning as to not cut too short with the risk of scraping the pavement, for example,” explains Robin Paradis. These are very stable bicycles.»
On snow, if a cargo e-bike starts sliding, it does not fall down immediately as would be the case with a traditional bike. It gives time to brake, to put a foot down. Often considered “brilliant or funny”, cargo bicycles are part of the trend of increasing the use in urban areas (two out of five French people, for example, use them daily according to a study by the Cycle and Sports Union).
The issues, solving which could improve acceptance and support of cargo e-bikes in urban and extra-urban areas, are the same as for traditional bicycles. These are the creation of bike-specific lanes, parking infrastructure, as well as bicycle parking facilities equipped with fixed point fasteners that serve as enhanced security.
With this encouraging and invigorating momentum, cargo cycling in urban areas will quickly be confronted with the same issues as motorists. These will include saturated areas and traffic jams, even if it remains above all a user-friendly means of transport. The bicycle will then become an ideal object to encourage exchange and sharing, thus further building the human ability to live together.
Cargo bicycles to deliver packages in the city
Imagine that a truck has to deliver goods downtown. The driver can’t find parking, so he parks on two lanes. Cars following this truck are forced to bypass it. Traffic is suddenly interrupted and slowed down.
A few kilometers further on, another truck is driving through the streets of a residential area to deliver packages to individuals. Deliveries are sometimes large, but sometimes very small. Individuals are sometimes absent, forcing the truck to return a second or even a third time. These trucks emit up to 50 kg of CO2 per day. They travel with often half-empty cargoes and often represent a danger to other road users.
But what if, instead of using trucks in densely populated areas, deliveries were made by cargo bikes or e-bikes? This idea is currently being tested in the suburbs of Montreal.
Called Colibri, this urban delivery pilot project aims to reduce the impact of the last-mile deliveries. The last mile is the most expensive kilometer for delivery companies. It represents between 28% and 60% of total delivery costs. It is also the most inconvenient for city dwellers.
“The idea of this project is really to experiment with delivery methods, to test technologies to see which ones are the best,” explains Robert Beaudry, head of economic and commercial development for the City of Montreal’s Executive Committee, by showing the new facilities of the Colibri project.
The distribution center for the Colibri project was established in the former Montreal bus station located in the heart of the city. Containers are scattered throughout the site’s outdoor parking lot, where delivery trucks unload their contents. The packages are then loaded onto bicycle-cargoes – a kind of pedal touk-touk – which then leaves for the streets of Montreal to deliver them.
Electric cargo bicycles – on which delivery staff pedals with the help of an electric motor – can carry up to 180 kg of cargo. And the size of the packages can be impressive. Televisions and even mattresses can be delivered by cargo e-bikes,” says the team leader.
Private companies are part of the cargo e-bike delivery pilot
The Colibri project was born from a partnership with private companies already active in the last mile delivery business. For this first phase of the pilot project – which lasts six to eight months -, Mail Hunters, Courant Plus, La roue libre, LVM Livraison and Purolator are testing this new e-cargo bike delivery technology. Canada Post is not participating yet.
The City of Montreal gives delivery companies free access to the facilities and storage containers. In exchange, these companies provide the City of Montreal with the data collected over the course of the project.
Quantitative data on the number of packages delivered, places of delivery, routes used, and also qualitative data, for example on the type of difficulties encountered. “These data will allow us to demonstrate whether there has been an efficiency gain in delivering by an electric cargo bike, whether there have been savings on gasoline, for example, that compensate for handling and reorganization,” says Mickael Brard of the City of Montreal.
Collected data will also provide food for thought for the municipal authorities. “It is certain that the City of Montreal will move towards a transformation of its regulations regarding urban delivery, especially the last mile,” says Robert Beaudry. The message we are sending is to say to companies: “Let’s try things, so we can feed on your technologies to adapt our regulations. And you too will be able to adapt to the future that is coming our way”.»
When online sales are booming at an unprecedented rate, similar projects have emerged in recent months in other cities, including London, Berlin, and Seattle, says Mickael Brard. “But Canada is probably one of the countries with the most constraints during winter. This is what makes the Montreal project particularly interesting.»
The goal is that cargo e-bikes will continue to circulate once the snow has fallen on our roads. “This is our challenge. It’s an issue, but not a show stopper,” says Mickael Brard.
A cargo e-bike laboratory
The Colibri project is above all a laboratory, an incubator of good practices in urban delivery. Several technologies are being tested and multiple avenues explored.
Thus, an extension of delivery times could be considered with cargo e-bikes. “These are completely silent vehicles, so we could test deliveries at night for example,” suggests Mickael Brard. Slow speed deliveries in pedestrian streets at any time of the day is another opportunity to be tested.
Shared electronic lockers could also be installed in strategic areas of the city. For example, goods could be delivered to the Eaton Centre outside store hours and left in lockers. Merchants could then pick them up when the store opens. “It avoids congestion, pollution, delays and costs,” says Robert Beaudry.
Splitting of deliveries to smaller warehouses spread over several locations in the city can also be used. Thus, smaller trucks, and possibly electric trucks, could be used. This solution could be interesting, for example, to reduce the size of beer trucks that drive through small streets to unload their cargo in convenience stores.
“These large trucks are practically empty at the end of their deliveries, but their volume is the same,” says Robert Beaudry. Accidents are three times more often fatal when a truck or heavy goods vehicle is involved. This human cost is fundamental.»