How Cargo Bikes Can Change Cities And Local Food Supply Chains For The Better

David Squire, co founder of FARR OUT Deliveries on his Cargo e-bikes in the center of Edinburgh

Lloyd Smith photography and Film

Sales from grocery delivery and pickup around the world have surged as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, where only in the US have they increased by 60% since March 2020. But as the food-delivery ecosystem brought people to fill their virtual carts, their online purchases have resulted in on-road deliveries, increasing cities’ traffic and air pollution.  How can cities’ road networks absorb the waterfall of online orders and increased emissions?

As the ecosystem is evolving further, combining sustainable urban logistics and food supply chain would be necessary to decrease food’s carbon footprint while making cities into more livable urban areas.

Supporting sustainable logistic solutions beyond bicycles will be a priority, and cargo bikes could be the best bet to secure sustainable urban food supply chains, make local communities and economies thrive and help foster cities’ sustainable urban mobility plans.  The problem of food-delivery Groceries are the most essential items required on a daily basis and their deliveries are accompanied by specific challenges.

This type of freight service falls under the “same-day” delivery category, hence they require short delivery times to maintain the food fresh. Grocery deliveries are hitting the roads the same way as most courier services: orders are transported with supermarket chains’ and meal-kit companies’ own lorries.Due to their surge, they are putting pressure on cities’ ability to reach their climate targets, while increasing costs and CO2 emissions per food package delivered. 

Abandoning the old-fashioned van delivery service is required in order to decarbonise urban areas: “There is no other way cities can achieve their climate and emissions reductions goals because so much of urban emissions are coming from transport,” said Henk Swarttouw, president of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF). Europe-wide meal kit companies such as Hello Fresh propose to consumers to select a “greener delivery choice” so to get their meal-prep food parcels delivered outside peak hours.

But this might bring vans to run half-empty throughout the day and increase the number of trips.  Norwegian grocery company Oda, previously known as Kolonial, is able to cut its emissions by delivering food using its electric vans fleet. Almost all electricity production in the country is generated with renewable energy and over 50% of vehicles in Norway are already electric. 

But this is not the reality in the rest of Europe: “Making all the cars electric will take too long.

95% of the vehicles that are being sold today run on petrol or on diesel. And they will be on the road for another 15 or 20 years,” said Swarttouw, who believes that despite electric vans will lower city emissions, they will not help cities solve the most pressing urban mobility problem: road traffic.  Solutions on two wheels

A solution to freight delivery is already at hand. Cargo bikes, bicycles designed specifically for transporting loads, have existed for at least a century and could help fix the problem created by the increased popularity of on-demand food delivery. According to the ECF, cargo bike sales in Europe increased by 38.4% in 2020 and by 65.9% in 2021.

These two to six wheeled bikes are slowly revolutionizing mobility in cities as they are suited for many different applications:”There’s very little you cannot do with a cargo bike particularly now that they are electric,” explained Swarttouw, as they can be loaded up to 250 kilograms.

If most of the times vans drive around cities loaded just up to 30% of their capacity, cargo bikes could easily do their jobs: “A single cargo bike replacing a diesel transporter would save 5 tons of CO2 emissions, 51% of all motorized trips,” confirmed Gary Armstrong from the European Cycle Logistics Federations (ECLF).  The advantages of cargo bikes are many: a study by the University of Southampton has found that cargo bikes complete urban delivery jobs up to 50% faster than small vans during peak weekday times, and would therefore help cities to avoid congestion. The analysis of the Dutch food and drinks delivery company Nedcargo showed that deliveries on two wheels cost 18% less than when transported with lorries.

Fostering local businesses and economies During the pandemic, cargo bike deliveries have proven to be beneficial not only for the environment, but also from a societal and economic perspective. In some cities, these freight services were vital for the survival of local food producers and suppliers. 

“A lot of small businesses set up web shops during lockdown, but didn’t have a delivery system and it would have been expensive for them to do so,” explained  David Squire, co-founder of FARR OUT Deliveries, the first independent e-cargo bike courier delivery service in Edinburgh.

In November 2021, FARR OUT Delivers was awarded Business Champion of the Year 2021 by Cycling Scotland, as from their first customer, a local baker, after a year  their client list now accounts for over a hundred local companies.Among them small breweries, soft drink producers and bakeries, request deliveries to citizens, local bars and pubs: “We can actually collect a lot of deliveries at once and deliver them straight to people’s houses,” said Squire who thinks it’s unreasonable to make these short inner city trips with vans.

FARR OUT Deliveries collects food parcels in front of a local bakery in Edimburgh.

Matt Beech

Many of the business owners are interested in the environmental benefits of such delivery option, which are also way cheaper and often quicker than conventional deliveries. In addition, cargo bikes are less noisy and take up less road space, also during the loading processes: “For local businesses all those things matter, because they work in and love their local area so they care about their city and the service they provide,” said Squire, who believes their service is making the city more resilient and a and sustainable.

In December 2021, FARR OUT Deliveries received a grant of £7,000 from the national organisation Scotland Food & Drink to help create and promote a sustainable local food network to make food and drinks businesses thrive and get a bigger, collective bargaining power. More infrastructure, more space Although the cargo bike sales increase, these freight bikes are still a new thing for most citizens: “People don’t really know what they are when they see us riding,” said Squire who wishes the local City Council would start to raise awareness for these vehicles and invest in proper bike lanes.

The pandemic helped increase low emissions zones and biking infrastructure across Europe, showing people the benefits of living in less polluted cities.

Biking  associations continue to demand sustainable mobility and infrastructure policies fit for cargo bikes: “Segregated and wide bike lanes are the centerpiece of efficient cargo bikes services,” said Swarttouw, who argued that unlocking the potential of such means of transport, will foster the general adoption of cycling. Out of all European cargo bikes sold in 2020,  92% of them were electric, which made freight delivery even simpler and vans unnecessary. Big players in the delivery ecosystems such as DHL and FedEx are already investing in the development of their own cargo bikes fleet, and they are willing to  work with city governments to foster the deployment of such logistics.

As investors are planning to pumping money in start-ups developing new food delivery platforms, an question they should respond is whether these services will be able to fit with how cities’ landscape will transform: “If you make the network of bike lanes denser, it would be easier to deliver fresh products,” said Swarttouw. “And by moving  a lot of the city distribution, from lorries to cargo bikes, you will need less space for cars,” he explained.




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