The Amazing World of Cargo Bikes

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 04, 2012

LEIPZIG, GERMANY—During Colonial times, the Post Road was established between New York and Boston, taking days to deliver the mail via zero-emission horse and rider. The briefly thriving Pony Express continued the tradition. And now it’s all come full circle with Ecopostale, a fleet of 10 bicycle pedi-cabs that deliver the mail in Brussels, Belgium. It’s just one spoke on a big wheel of cargo bikes that’s sweeping Europe. Rickshaws in New York? That’s just the start, they say here: Bikes can haul freight.

Cycle Logistics sees “a new human-powered future for Europe!” It notes that 20 to 40 percent of transport-related urban emissions are from deliveries. Cargo bikes have even made it into serious supply chain discussions as a solution in congested cities. “Twenty five percent of all intra-urban goods can be delivered via cargo bike,” declared Manfred Neun, president of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF), at one of the International Transport Forum sessions. “More than 50 percent of urban delivery will be in small vehicles.”

A welter of cargo bikes. (Jim Motavalli photo)
A welter of cargo bikes. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The concept is that you use big wheels to get the goods most of the way, then two wheels to go that important last mile. In Cambridge, England, Outspoken! Delivery is in a trial period of moving goods from its warehouse into the city center.

I know, it was a bit of a disconnect for me, too. I have enough trouble hauling my own sorry self around on two wheels, let alone serious weight. I rode in rickshaws when I lived in India, but never longed to be on the business end of one of them. But I know it’s good for me—it turns out that if you regularly cycle 30 minutes a day, you can diminish your heart attack risk by 50 percent. Not to mention that the planet would be happier if I leave my gas guzzler at home. But making your bike useful, now that’s a new concept.

The author tries out the Ecopostale bike. It’s good exercise! (Randy Rzewnicki photo)
The author tries out the Ecopostale bike. It’s good exercise! (Randy Rzewnicki photo)

I saw a hilarious Portlandia! parody of a bicycle moving company in two-wheeled utopia, never dreaming that they actually exist there. But apparently bike moves are an institution in Portland, attracting a small army of devotees: “What a bike move may lack in road speed, it more than makes up in loading and unloading time, with a dozen or more bicycle unionists on hand, to say nothing of thrift and conviviality. It's like a barn raising except there's beer at the end.”

Now here I am in the former East Germany, at a transport conference, and one of the solutions it features are these bikes, with a box mounted right behind the front wheel, intended for “last mile” shipping, pizza delivery, coffee bars and all sorts of novel uses. One user alone, Pizza Max, operates 500 cargo bikes in Germany. They’re even available through car-share services in Leipzig. I borrowed a few of them for some wobbly rides around Leipzig—the steering takes some getting used to, especially in the three-wheeled versions, because too quick a turn will tip them over. But I’m sure I could be delivering packages with a day’s training.

Pizza delivery is just one of the novel uses for cargo bikes. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Pizza delivery is just one of the novel uses for cargo bikes. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Eric Poscher, the CEO of Leipzig-based cargo bike provider Rad3, explains that Europe is now in the third wave of the cargo bike. “They were used a lot until the 1930s, but then cars took over,” he said. Then, around 1980, in Christiania [Copenhagen’s hippie district] people started using them as alternatives to cars. Now they’re catching on again.”

The modern variant of the cargo bike, including those fiberglass-bodied Ecopostale vans, are electrified for longer trips. The iBullitt ebike, for instance, offers 65 miles of travel for 15 cents of battery charge. It also boasts “a flamboyant, mobile advertising medium”—you can slap a colorful sign on it, thus promoting your bar (many tote beer) or daycare center (many take kids to school). I ran into Randy Rzewnicki, the transplanted Bostonian who serves as international project manager at ECF.

Rzewnicki’s mission is to get Europe on two wheels. “I gave up my car two years ago,” he said. “I haven’t missed it.” He told me that the Ecopostale vans can carry as much as [551 pounds], and even in the early stages of the program, launched in 2010, were delivering 400 packages per day to banks, lawyers and other corporate customers.

Randy Rzewnicki gave up his car when he moved from Boston to Brussels. Now he advocates for cargo bikes. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Randy Rzewnicki gave up his car when he moved from Boston to Brussels. Now he advocates for cargo bikes. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Meanwhile, the French have taken to cargo biking in a big way. La Petite Reine moves a million packages a year, with a fleet of 60 cargo bikes, and has saved 203 tons of carbon dioxide. Urban Cab recently launched in Paris, and its 10 Cyclo-Cargo bikes have delivered more than 200,000 packages in France, covering 37,000 miles per year. The French railway, SNCF, has also invested heavily in cargo bike delivery.

I’m not sure where all this is going, but I saw bicycles with solar panels, and even bicycles with wind turbines. This is serious. The streets of Leipzig, and indeed many European streets, are crowded with bicyclists. In cities like Copenhagen, bicycle commuting is over 35 percent of the total, said Rzewnicki. In Cambridge (England), it’s 26 percent, and in Boston, 10 percent.

In China and India, a move in the other direction—from bikes to cars—threatens to undermine all this progress. But China is also, by far, the world’s ebike center, and it’s also subsidizing electric cars in a big way.

When TV appeared, people thought radio would die a quick death. Instead, it’s healthier than ever. The age of the car didn’t doom the bike, though human-powered mobility slumbered for a while. Now it’s back bigger than ever, as people try to get healthier, and try out innovations to reduce the global carbon footprint, one pedal at a time.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One