Decarbonizing the last mile using electric motors and muscles
A day in the office — or biking the streets of sunny Miami — begins at the DHL Service Center for e-cargo bike couriers.
From there, Orlando Rosal makes his way to the REEF Technology garage, where an e-Cargo Cycle is waiting for him. Once he transfers a 60-cubic-foot container onto his bike, he takes off for Brickell Bay and various Miami neighborhoods, delivering packages along the way.
Electric-assisted cargo bikes (e-cargo bikes) have an electric motor, which means that couriers such as Rosal don’t need to be in shape for the next Tour de France or RAGBRAI in order to haul more freight or travel challenging distances. That’s one reason why, according to a study, drivers initially hesitant to try e-cargo bikes often “get a silly grin on their face” after climbing on board the first time.
Even so, couriers can adjust how much physical effort they put forth and how much of the work they want to put on the electric motor as they navigate different landscapes. They could get a full-on workout every day they’re out making deliveries — and many couriers like the option to use the electric assist or be more physically active while working.
“Unlike previous jobs when I might not have had time to go to the gym,” Rosal told FreightWaves, “operating an e-Cargo Cycle for DHL Express keeps me in great shape.”
Riding an e-cargo bike also prompts curiosity among those who see Rosal on the streets, as e-cargo bike couriers are not a common sight in Miami. Rosal said people often ask to take their picture with him, and he is becoming somewhat of a celebrity for his hard work.
“People on the street are overwhelmingly positive,” he said.
It’s an acknowledgement that e-cargo bikes have the potential to meaningfully reduce air pollution in cities. In essence, Rosal and others cyclists who perform delivery jobs without need of an internal combustion engine are seen as do-gooders.
Rosal’s bike courier position became available when DHL Express and REEF partnered with the city of Miami to implement a pilot project featuring three-wheeled e-Cargo Cycles in 2020. According to DHL Express, e-Cargo Cycles have the capacity to carry 400 pounds of cargo, and each one saves an estimated 101,000 kilograms of CO2 emissions annually.
That’s the greenhouse gas (GHG) equivalent that about 22 passenger cars emit in a year, according to the EPA.
E-commerce and food delivery business then skyrocketed in the last year during the pandemic, expanding the demand for home deliveries. Parcel delivery companies such as UPS, DHL and Amazon, along with restaurants and food delivery companies, are deploying an increasing number of e-cargo bikes in major urban areas.
“Alleviating the stresses on freight flows in these areas can have a positive impact on productivity, congestion, health and well-being, as well as carbon reduction,” noted a 2020 study titled, “Delivering the last mile: Scoping the potential for e-cargo bikes,” which was conducted by the University of Salford in Manchester, U.K., and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s DecarboN8 project.
E-cargo bike fleets require a lot of work to implement
Government regulations, population density and courier safety are just a few things to analyze when trying to get a fleet of e-cargo bikes operational in a city.
Obtaining approval of e-cargo bikes through state and city councils can be one of the most difficult parts of implementing an e-cargo bike fleet, Greg Hewitt, CEO at DHL Express, said in an interview with FreightWaves. That’s why, in addition to doing in-depth research related to demographics, population density and traffic, companies like DHL and REEF work closely with cities before rolling out e-cargo bikes.
It’s all about the motivation, Hewitt added. Cities with greater noise pollution, air pollution, parking and traffic issues are more likely to be in favor of e-cargo bikes, especially if they have environmental goals to reduce GHG emissions.
Along with government approval, perhaps even before venturing down that path, a high population density within close proximity to charging hubs needs to be confirmed.
Claudio Innocente, senior vice president of operations and last-block deliveries at REEF Technology, said that a 2- to 3-mile delivery radius is ideal for e-cargo bike efficiency.
“High-density urban areas are where we’ve seen success” deploying e-cargo bikes to replace van routes, 1-for-1, Hewitt said.
Vertical delivery markets where a courier can pull up to an apartment building, park and deliver several packages on different levels of the same building are very efficient, he added.
Not all buildings have the infrastructure to install several e-cargo bike charging stations, so DHL partnered with REEF to use its charging infrastructure. Hewitt said the company otherwise would have had to retrofit older buildings. DHL is considering things like charging infrastructure and hub location when designing new urban logistics hubs to work well with e-cargo bikes and electric delivery vans, he added.
REEF Technology has about 4,800 locations in 50 cities that touch 70% of North America’s “densely populated urban areas,” according to company information. It often sets up logistics hubs in underutilized parking garages.
High-density urban areas are where we’ve seen success.GREG HEWITT, CEO, DHL EXPRESS
Assuming the infrastructure is there, and governments are on board, costs and courier safety are still major concerns for companies.
E-cargo bikes can be almost the same price as a secondhand van, ranging in price from $2,000 to $7,000, according to the Salford study. While electric cargo bikes are significantly more expensive than regular bikes, they are still cheaper than electric and diesel delivery vans or trucks. The maintenance and operating costs for e-cargo bikes are also much lower than those for delivery vehicles, the study said.
Since the REEF-DHL partnership is in Miami, they have not had to deal with many weather-related issues there. Hewitt said that couriers are protected from the elements. Innocente said that REEF Technology targets cities where e-cargo bikes can be used year-round, but it still has hubs in locations like Seattle and New York City.
Along with protection from the weather, these e-cargo bikes are designed with safety in mind. Though couriers do not need a special license, they have to complete training for operating e-cargo bikes.
“The bike courier is seen as a bit of a dangerous job,” Hewitt said.
In movies and on TV, there is a stigma to overcome that bike couriers are not overly safe. Hewitt said that DHL Express has only had positive feedback in Miami, boasting that there have been no injuries, accidents or complaints from the city thus far.
The Salford study said that GPS systems and the size of e-cargo bikes improve courier safety. Though they are large compared to traditional bicycles, e-cargo bikes have limited space for packages compared to delivery vehicles.
On especially busy days, Rosal said that he has to return to the REEF garage to pick up more freight in order to finish his route. This sometimes frustrates him because he likes to complete his work as efficiently as possible.
Lot of hoops to jump through just for some bikes. Why bother?
Many companies are setting ambitious GHG emission-reduction targets, but reducing emissions that contribute to climate change is just one of the many benefits of using e-cargo bikes.
E-cargo bikes can help reduce noise and air pollution in cities. They have zero tailpipe emissions and very few overall emissions when compared to diesel or electric delivery vans. Because of this, their contribution to air pollution in population-dense cities is virtually nonexistent.
Innocente believes that e-cargo bikes have “more than a lot” of potential to help decarbonize the last mile.
The Salford study said that one business could reduce CO2 emissions 75% by switching deliveries from vans to e-cargo bikes whenever possible.
Air-quality concerns and limits on particulate matter and NOx emissions have led cities to implement low-emissions zones or ban diesel vehicles altogether, a 2020 study called “Vehicle requirements for electric cargo bikes in commercial transport” and conducted by the Ministry of Economics Baden-Württemberg noted.
These regulations force companies that rely on deliveries for food or other packaged goods to rethink their delivery fleet.
Along with environmental and health concerns, e-cargo bikes alleviate parking, traffic and congestion issues in cities. Some cities such as New York have started to put congestion pricing in places where traffic is especially heavy.
Depending on regulations and city setups, e-cargo bikes can drive on the road or use bike lanes and bike-friendly zones such as parks to bypass and maneuver through busy, bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Larger e-cargo bikes can be more difficult to maneuver through traffic since they generally weigh more and have a wider turn radius, the Salford study said. Cities with a more robust bike lane network and bike parking privileges make e-cargo bikes seem like a more attractive option.
Some cIties are giving e-cargo bikes privileges to park in commercial parking zones previously set aside for delivery trucks and some are even waiving meter fees, the Ministry of Economics study said. This means couriers can pull up to their delivery location, park right in front of a building, drop off their parcels and be on their way.
Meanwhile, delivery trucks and vans waste time driving back and forth or around to block to find a spot. They often end up double parking illegally and blocking bus and vehicle traffic, congesting streets even more.
At the same time as demand for home deliveries is rising, the Ministry of Economics study said, heavy traffic makes it harder and harder to deliver packages on time.
Perceptions that e-cargo bikes are slower than vans are inaccurate because the speed limits are typically 12-15 miles per hour in the busy urban zones where they travel anyway, Innocente said. There is an argument that e-cargo bikes are faster overall because of traffic and parking issues that vehicle drivers have to deal with.
Rosal said that he is able to complete his route more quickly and provide better service for DHL customers because he can temporarily leave an e-Cargo Cycle in bicycle parking areas on sidewalks and streets long enough to make deliveries and pickups.
All of these benefits make bike couriers’ jobs easier, which is important because companies implementing e-cargo bikes need courier buy-in.
“I think our couriers are overall very supportive of sustainability efforts and like the idea,” Hewitt said.
Rosal added that he is proud to be able to deliver packages without contributing to GHG emissions and air pollution.
Choosing your wheels
Choosing the right kind of e-cargo bike depends on the application. Hot food deliveries and parcel deliveries have completely different requirements.
Hot food needs to be kept in a container or bag warmer. E-cargo bikes for this purpose are often two-wheeled with smaller containers because couriers need to make more trips back to the restaurant in between food deliveries. The two wheels allow couriers to navigate through traffic more nimbly and squeeze into even tighter parking spaces.
Using e-cargo bikes for parcel deliveries requires a higher capacity for space and weight. These e-cargo bikes sometimes have cargo on a trailer in the back, have a cargo container in front of the handlebars or have a cargo container right behind the courier.
DHL has deployed many four-wheeled Cubicycles in Europe, which reduce energy use by up to 90% when compared to electric vans. Apart from a 2019 pilot project in New York City, only two- and three-wheeled e-cargo bikes have been approved in the U.S., Hewitt said.
“One of the challenges with the European version we have is the minute they have four wheels, it’s almost like they’re looked at differently. They get classified as a proper van or vehicle, and they’re subject to a lot more restrictions and limitations,” Hewitt said.
Europe has a more developed infrastructure for biking and walking, and it is more progressive, so it has been easier for DHL Express to implement e-cargo bikes there, Hewitt added. “The Netherlands loves bikes, so they were able to get past the four wheels.”
Cubicycles often get stuck in city council, while the three-wheeled e-Cargo Cycles move through much faster, he said.
Though four-wheeled e-cargo bikes like the Cubicycle can haul more freight, Innocente said that REEF Technology has only attempted to deploy two- and three-wheeled e-cargo bikes.
“The three wheels is the best compromise between activity, size and stability,” Innocente said.
DHL Express is hoping to deploy e-cargo bike fleets in additional cities such as Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago by the end of 2021, Hewitt said.
Despite challenges with regulations, population density, costs and courier safety, e-cargo bikes have the potential to reduce GHG emissions in urban environments. While their efficiency is only meaningful in densely populated cities, e-cargo bikes could play an important role in decarbonizing the last mile.
And if you happen to see Rosal atop his e-Cargo Cycle on the streets of Miami, feel free to ask for a photo. He won’t mind.