Why Cargo bikes? An empirical analysis of the Pedal Me fleet
A short introduction to the future of urban mobility.
Cargo bikes are often faced with misconceptions about their potential and use for large scale logistics. In this post, we present the case of Pedal Me in London to demonstrate their efficiency in dense urban areas and emphasise their competitive advantage over cars and smaller vans.
To do so, we analyse data from our fleet in September 2020 and summarise the direct logistical advantages of e-cargo bikes. We report on the average speeds of our bikes, and compare the distances travelled by bikes and cars for similar journeys. We then investigate the case of larger logistics jobs to evaluate how e-cargo bikes fare against motorised vehicles with much larger capacity.
For e-cargo bikes to be able to replace a significant proportion of van and car journeys, we explain the importance of using them at their maximum potential and give a brief overview of the training program at Pedal Me. In the end, we look at the huge impact e-cargo bikes can have beyond more efficient logistics for making kinder and healthier cities.
1. Logistical advantages of e-cargo bikes
a. Faster speeds in dense urban areas 🐇
To compare e-cargo bikes and motorised vehicles, we start by looking at their speeds in central and inner London to those of cars and vans. Transport for London reports that in 2018, the general traffic speeds in London, as measured for central, inner and outer London using GPS-based data for key roads on weekdays (07:00 to 19:00), were:
- 11.4 km/h in central London (in green on map below)
- 18.7 km/h in inner London (orange on map)
To measure the speed of the Pedal Me fleet, we collected GPS data from 37 bikes in September 2020 between 07:00 and 19:00. This corresponds to approximately 19,000 km ridden. In central London, the average speed of the bikes was of 15km/h. In inner London, it was of 16.4 km/h. What this shows, is that within a 3-5 miles radius of the centre, bikes are likely to move significantly faster than vans or cars. With congestion levels going up due to more cars on the road on one hand, and with more restricted lanes and continued investment in cycling infrastructure on the other, this advantage will only be heightened.
Indeed, the competitive speeds can be largely explained by the fact that cargo bikes can move past stationary traffic, are allowed to use bus lanes and benefit from separated cycling infrastructure.
Beyond competitive moving speeds, and perhaps more importantly for dense urban areas, e-cargo bikes do not need to waste time on finding parking space. Parking is a considerable burden for delivery vans (studies show this takes between 9-15 minutes). They usually imply some additional walking to the final delivery point, as well as frequent parking fines (in the first quarter of 2013, FedEx and UPS owed NYC $2.8 million combined in parking fines). The cost of finding parking means that many delivery drivers opt for longer walking distances between drops to avoid having to waste time on parking.
b. Shorter trip lengths 🗺
Beside the speed of movement, e-cargo bikes also benefit from shorter routes. To analyse the significance of this, we look at the estimated differences in trip distances for cars and bikes of Pedal Me jobs in September. In total we compare the distances for more than 2000 jobs using OpenStreetMap (using the OSMnx library) to measure the shortest journeys when cycling and driving.
On average, bike trips were 6% shorter than car trips. Of the 11,800 km studied this corresponded to 620km saved. When looking at trips that were shorter than 5km, the journeys were on average 8% shorter, with 25% of trips being at least 10% shorter in terms of distance. This effect has been seen in other cities as well. A study in Sydney, for example, showed that bikes travelled a third less than vans in the city.
c. Efficiency of smaller capacity vehicles in last mile delivery 📦
The limited capacity of e-cargo bikes can be a deceiving aspect of their efficiency for large scale last mile delivery operations.
During the first lockdown in the Spring of 2020, Pedal Me displayed the potential of e-cargo bikes by delivering over 10,000 packages in collaboration with Lambeth Council to the individuals and families most in need.
In this section, we compare the delivery distances for three client jobs, where the loads surpass the capacity of cargo bikes to explain how cargo bikes can outcompete vans despite their smaller capacity.
For each client job, we compare the total distances travelled across all vehicles for vans and cargo bikes. A visual analogy would be to compare the lengths of thread required to draw the routes satisfying all deliveries. For an apples to apples comparison, we ignore the advantage of shorter routes available to cargo bikes that we saw in the previous section and assume vans and bikes follow the same directions.
We compare total distances for a large number of drops under the assumption that 50km driven by a van are equivalent to 50km ridden by bike in terms of (wo)man-hours, even when those kms are done by multiple vehicles (e.g. 50km x 1 = 10km x 5).
To find the optimal routing of vehicles, we used the Google OR optimisation engine and the driving distances from OpenStreetMap (OSMnx).
The first job consists of 9 drops spread widely across the city, which are deliveries for the Water House Project restaurant in East London. A cargo bike is only able to carry 6 of these boxes, as they are quite voluminous.
For a single van, the total distance travelled to deliver all 9 packages is of 54km. For three cargo bikes, the total distance travelled was of 48km, brushing off 6km (i.e. more than 10% of the distance).
The second job consists of 114 drops across the city, for Grubby, a plant based recipe kit company. Here, the Pedal Me cargo bikes are able to carry 30 parcels.
While a van may carry all packages, we compare the total distances for three vans, assuming that 50 deliveries require approximately 8 hours of work. We find that the total distance for three vans is 65km. For 5 cargo bikes, the total distance was of 62km, again leading to more efficient logistics overall.
For the final job, we look at 188 densely distributed drops for Freddie’s flowers. Because of the condensed nature of the drops we assume a single deliverer can do up to 70 drops in a day. We thus do the comparison with three vans. Here, a Pedal Me cargo bike can carry up to 36 packages (although specifically designed flat bed cargo bikes can carry 55+).
This time, the total distance for vans was of 44km for vans and 55km for cargo bikes. While the larger capacity leads to more efficient logistics for vans, the difference can be largely explained by the initial distance from the depot (red dot) to the first drop for all riders (approx. 1.5km x 6 riders). This could have perhaps been saved by e.g. organising a mobile sub-hub for the bikes to collect from (e.g. with a trailer). It may also be interesting to note that it is particularly in densely located drops like this that cargo bikes benefit most from time saved from parking when compared to cars and vans.
Overall, these examples show that cargo bikes are extremely competitive for larger scale logistics. Rather than being hindered by their smaller capacity, cargo bikes can result in globally more efficient routes for deliveries when the load is distributed between more vehicles.
To summarise, we have seen that e-cargo bikes benefit from several advantages when compared to vans and cars: They move faster, they are able to park closer to drop locations without wasting unnecessary time looking for a space, and have shorter routes across the city. Finally, we saw that their smaller capacity (in terms of weight and volume) can lead to more efficient routes overall because deliveries are distributed amongst more vehicles.
This competitive advantage with vans can only be true if the available capacity of e-cargo bikes is used to their full potential. In the next section, we explain how at Pedal Me, our riders are trained to do just that.
2. Understanding and leveraging the full potential of e-cargo bikes
An e-cargo bike can carry up to 150kg, with trailers adding in an additional 150kg. The loads transported by Pedal Me around London are impressive to many, and customers are often surprised by the volume and weight they can hold.
Since the beginning of the company, Pedal Me has led an important R&D program to train riders into using cargo bikes at their full capacity in a safe and professional way. The curriculum, which involves on-road training, maneuvering of the bike, loading, and navigation, is City and Guilds assured and trains riders to be predictable, professional, and communicative road users.
While studies point at a wide range of estimates for the proportion of van journeys replaceable by cargo bikes in urban areas (anywhere between 10-90%, although often in the lower ranges), we believe them to be a usually pessimistic take that underestimates the carrying capacity of e-cargo bikes.
Beyond cargo, Pedal Me also offers a taxi service. Riders need to complete a thorough aptitude’s exam and have ridden over 400 hours with the company to carry passengers. For more on the importance of the professionalisation of the cargo bike industry, see this presentation by Chris Dixon, director of training at Pedal Me
The high-level training of Pedal Me riders and the bespoke design of the bike means they can be extremely adaptive in terms of logistics, and routinely carry heavy and large items, as well as people.
3. Impact of e-cargo bikes on cities
So far, we’ve discussed the advantages e-cargo bikes have over vans and cars in dense urban spaces when looking purely at logistics. However, the direct impact of cargo bikes goes far beyond the improved efficiency of urban logistics.
Decongesting the city
By removing unnecessary van and car journeys, cargo bikes have a huge potential to decongest cities. In the UK, congestion was estimated to have cost the economy £7.9bn. In London this corresponded up to £1,680 for the average road user.
Most energy efficient and least possible CO2 emissions
E-cargo bikes are perhaps the most energy efficient vehicles. A study showed that e-cargo bike use 6% of the electricity of a small electric van. When comparing the life cycles of vehicles, e-bikes emit 95% less than the average car, and 85% less than an electric car. Because of the embedded CO2, an e-cargo bike will have ridden well over 100,000 miles before an electric car is even out of the factory.
Lowest pollution emitters
Air pollution caused by traffic has been shown to have severe effects on people’s health and direct effects on pre-births, dementia, lung cancer, heart disease among others. In London, 9,500 people die every year due to health complications related to exposure to air pollution. Each car in London costs NHS and society an average of £8,000 due to air pollution. Removing vans and cars is the most efficient way to reduce pollution in cities.
Noise in cities
Noise pollution caused by traffic and deliveries by vans, trucks and mopeds are a great source of frustration for residents. Noise pollution has direct effects on quality of sleep and stress.
Trucks and vans are particularly concerning for urban streets, as they pose a disproportionate risk for pedestrians and cyclists. In 2018, there were 1,220 people killed or seriously injured between July and September due to road casualties. 99% of pedestrian collision deaths involve a motorised vehicle.
Reclaiming street space for people
Cars are extremely inefficient use of space in cities. London has 6.8 million parking spaces and the average car is parked 92% of the time. Some of this space is already starting to be reclaimed and has been used instead for outdoor seating areas for cafes and restaurants, pocket parks and social space.
A single car space can be replaced by 10 bikes and evidence suggests that bicycle parking infrastructure delivers five times higher retail spend than the same area of car parking. Inefficient use of space is not only true for parking. In Copenhagen, bikes are used for 62% of commutes, yet get 7% of space. Cars are used for 9% of commutes, yet get 54% of space. A TFL study showed that bike lanes are 5x as efficient as vehicle traffic lanes in terms of moving people.
Support for active travel infrastructure
The simple fact is that there are too many cars in London driving short distances; 50% of journeys are <3km.
By desisting last miles logistics from motorised vehicles, e-cargo bikes offer a further incentive for better cycling infrastructure to encourage active travel. On top of this, taking cars and vans off the road by replacing their journeys with cargo bikes means the roads are safer. This is a direct catalyst for more people cycling, which in turn means taking more cars off the road.
Studies have shown that people who commute by bike have a 52% lower risk of death from heart disease and a 40% lower risk of death from cancer. A quarter of us don’t get the minimum recommended 30 minutes’ exercise every day – the equivalent of a short bike ride of a few miles – while 27% of adults in the U.K. are obese, and a further 36% overweight. The pop up coronavirus bike lanes have been estimated to deliver $3 billion in annual health benefits in Europe.
Entertainment for the city
Finally, as a Pedal Me rider (where the motto “Everyone Rides” still reigns strong), the most striking experience is perhaps the smiles that cargo bikes bring out from people in the city. While this argument is difficult to fit in a quantitative demonstration, it may well be the most convincing point for many.