Every Tuesday, a guy riding a weird kind of tricycle coasts to a stop in the courtyard outside Kate’s Ice Cream in Portland, Ore., to pick up a new shipment.
He puts 30 cases of Kate’s goods — vegan ice cream with flavors like waffle cone and marionberry cobbler — into freezer bags and places them alongside other freight in a steel box mounted behind his seat. Loaded with as much as 600 pounds of cargo, he turns onto Northeast Sandy Boulevard.
Each pedal stroke is boosted by a silent electric motor hidden in the chassis. He takes the bike lane, despite commanding a 4-foot-wide commercial vehicle.
After a mile-and-a-half ride, the trike arrives at the warehouse of B-line Urban Delivery, a logistics company located in the heart of the city and just blocks from the Willamette River. He unpacks the cargo at a warehouse that’s smaller and more central than the kind of megaplex where package deliveries usually go.
Every part of this scenario is different from how most last-mile deliveries are made today. It would be easy to dismiss B-line’s service as just another Portland oddity. But similar projects are scaling up in European capitals like Paris and Berlin; just became legal in Chicago; and are being adopted in New York City, where Amazon.com Inc. has 200 such electric bikes making produce deliveries.
"Not having a big diesel truck pickup is always helpful," said Katelyn Williams, the ice cream proprietor.
That is the premise of the embryonic but fast-growing world of delivery e-cargo bikes, or e-trikes. It is a subset of the electric pedal-assist bicycles that are zooming in popularity during the pandemic. Advocates say small electric conveyances, roving short distances, can deliver goods more quickly in the dense parts of cities, while reducing the congestion, noise and pollution created by boxy trucks.
The economics, however, haven’t yet been proved on America’s car-loving streets. The approach requires a thorough rethinking of how goods get into the city. And a new exotic species is sure to create conflict in areas already crowded with cars, cyclists and pedestrians.
Squeezing in the last mile
The e-cargo bike is a possible solution to one of the most vexing problems in the world of logistics. How do you get goods through the final link from warehouse to doorstep?
The head-scratcher is that while the desire for delivery seems limitless, the amount of space on the curb is not.
City residents are already familiar with box trucks and step vans parked (and double-parked) with their hazard lights flashing. For passersby, this means more congestion and air pollution; for shippers, it means higher delivery costs and slower delivery times. In October, researchers at the University of Washington found that delivery trucks spent 28% of their delivery time cruising, looking for a parking space.
"There’s a lot more need for access to the curb than we have actual curb," observed Mary Catherine Snyder, a strategic parking adviser for the city of Seattle, which trialed an e-trike with UPS Inc. last year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the scrum. Services like UPS and Amazon have seen a crest of business during lockdowns. Offices may be empty, but downtown curbs are clogged anew by delivery people conveying meals from restaurants to homes through services like Grubhub Inc. and DoorDash Inc.
Experimentation is afoot. Some logistics firms are testing customers’ tolerance for avoiding the doorstep and instead leaving parcels in lockers or, in the case of Amazon, in a vehicle’s trunk. Even drones are a possibility, though they are likely too expensive except for transporting lightweight, high-value items, like medicines.
E-cargo bikes tackle a different section of the last mile: the span from warehouse to curb.
Advocates say a small, agile tricycle is faster and produces less climate-warming emissions than a truck. It maneuvers better in traffic and can park in smaller spaces, or even on the sidewalk.
According to a study of an e-cargo bike deployment last year at the University of Toronto, replacing a regular delivery truck with an electric cargo bike reduced carbon emissions by 1.9 metric tons per year — though multiple e-cargo bikes are often needed to carry as much as a regular delivery truck.
The denser the neighborhood, the lower the cost of delivery by bike becomes, Franklin Jones, the CEO and founder of B-line, said during a recent webinar.
"When riding elevators, it doesn’t matter what you’re driving," he said.
One crucial change is required for the e-cargo bikes to thrive: small, local warehouses. Most logistics companies pin their cavernous warehouses on the periphery of cities. But because the bikes’ range is so short, they need a facility nearer by. They’re called microhubs.
Such petite outposts, dubbed logistics hotels, are already in use in Paris. On these shores, a startup called Reef Technology won $700 million in funding last month for its hubs based in urban parking lots, for purposes including last-mile delivery.
Amazon is also in the process of building 1,000 small delivery hubs across the United States, with more to come, according to Bloomberg.
To work with cargo bikes, such microhubs would need to be sprinkled within radiuses of 2 to 6 miles, depending on urban density, said Sam Starr, an independent sustainable-freight consultant in Canada.
In the United States, the results for e-cargo delivery are so far inconclusive. A UPS trial of e-cargo trikes in Seattle last year found the bike delivered far fewer packages in an hour than a regular truck in a busy Seattle neighborhood.
The study judged that the experiment, which only lasted a month, may simply have been too short for bike deliveries to hit a groove. But it also pointed out that the bikes’ advantage — their diminutive size — is also a weakness.
"Cargo e-bikes may not be as efficient as trucks at performing deliveries and pick-ups," said the study. "Their limited cargo capacity means that they can perform fewer deliveries per tour, and they have to re-load cargo more often."
A slow grind to acceptance
In New York City, an entrepreneur named Gregg Zuman, founder of Revolution Rickshaws, has been trying for the last 15 years to bring e-cargo bikes to the masses. He’s still trying.
What are the barriers? "There’s a lot," he said.
Zuman’s first idea, in 2005, was to create a fleet of electric pedicabs. That ran afoul of the city’s taxi lobby. In 2007, the state Department of Motor Vehicles determined that commercial bikes could only be human-powered, meaning no nudge from an electric motor. Revolution Rickshaws was sidelined for more than a decade.
Last year came an opportunity to undo the logjam. New Yorkers, like city residents everywhere, became enamored of electric street scooters and electric-assist shared bicycles.
In December, the city approved a trial of e-cargo bikes in Manhattan by big logistics companies including UPS, Amazon and DHL. Meanwhile, mobility providers like Bird, Uber and Lime, eyeing the country’s largest market, persuaded the state Legislature to legalize electric scooters and bikes. In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) dropped his objections and made the bill law.
But a provision limited the width of the vehicles to 36 inches.
"That took our knees out," said Zuman, pointing out that virtually every e-cargo bike on the market is at least 48 inches wide.
Federal law is silent on the topic of electric cargo bikes. In cities and states, rules vary widely, if they exist at all.
Chicago in October became one of the first cities to codify its rules. The city’s aldermen approved regulations that allow e-cargo vehicles to travel in bike lanes. They are limited to top speeds of 15 mph and a width to 4 feet. Drivers need a bike-messenger permit, and bikes have to park in regular parking spaces.
Amazon goes big
One company in New York City does have a 36-inch-wide bike and has ambitious plans for it: Amazon.
Over the last 18 months, the e-commerce and logistics giant said it has deployed about 200 electric cargo bikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn and intends to grow the program significantly. Other logistics companies like DHL and FedEx Corp. have e-cargo pilots but don’t approach Amazon’s in size.
Amazon is "just going to be massive in this market in the coming years," said Zuman. "They’re just rocketing ahead of everybody."
Amazon’s business model is the reverse of B-line’s in Portland. Instead of shuttling from vendor to store, it is going from store to customer. Whole Foods Market Inc., the organic supermarket that Amazon owns, delivers groceries to doorsteps in Manhattan and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.
And its electric vehicle is also of a completely different design — a sign of how fluid the industry is at this young stage.
Amazon’s vehicle is not a tricycle. It is a regular electric bicycle that pulls a trailer, which can be unhooked and walked into a building’s lobby. (Zuman calls it "a rich man’s wheelbarrow.") E-cargo bikes are almost all made in Europe, where the vehicles are used in some countries as child carriers or grocery haulers.
Designs are all over the map. Some seat the rider upright, while others are recumbent. Some put the cargo box on the back, and some on the front. Some are open-air, and others encase the driver in a shell of transparent plastic to fend off the rain.
Providence in Portland
Portland’s early success with e-cargo bikes has been greased with fortunate circumstances.
The city of Portland requires no license from B-line and assesses no fees, said Jones, its founder. Furthermore, Oregon law allows bikes to have powerful electric assistance — up to 1,000 watts — that gives the bikes the speed to match the flow of traffic and the oomph to have anyone climb a hill.
"Without that, we would not be able to hire a diverse range of riders, nor would we have the consistent delivery times that we see," he said.
B-line also has a patron. It is the delivery mode for local products for New Seasons Market, a regional chain of 18 organic grocery stores. The program started five years ago and makes B-line the logistics go-between for 120 local grocery suppliers, according to Carlee Dempsey, New Seasons’ supply chain logistics manager.
New Seasons offers an additional benefit for its suppliers: It covers 30% of the fees they owe B-line. This helps them steer away from regular grocery distributors that charge high rates.
One such supplier is Adam Berger, the owner of Rallenti Pasta, a Portland company. Before starting with B-line, it would take him all day to deliver to New Seasons Markets in his compact Scion xB.
"It was just brutal," he said. "This final-mile distribution is what kills us all, whether it’s dry goods or farmers or whatever."
Now he hands off his boxes of pasta to a B-line carrier, who pedals them 9 miles to the warehouse. Then they are delivered to individual stores by regular truck.
"I’m a Portlander, so it’s all part of the story. I’m local, I’m artisan. I make small batches. To have my deliveries made by bike fits right in with what I’m doing," he said. "It’s awesome."
Look out below
Meanwhile, other sorts of little EVs are tiptoeing into e-cargo’s tenuous turf.
Several entrepreneurs are pointing the miniaturization ray at the standard delivery vehicle. Arcimoto Inc., an Oregon-based maker of three-wheeled electric cars, is taking orders for a last-mile version called the Deliverator. Another entrant is Ayro Inc., a Texas maker of electric minitrucks with a maximum speed of 25 mph. About the size of a golf cart, its vehicles mostly shuttle linens and food around calm traffic environments like vacation resorts and college campuses.
But CEO Rod Keller said that the company is now developing a version that could travel at road speeds, with compartments to store individual meals. The customer is restaurant chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. or Panera Bread Co., which seek to get their goods to customers’ doorsteps without paying the fees now charged by meal delivery companies.
"We’re building a food delivery vehicle," he said.
On another front are tiny robots. Starship Technologies, based in San Francisco, is rapidly growing a market for its six-wheeled rovers that are no larger than a beer cooler. Able to rove a radius of 4 miles, they are meant for sidewalk travel.
Like Ayro, it started out on campuses but is expanding. "Partnering with stores and restaurants, we make local delivery faster, smarter and more cost-efficient," the company says on its website.
All of these vehicles have electric motors, with the advantages that come with them: clean, quiet, simple to recharge. But in a city planner’s eye, the "motor" part starts to blur the lines that have long separated motor vehicles from bicycles.
"When does it change from a bike to a motor vehicle?" asked Zuman, the New York entrepreneur. "That’s another one of those fuzzy lines that we have to cope with."
Finding the e-cargo zone
One of the places where American cities may start to figure out how to oversee e-cargo delivery is a single square mile of Santa Monica, Calif.
The occasion is the Olympic Games coming to Los Angeles in 2028. A regional coalition wants to slash the metro area’s tailpipe emissions by a quarter by then, including an audacious goal of converting 60% of medium-duty delivery trucks to electric. In June, Santa Monica won a $350,000 grant to create the country’s first zero-emissions delivery zone.
Electric cargo bikes are an integral part of the plan.
Rather than just unleashing them, Santa Monica will reserve 10 to 20 stretches of curb where only they (and other electric delivery vehicles) can park. They are the first dedicated e-cargo parking spaces in the country. Video cameras will track how the spaces are used.
"It’s very exploratory. This is a true pilot," said Francie Stefan, who is overseeing the program as Santa Monica’s chief mobility officer.
The zero-emissions zone in this city just north of LA encompasses downtown and the Third Street Promenade, one of Southern California’s busiest shopping districts.
"Access to the curb is everything," said Matt Petersen, the chair of the Transportation Electrification Partnership, which chose Santa Monica. "You have multiple players in the food space, in the delivery space, in the [business-to-business] space."
The project won’t start for another six months, but experts say clashes between e-cargo bikes and others in the bike lanes are inevitable.
"All of a sudden you’ve got this mesh of people who are out for a joyride, people who are commuting and people who are conducting business," said Lisa Nisenson, a mobility expert at WGI, a public-infrastructure design firm. "It starts to get crowded."
Because the bikes are so small, the battle for space extends to the sidewalk.
With its small footprint, it’s possible for e-cargo craft to park on the sidewalk, specifically in the "furniture zone" that is occupied by things like mailboxes, newsstands, lampposts and trees, said Starr, the freight consultant.
But in that narrow band, e-cargo bikes are following the tire tracks of a vehicle that has abused the privilege: the electric scooter, which has become infamous in many cities for blocking foot traffic.
"It’s been a challenge to make sure that people are parking those correctly so they’re not creating barriers for disabled people on the sidewalk," said Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation.
If small, agile delivery vehicles do catch on, Nisenson said, it’s possible that cities will need to create not one but two sets of what she calls "mobility lanes" — ones for regular people and a second for light commerce.
There’s also opportunity in another part of the asphalt-scape that in recent decades has fallen into disuse: the alleyway.
"Does it make sense to start thinking about going back to the future and taking some of those more commercial activities off the main streets and into interiors, where there’s maybe nobody but garbage haulers?" asked Nisenson.
The future of mini-electric deliveries may, in fact, spin back to the past. A great many of the lumbering, wheezing diesel trucks that the e-cargo bike would like to replace are owned and operated by UPS — a company that started in Seattle in 1907.
Its vehicle of choice back then? The bicycle.