Cargo bikes offer new way to deliver goods in town

Making inroads in the US: A cargo bike on Capitol Hill. Image: By Mike Licht, from Washington DC, via Wikimedia Commons

Moving goods − and even people − around towns and cities is becoming easier and healthier. Enter the cargo bikes.

LONDON, 25 August, 2021 − Don’t be too surprised if you come across an unwieldy-looking contraption trundling across a European city − and even a few North American ones too. It’s probably just one of the new cargo bikes, a mega-version of a much older technology. And it could be the answer to a range of urban problems.

Cargo bikes come in two versions, manual (or rather pedal) and electric. Either is ideal for tackling that bane of urban living, air pollution. Globally, air pollution kills an estimated seven million people annually; in the UK alone, it is responsible for approximately 40,000 deaths a year. Cargo bikes, where they work (obviously there are places where they don’t) cut the pollution drastically.

One study by scientists at the University of Cambridge said they had found an association between living in parts of England with high levels of air pollution and Covid-19 severity.

A member of the research team, Marco Travaglio, a PhD student at the MRC Toxicology Unit, said: “Our results provide the first evidence that SARS-CoV-2 case fatality is associated with increased nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide levels in England.”

The UK-based Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the Paris Agreement on climate change).

Faster and cheaper

The Alliance has published a report, Large-tired and tested: how Europe’s cargo bike roll-out is delivering, which argues for the widest possible uptake of the vehicles, for a range of reasons. It’s urging readers not to dismiss them as an example of “old, unglamorous technologies”, but rather something which represents a move “from a niche transport option to a mainstream delivery choice”.

A recent study from Possible, a climate charity and member of the RTA, found that cargo bikes cut emissions by 90% compared with diesel vans, and by a third when compared with electric vans. The study also concluded that electric cargo bikes are 60% faster than vans at making deliveries in urban centres, achieving higher average speeds and dropping off ten parcels an hour compared with just six for a van.

Cargo bikes are essentially a new and larger form of something that used to be a familiar sight on the streets of many countries: the modest delivery bicycles used to take meat and groceries from retailers’ shops to customers’ homes.

In that guise they are still often seen, at least in the UK, their riders racing to get comestibles, often ready meals, into the hands of waiting diners. The main difference from 50 years ago is simple: the sheer scale and greater capacity of the behemoths now plying the streets.

The RTA is full of praise for the way simple butchers’ bikes have morphed into their (relatively) sleek successors: “Cargo bikes offer a win-win solution for cities, residents, safer streets, the environment and businesses alike. Greening growing industries early is vital to meeting climate targets: With spending habits shifting during the Covid-19 pandemic, providing low-impact and low-emissions solutions for new, expanding markets is essential.”

“Our results provide the first evidence that SARS-CoV-2 case fatality is associated with increased nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide levels in England”

The Alliance says the new bikes present businesses with a way to increase urban deliveries, improving their speed and reliability, and have also revolutionised the urban school run, some of them able to hold up to eight children.

“The result”, it says. “is less congested roads, more breathable air, fewer road traffic accidents, a radical drop in carbon emissions and a flourishing ecosystem of businesses that can go direct to their customers without harming the environment.”

In Germany nearly 100,000 e-cargo bikes are sold every year and in France around 50,000. The UK managed only 2,000 sales for commercial use in 2020, but sales are expected to grow by 60% this year, with market size set to increase15-fold within the next five years. European sales are also expected to increase by 50% year on year, reaching an estimated total by 2030 of a million cargo bikes for commercial use and a million more for families to enjoy.

There’s money to be made from mega-bikes too. Some estimates of the financial benefits to businesses range from 70-90% cost savings compared with reliance on delivery vans. The leading UK-based bike manufacturer, Raleigh, saw sales increase by 75% last year at its main British factory. Happy pedalling! − Climate News Network


The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on Thank you.