top of page
  • Writer's pictureUrban Freight Lab

What Policies Would Speed Cargo Bike Adoption in U.S. Cities? Urban Freight Lab Members Weigh In.

Breaking down barriers and looking toward solutions.


It becomes easier to understand the barriers to scaling up cargo bikes for last-mile delivery when you hear Mark Chiusano, Owner/CEO of Cornucopia Logistics and affiliates, talk about the complexity of operations in New York City. Cornucopia works with Amazon (both companies are Urban Freight Lab members) to run a fleet of more than 100 cargo bikes making thousands of weekly deliveries for Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods locations in Manhattan. (Amazon owns Whole Foods.)


Pricey Midtown Manhattan space is leased in a private parking garage across from an Amazon warehouse to store the bike and trailer fleet. But fire prevention and other safety rules prevent the bikes from being charged there, so bike batteries have to be transported to a separate charging station, then back to the Midtown garage. And other rules — both federal and state — wind up limiting the models of cargo bikes that can be used and how they can be used. The bike fleet requires constant maintenance, yet vendors that supply skilled commercial e-bike mechanics are still few and far between. While bikes don’t require a commercial driver’s license to operate (unlike vans or trucks), wages for bikers must compete with those of van/truck drivers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cost per delivery can be higher with cargo bikes than with a traditional van.


Mark Chiusano speaking to a group of people standing on a sidewalk in New York City.
CEO Mark Chiusano of Cornucopia Logistics talks UFL members through the complexities of the company’s e-cargo bike operations for last-mile delivery in New York City. Photo by UFL.

These are among the challenges of trying to scale cargo bikes for last-mile delivery in the U.S. — a key discussion at the spring meeting of the Urban Freight Lab, held in New York City. We talked a lot about potential policy solutions to surmount such challenges, too, given the growing focus on building a net-zero future. And we shared research, emerging pilots and expertise from both the public and private sectors.


To tease out possible paths to scale, members weighed in on the feasibility and effectiveness of six strategies for overcoming roadblocks, shown below.

Strategy to scale commercial cargo bikes in U.S.

Member reaction

1

Give commercial cargo bikes access to curb parking and/or dedicated parking spaces

Higher Efficacy

Easier to implement


2

Create zero- and low-emission zones


Higher Efficacy Harder to implement

3

Create a cargo bike-specific regulatory framework

Higher Efficacy Harder to implement

4

Repurpose underutilized areas to microhubs

Higher Efficacy Harder to implement

5

Rebate commercial e-cargo bike purchases

Lower Efficacy Easier to implement

6

Subsidize e-cargo bike delivery services

Public Sector:

Lower efficacy/Easier to implement.


Private Sector:

Higher efficacy/Easier to implement


Members expressed relative consensus around 5 of the 6 strategies.


Give commercial cargo bikes access to curb parking and/or dedicated parking spaces

Several factors contributed to this scenario’s rating among members. One, cargo bikes lend themselves to final 50 feet delivery in urban neighborhoods where parking can be tough. Two, cities tend to have direct control of the curb without having to coordinate with other levels of government. Three, focus is increasing on making the curb available for freight and on digitizing the curb to make curb information more transparent, and therefore, its use more efficient. (Delivery bike driver desire to get as close to the delivery destination as possible was one reason our research found they rode on Seattle sidewalks 40% of the time.) NYC, which is looking to expand its cargo bike pilot, has installed cargo bike corral parking at the curb and let the bikes use commercial vehicle loading zones at no cost.


A bike trailer is packed and ready to deliver.
Commercial cargo bike corrals like this one UFL members visited in New York City in front of a Whole Foods location offer parking at the curb for loading/unloading. Photo by CUNY.

Create zero- and low-emission zones

While members noted it can take time for carriers to transition their fleets to meet zero- or low-emission zone requirements, they thought the creation of these zones would be an effective incentive to scale cargo bikes. (While many European cities have successfully adopted this approach, the current U.S. regulatory scheme makes adoption of a mandatory zone based on vehicle emissions more difficult.) Perhaps surprisingly, private sector members didn’t balk at the top-down approach. They even surfaced equity concerns — that small, local businesses might not be able to afford the transition. Some members raised the issue of congestion pricing as a way to advance the zero- and low-emission zone conversation in the U.S., with special attention to NYC’s moves toward congestion pricing.


Create a cargo bike-specific regulatory framework

E-cargo bikes tend to be folded into the broader e-bike regulatory framework many cities and states use that gives riders similar rights and rules to that of traditional bike riders. In other words, there’s no e-cargo bike-specific framework. (To be clear, e-cargo bikes aren’t illegal anywhere in the U.S.) But having less-than-crystal-clear regulatory approaches that don’t explicitly define and cover commercial cargo bikes within the e-bike standards makes it less appealing for the private sector to invest in cargo bikes at scale. Some are concerned that lack of commercial cargo bike-specific rules and standards could lead to the cargo bikes being treated more as light duty vehicles, mopeds or utility vehicles rather than as bicycles—which has big implications for how commercial e-cargo bikes could be used. Ideally, regulatory frameworks and standards would clearly acknowledge that commercial e-cargo bikes are different from regular bikes (but still bikes!) which then would prompt appropriately tailored regulation and standards for manufacturing and safety. Public sector members also noted the challenge of enforcing rules that do manage to get adopted (e.g. improper curb use, etc.) Notably, New York State is weighing adding cargo bikes as a separate class within e-bikes to regulate cargo bikes explicitly and consistently.


Repurpose underutilized areas to microhubs

As Mark Chiusano at Cornucopia Logistics noted earlier, operating cargo bikes for goods delivery requires space (aka microhubs) to offload and distribute those goods from longer-haul goods vehicles into the bikes, as well as a secure place to store devices when not in use. Members emphasized that microhubs at the pilot stage (which is what we’re starting to see in the U.S.) will be less effective: Only at scale will they have a major impact, they said. And pilots tend to be both shorter term and, given their experimental nature, more uncertain. This can make it tough for companies to be incentivized to invest in transitioning to cargo bikes at anything near scale. Public and private sector members alike raised questions about how best to approach microhub creation. Should they be managed and funded by the private sector or the public sector? If publicly funded, should the number of actors/companies in a given space be limited? (A privately funded microhub would serve and be controlled by only the company or companies that created it.) How do we ensure sufficient secure storage? Meanwhile, NYC plans to kick off a microhub pilot in summer 2023 that starts with creating curbside and off-street hubs under elevated structures. The UFL piloted a cargo bike microhub in an off-street, private Seattle parking lot. And Montreal repurposed an old bus depot for a cargo bike microhub.


Image of Microhub Rendering. Text on image reads Extended bike corral and transloading area. Adjacent to public transit, bike network, and truck route. Truck on street parking space. Safety elements such as bollards and planters. Near corner ped ramps.
This conceptual on-street microhub is just one example of how to enable goods transfer from longer-haul vehicles onto last-mile commercial e-cargo bikes. Photo by NYC DOT..

Rebate commercial e-cargo bike purchases

Most members agreed rebates wouldn’t be difficult to deploy (assuming funding would be available to support them). Both the public and private sector members agreed that rebates are less impactful because the cost of the vehicle itself isn’t a barrier to scale when it comes to commercial cargo bikes. Rather, it’s the cost of the ecosystem needed to support the bike–maintenance, repair, storage, charging and space to cross-dock/mode shift from vans and trucks to the cargo bikes (e.g. microhubs.) Which leads us to the final strategy, below.


When it comes to subsidies for cargo bikes, members expressed less consensus.


Subsidize e-cargo bike delivery services

Here, opinion was split on effectiveness. It was private sector members by and large who saw subsidies as more effective, with public sector members seeing them as less effective. Why? Public sector members didn’t see subsidies as helping scale cargo bikes because, they argued, the strategy doesn’t fundamentally change the business environment. But the businesses, for their part, said subsidies would change that environment — and be an incentive for them to scale up. As noted above, the big-ticket item is the cost of the total system needed to operate the cargo bikes versus the bikes themselves. As such, private sector members said subsidies that defray those costs would make a meaningful difference toward scale.



Looking ahead to more U.S. experimentation to meet 2030 priorities

Across the six strategies discussed, many brought up the difference between short- and long-term impact. Private sector members tended to emphasize (and value) the long term, perhaps to focus the public sector on the same. Long-term planning helps both cities and companies secure funding and adapt existing processes and fleets for new modes and services. And over all, both public and private sector members at the spring meeting expressed optimism that collaboration could help bring cargo bikes to scale. Now, the challenge is taking that public-private collaboration and discussion to the next level.


“Cities need to understand that today, there may not be cost savings in cargo bike delivery when compared to delivery by truck or van,” Cornucopia’s Chiusano said. “But, we see zero-emission delivery as the way of the future. We want to convert to modes like cargo bikes now to make an immediate climate impact.”


To be sure, e-cargo bikes are being used commercially in a handful of U.S. cities beyond NYC, like Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. And they involve companies like B-Line and former UFL members URB-E and Coaster Cycles. But several of the strategies discussed in this blog still aren’t being tested on U.S. streets: Namely, mandatory zero- and low-emission zones and congestion pricing. (Recall that both are strategies many UFL members ranked as “high efficacy.” Some observers argue that until U.S. cities curb traditional delivery vehicles, cargo bikes won’t take off big here.)


UFL member thoughts on efficacy and ease of implementation might well evolve over time as more of these strategies hit the streets and iteration kicks in to fit the U.S. context. Stay tuned for our in-depth analysis in an upcoming UFL white paper on how cities can scale adoption of cargo bikes. We’re proud that the UFL offers a valuable forum where the public and private sectors can pilot new ideas, build trust and talk freely. This builds understanding that can lead to policies and programs that get us closer to the future vision of urban goods movement in 2030 that we’ve spent the last year exploring.

Comentários


bottom of page