How can e-cargo bikes decarbonise urban freight?

by Dr Luke Blazejewski and Dr Graeme Sherriff

Project summary

Funded by the DecarboN8, this study aimed to understand the potential of e-cargo bikes in the transition to low carbon cities. Through interviews and focus groups with people involved with and interested in e-cargo bikes, we investigated the current and potential uptake of this technology across different business sectors and explored challenges likely to be experienced when integrating the vehicles into delivery operations. The results from this scoping project provide fresh evidence and insights that are valuable to both academic study and urban planning with a remit to reduce carbon-intensive travel and boost healthy active transport. Whilst not our focus, the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated increased interest in active travel and online shopping provided a fascinating context.

Visit the project webpage:

Read the project report: Delivering the Last Mile: Scoping the Potential for E-cargo Bikes (pdf)

This research presents an important challenge for local governments. We’re putting a lot of cycling infrastructure in right now, but are we thinking about all of the use cases for cycle infrastructure?

Professor Greg Marsden, DecarboN8 Director

A summary of our findings:

E-cargo bikes have potential
Businesses see value in the vehicles not only because, when compared with vans, they contribute to a smaller carbon footprint and a greener company image, but also in relation to practical benefits. In comparison with conventional bicycles, the larger frame and electrical assistance offer a way to carry relatively large loads without high levels of fitness. In comparison with electric vans, they offer lower running costs and can reduce congestion. There are opportunities to integrate e-cargo bikes into delivery practices to capitalise on their potential for last mile deliveries in the context of freight.

Barriers to using e-cargo bikes are shared with conventional cycling
However, e-cargo bikes also have their own barriers. Electrically assisted bikes help to overcome barriers relating to fitness levels and carrying heavy loads, but e-cargo bikes introduce their own challenges. These include the initial capital cost, storage, charging and manoeuvring in traffic.

E-cargo bikes are more than just technology
They do not reflect a straightforward substitution in technology. In order to scale up, there is a need for business practices to adapt, new technologies to be adopted and delivery patterns to be changed to inspire long-term decarbonisation. Delivery operatives must also have skills in cycling.

Support for businesses is vital
Not only will businesses compare the initial capital outlay associated with a bike with the cost of a van – for which there is a more developed second-hand market – they will also consider the risks of training staff and rethinking delivery practices. Opportunities to try the vehicles and support to adapt business practices should therefore be policy priorities.

Technology is key
Rider tracking and online shops improve efficiency and help to make the bikes a realistic consideration for businesses.

Education and awareness raising are needed
Awareness of e-cargo bikes and their potential remains low. More trial schemes and e-cargo bike libraries are needed for people to understand their potential and how they might use them.

Research can aid the transition
A clearer understanding of the potential emissions reduction from e-cargo bike adoption, the approaches that businesses can take to adapt their practices to benefit from the technology, and the ways in which cities can configure infrastructure and road space to better accommodate the vehicles, will provide a provide a valuable evidence base for a transition to sustainable freight systems.

Visit the project webpage to find out more.