It has to be about more than emissions

I recently attended the International Cargo Bike festival in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. It is striking how much the technology has moved on in the last 12 months. There was a whole host of cycle powered and vehicles present and I had the opportunity to ride several new vehicles which are either in prototype or pre-production phase.


A quad bike trailer set-up from Bykkar

In particular I was keen to try several of the larger trikes and quads that were on show. The primary constraint with our delivery work is volume. The bikes we operate are rarely (if ever) unable to cope with the weight of the loads we are carrying, but we are sometimes defeated by volume. Our depot is very close to Leeds city centre and so it is no problem for us to make 2 or 3 return trips in the space of a few hours but if we want to extend our delivery range then we need to find a way to minimise the frequency of returning to the depot to reload and one obvious way to do this is to pack more parcels on one bike. Therefore I focussed on trikes, quads and trailer setups which would allow us to carry loads approaching that of a small van, and I was impressed by the range of solutions that have appeared in the space of a year or two.

When big isn’t beautiful

However I have also begun to think about some of the drawbacks…


Gary Armstrong from Outspoken taking the quinticycle for a spin

One of the vehicles I rode this weekend was a quinticycle (see here for one critique) which was not even pedal powered. Its pedals were attached to a small generator which apparently would trickle charge the batteries extending the (quite impressive 80km) range of the setup by about 20% but they provided no direct power to the drivetrain. Apart from being an incredibly inefficient use of human power (maybe only 40% of the input energy reaching the wheels) and effectively capping the power output at the 250W of the motor which the regulations allow what they have created is a rather slow and underpowered van unable to benefit from the input of the rider. This highlights a growing realisation that as pedal powered vehicles get larger what we are essentially creating are smaller slower vans.

At the moment the pressures from local (and city) authorities are in the form of emissions limits, but every indications is that they may begin to look at road space also. If our ped-elec bikes are approaching the size of small vans then what is the difference between these and any one of the increasing number of electric or hybrid vehicles coming onto the market? They may be cheaper, but they are also slower and have a smaller capacity. As they increase in width beyond a set of handlebars their ability to filter through traffic will be diminished to the point at which they offer no appreciable advantage. In fact their lower speed may prove detrimental to overall traffic flows. We need to provide a solution not be part of the problem!!

Overtaken by Technology…

If we allow our industry to develop solely through the use of bike shaped electric vehicles we run the risk of one day being overtaken by technology. Any courier can switch to a zero emission fleet almost overnight if they have the will to do so and if cyclelogistics as an industry has already committed itself to larger and larger vehicles which take up just as much room on the roads as conventional vehicles then we will find ourselves rapidly overtaken by the commercial courier sector who have suddenly saved themselves a fortune in fuel costs but have otherwise hardly changed their modus operandi.

One of the big benefits of cycles is the sort of environment they create, blurring the lines between pedestrian and wheeled transport when it suits while also allowing a very large number of people (and large amount of freight) to be carried. Bikes can be faster round our cities than vans and make more stops per hour, but they can do this because they exist in the liminal space of both vehicle and pedestrian. We can flow through busy traffic when we need to cover distance, but can also seamlessly become pedestrians when the need arises without undue thought to parking or inconvenience to others (either on the roads or otherwise). Of course anyone who has ridden a two-wheeled cargo bike has wished for greater capacity, and I will be the first to admit that I am looking for a larger vehicle to add to our fleet, but this needs to be as part of a mixed fleet which is brought in to handle particularly large deliveries. Otherwise we may find ourselves looking more and more like the competition.

Future Proofing

I recently had a very interesting meeting with a representative of one of the biggest international couriers (or consolidators as he liked to call them). He recognised that within the next 5 years they would not be able to deliver in city centres the way they do now, so his interest in cyclelogistics was as a way of future proofing their business. If every private car was a Prius (and every delivery vehicle run off hydrogen fuel cells) this won’t appreciably change the environment of our cities, unless moves are also made to reduce the number of these vehicles on the road. He expects pressures to reduce traffic flows during the day will drive deliveries out of usual business hours with the requirement for ‘quiet’ vehicles in residential areas.

Cyclelogistics has plenty to offer to this vision, and can contribute to our cities becoming better more human places to live. Doing that, rather than reproducing the current model with less pollution, will more effectively secure our role in 21st century logistics.

Cargobikes: a taxonomy

It is clear that commercial users of cargo bikes have a huge variety of differing requirements. To some extent this might be determined by the bikes that they have within their fleet, but to a greater extent I suspect that they have tended towards bikes which fit the work in which they are engaged.

Any model of classification is subjective but here is my take on the selection available. My perspective is that of a commercial user, delivering mixed cargo on behalf of a major international courier. My taxonomy would classify cargo bikes into four categories:

Lightweights – standard bike with minor modifications or panniers or messenger bag

Photo: Chrome courier bag

The traditional cycle courier has always been prepared to carry more than just a handful of envelopes.A traditional road bike with panniers or just a really big over-the-shoulder messenger bag allows a courier to handle most single deliveries, or to accumulate several deliveries to be dropped off on a longer run. When a standard road bike is sufficient for this sort of work, and pretty much any courier will have their own bikes set up to their own preferences, why would anyone want to spend money on ‘cargobikes’ in this category? There are a few however. The traditional UK postie bike, the urban arrow has a ‘shortie’ option and the Yuba Mondo or the Xtracycle are modifications to a fairly standard bike which increase the pannier capacity.

I would argue that unless the bike you choose is exactly what you need for the work you are doing, then COST is likely to be one of the most critical factors effecting the choice of

such a bike, and indeed whether you would bother purchasing a designated cargo-bike to fill this category at all.

Middleweights; the workhorses of the cargobike world

Photo: Bullitt cargo bike

The next category of cargobikes is probably the area which has seen (and is seeing) the biggest growth. For any commercial delivery business there is a need for a bike able to carry a number of larger items with convenience and ease.

In view of the fact that these bikes will be expected to make large numbers of deliveries over significant distances then SPEED and EFFICIENCY are determining factors to consider when choosing a bike to fill this niche.

Heavyweights; load eaters

Photo: Bellabike cargobike

These bikes are larger than the middleweights, generally sacrificing speed for increased volume. Their actual load capacity might not be dissimilar from the Middleweights in terms of weight, but they will usually have larger boxes with higher volumes. Due to their larger size they will typically have three-wheels which greatly increase stability making them a favoured choice of less confident cyclists and these are often the choice of those intending to carry young children as their cargo. As the boxes are not very much wider than those typically carried by the Middleweights they can usually access cycle infrastructure without problems. Three wheels can actually increase manoueverability at low speeds, but may reduce the ability to ‘filter’ through traffic. VOLUME and STABILITY tend to be the determining factors for cargobikes in this category.

Super – Heavyweights

Photo: cycle maximus cargobike

These are the largest cargobikes available, and are usually those which are readily converted to pedicabs. Many have modular designs which allow conversion between such applications with relative ease. The size of a small van they can carry payloads of 250kg or more, but to do so typically sacrifice the manoeuverability of a bike, and will often find themselves unable to access cycling infrastructure, and restricted to use on roads.

Although not always required, these cargobikes are often specified with electric assist as standard.

Although the specification of cargobikes usually includes the PAYLOAD WEIGHT, it is only when considering one of these behemoths that this is likely to be of primary consideration.


These categories are not necessarily rigidly defined, and depending on loads carried, different users might find different bikes slot into different niches. I would suggest that a bike will tend do one niche well, and can usually competently operate in an adjacent niche, but will not be generally effective if required to operate in a category not adjacent. Thus it follows that most fleets will require at least 2 types of cargobike, and looking across the industry this does seem to be the norm. Very few delivery firms operate a single machine – unless adjunct to other forms of transport such as motor vehicles etc.

I would go further, to suggest that most operators seem to choose majority Middleweights, with the addition of a smaller number of Heavyweights or Super-Heavyweights.

Last Mile Leeds takes on City Centre Magazine Distribution

Recently, Last Mile Leeds has been taking on a new revenue stream, with bulk distribution of magazines across the city centre.

We were first approached by ‘The Professional’ magazine to distribute their inaugural issue to every office premises we could find!  Over the space of four days we delivered 60 boxes of magazines (totalling about 9000 copies) to 557 office premises across the city. Our knowledge of Leeds certainly helped, as we had both familiarity with most of the offices and relationship with many receptionists and concierges. Nevertheless, we also found new pockets of offices of which we had been previously unaware. I genuinely feel that no other company could have provided the service that Last Mile Leeds was able to offer.

Our Bellabikes proved invaluable for this sort of work. Not having to ‘park’ the trike on a stand every stop was a benefit, and their additional capacity compared to our Bullitts meant that we could deliver for several hours between refills. Even fully laden with 24 boxes of magazines, the Bellas while slow could still cope with the steepest hills we came across, and their rear wheel steering gave great manoeuvrability.

The recommendation of this satisfied customer, provided us with our next job, delivering The Leeds List Student Guide. We had to deliver copies of this magazine to every retailer, café, restaurant and bar, in Leeds. In all we delivered to 800 premises in just about 3 days. This customer also wanted GPS tracking of all deliveries, which we were able to provide through the purchase of GPS trackers. More of that in another post.

Our most recent distribution job of The Leeds List Shopping Guide was a little different as it was bulk distribution from our Safestore depot, to about 50 distribution points in Leeds. The largest drop was 70 boxes, but the average only about 8. Nevertheless this would have meant a return to our depot every four drops.  We found the most efficient way was to deliver from a rolling hub. We drove large volumes of the magazines to particular drop off points, and then used these centres as hubs from which the bikes worked. We used both our Bellas and the Bullitts to do this. I confess to using the car more than I would have liked, but in fact came to the realisation that despite our fears that the sheer scale of this job would break us, we could have coped with considerably less recourse to motorised transport. Next time we will be more efficient and reduce the distance driven significantly.

Overall this has been a learning experience for Last Mile Leeds. We always knew that bikes could be used for far more than individual packets and parcels, and had been waiting for an opportunity to prove our capacity in this regard. This done, we are more than happy to talk to any other company facing their own delivery challenge within Leeds City Centre.

2 new Cargobikes : introducing the Bella Bike

I drove to London this week to collect two new additions to our fleet of cargobikes. We haven’t taken our own pictures yet, but you can see that these Bella Bikes have a huge cargo box and possibly the most unusual steering mechanism seen on a cargobike.

The rear wheel steering creates an incredibly manoeuverable bike which can literally turn on the spot. And the fact that these are trikes will mean that there is no risk of them toppling over – something that can happen very easily when we are carrying 60kg on two wheels. Although the bikes are a little heavier than our Bullitts, it is the difficulty of pulling the longer Bullitts around in a tight space when stationery that is most difficult, and puts off some of those who would be interested in riding for us. I hope these Bellas will increase the diversity of those able to ride for us.

In any case, as I was recently discussing with a fellow courier and bike enthusiast, I  think of bikes as I would think of shoes. Each bike has a purpose. I wouldn’t dream of running a marathon in hiking boots, or going to work in running shoes. Every bike has a purpose and cargobikes are no exception. These Bella Bikes are perfect to make retail deliveries to Leeds pedestrian precinct. With the planned extension to pedestrianisation hours we expect to be picking up more of these so expect to see us around in the next few months.

New Cycle Maximus Revealed

The new prototype Cycle Maximus looks to have a space frame design

Cycles Maximus have just revealed the first pictures of their new prototype. Having chatted to them about their new offering I understand that the designer of the original Maximus is behind this latest version, but there has been a significant departure from traditional designs with integration of a space frame.

This suggests a complete rethink of the trike has taken place. For the years it was in production, the old Maximus was widely regarded as the best load carrying trike in existence. I have heard of one company who managed to break one, but they claim to have broken 17 different load carrying machines and their Maximus had covered 150,000 miles. It will be interesting to see whether these changes have indeed improved a design which few had any complaints about.

We see in the Maximus a bike with the potential to bring our plans of a delivery consolidation centre for Leeds retailers into reality. With a capacity of 250kg and able to carry the europallet, there will be few consignments that would be beyond the Maximus.

The  prototype in this photo looks to be a Pedelec (electric assist version) with the Sunstar pedelec system, which first caught our eye at the Cycle Show last year.

The Role of the UK Cyclelogistics Federation

On 14th July 2012, Last Mile Leeds attended the inaugural meeting of the European Cyclelogistics Federation. Their website describes the federation thus:

The European Cycle Logistics Federation is a professional body which represents and supports the needs of cycle logistics companies across Europe.

The Federation is a membership organisation for:

  1. Established cycle logistics businesses (eg. delivery companies, couriers, pedicab operators, tradespeople, organisations which use cycles as part of their business operations, etc)
  2. Start-up businesses considering using cycles as part of their business operations
  3. Manufacturers and suppliers of cycle logistics equipment.
  4. Associates who have an interest in promoting the further use of cycles

The Federation is supported by CYCLElogistics, an EU funded project which promotes the delivery of freight by cycles and trikes.


But what should be the role of such an organisation in the UK? Here are few of my thoughts;

  • UK specific. Firstly, there is a need to establish within the organisation, a space for UK cyclelogistics companies. Although it is great to be part of a Europe wide initiative, and we can certainly learn from our colleagues overseas, at least some of the issues we face in overcoming national attitudes to cycle use are specific to our own context. If we are only concerned with ‘big-picture’ policy then we will risk being irrelevant to small cargo bike operations. We could consider UK, and perhaps even regional meetings, though these need not be face to face and could take the form of conference calls etc.
  • Sharing Experience. As is to be expected in a young industry, we are all learning. We could each gain much by learning from the experiences of others. At this stage in our industry’s growth, I feel that most of us recognise that anything that promotes the use of cycle logistics anywhere in the country is generally ‘good for business’.
  • Partnership broking. Each of us have worked hard to develop business relationships and partnerships with our customers, but few of us have the reach to extend these partnerships nationwide. Either we can sit on them until we have grown our respective businesses into national carriers, or we can share them.
  • Combined Representation. In the same way that Kissinger once asked, “If I want to call Europe, who do I call?”, if a multinational courier or nationwide retailer want to begin to include cyclelogistics in their delivery chain then where would they start? Either they have to hold multiple discussions with multiple different operators, potentially agreeing numerous different sets of terms and conditions or we can present them with a united front, and consistent standards of service.
  • Marketing and Promotion. Fairly obvious this, but to what extent might we consider raising national awareness relevant to individual operations…and would we pay for it? There is however free marketing to be had by mutually promoting each others businesses and achievements through our own websites and social media.
  • Quality standards. Each of us knows the strength of our own operation, but would probably not want to risk our reputation on that of others. Yet we can all gain from increased credibility of the industry as a whole. Rather than instigate a complicated system of regulation we might benefit from a simple system of either self (or perhaps peer) assessment. This might include such things as security, redundancy (can we operate if a rider falls ill ), longetivity, financial stability, whether we have the relevant insurances etc. Even having a set of external standards which members could assess themselves against could be useful in declaring our respective competancies to deliver what we say we can to potential partners.
  • Managing competition. The elephant in the room here is competition. Even though, on the whole, we are not competing directly as we are operating in different cities, might we be in the future? How many of us would like to expand our operations, and what would happen when two members overlap? Overall competition is good, and it would be a mark of a maturing industry when most towns or cities had at least two cyclelogistics operations. I don’t know exactly what the role of the Federation would be, but I would hope it would help avoid turf wars and price wars.

I have posted a link to this on the Cyclelogistics forum, and although I will leave comments open below, I suspect discussion there will be more fruitful.

Delivery Consolidation to Leeds city centre

What do Bristol, Göteborg, Ljubljana, Ravenna and Riga all have in common?

They were the five European cities involved in the START (Short Term Actions to Reorganize Transport of goods) project which ran from 2006-2009.

From their site:

Acknowledging that the current system of goods distribution is rich in emissions and not necessarily energy efficient, the five cities of START has implemented a mixture of complementary long-term planning actions, for the reduction of the need of transport, with short term initiatives, such as access restrictions, consolidation centres and incentives. The approach of the project is based on the close collaboration between city governments, transport companies and local businesses formalised in local freight networks, which have been established in each START city.

The idea is simple. By having delivery hubs on the outskirts of these cities, which can receive goods on behalf of city centre retailers and businesses, and can then consolidate these into fewer vehicles, there is a saving of delivery costs, as well as reduction in traffic and CO2 emissions. The scheme was promoted through additional delivery restrictions and incentives for those using the scheme.

Would such a scheme be effective in Leeds? And what sort of role could cycle couriers have? There are clearly numerous empty buildings within a short distance of the city which could act as a delivery hub. The majority of retailers are within a pedestrianized precinct which is restricted to vehicles between 10.30am and 4.30pm, and although many of these are large enough to have staff able to receive deliveries outside normal business hours, for the small independant retailer, such restrictions can be problematic.

Cargo bikes can offer an effective solution to this problem. Should Leeds ever consider such an initiative, Last Mile Leeds are already perfectly positioned to take advantage.

Bullitt Cargo bikes, 3 years on « Buffalo Bill’s Bicycle Blog

Here is an interesting review of the Bullitt having been used for the heavy lifting of commercial cycle courier work, for 3 years. It does suggest that Last Mile Leeds has bought the right bike for the job, though may need to address the design of our cargo boxes sooner rather than later. Look out for us in Leeds, delivering documents and small packets on behalf of a large international courier, as part of a pilot project beginning next week.

Bullitt Cargo bikes, 3 years on « Buffalo Bill’s Bicycle Blog.