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.

bykkar

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…

quinticycle

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.

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.

Why choose Safestore? A perfect place to pilot a delivery consolidation centre

Safestore Leeds Central is in a 1930’s building just 2 minutes from Vicar Lane – a perfect location for a delivery consolidation centre

We are only too aware that basing our business in a Safestore doesn’t necessarily give an impression of permanence. The nature of self-storage businesses is such that they are particularly attractive to those who want ‘space’ for an indefinite period, with no strings attached. In actual fact Safestore offers much more and there are good reasons why we expect to stay there for some time to come.

As we have begun to consider the possibility of offering Leeds retailers a delivery consolidation service, the location and manual handling equipment which seemed unnecessary when we first moved in are now looking like vital pieces of equipment the cost of which could have been severely prohibitive. Their presence makes such a project possible and could allow us to pilot the idea with very little additional preparation and next to no additional expense.

When Last Mile Leeds began operations the 4 weeks’ notice required to vacate was indeed a significant reason why we chose the  Safestore Leeds Central as our base. It was cheap and in a great location. If all went according to plan, we wouldn’t be there long.

Over the past few months of operating from there on a daily basis, I now have some real experience upon which to evaluate what has proven to be an extremely good business decision, and I suspect I will continue to operate from there for some time to come.

Safestore Leeds Central has a large off-street loading bay

Let me list some of  benefits:

  • Secure storage space for 3 cargo bikes and additional equipment
  • room to grow should we take on a larger cargo trike – likely if we do open a delivery consolidation centre
  • A location literally across the road from the planned Eastgate development and about 3 minutes from Kirkgate Market or the Victoria Quarter
  • Reception manned 8am-6pm, able to receive goods when all Last Mile staff are out
  • 24 hour access
  • Pallet trucks and goods trolleys
  • Fork-lift truck (and four licensed drivers) –able to receive palletized deliveries (all as part of the service)
  • Off-street loading and unloading bay able to accommodate up to 4 Luton vans
  • Off-street secure parking in Leeds city centre
  • High level of security, with 24hr CCTV etc
  • Insurance against loss of £6,000
  • massive flexibility to expand or contract the amount of storage space we use
  • huge goods lift with 2.5 tonne capacity, easily able to accommodate the large cargo-trikes which we are looking to purchase (should we ever take additional space above the ground floor)

And all this for about £30.00 week, with no additional bills, or rates to pay.

There are of course a few disadvantages, the main one being that office facilities are limited, though the staff are very helpful if you need to send an odd email or Fax. We don’t have electricity in the lock-up, or a telephone line. Nevertheless, so far we have been able to handle everything by mobile, and should we reach a point where this is holding back the business then I have found that Safestore are very accommodating and seem always willing to negotiate.

Overall this has proven an ideal base to grow the business and one which could see us grow significantly larger before we would ever need to move.

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.