Return to pedal power

When faced with pressing modern problems, sometimes the answer lies in the past

Home Life Sustainability mobility Return to pedal power

Congestion and pollution have long been concerns in modern cities. But the rise of online sales – requiring extra deliveries – has forced such issues. Policy-makers have realised that the ‘last mile challenge' of getting these deliveries to our doors is responsible for much of the environmental impact of city transport – and have started imposing tougher emissions regulations.

In response we've seen the rise of the humble delivery bicycle. And while we've got used to the sight of bikes with a box on the back distributing orders from online food-delivery companies in major Western cities, now they are jostling for road space with their hi-tech, superlight cousin: the cargo bike.

Cargo bikes swerve around many of those problems of congestion and pollution. They are faster than the average speed of urban traffic (almost double the average in London), they can park off-road and don't emit carbon. They are the ultimate green machines.

Taking the city by storm

While the cargo bike may be little more than a frame with wheels, pedals and a chain – just like any other bicycle – it boasts serious load-carrying power of 125kg to 250kg. And its advocates see it as a natural solution for the task currently carried out by small- and mid-sized vans, which is to shift a lot of small packages around big cities fast – but without burning carbon fuels.

The international courier company DHL has already introduced cargo bikes in 80 European cities, for example, replacing more than half of its inner-city conventional vehicle routes with pedal power. UPS has also been trialling new cargo bikes in over 30 cities worldwide, including hybrid pedal-assisted electric ‘e-bikes' with modular cargo containers. 

And there are plenty more cargo bikes ready to hit the roads, along with two- and three-wheeled people carriers designed to get whole families out of the car and on to carbon-free transport. Specialist suppliers and builders such as London Green Cycles or New York's Upcycles have cargo bikes that look like mega-scooters, bikes that resemble outsized prams, even bikes that look like bikes. What is different is that today's cargo bikes are rich in technology, lightweight and super-efficient.

There's nothing like pedal power

Yet how can a simple pedal-driven machine take on the work of a vehicle with a powerful engine? One answer is the efficiency that comes from advanced materials such as carbon-fibre, near frictionless wheels, fast road tyres and the miracle of power conservation that is the modern chain-drive. The late Steve Jobs of Apple was fond of pointing out that the bicycle is the most efficient machine ever invented (before the computer, no doubt).

So perhaps there is nothing new under the sun. The ‘safety bicycle' with chain-driven wheels was invented in 1876 and the delivery bicycle followed shortly afterwards. That may have been the beginning of a long slow journey, but it seems the cargo bike is finally up to speed and ready to take on our modern urban challenges.