New York City should be an ideal place to ship cargo by bike. It’s dense, space is at a premium, traffic regularly ensnares delivery trucks, and customers demand near-instant delivery. Despite its advantages, pedal-powered freight delivery has remained a niche operation. A panel at a conference on last-mile freight delivery hosted by the University Transportation Research Center today explored why. The reasons are as simple as bollards blocking bridge entrances and as complex as New York’s regulatory black hole for electric bicycles.
Electric cargo trikes with a capacity of 600 pounds ship Office Depot supplies in Oregon, but they aren't street legal in NYC. Photo: WIllamette Week
A panel of three cargo bike operators — Wenzday Jane of Metro Pedal Power in Boston, Franklin Jones of B-Line in Portland, Oregon, and Greg Zuman from Revolution Rickshaws in New York — spoke about their business models and the constraints they face, including one of the most formidable barriers: potential clients who remain skeptical, despite a competitive price, that bikes or trikes really can handle the freight.
The city government of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has hired Metro Pedal Power to pick up recyclables from public bins around the city. This program, which replaces pickups by truck, is so cost-effective that the city has increased the number of pickups from once a week to three times a week. “In a city, oftentimes things are done the way they’re always done,” said Randi Mail, Cambridge’s recycling director, in a video about Metro Pedal Power shown at the conference. “When there’s an opportunity to make a change, it really needs somebody to push it through in order for it to be realized.”
Zuman, from Revolution Rickshaws, echoed the sentiment after the panel. Even when delivery by cargo bike makes business sense, he said, the customers who take the leap are those who are committed to the idea, while others remain hesitant because they feel like they are working with an unproven model. “Do we really want to make this shift? Do we trust a company this small?” he asked.
“The recycling contract was definitely a milestone for us. It’s not just we’re being hired by some crazy individuals here and there,” Jane of Metro Pedal Power said in the video. “This is a municipality that is buying into the concept of replacing trucks with bikes.”
Here in New York, Zuman says he hasn’t received any support from the city. “There’s a lot of, I don’t want to say, hot air,” he said, “But we’re not really that tight with the city on a working level.” In fact, the city has actually worked against the cargo bike business, perhaps without even knowing it: Security bollards installed at the East River bridges create gaps that are too narrow for many cargo bikes to pass through, limiting his company’s ability to serve clients in Brooklyn.