The return of the delivery bicycle

What logistics planners need to know about electric-cargo bikes

Cycling – both for work and pleasure – has been experiencing something of a renaissance in the UK in recent years, with 12% of the population cycling every week, as of 2016. And, as retro as it might sound, a growing number of businesses are rediscovering bikes as a valuable part of the logistics mix.

In fact, modern cargo bikes are now so popular in European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen that they have their own dedicated festival.

Combine that with the rise of electrically-assisted bicycles, and you have the perfect opportunity to add a versatile extra delivery method to your logistics arsenal.

Electric cargo bicycles, or e-cargo bikes, can overcome some of the key challenges of delivering in urban centres, such as congested streets, lack of parking, pedestrianised areas, and lengthy transit times between the vehicle and the customer’s door.

It’s a perfect opportunity to meet customers’ growing expectations around ETAs – but maximising the benefits and ensuring accurate routing and scheduling will take a few key changes to your planning software and data sets. 

Delivery bike 2.0

e-Cargo bikes are gaining attention in the media thanks to a trial project by Sainsbury’s – the first grocery delivery service by electric bike – which began in April 2018.

(In some ways, the trial echoes the first time Sainsbury’s used bicycles for deliveries, way back in 1896, when they replaced the chain’s original delivery model of horse-drawn carts. After a shift back to heavier-duty vehicles, it seems it’s time for bikes to take their place in the mix once more.)

Initially, Sainsbury’s is using five purpose-built e-cargo bikes to deliver up to 100 grocery orders per day, from its Streatham Common store. The bikes, which each have a total capacity of 380 litres (250 l for ambient groceries and 130 l for chilled and frozen items), are each capable of carrying multiple orders, which will be picked locally in-store.

If the trial is successful, Sainsbury’s could potentially roll out e-cargo bikes to other busy cities where its unique mix of capabilities can offer strengths a van – or a regular bike – can’t. We wait to see how the rest of the market reacts.

The cheaper delivery alternative

A recent study of e-cargo bike usage in seven European cities showed that bike deliveries were not only more efficient, but cheaper. Up to 70% of delivery costs come from the last mile, and e-cargo bikes are ideally placed to make significant savings down to the last metre.

On average, an e-cargo bike costs around £2,000 – but you don’t just save on fleet costs. You no longer have to pay for tax, vehicle insurance, fuel, or – if you’re operating in central London – the T-Charge. The average e-cargo bike can make multiple trips up to a total of 60 miles on a single charge, which costs pennies, and if your rider carries a spare it’s simple to hot-swap the battery on the go.

Traditionally, businesses have had to deliberately restrict peak demand into a flatter demand line, to ensure the best use of its fleet. However, some companies now offer a third-party logistics model for e-cargo bikes, offering the opportunity to add extra delivery capacity flexibly, as and when you need it, allowing you to accommodate customer demands at peak times. Sainsbury’s is working with a third-party service for its trial – with each rider given exactly the same training as the supermarket’s van drivers, so the customer experience is consistent.

There’s even potential for e-cargo bikes to expand the scope of delivery times. Current restrictions mean deliveries can only be made up until 10pm. But with electric vehicles, the noise disturbance of an engine is no longer an issue – meaning deliveries can theoretically be made at any time.

There’s a ‘sweet spot’ where e-cargo bikes really come into their own – but finding that optimal zone within a traditional logistics mix can be difficult. For many businesses, making the most of e-cargo bikes’ potential will mean moving away from the assumption that one delivery means one vehicle. In many cases, even larger deliveries can be made by several e-cargo bikes rather than one van – while still dramatically cutting emissions and speeding time-to-door.

New routes for bikes

Ultimately, the most compelling reason to consider bike deliveries is their agility in urban areas.

As London, and other major cities, make changes to tackle traffic congestion and the resulting pollution, e-cargo bikes’ zero-emission status gives the flexibility to work in congestion charging zones – and potentially make hundreds of deliveries in an environmentally-friendly way.

Transport for London is currently in the middle of its five-year LoCITY programme, aimed at encouraging the take-up of low-emission freight and delivery vehicles to improve the city’s air quality, while the European Commission has been busy establishing low emission zones across Europe with the Urban Access Regulations, which dictate which types of vehicles are allowed in large urban areas.

Even with electrical assistance, e-cargo bikes are classified as bicycles, because they’re capped at 17.3pmh under UK and European legislation. This makes them at least as fast as a van in traffic – and potentially even faster on short distances – while also opening up a whole new network of routes for you to work with:

  • Miles upon miles of established cycle paths
  • London’s eight cycle superhighways (with three more in public consultation)
  • Bus lanes throughout the city
  • Routes through pedestrianised areas
  • Tow paths along canals and rivers

And that’s not the only way bikes score over delivery vans.

As more and more of the UK population moves into cities, and the new-build trend in urban areas continues to be upwards rather than outwards, intelligent routing is becoming far more important. According to the UK census, 33.93% of the population now lives in major urban conurbations, up from 33.71% in 2015 – with that figure set to continue to rise until at least 2025.

To deal with this influx of new people, developments are getting even more packed. For example, British Land recently applied for planning permission to build a staggering 3,000 new homes in Canada Water, south east London. Many of these new developments don’t have enough parking provision for the residents, let alone deliveries – so that begs the question: what’s the inbound strategy?

Between red routes, reduced parking, high-rise flats and pedestrianised areas, it’s no longer easy for delivery vans to get to the door of someone’s home. Drivers are often forced to park long distances from the address – sometimes even illegally – dramatically increasing drop time, missed appointments, and risk. Trials have shown that e-cargo bikes are between 50% and 66% faster when it comes to time at the customer’s door. As 27% of the GB population now lives in flats, and that figure is set to continue growing over the coming years, this concern is becoming increasingly important for logistics planners. Urban areas show an even greater proportion with recent statistics derived from the Census and AddressAnalytix database. Flat dwellers in London, for example,  are even higher at 57% and therefore easier and faster deliveries become even more important.

But to realise these benefits, your routing software needs the right data and configuration. It needs to know where the routes are, and to calculate different delivery schedules for each transport type.

New capabilities mean new routing

When an online order comes in, and the address falls within the catchment area, its intelligent routing software determines whether it’s a job for a van or one of the retailer’s new e-cargo bikes. If you want to add bikes to your own delivery fleet, you’ll want to expand your own routing capabilities to add another layer of detail – one that goes beyond roads and postcodes.

At CACI, we’ve developed a file that maps all the pathways bike can take that your vans can’t – and vice versa. It excludes motorways and certain primary roads, and features additional routes that are suitable for an e-cargo bike to use (it’s not as simple as adding all permitted routes, though, as a cargo bike’s size and long wheelbase can make some paths difficult to access).

We can also help you customise road speeds, and plot the map right down to the delivery address itself, not just the postcode – something that’s important for van and bicycle deliveries alike. You might want to get creative, and use vans or HGVs as mobile mini-distribution centres shortening each bike’s reloading time. We have software that can help with that, too – we already understand your customers’ doorstep profiles, and know when’s best to send bikes and when you’ll need a van.

Importantly, the bike routing file is covered by the same promise as all our geospatial data sets: we’re completely system agnostic, and are happy to supply in your choice of up to 40 formats – whatever your planning, scheduling or GIS system needs.

As e-cargo bikes become more popular in the UK, there’s great potential for more paths and routes to become available as both local and central governments look to a more environmentally friendly future. If you work in urban areas, or have high concentrations of deliveries closer together, it certainly would be worth modelling e-cargo bike delivery, and finding out what the benefits could be for you. Please do get in touch; we’ll be more than happy to talk you through it.