The last mile problem is simple to explain, but daunting to fix: It’s very easy to bring goods into cities (via plane, train, or truck), but it’s much harder to then bring the one thing you want to your house from the central point to which it was delivered. That last mile represents most of the inefficiency in the process. But is the future of last-mile delivery two wheels?
It is, according to a band of European activists, logistics firms, and city officials who say bikes are not just for fun, but also a legitimate, and wholly efficient, way of expediting the delivery of many goods.
The EU-funded alliance, called Cycle Logistics, says up to a quarter of urban deliveries could go via bike, if the necessary infrastructure and incentives were put in place. Bikes, it says, are a cleaner, more effective way of delivering small items in many European cities, many of which have space limitations, and tough rules on pollution and carbon emissions.
"Many cities are not built for [trucks]. They have narrow streets and usually the inner cities have traffic restrictions," says Karl Reiter, who coordinates the group. "You are only allowed to deliver in the morning hours. But if you come by bicycle, you can do it all day, and it’s easier."
Outspoken, in Cambridge, England, delivers for about 160 customers, including local clinics, law offices, and sandwich chains. Spokesperson Gary Armstrong says three-quarters do so for service and price reasons, not just the environment. It helps that the city center is closed to motorized traffic between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
"Environmental considerations only come into play when we are talking with larger organizations with corporate responsibility reporting requirements, or if they are public authorities. In a small, congested city, we are quicker than a van and very cost competitive," he says.
"Conventional wisdom holds that the best way for deliveries to enter a city is from vans and [trucks] to operate out of large hubs many miles from the city center. The problem is that a large [truck] is designed to take large pallets, but is incredibly inefficient at taking small items, which are often the majority of what’s carried."
Adding a little electric power can make bikes even more useful. Research by the German Institute of Transport Research found that e-cargo bikes could take care of 85% of deliveries in Berlin.
Cycle Logistics is setting up "living laboratories" in several cities, so business can try out bike designs and become used to the idea. It is also focusing on grocery chains, asking stores to offer home deliveries and thus cut car trips. Several supermarkets in Belgium, Switzerland, and Austria already have such services.
Meanwhile, some cities—including Graz, Austria—are offering to pay some of the upfront cost of the cargo bike purchase, as they try to incentivize their use. Given the wider benefits, they see it as a price worth paying.