Electric cargo bikes could allow cities to cut carbon emissions from package deliveries by 30% while reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, a new study shows.
To reach that conclusion, researchers from the University of Washington Urban Freight Lab carried out a three-month pilot program in Seattle this summer, in collaboration with several tech and delivery companies as well as the city of Seattle.
Instead of using delivery trucks, which typically pick up packages from warehouses on city outskirts, the program relied on three-wheeled bikes and cargo pods to transport goods from a local distribution center known as a “microhub.”
The aim of the project was to see whether e-cargo bikes can help reduce the environmental problems associated with so-called “last-mile” deliveries, a term that describes the trip that packages make from warehouses to people’s doorsteps.
The researchers found that e-cargo bikes lead to a 30% reduction in the total tailpipe carbon dioxide emissions per package delivered—including both “last mile” emissions and the carbon emitted by transporting products to the microhub.
But that number could increase to at least 50% if e-cargo delivery systems are scaled up with better logistics and infrastructure, such as more bike lanes or parking spots for the bikes.
An e-cargo bike cannot transport as many packages per trip as a delivery truck but two bikes could be enough to replace a truck using the system that the researchers put in place.
The pilot project took place in Belltown, a small neighborhood, but Dr. Anne Goodchild, the Urban Freight Lab’s principal investigator, told Treehugger the findings should also apply to densely populated urban areas, such as New York City.
“We do think these results are indicative of comparable neighborhoods [but] from other research, we expect that the bike will perform better, compared to internal combustion engine vehicles, in more dense and congested neighborhoods,” said Goodchild.
The key to the success of this system is the “microhub,” which the researchers describe as a “drop-off/pick-up location for goods and services at the neighborhood level that can be used by multiple delivery providers, retailers, and consumers.”
The hub used for the pilot was centrally located, which allowed e-cargo bikes to travel 50% fewer miles per package than delivery trucks. In addition, these distribution centers could potentially become “community areas” that would host amenities such as e-bike or scooter rentals, electric vehicle charging stations, parcel lockers, and communal spaces like playgrounds and coffee shops.
“I see these hubs as being shared neighborhood assets that would reflect community interests and needs. They could include pocket parks and access to other social services,” said Goodchild.
The authors hope that the results of the pilot project will encourage local government officials and private companies to set up e-cargo delivery programs to address climate change and congestion.
‘‘They reduce truck miles per package and take up less space on the street than a truck. Less congestion could also improve traffic safety, air quality, noise pollution, and preservation of neighborhood cultural sites,” the study says.
E-commerce now accounts for approximately 13% of U.S. retail sales, up from 5% in 2012.2 This rapid growth has led to a huge increase in the number of delivery trucks, which has created myriad problems for densely populated urban areas, such as traffic congestion, more noise and air pollution, and higher carbon emissions.
And the problem is getting worse. A study by the World Economic Forum published in January 2020 forecasts that the number of delivery vehicles in 100 major cities worldwide will surge by 36% over the next decade. As a result, annual emissions from the package delivery sector will increase by about a third, to reach 25 million metric tons—equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of Jordan, a country with a population of around 10 million people.3
Courier companies are considering several ways to reduce the environmental footprint of package deliveries, such as drones, electric trucks, and lockers. Cities including New York, Miami, and London, have also looked into the possibility of using e-cargo bikes to deliver packages.
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