Cargo bikes are transforming urban areas – and coming to a city near you

Some of the fractious debate over the UK’s low-traffic neighbourhoods could soon be rendered irrelevant by a new breed of bike

An article in The Times in 1894 warned of a calamity. If traffic congestion in England’s capital continued in line with current trends, it doomed, then “in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of [horse] manure”. 

The story may well be apocryphal (no such article has come to light in the archives), but it’s often quoted as a reminder that predicting the future on the basis of past trends can leave us looking rather silly. 

It came to my mind during some of the heated debates that have convulsed London – including my home borough of Hackney – over the introduction of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). Depending on your perspective, this wave restricting road access is either a strong response to the twin scourges climate change and poor quality air or an undemocratic intervention that worsens congestion, and hits the working-class locals the hardest. 

LTNs were portrayed by their opponents at a debate I attended as part of a Gentrifying Wave in which plumbers and van drivers, builders and cabbies are all pushed aside by posh cyclists who don’t need to carry any tool heavier than their laptop. Ouch. 

In fact, despite the sound and fury of opponents, and some admittedly clumsy and inappropriate impositions of LTNs by councils, polls tend to show they have majority support – and these are backed up by local election results. Pollution levels have been reduced, and the much-feared traffic increases along nearby main roads have largely stopped. 

Some argue that we should wait until electric vehicles (EVs), which will make pollution problems disappear, and then the case for LTNs will disappear. 

But it’s surely a failure of imagination to think that the only conceivable future for a liveable city is one where chunky metal boxes sit in gridlock. Streets existed before cars, and they will continue to exist. 

Cargo bikes

Despite vocal opposition from some, polls show that most people support low-traffic areas. Jack Fifield

There are some hints in the wind about what that future might look. It comes on three, sometimes four, wheels, but they’re not attached to a car. The humble electric cargo bike has the potential to change the way cities look, sound, and smell. The sales are exploding: More than 100,000 bikes have been sold across Europe since 2018, with an additional 60 percent expected to be added in the UK. Raleigh Cycles is betting big on them and predicting a 15-fold growth over the next five year. 

And no surprise: a raft of new studies show that when it comes to deliveries, e-bikes have a host of advantages: they glide quickly through the city streets, able to deliver packages 60 per cent faster than their van equivalents, and they’re cleaner and quieter, too, saving around 90 per cent in carbon emissions. And of course, they cut congestion – a cargo bike uses a fraction of the road space of a typical delivery van. 

It’s surely a failure of imagination to think that the only conceivable future for a liveable city is one where chunky metal boxes sit in gridlock

This is just as well, given the surge in home deliveries brought about by the pandemic – which shows little sign of levelling off in a post-lockdown world. 

Cue a collection of small and large initiatives that aim to catalyse the e–alternative. Transport for London has partnered with Crossrail and HS2 to trial cargo bikes for the delivery of tools and equipment. New schemes have been established in cities such as Coventry, Cambridge, Nottingham and Cambridge with government funding. Ludlow, Shropshire Islabikes has teamed up with the town’s sustainable transport group to offer free deliveries to local businesses. 

Cargo bikes

Meanwhile, cities from Manchester to Nijmegen in the Netherlands are exploring forms of ‘urban consolidation centres’: hubs on the edges of towns, where trucks can unload packages to be picked up by e-cargo bikes and small EVs for the final miles, so avoiding the need for heavy-polluting vehicles to roar down city streets in the first place.

The delivery revolution is only the beginning. Already many workers, including plumbers, craftspeople, and DJs, are switching from heavy vans to lighter e-cargo bicycles. The coming years will surely spawn some innovative variations in ‘micro EVs’, offering greater carrying capacity, comfort and protection from the elements, suitable for all manner of urban uses, with a fraction of the impact on our streets in terms of pollution, noise and congestion.

Put all this together, and some of the fractious debate over LTNs could soon seem outdated – not least because swathes of the future city could be relatively low-traffic by default – in the sense of traffic in its current, problematic guise anyway. In short, we are at one those inflection points where past experience ceases to be a reliable guide to future. We are ecstatic about that.

Martin Wright is the chair for Positive News

Main image: Pedal Me 
Illustration by Tiffany Beucher