Those with strong cycling legs have ever more jobs up for grabs in Europe these days. A growing number of businesses are using cargo cycles, a move towards sustainable and free-flowing city traffic that is now strongly backed by public authorities. 

Research indicates that at least one quarter of all cargo traffic in European cities could be handled by cycles. And, by using special distribution hubs, larger vehicles and electric assist, this proportion could be even larger.

A cargo cycle is at least as fast as a delivery van in the city – and much cheaper to use, giving a strong economic incentive to make the switch. Cargo cycles also bring important economic advantages to tradesmen, artisans and service providers.

Picture: a cargo bike in Germany (source: "Ich ersetze ein Auto").Picture: a cargo bike in Germany (source: “Ich ersetze ein Auto“).

Cargo transport in cities is extremely inefficient. As it currently stands, almost 100 percent of it is done by motorised vehicles, ranging from personal cars to commercial delivery vans and trucks (lorries). However, these heavy vehicles often transport very light goods. The average payload transported in European cities weighs less than 100 kg (220 lbs) and has a volume of less than 1m3 (1).  Of the 1,900 vans and trucks that enter the city of Breda in the Netherlands each day, less than 10 percent of the cargo being delivered requires a van or truck and 40 percent of deliveries involve just one box (2).

This means that a large share of the cargo being moved in and out of cities could be transported by cargo cycles. Fast, two-wheeled cargo cycles have a load capacity of up to 180 kg (396 lbs), while slower vehicles with three or four wheels can easily take 250 kg (550 lbs). Using a tandem configuration and/or an electric power assistance can help raise the load capacity even further, to about half a ton. Cargo volume ranges from at least 0.25 m3 for bicycles to more than 1.5 m3 for larger tricycles and quadricycles.

Freight traffic takes up a large portion of total daytime road transport in cities, often as high as 50 percent in large cities, and up to 90 percent in very large cities such as London and Paris (3). The ‘last mile’ is currently regarded as one of the most expensive, least efficient and most polluting sections of the entire logistics chain. This is because traffic congestion makes the driving cycle very irregular, leading to a very high fuel consumption and a loss of time.

Cargo cycles are fast, efficient, clean and quiet

The positive ecological and social consequences of substituting cargo cycles for delivery vans are obvious: important fuel savings, less pollution, less noise, more space in a more enjoyable city, less congestion, and less serious accidents.  However, this is not all. There are as many economic benefits as there are ecological and social benefits,though they are not so obvious at first sight.

Cycle logistics europe
To begin with, cargo cycles operating in the city are as fast as, or even faster than, vans and trucks (4). This is because they are less affected by traffic congestion, and because they can often take faster routes where trucks and vans cannot go, such as pedestrian streets, alleys or bicycle paths.  Because cargo cycles are less affected by variable traffic conditions, journey times are more reliable. Moreover, they are able to enter the city 24 hours a day, while many Europeans cities have set very strict time windows for loading and unloading of trucks and vans. Cargo cycles have generally no difficulty finding a place to load or unload and can often stop right in front of the door or even enter a building. 

98 percent cheaper

Secondly, cargo cycles are much cheaper than vans. The purchase price of an average cargo cycle does not exceed 3,000 euro, and the largest three- and four-wheeled cargo cycles with electric assist sell for about 7,000 to 10,000 euro. Buying a van sets you back at least 20,000 euro. However, for either mode of transport this cost is small compared with the running and staff costs. The real advantage of the cargo cycle lies in its low cost of use. A car, van or truck consumes fuel, a cargo cycle does not. Moreover, taxes, insurance, storage and depreciation are all lower for cycles than for vans, which can result in significant cost savings (5). All together, a cargo cycle can be up to 98 percent cheaper per km than the alternatives (4/6).

These savings can be achieved without the loss of jobs. Some people promote the use of cargo cycles by saying that they will bring more jobs. However, this is only half true. If cargo cycles become more successful, other jobs will disappear, notably those of van and truck drivers. Because the cargo cycle is as fast as the delivery van in city traffic, and because it can move as much cargo as the van usually does, substituting cargo cycles for delivery vans will not require additional drivers. (On longer routes outside the city, this would be different). This is actually good news, because it means that labour costs will not rise. Indirectly, however, cargo cycles can indeed create jobs (see further).

Europe promotes cargo cycling

European authorities clearly recognize the economic and ecological potential of cargo cycles. Running from May 2011 until April 2014, the EU-funded project CycleLogistics aims to reduce energy used in urban freight transport by replacing unnecessary motorised vehicles with cargo bikes in European cities. The project aims to expand the niche market position of cargo cycles, so that they will be viewed as a serious alternative for the transport of goods in inner cities. According to research undertaken by the project, cyclists could easily move 25 percent of all cargo in cities (considering loads up to 250 kg) (1/2).

CycleLogistics will communicate the potential of cargo cycles to different target groups such as the transport sector, municipalities, service providers, tradesmen, artisans and individuals. In order to stimulate companies and service providers to integrate the cargo cycle into their activities, the project is distributing 2,000 cargo cycles free of charge to businesses and municipal services. Their use will be documented and analysed, and the findings will be published in a research paper.

Four wheeled cargo cycle dhl

CycleLogistics will motivate municipalities to create a regulatory framework and policies for cargo cycles, and they will be testing and reporting on various cargo bike models, promoting their uptake by consumers, authorities and businesses alike; UK research has found that perception is probably the biggest single factor inhibiting the use of cycle freight (5). The reluctance to use cycle freight is due more to a lack of information on the vehicles and options now available rather than due to entrenched attitudes against using cycle power.

Electric assisted cargo cycles in Germany

The German Federal Ministry for the Environment has set up a similar pilot project, named “Ich ersetze ein Auto” (“I replace a car”), which began in July 2012 and will continue for two years. Contrary to the European-wide project, it will be aimed exclusively at courier services and make use of electric assist cargo cycles. Forty vehicles will be used for two years in nine major German cities. The cargo bikes can transport a load with a weight of 100 kg and a volume of 250 litres (0.25 m3). Because these loads can also be moved by non-assisted cargo cycles, the electric assist is aimed at further increasing delivery speeds and extending the driver’s range.

Preliminary research by the German Institute of Transport Research showed that cargo cycles using electrical assist can replace 85 percent of car trips made by courier services in the city. This was demonstrated during an experiment in Berlin using an additional city hub to coordinate distribution of goods (the ‘Bentobox‘). The German pilot project will result in a research paper detailing the economic potential of cargo cycles, the energy and emissions savings, and the necessary improvements in infrastructure and legislation.

As mentioned earlier, the focus of cargo transport by cycles is on the “first mile” and “last mile”. Goods are delivered by vans and trucks to a (central) distribution hub, from where they are taken to their final destination by cargo cycle (or the other way around). An alternative is to use vans (or even boats or cargo trams) as mobile hubs. UK based cargo cycle courier Outspoken Delivery uses folding bikes in combination with trains for speedy intercity deliveries between Cambridge and London. Cargo cycles as a last mile city transport option match very well with the research into trolleytrucks for goods transport on longer distances. Of course, cargo cycles can also be complemented with fully electric light vehicles in the city, such as the Cargohopper.

Courier services

A logical target group for cargo cycles are courier services. The German and the European projects aim to introduce cargo cycles to both courier companies using motorised vehicles and courier enterprises using normal bicycles. The first group can save costs and will be able to offer a faster service when replacing delivery vans by cargo cycles, while the second group can use cargo cycles to extend their market by transporting heavier and/or bulkier loads.

Outspoken Delivery cargo cycle courier

An additional incentive for traditional courier services is that they will have an easier job finding employees, because the drivers do not require a (special) driving licence. Larger fleet managers already find it hard to recruit drivers. Furthermore, the relatively low price of the cargo cycle allows courier services to build a larger and more diversified fleet of vehicles. In this way, it is always possible to choose the fastest and most compact vehicle.

Cargo cycles are already used by courier services in (for example) Brussels, Londen, New York, Berkeley, Zürich, Basel, Vienna, Graz, Rome, Reggio and San Sebastian. These are often relatively small companies, but sometimes large logistic enterprises use cargo cycles, too. DHL applies cargo cycles in 15 Dutch cities. The largest courier service to date using (electric assist) cargo cycles is the French La Petite Reine, which delivers goods in Bordeaux, Paris, Lyon and Toulouse.

The European project CycleLogistics proposes to develop and implement a next day delivery operation in conjunction with leading national and international delivery companies, in which cargo bikes are used for the final mile delivery. Cooperation with large courier services is important because regular and frequent collections and deliveries are needed to have a sustainable business model. One of the main outputs of these experiments in several cities will be a formalised and transferable business model for running a cycle based courier business which can be adopted by couriers across towns and cities in Europe.

Other companies also discover the advantages of cargo cycles, often for the delivery of their goods to customers’ houses. These are often small enterprises such as suppliers of organic food, but also larger companies like retail chain FNAC who delivers products ordered online via cargo cycle in Barcelona and Madrid. IKEA puts (large) cargo cycles at the disposal of their customers in some Dutch and Danish cities.

Tradesmen & service providers

Another target group of the European cargo cycle project are commercial service suppliers, tradesmen and artisans such as window cleaners, electricians, builders, chimney sweeps, locksmiths, painters, repairmen, carpenters, gardeners, plumbers, scrap dealers, professional photographers, musicians, street and market vendors, distributors of magazines, newspapers and advertisements, and so on.

Copenhagen has carpenters and electricians using cargo cycles, and window cleaners using cargo cycles have been spotted in Austria and in England. Home bicycle repair is another example. These services, which have been operating in many large cities for some years now, often use vans. However, a mobile bicycle repair that introduces extra automobile traffic is not very logical, so individuals in Copenhagen, Cologne, Berlin and Brussels have taken the idea one step further by using the technology they promote.

Carpenter riding a cargo cycle in copenhagen
Just as the cargo cycle brings economic advantages to courier services, so it does for tradesmen, artisans and service providers. The vehicle allows them to start a business with a much lower investment, and to operate it at considerably lower costs. No motorised vehicle is required, and even a shop is not a necessity. The cargo cycle can thus indirectly bring more (self-employed) jobs.

Local authorities are another target group for cargo cycles. The vehicles could be used for maintenance of city infrastructure such as parks and roads, for repairs, senior citizens care, garbage collection or transporting official documents. This would lower the costs of municipal services, making it possible to use taxes for other aims (or even lowering them).

Learning from the past

Many proposed applications of the cargo bicycle are everything but new (7). During the first half of the twentieth century, service providers and artisans were among the main users of cargo cycles. Almost every profession made use of cargo cycles which were specially designed to carry the tools of their trade. These were both commercially available models as well as self-adapted vehicles. Cargo cycles also played an important role in the delivery of goods, mostly bread, meat, vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Again, every profession used a cargo cycle that was best suited to perform the specific duty. Cargo cycles were a large improvement over horse, donkey or dog powered carts, which were slower and much more expensive to operate.

Delivery of goods such as bread or meat was often done using a sturdy safety bicycle equipped with cargo platforms, boxes or baskets in different sizes fixed to the frame, mostly in the front. These vehicles, which have a payload of about 75 kg (165 lbs), are known as ‘bakery bikes’ or ‘butcher bikes’ and can still be seen on the streets of Danish and Dutch cities. In the late 1920s an extended form of carrier bicycle appeared in Denmark, in which a load-carrying platform was inserted between the rider and the front wheel, which now being entirely separate from the handlebars, was steered by a tie-rod passing under the platform.

Vintage cargo bike

This platform was low down for stability and ease of loading. These bikes, which earned the nick-name ‘long-john‘ and have payloads up to 180 kg, were (and are again) used for speedy deliveries of somewhat heavier and bulkier goods. Three-wheeled cargo bikes, still known as a ‘bakfiets’ and able to carry even heavier loads at the expense of speed, where most often used by craftsmen providing services in different locations.  

Private use of cargo cycles

A final target group of cargo cycles are private individuals. People who regularly ride bikes in cities, often still have a car in case something larger or heavier has to be transported, whether this concerns shopping, moving stuff or leisure activities. The cargo cycle is a much cheaper option which is just as effective. However, individual ownership of cargo cycles is impeded by limited parking space in dense, urban centres. Moreover, for people who can’t afford a car, buying a cargo cycle might still be too high an investment.

But all this can be solved. The LastenRad Kollektiv in Vienna, Austria, rents out cargo cycles to individuals who want to transport something big or heavy and prefer not to use a car. People pay a voluntary fee, which is used to maintain the bikes. Velogistics, a project that was inspired by it, tries to do the same at a European scale, by building an online database of people owing a cargo cycle and willing to lend it.

Will cargo cycles work everywhere?

The potential of the cargo cycle remains unclear. Presently, research is very scarce. This is remarkable, since no other technology seems to offer so many benefits for urban freight transportation. Yet, the possibilities of cargo cycles will depend on several factors, which might make them less suited in other places. All cities where cargo cycles have taken off to some degree, are flat. Having to pedal a cargo cycle up a hill will raise delivery times considerably, which means loss of time compared to motorised options. Electric assist can help, but there might be better options for city cargo transport in hilly or mountainous regions, such as gravity-powered cable cars and aerial ropeways.

Secondly, cargo cycles are especially useful in European cities with their large historical centres consisting of narrow, winding streets. In North-American cities the average speed of motor traffic in cities is generally higher because of much wider roads, and the speed advantage of cargo cycles may disappear. Population density also influences the usefulness of cargo cycles, which again plays into the hands of European cities. A third observation is that cities where cargo cycles are again in use already had a relatively strong bicycle culture and a decent cycle infrastructure prior to their arrival. If there is no (safe) space for cargo cycles, they cannot be used.

Kris De Decker



(1) “CycleLogistics” (2012)

(2) “Bikes instead of lorries” (2012)

(3) “Das Lastenfahrrad als Transportmittel für städtischen Wirtshaftsverkehr” (2012)

(4) “Ich ersetze ein Auto” (2012)

(5) “Cycle freight in London: a scoping study” (2009)

(6) “Gesamtwirtschaftlicher Vergleich von Pkw- und Radverkehr” (2010)

(7) “Short history of cargo cycling“, CycleLogistics (2012)