Micromobility: cargo bikes for the last mile

Dec 4, 2020

In 1950 only one in three people lived in cities, but today more than half of humanity are city-dwellers – and the figure is growing. The megatrend of urbanization has consequences for the mobility sector. Delivery traffic in towns and cities is a challenge. Between the looming traffic deadlock and the customer’s desire for punctual delivery, the sector is developing new solutions to old problems and the cargo bike is one of them.

The transport alternative

They cover thousands of kilometers with apparently no effort whatsoever, thanks to high-class logistical performance. Goods and products cross continents, oceans and countries by container ship, airplane or “Gigaliner,” Yet no matter whether the goods come from near or far, the greatest hurdles wait at the end of the supply chain, on the last mile. Historic narrow lanes, remote residential areas and crowded pedestrian zones make it more difficult to deliver to the inner cities smoothly and on time. In 2019 alone, around 3.65 billion packages were delivered across Germany, which was more than twelve million per working day. And the number continues to rise. The flood of parcels is expected to increase by almost five percent every year. One possible solution? Cargo bikes. Something that looks like a blast from the past is in fact a promise for the future, thanks to the Internet of Things, smartphones and electric motors. Zero-emission and flexible operation, space-saving and travelling at 25 km/h, supplies and deliveries to customers by cargo bike arrive punctually at their destination. Anyone can use cargo bikes because they don’t require either a driver’s license or insurance cover.

Modern VW cargo bike. Picture: Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles
Modern VW cargo bike. Picture: Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles

The cargo bike revival

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, delivery bikes dominated urban traffic. Craftsmen, bakers and couriers used them all the time. With the advent of the motor car, they disappeared from the scene. Cargo bikes enjoyed a revival in the Netherlands and Denmark in the 1980s. Today around 60 manufacturers are specialized in cargo bikes in Germany. Their design and propulsion are being improved all the time. Roughly 40.000 of them were sold in 2018. In total, they account for four procent of all e-bikes sold, which means that they remain a niche product. But cargo bikes enjoy growing popularity, particularly as an alternative to city cars or small delivery vans. The German federation, the individual states and the municipalities have recognized their advantages and now promote cargo bikes by providing purchase bonuses and tax benefits. For example the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA) supports purchases by companies, self-employed people, universities, research facilities, hospitals and municipalities with subsidies of up to EUR 2,500.

Together with DHL, DPD and other parcel delivery companies, Hermes has been testing cargo bikes in Berlin since 2018. Picture: Hermes
Together with DHL, DPD and other parcel delivery companies, Hermes has been testing cargo bikes in Berlin since 2018. Picture: Hermes

Micro-depots for towns and cities

In Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, Germany’s five largest parcel delivery companies including Hermes, DHL and DPD tested delivery by cargo bike for one year. Up to eleven cargo bikes were in use every day. A total of 38,000 kilometers were traveled in the project named KoMoDo (a German acronym for “cooperative use of micro depots by the courier, express and parcel sector for the sustainable deployment of cargo bikes in Berlin), and 160,000 parcels were delivered. The aim was to trial an alternative concept for urban delivery traffic. In mid-2019 the participating companies concluded that above all areas with a high drop density and suitable packages (number of items, volume and weight) were predestined for this approach. It requires suitable cooperative micro-depots in central locations. Now appropriate sites for more micro-depots are to be set up throughout Berlin.


VW: A carmaker moves into cargo bikes

Vehicle manufacturers have also noticed the trend. Volkswagen presented its own electric cargo bike at the IAA Commercial Vehicles 2018. The company has developed the VW Cargo e-Bike with automatic transmission and an electric motor, all connected to a lithium-ion battery with a range of 100 kilometers. The two-wheeled front axle can carry either a loading platform, a child carrier or a 500-liter cargo box. The vehicle can transport up to 210 kg (including the driver). This makes the cargo bike ideal for joiners, painters and families. Thanks to an innovative tilt-compensating mechanism, the load is always kept horizontal because only the bike tilts while the loading platform remains level. At only 89 centimeters wide, the Cargo e-Bike can easily squeeze through narrow lanes and pedestrian zones. Fat tires provide extra ride comfort. The cargo bike is being built at VW’s commercial vehicle plant in Hannover, on an area of 240 square meters. But given that the facility covers over one million square meters, electric cargo bikes are unlikely to dominate VW’s core business any time soon.

[Translate to English:] Studie: Brennstoffzellen-Kraftpaket soll Lastenbikes mehr Power geben. Bildquelle: DLR/IDBerlin
Study: fuel cells are destined to make cargo bikes more powerful. Picture: DLR/IDBerlin

Cargo bike reloaded

A company from Bremen wants to reinvent the cargo bike. The firm Rytle is combining e-cargo bikes with patented charging-box systems and urban hubs to create a complete networked system. The white-and-green “Movr” cargo bikes have a throttle starting aid. And there is a model with an inductive (wireless) charging station. This is highly advanced technology for a cargo bike that resembles a rickshaw. Yet instead of passengers, the rear can easily be converted to take a small container measuring nearly two meters in height. Depending on what customer wants delivered, these boxes are loaded in advance and the driver then transports them from the various charging stations – the hubs – to their destination. The start-up is also working with the DLR (German Aerospace Center) on a model using fuel cells. The rapidly refueled hydrogen tank should be sufficient for a whole day without having to charge the vehicle or swap the battery. Owing to its modular construction, the technology can be used in existing cargo bike designs.

The special thing about the three components – cargo bike, container and hub – is their connection via highly intelligent software. Working with IT experts in Bangalore, India, Rytle has developed “machine-to-machine communication.” In combination with smartphones the hubs, the containers and the “Movr” can transmit content, location and other data at any time. The technology is designed so that couriers can work with smart glasses. They look inside the box, and QR codes show them which package they have to pick next. So the drivers know exactly what they are transporting. At the same time the “Movr” continuously supplies information about its status, location and use profile to the system so recipients can track their shipments online. This means that parcels and packages will arrive on customers’ doorsteps faster – and not only at Christmas time. After all, cargo bikes like the “Movr” and VW’s “Cargo e-Bike” largely keep off the roads for the last mile – they simply use the cycle paths.

(Stage photo: © Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

The IAA MOBILITY is transforming itself from a pure car show to an international mobility platform with four pillars: the Summit, the Conference, the “Blue Lane” and the downtown Munich Open Space. Under the slogan of “What will move us next”, it stands for the digital and climate-neutral mobility of the future. From 7 to 12 September 2021, the car, bike and tech industries come together at IAA MOBILITY in Munich.