Non-polluting, space-efficient cargo bikes could reduce future van mileage in central London by nearly a fifth, the person in charge of promoting cycling in the capital has said while urging businesses to embrace a more environmentally friendly future.

Will Norman, the UK capital’s cycling and walking commissioner, was speaking as the London mayor’s office and Transport for London implement the first cargo bike action plan by a British local authority.

The policy, published on March 31, aims to encourage adoption of bikes to stem the rapid growth of congestion and pollution from vans. Cargo bikes, which can have two, three or four wheels, typically feature large cargo boxes and use electric power to assist the rider.

Norman pointed to “interesting” modelling featured in the report calculating that a shift to cargo bikes could reduce van mileage in central London in 2030 by as much as 17 per cent. Van traffic in Greater London rose 18 per cent in the five years to 2019, according to Department for Transport statistics, and the mode declined far less than other forms of transport during the coronavirus pandemic.

A transfer of traffic from motorised vans to bikes powered by pedalling and electricity was part of London’s route to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030, Norman said. It was also key to tackling congestion.

Advocates say about a quarter of the loads carried in light vans at present could be transferred to cargo bikes, which can handle loads up to about 250kg. Operators say the vehicles are faster and more flexible in busy cities than space-consuming vans.

“It’s a good thing for everybody,” Norman said.

The capital’s local government drew up its plan, Norman added, to ensure that the shift happened as smoothly as possible.

“We have to make sure the potential is fully realised, that we’re doing this in a co-ordinated way,” he said.

The action plan says local planners should prioritise the setting aside of land for hubs like the one operated by Zedify, a Cambridge-based cargo-bike operator, in Hoxton, north-east of the City of London. The site, in a basement below a high-rise block, features a depot for heavy-duty cargo-carrying tricycles and lighter-duty two-wheeled cargo bikes.

Vans deliver large shipments of the goods Zedify distributes on behalf of customers such as Zara, the fashion retailer, and Grubby, a vegan meal-kit brand. Riders then fan out from the hub carrying goods to their final recipients.

Zedify’s chief executive Rob King said logistics systems had to be rethought to ensure cargo bikes achieved their full potential. Retailers and logistics companies generally operate from large depots on the periphery of cities.

“You have to come up with a whole new business system for it to make them work at scale,” King said of cargo bikes.

Zedify’s hub in Hoxton
Zedify operates a hub in Hoxton, in a basement below a high-rise block © Anna Gordon/FT

Sites for depots are scarce but they are critical to ensuring that companies such as Zedify can capture more of the market for high-volume deliveries, King said. Zedify already operates in nine UK cities and plans to eventually operate in nearly all UK cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants.

“It’s a bit of a market failure,” King said of the availability of hubs. “Normally, in a dense urban area like London, a block of flats is going to give a developer a better return than a logistics hub.”

King pointed to some other problems, particularly the challenges of financing cargo bikes, which can cost £8,000 each. Many financial institutions are wary of involvement.

Beyond distribution, Aaron Fleming-Saheed, founder of Cycling Sparks, an electrical contractor, said tradespeople were put off using cargo bikes because it required them to think about doing jobs in a new way.

“It’s basic, simple flexibility,” Fleming-Saheed said of how his business operated. “That’s what a lot of people feel they don’t have time to do.”

Aaron Fleming-Saheed
Aaron Fleming-Saheed said tradespeople were put off using cargo bikes because it required them to think about doing jobs in a new way © Anna Gordon/FT

Norman said that, as well as pushing for development of new delivery hubs, the mayor’s office and TfL were drawing up standards for hub design and for the training and safety of riders.

“We know there are challenges, which is why we launched the plan,” Norman said.

Hina Bokhari, a Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly, said Norman should go further still. As a member of the assembly’s economy committee, Bokhari helped to write a report recommending that ahead of the forthcoming expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone the mayor should set up a £100mn fund to encourage businesses to scrap vans and replace them with cargo bikes. The recommendation was not taken up.

“For us to reach net zero by 2030, we’ve got to put money behind these strategies,” Bokhari said.

Fleming-Saheed, meanwhile, insisted his business already had significant potential to grow beyond its current staff strength, with one full-time and two part-time workers alongside the founder.

“There’s a market here and essentially it’s a really interesting place to be in at the moment,” he said. “I’ve got large ambitions.”

Having started his business in 2017 reaching sites on a normal, mechanical bike, Fleming-Saheed first bought a cargo bike in 2019. The business at present operates five Urban Arrow e-cargo bikes.

“Any new business starting up now has to have the environment at the top of its agenda,” Fleming-Saheed said. “Things just cannot go on the way that they were done before.”

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