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Replacing delivery trucks with bikes shows promise in Seattle pilot

Summer program used microhubs to handle final-mile delivery, with e-cargo bikes reducing carbon emissions 30%

A zero-emissions delivery pilot in Seattle showed electric cargo bikes could potentially replace delivery trucks, but plenty of work remains to achieve that goal. (Photo: Urban Freight Lab)

A single e-cargo bike eliminated 356 truck miles in one Seattle neighborhood this summer, leading researchers to conclude that e-cargo bikes handling final-mile delivery from a local delivery hub have the potential to significantly reduce vehicle congestion in urban environments on a large scale.

The results of the Seattle Neighborhood Delivery Hub pilot project, conducted between April and July of this year, found that e-cargo bikes delivered less than a truck, but the efficiency displayed within the pilot suggests reductions in carbon emissions per package compared to delivery trucks are achievable.

“The pilot confirmed to me the viability and value of microhubs as a way to reduce the impact of last-mile delivery on communities and carriers and improve access for customers,” said Anne Goodchild, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and the founder and director of the Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center at the Urban Freight Lab. “It is encouraging to see additional pilots of cargo bike solutions being announced and to see cities’ interest in supporting sustainable urban freight solutions.”

Popup microhub

The pilot program used a central drop-off/pick-up location for goods and services at the neighborhood level that could be used by multiple delivery providers, retailers and consumers. Goods were trucked to the hub, which was a temporary location that took up about 20 spots inside an uptown Seattle parking lot not far from the iconic Space Needle, and e-cargo bikes were used to make the final delivery.

Participating companies included AxleHire, Coaster Cycles, BrightDrop and Reef, and the pilot was run in collaboration with the Seattle Department of Transportation. The hub was equipped with an array of sensors that provided detailed data regarding activity at the hub. The data was analyzed by the Urban Freight Lab to evaluate energy reductions and provide feedback for all participants as they work to improve their products and operating models. 

Read: Seattle goes zero emissions with last-mile delivery zones

Read: Santa Monica to pilot delivery zones for zero-emissions vehicles

The hub included a neighborhood kitchen, operated by Reef, a common-carrier parcel locker for secure and contactless package delivery from all major package carriers in an energy-efficient model, and a cargo-bike delivery service enabling zero-emissions last-mile delivery.

“We effectively built a new line of infrastructure, a new line of delivery here in the U.S.,” Daniel Sokolovsky, CEO of AxleHire, which facilitated the last-mile delivery logistics, told Modern Shipper. “I think this project was groundbreaking here in the U.S. We went out and created a project with so many partners [quickly]. We laid down a great infrastructure and now we have to build on top of it.”

BrightDrop, which is building an all-in-one technology-enabled last-mile delivery service, contributed with its EP1 electric pallet system.

“We see the results of the Urban Freight Lab Neighborhood Delivery Hub pilot as incredibly promising and a strong indication that BrightDrop’s approach to electrifying last-mile delivery will help curb tailpipe emissions while meeting consumers’ desires for on-demand deliveries,” Bob Tiderington, head of business development and partnerships for BrightDrop, told Modern Shipper. “The results are also a leading indicator that, at greater scale, a bike-based last-mile delivery solution can be beneficial within the broader ecosystem of deliveries.”

Coaster Cycles provided the electric-assist bikes.

The Seattle Neighborhood Delivery Hub included a parcel locker for residents to retrieve their own packages, further reducing delivery-related emissions. (Photo: Urban Freight Lab)

Emissions reduction

The pilot found that e-cargo bikes traveled roughly 50% fewer miles per package, which, when extrapolated to a full-time e-cargo bike operation, would result in a single e-cargo bike replacing 1.4 truck miles and delivering packages at a 30% reduction in tailpipe CO2 emissions per package compared to a truck making those same deliveries.

In the pilot, the e-cargo bikes completed eight deliveries per hour compared to a truck’s 19 deliveries per hour, but the researchers cautioned that no determination as to overall productivity of the bikes compared to trucks can be made due to the small sample size.

Sokolovsky noted this as well, saying that several findings will help improve routing and other operational aspects of future projects that will improve productivity. He said that better understanding of bike operators will help improve routing, as will dedicated bike lanes.

“There are a lot of bike routing options out there from a platform perspective so I think we can build upon that,” he said.

The researchers also noted dedicated bike lanes as possibly improving speed for e-bike operators, but also took note of better routing tools that got the operators to the proper drop-off location on a bike-friendly route as well as better security measures that secured the bikes and cargo while deliveries were made.

“This project shows both the significant operational benefits of a single neighborhood delivery hub implementation and the potential of networked hubs in helping solve the urban freight problems of CO2 emission, congestion and improved delivery efficiency,” the final report said. “With its shared cost model across partners, the UFL’s Seattle Neighborhood Delivery Hub project exemplifies a cost-effective and collaborative strategy to pilot new approaches and technologies that would not have been possible otherwise.”

Watch: Infrastructure’s impact on last-mile delivery

Search for more efficiency

Sokolovsky said technological improvements in the bikes themselves could unlock additional efficiencies, as could better understanding of topography the bikes must travel.

“You have to start thinking about these things as vehicles,” he said, adding, “I think projects like this help evolve the development of the bikes. In a few years, any [person] should be able to get on a bike and deliver packages.”

BrightDrop’s Tiderington said learnings from the pilot will help the company evolve its EP1, which is being tested by FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX).

“In this pilot, the EP1 was integrated with the cargo e-bike for last-mile perishable goods deliveries from a microhub location, which is only one of the many ways the EP1 can be used in the delivery ecosystem,” he said. “We feel optimistic about the massive potential the EP1 has to redefine last-mile deliveries and look forward to leaning in on collaborations like the Urban Freight Lab’s Neighborhood Delivery Hub to test and refine these delivery applications. On the whole, the average delivery system today is less efficient, not sustainable and expensive. BrightDrop is reimagining the entire delivery journey – from warehouse to front door – and has created a suite of products and services to address these issues.”

Sokolovsky said the pilot is another important step for AxleHire and others in the evolution of sustainable last-mile delivery.

“Seattle was our second sustainability project,” he said. “Overall, we’ve been thinking about better ways to deliver and be more efficient.”

The researchers came away satisfied but urged others to follow with more projects.

More pilots needed

“The UFL encourages local governments and private-sector companies to pursue partnerships on neighborhood delivery hub implementation because they can address both operational efficiencies for carriers and issues important to communities, such as climate change and congestion,” it concluded. “Cities should help make space available for hub activities off-street, which preserves limited shared public space and contributes to project cost savings.

“Including complementary activities at the hub also reduces operational costs and increases neighborhood amenities. Although neighborhood delivery hubs are just one of many approaches to sustainable city logistics solutions, the myriad benefits they accrue make them a worthwhile investment,” it added.

Santa Monica, California, is also running a zero-emissions delivery pilot program and AxleHire is also part of that program. In September, the company announced pilot programs with Tortoise and Urb-E. The program with Tortoise, which offers electric remote-piloted carts capable of carrying up to 120 pounds, will take place in Los Angeles while the Urb-E program, which includes the use of Urb-E’s electric bikes and cargo trailers, is set to run in New York City.

Click for more articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]