Last-mile delivery is in a state of change – if it was ever even settled. Santa Monica, California, is one of the areas testing a zero-emission delivery zone, and cities are pushing for electric vehicles to become the dominant delivery vehicle. In major cities around the world, including New York City, some couriers have turned to bikes as an option. But bikes are limited.
URB-E, a Los Angeles-based startup, is hoping to replace not only trucks but bikes with its urban delivery concept. The company’s electric bikes are pulling collapsible containers on small trailers around New York City, producing zero emissions and offering economies of scale for package and grocery delivery not available with existing bike couriers.
“It’s a turnkey infrastructure [solution] for the neighborhood that anyone can use,” URB-E CEO Charles Jolley told Modern Shipper.
Jolley, a veteran executive who has sold two companies to Facebook – conversational artificial intelligence company Ozlo and HTML5 app distribution company Strobe – and served as head of product for Facebook’s mobile platform, recently joined URB-E to help it scale. Founded by ex-Porsche and Fisker engineer Sven Etzelsberger, URB-E recently closed a $5 million Series A round of funding led by UBS Group.
URB-E is building all its own equipment, including the battery-powered bikes that feature swappable batteries to keep the bikes moving. Each battery can power the bike for 10 to 14 miles. The foldable roll-on, roll-off containers can hold up to 800 pounds of cargo, feature a braking system for safety, and when folded, 20 of them take up only a single parking space to make storage easy.
“Existing delivery solutions focus on putting more vehicles on the roads of our cities. URB-E is learning from the shipping world and containerizing to make pedal power more efficient than trucks,” said Etzelsberger, who now serves as chief technology officer, in a statement announcing the fundraising. “URB-E’s containers are better for couriers, companies, traffic, parking and the environment.”
Jolley said a single bike and trailer combo can carry between 80% and 90% of what a cargo van can, and it reduces drivee idle time sitting in traffic or loading/unloading.
“That’s why the last mile is so expensive and is really a money loser for most same-day [delivery],” he said.
In New York City, the UBR-E bikes can use the bike lanes.
“We think the future of last mile is to replace the 2 to 4 million trucks and vans on the roads with a fleet of smaller vehicles moving around folding containers,” Jolley said.
URB-E owns the fleet of equipment and rents it out as needed. A retailer, restaurant or delivery service provider contracts for the service and pays an hourly rate and perhaps a reservation fee to secure the container. URB-E works with delivery service providers to secure the bike’s drivers. Couriers can drop off empty containers when they pick up a full container so the seller can reload as needed without the bike driver waiting.
“[Brands] get to take all the vans, bikes and insurance of their balance sheet,” Jolley said. “We actually think this is a great opportunity for the riders as well. Our bikes are safer. We require training and we are able to monitor and provide support.”
Riders, Jolley said, are able to make more deliveries in a day using the URB-E system. “We think there is a gig economy of URB-E riders,” he added.
The URB-E delivery system is best for high-density delivery operations, Jolley said, such as ghost kitchens with multiple delivery orders at a time or a retailer or group of retailers in a central location that can consolidate orders.
“In New York, we’ve had some interest from landlords with a bunch of retail locations [where they could coordinate deliveries],” he said.
URB-E has a few trailer units with temperature-control systems to ensure items remain safe. Grocery deliveries have been the most popular use case so far, Jolley said, but he believes the system will work anywhere there is density of deliveries.
URB-E launched its first version of the system in Pasadena, California, two years ago. The current bike and trailer combination has been running in New York City since November 2020. The new funding will help it expand to other markets, but Jolley said each area is different.
“What we learned was operating in Manhattan was different than operating in Brooklyn; you have different rules and challenges,” he said. “It’s unique by neighborhood.”
URB-E will expand to Santa Monica later this year and additional markets will follow. It currently has about 30 units operating in New York with plans to expand to 650 by the end of 2021. Additional work will include building out the technology side to offer comprehensive routing to those customers in need of that. All the containers, which are 4 feet in length, are uniquely identified so URB-E can track them. The company is working on developing technology that can help it identify and track what’s inside the container as well.
Jolley said brands like the solution because it’s a green alternative to last-mile deliveries and it’s efficient.
“There are a lot of companies that have zero-emissions policies, especially if you are a large shipper and you have to get those packages into a zero-emissions zone like in Santa Monica,” Jolley said.
In addition, a single URB-E bike and trailer can replace a van and reduce the driver’s idle time from about 40% to approximately 10%, resulting in twice the efficiency and half the price.