Online retail was booming even before the pandemic. A purchase takes just one click and the delivery vehicle is soon pulling up outside the shopper’s door. But home delivery comes at a cost for people and the environment: package services represent a substantial share of motorized road traffic in cities. Electric cargo bikes offer an alternative. With carrier boxes larger than those on regular bikes, they can transport around 50 packages. But these e-bikes are not widely used by logistics companies.
Using the examples of Munich and Regensburg, mobility researchers and economists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt (KU) have now completed a study on the potential of cargo bikes and developed a planning tool. “With our study, we identify the additional infrastructure needed to successfully utilize the bikes. This would take the form of micro depots strategically positioned throughout the city,” says Pirmin Fontaine, an assistant professor of operations management at KU, who headed the study. Goods would be shipped to these distribution containers by truck and carried from there to the customers by cargo bike. The depots could receive shipments during low-traffic periods.
Advantages in high-density areas
This logistics concept would not pay off in all urban areas, however. “Cargo bikes can be used to best advantage in built-up areas, with short distances between package drop-offs and where delivery vans struggle to find parking,” says Stefan Minner, a professor of logistics and supply chain management at TUM. The research team has developed a tool based on a mathematical optimization model to identify suitable areas.
An analysis of various scenarios showed: Cargo bikes could potentially deliver around 28 percent of all packages in Munich and 37 percent in Regensburg. This could reduce the total kilometers driven by motorized delivery vehicles by 16 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in the two cities – and bring about decreases of 14 and 17 percent in delivery-related CO2 emissions.
Cost savings when companies work together
The model calculations also show that the use of cargo bikes would only mean small cost savings for logistics companies. Although delivery vehicles have higher overhead costs, cargo bikes would inevitably have to make more trips in total due to the smaller loads they carry.
Additional cost savings would be generated if multiple logistics companies cooperated to avoid overlapping trips. The research team determined that the total kilometers could be reduced by 29 percent in case of two partners and by 42 percent with three partners. “This form of logistics consolidation, with several service providers working together, could also generate large cost savings,” says Pirmin Fontaine.
“Support for micro depots”
To enable companies to efficiently integrate cargo bikes into logistics concepts, the research team is offering a planning tool and user guide free of charge. These could also be useful to municipalities.
“The use of cargo bikes in city centers is a chicken-and-egg problem,” says Rolf Moeckel, a professor of modelling spatial mobility at TUM. “Where service providers don’t find the suitable infrastructure, there is no incentive for them to adapt their logistics.” Consequently, in view of the scarcity of space, especially for the placement of micro depots, political support is needed.