Author: Sam Keam, Co-Founder and Chief Sustainability Officer, Zedify
Much has been written about the promise of cargo bikes to solve the last-mile delivery challenge in our cities. From reducing carbon emissions and air pollution to tackling congestion and enabling residents to reclaim their streets from a burgeoning fleet of delivery vans – cargo bikes seemingly offer multiple benefits and opportunities for businesses, employees and urban communities.
Despite this overwhelmingly positive situation and frequent new start-ups and initiatives adopting cargo bikes across the country, there remains an information vacuum about cargo bikes, certainly when compared to the quantity and quality of data available on the running costs, environmental footprints, and health and safety of conventional fleets. More research is needed to accurately compare cargo bikes with other fleet options, but in this article, I will lay out some of the available data and research that informs our impact calculations, fleet modeling and strategic thinking around cargo bikes at Zedify.
How much cleaner are cargo bikes compared to diesel vans, what about EVs?
Carbon emissions from fleets are often split into two categories. Operating emissions, and full lifecycle emissions which include the additional embodied carbon from manufacture.
Van operating emissions are listed by manufacturers based on the WLTP testing cycle and are typically in the range of 200-300g CO2e/km. No such industry-wide test cycle exists for electric bikes or cargo bikes. At Zedify, we have calculated equivalent emissions of 0-5g CO2e/km with the variance depending on whether the electricity used to charge the batteries is from renewables or the average national grid carbon intensity figures. EVs sit somewhere in the middle, with research finding they save around 50-75% compared to diesel but cause over ten times the amount of CO2 to be emitted per km compared to an electric cargo bike.
However, once you add in the total lifecycle emissions, EVs start to look less attractive, and it’s those big lithium batteries that eat away at the benefits, accounting for around 100 kg CO2/kWh capacity. This can mean that they only start to accrue net carbon benefits versus diesel vans after many 1000s of kilometers.
One final caveat: the CO2 emissions reported by vehicle manufacturers typically only relate to the tailpipe emissions from the combustion of fuels. If we wish to compare the emissions of electrically powered vehicles with combustion vehicles fairly then we need to include the upstream emissions resulting from the extraction, transport and refining of fossil fuels before they are burnt (Well to Tank). This levels the playing field since most analyses of electric vehicles typically include the grid CO2 emissions that result from charging the batteries. BEIS data currently suggests that diesel fuel has an emissions factor of around 600 g CO2e/litre.
Lastly on emissions, the relative contribution of nitrous oxides from combustion, and particulates from combustion and friction wear on clutches, brakes and tyres also need to be factored as these negatively impact human health, especially in dense urban areas. In this area again, we can remove NOx by switching to electric propulsion but the particulates from friction reduce hugely in line with vehicle weight so cargo bikes offer significant benefits, even over EVs.
There is some confusion surrounding the relative costs of running cargo bikes and EV fleets when compared to traditional diesel fleets. Any reliable comparison needs to include the following variables to ensure that comparisons are accurate and credible:
Diesel is currently around £1.45/ltr. Electricity on cheap off-peak tariffs can be as low as 7.5p/kWh but is more commonly around 30p per unit. With a van operating at an optimistic 50 MPG, that translates to 13p/mile for diesel, between 2-10p/mile for an EV, and roughly 0.5p/mile for an electric cargo bike, In other words, a >95% saving compared to diesel per mile.
Critics of cargo bikes often discount their viability by comparing the load capacity of a van directly with a cargo bike without considering that cargo bikes typically operate local point-to-point services or shuttle several multidrop rounds from a local micro consolidation hub. In either of these use cases, a cargo bike working on well-planned and optimised routes is able to match and in many cases exceed the daily workload of a van due to faster average speeds, more direct routes, faster delivery times and less idle time searching for parking/walking.
Decades of R&D and improvements have made modern vehicles pretty robust and long-lasting. Diesel vans can expect to easily last for 10 years, even if their pollution control systems are unlikely to be effective after a certain point. EVs are showing better than expected longevity, with many easily lasting over 10 years and 150,000 miles before batteries degrade significantly. Cargo bikes are a mixed bag, some require careful maintenance from day one, and more frequent maintenance and replacement of parts to keep them working well. This is a downside that needs to be accounted for.
Cargo bikes cannot easily be stored on the public highway due to risks of theft and the absence of regulated parking for unlicensed vehicles. As such, the overhead to store fleets, typically in hubs or secured yards needs to be factored in.
Health and safety
Risks to riders/other road users/public. In 2022, around 80 people were killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads every day.
As van fleets continue to grow, they present an ever-greater risk to other road users and pedestrians. Switching urban deliveries to cargo bikes greatly reduces the risks and incidence of KSIs in the growing urban logistics sector.
Road planning and space allocation
How we move people and freight in our cities must ultimately be reflected in the ways we design our road networks and allocate space to various users. At a time when the climate emergency clearly requires us to reduce car and van use, especially for shorter trips, it’s essential that roads are well-designed to encourage and accommodate that modal shift. Using cargo bikes for deliveries effectively kills two birds with one stone, by reducing the demand for road space from vans and demonstrating that logistics can be done in ways that align with increased active travel and transport in our cities.