On the face of it there is much to recommend the replacing of vans – petrol or electric – with electric cargo bikes for the servicing of certain kinds of client sites. Most obvious is a potential reduction in on-site emissions, allowing facilities teams to take another, relatively low-cost step towards net zero targets.
Then there are more flexible ways in which facilities service functions can be conducted, for example, through an increased frequency of interactions conducted alongside whatever core bike delivery operation is taking place (keeping food deliveries warmer; clearing waste bins faster).
There is also the impact on those who ride the bikes themselves, each of whom will benefit from a slew of wellbeing impacts, both physical and mental. (Most cargo bikes have an electric motor, negating the need for riders to need an especially high fitness level, but the increase in rider exercise is nevertheless significant.)
On the face of it, then, many potentially significant sustainability ticks. (There is a compelling case to reduce an organisation’s Scope 3 emissions through use of cargo bikes. FM service provision tends to find emissions at their highest through transport.) But there is a way to go, and some cultural challenges to overcome, if we’re to see a true revolution in cargo bike use.
Early 2023 has seen a spate of activities associated with promoting the cargo bike cause, including a day-long conference and exhibition (scheduled for the end of March as we went to press). The cargo bike opportunity for FM is one that first came to the fore during the height of the pandemic in summer 2020, when we reported on their growing use for couriering activities in city centres. Supermarket chains were also trialling bikes for their ‘last mile’ deliveries. But post-pandemic, it’s fair to say that the delivery landscape is more one of mopeds and electric vans, at least for now. Short-term assessment of the economics may crowd out cargo bikes’ otherwise compelling sustainability arguments. For one thing, there are limits to the overall reach of cargo bikes compared with vans, and for another there is a whole new type of cycle storage necessary at both the start and end point of any typical cargo bike journey. The bikes’ storage capacity is also a consideration, the reduced space requiring more journeys, albeit with emissions far down on those of vans.
The extent to which these challenges will affect a switch away from vans may depend on facility type. The three most obvious types of sites for which cargo bikes have potential to usurp larger vehicles are universities, industrial parks and hospitals, where cross-site use of cargo bikes can have an immediate effect on air quality and emissions. Essentially, any organisation running its own on-site logistics operation is a strong contender to transition to cargo bikes.
FM service provider Bouygues Energies & Services (UK) has deployed cargo bikes on its contract with the NHS. The company’s regional director Simon Hayman recently spoke about the company’s experiences.
Hayman claims that Bouygues are the first UK FM provider to incorporate cargo bikes extensively into their fleet, having initially trialled four of the vehicles at the outset.
“We now have 300 vehicles in the fleet, of which 15 are e-cargo bikes,” says Hayman. “Two diesel vans have now gone from our healthcare sites, which is an important point because the NHS is speaking more and more about air quality in the surrounding areas to their hospitals.
“We’re running e-cargo bikes at two-thirds of our healthcare sites and we also run them on some other contracts such as Westminster City Council. And the way we've integrated them into our fleet is by changing the way we work. They're not just for delivering material from our stores out to hospital buildings, or for collecting material from local shops. They're more for moving around quickly and sustainably around our sites. We use them to collect waste from the bins, for example; instead of driving a three and a half ton diesel van around the site, we cycle around maybe once or twice a day collecting the rubbish.”
The way we've integrated them into our fleet is by changing the way we work
Some barriers seem reasonably surmountable, from the ability to charge and maintain the bikes onsite, or adapting delivery/service patterns to accommodate new ways of working. But others are more deep-rooted and human: not all drivers will be happy with becoming ‘riders’, swapping the warmth of a cabin for the physical demands, albeit reduced by electric motors, of cargo bike riding. Nor will many be physically capable – electric drive chain notwithstanding – of becoming routine cargo bike riders.
There’s also a new training requirement, and it’s not just about how to ride the bikes. Hayman says: “It's also training on manual handling; how to load the bike, how to unload the bike and how to manoeuvre with a bike in its loaded or unloaded state, because it changes.”
And it’s also about inculcating a new business culture. Those who take to cargo bike-riding tend to enjoy cycling in the first place.
Challenges aside, there has been a burst of positive energy around cargo bikes and their potential. Beyond their use on fixed sites, the bikes are already becoming more commonplace in major city centres like London and Manchester where cargo bikes are able to cut journey times for service and deliveries between buildings. It’s a flexibility of provision that will be welcome as the prevailing mix of business to retail and residential comes under threat from new working patterns.
The National Cargo Bike Summit
31st March, Guildhall, London