Fleet decarbonisation is seeing more businesses switch from vans to e-cargo bikes. Rebecca Bland explores how this is impacting the bike industry.
This piece first appeared in the September edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
Particularly since the pandemic, the uptake in the use of cargo bikes by delivery companies and as last-mile solutions has grown substantially.
The reasons companies would make the switch to cargo bikes compared to couriers or vans are numerous. They’re cheaper to buy or lease, are generally quicker in gridlocked cities, and as they evolve to carry more, and more easily with the use of motors, they can begin to rival their four-wheeled counterparts for practicality.
But that’s not to say everyone is easy to get on board or is open to the idea of replacing their comfortable vans with bikes usually exposed to the elements. A recent study by Thinks Insight & Strategy, carried out on behalf of the Green Alliance, surveyed three different audiences to understand the barriers that prevent more widespread adoption of e-cargo bikes in business use.
What the study found suggested the convenience and carrying capacity of a van far outweighs the benefits of using cargo bikes for many businesses. Not only this, but many van users travel a lot further than cargo bike users, whether that be from home to work, or between jobs.
The biggest barrier
Fleet carbonisation consultant, Stephen Fitter helps companies make the switch from petrol and diesel fleets to more sustainable modes of delivery – including e-cargo bikes. He has found the biggest barrier to more companies adopting this type of transport for deliveries is the people within the company, and its overall culture.
“The biggest obstacle to overcome is the people. When you’ve gotten used to running around town in a van that’s air conditioned, dry or warm, some people might not embrace the idea of being on a cargo bike more so than they would driving a van. They generally also perceive driving to be quicker, so it’s about changing the culture.”
Alongside this, the fleet managers themselves may not even be familiar with the logistics of electric van usage, let alone bicycles of any kind.
“There are so many businesses and operations that are reliant on fleets,” said Fitter.
“And most business has grown with fossil fuels in mind. It’s subconsciously, really, because those are the vehicles that have always been available. But if you’re an operator, you go through a series of exams that means that you can operate vehicles over a certain size safely and securely.
“Nowhere in your training does it talk about anything other than petrol or diesel. So can you imagine that all these people get their licences and then are suddenly presented with something entirely different? Electric is a real problem because you have to think about how you charge it, how you use it, how your drivers are going to use it.”
Needless to say, switching from one type of fleet to another whether it be vehicle or fuel type, is a logistical challenge. But how can the cycling industry, and in particular, bike shops be of assistance and provide confidence to businesses looking to utilise cargo bikes in their fleets?
“What you don’t want to do is create a massive corporate structure in place that will just turn people off”, added Fitter. “So, although we don’t want service level agreements, I would imagine to a point it would really benefit a bike shop, as this gives them a way of supporting.
“And I think that a business that is reliant on their cargo bikes to generate money would happily come to an agreement on preventive maintenance with the bike shop. Depending on how many bikes they’ve got, it’d be great if the bike shop could support that by being a flexible and going to the bikes rather than the bikes come into the bike shop.”
While many local bike shops operate on a small scale, the workshops are often the lifeblood of the store and if they have the capacity to do so, embracing business to business custom would certainly be an interesting avenue to go down.
When BikeBiz has spoken to some local bike shops in the past, one of the biggest barriers to them either selling or repairing cargo bikes is not just the vast difference in drive systems, but the physical space they take up.
Some shop buildings just simply are not built to cater to larger bikes such as these. Which is why Fitter argues flexibility is key to building a relationship with a business, but also avoiding the space issue.
“One way to get around the lack of space is to go to the bikes rather than waiting for them to be delivered in. I think if they’ve got the room great, but businesses need to be able to strike that fine balance between reactive maintenance, and giving that business a bit of priority, but without upsetting other customers. But being able to do that will give confidence to people to go into cargo bikes.”
Even if bike shops are able to lend staff and resources to external repairs and maintenance, electric cargo bikes have not been saved from the industry-wide supply chain issue, with many parts still taking months to arrive from manufacturers. Fitter made some suggestions for bike shops to get around this problem.
“Working with the cargo bike operator or manufacturer to have a bank of parts or something like that would be one way to get around it. That means flexibility for the cargo bike fleet operator when they’ve got somewhere that they can store these parts, owned by the cargo bike operator, but it gets rid of that downtime, which your trusted bike shop partner can just enter and use those parts.
“You’re talking the usual, chains, brakes and all that kind of stuff. And then that bank of stuff is replenished rather than waiting for parts all the time or relying on the bike shop to order them in. It’s all about reducing that downtime. And with preventative maintenance, then you could plan that in.”
Keeping things moving is the key to successful fleet management – vehicles off the road whether it be a van or bike means loss of income, but by working together with a partnered bike shop, there’s no reason more businesses couldn’t make the switch and continue the adoption of electric bikes for business.