Switched on cities are cottoning on to the benefits of cargo bikes, which are quietly reinventing urban travel
Back in 1894, so the story goes, an article in The Times sounded an apocalyptic warning. If traffic congestion in England’s capital continued in line with current trends, it doomed, then “in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of [horse] manure”.
The story may well be apocryphal (no such article has come to light in the archives), but it’s often quoted as a reminder that predicting the future on the basis of past trends can leave us looking rather silly.
It came to my mind during some of the heated debates that have convulsed London – including my home borough of Hackney – over the introduction of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). Depending on your view, this wave of road restrictions is either a robust response to the twin scourges of climate change and poor air quality, or an undemocratic intervention that worsens congestion and hits working- class locals the hardest.
At one debate I attended, LTNs were caricatured by their opponents as part of a gentrifying wave, in which plumbers, van drivers, cabbies and builders, along with struggling parents, are pushed aside by posh cycling incomers who never need to carry a tool heavier than the laptop in their man-bag. Ouch.
In fact, despite the sound and fury of opponents, and some admittedly clumsy and inappropriate impositions of LTNs by councils, polls tend to show they have majority support – and these are backed up by local election results. Pollution levels have been cut, and the much- feared traffic increases on nearby main roads have largely failed to materialise.
Some argue that all we have to do is wait until electric vehicles (EVs) become the norm, and then pollution problems will evaporate, and with them the case for LTNs.
But it’s surely a failure of imagination to think that the only conceivable future for a liveable city is one where chunky metal boxes sit in gridlock. After all, there were streets before cars, and there will be streets after them as well.
There are now some straws in the wind of what that future might look like. It comes on three, sometimes four, wheels, but they’re not attached to a car. The humble electric cargo bike is poised to transform the way city streets look, sound and even smell. Sales are spiralling: more than 100,000 bikes have hit the streets across Europe since 2018, and numbers are expected to grow by 60 per cent in the UK alone in the coming year. Cycle manufacturer Raleigh is betting big on them, predicting a 15-fold increase over the next five years.
And no surprise: a raft of new studies show that when it comes to deliveries, e-bikes have a host of advantages: they glide quickly through the city streets, able to deliver packages 60 per cent faster than their van equivalents, and they’re cleaner and quieter, too, saving around 90 per cent in carbon emissions. And of course, they cut congestion – a cargo bike uses a fraction of the road space of a typical delivery van.
It’s surely a failure of imagination to think that the only conceivable future for a liveable city is one where chunky metal boxes sit in gridlock
This is just as well, given the surge in home deliveries brought about by the pandemic – which shows little sign of levelling off in a post-lockdown world.
Cue a cluster of new initiatives, large and small, aimed at catalysing the e-alternative. Transport for London is working with companies building Crossrail and HS2 on trials using cargo bikes to deliver tools and equipment. Government funding is helping to establish new schemes in cities including Nottingham, Cambridge and Coventry. In Ludlow, Shropshire, Islabikes has teamed up with the town’s sustainable transport group to offer free deliveries to local businesses.
Meanwhile, cities from Manchester to Nijmegen in the Netherlands are exploring forms of ‘urban consolidation centres’: hubs on the edges of towns, where trucks can unload packages to be picked up by e-cargo bikes and small EVs for the final miles, so avoiding the need for heavy-polluting vehicles to roar down city streets in the first place.
The delivery revolution could be just the start. Already some workers, from plumbers to craftspeople to DJs, are swapping their hefty vans for cheaper e-cargo bikes. The coming years will surely spawn some innovative variations in ‘micro EVs’, offering greater carrying capacity, comfort and protection from the elements, suitable for all manner of urban uses, with a fraction of the impact on our streets in terms of pollution, noise and congestion.
Put all this together, and some of the fractious debate over LTNs could soon seem outdated – not least because swathes of the future city could be relatively low-traffic by default – in the sense of traffic in its current, problematic guise anyway. We are, in short, at one of those inflection points, where past experience stops being anything like a reliable guide to the future. And three cheers for that.
Martin Wright is the chair of Positive News
Illustration: Tiffany Beucher