Skip to content

Can Cargo E-Bikes Replace Delivery Trucks and Vans?

Can Cargo E-Bikes Replace Delivery Trucks and Vans?
Can Cargo E-Bikes Replace Delivery Trucks and Vans?
March 29, 2023   //   

By Carl Franzen

E-bikes aren’t just fast, fun, and eco-friendly ways to get around: These light motorized vehicles also unlock new possibilities for personal transportation, allowing riders to carry more weight, more easily, than they could with a traditional pedal bike.

Major delivery and logistics companies are taking note. While consumers still make up the bulk of the buyers for cargo e-bikes, according to market research firm EMR, more than a quarter of the supply is used by commercial entities. DHLFedExAmazon, and UPS have all in the last five years announced trials or pilot programs for using cargo e-bikes to perform “last mile” deliveries: the final step of the delivery journey when the package goes from the warehouse (usually via truck or van) to the consumer.

On the surface, using cargo e-bikes for package delivery seems like a great idea. They’re smaller and more maneuverable than standard delivery trucks and vans. They take up less of a city’s valuable, limited, and often congested street space. Plus, while a diesel-powered delivery truck emits an average of nearly 19 tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, an e-bike produces no direct greenhouse gas emissions on its own — key for companies seeking to reduce their environmental footprints and hit emissions-cutting targets (more on this below). 

But there are drawbacks too — the biggest being capacity, as bikes are much smaller than most vans. You’re not about to get a couch delivered with a bike. They also have slower maximum speeds. So the question becomes: Can the humble cargo bike truly replace the delivery van or truck? And if so, how often? And where?

E for efficiency?

In 2018, researchers at the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab collaborated with UPS to compare the performance of a single cargo e-bike with a standard delivery truck over a one-month period in Seattle and published their results in a 2020 report

The cargo e-bike that UPS used was a tricycle that could carry up to 400 pounds in its 95-cubic-foot container. The cargo e-bike’s speed was limited to 20 miles per hour according to a local permit. Metrics for a UPS truck weren’t provided, but the Commercial Carrier Journal, a trade publication, indicates one truck can carry up to 13,000 pounds.

Comparison chart between cargo e-bikes and delivery trucks. Source: Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington, Possible, and Modmo Technologies.

Source: Urban Freight Lab, University of Washington, “Cargo E-Bike Delivery Pilot Test in Seattle” (August 2020)

While the cargo e-bike in the study visited five delivery locations per hour, the delivery truck was able to visit 20 locations per hour, meaning the truck won out in terms of its sheer delivery efficiency. However, that figure alone doesn’t tell the full story, according to study co-author Giacomo Dalla Chiara, a research lead at the Urban Freight Lab.

“Yes, you can carry much more with a truck, but it spends about 80% of the time on its routes parked,” Chiara told Rev. “The driver has to get out and walk, and once you do that, it’s a much less efficient mode of transportation, which the total number of packages delivered doesn’t indicate.” Meanwhile, e-cargo bikes can typically be ridden much closer to the package delivery destination, resulting in less walking — the bike can complete more of each delivery trip’s distance than a typical van or truck. 

Interestingly, the cargo e-bike in this study also had a much lower “failed” delivery rate — packages that were not delivered to the intended location due to unspecified issues, such as recipients not being home to sign for deliveries requiring a signature. The study observed zero failed deliveries per cargo e-bike trip compared with five for the truck. This is actually a bigger deal than it may seem: Delivery companies lose an average of nearly $200,000 a year making up for failed deliveries. 

It’s not clear from the study data why the e-bike was able to avoid more failed deliveries, but the fact that it completed overall fewer deliveries per trip than the van may have helped — reducing the chances it would encounter a recipient who wasn’t home. 

Another factor for delivery and logistics companies to consider? Cost savings. E-bikes have fewer components and maintenance needs than vans and trucks — even electrified ones — and require less energy to move. They are also less likely to incur big fines for double parking (though they may incur smaller fines for parking on sidewalks). Companies could save 45% on an average delivery’s costs when switching from a full-size delivery vehicle to a cargo e-bike in urban areas, according to a 2015 study on “CycleLogistics.”

Where e-bikes make the most sense

Despite the benefits, based on the economics and delivery performance, cargo e-bikes are not likely to ever replace all delivery trucks and vans. 

However, there are some instances when they certainly make more sense: in dense, urban environments with existing dedicated bike lanes and bike infrastructure, where they can achieve higher speeds and complete more deliveries without getting bogged down in full-size-vehicle traffic, and where vehicle traffic is already restricted, making it difficult or impossible for a motorized vehicle to get close enough to complete deliveries efficiently. 

Examining previous studies of logistics in Europe, a report published in 2018 by cargo e-bike consulting group Transport for Quality of Life concluded that “10-30% of trips by delivery and service companies might be substitutable by (e-)cargo bikes,” but noted that there was “considerable uncertainty in these estimates” because different companies transported different-size goods. Goods larger than a handbag but less than 440 pounds are good candidates for being delivered by e-cargo bike.

E-cargo bikes for delivery and service companies

Source: Transport for Quality of Life, “Potential for e-cargo bikes to reduce congestion and pollution from vans in cities” (July 2019)

The CycleLogistics study indicated that bikes and cargo bikes could replace just over half of all motorized freight trips in Europe — based on the average size and weight of cargo loads carried — though it should be clarified that this estimate included both commercial delivery vans and trucks, and passenger cars carrying goods that individual consumers bought from a store. Looking at commercial deliveries alone, the figure was closer to 25%. European cities also tend to have far denser footprints than U.S. cities — making them much more bikeable to begin with. 

The sustainability benefits of replacing trucks with e-bikes  

So what is the true real-world environmental impact of replacing even some vans with e-bikes?

In late 2019, New York City started the Commercial Cargo Bicycle Pilot to test cargo e-bike deliveries with participation from UPS, DHL, and Amazon. Over two years, it grew from 100 bikes to more than 350. The NYC Department of Transportation concluded that the use of cargo e-bikes saved 7 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per year per bike, or 2,450 tons of CO2 emissions in total, equivalent to 532 passenger cars driving for a year. 

Examining various cargo e-bike programs around the world, the Transport for Quality of Life report found that, depending on the location in which they were deployed, cargo e-bikes reduced CO2 emissions between 22% and 75% — with more dense cities achieving higher emissions reductions. 

Finally, a third report funded by climate nonprofit organizations in the U.K. looked at the environmental impact of cargo e-bikes compared with delivery vans, including diesel-powered and electric vehicles (EVs). This report, in which researchers from the University of Westminster collaborated with and used data from the e-bike and delivery company Pedal Me, found that using e-bikes for delivery cut CO2 emissions by 90% compared with diesel vans and 33% compared with electric vans, per trip. The CO2 emissions for using the cargo e-bikes, which do not produce exhaust, were calculated by both the amount of electricity used to charge them and the “CO2 emitted to produce the extra food [consumed by the rider and] used to pedal.”

e-bikes for delivery cut CO2 emissions by 90%

Source: Possible, “The Promise of Low-Carbon Freight: Benefits of cargo bikes in London” (August 2021)

So, even at the low-end estimates, replacing a quarter of delivery van trips with cargo e-bikes, and switching the remaining fleet to electric vehicles, would meaningfully reduce total greenhouse gas emissions and costs for a company.

The future of delivery e-bikes in the U.S.

Thanks to its dense urban environments, Europe is already set up to replace some of its delivery trucks with cargo e-bikes today — and reap the environmental and economic rewards. What could the U.S. do to catch up?  

“U.S. cities are built for vans and trucks; they’re not built for bikes,” Chiara, the University of Washington researcher, said. “Once you start blocking off streets to vehicle traffic and creating pedestrian and bike spaces, you can create an environment for cargo bikes to succeed.” 

Like Chiara, Sandra Rothbard, founder and principal of Freight Matters, a logistics and transportation consulting agency, and previous New York City Department of Transportation project manager, agrees that more infrastructure changes would be necessary for the U.S. to see e-cargo bikes and cargo bikes more generally take off in a big way for delivery and other services (think: plumbers, home repair workers). 

“We need to build more loading and unloading zones at the curb, more micro-fulfillment centers so bikes don’t have to go back and forth so much, and ensure that the zoning and regulatory environment supports this,” Rothbard says. 

Imagine if American cities invested in bike infrastructure and loading zones, expanded low-cost, publicly accessible chargers for e-bikes and EVs, and restricted when and where trucks and vans can deliver — the scales toward e-bikes would tip. The result would most certainly be quieter, more sustainable, and less congested streets for all of us — a clear win-win.