Can Cargo Bike Delivery Flourish in NYC?

In a city as dense as New York, with gridlocked streets and need-it-now demands, bicycle delivery serves a vital role. The city keeps its stomach full with pedal-powered food delivery, while couriers, whose numbers have dwindled as communications technology has advanced, still ply the streets of Midtown.

Cargo bikes are increasingly common in New York, yet remain a difficult business. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/streetcar-press/6209513592/##streetcar.press/Flickr##

Somewhere in the mix is the humble cargo bike, which fills a niche — bigger than a messenger bag, smaller than a box truck — with enormous potential. But despite its steady presence on city streets, cargo bike delivery has never really taken off in New York, instead serving smaller-scale needs, like hauling dry cleaning to customers in the West Village or distributing groceries from local stores directly to people’s apartments in Williamsburg’s South Side.

Is it possible for human-powered cargo delivery to replace small truck and van trips on NYC streets? Even as small operators find it difficult to stay afloat, one online startup, Zipments, is looking to boost the city’s cargo bike business, and its CEO envisions cargo bikes as the final link in many distribution chains serving Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn and Queens.

Right now, operators like Shelley Mossey’s Small Haul NYC, which hauls items for independently-owned businesses, are typical of the cargo bike economy in NYC. For three years, Mossey has served hardware stores, wine shops, and juice-makers not far from his Battery Park City home.

“He is our main go-to delivery person,” said Christy Frank, owner of Frankly Wines in Tribeca, which hires Mossey to deliver everything from single bottles to 10 cases of wine, with 10 to 15 deliveries in a usual week.

Mossey delivers 100 shipments per week for Joulebody, a specialty diet foods company, and has even taken his bike on the ferry to Hoboken to make deliveries for them.

Along with the benefits of cargo bikes, Mossey recognizes their limitations. His clients rely on UPS and FedEx for shipments farther afield than Manhattan and its environs, and some extra-large shipments just can’t be done by bike. “If you have a big job, it’s insane to do it with bicycles,” Mossey said. “Economically, it doesn’t make sense.”

Even when it does make sense, shipping by bike can be a tough sell for some business owners. Mossey used to work at a courier company that had trucks as well as bicycles, and workers would occasionally substitute bikes for some truck jobs. One day, a customer called to complain. “Even though the bike could do the job in half the time, they wouldn’t give the job to the cargo cycle,” he said. “To switch their mindset from a truck to a bike is very difficult. They just don’t get it because they’ve been using trucks.”

Another limitation is the security bollards the city has installed at entrances to the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. George Bliss, who runs Hudson Urban Bicycles in the West Village, can’t get his cargo trike through the narrow entrances. “The city has created a de facto ban on large cargo bicycles,” he said.

Even if a company’s routes don’t involve crossing those bridges, it can be difficult to keep a busy operation in the black.

Jonathan Rabinowitz opened Aqueduct Logistics in September 2011 and had to shutter the business in December 2012. With a staff of three, Rabinowitz found himself drowning in insurance and workers’ compensation costs. He found it difficult to insure his bicycles, and while delivery by van or truck is automatically covered in workers’ compensation costs because of the large risk pool, bicycle delivery is an additional fee.

Aqueduct differed from small-scale cargo operations, which are often just one person going into business for themselves and don’t require workers’ compensation. And it was also a different model than most courier firms, which hire their messengers or cargo bike riders as independent contractors, absolving the company of this cost.

But Rabinowitz wanted to create better conditions for his staff. “I want to have the workers’ comp policy to protect my workers,” he said. “I wanted to give the employee a steady work shift.” To provide steady work, Rabinowitz limited his client list to companies that made regular deliveries.

In addition, the distance between origins and destinations can pose a challenge. Although couriers can stay in the business centers of Manhattan, food and other goods producers — and their clients — are scattered throughout the city. Portland, Oregon, has grown a bicycle cargo industry because small-scale producers and consumers are in relatively close proximity to each other, Rabinowitz said, but this model is a tough fit for New York.

If the pool of insured delivery cyclists were larger, the cost of insurance would drop. Until that time, most businesses avoid these costs by hiring couriers as independent contractors. In this environment, Rabinowitz said, “Bicycling is not the difficult part. The difficult part is making the business work given the pressure on prices and the low wages.”

Nicole Chaszar runs The Splendid Spoon, a soup-making operation in Greenpoint that used Aqueduct to deliver its products. “I had always thought of biking as a way to deliver. For the city, it makes more sense,” she said. Her company has since turned to Zipments, a Manhattan startup, for its cargo bike deliveries.

Zipments offers online tools that automate the dispatch process, matching couriers with same-day delivery requests. It handles both courier work and cargo work. CEO Garrick Pohl moved the company to New York from his native Michigan after deciding to shift focus from deliveries by car to deliveries by bike.

While the company offers standard rates and guaranteed delivery in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, it also allows delivery requests outside of that zone, without guarantees about rates and delivery time. The company is handling about 100 deliveries each day in New York; about three quarters are made by bicycle, with an additional 20 percent by cargo bike. The remainder are made on foot.

“We’re seeing a lot of businesses with warehouses outside of Manhattan,” Pohl said. Some of those shipments will be brought to Manhattan by truck, then distributed by cargo bike. While the company works mostly with independent contractors who own their own rides, it also stores a fleet of its own cargo bikes around the city, so a courier can use one if he receives a large delivery.

“What we really set out by moving to New York,” Pohl said, “is to really showcase New York as this flagship city for other urban areas to follow in terms of alternative transportation.”

While Zipments has promise — not to mention financing from the city’s Economic Development Corporation and private venture capitalists — so far, shipping goods by cargo bike remains a niche in the city’s logistics system. To truly showcase the possibilities on a large scale would take a commitment from a major client like FreshDirect.

“It’s an untapped market,” Mossey said.

  • story of my life

  • A truck is more efficient for a large delivery or group of large deliveries, but also has extra costs on the city.

    The problem is, the city willing subsidizes all these vehicular costs, and then lets private citizens enforce that status quo without counterarguments. 

    If the public had any taste for “transit balancing” then this wouldn’t be a problem. Plenty of infrastructure for everyone, really! But everyone insists that roads must be designed to deliver vehicles from choke point to choke point in the minimum amount of time. No bike lanes ever!

    I agree that the bollards on the bridges are a problem if they make it an impossibility for a normal-sized cargo bike to pass. The bollards are problematic for skinny bikes, too, seeing that they create choke points for bicycles heading in opposite directions at the bottom of steep slopes. Really poor thinking from a transpo point of view. Probably Ray Kelly’s idea.

  • Anonymous

    I have wondered why Fed Ex, UPS and Fresh Direct don’t incorporate cargo bikes to run deliveries from legally parked trucks to a larger area.

  • In a strange coincidence, this morning look at what Cargo Bike film I posted at top of Streetfilms:  http://www.streetfilms.org/copenhagen-cargo-bikes/

  • moocow

    Do you think most of the residents of the City know that FedEx and UPS don’t pay for most of those parking tickets they get?  I wonder if the population knew that, and demanded it, would cargo bikes be all over the place?
    Brian, my Bullitt (not a trike) fits between those bollards, but I am glad you pointed out how bad they are. (To prevent cars from driving over the bridge…. yep, that doesn’t sound ridiculous at all!)

  • Mark Walker

    When I visited China in 2005, I was astonished at the athletic feats of bike deliverymen. They were using non-cargo bikes to carry really heavy, bulky things and doing so while sharing roads with car and truck traffic. This was in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

  • Driver

    Moocow, I’m not sure what percentage of total traffic tickets FedEx or UPS pay, but it is likely substantial. 
    “For the company’s fiscal year of June 1, 2007, to May 31, 2008, Mr.
    McCluskey said, FedEx paid $10.7 million to the City of New York to
    settle its parking and traffic tickets.”

    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/when-a-fedex-truck-is-absolutely-positively-towed/

    Making deliveries in the rain, cold, snow, etc can be tough even with a heated vehicle.  Making them on a bicycle sounds downright miserable.

  • Miles Bader

    Package delivery firms around here use bicycles for a lot of the “final mile” stuff (along with trucks, scooters, and even people on foot…), and some of their bicycle-towed cargo trailers are enormous, dwarfing the actual bicycle and rider, and probably holding more than a typical cargo van…

    I’ve no clue what they’ve got inside them or how heavy they are, but the bicycle riders towing them seem to cope… maybe they have extra low gears. :]

    [Needless to say, though, those particular trailers use the road!]

  • moocow

    Driver, I don’t know what the percentage is either, but why don’t they pay every last one? Have you ever seen a legally parked Fed-UPS truck?  I don’t feel for these people who break the law then the company they work for doesn’t even have to pony up the fine.
    But I agree about what you said about the heated vehicles, I was out riding in Midtown today, in the rain, if I had to get in and out of a heated truck that would suck. Sitting in it sweating and then being cold outside. As it was, I was caught without rain gear and I was warm enough for the ride 45 minute ride home.   I’m not a messenger, I work on movie sets where I have to stand around for hours in what ever weather is occurring. There is a massive difference between standing in crap weather, and propelling yourself in it.

  • Kelly

    Here is how bike delivery can work in NYC: equip a van/truck with racks for one or more delivery bikes.  Load and park the vehicle strategically. Load the bikes.  Deliver packages. Return to vehicle.  Load again.  Repeat.  DHL has used cargo bikes in the Netherlands, finding that in urban areas they can deliver 25% more packages than with vans.  Check this link out (using Google translate if you don’t read Dutch): http://www.vogelvrijefietser.nl/hetblad/2012-11/artikel/bakfiets-sneller-dan-bestelbus

  • Anonymous

    For small parcel deliveries, the cost of the driver is higher than the cost of vehicular operation (the small truck). Since it is not feasible to carry 2000 lbs. on a bike (at least not without producing extensive body damage to the bike-delivery person), you’d need a lot more people riding cargo bikes than driving trucks.

  • Jonathan Rabinowitz

    Great article, Stephen.

    Fresh Direct and UPS and FedEx and all the other shipment companies are already using human-powered delivery in the form of carts. A refrigerated truck (for Fresh Direct) pulls up to the corner and stays there all day, while the delivery guys keep loading carts, making dropoffs, and returning to reload.

    My local UPS guy does this as well; he parks in one place and delivers over a couple blocks on foot.

    The Fresh Direct carts can hold about as many boxes as a cargo bike, and the carts are a lot cheaper than bikes (both to buy and maintain). Cart-pushers don’t need to be paid as much as bike workers because there is closer supervision and they don’t need to know how to ride a bike, and the workers’ comp premiums are about 80% less for foot delivery.

  • Driver

    Walking short distances from a legally parked truck to make deliveries is fine, I do it all the time.  It works when you are in dense commercial areas like midtown that have parking dedicated for trucks loading and unloading.  It does not work in other neighborhoods that have little or no available parking reserved for commercial vehicles, and delivery destinations are likely spaced further apart. 

  • Driver

    Moocow, there is no reason to sweat in a heated truck, one can simply turn the heat off.  I find there is a massive difference between having intermittent shelter from the rain, cold, and/or wind, than having none at all. 

  • Techstumbling

    This is an interesting fact discussed here which states that the human powered cargo bikes can be used in the place of trucks in the narrow streets of new york.The important of is also emphasized in every possible ways so as to have a quick and effective deal.

  • Anonymous

    You can’t be serious, Streetsblog. You feature a picture of a Revolution Rickshaws freight trike – one of RR’s fleet of freight trikes that roll in NYC daily facilitating dozens, sometimes hundreds of freight trike deliveries – and you fail to even mention RR in this article?

    Honestly.

    revolutionrickshaws.com 

  • Anonymous

    Dear Streetsblog:
    I think @greggzuk:disqus speaks for most readers of this blog: please weave more product placements into your stories! This is at the very heart of your mission.
    Sincerely,
    The Business Expert Who Thinks Public Whining Is Good PR

  • Anonymous

    Worker’s comp is a little known barrier to possible profit in the world of manpowered pedalogistics, be it the movement of people or products.  @andrelot:disqus Brian Van Nieuwenhoven the “problem” as it were is not the city. The “problems” are consumers of (aka investors in) goods and services who invest directly in enterprises that move, not to mention source, goods and services in awesomely destructive ways; the consumers are culpable of course by purchasing (aka investing in) said goods and services. The great enabler is the U.S. federal government… which is funded by “the people”, whomever they are – I’ve never been able to figure that one out.

    It is in this context that maximum-accountability (or even limited-accountability) service providers attempt to deliver goods and services – competing against enterprises aided and abetted by the feds as well as “consumers” themselves.

  • Peter Meitzler

    Perhaps Stephen Miller can do a follow up piece on the topic of how perfectly wide enough bridge bike paths are being blockaded with bollards and causing a restraint of pedal powered trade.  If it’s a question of security (meanwhile heavy trucks and other vehicles cross the bridges freely), then why not follow the example of the Golden Gate Bridge, which uses (at night-time) an attendant – monitored gate system that allows cyclists to cross.  They have used it for years.  Or issue card keys to registered cargo operators that would lower a bollard automatically to enable periodic access.

    For example, as it is, pedicabs have to be trucked across a bridge in order to provide service in various boroughs.  And cargo trikes, depending upon the bridge, must be emptied, then lifted over the bollards, then re-loaded and then this is repeated on the other side.  Can’t one central East River bridge provide access?  Or perhaps a pedal cargo/passenger ferry option will arise?

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