Using Human Powered Vehicles for Urban Freight Delivery in Philadelphia

It is easy to believe that UPS trucks come off the assembly line with their yellow flashers on. Center City Philadelphia, at most any point during the day, has dozens of travel lanes blocked by double-parked delivery trucks. This will only get worse as we see the conversion of large amounts of office space to residential use along with lots of fresh residential construction. The shipping profiles for residents are different from institutional/commercial entities and “convenience” deliveries to consumers are typically much smaller than business-to-business deliveries, and often happen outside of business hours. This could bring a near constant flow of mostly gasoline powered delivery vans along with their emissions, noise, danger to pedestrians and bicyclists, and need for parking.

At the same time, human- and electric-powered bicycle and tricycles (collectively called HPVs) are beginning to supplant internal combustion-powered small trucks in cities around the world for delivery of retail goods, food, various services, and for waste and recycling pick-up. The transforming downtown population creates a high delivery density that suits bike/trike delivery, which along with new residents’ sensitivity to truck noise in the non-business hours makes clean, quiet, relatively small HPVs look like an smart element in urban freight delivery.

The benefits of at least a partial switch to human-powered delivery vehicles are plentiful. While offering competitive speeds and improved reliability for many short-distance local movements, these vehicles take up far less space both in traffic and while parked, emit no pollutants, are virtually silent, and are much less likely to injure or kill pedestrians or other cyclists (helping us reach the Vision Zero goal of ending pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities). They have almost no maintenance impact on pavement and curbs. Also they add to a region’s disaster-preparedness by not needing liquid fuels or grid power, which can get scarce in emergencies.

Adding cargo cycles to the city’s transportation mix broadens the constituency for cycling infrastructure, just as bike-sharing has done. Thus it becomes easier to justify the expense of creating (and maintaining) bike lanes and taking that space away from motor vehicles. In addition, cargo cycles add a substantial biking presence, making drivers ever more aware of the need to share the road and stay out of bicycle lanes.

The bike/trike option is being proven in Paris and Berlin, where cargo bicycles and tricycles carry about 1% and 7%, respectively, of urban freight. They have been slower to catch on in the US with our generally more-dispersed delivery areas, but pioneers are appearing. Portland’s B-Line started in 2009, and now fields eight tricycles with large cargo containers that can handle 800 pounds.

Manhattan has a fleet of trikes picking up surplus food for a food pantry, and a bakery delivery trike fleet. There are perhaps a dozen other cargo bike delivery efforts across the US, and dramatic growth in convenience delivery could drive similar growth of tricycle delivery.

In Philadelphia there is an existing effort by Wash Cycle and the experience of the recently defunct Pedal Coop. Courier companies typically have not used bikes or trikes for freight, preferring to send a car or small truck. Couriers in Philadelphia generally are employed as independent contractors and use their own vehicles at work, and for commuting, making the choice of trikes, which are expensive and slow compared to bikes, less likely than if the fleet were supplied by the company. Other, non-freight commercial trikes add to the visibility of trikes. Little Baby’s Ice Cream is now operating five tricycles (most built locally).

For large-scale integration of cargo bikes into Philadelphia’s delivery infrastructure there will need to be buy-in from the major players: UPS, FedEx, and the USPS. FedEx currently uses electric trikes in Paris. UPS began as a bicycle delivery company (in Seattle), and used bicycles occasionally in Philadelphia up through the 1980s to deliver overnight envelopes. Currently none of the three major delivery companies is publicly expressing interest in using bike/trikes in the U.S.

That said, a switch from trucks to trikes could free up travel lanes where parking tickets are clearly not enough of a deterrent to double-parked delivery trucks. UPS is said to be the Parking Authority’s largest payer of fines, at over $2MM per year. The other delivery companies likely have similar costs relative to their fleet size, except for the USPS, which cannot be issued parking tickets. In Europe some building maintenance companies have transitioned to cargo bikes, and there is the possibility that their American counterparts could also make this shift. Every day, contractor’s vehicles — typically full size vans — occupy dozens of Philadelphia’s on-street parking spots for entire work days.

Economics can favor HPVs. With depreciation, fuel, and insurance it can cost upwards of $15,000 per year to field a truck in the city. New cargo bikes can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000, with yearly depreciation and maintenance costs in the hundreds of dollars. Workers compensation insurance is substantially more for bikers than it is for drivers, but this is partially offset by having healthier and perhaps happier and more productive employees with less turnover.

Another big plus of fostering cargo bike delivery in Philadelphia is the creation of a market for local bike and trike manufacturers. There are at least three of these within the city limits: Haley Trikes, Firth and Wilson, and Bilenky Cycle Works. Conversely, Philadelphia has virtually no involvement in manufacturing trucks or autos.

A system that emphasizes cargo cycle use will shift spending from trucks and fuel to additional personnel. These employees can include people at the outer limits of employability — ex-offenders and those needing basic job training.

To welcome freight bikes and trikes as part of the urban delivery fleet, Philadelphia should:

  • Convene the major downtown delivery providers to gather existing thoughts on using trikes, and introduce them to current HPV users and HPV manufacturers. Besides UPS, FedEx, and the USPS, there are several other players in Philadelphia’s urban freight delivery. Small- package delivery companies include LaserShip, TimeCycle Couriers, American Expediting, and Heaven Sent Couriers. Large proprietary truck delivery fleets making urban deliveries include W.B. Mason, Singer, and Sysco. Also here and growing are the same-day delivery fleets of Amazon, and Fresh Direct, and other grocery delivery services
  • Collaborate with the Philadelphia Planning Department, Philadelphia Police, Philadelphia Parking Authority, and The Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia to determine how to accommodate and regulate HPVs and their transload needs [The current law in Pennsylvania (introduced in 2013 by former PA state senator Matt Smith) sets a limit of 750 watts for electric assist. These vehicles are allowed to be parked on public sidewalks.]
  • Determine the best regulatory choices for our city and then lead the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in designing new regulations.
    • Should cargo trikes be allowed in bike lanes and if so should there be a limit to their size? The cargo trikes operated in Portland are relatively big dimensionally with a load capacity of 800 pounds. If they accelerate more slowly than bicyclists, will that push passing bicycle traffic into motor vehicle travel lanes?
    • Should cargo bikes/trikes be allowed to park on sidewalks, loading zones, and/or double park in vehicular travel lanes as delivery trucks currently do? Trikes are less than half the width of delivery vans but can still block a lane.
    • What amount of electric assist should we allow? Electric-assist trikes can carry greater loads and have a longer practical range, and may be the best option for high-volume delivery companies switching to trikes. The Commonwealth has imposed a limit of 750 watts for electric assist. Oregon has a limit of 900 watts, and electric assist is not allowed at all in New York. The New York ban appears to be an effort to slow the switch to bikes and trikes in an attempt to foster bike and pedestrian safety. A trike weighing 1,000 pounds moving at 25 miles per hour is potentially lethal if mixed with bicyclists.
  • Explore using Federal funding (through the US DOT, CMAQ, EPA, and possibly DARPA) for research and infrastructure implementation.
  • Engage NYU’s freight bike specialist Dr. Alison Conway to provide hard number predictions and recommendations for encouraging tricycle delivery.
  • Get HPVs added to the Indego bike share fleet and local courier company fleets.
  • Explore a shift of Philadelphia’s municipal motor vehicle fleet to HPVs.
  • Make transload space available. A shift to cargo bike/trikes with less cubic and weight capacity than current trucks would require several centrally located “transload” facilities so that re-loading trikes doesn’t involve travelling uneconomic distances. The UPS, FedEx, and USPS facilities that serve Center City are on the periphery of town; UPS at Oregon and Delaware Avenues, FedEx on Grays Ferry Avenue, and the USPS at Lindbergh Avenue and 74th Street. To foster the growth of cargo cycle use, the city should make space available in city-owned facilities for transload sites. Another option is to set up mobile package depots dispatched from the delivery company’s hub to a downtown parking spot where they “feed” several cargo bikes making multiple “tours”, loading up and delivering packages. UPS has a project using this model in Hamburg, Germany that replaces seven delivery vans.
  • Develop metrics to quantify probable benefits of HPV freight to business owners and to the public
  • Identify future HPV hub opportunities such as West Philadelphia, the river wards, and Manayunk
Articles and Resources

Can Cargo Bike Delivery Flourish in NYC?; STREETSBLOG NYC; 2/2013

The Cargo Bike – Somewhere in Between the Courier and the Truck; The Guardian; 05/2012

The Innovative Delivery System Transforming Gothenburg’s Roads; The Guardian; 11/2015

Sustainable City Logistics — Making Cargo Cycles Viable for Urban Freight Transport; Research in Transportation Business & Management; 02/2015

In 2015 Rensselaer Polytechnic hosted two webinars on using tricycles to deliver urban freight. The first focused on Berlin (https://coe- and the second on the U.S., specifically Manhattan and Portland, Oregon (https://coe-

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