HomeLow carbon futureLet’s go back to the future with e-cargo bikes

Let’s go back to the future with e-cargo bikes

“I’m no eco-warrior but I really have become a convert. I enjoy cycling past motionless traffic.” So says Shane Topley, a self-employed plumber based in West London who switched a couple of years ago to using an e-cargo bike for most of his work trips.

In the past two decades, the number of vans on our roads has almost doubled. While car emissions are coming down, albeit slowly, emissions from vans are going up, with a 56 per cent increase in between 1990 and 2019, alongside the air pollution and congestion they also cause.

As Green Alliance has highlighted before, a strategy of switching to alternative modes of transport, combined with technological change, is needed to cut carbon emissions. When it comes to technology, electrification is the clear solution for vans. Electric vans can replace diesel models like for like, leading to four times fewer emissions.

Only one per cent of vans are electric
Right now, there are over 31,000 electric vans in the UK with a rise of over 13,000 in 2022 alone. This is progress but it’s still less than one per cent of the 4.6 million vans on the road. To tackle the climate impact of vans, this needs to change and the government should set an ambitious policy framework to increase both supply and demand. But with a less developed market in comparison to that of cars, and uncertainty about the attractiveness of the UK as an investment opportunity for the industry, other options should also be explored.

The past can sometimes show us the path to a better future. Cargo bikes were once commonly used throughout our cities for deliveries and a range of trades. Now, with the need for more flexible, green modes of transport, people are looking again at their modern electric reincarnation.

With electrical assists, which can open up use on difficult terrains and help against strong winds, e-cargo bikes are becoming an appealing option. Electrical power also allows greater loads to be transported sustainably. Some e-cargo bike models can carry up to 300kg.

In our new report, Sharing the load, we sought to delve into the attitudes of groups of van users to see if they like the idea of switching to e-cargo bikes for their businesses.

Most businesses don’t understand the potential
BritainThinks held interviews and focus groups for us with tradespeople and van fleet managers and we discovered that they are often unaware of the potential of e-cargo bikes. Starting out sceptical, some participants warmed to the idea when they learnt more about the payloads they can carry and their positive impact on productivity in certain circumstances.

Many of our interviewees said traffic and parking were their biggest frustrations with their vans. We showed them a study from Possible using Pedal Me e-cargo bikes. This compared data against modelled van routes and found that, alongside the potential to reduce emissions by 90 per cent, e-cargo bikes cut delivery times, as they can use cycle lanes and are easier to park. Over an hour, Pedal Me could make seven deliveries compared to just four for vans.

Still, ditching your van for a bike is a big step and not appropriate for some sole traders who told us they sometimes need to travel up to 300 miles at short notice. But those who work in dense urban environments or are part of a larger fleet, where use can be segmented, are in the best position to switch.

One European study suggests that up to 7.5 per cent of urban motor traffic could be replaced by e-cargo bikes. If this was to happen here, the carbon emissions saved would be greater than the UK’s total domestic aviation emissions.

More of these surprisingly useful vehicles on our roads could have a big impact on the environment, air pollution and urban congestion. We’ve suggested a government awareness raising campaign about their benefits and uses for businesses, more ‘try before you buy’ opportunities, purchase grants and improvements to cycling infrastructure, to make it even easier to park and get around on e-cargo bikes. These measures would mean more businesses like Shane’s could get on by going back to the future.

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