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Will the cargo bike replace rickshaws in congested and polluted metropoles?

Benny Engelbrecht, the Danish Minister for Transport on a cargo bike
Copyrights: Benny Engelbrecht, the Danish Minister for Transport. Photo by Klaus Bondam.

Will the cargo bike replace rickshaws in congested and polluted metropoles?

The future of cargo bikes depends not only on design and production of the bicycle itself but also on securing the support eco-system for their services to be accessible for all.

“Cycling is to mobility what organic farming is to agriculture.” -Vandana Shiva

Urban and non-motorised transport are increasingly being recognised as a part of the remedy to air pollution and climate change. Can we have a credible and substantial conversation about urban non-motorised transport?

Let’s start with the examples of Copenhagen and Amsterdam. These cities are spearheading ways to apply the bicycle to meet the needs of all its citizens and the many roles that entail. Other EU cities are not far behind: Munich, Brussels, and London are three where progress continues to be made. But care must be taken that these vehicles do not befall the same steep decline as the rickshaw did between the 19th and 20th centuries.

A relatively new type of bicycle making waves throughout Europe is the cargo bike, also known as the freight or utility bike. The rise of this apparently old-fashioned technology with a new twist suggests to many observers that despite widespread excitement about the prospects of using autonomous cars and air taxis, the resilient future of mobility in very old and crowded cities, like the rickshaw, is likely to end up being powered by human muscle.

Cargo bikes have emerged as versatile vehicles of change for urban economies by being sustainable, economically viable, and a means for reclaiming public space from motorised transport. Door-to-door delivery is efficient for the majority of inner-city transport and there is a non-existent noise and pollution footprint. Cargo bikes are only one demonstration of a renaissance of cycling that has also featured a proliferation of traditional bicycles, both pedal-powered and electrically assisted.

According to Germany's Two-wheel Industry Association (ZIV): "In the last year, e-cargo bikes have outsold electric cars in Germany—39,000 electric-assisted cargo bikes versus 32,000 electric cars. This is despite electric cars being backed by large government subsidies while e-bikes get a small hand out."

Cargo bikes are catching on outside of Europe too. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and especially around the vicinity of Copacabana, there are over 11,000 cargo bike deliveries a day. According to the Transporte Ativo: "One of the most important and expensive urban freight stages is the last-mile when the goods are delivered from shops to consumers. Cargo bicycles are the best option for transporting goods over short distances and can easily be integrated into the city’s busy streets. Its use lightens the burden of motorised transportation, such as congestion, parking issues, air pollution and its impacts on climate change."

One small, zero-emissions vehicle with a much longer history than the cargo bike is the rickshaw. As the use of cargo bikes are on the rise, the number of rickshaws is radically declining. This comparison can be a very interesting attempt to see if cargo bikes will share the same fate as rickshaws in the context of future urban transport-oriented development.

On 7 July 2019, the two city corporations in Dhaka, Bangladesh banned rickshaws on three main roads in an effort to address the problem of traffic congestion.

Let’s take a closer look at Dhaka’s reverse rickshaws paradox. Rickshaws do not emit carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. They are the most common and popular mode of transport for the people of Dhaka. At least 3.5 million rickshaws trips are made on a daily basis, which counts for 40% of all trips in the city of which 70% count for short trips; however, rickshaws occupy 60% of the road space infrastructure. They carry more passengers daily than the London Underground. The city is not considered walkable due to the lack of adequate infrastructure and public transport. Rickshaws are a crucial source of employment and involve an additional 41 industries. The main and ironic argument for banning rickshaws is that they cause air pollution by slowing down the speed of motorised vehicles and clogging up the already infamous traffic in this megacity. One very interesting attempt on how to untangle the traffic knot in Dhaka is World Bank’s Ke Fang reflective question: Can we build Dhaka out of traffic congestion?

In the era of urbanisation and climate crisis, the global north and south share the same desire and interest for active mobility to be safe, functional and inclusive for all. However, insufficient infrastructure and social stigmas hinder the process of enhancing the liveability quotient of cities, especially in developing countries. The cargo bike seems to be the inevitable next step of development in non-motorised transport and most likely the only viable substitute for the rickshaw.

The lessons learned from Dhaka’s struggle with rickshaws should serve as a wake-up call for the bicycle manufacturers and the delivery industry if they want to avoid a similar decline as the rickshaw after saturating the global north with its products.

As some say, the bike is a XIX century innovation destined to solve XXI century problems. Shouldn’t the entire cycling industry get involved in this global conversation? It appears that the future of cargo bikes depends not only on design and production of the bicycle itself but also on securing the support eco-system for their services to be accessible for all. 

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Thursday, April 30, 2020 - 17:26