Our Amazon addiction is clogging up our cities—and bikes might be the best solution

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Image: Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez
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The city storyline in the media today is all about wars between cars: taxi versus Uber, Zipcar versus car ownership, and Tesla versus everyone in the race for affordable self-driving vehicles. But in the future, the real mobility battle in the urban centers will not be between taxis and Ubers or privately owned cars and shared cars: It’s more likely to be between bikes, trucks, and traffic congestion.

The prime reason for this is that we’re addicted to e-commerce. In Europe, the number of e-commerce parcels each year is estimated at 3.7 billion. In the US, UPS alone shipped 4.6 billion packages and documents in 2014, with Amazon’s share of packages estimated at around 10%. Many consumers now expect their parcels to be shipped on the day they place the order and, if possible, delivered to within a very specific timeslot.

This causes a different kind of traffic problem than in the past. Just a few years ago, delivery in urban centers was about dropping off large volumes of goods at shops. Today, it’s about delivering small numbers of parcels to different addresses, often directly to consumers. City centers today are congested partly because delivery trucks are blocking traffic while trying to deliver boxes.

An additional part of that problem is that the consumer often isn’t at home at the time of delivery. The number of failed deliveries to consumers makes grown people in e-commerce weep: Estimates for failed first deliveries range somewhere between 10 and 30%. This means that a van has to make not one but two trips (or more) to deliver those sneakers to you.

And if you decide you don’t like those sneakers? You can send them back. Three trips.

Trickle-down effects

And then comes the backlash. In London, commuters now lose on average 96 hours per year in traffic. Even in smaller urban centers like Amsterdam and Frankfurt, it’s 40 hours per year. Add barrels of fuel per commuter that literally go up in smoke in your inner city to that time loss, and you have both socially frustrating and environmentally damaging effects.

To combat these issues, mayors and city councils have begun to devise rules to make cities livable again, and one of the easiest way is to regulate deliveries. In almost all policy documents, there is a push to internalize the net external costs” of deliveries. That means if delivery trucks want to pollute the city center and gridlock it, they will have to pay for the privilege.

Most cities in the Western world have strict time slots for freight trucks entering the city center. Additionally, some cities are imposing low-emission zones, where polluting cars and trucks are banned outright. This month, the city of Antwerp announced that driving a polluting car into its low-emission zone will cost $377 per year as of February 2017.

On a business level, some tech companies are approaching the problem in a different way. For example, last year Uber proposed using Uber drivers to deliver parcels with Uber Rush. But this has all sorts of logistical nightmares: single cars delivering single packages instead of multi-delivery vans; insurance issue; the fact that you would have to trust amateurs to hand over packages to the right person. And if the delivery fails, do you expect the Uber driver to keep your package overnight and make another run at it tomorrow? Not very likely. Meanwhile, Amazon is promising drone delivery. But for now, in most countries, it’s illegal to operate drones, let alone use them for deliveries.

The two-wheeled revolution

There is no magical solution for the problem. But there is a clear winner when it comes to identifying a delivery vehicle that is small, quiet and emission free: the bicycle.

Bikes are what policy makers identify as the holy grail of sustainable urban logistics. “Right now, the revolutionary technology transforming the €172bn ecommerce delivery business is the bicycle,” wrote Gill Plimmer in the Financial Times. You might have certain associations when thinking of bike couriers—and they may or may not involve dreadlocks. But at the European Cycle Logistics Federation (ECLF)’s recent conference in San Sebastian, it became clear that cycle logistics (the industry term for bicycle delivery) is ready for a next step.

Not only can bicycles deliver packages more quickly than delivery trucks by bypassing traffic gridlocks, they’re also more energy efficient. As a sign of the times, the big guys are moving into cycle logistics. DHL Express, a large shipping company in the Netherlands, said at the ECLF conference that it wanted to replace 10% of its fleet with bikes, and that 65% of its urban routes would be delivered by bikes.

Making room

When cycle logistics take off in a big way, we will be facing a final hurdle: urban design. Anyone who has tried to ride a bike through a pedestrian zone knows that bikes and pedestrians don’t mix well.

That means wider bike lanes, better connections between cities, and allowing more space in urban centers for pedestrians and bikes. While academics are debating the role of the bike in urban design, Germany is pushing ahead with a 62-mile bike superhighway that connects 10 cities in the Ruhr area. Cities like Bogota, Boulder, Copenhagen, Melbourne, and Amsterdam are proof that it is possible to get huge segments of the population on their bike.

E-commerce will have a huge impact on the design and life-quality of cities in the 21st century. If we want to make room for it, then we need to create a larger role for bicycles in our urban centers through a convergence of consumer habits, policy, and technology.