If you’ve visited London recently, you might know that Amazon has launched its first fleet of cargo bikes in England, the latest move in a growing trend: DHL has been trialing cargo bikes in Edinburgh. UPS has deployed a small number of them globally. And this month, FedEx became the first global courier brand to invest in a North American fleet.

These vehicles—akin to regular pedal bikes, but with a large box, platform, or basket for transporting goods built into the frame—are on a roll. And it’s just as well. Urban freight transport accounts for roughly 10 to 15 percent of miles traveled in cities, and is often the most expensive and polluting section of the logistics chain, having traditionally been carried out by vans and trucks running on fossil fuels, even when the goods carried are light and small.

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The problem is worsening as home deliveries soar. The ground covered by vans in urban areas has been rising, spurred by online shopping, with the number of delivery vehicles in cities projected to increase by 36 percent by 2030 if we don’t become more efficient at getting goods to people’s doors. In London, up to 9,500 people die annually due to health complications related to air pollution, and a large chunk of these pollutants come from delivery vehicles. But Amazon and the like could have stumbled across a solution.

“Cargo bikes have a cascade of positive effects, including the reduction of air and noise pollution and the improvement of public space,” says Ersilia Verlinghieri, senior research fellow at the Active Travel Academy at the University of Westminster in London. “They’re more efficient and a lot cleaner than using vans.”

It’s estimated that cargo bikes could replace around 51 percent of all motorized freight trips in European cities. And this number could be higher if cargo bikes with electric assistance are used. According to a recent study, in Paris it’s technically possible to pick up and deliver as much as 91 percent of freight using ecargo bikes.

But just because a company could use a cargo bike courier doesn’t mean it will. The Paris study also found it would only be economical to use cargo bikes 67 percent of the time, compared to using a fleet of electric vans.

Efficiency of movement is key to keeping things cost-effective, and this is something that Verlinghieri and her colleagues have looked into. Last year, they found that services provided by cargo bike company Pedal Me were 1.61 times faster than those of an equivalent van service, because the bikes were able to move at higher average speeds through dense urban environments. Whereas cargo bikes can bypass traffic jams, take shortcuts through streets closed to cars, use bus lanes and bicycle paths, and ride to customers’ doors, vans are hindered by congestion and the search for parking. Admittedly, these advantages are greater in European cities with narrow, winding streets compared to the wider roads of North America.

And when you factor in a van’s price, the cost of fuel, insurance, and depreciation, plus parking fines and congestion charges, the cost-effectiveness calculation swings even further in cargo bikes’ favor—so there would also appear to be an economic incentive for companies to make the switch. This, though, is where it becomes tricky.

A traditional parcel depot sits on the city’s outskirts, and for a cargo bike, which has less capacity than a van, there’s a time penalty for traveling to and from these locations. To be competitive, the Paris study’s authors concluded, cargo bikes require shipments to be brought to a centrally located micro-hub, from which they can load up, deliver, and return multiple times throughout the day. But these micro-hubs are expensive in terms of overheads and staffing costs, and it’s only by making lots of deliveries from them that the savings in transportation costs cover the additional expense of running the operation.

“To make cargo bikes economical, you need a high density of people around a distribution hub. But that’s also where rent tends to be the highest,” says Antoine Robichet, a coauthor of the Paris paper and a PhD student at Gustave Eiffel University in France. “So, if you want to take all your parcels by bike, then your price will skyrocket.”

To overcome this, UPS has been trialing using satellite hubs—essentially, parking short articulated trucks in neighborhoods and distributing parcels from them. Meanwhile, in Prague, around a dozen logistics companies deliver thousands of parcels by cargo bike each month using shared micro-hubs provided by the council, splitting the running costs between them.

Until they can fix the economics, it’s hard to envisage many big companies rolling out cargo bikes on a large scale. Upfront investment is needed for the bikes, their maintenance, and the depots. Plus, larger companies need their logistics software to be adapted to be able to route riders to reloading points throughout the day.

“The software that exists is for vans that pick up at the beginning of the day and then do eight hours of deliveries,” says Nicolas Collignon, cofounder of Kale Collective, a startup focusing on technology for cargo bike logistics. “But a cargo bike can’t carry eight hours’ of deliveries, so the routing needs to be more dynamic.”

Plus, cycling rather than driving across the city requires a more athletic profile of worker, and there’s the added expense in training them. Because cargo bikes are heavier and wider than conventional bikes, and have wider turning circles, riders need to be taught how to handle them, says Chris Dixon, director of training at Pedal Me.

“If we were in an ideal world and accounting for costs not just in terms of running a business but the environmental and social costs like CO2 emissions and road safety, cargo bikes would be a lot more viable,” Verlinghieri says. “But because those things are not taxed, it becomes harder to drive change, because delivery by vans is an established model that enables big firms to conduct deliveries affordably.”

The emissions benefits could be considerable. Verlinghieri and the team at Westminster calculated that between 2018 and 2020, around 100,000 cargo bikes were introduced across Europe, and each month saved the same amount of CO2 as flying around 24,000 people from London to New York and back. Potential emissions savings are even bigger when factoring in how cargo bikes, if widely adopted, might lessen the demand for manufacturing vans in the first place.

To accelerate cargo bikes’ adoption “requires governmental support,” Collignon says. This might include the development of urban consolidation hubs like in Prague and stricter restrictions for vans, but it would also mean investing in cycling infrastructure, because negotiating with traffic is the major issue that riders face.

In colder regions, support would also mean ensuring that back alleys are cleared of ice, enabling bikes to pass through them. “If we don’t have these shortcuts, it’s easy to side with e-vans,” says Ådne Dybdalen, a civil engineer who coauthored a recent study looking at the efficacy of cargo bikes on Norway’s winter roads.

Governments also need to keep riders safe. An absence of legislation means there’s been a lack of standards for cargo bikes, raising questions about how stable and controllable some models are. They also need to protect the working conditions of riders, as cycle couriers have been particularly vulnerable to having their rights infringed in the past. “Cargo bike logistics remains a young industry with few certifications,” Collignon says, “and this might need to change.”

But as home deliveries rise, the pressure on delivery companies to lower their emissions will grow. The advantages of cargo bikes are clear, and these “will become more acute as cities introduce more infrastructure for biking,” says Verlinghieri. The real question, then, is not so much whether cargo bikes should become an integral feature of the local delivery landscape, but whether they will. And that, experts agree, is one of policy—of making changes that incentivize their adoption.

“At the end of the day, the adoption of cargo bikes comes down to money,” says Dybdalen. “If companies can’t make money from using them, then they’ll find a cheaper way.”