Parcel delivery companies are trading trucks for bikes in some Canadian cities. Here's why
Road-clogging, polluting vehicles found to be less efficient than greener option
The Black Friday, Cyber Monday, pre-Christmas pandemic online shopping frenzy calls for huge fleets of trucks and vans to deliver those gadgets and gifts. But those road-clogging, polluting vehicles are starting to give way to a greener, more efficient option in many Canadian cities: e-cargo bikes and trikes.
FedEx started delivering packages in downtown Toronto using e-bikes over the summer and is now looking to expand the program to other cities in Canada.
Purolator and two smaller courier companies are part of a similar pilot called Project Colibri that launched in Montreal last year. Purolator has since expanded its bike fleet from one e-bike to six or seven, and Project Colibri has ramped up to 5,000 e-bike deliveries a week — nearly as many as it made over the last four months of 2019.
They're some of the bigger companies trying a technology that smaller firms, such as Shift Delivery in Vancouver, have already pioneered in Canada. It's a trend that's already well underway in Europe and has also started in the United States.
The problems that e-bikes solve
Why the move toward delivery e-bikes? Because as online shopping grows, the impact of deliveries by trucks and vans become bigger problems. Transportation is already the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, after oil and gas, accounting for 25 per cent.
And it's the largest source in Ontario, where fossil fuel production isn't a major part of the economy. There, the freight sector already accounted for 10 per cent of emissions in 2019 and was expected to surpass passenger emissions by 2030, according to the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think-tank focused on clean energy.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced businesses and shoppers online, may have sped this up. Statistics Canada reported in September that e-commerce sales rose 74 per cent compared with the year before.
But online deliveries also have other negative impacts, including:
- Traffic congestion.
- Air pollution.
- Parking issues.
- Threats to the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.
"We are really tackling all these problems at once," said Mickael Brard, project manager at Jalon Montreal, the city-funded non-profit organization behind Project Colibri.
Those impacts don't just affect people who live in cities but delivery companies themselves.
"Parking tickets are a biggie for us," said Jeff Gilbert, senior manager of operations in downtown Toronto for FedEx. "And then greenhouse gases. So we're really looking for a new, innovative way for that last-mile delivery."
More efficient than trucks
"Last-mile" refers to the last leg of the delivery from a sorting centre to the customer's home or office. It's a logistically challenging step that can represent 30 to 60 per cent of the cost of delivery.
But e-cargo bikes can overcome some of the challenges that narrow, congested urban streets and scarce parking pose for trucks.
"The bikes are very agile, very nimble, and so we can move throughout the city very quickly," Gilbert said. "The bike allows us to just jump right up and park right in front of the house."
That leads to faster deliveries and higher productivity, he added.
Now that Project Colibri has been running for more than a full year in Montreal, Brard said an analysis shows that an e-bike is 30 to 40 per cent more efficient than a truck in terms of deliveries per hour.
"It's one of the rarer sectors where we can [be] both more efficient and more sustainable," he said. "We want to prove it to other companies, and we also want to prove it to governments."
Staff say it's also more fun.
Yuri Mitroff, a FedEx courier in Toronto, recalled the first time he took one of the company's three e-bikes. The Danish-made Bullets require the rider to pedal to engage the motor, which helps haul heavy loads up hills.
"It was a really, really great experience," Mitroff said. "It did not feel like work to me, which was the biggest thing. And I got a lot of exercise and a lot of vitamin D, a lot of sunlight."
Big expansion plans
Their success so far has prompted both FedEx and Project Colibri to plan for expansions.
FedEx has already ordered 40 more e-cargo bikes for the spring and is looking to roll them out not just in Toronto but in Montreal, Vancouver and possibly Ottawa, Gilbert said.
Project Colibri, which is using an old bus depot as a loading and distribution hub in Montreal, hopes to add two or three more mini-hubs and invite more companies to get involved. Brard estimates five to 10 mini-hubs could cover deliveries for the entire city.
But both projects say they face challenges. For one thing, the pandemic has caused a worldwide bike shortage.
"One of the problems for us was actually getting the bikes for the expansion," Gilbert said.
Sam Starr, a cycle logistics consultant based in Vancouver, said most e-cargo bikes are made in Europe.
"They are expensive to not just import, but also to service and maintain at this time," he said.
He suggested a number of ways that governments could encourage the use of e-cargo bikes:
- Rebates to offset the costs of e-cargo bikes for businesses. (Some were recently launched in B.C.)
- Incentives to encourage e-cargo bike manufacturing in Canada.
- Regulations to enable their use; for example, speed and weight limits for e-cargo bikes vary by province and can be a barrier.
- Regulations such as congestion charges and low-emission zones that prioritize transit, walking and cycling, such as mobility pricing proposed in Vancouver.
- Infrastructure such as bike lanes and curbside loading zones.
Hubs, such as the one used in Project Colibri, are also "critical" infrastructure, Starr said, and require partnerships between governments and businesses.
"It can't just be done by the private industry," he said. "It really needs public collaboration."