E-commerce and the last mile carbon footprint: the cargo bike, the ideal solution?

Based on data from one of the biggest French players in freight transport, we demonstrated in a recent study that two-thirds of its activity to and from the city of Paris could be carried out by freight bicycle.

This result – which is based on an economic analysis based on the weight of the packages to be transported – offers an interesting perspective for the freight transport sector, which is regularly identified as one of the main emitters of greenhouse gases (14% of French broadcasts). Added to this are the many particularly significant negative externalities in the city (congestion, noise pollution, etc.).

It should also be remembered that road transport continues to be the main means of delivery in the city today; in France, 88% of the transport of goods is carried out by trucks.

If there are several long-distance modal shift solutions (rail, river), cyclology currently represents the only sustainable solution to decarbonize the last kilometer – the most emitter.

The rise of e-commerce

The challenge of decarbonization is twofold in terms of freight transport: it is about adapting the current model to the benefit of more virtuous practices (for example, cyclology), integrating ever greater flows.

E-commerce in particular is playing an increasing role in our consumption patterns (+4% retail share between 2018 and 2020).

This requires an increase in the fleet needed for urban logistics, with estimates predicting a 36% increase in truck distances in major cities around the world by 2030 if no action is taken. This would induce many negative effects like a sharp increase in congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.

Micro-hubs in the heart of cities

Therefore, the development of cyclology should be considered a priority. However, the use of cargo bikes requires specific organization. The location of sorting platforms, generally on the outskirts of cities, does not lend itself to this means of transport, for example. Its low carrying capacity and reduced speed compared to a truck also limits its range of action.

The use of micro-hubs in the heart of cities, with cargo bikes operating in star form from these points, therefore, seems to us to be essential. However, two restrictions to be lifted.

On the one hand, cyclology requires the transformation of commercial spaces, traditionally occupied by stores, to convert them into logistics platforms. These new non-public locations, also called dark blindscome to compete with the commercial fabric currently established in the heart of cities.

On the other hand, the addition of a supernumerary step in the supply chain leads to additional costs (mainly the cost of land) that must be offset, for example, thanks to a high density of activities in the catchment area.

Thus, certain geographic areas seem more favorable than others for the implementation of cyclology. To compensate for this additional cost, the study of the use of containers or trucks that work as micro-hubs is being studied. Although these solutions do not compete with the current commercial fabric, they still imply an appropriation of public space.

The end of trucks in the city?

Finally, cycling doesn’t necessarily rhyme with the end of trucks in the city. In fact, it is necessary to supply the micro-hubs daily, which must themselves be connected to the sorting platforms located on the periphery.

Furthermore, it is currently impossible to handle very heavy (maximum 250 kg) or very bulky packages on a cargo bike – this means transporting them by truck. Operators are therefore moving towards a mixed fleet.

In conclusion, if cyclologistics represents a path to explore for green logistics, it also poses some challenges that require vigilance. Among other things, the development of dark blinds in the heart of cities that run the risk of, in the long term, damaging the commercial fabric.

Finally, let’s not forget that the end consumer is the creator of e-commerce demand and associated flows. Changing consumer behavior in favor of less instantaneous demand remains the most relevant action to reduce the impact of logistics on the environment.

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