Hina Bokhari writes…Cargo bikes are an important tool towards cleaner air

Over the last few months, a heated debate has been taking place over the expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) to outer London.

While this debate has continued to rage, we shouldn’t forget there are other ways in which we can reduce air pollution in London and other towns and cities across the UK.

One of the most interesting, but least reported methods for reducing air pollution in our cities is the use of cargo bikes.

Cargo bikes are bicycles that allow you to carry cargo (or heavy loads) easily, with electrically assisted models being able to carry loads of up to 250kg. The goal of their use in London has been to move freight and delivery transport away from polluting road vehicles and towards a more sustainable, clean air friendly and congestion free model – in many ways adapting the model pioneered by food delivery companies like Deliveroo for much larger goods.

This is important because freight vehicles (large goods vehicles and heavy goods vehicles), make up 17% of total miles in London, but have a disproportionate impact on emissions and air quality. This amounts to a quarter of the total carbon emissions from transport, and around a third of the total nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from road transport.

Freight is also critical to London’s economy, with 90 per cent of all goods handled in our city transported by road, with a similar story in major cities across the entire UK. Beyond emissions, road transported freight also contributes heavily to congestions within cities, which has a negative economic impact on many businesses.

The first time I got on a cargo bike was just outside the Union Street offices where the London Assembly was temporarily based. I thought it would be a fun way to meet up with some Lib Dem activists in Southwark and get an understanding of how they get around London. Oli Lord from Cleaner Cities and I had been talking regularly about reducing pollution in London and he had already planted the seed in my mind that cargo bikes were the future for deliveries in London. However, if we are going to reach net zero by 2030, then we need to make cargo bikes a serious option for businesses.

Chatting to the cargo bike rider and seeing London’s streets from a new perspective was brilliant fun. I have used cabs, trains, tubes, buses, boats and pretty much every means of transport in London, but cargo bikes are definitely the most exhilarating and enjoyable way to get around the city.

But I do have a confession, I am not a cyclist, I am still learning, and, for many reasons, it is taking me a long time to feel confident on a bike. I will however do everything I can to make it easier and safer for bikes to get full access to London’s streets. It just makes sense.

As Chair of the Economy committee and member of the Environment committee on the London Assembly I wanted to highlight the potential of cargo bikes. I thought it was important for this to happen under the Economy Committee’s remit, and not solely under the Environment Committee.  This was met with some reluctance, and concerns that this would not be a good fit for discussion on the Economy committee. So I fought my case, and I’m glad that I stuck to my guns and pushed for this report from the London Assembly, especially as the Cargo Bike strategy from the Mayor would coincide with our work. We had to emphasise that this was not a niche idea – this is mainstream, and it needs to be taken seriously. Cargo bikes are fun, but if we are to make them a part of the infrastructure of London, we need to make them the professional alternative to vans. That is the only way we can reach net zero in London and convince businesses in London to make the transition.

The Committee meeting was held in November 2022, with guests including the Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner, as well as representatives from Pedal Me, MP Smarter Travel, Just Economics, and the owner of an impressive small business, Cycling Sparks. Amazon were also invited to the meeting, but unable to attend, and subsequently offered to us a site visit to their newly opened Micromobility Hub in Hackney, which we accepted.

The meeting highlighted some important points, mainly that the transition was a great alternative for freight delivery, but that the transition needed support. What was significant was that there was genuine cross-party agreement that this was a viable way to transform businesses in London. We just need to incentivise them to shift away from diesel vans for deliveries, and make it easier to make the transition, whether it’s through financial assistance or local authority support and making roads more accessible for alternative vehicles like cargo bikes.

The report which followed makes clear recommendations to the Mayor to provide further funding to local authorities in London for cargo bike sharing schemes and cargo bike training, to help businesses pedal their way to net zero.

The Economy Committee found that cargo bikes allow businesses to travel within the ULEZ for a relatively low upfront cost, compared to other low emission vehicles such as electric vans. Cargo bikes can range from two- or three-wheeled bikes with trailers or storage boxes on the front or back, to four-wheeled, covered vehicles, and can cost up to £12,500. But the cheapest electric van costs around £24,000.

The Committee urged TfL to consider increasing the scheme to incentivise more businesses to switch to cargo bikes once the current funding runs out, as well as raising awareness among different types of businesses to incentivise them to purchase a cargo bike using the scheme.

Many businesses will struggle to make the transition without the right support, and many may continue to rely on both LGVs and HGVs for financial and logistical reasons. However, for many types of delivery, alternatives such as cargo bikes are increasingly becoming a viable option for businesses and it is definitely growing in popularity.

With the controversy over the Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion in London, the Mayor had and still has an opportunity to provide increased funding for those wanting to swap from vans to cargo bikes, something which I have continuously pressed him to do.

Many companies want to shift to cleaner, greener transport solutions, and cargo bikes are an exciting and revolutionary way for them to do this.

If the Mayor and TfL were to adopt the recommendations in the report, it would go a long way towards helping businesses overcome these challenges and win the race to net zero.

Likewise, cargo bikes and our report into them offer solutions not just for cleaning the air in London, but also in major towns and cities right across the UK and I would urge all Liberal Democrat controlled local authorities to investigate how they can encourage the growth in use of cargo bikes across their local areas.

* Hina Bokhari is a Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly.

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  • >” I am not a cyclist, I am still learning, and, for many reasons, it is taking me a long time to feel confident on a bike.”
    As someone who has cycled since junior school, there are many cycling things I take for granted (whether cycling or driving). Your position means you will be learning and so will see both good and bad design etc. with fresh eyes. My recommendation is keep a journal/logbook along with photos – they will help make your case more compelling and relatable.

  • Simon McGrath 30th Aug '23 - 6:04pm

    Be intersting to see a proper study of the total carbon costs of delivering by cargo bike or small truck. 250kg isnt that muich and a ford e trasnit can carry 7 times as much.

  • Simon – fair question, but I don’t think most vans running around our towns and cities are using anything close to their capacity. There are lots of half empty white vans

    Cargo bikes can carry a serious amount of weight. Some pubs are even getting deliveries from them. They also seem to work well in areas with narrow roads.

    They are not the solution for every cargo issue but the full impact of electronic cargo bikes could be immense.

    I appreciate my viewpoint and experience relates only to London – but if you want to see how cargo bikes can work visit Bankside or walk down Borough High Street.

    They really do have a role and should expand.

  • nigel hunter 30th Aug '23 - 11:59pm

    If many journeys are of short duration and only 2 people in the cars travelling around London with bikes delivering goods reducing air pollution is it not possible that a really small car could be of use? India has the Tuk Tuk. SERIOUSLY could an electrical one fill the gap? They take up less road space,can be used to cross the whole of London (or other city),will need less charging time,can be owned by individuals or companies.
    We are entering a new era cleaner air and cleaner fuels.Is it not time that thinking creatively with new ideas comes to the fore.?

  • Cargo bikes may be particularly beneficial for ‘last mile’ deliveries.

    We often see photos of delivery vans blocking pavements, cycle paths or roads so they can make their deliveries. The anti-social (often dangerous) parking is seen as inevitable, because apparently using a trolly to transport goods from the loading bay 50m away is too much effort. Many of our streets are just too narrow for all of the traffic, especially if that traffic includes delivery vans.

    Using cargo bikes for that final leg of delivery of smaller parcels into residential streets or into our local high streets would make those areas much safer, more pleasant, improve air quality and help to meet our net zero commitments. And probably makes for a much more pleasant experience for the delivery driver.

    I hope we can do what we can to support that transition.

  • Cargo bikes have to be part of the mix for city transport, alongside more river cargo and increased use of electric vehicles.

    Encouraging more Londoners to use active travel and transport options not only helps reduce pollution and congestion, it can also help address our still growing health challenges.

    The best politicians are those who move outside the debating chambers and experience the real world, its problems and possible solutions, and then create political change from that learning.

    I’m glad we have two politicians of that calibre representing us on the Assembly, and I hope we’ll have more after the next election!

  • Jenny Barnes 31st Aug '23 - 10:02am

    meanwhile, over on Conservative Home, one of their resident headbangers thinks all cyclists should wear helmets, hi-vis, and pay £20 “RoadTax”. Because they are irresponsible, dangerous road users. I think it’s because she was nearly wiped out by an impatient Range Rover climate criminal overtaking a cyclist on a blind bend, but it’s fun to see so many of the anti-cycling talk points in one article.

  • William Wallace 31st Aug '23 - 10:30am

    The Telegraph has an article arguing that London’s ULEZ extension shows why devolution is a bad idea. On the (weak) assumption that the Conservatives will always be in power at Westminster, it resists allowing regional and local authorities to decide anything different from what ministers say. Authoritarian centralisation!

  • Jason Connor 1st Sep '23 - 1:57pm

    These cargo bikes are often selfishly parked on pavements in many areas preventing wheel chair users getting by. Exactly the same thing is happening with lime bikes, the number I’ve had to report as blocking alleyway or strewn all over the pavement. Not only do they look unsightly but not enough enforcement action is being taken against their misuse. Well done to the Parisians for bannig e-scooters, c’est aussi juste de les interdire.

  • @Jason – so you have had no problems with parked cars and delivery vans, which are always perfectly parked by considerate drivers?

    Badly “parked” vehicles isn’t a new thing. I suspect it is a mindset issue. Teaching children cycling skills it is notable how many times many children need to be told to: take their bike off the path/track and lay it down chain upper most (to prevent gear damage) on the grass… It is a more intractable problem than getting children to stop using their feet as brakes, as many adults also discard their bikes (some costing more than £5k ) at events without regard for others, yet would not consider using their feet as brakes…

  • Sandy Smith 1st Sep '23 - 5:23pm

    @Jenny Barnes
    I’m not anti-bike but I don’t see why it should not be compulsory for cyclists to wear head protection. I wouldn’t charge them road tax but they should have some insurance in case they crash into some other person or vehicle.

  • I have my path blocked by badly parked cars and vans almost every day, but I can’t remember it ever happening with a bike.

    I always wear a cycle helmet, but the argument against making them compulsory is mainly practical. It’s not always convenient to have one, or carry one at the other end. There are some who think wearing one makes cyclists and drivers less attentive, and I’m not sure I agree with that, while some believe the biggest threat to their safety is from bad driving and a helmet won’t protect you if you are hit by a lorry. Or even a small car at reasonable speed. And there are more head injuries to people in cars than people on bikes.

    It would be near impossible to enforce insurance, it would be overly burdensome to collect and an administrative burden and cost hurdle for a mode of transport that is used by people who cannot afford cars.

    It is worth noting that a lot of cyclists have insurance through British Cycling membership.

  • I’ve yet to see any evidence that the wearing of a cycle helmet makes other road users, and car and van drivers specifically, be more considerate to cyclists (or horse riders).

    Like helmets for horse riders, there is evidence that wearing a helmet reduces head injuries arising from a collision or fall, just as there is evidence for the wearing of seat belts, deployment of airbags, crumple zones, side impact bars etc. … Perhaps what is necessary is a rethink on car design and a massive reduction in passenger protections…

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