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Park It, Trucks: Here Come New York’s Cargo Bikes


Delivery trucks and vans laden with online packages are putting a stranglehold on New York City streets and filling its air with pollutants.

Now a new city program aims to replace some of these delivery vehicles with a transportation mode that is more environmentally friendly and does not commandeer street space: electric cargo bikes.

It will be the first time the city, long home to bike messengers, has specifically promoted cargo bikes as an alternative to delivery trucks.

As many as 100 pedal-assisted cargo bikes operated by Amazon, UPS and DHL will be allowed to park in hundreds of existing commercial loading areas that are typically reserved for trucks and vans. Unlike those vehicles, the bikes will not have to pay meters.

Smaller cargo bikes will also be allowed to park on wider sidewalks, and all the bikes can travel along the city’s growing network of more than 1,400 miles of bike lanes. The bikes will be concentrated in the most congested parts of Manhattan, from 60th Street south to the Battery.

Cargo bikes have been rolled out in a growing number of cities, including Paris, London and Dublin, as online shopping has soared and led to concerns over congestion and climate change. UPS operates dozens of cargo bikes in more than 30 cities after introducing them in Hamburg, Germany, in 2012.

“Around the world, we have seen how freight companies use cargo bikes to move goods around dense urban neighborhoods more efficiently,” said Polly Trottenberg, New York’s transportation commissioner.

Replacing trucks with cargo bikes, she said, would also help make roads safer. Trucks have been involved in 13 of the 27 crashes that have killed cyclists this year, according to city data.

Of the 100 bikes that are part of the program, 90 operated by Amazon are already on the streets. Officials said the number of bikes could increase if the program proves successful.

Rebecca Gansert, Amazon’s vice president for specialty fulfillment, said the company’s cargo bikes in New York City were part of an effort to reduce its carbon emissions to zero by 2040.

“We’re starting with 90 bikes and plan to significantly grow that number in the coming months,” Ms. Gansert said. “We appreciate the City of New York and its support of innovative programs to bring more sustainable delivery options to the city.”

But the city’s efforts to promote cargo bikes drew criticism from some truck drivers and business owners who said the cargo bikes would take up already scarce street space and make their work harder.

“It’s a problem,” said Steve Margarella, the owner of a road construction company based on Staten Island with a fleet of eight trucks. “Everything is being put on our backs. You’re further limiting our ability to provide services.”

Mr. Margarella added that what he spends to operate each truck — more than $10,000 annually in registration and vehicle fees and insurance — should give his trucks priority in using the loading areas.

Still, many city officials and transportation experts said that cargo bikes offered a clear advantage over delivery trucks and that room needed to be made for them on city streets, including providing access to bike lanes and sidewalks.

While a delivery truck may have to circle the block a few times before finding parking, a cargo bike can just park by the door of the building receiving the delivery, she said.

“That’s one of the underlying big questions for it to be an improvement over the van: Where are you allowed to operate it and where can you park it?” Professor Goodchild said. “If you can use a bike lane when there is congestion on the travel lane, you can continue moving while a box van wouldn’t.”

Alex Engel, a spokesman for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said that as many cities face similar congestion and delivery challenges, New York’s program would be closely watched “to see how pedal power can unclog the movement of goods in our most congested urban areas.”

Cargo bikes have become especially popular in Europe. In Dublin, UPS uses cargo bikes to pick up packages for delivery from a container on the street that serves as an “urban eco package hub.”

Peter Harris, UPS’s international director of sustainability, said cargo bikes had worked best in densely packed city centers with lots of deliveries, when there is a well-developed bike network and a close partnership with city officials. “If you have all those things together, then there’s a very good chance a cycle operation will be successful,” he said.

In recent years, UPS has also tested cargo bikes in a handful of American cities. In Seattle, where UPS started as a messenger and bike delivery service in 1907, the company has tried out cargo bike deliveries in the downtown area.

In one neighborhood, the city allowed UPS to take over, for a fee, several paid curbside parking spots on weekdays to set up a container for the cargo bike to load packages for delivery.

“Anything that helps us reduce greenhouse gas emissions, make deliveries more efficient and reduce congestion — we’re looking for ways to support that and we think bikes could be an opportunity to do just that,” said Sam Zimbabwe, Seattle’s transportation director.

Still, cargo bikes are only one small piece of the delivery puzzle as e-commerce continues to grow. As shipping evolves with new technologies and logistics strategies, future deliveries will most likely be made through a combination of transportation modes, including trucks, according to Professor Goodchild.

In New York, Amazon has deployed bikes with attached trailers for Whole Foods deliveries in Manhattan and parts of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. UPS and DHL will operate cargo bikes in the city for the first time.

DHL, which has set internal goals to reduce emissions, had already switched in 2011 to using hybrid and electric vans in Manhattan and had been seeking approval to use cargo bikes in New York for more than a year, company officials said. DHL will start with three cargo bikes — with each bike effectively replacing one truck.

City officials said the new program was open to any freight company, and the number of cargo bikes could be increased. It has been initially approved for six months.

Danny Harris, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, said he welcomed the cargo bikes as another way to take trucks off the road and free up more space on streets and sidewalks to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers.

“The concern in New York is that people — whether they walk or bike — have been given table scraps on our streets,” Mr. Harris said. “Sidewalks can be filled with garbage and scaffolding, and streets are filled with traffic, so we must reclaim more space for all New Yorkers.”

Shelly Mossey, 65, a former bike messenger who now runs a tour bike company, Rolling Orange Bikes, said cargo bikes could thrive in the city. More than a decade ago, he converted a pedicab and a trailer into a cargo bike and was soon hauling wine from a Battery Park liquor shop and paint from a TriBeCa hardware store.

But back then, not everyone was willing to take a chance on a cargo bike.

“I went to Whole Foods and they laughed at us,” he recalled. “It was difficult, but once someone saw how great it was, they swore by it.”

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