Transportation

Seattle Becomes Latest Test Site for Cargo e-Bikes

UPS launched a pilot project to deliver packages in downtown Seattle using pedal-assist cargo e-bikes pulling specially designed trailers.

by / October 30, 2018
In Portland, Ore., the e-bike, an electrically assisted delivery bike, is part of a fleet of more than 7,700 low-emission vehicles. UPS plans to introduce similar electric cargo bikes with a detachable trailer for a pilot project in Seattle. UPS

UPS is pedaling packages in Seattle. The company’s big brown trucks are getting shrunk down to bicycle size as part of a pilot project that will introduce pedal-assist cargo e-bikes in downtown and the historic Pike Place Market.

The project comes at a time when cities are trying to manage vehicular congestion and search for more sustainable modes of mobility, and are taking steps to increase cycling, or other newer forms of transportation, such as electric scooters.

UPS will use pedal-assist e-bikes coupled with a specially designed trailer, which can hold about 15 to 20 packages. The system is being heralded for its nimble size to reduce congestion and double-parking issues.

“While we have launched cycle logistic projects in other cities, this is the first one designed to meet a variety of urban challenges,” said Scott Phillippi, UPS’ senior director of maintenance and engineering for international operations, in a statement. “The modular boxes and trailer allow us to expand our delivery capabilities and meet the unique needs of our Seattle customers.”

The e-bike pilot project is, ironically, a return to the company’s roots. UPS launched in Seattle in 1907 as a bicycle delivery service. The e-bike delivery pilot was announced Oct. 25, 2018, at Seattle’s UPS Museum.

If the Seattle pilot is successful, UPS will consider expanding it to other neighborhoods and deploy additional delivery bikes. UPS uses cycling delivery vehicles in California, Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington, as well as Western Europe. These projects are part of UPS’ larger Cycle Logistics Solutions, a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A large portion of the UPS fleet is powered by compressed natural gas, propane and ethanol, while nearly 800 vehicles are electric-hybrid trucks or fully electric vehicles.

Over the next year, UPS and the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington will evaluate the cargo electric bicycle’s reliability and other features as they are put to the test on Seattle’s hilly streets. Here's a video showing the delivery bikes in action. 

The biking delivery effort should be praised as a “lower-impact solution,” said Alison Conway, an associate professor of civil engineering at City College of New York who has done a significant amount of research into delivery logistics in urban settings.

“This type of ‘micro-distribution’ is definitely of interest in U.S. cities,” she added. However, special attention needs to be paid to how the micro-delivery vehicles will be loaded.

“There are challenges in implementing. Transloading from trucks to these smaller modes requires space and labor, which are expensive and/or hard to come by in the densest urban areas where benefits are greatest,” said Conway in an email.

“There also needs to be a market of adequate, but not extreme density, for small vehicles to achieve operational efficiencies,” she added, pointing out that, “if an operator is currently serving a neighborhood with hand carts from a fully loaded truck, this may not be a lower impact solution.”

With its hills, electric bicycles are a popular option among Seattle commuters. They are becoming increasingly familiar parts of the urban mobility landscape with the rise of rentable e-bikes through apps like JUMP. In fact, e-bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the bicycle market, according to PeopleForBikes, an advocacy group. 

“Seattle has always been the city that invents the future, and now we are partnering with one of our hometown companies to help drive innovations in transportation,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan in a statement. “As Seattle grows and public and private megaprojects limit capacity on our downtown streets, this pilot will help us better understand how we can ensure the delivery of goods while making space on our streets for transit, bikes, and pedestrians. We are eager to learn how pilots like these can help build a city of the future with fewer cars, more transit and less carbon pollution.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.