Frozen pizza delivered by cargo bike

In Cologne, about 60 Ecocarrier riders are on the road for the Rewe delivery service. In the current pilot project, they have covered a total of around 40,000 kilometres on cargo bikes in one year.
Reading time: approx. 4 minutes
Text: Joachim Geiger
Photos: Ecocarrier, Rewe

Cargo bikes for the last mile are now considered the ultimate in sustainable city logistics. In Cologne, the Rewe delivery service, together with Ecocarrier, relies on the use of vans and cargo bikes. What actually constitutes bicycle logistics? Which bikes are the first choice? And is the bike ultimately faster than a vehicle with a combustion engine?

If you want to make city logistics sustainable, you can hardly get around cargo bikes: for a long time now, it’s not just postmen and parcel delivery people who have been pedalling their transport and cargo bikes for the last mile. With the right equipment on the loading platform, general cargo can be packed onto the cargo bike just as easily as a grocery delivery. The advantages of the cargo bike are that it does not need a combustion engine, requires little space and emits neither pollutants nor noise. The demand from wholesalers and logistics for alternative delivery concepts is high – for example in Cologne, as the Cologne Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) proves in a study published in June 2021 on the topic of loading and delivery in the Cologne IHK district.

The supermarket chain Rewe has also discovered the advantages of muscle power with electric assistance for its delivery service in the cathedral city. “We assume that cargo bikes can have a positive effect on inner-city traffic,” the company says. Together with its cargo bike service provider Ecocarrier (formerly Velocarrier), Rewe has been on the road for more than a year as part of a pilot project in the south of Cologne. To date, the delivery staff have covered more than 40,000 kilometres.

City logistics of the future: more than just cargo bikes?

So get on the saddle and the logistics model for the city logistics of the future is ready? It’s not quite that simple. Most municipalities today lack a well-developed infrastructure for bicycles. Procuring a cargo bike is also a challenge. The Nuremberg University of Technology is currently working on a research project called “PedeListics” to find out what a bike for cargo transport should look like: the ideal cargo bike has two lanes and a load volume of more than 1.5 cubic metres and a payload of at least 250 kilograms. For it to be able to use a cycle path, it should not be more than one metre wide. An electric motor with a rated continuous output of up to 250 watts provides propulsion assistance up to speed 25. This is important because vehicles with these specifications are still considered bicycles. This gives the operators of the bikes a lot of advantages on their side: the “Pedelecs 25” do not need a registration or liability insurance, the riders do not need a driving licence, they are allowed to use the cycle path and in many places to ride on one-way streets in both directions.

»We cannot see the transport of goods to the city centres in isolation from the onward distribution to the recipient. On the last mile, bicycle logistics will play an important role in the future.«

Christian Kühnhold, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Ecocarrier, Cologne

Success formula: Last-mile drop-off points for cargo bikes

In Cologne, the cargo bike logistics company Ecocarrier relies on a pedelec from the manufacturer Urban Mobility, which was specially developed to transport large volumes and heavy loads. Special heavy-duty wheels roll under the spacious transport box, while the patented tilting technology ensures that the cargo bike can be ridden like a conventional bicycle even with a full load. In addition, an electronic differential supports the driver when cornering.

However, robust bikes and reliable delivery staff are only half the battle: “Successful bike logistics also requires a lot of logistics know-how and intelligent route planning. Above all, it needs inner-city transshipment locations as a contact point for cargo bikes on the last mile,” knows Christian Kühnhold, chairman of the supervisory board of Ecocarrier AG, which currently delivers 8,500 consignments a day with around 85 cargo bikes – among others in Cologne, Stuttgart, Munich, Berlin and Hamburg. The name will probably sound familiar to many logistics experts: Kühnhold is one of the founders of the Smart City Loop, which aims to make underground urban goods delivery possible on the penultimate mile.

Ecocarrier: Full service for the infrastructure of bicycle logistics

“We can’t see the transport of goods into the inner cities in isolation from the onward distribution to the recipient,” says Kühnhold, describing the motivation for his entry into Ecocarrier. Also on board the company founded at the beginning of 2021 are the founders of Velocarrier – a cargo bike logistics company that has been active in urban logistics for many years. In the future, Ecocarrier wants to establish itself as a full-service provider for the last mile, providing not only the hardware – i.e. cargo bikes and electric vans – but also the infrastructure for city logistics. In addition to IT services, this includes the development and operation of multifunctional city hubs. In Cologne, Ecocarrier already operates two of these depots: a logistics area in Südstadt and another in the Neuehrenfeld district in a former car dealership.
The cargo bike logistics company Ecocarrier relies on the cargo pedelec from the manufacturer Urban Mobility for its transports. The bike is specially designed to transport large volumes and heavy loads.

The electric cargo bike has heavy-duty wheels under the spacious transport box and a range of up to 80 kilometres.

A technological delicacy is the patented tilting technology, which allows the cargo bike to be ridden like a conventional bicycle even with a full load. The electronic differential supports cornering.

Rewe delivery service: with muscle power and combustion engine

These depots also play an important role for the Cologne-based Rewe delivery service. The supermarket chain has developed a holistic delivery concept that relies on classic vans and cargo bikes. Customers do not know whether they will be delivered by bike or by van. They order the desired food from the Rewe delivery service – from fruit and vegetables, meat and sausage to frozen products and drinks. The orders are then picked at the grocer’s central food fulfilment centre in the Niehl district in the north of the city. An intelligent algorithm takes over the route planning.

Cold chain: dry ice and gel packs for frozen pizza

The system decides on the basis of postcode and delivery area whether the combustion engine or muscle power comes into play. Certain postcodes in the close vicinity of the bicycle locations have priority for cargo bikes. Since a frozen pizza cannot simply be packed into the transport box, keeping the cold chain is also an absolute must when delivering by bike. For temperature-sensitive goods, dry ice and gel packs, among other things, are therefore used – software already calculates the required quantity during order picking. Rewe then takes care of transporting the food from the food fulfilment centre to Ecocarrier’s depots, where it is distributed to the individual wheels. For the Rewe delivery service, it does not matter whether an order is large or small. Depending on the number of shipments and capacities in the bike hubs, it can happen that delivery vehicle and cargo bike are on the road at the same time in one area.
The Rewe delivery service combines orders from an area into one delivery tour during route planning. Deliveries are primarily made with vans. In the next few years, the supermarket chain plans to convert its fleet to vehicles powered by green electricity.

The pilot project in Cologne was intended to clarify whether deliveries with cargo bikes offer economic and ecological advantages over conventional vans. In practice, the cargo bikes are not faster on the road than the vans because the route planning system plans the routes regardless of which type of vehicle is used.

Smart City Loop: Is the tube now coming to Cologne?

However, the specific advantages of the cargo bike currently do not come into play in the Rewe delivery service in Cologne. As the supermarket chain makes clear, in the current delivery model the cargo bikes are not faster than the vans. There is also no difference in terms of punctuality. The explanation for this can be found in the route planning: the algorithm plans the route regardless of whether the goods are delivered by van or by bike. In doing so, it takes the weather, traffic and the drivers’ breaks into account from the outset.

Where the journey of city logistics in Cologne could go: In the future, perhaps the penultimate mile through the tube underground, the last mile by cargo bike to the customer? In Hamburg, a feasibility study has given the green light for the Smart City Loop. Christian Kühnhold believes it is entirely possible that the concept could also be implemented in the cathedral city: “An underground tube can be realised faster than many conventional infrastructure projects – at the same cost as for traditional goods transport.”

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