Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
And it seems to be working in Sweden's three largest cities.
The idea of a bicycle giving a monster oil-tanker a run for its money might be laughable. But a Swedish start-up has proved transporting smaller amounts of goods on two wheels can be practical as well as green.
Movebybike will transport anything up to around 660 pounds courtesy a fleet of bike trailers. Initially a small project run by enthusiasts, the company expanded this year from its home base in Malmö to Stockholm and Gothenburg, thus covering Sweden's three largest cities. Not only is the company greener than the alternative, it's also faster and potentially cheaper.
Movebybike director Johan Wedin explains:
Our service is aimed at the dense city. It’s quicker because we can use all kind of roads – bicycle tracks and short cuts as well – and we can bike all the way without having to park. Our biggest clients are actually delivering newspapers in bulk. They contacted us because they needed faster delivery. It’s not about the price or the environment or anything, it’s about the bottom line.
This speed brings down hourly rates, as does the relatively low cost of the vehicles. The company's prices start by the half hour, a short slot within which a truck company would find it difficult to deliver.
The plan's limitations are obvious, of course. It's actually volume rather than weight that is the first cap on what's transported—the 32 square foot metal boxes on the company’s trailers can only fit so much. There's also the question of topography. Malmö is as flat as they come and bikes can reach pretty much anywhere in that city easily. Gothenburg is much hillier, as are parts of Stockholm, and any rider regularly scaling these cities with 600 pounds trailing behind them would soon end up with calves of titanium.
Still, the idea's good points are as clear as its limits. In suitable cities, transferring the bulk of small deliveries over to bikes could cut pollution, especially that exacerbated by city center stop-start stress on brake pads. It would reduce the number of too-large trucks trying to squeeze, back or edge themselves around narrow corners—the sort of fiddly job that also happens to be least liked by drivers themselves—and make these areas healthier, more pleasant places to be.
Is the feasibility of this a Europe-only thing, made possible by a dense street plan already quite inhospitable to motor vehicles? Not necessarily. While bikes' ability to weave and squeeze through smaller spaces may make them perfect for historic European city centers, the concept actually has North American inspiration. Movebybike got their idea from a smaller company in Canada: Déménagement Myette, who specialize in home removals in and around Central Montreal. The trailers themselves, meanwhile, come from Bikes at Work, a long established company based in Iowa. Provided a town has suitable topography, there's no reason why a model like Movebybike’s couldn’t take over as the first choice for any city looking moving goods around quickly and cleanly.