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.
With cargo bikes gaining popularity, cyclists say it’s time to rethink how much road space is given to cars.
In cities everywhere, people on bikes are clamoring for more space on the roads. Towns in the Netherlands have gone further than almost anywhere else in securing that space—but the past month has shown that even the Dutch might be struggling to keep up with the demand for bike lanes.
Utrecht broke new ground this month when the courier service DHL began using cargo bikes rather than vans to deliver its parcels, shipping them in from a depot on the city’s outskirts. It’s not a brand-new concept—European cities have numerous services like it—but DHL’s move is significant because it’s a major company switching its whole service over to a different mode in a city. At CityLab, we often talk about pioneering services being possible trendsetters for the future. With Utrecht’s plan, that future once mapped out by experimental bike couriers now seems to be arriving.
Still, not everyone is happy. Right now, the media in Amsterdam is bemoaning the volume of cycle cargo on the city’s bike paths. So great is the city’s volume of bike-born goods, newspaper Het Parool claimed Monday, that cycle lanes are filling up, and hefty cargo trailers make it impossible for other cyclists to overtake them. With a new company called Just Cargo joining Amsterdam’s roster of bike couriers in May, the bike lanes could become even more over-burdened, possibly encouraging clients to turn back to van delivery to ensure their deliveries arrive on time.
But this take doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Altogether, Amsterdam currently has 1,500 bicycle dispatch riders, most of them on standard bikes with their loads in backpacks. These can shift a serious amount of goods, but those riders would need super-human qualities to manage to clog up the city’s extensive bike path system on their own.
The slight misrepresentation implied here is nothing new. Despite the country’s international reputation as a bike paradise, the Dutch media can be surprisingly quick to demonize any bike-friendly policy, or the riders that use them. Previous Dutch media scares reported by CityLab include exaggerated warnings of bike-lane clashes between scooter and bike riders and misleading stories that suggest the country is plagued by drunk cyclists. Even living in a country full of bike advocates doesn’t mean that bikes necessarily get a fair representation in the press.
Parool is nonetheless scratching at an important point. If the Netherlands—like the rest of the world—is going to clean its air and push down its rate of car crashes, then it needs to keep pushing a modal shift from motors to pedals. The country’s success in doing so means that it may need to start rethinking its road system. As it stands, the Dutch already spend €20 billion a year on online shopping, a practice that can have a huge effect in the road system. As figures from London show, delivery vehicles, many of them delivering goods bought online, are already taking over from private cars as a primary source of urban road congestion.
One way of cutting both congestion and carbon emissions could be to shift much of online shopping delivery on to bikes. While parcels would still mainly arrive at a depot by van, the final mile from delivery to depot could still be covered without motorised assistance. Forget a supposed future full of drone deliveries: bikes are here today. They just need space on the road to move around.
Currently, cars still get the lion’s share of the road, even though they are now minor players in Amsterdam’s daily transit business. “Right now, car trips account for 22 percent of all Amsterdam journeys, but cars get 45 percent of all road space” says Marc Van Woudenberg of Amsterdamized, a cycling advocacy organization. “It’s cycling that really dominates city transit. Between 65 to 70 percent of journeys take place on bikes, but they only get 11 percent of the road space.”
Even when you take into account the smaller spaces within which bikes can maneuver, these ratios seem skewed. There’s no reason why Amsterdam couldn’t follow the lead of DHL in Utrecht and see the lion’s share of its deliveries handed over to bike couriers. But for that to work in the long run, the city’s cars may have to squeeze over and give them some more room.