6-2 Saving the Taj Mahal

Here is an article I wrote that was published in the Old Ottawa South Community Association Review in June 2000.

Saving the Taj Mahal: Pedal power on Delivery Van Turf

Internet or not, North America's bicycle messengers are not going away. Reviled by pedestrians and drivers alike, they are surviving the world wide web just like they survived the fax machine. What's more, they are returning to the parcel delivery of decades ago.

For 20 years, bike messengers made their niche with trips of less than two miles, carrying in their bulky shoulder bags. But the modern messenger can only carry about a cubic foot weighing up to 30 pounds.

Until now. The cargo bike can carry up to 36 cubic feet and 200 pounds at nine mph. Ottawa has three cargo bikers, delivering magazines and newspapers year-round on preset delivery routes where speed is not an issue.

I distribute controlled-circulation, computer magazines to downtown offices and shops using a trailer built from recovered bike parts. The other two replenish newspaper boxes using commercially-built 'BOB' trailers. All of us enjoy slipping through traffic and always finding a place to park. Our incomes are comparable to messenger biking.

Delivery bikes used by retailers half a century ago were typically heavy, single-speeders with pedal 'coaster' brakes and a smaller front wheel under an oversized carrier basket. Payload was about twelve cubic feet or thirty pounds. They and larger models were widely used by milkmen, grocers, brewmasters and tradesmen.

What delivery niches can Ottawa expect to see filled by cargo bikers? In cities like Berkeley, California, a messenger company uses four cargo bikes to deliver office mail and food and has been taken on by an independent book retailer trying to reclaim market share with better and cheaper delivery than big chains like Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com.

E-commerce hurting bike messengers is a myth in New York City. Business is actually up because internet retailers are using them to deliver products bought on the Web. They are taking on all the best riders, driving up biker incomes.

Delivering 10% of local urban cargo by 2003 is the goal of Bike Cart Age in Victoria, BC. Their first contract is to distribute a local magazine. With their ability to carry plastic tubs or livingroom sofas, interest has been shown by local supermarkets, drug stores and caterers.

Thirty years ago, kids delivered newspapers and groceries by bike. Today, an organic food retailer provides produce delivery by bike in Esquimalt and Victoria. Hauling 18 bins of produce at a time, riders say the work is invigorating, self-paced and low-stress.

With seven 8-foot trailers, Bikes At Work runs an all-bicycle delivery service in Ames, Iowa, a midwestern town too small to support urban-core bike messengers. The company delivers groceries, magazines and recyclables. The University of Iowa uses them to collect 13,000 lbs/ 5900 kg from 150 locations and take it to a depot three miles away using a single bike pulling two trailers at once. If the company becomes bonded, it may start handling bulk mail delivery.

Insurance giant United Services Automobile Association in San Antonio, uses 80 tricycles for maintenance and delivery at the world's largest office building. The building's service level is a kilometre long. The cost of maintaining eighty tricycles can easily be exceeded by a single electric cart having a bad year. Around Texas, many oil refineries, chemical plants and aluminum processors use on-site travel trikes in place of motorized carts or cars.

And then there are quads, four-wheeled human powered vehicles designed to transport cargo. London, England courier LynxRedstar uses an articulated recumbent quad to deliver up to 150 kg, as much as a small van. One is even equipped with a refrigeration unit to deliver salmon to hotels.

Washington, DC is home to Scrooge, a bike messenger who can carry 200 pounds of freight and accepts heavier items regular bike messengers can't. A Bogota, Columbia, bakery replaced 200 delivery trucks with 800 cargo bikes, dramatically cutting costs and providing much-needed jobs. In Amsterdam, courier giant DHL uses bicycles exclusively for their weight and distance class. The Swiss postal service uses 3,700 delivery bikes and 4,000 bicycle trailers. Bicycle delivery networks exist in Portland and Eugene, Oregon, Santa Cruz and Berkeley, California, New York City, Boulder, Colorado and Ghent, Belgium.

Canadian bicycle messengers can now deduct the cost of lunches as a fuel cost, thanks to a federal appeal court ruling. While an average man uses 2,700 calories per day, a bike messenger will use 4,000. The extra calories are valued at $11-13 a day, an annual tax savings of $500.

What does all of this have to do with the Taj Mahal? Single-speed cargo bikes thriving in India since the 1930s as pedalcab tricycles employ 10% of the adults in Agra, home of the famous Taj Mahal. They slow the rate at which internal combustion engines dissolve Agra's ancient monuments, to say nothing of airborne lead breathed by Agra's school children. Each Agra pedicab driver eliminates his contribution to the annual emission of 11 tons of lead and 4,000 tons of particulates which the 2-stroke taxi engines produce.

Cargo bikes may have long been absent in car-happy North America but not elsewhere. They haul more tonnage in Asia than all the world's motor vehicles combined. In major urban centres most fresh produce in market centres is brought by bicycle and tricycle. In Beijing, a furniture store hires cyclists to wear advertising and pedal around the city seven hours a day all week. for $80 a month, comparable to what migrant workers earn. Cycling is easier work than construction.

Even the World Bank has changed its policies to encourage greater use of bicycles in developing countries for personal and cargo transportation. Most people around the world can't afford a car. Plenty of barriers stand in the way but things are changing.