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The (re)discovery of cargo bicycles

Alternatives to private and commercial cargo transport

Two-wheel Bullit cargo bikes used by DHL and Fahrer Berlin
Two-wheel Bullit cargo bikes used by DHL and Fahrer Berlin © Doris Reichel
Cargo bicycles have great potential to replace motorized transport, in particular in urban areas. There are many potential uses of such bicycles both in the private as well as in the commercial sector.


In recent years, cargo bicycles have become an increasingly common sight in German cities. The trend has its origins in the Netherlands and Denmark, where such bikes have long been used sucessfully for transport operations, in particular to get family members from A to B. In Copenhagen, 25 % of households with two or more children own a cargo bicycle.

Cargo bicycles are far from being a new phenomenon but have rather been rediscovered in the last years. For example, they were widely used for distribution operations also in Germany up to the middle of the 20th century. As a result of the automobile’s great success, cargo bicycles became marginalized, were almost forgotten and survived only in niche sectors such as transport operations on own account or mail delivery.

Notwithstanding this, cargo bikes have an enormous potential to replace motorized transport, and they can help to reduce air pollutant and noise emissions as well as space consumption. What is more, they provide private and commercial users with the opportunity to do without an own passenger car or reduce the size of their vehicle fleet and, in doing so, save money. According to the CycleLogistics project of the European Union, 51 % of all motorized transport operations in European cities could be shifted to bicycles, bicycle trailers or cargo bicycles because less than 7 kilometres are covered and no more than 200 kg carried [Reiter/Wrighton 2016].

Information Box: different types of cargo bicycles

Riehle [2012] distinguishes three different types of cargo bicycles:

Baker’s bicycles have a big load platform in front of the handlebar and sometimes also one behind the saddle. They always have two wheels only, are similar to standard bikes and can usually carry up to 75 kilograms of cargo.

Long Johns have a load platform that is located in front of the rider and ideally very close to the ground to make the bike as stable as possible. They can have two or three wheels and can carry up to 180 kilograms (two-wheel) or up to 500 kilograms (three-wheel).

Long Tails have their load platform behind the saddle and close to the ground. They come with two wheels (transport weight of up to 200 kilograms), three wheels (up to 250 kilograms) or four wheels (up to 400 kilograms).

The market for cargo bicycles is developing very dynamically, and new models and manufacturers are constantly emerging. A comprehensive overview in German can be found at As most cargo bicycles continue to be niche products that are often only produced in small quantities, prices are still quite high. Moreover, manufacturers are usually small companies and not able to handle big orders at short notice.

A replacement for private passenger cars

Two thirds of the journeys in the logistics sector that could be shifted to the bike are made within the context of private activities. In the CycleLogistics survey, 6000 purchases at supermarkets and hardware stores were analysed.

80 % of all purchases could have been carried by bicycle, 14 % using an additional trailer or a cargo bicycle. Only for 6 % a passenger car would have been required [Reiter/Wrighton 2016]. Besides carrying your private purchases, cargo bicycles are also a suitable alternative for carrying children. Depending on the model, up to four children can be carried with one cargo bicycle.

Cargo bicycle sharing

Many people cannot afford to buy a cargo bicycle, or the costs do not pay off if the bike is only used for shopping groceries on the weekend. Moreover, parking facilities for cargo bicycles need to meet higher demands than those for standard bicycles. Therefore, in a growing number of cities, cargo bicycles are made available to all citizens who can book these bikes free of charge and per day. By now, there are approximately 70 initiatives in German-speaking countries that make available more than 130 cargo bicycles at no cost. An overview of all initiatives as well as information and tips in German on the planning and operating of a corresponding free scheme can be found at the wiki page

Fienchen, Freies Lastenrad Wuppertal
© Tobias Klein

Cargo bicycles for all! – the NRVP pilot project TINK

In the National Cycling Plan TINK (Transportrad Initiative Nachhaltiger Kommunen) project, the area-wide use of cargo bicycles is being trialled by means of a public cycle hire system in the cities of Konstanz and Norderstedt. The basic idea is to make cargo bicycles available to the population at large and provide incentives for using the car less frequently even when you have to carry loads or – ideally – replacing the car by a bicycle. The initiative would like to make it possible to use cargo bicycles also for persons who need them only occasionally for shopping groceries on the weekend. After the first months, the project seems to have made a successful start. The number of users and the number of hires, in particular in Konstanz, exceed expectations by far.

Using cargo bicycles for commercial transport

According to a study on the use of bicycles in commercial transport that was commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, commercial transport by bicycle can be devided into six market segments:

  • postal services;
  • courier services;
  • parcel services;
  • delivery services;
  • transport on own account;
  • personal business transport.

The first three segments cover courier, express and parcel as well as postal services. Mobile sales stands, passenger transport and private mobility were not taken into account. The study concludes that – depending on the base scenario – between 8 % and 23 % of all commercial transports operations could be shifted to cargo bicycles. In the conservative scenario S1 (8 % shift), it is assumed that users are willing to switch if a single journey is not longer than 5 km, not more than 10 km are travelled per day and no more than 50 kg need to be carried. The more progressive scenario S2 (13 % shift) assumes a higher readiness to switch and presupposes an improved availability of cargo bicycles. Scenario S3 (23 % shift) also assumes changes in fleet composition and operational planning and is rather to be considered a long-term goal for the year 2030 [Gruber/Rudolph 2016].

Using cargo bicycles for courier, express and parcel services as well as postal services

As a consequence of the growing online retail sector, distribution operations have also significantly increased. This turns out particularly problematic for high-density city centres in terms of emissions, higher levels of traffic and increasing pressure on parking space. According to figures of the German parcel and express logistics association (BIEK), the volume of courier, express and parcel shipments has grown by 74 % since 2000 [BIEK 2016]. This trend is unbroken, and it is assumed that as early as 2025 15 % of the overall retail turnover will be generated online, compared to 8.5 % in 2014. Particular growth was observed in recent years in the share of “heavy” online shoppers with a minimum of ten transactions in the past twelve months [Stepper 2016]. The reduction in retail storage space and the growing number of just-in-time deliveries have also lead to a rise of distribution operations in city centres.

Lastenrad der dänischen Post in Odense
© Tobias Klein

In order to counteract the total gridlock and prepare for possible restrictions of access to certain zones in the future, many enterprises have begun trialling alternative delivery methods for inner city areas. The logistics operator UPS and the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, for example, started distributions operations with cargo bicycles and hand trucks in the city centre in 2012. The very successful project was expanded in 2015. UPS implemented similar schemes in other cities such as Munich, Offenbach, Oldenburg or Herne. Also other courier, express and parcel service providers use cargo bicycles: Among other cities, GLS operates in Konstanz, Darmstadt and Bochum, DHL in Berlin, Frankfurt and Stuttgart and DPD in Nuremberg. In Stuttgart and Nuremberg, several enterprises have even joined forces to trial sustainable delivery strategies (as of January 2018).

From the point of view of courier, express and parcel service providers, the use of cargo bicycles makes economic sense only in densely built city areas. To balance the disadvantages of cargo bicycles (small range and transport capacity), micro storage facilities must be set up in city centres. Here, new goods can be picked up, and hand trucks can be used to deliver them to nearby customers. However, finding suitable locations for micro storage facilities is difficult. Possible options are car parks above and below ground or areas belonging to municipal housing companies; special use of public traffic space might be another option [BIEK 2015].

Information Box: Hamburg – a sustainable distribution strategy for the city centre

The initiative for this pilot project was taken by Hamburg-based retailers who feared that, as a result of the growing volume of distribution operations, the city centre would become less attractive to customers. In 2012, the shift of distribution operations in the city centre to cargo bicycles and hand trucks begun. Initially, there was only one container site; in 2015, there were already four, and the distribution area was expanded. Today, eleven Cargo Cruiser cycles and a great many hand trucks are being operated in the city centre of Hamburg.

In the mornings, swap bodies pre-loaded at regional branches are carried to the individual sites where the goods are shifted to cargo bicycles and hand trucks, and distribution operations in the neighbouring streets are taken up by bicycle or on foot. In the evenings, the containers are returned to the regional branches. Delivery operations around the core city centre are carried out with electric vehicles.

By trialling alternative distribution methods, the city of Hamburg hopes to reduce emissions in the city centre, vehicle movements and pressure on parking space as well as the burden that is put on local residents and retailers. Kirsten Pfaue, cycling coordinator of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg explains that, because of the project, each day journeys totalling approx. 800 km which used to be covered by standard vehicles with a maximum permissible weight of 7.5 tonnes can be replaced. Moreover, 500 stops per day are no longer necessary. CO2 emissions can be reduced by about 120 tonnes per year. The effort also pays off for enterprises – between 7 and 10 fewer vehicles are needed now. Beyond mere vehicle costs, also maintenance costs for fuel and insurance are eliminated which, for courier, express and parcel service vehicles, are not negligible. In 2016, UPS was awarded the HanseGlobe for Sustainable Logistics for the project.

Moreover, since 2011 Deutsche Post AG operates the only cargo bicycle to empty letter boxes in the city centre of Hamburg.

Bike couriers have used cargo bicycles long before global players. VeloCarrier, an enterprise based in Tübingen, uses electric cargo bicycles from the manufacturer Radkutsche for its transport operations and is currently active in eight German cities. In the capital city of Berlin, Velogista has implemented a similar strategy.

Dreirädriges Lastenrad der Firma Velogista
© Doris Reichel

Alternative delivery methods have become an issue also for companies whose core business is not courier, express and parcel service operations. In Berlin and Munich, Amazon is offering deliveries by cargo bicycle within one hour, and in Hamburg and Berlin, Ikea customers can have their purchases delivered via cargo bicycle or rent cargo bicycles for their own use.

DHL is trialling cargo bicycle deliveries in 33 cities in the Netherlands [Reiter/Wrighton 2016]. For the German market, Deutsche Post DHL Group is using bicycles mainly to deliver letters. For this purpose, it operates 25,000 vehicles, among them 6,900 electric bicycles and 2,700 electric tricycles. According to a position paper of the company, cargo bicycles are suitable for delivering parcels to a limited extent only. The paper states that 8 cargo bicycles are necessary to replace a standard delivery vehicle and that this can be realized only in a few cases, i. a. due to the built environment. Sites for micro storage facilities are sometimes very hard to find and, apart from being centrally located, also need to be accessible by HGVs with swap bodies. Therefore, DHL is using cargo bicycles and micro storage facilities only under very specific conditions and considers electric vehicles such as its StreetScooter an alternative. Nevertheless, in the position paper, DHL demands that cycle tracks and sidewalks be constructed with cargo bicycles in mind and sees a need for political action [Deutsche Post DHL Group 2016].

Using cargo bicycles for delivery services

While many delivery services are using bicycles for bringing food to their customers, these, in particular in city centres, are most often not cargo bicycles. The online delivery platforms Foodora and Deliveroo are almost exclusively using bicycle couriers for delivering meals.

Wiesbaden’s Kiezkaufhaus

The Kiezkaufhaus in Wiesbaden is a local delivery service that connects specialist shops and makes their offers available online. When customers buy products on the internet, local dealers put together their orders and bike couriers deliver them the same day (provided that the order was submitted by 2 p.m.) for a fee. According to the Kiezkaufhaus, the dealers that participate in the Kiezkaufhaus are owner-operated specialist shops who provide good service, pay taxes in Wiesbaden and shape the image of the city. What is more, where applicable they act regionally and organically. In 2016, the Kiezkaufhaus won the German Cycling Prize in the “Service” category.

Bicycle home delivery service in Switzerland

In 21 cities and municipalities of Switzerland, customers can deposit their purchases in participating stores and have them delivered by bicycle to their home for a fee. Customers can thus pursue further activities after shopping, for example go to the movies or take a stroll, without having to carry heavy bags. The service helps to make transport chains longer, and the delivery services replace the car boot. 21 % of the customers stated in a survey that, because of this service, they had decided to take the bicycle and not the car to go shopping. The project has existed since 1997 and has been expanded continuously. Usually, the service is rendered by persons who are taking part in social programmes. In the meantime, synergies are being explored, and, for example, express post or food orders are also being delivered [Wälti 2013].

Using cargo bicycles for transport on own account

Cargo bicycles have been used continuously in the last years for transport operations on own account, in particular by companies with large premises.

Using cargo bicycles for personal business transport

There are also opportunities for using cargo bicycles in the sector of personal business transport, especially if the number of tools to be carried is modest. For example, this applies to cleaning companies, care services, painting and decorating firms, photographers and chimney sweepers. The benefits are obvious: cargo bicycles are cheaper to buy and maintain, they are faster and more reliable when traffic volumes are high, there is no need for a driving licence and – what is important in particular in densely populated city centres – employees can park closer to the customer. There are also potential uses for municipal businesses. For example, in Copenhagen more than 40 cargo bicycles are being used for road cleaning [Reiter/Wrighton 2016], and the Hanseatic City of Hamburg is currently trialling the use of cargo bicycles for the same purpose in the TRASHH pilot project. Even the automobile club ADAC is testing the use of pedelecs with trailers for its breakdown and recovery services. Since spring 2016, two pedelecs have been used on the roads of Stuttgart and Berlin; the ADAC hopes to save time by this measure.

Alltägliches Bild in Kopenhagen
© Tobias Klein

Using cargo bicycles for personal transport

In Western countries, cycle rickshaws – generally with electric assistance – are mostly used in the tourism sector or for special events such as weddings. Rickshaws come from Japan and were initially pulled by people on foot. In India and parts of Southeast Asia, cycle rickshaws are still being used as normal taxis.

A very special project was launched by the Cykling Uden Alter initiative in Denmark. Under the motto “A right to some wind in your hair”, volunteers take senior citizens with impaired mobility on excursions with cycle rickshaws. In Denmark, there are already more than 600 rickshaws for elderly citizens being operated in more than 70 municipalities. The idea was adopted by many others worldwide, in the meantime there are 300 towns in 30 countries, and also Germany has cycle rickshaws for senior citizens in more than 10 towns.

Cargo bicycles as mobile sales and information stands

Throughout Germany, cargo bicycles are also used to sell ice cream or coffee specialties. Associations such as the ADAC or the VCD use cargo bicycles as information stands at fairs or events, and when the city of Mannheim celebrated the bicycle’s bicentenary in 2017, a cargo bicycle was used to promote events. The city of Ferrara in Northern Italy even has bicycle-based tourist information stands, and employees are cycling through the city centre with noticeable cargo bicycles. However, the primary purpose of mobile sales and information stands is not that of overcoming space. Rather, they guarantee to win the attention of the potential target audience because of their unusual appearance. Another aspect that must not be neglected is that cargo bicycles make it possible to access areas where normal motorized transport is forbidden or can enter only with difficulties, such as public areas, pedestrian precincts or parks.

coffee-bike auf dem Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin
© Tobias Klein

Challenges and opportunities for municipalities

There is an enormous potential for the use of cargo bicycles in the private as well as in the commercial sector in German cities. Proper implementation provided, relief can be achieved relatively simply, in particular in city centres. By now, more than 25,000 cargo bicycles are being used in Copenhagen [Reiter/Wrighton 2016]. However, a bicycle-friendly environment does not guarantee that cargo bicycles are actually used. Knowledge among stakeholders is still very limited, and this prevents more extensive use in urban commercial transport operations [Riehle 2012]. However, a process of change has been observed recently.

Municipalities can set a good example and use cargo bicycles as part of their own vehicle fleet. Cargo bicycles are also suitable for campaigns and information stands, for example in the tourism sector. The English city of Cambridge has introduced a quality label for deliveries by bicycle and, in addition, has included the use of cargo bicycles as an award criterion for tenders and procurement specifications where it makes sense in terms of weight and volume [Reiter/Wrighton 2016].

Lastenräder der Stadt Erlangen
© Tobias Klein

When upgrading the bicycle infrastructure, tracks and curve radii should be designed sufficiently wide to take into account the growing number of cargo bicycles, but also to cater for the general growth of cycle traffic and the growing number of pedelecs. Allowing cargo bicycles to enter pedestrian precincts appears to be a reasonable measure in many cases and is also demanded by the German retail federation HDE that refers to a study conducted by the German parcel and express logistics association BIEK. The study found that cargo bicycles, when compared to motorized delivery vehicles, are less of an obstacle to customers, do not obscure shop windows and make a contribution to creating an attractive urban landscape [BIEK 2015]. By setting up and systematically monitoring low emission zones and loading areas as well as by reducing delivery hours for motorized transport in city centres, pressure can be exerted on enterprises to reconsider the composition of their fleets. For example, in Basel the volume of bicycle courier orders increased by 20 % as a result of the introduction of access restrictions to the city centre [AGFS 2015].

However, in all cases, good cooperation between local authorities and enterprises is essential. Round tables, working parties and steering committees can be established to connect individual stakeholders with one another, and in pilot projects, different scenarios can be trialled and sceptics convinced. Micro storage facilities and pooling centres should always be planned in close cooperation with those in the field because the work of logistics companies is based on very specific patterns and swap bodies cannot be delivered anywhere in densely built city centres.

As the advantages of cargo bicycles are not yet sufficiently known to many parts of the population, awareness campaigns for the private and public sectors are required. Making available cargo bikes for test purposes can be very helpful in this context.

Local authorities also have the opportunity of providing funds for the use of cargo bicycles. In the Austrian city of Graz, funding of 1,000 EUR was provided in 2011-2017 when buying a cargo bicycle for commercial purposes; the premium has been requested 80 times [Reiter/Wrighton 2016]. The first buyer's premium in Germany was offered 2016 in Munich. In the state capital, enterprises, freelancers and associations receive funds amounting to 1,000 EUR when buying an electric cargo bicycle. Buyers who can additionally provide proof that a motor vehicle has been immobilized for the purchase receive another 1,000 EUR. Since January 2017, funds are also provided for the purchase of electric cargo bicycles by private individuals. In the meantime, many cities follow these example, for an overview (in German) cf.  Amongst the German federal states, Baden-Württemberg is the first providing funds for the purchase of cargo bicycles.

A good overview in German including tips for local authorities to promote the use of cargo bicycles in commercial transport can be found on the pages of the VCD project “Lasten auf die Räder”.

Checklist: successful promotion of cargo bicycles by local authorities

  • Make cargo bicycles a part of local authorities’ vehicle fleet
  • Include use of cargo bicycles in award criteria
  • Infrastructure: provide for sufficiently wide tracks and curve radii
  • Examine permission for cargo bicycles to enter pedestrian precincts
  • Set up low emission zones and loading zones
  • Systematically monitor access restrictions and parking offenders
  • Set up round tables and working parties with all relevant stakeholders
  • Plan pilot projects in close cooperation with companies
  • Set up micro storage facilities, possibly in municipal areas
  • Plan information campaigns and cargo bicycle test opportunities
  • Give financial incentives for the purchase of cargo bicycles

Conclusion and looking ahead

The use of cargo bicycles in Germany is still in its infancy. This is despite the fact that cargo bicycles were already used successfully on a nationwide basis prior to the beginning of mass motorization. Today, cargo bicycles are again showing great potential – be it in the private or the commercial sector – as has been proven by several studies and pilot projects. Local authorities have a number of options to promote the use of cargo bicycles. What is important is close cooperation with all relevant actors. In the future, in particular city centres can benefit from a reduction of emissions and traffic volumes.


[BIEK 2015]
(Abruf am 15.15.2016)
Bundesverband Paket und Expresslogistik e. V. (Hrsg.), Prof. Dr. Ralf Bogdanski (Autor)
[BIEK 2016]
(Abruf am 13.12.2016)
Bundesverband Paket und Expresslogistik e. V.
[Behrensen 2016]
in: fairkehr 3/2016, S. 32-34
Behrensen, Arne (2016)
[Deutsche Post DHL Group 2016]
Deutsche Post DHL Group (2016)
[Gruber/Rudolph 2016]
(Abruf am 19.10.2016)
Gruber, Johannes, und Christian Rudolph (2016)
[Reidl 2016]
in: Magazin 05/16, S. 52-55
Reidl, Andrea (2016)
[Reiter/Wrighton 2016]
in: Österreichische Gemeinde-Zeitung 6/2016, S. 14 f. (Abruf am 25.10.2016)
Reiter, Karl, und Wrighton, Susanne (2016)
[Stepper 2016]
in: Raumforschung und Raumordnung 74, S. 151-163
Stepper, Martina (2016)
[Wälti 2013]
in: Forschungsforum Mobilität für Alle 2013: Cyclelogistics – der innovative Trend im urbanen Warentransport, S. 13 f. (Abruf am 09.12.2016)
Wälti, Martin (2013)
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Date (Text as of…)
13. January 2017
Handlungsfelder NRVP