I’m Jarvis Suslowicz, a cargo cyclist active in Amsterdam coming to the end of my thesis project at the University of Amsterdam, resulting in an article titled ““Google Maps Doesn’t Know Shit”: Platforms, Mobility and Appropriation in the New Era of Bicycle Couriers.”
The project draws on my (auto)ethnographic and participatory GIS (PGIS) work in Amsterdam and Oslo to understand shifts in the mobile geographies of bicycle couriers under the banner of the platform economy in comparison to earlier messenger work. Here I focus on insight from the cargo side of the job in Amsterdam to understand challenges for large-scale delivery in a ‘cycling city’.
The Era of the Cargo Bike
For over a year, I have worked in various roles as a bicycle courier in two European cities – as a means of turning a marketable skill into money to survive – but encouraged by an interest in how cyclists move about cities when mobility is work. My research stems from the premise that despite radical shifts in the occupation, the literature covering mobility of bicycle couriers remains rooted in earlier examples. Recently, a sustainability focus in mobility planning alongside new ways of organising mobile workers has prompted an unprecedented diversity of goods delivered by bike.
One key change has been the explosion of (e-)cargo bike use. While in the Netherlands cargo bikes have a long-standing history in delivery work, they have entered use in markets across Europe as a logistical solution for cities seeking to move away from motor-vehicle dominance.
Here I want to touch on some of the considerations which go into cargo cycling that are often neglected in cycle planning and research. Cargo cyclists face different challenges to other kinds of cyclist, thus require special attention when accounting for them in our cities.
New prevalence and accessibility of cargo bikes has resulted in a diversity of designs to choose from, with their own pros and cons: the classic two-wheeled cargo bike is popular and nimble but can be difficult to handle when loaded; three-wheeled cargo bikes remove some of the pressure of keeping the load upright but are more difficult to turn; cargo trikes, such as the Chariot, solve some of the capacity limitations of the classic design by loading the cargo behind the rider, but the load necessitates the need for a throttle. Trailers are an option for increasing the carrying capacity of a regular cargo bike, but length takes up space. On some narrow bike paths, it is akin to driving a 53-foot lorry along the streets of Manhattan, albeit on a smaller scale:
Then we can get into the components. Most electric cargo bikes use cadence sensors – those which measure how fast the rider is pedaling to determine when to engage the e-assist. These are appropriate for riders who aren’t able to put much pressure on the pedal to get going, but are ill-suited for commercial cargo bikes where heavy loads may prevent turning the pedals at all when fully loaded, as they take a few pedal rotations for the e-assist to engage. With a cadence sensor, the cargo cyclist must think carefully about their gearing and where they stop/start. The other option is the torque sensor – which measures the pressure placed on the pedal. If it is assumed that a professional cargo cyclist has the fitness to engage a torque sensor, this seems the natural choice for heavy loads. Throttles, as found on the cargo trike, are legal in the EU when used for this kind of “start-up” assistance, cutting out at 6km/h.
Cargo cyclists interviewed in Oslo favour designs like the Danish Omnium, which are more suited to hilly terrain and feature motors designed with cargo in mind (though these are designed for carrying less cargo at a single time) or a recumbent style which offers more stability. Cargo bike technology, then, is not transferable without accounting for local conditions.
Infrastructure & Street Design
Amsterdam is, by all accounts, a cycling city, but with known problems in accounting for the sheer number and diversity of cyclists using its bike lanes. Cyclists ride in Amsterdam with different goals, speed and equipment, leading to conflict. Having good infrastructure opens doors to what is possible to carry using a cargo bike, resulting in heavier loads and larger/longer bikes to accommodate. However, in many cases, infrastructure constrains rather than enables movement.
Consider the Dutch cyclist-friendly intersection. Cyclists are protected, but remain subservient to motorists, as they are often made to wait for two sets of light changes to turn left, meaning cyclists must wait at one corner refuge for a period. This is problematic when considering the length of some cargo-carrying-combinations. Some Dutch cities have introduced ‘tegelijk groen’ intersections where lights at each corner go green simultaneously for cyclists. While the result may appear chaotic, the initial test been expanded, and is perhaps a solution where space limitations make it difficult to build refuges for left-turning cyclists.
Kerbs (curbs for the non-Brits) are often used as a means of protecting cyclists from motor traffic, but can cause issues on the side of the bike lane. Cargo bikes pulling trailers are vulnerable to sharp turns, where a wheel can catch on a kerb and flip the trailer when turning. This risk is more acute with longer trailers such as the Carla Cargo, also popular in their native Germany. An alternative is to raise the bike lane to the height of the pavement, such that the kerb remains in separating the bike lane from traffic, but does not cause risk to the cyclist. Sharp turns should also be avoided.
For examples of poor design from both of these standpoints, I only have to look to one street. Kruislaan in Amsterdam Oost has both a section of road which necessitates two 90-degree turns boxed in by kerbs…
…and an intersection where a cargo bike + trailer moving from A to C requires stopping at B, blocking traffic forcing a position where the rider cannot see the light changes:
Part of my research has involved couriers’ environments according to the affect they cause. Seeking input from couriers themselves can help identify areas which require intervention and analyse why they provoke certain responses. See an example below from Amsterdam:
Users attached comments to explain their choices. Often these did indeed centre around either failures in the design itself, or areas where busyness made the infrastructure more difficult to use: “Loads of pedestrians”, “Bad quality bike path. Also too narrow for cargo bike (with trailer).”. Comments on positive places reflect having enough space to move comfortably: “Fietsstraat! Space and priority”, or as alternatives to negative places: “This is the bike path we often cycle up in the wrong direction because it is difficult to cross at our 'hub' starting point.”
Society & Culture
One of the benefits of using a bicycle for delivery work is that it has historically existed in the grey area, able to occupy all kinds of infrastructure. For cargo bikes, this can come as a detriment. In the Netherlands, cyclists are obliged to use bike paths where available, unless their bike is broader than 75cm and/or has more than two wheels. Increased size and power puts (electric) cargo bikes into a different grey area, somewhere between regular bicycle and motor vehicle – so where is most appropriate to ride, the bike path or the road? A cargo bike can be too big for the bike path, but deemed too slow for the road. Cargo cyclists, then, face criticism for whichever choice they make, even if it’s perfectly legal.
During delivery routes in dense residential areas, I have many times been stuck behind a van delivering goods to a home, left stationary in the road with hazard lights on. Occasionally, drivers stuck behind may toot their horns but are otherwise patient, understanding that a necessary service is being performed.
The same discretion is not afforded to cargo cyclists. While we make every effort to park out of the way when making a delivery, occasionally we do so in a way which forces drivers to pass more carefully. On the other hand, stopping in a 'car parking space' has prompted drivers to ask me to move my bike, which prompts the question: what is the place of a cargo bike in a street environment? Perceived placelessness prompts intervention from users who view the act of inhabiting space as a threat. Indeed, in interviewing colleagues, some reported instances of verbal abuse and threatening behaviour based on their decision of where to stop.
Through inference from literature on cycling stigmas more generally, we can begin to theorise about why. It’s possible that by virtue of being on a bike, we are more vulnerable and therefore an open target to abuse from people enclosed in their car. Another option is that by virtue of being on a bike, we are viewed as performing a service less worthy of taking up space than that performed by the van driver. Both possibilities necessitate a change in attitude and understanding of the services performed by bike couriers.
One of the focuses of my research has been in identifying ways in which commercial cyclists respond to the challenges of working in street space using informal (sometimes illegal) tactics. Part of what necessitates these tactics are failures in the overall mobility system to respond to the needs of working cyclists. Understanding why cyclists behave the way they do is always a valuable first step towards planning for them.