Anatomy of a cargo bike breakdown
18 MAR 2022
CONTENT SUPPORTED BY NEW MOTION LABS
BY TOM PARR, CO-ORGANISER OF THE
INTERNATIONAL CARGO BIKE FESTIVAL
3 MINUTE READ
“SNAP-THUNK!” It’s an all-too-familiar noise for many commercial cargo bike riders; the snap of a chain breaking, then generally flying off and – thunk – hitting various parts of the bike.
It happens most often when starting from stationary position – the moment chains bear the most tension, often causing riders, suddenly facing zero resistance, to fall awkwardly. And what starts with a noise is generally followed by a wave of inconvenient, costly consequences that ripple their way through organisations. In other words: every cargo bike fleet manager’s nightmare.
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With ever-increasing loads being carried by larger, heavier duty cargo bikes, it seems logical that cargo bike drivechains need to become stronger. “Regular maintenance can help prevent issues from occurring out on the road,” explains Marcel Fowler, CEO of New Motion Labs “but if a chain is going to snap, that only helps you so much. It will snap in the end and you don’t get to choose when.” So, what can be done about this problem? Fowler’s New Motion Labs does have a solution; but more on that later. First let’s explore what such a breakdown means to a real organisation.
With around 70 employees, Oxwash is a sustainable laundry company based in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Founded in 2018 by an ex-NASA scientist, the company uses a fleet of around 20 cargo bikes for their inner-city deliveries and collections. Despite the company’s impressive record on reliability and growing portfolio of satisfied clients, the chain-snap breakdown scenario is one that Chief Operating Officer Tom de Wilton is no stranger to. “I’ll be honest; it doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does happen, it’s catastrophic on several fronts.”
As De Wilton explains, the first of these fronts is the bike itself. “You’ve got an e-cargo bike on the side of the road somewhere – and chains often snap in such a way that they can’t be repaired on the roadside. So what happens next is that either the rider pushes the bike all the way back to our base or to the nearest bike shop. Alternatively, we could recover it; either in one our own e-vans or by hiring someone in to do that at short notice. With pushing or recovery that’s immediately an hour, hour-and-a-half delay; at least. None of them are good options.” Costly in terms of both time and money; because of course even when the bike has been recovered it still needs to be fixed.
Secondly – although naturally they always come first – is how the breakdown affects customers. And by extension, an organisation’s reputation. Whether items need to be delivered or collected, De Wilton points out that time is of the essence. “We offer various turnaround times. For hotels for example, if we pick up at 9am, we promise to drop off again by 4pm. A breakdown means we’re not able to carry out the service as promised; our customers are not getting that offer. So not only do you lose revenue, you also risk customers. So it follows that anything at all we can do to prevent a breakdown is an action we should take.”
The third front is operational – and it’s here that unpredictable knock-on effects can really begin to bite. To start with, there is one bike less to work with, meaning deliveries and collections need to be reassigned and rescheduled. Another operational impact is on personnel. Managers pulled away from strategic tasks to riders and laundry staff needing to work overtime to clear backlogs.
But that’s not all; at Oxwash, other parts of the business, namely the laundry itself, could also be affected. “Let’s say a rider has just collected a load of dirty laundry that needs a fast turnaround and then their bike breaks. Every minute matters” states De Wilton, “there is often a dedicated timeslot in our workflow for that load to be laundered. If those items are late, it could throw everything off.”
It’s not all about time and money though: “If laundry that should have been processed in seven hours now only has four hours, that often means we have to compromise on sustainability” – a big issue for an organisation that is aiming to become the world’s first carbon-neutral laundry service. What this means in practice is washing machines not loaded to their full capacity, and the necessity to dry laundry faster, using more energy.
“According to our estimates, a cargo bike breakdown can cost a business €600 (around £500) – more if the bike needs to be recovered. Our view? This is avoidable” claims Lucas Lobmeyer, CTO of New Motion Labs. “Our solution has been to develop Enduo Cargo; a stronger, cargo bike-specific drivechain that lasts 3 times longer. Plus it’s lighter.” For a relatively modest upfront investment of £199 per bike (€239), Enduo Cargo pays back dividends by preventing some of the potential issues outlined above. As Lobmeyer puts it “it’s a small price to pay for extra operational reliability”.
Back at Oxwash, a number of London-based bikes in their fleet have begun a 3-month trial of Enduo Cargo. Around a month in, De Wilton recognises it is too early to draw conclusions on breakdown-prevention, but is optimistic. “For us, Enduo Cargo increases the time that our riders can be out on the road” De Wilton explains, “It’s something that we hadn’t really considered before we had contact with New Motion Labs, so I’m really interested to understand what the data will tell us about what that looks like for our operations.”