Dodging the issue? The cargo bike’s real impacts
1 OCT 2022
SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE ICBF MAGAZINE WINTER 2022|2023
BY NATALIA BARBOUR
3 MINUTE READ
Following a two-year stint at TU Delft in the Netherlands specialising in transport and sustainability, Dr. Natalia Barbour Ph.D., moves in October 2022 to a new assistant professor post at the University of Central Florida. Here, she reflects on the social and environmental impacts of the cargo bike.
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In late August, the carmaker Dodge was highlighted in the news because of its new electric vehicle concept. And if you think that this EV caused a sensation because of its environmental impacts, safety features, or silent driving technology, you are very much in the wrong. It attracted attention because it promised “126 decibels of output” which, according to US public health agency the CDC, is louder than a chainsaw and necessitates ear protection. The interest generated by the EV’s artificially manufactured sound was called ‘brotherhood’ by Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis.
If you ask me, it is very difficult to form brotherhood or any sense of community if aspiring members are not able to freely converse and hear each other due to the presence of a chainsaw-resembling sound. It is, in fact, the opposite of brotherhood, community, and freedom.
There is much conversation going on regarding the future of urban mobility and although there will likely be many hits and even more misses in that space, the artificially loud EV is not the invention that cities and communities are anxiously waiting to experiment with in their downtowns.
The most livable city squares and neighborhoods in the world are not dominated by loud vehicles but offer ample space for people. They are not noisy and obnoxious either but provide beauty in silence and nature. These cities live in symbiosis with technology and vehicles while protecting and promoting their core values. The traits they all share are rooted in clever use of space, mobility, delivery, and comfort.
Many of those clever communities have allowed cargo bikes to transform how personal mobility and urban delivery are perceived, therefore cargo bikes were able to disrupt the paradigm that says you need a vehicle to transport larger items or an SUV to transport more than one person. They are undeniably cool, practical, and most importantly, supportive of environmental goals.
Academic research in this area has focused primarily on the potential of the cargo bike in deliveries and distribution, and – no surprise – confirmed that they stand out because of their climate friendliness. Furthermore, their flexibility in use, versatile speed, and compact design that is especially useful in narrow, city-center streets also sets them apart.
Research has repeatedly highlighted differences in how various socio-demographic groups cycle. Women cyclists still tend to make more trips for household and family activities. On the other hand, men’s cycling trips are mainly commute oriented. While there are a lot of reasons inhibiting an individual from cycling, most are rooted in safety; influenced by both physical and social environments.
Research has also uncovered an interesting phenomenon: nearly 70% of respondents in one study reported that after purchasing a cargo bike, it became their primary mode of travel. If supported by the infrastructure and encouraged by cities and communities, such a shift would have an enormous impact on decreasing transport emissions.
Nearly 80% of women respondents in the same study used cargo bikes for trips with kids, compared with 56% of men. The fact that having children in a household dictates the mobility of adults has been extensively studied, yet there has been relatively little visible progress on a global scale. Children today are so accustomed to car travel and suburban life that they are unlikely to even question these habits as adults.
The opportunity to transform old ways of thinking, emphasize the need for change and environmental awareness in mobility, and motivate the next generation of leaders to not fall into the same traps has become a necessity.
Perhaps the question is not whether bikes, e-bikes, and cargo bikes bridge the gap between urban mobility, delivery services, and personal travel, but why they have not been used to their full potential yet. Improving and disrupting urban mobility is not a matter of technology or space but only wise choices of who gets the priority to use that space.
In the end, perhaps it is time to reject all the mobility myths that we were told growing up, the habits that we inherited, and the fake promises that driving a fancy car for short distances provides us freedom and prestige. The real answers are often found in silence.
Dr. Natalia Barbour Ph.D. is assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering at the University of Central Florida
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