Office Depot freight bike, London.London’s mayor wants to ban semi trucks from the city’s streets. Freight bikes should be part of the solution.Photo: Carlton ReidBoris Johnson, the mayor of London, is planning something that, at first glance, is unbelievable. He wants to ban semi trucks from the city.

The plan is to establish depots at the outskirts of London where goods could be transferred from giant, rumbling trucks (or lorries, as they say over there) to smaller vehicles for more human-scale local deliveries.

It’s unlikely that Johnson is considering bicycles to replace London’s freight fleet. But he should.

Freight delivery is often invoked in arguments against bicycling as a legitimate form of transport for business as well as individuals: “What about trucking?” goes the somewhat desperate-sounding line. “Don’t you eat food? It has to get here somehow.”

The truth is, bicycles (and their three-wheeled cousins) are already a major piece of the freight puzzle all over the world. Inspiring images from Shanghai and other cities frequently make the online rounds, and examples can be found everywhere there are roads or trails — from rural coffee plantations in Central America to the streets of any city where small and micro businesses thrive.

In U.S. cities, we have much to learn from the Global South, not least in this arena. Still, bicycle freight has never quite fallen completely by the wayside in America. Bicycle messengers, of course, carry items large and small — things that simply can’t be emailed and that have to get there fast. Most messenger companies employ drivers for long hauls, but inner city deliveries can’t be made expediently when traffic and parking must be navigated in a car.

Some things, though, you just need a truck for. Like trash collection. Right?

Actually, no. 

Pedal People have been collecting curbside recycling by bicycle since 2002 in Northampton, Mass. The hardy pedalers, equipped with long trailers, work year-round — also delivering groceries, running a diaper service, and fulfilling whatever creative bicycle-hauling requests their clients can come up with.

Meanwhile, in Bloomington, Ind., Bloomington Pedal Power has been diverting 2 tons of recycling from the landfill each week since 2008.

In Portland, the rise of the bicycle freight business has been strong and steady over the last several years.

The clearest sign of this is B-Line, an in-city freight delivery company that uses small box trucks mounted on tricycles. You see these vehicles all over town, pulled up to unload a week’s worth of produce at a local restaurant or a shipment of fresh baguettes or energy drinks to the food coop. Impossibly cheerful pedalers power the goods around town, aided on the uphills by an electric assist — which, unlike a motorcycle engine, is designed to supplement pedaling and can’t go faster than an unassisted rider on a lighter bike.

In a recent article, the company’s chairman and operating partner, Randy Koch, said

he likes the cargo bike business model because it works. For businesses shipping small amounts to multiple points in the urban core, “We’re simply cheaper and quicker.”

In a down economy, the company is growing. Happy clients range from small cafés to large chain grocery stores. B-Line’s vehicles emit no plumes of smoke, no noise louder than the ring of a bell or a friendly hello.

Bicycle delivery companies large and small are blossoming as the town becomes more bicycle-friendly and businesses start to catch on to the benefits of thinking outside the box truck. Portland Pedal Power operates a fleet of longtail bikes that affordably make small deliveries — food for your office party or flowers and chocolates for your date. Soupcycle delivers soup, of course. Trailhead Coffee brings a mobile coffee shop anywhere a bicycle can go.

Back in London, the mayor’s proposal focuses on the environmental impacts of limiting trucking in the city center. But there are lots of other benefits: cheaper road maintenance, reduced noise, less traffic, more available parking, cleaner air, more flexible and affordable delivery options for small businesses. Routing trucks to consolidation depots rather than through the city will make work less stressful for truck drivers and more predictable for their dispatchers.

Another major factor is safety. A recent report shows that 43 percent of bicycle fatalities in London are due to run-ins with large trucks. And it isn’t just bicycle riders who would be able to breathe easier. Large trucks simply aren’t compatible with people walking and driving smaller vehicles.

Beyond bicycle freight, people who rely on bicycles and trucks are natural allies: Both do best when there are fewer cars. The bicycle movement and the trucking lobby could do well to work together to create win-win scenarios like this one.