The Bicycle Astronomy outreach project has two related goals. The first is to provide inspiring views of the night sky to the good people of Geneva, NY, a rust belt city that is full of talent and potential. The second goal is to illustrate the utility of using bikes not just for personal transportation–most kids know that–but as general purpose cargo vehicles. The idea is not really to get everyone on a bike with grocery panniers, though that would be cool. It’s really to make people thing more broadly about what sustainability means, and about concrete things they can do to alter their lifestyle so as to live a little more attuned to the earth. Though we have found thousands of planets around other stars, we won’t be able to move to them any time soon. So we best take care of mothership earth.
I took the Bicycle Astronomy Yuba Mundo cargo bike to the market this morning and loaded up the giant pannier with locally grown provisions. Leeks, tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, potatoes, beets, garlic, napa cabbage (kimchi here we come!), a jar of jam. Here it is, a cornucopia on a cargo bike:
But yesterday, the Mundo did something even more impressive. It hauled the three boxes containing the Bicycle Astronomy telescope tracking mount. I felt like a UPS driver, except green instead of brown. The boxes probably weighed 50 pounds total, which is far from the 400+ pounds capacity of the Mundo. But they were bulky and looked heavy. If UPS switched to cargo bikes for local deliveries, how much would they save in vehicle costs, and how many jobs would it create, and how much would they save in medical insurance costs from their healthier work force? I’m not the first to ask. UPS has tested electric assist cargo bikes in Germany, and has hired cyclists in urban areas during busy seasons (at least in Portland, where it basically rains bicycles). Fedex and DHL have cargo bicycle fleets, at least in some European cities, and there is a big EU project to popularize the idea. Could we see more cargo bike deliveries in the US? Think about it.
In terms of efficiency, think about how much a UPS delivery truck weighs, 10,000 pounds, vs. a cargo bicycle like the Mundo at 50 pounds. Fuel costs are so high that UPS calculated that a new truck made partially of composities that weighed just 1,000 pounds less could save 84 million gallons of gas each year. Imagine UPS’s total annual fuel bill!
I stopped my local UPS delivery man in front of my house the other day and asked him how much his truck weighed and how much it could carry. His truck weighed just shy of 9,000 pounds. Maybe it’s one of those new composite ones? The total weight capacity was just shy of 20,000 pounds. So basically the truck can carry it’s own weight. Though, with ~700 square feet of cargo space, it would take some very dense, very heavy boxes to pack it close to capacity, and the driver admitted that situation was rare. Most of the time they are riding much lighter than that. (This article suggests the typical UPS truck’s capacity is really 4,800 pounds. But we’ll stay with what the sticker said on the local truck for this thought experiment.)
How much can the Mundo haul? Yuba lists the cargo capacity at 440 pounds (not including the rider) and 33 feet of cargo space, though if you’ve ever been to Vietnam, you’d know that unthinkable loads can be carried on bikes. The owner of Yuba Bicycles once carted around almost 500 pounds of rice, and here’s a video of a guy toting 400 pounds of bananas. These things can carry a lot, though like the UPS truck, most of the time they would ride much lighter. (Aliens examining a captured UPS truck might think they were designed to carry styrofoam peanuts, inflated bags of air and defective cheese doodles.)
Assuming full capacity at all times, it would take a score of Mundos with burly riders to replace a single urban UPS delivery truck and driver. The reality is that the trucks ride lighter most of the time and the bicycle replacement fleet would likely be much smaller than 20. But given the lack of average data, we’ll stick with the extreme. The 20 bicycles would cost $25,000 vs. the $100,000 of the delivery truck. Then there are the enormous fuel savings. UPS’s fuel bill is in the billions of dollars, so this is not insigificant.
Labor costs would obviously be higher. But with multiple bicyles in the field delivering (and at about the same speed as a truck, assuming an urban area), a daily load would likely reach destination much quicker, which could mean a far smaller bicyle fleet making multiple runs. So perhaps the labor costs would not totally defeat the savings in vehicles, fuel and maintanence?
We talk a lot about job creation here in the rust belt. And then there’s this whole energy independence/save the earth thing. Mabye UPS should expand it’s cargo bicycle program.