By Jana BIROSCAKOVA

Delivering parcels by bicycle – a less carbon-intensive alternative to van delivery – has become easier in Prague with the opening of two depots for cargo bikes in the city centre in 2020 and 2021. 

The bike depot concept was a finalist in the 2021 Eurocities Awards. Demand for deliveries has grown during the Covid-19 pandemic, and especially over the Christmas holidays. An analysis by the European Cyclists’ Federation claims it is feasible to make “the last mile” on a cargo bike in up to half of deliveries. Due to its rather hilly terrain, bikes with integrated electric motors are preferred in the Czech capital.

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Easier deliveries in the city centre

The principle of the depot is simple. A van drops the packages in the depot and from there they are brought to their recipients on a cargo bike. If an order cannot be delivered right away, it is returned to the depot instead of going all the way back to a distant warehouse, saving additional emissions. In future, clients should also be able to come and pick up their packages on the spot, which would cause them little inconvenience due to the depot’s strategic location.

From the outside, the depot looks like a group of containers on an abandoned parking lot. But the space also provides shared facilities for the couriers, including a changing room, showers, toilets and a heated kitchen, convenient during Prague’s long winters. So far, each depot has space for eight companies, which altogether deliver about 7000 orders per month.

Successful public-private cooperation

The delivery companies can have a container at a depot spot for a modest fee, which covers the operating costs of the facility. Consequently, the city does not have to sponsor the project aside from the initial costs, which were also quite low.

The cargo bike project also fits into Prague’s long-term vision to promote cycling and change its citizens’ attitudes to this means of transport. The depot also contributes to the city’s pledge to lower its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 and to be carbon neutral by 2050.

The project is a good example of cooperation between different actors. The pilot project was approved by the city council based on a study by the Prague Institute of Planning and Development. It took only three months to execute the proposal. Ekolo, the company setting up and running the depot, attributes this success to intense cooperation between the logistics firm and city-run companies.

Domestic firm (Dámejídlo, Zásilkovna, Rohlík or WEDO) and international firms (DHL, Dascher, GLS) both profit from the innovation. Twelve enterprises use the two depots at present, but Adam Scheinherr, mayor’s deputy for transportation, is in talks with companies that could not be accommodated in the first depots. A representative of Ekolo started helping with similar cargo bike projects in London, Copenhagen and Lille.

Lessons learned

Prague’s cargo bike experience can be an example to follow. Even though the depot is not the first of its kind, there has never been a project on such a scale. The first lesson is that more depots are needed, to minimise distance and save time. Secondly, we should remember that this innovation cannot eliminate all the negative effects of deliveries. This trend is still largely unsustainable, due to the amount of consumption, the packaging turned into waste and the emissions during the major part of the journey. More localised production is needed. 

Furthermore, the working conditions of cargo bike couriers are far from ideal. One recent example concerns an online grocery store, Rohlik.cz, one of the companies using the depot. The firm reduced the couriers’ wages (despite having almost doubled its profit last year), sparking public concern. Other difficulties of this job came to light, namely long working hours, lack of social security, and uncertain wages.

On a more positive note, electric cargo bikes are by far the most optimal mode of delivery. They are fast without being noisy, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. They slip through traffic more easily than cars, and they take up less parking space. Finally, they are cheaper, which is especially pertinent for smaller companies, and since no driving licence is required to bike, almost anyone can become a courier.

All in all, it is desirable to replicate Prague’s innovation elsewhere and contribute to more sustainable city deliveries.