Some unusual looking bikes have come to Hackney and Shoreditch recently – offering an alternative to hiring a small van or car to move stuff around the area.

These are cargo bikes, and they were deployed a couple of months back by e-bike firm, Beryl, with support from Hackney Council for a one-year trial, and far from the days of Granville on his ricketty bike in Open All Hours, these are specially designed for carrying reasonably large loads around safely.

Although cargo bikes have been around in various guises for many years, these are the first in the UK to be offered in a way that’s similar to London’s existing cycle hire scheme — that is they can be hired.

Just as for many people who today are regular casual cyclists but were put off by the upfront costs and lack of practice in cycling until the cycle hire scheme normalised cycling for many people, Beryl hopes that the same could happen for cargo bikes. A cargo bike hire scheme to act as a gateway for casual and occasional users, and then maybe some regular commercial users will invest in buying a cargo bike as a permanent addition to their business.

Just as the increasing sight of people cycling around London, especially compared to a decade ago, has changed people’s awareness of cycling, people who switch from hiring a cargo bike occasionally to buying one for their business are going to help normalise the sight of such bikes on the streets.

Wider visibility of the cargo bikes creates a virtuous circle that means more people will be hiring them on an ad-hoc basis simply because they know the option exists.

Right now, not many people know you can hire a cargo bike.

So, a few months ago, four bays were set aside by Hackney Council, and Beryl set up eight cargo bikes for their initial trial at London Fields, Stoke Newington, and two in Shoreditch.

They’re proving to be popular.

To use the bikes, you need to download a smartphone app, and the map will show you the four areas where they have cargo bikes to hire. At the hire point, tap in the bike’s six-digit code and the bike is released. Unlock the rear wheel, and then a bit like a motorbike, you push the bike forward so that it drops off its stand and then it’s just a normal, if rather larger than normal, e-bike.

The cargo container is a single lid box and fortunately, you can’t cycle with the lid open, as that would be daft, not to mention unsafe. I dropped my camera bag into the cavernous space, for want of anything else to test the cargo-carrying capabilities of the bikes.

Cycling around Hackey a bit with Beryl’s co-founder and CEO, Philip Ellis, the bikes take a little bit of getting used to, but within a minute or so it’s just like riding a normal bike, except for the battery assist and the big white box in front of you.

The most noticeable difference is that the cargo box obscures the front wheel, and it’s not until you use one that you realise how unconsciously dependent we are on seeing the front wheel as we turn corners or as a forewarning of bumps in the ground. There’s also an oddly amusing effect that when turning corners, the bike handlebars turn, but the cargo box hides the wheel in front turning as well. That’s the sort of thing you get used to very quickly and is probably not unlike an aircraft pilot who can’t see their front wheels either.

The battery assist is also pleasingly subtle and didn’t have the jarring acceleration I’ve experienced on some other e-bikes. That smoother acceleration is quite reassuring when cycling in London’s crowded streets.

The unsettling bit is that while the bike isn’t any wider than a normal bike, it feels it, so you’re a bit warier when cycling. Then again, it keeps you alert, and that has to be a good thing – zoning out while cycling/walking/driving being a major cause of accidents. No chance of that with these bikes.

Maybe because they’re new and unusual, or because the big white cargo box is so noticeable, but people do tend to look up a lot more as you go past them. In a way, it reminded me of when the cycle hire bikes were first launched in London and as an early adopter, I’d often hear comments as I cycled past on the blue bikes about these new things. Today no one blinks if you use a hire bike.

Whether cargo bikes will reach that level of familiarity is for the future, but the arrival of the cycle hire scheme certainly changed London and cycling. Before the cycle hire scheme, cycling was something that was limited to fitness fanatics going to work or couriers zooming around in lycra dropping off envelopes and racing off again.

Cycling is vastly more popular now, and its appearance has changed. Yes, there’s still lycra for the long-distance commuters, but people grabbing a hire bike are wearing normal clothing and pootling around town. A lot of that is thanks to the ease of just grabbing a bike and using it for a bit then dropping it off.

The cycle hire scheme acted as a gateway into cycling for a lot of people, and what Beryl hopes is that the cargo bike hire could do the same for deliveries.

A fascinating difference between a normal bike and a cargo bike, apart from their obvious appearance and ability to shift large amounts of cargo, is the behaviour shift they can create. Candidly, someone hiring an e-scooter or normal bike is unlikely to be switching from car to cycling, but likely to be using the bike instead of a bus or train, or walking. The buses and trains still run though, so the cycle hire doesn’t reduce CO2 emissions or local pollution.

A cargo bike almost always replaces a car or a van.

Yes, some people will swap a morning of going back and forth on a bus carrying a few carrier bags at a time for a single trip with a cargo bike, but the majority of trips would have previously needed a car or van to do the journey. So the environmental benefit of cargo bikes can be far greater in some respects than conventional bikes.

There’s also thinking that the cargo bike hire will open up opportunities for more regular smaller movements rather than waiting until there’s a car/van’s worth of stuff to move in one go.

The cost of hiring a cargo bike is slightly higher than standard e-bikes, as you would expect, but to make it more appealing, a person can stop/start as many times as needed for up to 2 hours without being charged for the extra time. That’s aimed at people cycling around an area doing lots of drop-offs of deliveries, but it could just as easily be of use to a shopper picking up their weekly groceries.

The cost for my cycle ride last week was £1.50 to unlock, then £1.50 for 15 minutes of cycling so £3 in total. More than a standard hire bike, but a lot cheaper than shifting stuff around in a taxi or renting a van.

If the scheme covered where I live, I could easily see myself swapping the monthly home shopping delivery of “heavy things I am too lazy to want to carry home” with a cargo bike instead.

The only slight downside at the moment is that you need to return the bike back to the place you collected it from – you can’t drop it off at another docking bay, mainly because they only have four bays at the moment. So the bikes are very good at moving objects, but not people, as the cyclist has to return to the starting point. But it’s not as if anyone is going to be cycling halfway across London with them. Well, not yet.

The cargo bike trial has been running for a couple of months now, and they’re seeing roughly a 50:50 mix of commercial users and private users. The commercial users tend to be small shops sending or collecting deliveries. For example, a sandwich shop might worry about investing £4,000+ in owning a cargo bike but can test the market by hiring a cargo bike when needed instead.

Private users seem to range from anyone carrying plants home from the Columbia Road flower market to people carting large bags of stuff between places. It’s probably just a coincidence that the box on the bike is about the same size as those famous Ikea blue bags, the sight of which on buses filled with domestic clutter is the classic sign of someone moving between flatshares.

And well, it’s this part of town, they’re being used for carting a few crates of beer from the microbrewers.

The ability to simply grab a cargo bike for an hour or so to move stuff around rather than the rigmarole of hiring a car or a small van is opening opportunities to move stuff around without waiting until you simply have to do it, and grudgingly stump up the cost of the man-and-van.

In just the past couple of months, the cargo bikes have proven popular, and while numbers were not offered, Phil confirmed that just two months after it launched, they are already eyeing up expanding the coverage area.

The bikes themselves were made in Nottingham by Raleigh, and are a customised version of this off-the-shelf model, which was then adapted by Beryl for hiring out. The main changes are obvious such as adding GPS and the cycle hire hardware, but also some less obvious such as making the bike secure to be left outdoors without being vandalised or nicked.

The bikes are stationed in four dedicated temporary bays, but they don’t have formal docking stations to recharge the batteries. At the moment, Beryl is able to keep the bikes charged by swapping the batteries once a week. And they practice what they preach, as the batteries are driven around in one of their own cargo bikes.

One of the aims of the scheme is to replace vans and lorries on the streets, but as the cargo bikes are so much smaller, they are limited to smaller deliveries. However, that may not be the constraint it seems. There’s a growing interest in having local delivery hubs, so rather than lorries driving around streets, they all head to a local hub, and from there, small electric vans or bikes complete the delivery.

Better Bankside has recently set up such a scheme offering storage space in a railway arch, while the ongoing Vision for Soho is looking at the possibility of using a local car park as a delivery hub in off-peak hours. The City of London is exploring similar ideas at Finsbury Square and London Wall.

A cargo bike hire scheme would allow a small business or shop to have a local warehouse space with deliveries going there, cycling to pick up what they need as and when they need it. The congestion and noise of delivery vans parked outside shops could become a fading memory.

Sitting outside a cafe on nearby Broadway Market and pondering the cargo bike, this is a road that just a year ago was lined with parked cars and vans and today is a shared space for pedestrians and cyclists. A domestic “cargo” bike went past carrying a child up front, among all the normal cyclists, and a small electric van quietly whirred its way past.

Is this the future of the high street? If so, it’s not a bad one.

To use the cargo bike, download the Beryl app (AndroidiOS) and set up an account and follow the instructions to unlock a bike. There’s a £1.50 unlock charge, then usage is charged at 10p a minute with billing paused if you lock the bike when it’s paused to load/unload.

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3 comments
  1. Jon Jones says:

    In Cambridge cargo bikes are quite normal for couriers & families. That cargo bike you rode is small compared to some of the cargo bikes in use in Cambridge. (Have a look at Zedify)

    • ianVisits says:

      As I noted in the article, cargo bikes have indeed been around for a long time – but this is the first in the UK offered as a hire scheme.

  2. Frankie Roberto says:

    In theory I think this is a “tri-borough” scheme, involving Islington and Tower Hamlets, funded through the Zero Emissions Network borough partnership. All the docking stations are in Hackney so far, but the zone you’re allowed to ride them within includes Islington and Tower Hamlets.

    I hired one a few weeks ago to take some heavy items to a recycling centre. Worked well! The only slightly faffy bit was having to use a separate app called “Okey” to unlock the shed that the bikes were docked in.

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