by Charlie Couve, Tiffany Lam and Ersilia Verlinghieri
Cargo bike deliveries have an essential role to play in reaching net zero ambitions, reducing congestion, and providing an efficient and affordable means of logistics. Cargo bike deliveries also have the potential to provide quality employment, differentiated from the ‘gig economy’. However, cargo bike delivery riders can experience precarious work, and health and safety risks. Furthermore, the workforce of cargo bike logistics companies lacks diversity.
Our newly released report illustrates the precarious working conditions some cargo bike riders face, and the financial and operational challenges encountered by company managers and founders. In combination, these hinder the potential of this critically important sector in London and beyond. The research, funded by Impact on Urban Health, joins a growing body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of cargo bikes in reducing delivery times, traffic congestion, carbon emissions, air pollution and injury risk to other road users, compared to motorised vehicles.
Existing research paints a picture of a wider logistics sector characterised by low-pay, precarious work, and poor working conditions. Recently, a new report has shown van drivers experience unhealthier and more precarious working conditions compared to cargo bike riders.
Our new research builds on this, through a more in-depth engagement with the experiences of cargo bike riders, who are often overlooked in research, policy, and planning. As the cargo bike logistics sector expands, riders’ experiences and wellbeing must be carefully considered, so that sectoral growth corresponds with growth in good, green, gainful jobs.
Through interviews with riders and managers from 15 different cargo bike companies, we found that despite a rhetorical commitment to being distinct from the gig economy, companies struggle to provide riders with secure work and pay reflective of the skills required for the job. Riders must also navigate a highly car-centric environment where they experience aggression from drivers who do not regard cargo bikes as legitimate road users. All of the female and nonbinary couriers we interviewed recounted experiences of physical or sexual harassment whilst out on the road.
The report invites policymakers and cargo bike companies to develop and implement an action plan around six key areas to improve working conditions in the sector:
- Ensuring riders have access to good and fair employment. This includes paying them at least the London Living Wage, giving them access to paid sick leave regardless of contract type, and allowing trade unions to access workplaces to support riders.
- Scaling up the cargo bike sector. This includes the formation of an industry alliance to advocate for collective goals, such as increasing the uptake of bikes for deliveries and investing in safer streets for cycling, and launching a public information campaign to promote bikes as a viable alternative to vans and cars, both for businesses and individuals.
- Improving cycling infrastructure. This includes expanding the network of wide, segregated cycle lanes and creating couriers’ hubs that provide sheltered public space for riders to stop and rest between or during deliveries.
- Improving health and safety. Central to this is providing adequate cycling infrastructures, but also taking seriously riders’ repeated reports of harassment and aggression by drivers. Firms should provide riders with fully functional bikes and access to regular mechanical checks for their vehicles. New riders should also be given comprehensive cycle and road safety training, and basic cycle maintenance training.
- Adopting a clear Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) strategy to diversify the workforce at all levels, including management.
- Improving internal communication and management practices to improve riders’ wellbeing, such as having clear guidelines defining suitable hours for communication and moving away from ‘personal’ communication platforms like WhatsApp.