Brown Goes Green: UPS Tests Electric Bikes for Deliveries in Portland

Some packages in ‘Bike City USA’ will arrive via pedal and electric power, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
(Photo: Courtesy UPS)
Dec 14, 2016· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Portland, Oregon, just got another reason to call itself “Bike City USA.”

UPS has started a trial program to deliver packages there using an electric-powered bicycle.

The environmentally friendly Cargo Cruiser, as the delivery company has dubbed the device, is a tricycle with a large brown box on the back—kind of like a mini UPS truck. Like any electronic bike, the Cargo Cruiser can be powered by foot, motor, or a combination of both.

UPS began testing eBikes in Hamburg, Germany, in 2012, but this is the first time the technology has been used for package deliveries in the United States.

The eBikes support UPS’ efforts to reduce its carbon emissions, ease urban noise levels, and improve air quality.

The amount of energy or emissions to be saved by using eBikes hasn’t been quantified, but the test vehicle in Portland “will probably displace about two gallons of fuel every day,” said Scott Phillippi, UPS’ automotive maintenance and engineering manager. “Depending on where the electricity to charge the vehicle comes from, the bicycle’s got a zero-carbon impact.” He estimated that the bike will travel about 18 miles a day.

Phillippi says that one eBike alone won’t create a huge difference in UPS’ carbon emissions, but he describes it as “a piece of our overall strategy as far as environmental impacts and efficiencies.”

It also ties into the company’s broader strategy to get around a problem that plagues Portland and other cities around the world: traffic congestion. According to UPS, congestion costs it hundreds of millions of dollars a year in additional operating costs. The average UPS delivery truck in some parts of the country spends about 16 minutes a day stuck in traffic, slowing its deliveries and increasing the company’s carbon emissions.

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The pilot program is in its early stages and already has hit its first snag: ice storms that pulled trees and branches down all over the city this past weekend, blocking bike lanes and making travel hazardous. “That put a little bit of a wrench in things,” Phillippi said.

Longer term, UPS will be watching the pilot program closely to see how well the public responds to the bikes and how well the bikes respond to Portland. “We have to see how the current infrastructure works in terms of us being able to maneuver and make deliveries in an efficient manner,” Phillippi said. The company also wants to make sure that the vehicle—made by a Portland company called Truck Trike that specializes in bike-powered cargo—is sufficiently durable. “So far, everything seems to be working well, both mechanically and operationally,” he said.

If the trial proves successful, you may be able to start looking for UPS delivery people wearing bike shorts in other places around the country. “Other cities have expressed some interest,” Phillippi said.

For now, though, he said, “Portland is definitely a great place to start.”