Can cargo bikes deliver good work?

Cargo bike deliveries are increasingly seen on city streets, and Norwich is no exception. Campaign member Tiffany Lam – who works for Sustrans as a Strategy Lead for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion – recently researched the working conditions of delivery riders in London. She explains what she discovered

In recent years, cargo bikes have gained popularity as greener, healthier, safer and more efficient replacements for delivery vans in cities. Vans have been the fastest-growing source of road traffic in the UK since 1985. The surge in online deliveries since the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend. Cargo bikes can play a key role in decarbonising transport, which is essential to tackling the climate emergency and improving air quality. Transport produces 24% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest emitting sector. Road vehicles account for the majority (91%) of emissions from domestic transport, with logistics vehicles representing over a third of this (35%). *

But we need to ensure that growth in cargo bike deliveries leads to growth in good, green jobs. Employment in the logistics sector is characterised by a steady race-to-the-bottom approach, with widespread precarious, low-paid and unhealthy work. The explosion of gig economy food and grocery delivery platforms (e.g. Deliveroo) has increased the number of precarious workers cycling on precarious streets. While delivery cyclists make up a growing and sizeable proportion of overall people cycling in cities, they are “invisible cyclists” who are overlooked in cycling research, policy and planning. If we want to make cycling for everyone, then we need to include the perspectives of those for whom cycling is labour.

Cargo delivery bike in London – Photo @BikeBizOnline

With the Active Travel Academy, I’ve been doing research on working conditions in London’s cargo bike logistics sector. We interviewed 11 cargo bike riders and 11 managers across 15 cargo bike logistics firms in London and here are three key findings.

Widespread gig economy practices

Firstly, although cargo bike logistics companies make a concerted effort to distinguish themselves from the gig economy, gig economy practices are prevalent across the sector. Unlike gig economy food delivery platforms, cargo bike logistics companies typically pay riders per hour, provide and maintain the cargo bikes, and communicate directly with riders instead of via a faceless app. However, riders report experiencing low-paid, precarious work, performance pressure and threats that they can be easily replaced.

Delivery bike riders – Photo

This reflects a disconnect between the values and visions for growth that companies profess versus their ability to create functional management and organisational structures. Poor labour practices in cargo bike logistics firms are eclipsed by narratives around environmental sustainability and company cultures that value fitness and autonomy. Increased government support for the cargo bike logistics sector (e.g. financial support to purchase cargo bikes or to find affordable land for depots) would help increase companies’ commercial viability and improve their employment practices.

Car-centric streets

Secondly, cargo bike riders face challenges riding in a car-centric urban environment. Most cycle lanes are not wide enough for cargo bikes, which also cannot get through barriers in parks and on pavements. Cargo bike riders tend to ride on roads and take the lane, but face aggression from drivers, which can feel scary and stressful. In the words of one rider:

“…especially on the trike because I was taking up so much of the [lane], like you couldn’t really fit in a lot of the cycle lanes comfortably, so you were having to take a position in the road and people would get really angry at you for that because you’re slow as well.”

Moreover, the lack of public toilets, benches and water fountains means that riders struggle to find safe and comfortable places to rest or take breaks. This can be especially challenging during bad weather conditions. Streets and public spaces make up the bulk of delivery cyclists’ “workplaces”, so public space and cycling infrastructure improvements are necessary to support riders.

White, male-dominated sector

Finally, the cargo bike logistics sector is a white, male-dominated sector, and the lack of diversity and inclusion is a barrier to growth. One rider reflects on how the white male leadership structure creates a macho culture that can be alienating for women and less confident cyclists because:

“it is slightly frowned upon and shameful [to call for help]…There is a bit of a culture of, you know, get on with yourself attitude that I would say would lead to a lot of probably mistakes where people would rather try themselves and do it badly than ask. And I think that’s quite dangerous too.”

Cargo delivery bike in Cambridge – Photo Paul Rogers for the Guardian

Riders’ on-road cycling experiences are also highly gendered and more likely to involve physical or sexual harassment. Female and non-binary riders report feeling a lack of understanding or support from white male leadership teams. According to a non-binary rider:

“I don’t know what it is about being a female or non-binary courier, but that definitely leaves open some space for people just to like invade your privacy ‘cos you’re out about on the street …I got harassed for my number and email once, um, had some guy like inappropriately like punch me in the stomach… I know of different experiences of like women or non-binary people going to deliver in like a block of flats and a guy is actually trying to pull her in to the flat and stuff like that… the overall wider problem of sexual harassment is probably one of the biggest issues.”

Riders of colour also report being stared at and made to feel “out of place” when delivering in affluent white areas. While managers of cargo bike companies noted the lack of diversity as a problem, none of them knew how to address it.

So, what can we do?

We need more cargo bikes to replace van deliveries in cities. But we need to ensure that it’s a race to the top, not a race to the bottom. Here are five key actions for policymakers and cargo bike logistics companies to ensure good growth and fair work in the sector:

  • Ensure that riders have well paid and secure work, as well as fundamental employment rights, such as sick pay and access to union representation.
  • Develop mechanisms in both local and national government to nurture and support the cargo bike sector, such as fiscal support or helping to identify low-cost or underutilised land for new depots.
  • Create an industry alliance involving cargo bike logistics companies and policymakers to promote greater collaboration across the sector. The alliance should explore issues around training for riders, accreditation and regulation.
  • Provide adequate infrastructure to enable cargo bike operations and riders’ wellbeing (e.g. a network of protected cycle lanes of adequate width, battery charging facilities and public toilets).
  • Take action to advance equity, diversity and inclusion at all levels.

You can read the full report here.

* All emissions figures taken from the DfT’s Transport and environment statistics 2022.


Keep up to date with the campaign by subscribing to our free monthly newsletter.