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UPS to Launch E-Bike Delivery Solution in Seattle

Words by Phil Covington
Leadership & Transparency
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Urban congestion is a growing problem around the world. With competing uses for city streets, congestion cost New York City and London a combined $46 billion last year, when fuel bills, increased shipping costs and wasted time sitting around in traffic were factored in, The Economist reported.

This has cities around the world looking for ways to decrease urban gridlock, using policies like congestion fees to ease the pain of slow-moving traffic. Enterprises that are affected by clogged streets are also coming up with innovations that enhance efficiency and leave a smaller footprint where they operate.

Logistics giant UPS is one such enterprise that for some time has been experimenting with more sustainable transportation solutions. Back in 2016, we reported on the introduction of an e-bike prototype, which UPS planned to use for deliveries in Portland, Oregon. Building upon that and similar operations in European cities, this week the company announced a new e-bike delivery system that will go into service in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the downtown Seattle area. UPS collaborated with Silver Eagle Manufacturing on the design, as well as Truck Trikes to develop the system from the ground up.

“[What] makes this different and interesting is not that it’s an e-bike, or equipment, but it’s a system that is modular,” Scott Phillippi, senior director of automotive maintenance, engineering and international operations for UPS, told TriplePundit.

Specifically, unlike the earlier e-bikes UPS experimented with—or, more accurately, e-tricycles with permanent cargo boxes—the new iteration comes with 95 cubic feet containers that can be detached from the system. This means the detachable containers, which themselves have wheels, can be hauled around on foot where the environment demands. This ultimately makes the system even more flexible than prior UPS e-bikes, allowing a variety of needs to be met in the urban environment.

A big advantage with the modular approach is that when all of the deliveries are made from the first container, the driver can attach the next full container—staged at a nearby location in the city—without returning to a distribution center. This will save time and reduce package handling.

Each container expected to hold around 40 packages. The plan is that four containers—each preloaded for designated routes—will be staged close to their delivery areas, allowing the system to be maximally efficient. The containers themselves will be fitted with solar-powered GPS units to keep tabs on their whereabouts, enhancing their security.

The modular delivery system will go into service on November 5 with just one initial e-bike. While the Seattle Department of Transportation worked with with UPS in developing the system - with the goal of both reducing congestion and improving air quality - Phillippi says UPS has tried to take a proactive approach with this program rather than be in the mode of reacting to a congestion crisis. If successful, UPS will expand the routes and consider additional e-bike deliveries in other areas of the city. Down the road, Phillippi says other cities are interested in deploying similar programs, too.

The pilot program conducted over the next year will be evaluated in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab, where researchers will review the e-bike’s reliability, design and integration into Seattle’s infrastructure. UPS expects to learn very early on what works well—and what parts of the system need to be improved, Phillippi said. From the business perspective, “Even if we stay even, it will be an improvement as we’re reducing congestion,” he told us.

As with earlier e-bike systems, the company will invite employees to bid for driver positions—which it calls its team of “industrial athletes”—and Phillippi says employees are excited to participate.

Piloting the program in Seattle has some historic relevance, too, as UPS originated as a bicycle messenger service in the city back in 1907. Going forward, the cargo e-bike is part of a broader company strategy to continue to electrify its delivery fleet, UPS said.

Image credit: UPS

Phil Covington

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

Read more stories by Phil Covington