In Portland, Oregon, entrepreneur Franklin Jones has embraced the future of urban transport. Never mind that the future closely resembles early 20th-Century Britain.

Jones, the owner of B-Line Sustainable Urban Delivery, uses the same technology relied on by postal carriers in Victorian England, or by Good Humor ice cream vendors in postwar America. Like so many fashion trends, the decidedly low-tech cargo bike – known to early 1900s peddlers and tradesmen as the “poor man’s nag” ­– is making an everything-old-is-new-again comeback. From Portland, Seattle and Vancouver to Toronto, Boston and New York and points in between, urban businesses and residents are discovering what European and Asian city-dwellers have known for years: cargo bikes make sense, whether used to deliver goods through traffic-choked streets, lug kids to a park or buy groceries. Point of fact: 25% of families with two or more children in Copenhagen, Denmark, own a cargo bike, according to the European Cycle Logistics Federation (ECLF).

And why not? With its low initial cost of investment, zero carbon emissions, relative nimbleness and minimal operating costs, there is much to commend. Even DHL, the global parcel-delivery giant, recently hopped aboard. By replacing 33 trucks with 33 cargo bikes in the Netherlands, the company estimates it is saving about $575,000 annually and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by 152 metric tonnes annually, the ECLF notes. Not to be outdone, rival UPS has begun testing its own electric-assisted delivery bikes – in brown, of course – in a few European cities.

“Cargo bikes also offer a huge advantage because we don’t need loading zones or parking spots, so we spend less time per delivery than if we used traditional delivery methods,” says Jones, who notes that his company has been transporting everything from food to business supplies to its Portland-area clients. “Using bikes also reduces traffic congestion and involves fewer risks than using trucks, not to mention the health and wellness aspects,” he adds.

The two- and three-wheeled bikes are not your grandfather’s rigs – or your great-grandfather’s for that matter (although companies such as Worksman Cycles in New York City are tapping into a retro-obsessive zeitgeist with its industrial-design pedallers). Consider the longtails made by California-based Xtracycle (which also manufactures a folding bike, the Cargo Joe), Surly or Yuba; the trikes built by Copenhagen-based Butchers & Bicycles; and the long-wheelbase bakfiets (Dutch for “box bike”) – also known as “long Johns” – manufactured by De Fietsfabriek in Amsterdam, Larry vs Harry in Copenhagen and Portland Metrofiets in Portland, Oregon.

These modern rigs come in a wide array of geek-chic styles and are equipped with features common to high-end passenger bikes. Some are even configurable with battery-powered electric motors.

Jones’ B-Line began in 2009 with one client and two cargo bikes. The company now delivers to around 200 customers and owns eight freight trikes. One is a prototype made by Stites Design in Portland, and the others are basic models built by Britain’s Cycles Maximus that B-Line staffers have customised with battery-powered electric-assist motors. They feature either eight- or nine-speed gearing with low gear ratios to help power away from stops and up hills with a full load.

“Our average payload is about 600lbs,” says Jones, who previously worked in bicycle- and pedestrian-infrastructure planning in Bend, Oregon, and once took a 13,000-mile cycling trip through Asia and Europe that exposed him to the many low-tech but efficient ways freight moved throughout the world.

“But our bikes aren’t high-speed. With the electric-assist motor, they can go about 9mph when fully loaded, and the average speed is about 11mph. We’re more like the tugboats of the electric-bike world. But on any given day, we make deliveries to more than 100 accounts, with each rider covering 10 to 20 miles.”

Cargo bikes aren’t the solution to every urban-congestion or ecological woe, Jones concedes, noting they cannot replace all trucks or other vehicles powered by fossil fuels. “They’re an additional tool that can be used in urban cores,” he says.

But for B-Line and Portland residents, the sustainability benefits abound. In 2013 alone, Jones says that B-Line bikes travelled 32,000 miles while eliminating an estimated 63,832lbs of carbon-dioxide emissions that would have been produced by gas-burning vehicles moving equivalent freight. Over the five-year life of his company, Jones revises those numbers upward to 88,000 miles and 80 tonnes of carbon emissions avoided.

“Our 2014 numbers are stacking up to be even larger across the board,” he says. “We are quite excited about the ripple effects our little trikes create.”

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