POTENTIAL OF E-CARGO BIKES IN INDIA

On the busy streets of Mumbai there is a section of people who use bicycles as a primary mode of transport. In fact, they are independent transporters who move goods around the city on a bicycle. You will easily spot them bearing all kind of loads dressed in simple clothing throughout the day. Majority of those cyclists are men who operate wearing a shirt, trouser, shorts and slippers.

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Pile of clothing mounted on the rear seat. He is the ‘Ironman’ – but not from the Hollywood movie. Many families outsource the job of washing and ironing clothes to locals for convenience sake. This guy is a ‘Dhobi’ means ‘Laundry boy’. In this particular image, the boy is going to return the Ironed clothes to respective houses.

An informal micro logistics and supply chain system thrives in the urban cities. It is being efficiently managed by the so called ‘livelihood’ cyclist who mostly earn their living through efforts made in a day. A self-sustained model of picking up goods and dropping it to its designated destination functions largely on trust and understanding. There are no guidelines, rules, processes or technology involved in management of daily operations and the cyclist run the show all by themselves. All records of stock deliveries and payments are maintained in their pocket diaries and the only gadget which is found with them is a basic CDMA mobile phone. Interestingly, these cyclists have no dependence on government authorities nor are they attached to any structured organizations who can look after their welfare. Some cyclists are partly educated in vernacular medium while others have gathered working knowledge through ground experience which helps them to survive in a fierce city of Mumbai. For them earning their meal, looking after their families and children remains a primary goal in life and rest everything is incidental.

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The two images are of the same bicycle – Parked outside a local café, it is hardly visible. Can you make a guess how many bags are suspended on this cycle?

The absence of any formally acquired skills has no impact on the success of their output. Their work has become a modest routine driven by human intelligence and performed in harmony with society. Most of the cyclists use the inexpensive black roadsters with slight modifications suited to their needs depending on the kind of deliveries they do. The rear stands are strong and accommodating. The front handles are excessively used to hang nylon bags with goods stuffed inside. The overall appearance hardly matters to them. The cycles are not in the best of condition and the riders use them to its optimum performance limit. Until they face a wear and tear situation, any visit to a local mechanic is out of their priority list. No precautionary measures are taken and the user continues to nurture and prolong his rough relationship with the bike. Maintaining air pressure is an exception. I am particularly using the word ‘User’ as some cycles are owned while others are provided by the employer. But this does not change their behavior towards existing maintenance policy in any way.

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A vegetable vendor pushes his trike loaded with onion sacks and tomatoes.

Cyclist who deal into movement of heavy material or products in large quantities prefer using Tri-Cycles. Some Trikes are designed to bear higher weight and have increased capacity in form of a metal basket attached in front. Many such Trikes are locally fabricated and are completely human powered.

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A gas distribution agency employee is out on the street to deliver filled gas cans to customers and he will return back to the centre after exchanging them with empty ones. The delivery boys make a number of such trips in a day.

Maneuvering a fully loaded Trike is a serious test of physical strength and stamina and the inconvenience increases with hot and humid climate, rains, average to bad roads and tough traffic conditions. Some men involved in customer service and delivery of goods end up pushing three to four times their body weight – gas cans for instance. In such a scenario the Trike is hand pushed since its impossible to pedal push it. However, amidst so many unfavorable factors the brave cyclist go onto discharge their duties of supplying goods without complaint or regret.

Bringing efficiency with ecargo bikes:
Imagine if electric cargo bicycles replaces the trikes and the roadsters, It would boost the entire supply chain and logistics business run by these small time cycling entrepreneurs.

To list out a few benefits –

  1. Time will be saved with faster deliveries
  2. Possibility of more trips in a day or rest time or wrap up early
  3. Less physical efforts and better health condition of the rider
  4. Safe delivery of goods and on-road safety
  5. More satisfied customers/employees
  6. Chances of increase in profits
  7. And finally, increase in aesthetic value for other street users as e-cargo bikes have good visual appeal.

The only hindrance I foresee is the high cost of acquiring an ecargo bike. An expensive ecargo bike will remain out of consideration set for the poor cyclists and small time traders. To make them more popular its critical for the brand or the manufacturer to introduce a functional design which should be reasonably priced and is supported with customer friendly financial schemes. Apart from pricing, its durability and low maintenance cost will be important parameters for customers to evaluate before acquiring it. And finally, the bikes have to be made accessible to the right target audience with after sales support or its acceptance will have high chances of failure. Therefore, success of ecargo bikes is a combination of multiple factors but once launched they are sure to boost the micro logistics and delivery network and strengthen the value chain of small, medium and large size companies.

Replacing handcarts, mini vans and trucks: 

Vans and mini trucks are typically used for shipping light to medium weight goods. Replacing these vehicles with ecargo bikes can bring a lot of savings and cut down delivery cost. Less number of vans and trucks on road will result in more space for swift movement for other road users. This change will most importantly help cut down carbon emissions and better air quality levels.

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A man walks past an under construction site with a water tank tied onto his hand cart. Scrap collectors look out for such places to pick up items like metal sheets, iron rods, aluminium items, wood furniture, white goods etc. They play an important role in recycling.

A Handcart is an old age traditional method of transporting goods by pulling or pushing a two wheeled cart by one or two people. They are used by scrap merchants who collect scrap material from various residential and commercial locations in the city and sell it to a bigger merchant at a price for their collection. Others who use handcarts more visibly are the traders who distribute their stock to shopkeepers. It requires lot of manual efforts to use a handcart but the poor laborers take up these jobs for survival. Handcarts are risky for both – the person pulling it and other people walking on the street and can cause fatalities due to overloading. In the long run, these poor men develop health issues and suffer in old age.

Role of Government:

Governments role will be much beyond doing lip service for motivating people to use ecargo bikes by

  1. Create ‘Cycling Ministry’ and appoint a ‘Cycle Minister’ who will represent the community in the parliament house
  2. Introduce National and State cycling policies
  3. Set-up cycling departments in every city
  4. Encourage start-ups to develop effective and innovative designs
  5. Keep taxes low for manufacturing, sale and purchase of all kinds of bicycles
  6. Offer incentives to end users
  7. Facilitate sharing of technology and ideas with foreign brands
  8. Organize Mobility fest and invite international players to exhibit their products
  9. Hire experts as consultants to draw a long term plan for creating cycling infrastructure, policies and ridership growth map
  10. Induct Bicycle Mayors appointed by BYCS in all cycling related initiatives

Once a comprehensive strategy to promote bicycles and ecargo bikes is initiated by the government in its annual budgets and plans, the stake holders involved in business of bicycles will get inspired to produce and market ecargo bikes to its customer base on a greater scale. But the key issue is that how soon will the ministers and policy makers show a proactive approach and give cycling and ecargo bikes a priority that it deserves.

In the recently concluded ‘International Cargo Bike Festival’ held in the city of Groningen in the Netherlands, Philip Broeksma member of the city council made a statement and i quote “The city of Groningen is determined to have carbon free logistics in 2025″. Can’t Indian policy makers take such bold decisions. Jos Sluijsmans, the director of the International Cargo Bike Festival in his concluding remarks said “I enjoyed myself very much on the festival and I can’t wait until more cities become as ambitious as Groningen”. “Cargo bikes are booming”. Bring them on! he said. 

Concluding remarks:

It’s an unfortunate situation that this need gap has gone unnoticed. The merits of ecargo bikes are immense and when they are adapted and deployed wisely the opportunities are endless. Its beneficiaries will range from a laborer to a small time entrepreneur and large business corporations.

The Union Budget 2019 of India presented on 5th June states a ten-point agenda for a New India and if I can highlight what is most relevant to this subject under discussion is ‘Make India a Pollution Free Nation and a Healthy Society by 2030’ and ecargo bikes addresses these two points very well.

Taking cognizance of the present situation – the physical and psychological hardships faced by the people and in the greater interest of the environment; people involved in policy making, research, manufacturing and business of bicycles should introduce ecargo bikes in the market very quickly.

It will be interesting to see which brand emerges ahead and takes the lead.

What is your view on the efficiency that ecargo bikes can bring to a city?

 


 

Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai

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