Friday, August 26, 2011

Rethinking freight transport

(Collin here, writing from the good ol’ U.S. of A. Since Beijing provided far more blog material than I could possibly write about while I was there, I figure I’ll continue posting until school and work take over my life in a couple weeks.)

One of my favorite things about Beijing was the volume and diversity of cargo bikes in the city. The vast majority are actually trikes with large rear beds, usually made of steel or bamboo. They haul a wide variety of cargo: watermelons, novels, Styrofoam, houseplants, beer, goldfish, copper pipes, bootleg DVD’s, mobile hot-pot kitchens, 2x4’s, dinking water, steamed buns in bamboo baskets, orders from, garbage, and passengers.

My favorites were the ones with integrated BBQ grills and/or crepe-making facilities. The mobile food tricycles, much like Portland’s food carts, provide affordable food while transforming the street into a welcoming, lively public space. Brilliant!

I don't know how many cargo trikes are in Beijing, but it’s almost certainly in the millions (the Beijing government estimates that there are more than 10 million bicycles in the metro area). Part of the reason there are so many cargo trikes is simple economics – trucks are unaffordable to the vast majority of these small business people. Another reason is the typically smaller scale of retail stores, which often don’t require tractor-trailer-sized deliveries.

The biggest reason for the huge number of these small delivery vehicles, however, is government policy that prohibits large trucks from entering the city (within the 5th ring road) unless they are carrying food from the countryside and have a special permit to do so.The fine for operating a large truck inside the 5th ring road without a permit is 200 Yuan, or about $30 US dollars. Before 2009 heavy vehicles were prohibited from entering during daylight hours, but the policy was so successful in decreasing emissions and congestion that the government decided to extend the truck ban to all 24 hours of the day. The policy creates an incentive for goods to be shifted to smaller - and in many cases less polluting – vehicles before they enter the city. Most of the cargo tricycles, for example, are either human-powered or electric.

Shifting to a similar model of policy that promotes smaller scale, lower (or zero)-emissions freight vehicles is attractive for several reasons:

  • less pollution and noise makes for a more livable city
  • smaller vehicles consume less roadway space and contribute less to congestion
  • increased safety for all other road users
  • more jobs in the transport sector

Chinese officials understand that freight is important to their economy, but they’re not limiting themselves to the standard freeway expansion solution. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking outside the box when it comes to freight transportation?


Alison said...

My favorites are the bikes with custom racks for carrying the big office water cooler jugs. At least 12 on one bike!

Joe said...

Thanks for the most excellent photos and essay, CtF! I can't quit looking at those pics. Ingenious!! -Joe

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