Bicycle deliveries are on the rise in Boston

Couriers make comeback with unusual loads

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff
Chris Boucher, operations manager for Metro Pedal Power in Somerville, loaded a tricycle prior to a delivery.

Want a steak dinner delivered? How about a package of antibodies for scientific research? Or maybe you need to move an armoire - and the rest of your furniture.

Look for the guy on the bike.

These are just a few of the items being schlepped around the city on two wheels, and sometimes three, as bicycle deliveries - once dependent on documents and heading the way of fax machines - rebound in the Boston area. While there are no official statistics tracking the surge in pedal power, bike couriers are reporting double-digit revenue increases as they transport things like recyclables and medical supplies, and many other types of businesses are biking their goods around the city, too.


Bicycle sellers and manufacturers are also reporting a jump in demand for heavy-duty bicycles used for hauling.

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Ace Wheelworks in Somerville, for example, has already sold six extra-long bicycles equipped with heavy-duty racks; last year at this time, it hadn’t sold any. “We’re starting to see a huge uptick in cargo-type bikes,’’ said manager Jason Paige.

Local companies are turning to bicycles and cargo trikes (some with battery-powered motors to help on hills) to deliver goods for reasons that include environmental sensitivity, the overall economy, and the efficiency of two-wheeled transport. The Kendall Square life sciences company Abcam Inc. recently switched from car to bicycle delivery, provided by Breakaway Courier Systems, to transport about 250 packages of antibodies a week to labs and hospitals.

The cost is comparable, said logistics manager Josh Whitlow, while satisfying the green inclinations of the company and its customers. “It’s more of a philosophy than a hard-line business decision,’’ Whitlow said.

Metro Pedal Power of Somerville builds and sells three-wheeled “pedal trucks’’ and uses them to make deliveries for manufacturers, farms, and retail stores. It also picks up recyclable material for the City of Cambridge. Revenues have jumped 15 percent from last year, according to the company.


Owner Wenzday Jane said lower costs are a big reason businesses are choosing bikes over cars, noting they avoid commercial vehicle registration and insurance fees and the costs of gas, maintenance, and parking. As an added benefit, the bikes are rolling advertisements. “The marketing potential is pretty high,’’ Jane said.

Restaurants such as Upper Crust Pizzeria and Redbones have used bikes to deliver pizzas and barbecue for years, and other food businesses are getting in on the action. Beacon Hill Chocolates added same-day bicycle delivery - $9.95 per order - about a year ago. Flatbread Company, the pizza place that took over Sacco’s Bowl Haven in Davis Square, will add a free two-wheeled delivery service next month.

DiningIn will also begin bike deliveries next month for orders in the Back Bay, the South End, and downtown Boston. The restaurant delivery business aims to shave 15 minutes off the normal 60-minute delivery time by using bikes to avoid congestion while saving 1½ gallon of gas per bike on each shift, said chief operating officer Martin Kelleher. The company plans to start with 10 cyclists in Boston.

“It very much improves the quality of our service in that food arrives much quicker,’’ he said. “There’s little traffic jams if you’re on a bike.’’

One of the more unusual adaptations of bicycle delivery is by Gentle Giant Moving Co., which is testing it for people moving into one- or two-bedroom apartments in the same neighborhood. Cargo bikes and trailers, designed to carry up to 500 pounds, will cut the number of expensive, diesel-burning trucks rumbling through the streets, said founder Larry O’Toole.


The company estimates two apartment moves and deliveries of cardboard boxes by bike would save about 10 gallons of diesel fuel a week.

The bicycle experiment costs clients about half the $140-an-hour they would pay for two men in a truck, although it will eventually be about the same price, O’Toole said. Bicycle moves require more people but less time, with each bike taking off as soon as it’s loaded - picking up a couch, taking it to the location, and returning for a new load.

“Until you’ve actually seen it, you would think it’s kind of crazy,’’ said O’Toole, who is trying the concept in Boston before taking it to Gentle Giant’s 19 locations around the country.

Some companies are using trikes to set up food-truck-like operations.Equal Exchange cycles its coffee to sell in different spots around the city; Taza Chocolate pedals its wares to farmers markets in the Chococycle, made by Metro Pedal Power and equipped with an electrical system that powers a stereo and blender.

The expectation of having products delivered to your door has grown in the age of, and courier services that lost business as documents went digital have diversified. Breakaway Courier Services last year added a cargo trike to its fleet of bicycles, cars, and vans to help accommodate an eclectic product mix.

In addition to delivering bagels, mail, and cakes, Breakaway couriers have taken on unusual jobs, whether going to someone’s apartment to let in the cable guy, delivering a giant teddy bear costume, or transporting a dead cat to its funeral.

“That makes up for a lot of lost envelopes,’’ said president Tom Cromwell.

The increase in human-powered delivery coincides with a broader bicycle boom in the city during the past five years. Boston has added 52 miles of bike lanes, installed 850 bike racks, and rents more than 600 Hubway bikes at stations around the city. The city estimates that daily bicycle trips have jumped to as many as 50,000, from 30,000 in 2008.

Bike messengers who work for courier companies like Breakaway have to register with the city, and the police are reviewing the law to see if it applies to businesses using bicycle deliveries. “When you inject bicycles into traffic in the city of Boston, you have potential for a problem,’’ said Mark Cohen, director of licensing for the Boston police.

Sebastian Banker, a Redbones “Rib Rider,’’ is well aware of the problems. He’s been hit twice by people opening car doors as he pedaled by. He advises the new corps of bicycle delivery riders to wear a helmet and to obey the traffic laws, because there’s no escaping the public eye when you’re a roving billboard.

“I feel like a cross between a Fourth of July parade and the mayor,’’ he said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.