Revolutionising Bicycle Logistics: with Camilo Urbano

7 min. read

Camilo Urbano is a political scientist by training and Master in Urban and Regional Planning by the LSE. He is also the leader of Urban Development at DESPACIO, an NGO and research centre based in Bogota, Colombia, with the objective of promoting the quality of life in cities through applied research and with an emphasis on challenging the intuitive.

Could you start by telling us about DESPACIO, specifically its trajectory in relation to urban mobility and the last mile?

In the last four years, DESPACIO has worked on mobility issues and its environmental impacts, as well as on land use planning processes, capacity building, and the construction of knowledge and information. We have developed many projects throughout Latin America from Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, and have even done some projects in Asia, Europe, and the United States. At DESPACIO we like to work transversally; that is, our approach tries to make  aspects such as gender inclusion, universal accessibility, and capacity building evident to decision-makers, but also for technicians and other audiences. 

In last-mile mobility, there is still a lot of knowledge and information missing. It is still a black box. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, urban logistics has started to become very relevant because of the supply issue and the need to maintain supply chains. 

Last year we closed a project in six cities in Latin America that started in 2018, where we proposed generating capacities, building a baseline of emissions, and analysing the issue of urban logistics, with the support of the Smart Freight Centre and Zaragoza Logistics Center. 

At that time there was very little knowledge about bicycle logistics. It was always approached from the national, but not the regional or local scale, which can be problematic as it can involve issues regarding location and distribution, land use, the use of old technologies, and has a great informality behind it, as well as great resistance to change. We learned that there is a lack of information and defined public policy for cities to understand logistics. 

DESPACIO has tried to fill those gaps, acting as a research centre and a laboratory of ideas and information. We are willing to try new ideas, such as through pilot projects. 

One of the most recent pilots in relation to electric cargo bikes in Bogota is called BiciCarga, financed by the World Bank, where we tested the use of these bicycles in medium and small logistics companies. Although cargo bicycles have been used for more than 40 years in Latin America, electric-assisted bicycles are novel because they can have greater coverage, save time, and are more efficient. However, there is still an information gap and uncertainty regarding performance, costs, and the possibilities for faster, more efficient, less costly, and less polluting last-mile logistics.

Can you elaborate a little on the cross-cutting approach that you propose for a project like Bici Carga?

At DESPACIO we have been concerned about understanding gender issues in all the projects we do, and this is still an aspect that we want to and will continue to explore in last-mile freight logistics, where we want to understand the role of women. 

Freight transportation, both urban and regional and national, is very masculinised. In Colombia, for example, there is already greater female participation but it is not visible. And behind this, there are many barriers that we have identified in our most recent publication, Prácticas de BiciLogística en América Latina (in Spanish), where we present these findings on the barriers that women drivers experience when performing logistics tasks. 

Behind all this, there is the issue of planning, management, social stereotypes, and even issues of personal safety and harassment. The report presents very interesting data and is a great lesson that refers to the support networks that are generated among women. We were able to interview women who were part of the project and we also went to look for more women bike messengers in Bogota, who shared testimonies with us on how they seek support among themselves when there are safety barriers.  

There are many lessons to be learned behind these projects. I like talking about them as I have learned a lot and it helps me generate more questions on what it is we really do at DESPACIO. We try to break that black box of information to define better points for action and public policy or even future research.


I would like to go back a bit to the comment you made about cargo bikes being used in Colombia for the last forty years. What can you tell us about the current culture and environment of cargo bikes in Colombia, and how would you describe that adoption process?

One can find documents dating back to 1930, that record the use of cargo bikes in Latin America. In the publication we did, there is a very brief review of that historical background. Unfortunately, there is not much documented evidence or memory of cargo bikes in Colombia. But beyond the graphic documentation, there is a socio-cultural legacy that we see to this day. For example, the day-to-day delivery culture we have in Latin America amongst neighbourhood stores, especially in Colombian neighbourhoods, where bicycles are used to deliver, has always been a way of providing a service. 

In Colombia, there is a pancake company called Ramo, whose business strategy was built around cargo bikes from the start. After that there were a lot of processed food businesses, like potato chips and so on, that started to do their distribution with cargo bikes, for three main reasons. First, it’s a form of market penetration; second, it’s a form of labour linkage; and third, it’s cost-efficiency. 

However, some companies of this type are in a somewhat grey legal area. They hire drivers so that they can make deliveries, but they also become salesmen, and they live from the commissions they earn. It is a model that, although it seems to be simple, has been getting more sophisticated in recent years, because it already offers a fixed salary, or alternatives such as earning commission as they go along, and so on.

What has been the response to this type of pilot, both from the community and decision-makers, in a city like Bogota that is well known for having a better reception towards urban cycling?

According to the surveys we conducted, almost 90% of the community surveyed accepts and has a favourable opinion about the use of electro-assisted cargo bikes. The argument is that it is understood that it is a way to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, noise, and congestion. There is still a lack of understanding of the issue of time from end customers, as to whether or not it saves on deliveries. On the other hand, delivery companies are fostering a culture that is not so good around delivery time, by setting high expectations in terms of delivery speed. They even go so far as to encourage practices such as two-stroke engine bikes, which consequently creates a problem not only environmentally, but also in terms of quality of service, and road safety. 

This brings me to the issue of decision-makers and public policy. In Colombia, cargo bicycles have a great legal vacuum. Colombia has worked a lot on issues of promoting active mobility and the use of bicycles, but in order to be able to use cargo bikes in a better way, proper regulations need to be put in place.  There is a lack of regulation that defines quality standards, standards of the technical conditions of the vehicles, which then affects the qualification given to the drivers as such. Establishing regulations in this area can be a political and social bomb, not only in Bogota but also in Colombia, but I am a big advocate for generating regulations that guarantee safety to the user and the driver. By having those minimum standards of flexibility, there can not only be economic development, but also innovation. 

The latter is another thing we have worked on at DESPACIO. Behind micro and last mile mobility there is a lot of development and innovation, not only in transportation technologies but also in information technologies that help to plan and make data capture more efficient, especially to have evidence for decision-makers. I think we have to understand this issue as multidimensional; it is not only economic but is always accompanied by the social.


And in that sense, what do you consider to be the biggest challenges for countries like Colombia in Latin America, to adopt cargo bikes not only as a logistics solution but also as a general mobility solution?

I think there are some important points. First is the issue of quality of service and safety. What kind of guarantee is being given to drivers in terms of their labour rights and economic stability, while we promote logistics as a viable activity for more people, that it is not seen as a second priority? We must understand that bicycle logistics is an activity that requires formalisation and understanding of the barriers for drivers, especially for women where we have to open spaces and remove stereotypes. We must generate more labour and policy incentives not only publicly, but also within companies to combat all these barriers that we have talked about. 

Another important point is to understand that cargo bikes can also be adopted by citizens to get around in many ways; to transport their children to school, do their shopping, etc. In Bogota, we are still very car-centric, and the rest of Latin America too, compared to places like the Netherlands where the urban configuration is much friendlier to have a cargo bike for care activities.

Behind that is the infrastructure issue. In Bogota, although we have a very good cycling infrastructure that is almost 600 km long, its design does not encourage the use of cargo bikes throughout the city. Also, for those that are electro-assisted, the fact of having charging points around the city is very important, and it is not easy to execute. If we are thinking about migrating to electric mobility, the issue lies not only in strengthening the human infrastructure but also logistics, where we have a big challenge because there is still not enough physical infrastructure. 

The last point has to do with regulation in Latin America. We have to promote this accessibility from a legal framework but encourage it in such a way that it does not represent another barrier for companies, such as the issue of insurance companies or when the regulations are designed only for traditional cargo vehicles. The regulation has to reach a balance, where it promotes both environmental and economic sustainability. The latter we tested in the BiciCarga pilot, which found that a company can have 30% savings in time and 30% savings in logistics operational costs with the use of cargo bicycles in large companies. It is an impressive finding!

My final message is that from this type of project, we can make a regulation that promotes and encourages this alternative and is a win-win, where there is promotion of the economy, but through a more sustainable and efficient last mile.

I think this is an excellent recommendation and something we need to pay more attention to, not only in Latin America but also in other places in the world with equally complex contexts.

In addition, it is important to highlight that if we do not generate information or data in this area, it will be very difficult to make decisions and make such barriers and opportunities evident. In bicycle logistics, there is very little information and it is very difficult to capture, but we must understand that this data can help generate added value because it enables better planning and can make activities more efficient. We also have to pay attention to capturing better data and motivating companies toward technological development and innovation.

 The pandemic taught us that we need information to be able to know what is going on. I think this is very important not only for entrepreneurs and their operators but also for decision-makers because we run the risk of uncoordinated actions or very rigid regulations where there is no economic or social growth.

All images: DESPACIO