Rethinking Local Food Distribution: Revolution on Three Wheels

Caption photo by Revolution Rickshaws

Photo by Revolution Rickshaws

What’s big and yellow, has three wheels, hauls a quarter ton and is poised to revolutionize small-load urban transport?  Answer: the cargo tricycle!

During national Bicycle Month, I spent lots of time talking about cycle advocacy, hanging out at cycling events, and, of course, riding bicycles.  I also thought more about the connections between cycling and food – which is what compelled me to attend a cargo bike presentation by Gregg Zukowski and Helen Newman of Revolution Rickshaws.

Founded by Gregg in 2005, Revolution Rickshaws rents, leases, services, stores, and operates tricycles in New York City – but not the kind you pedaled as a kid.  “They're like the King Kong of cycles,” said Helen, gazing proudly at the two cargo trikes parked in the room.  She wasn’t kidding; these are full-size, super heavy duty human-powered machines (see trike stats below).

Manufactured by Cycles Maximus, a UK company for which Revolution Rickshaws now serves as US agent and parts distributor, the tricycles feature a modular design that allows users to quickly swap out the body to adapt the trikes to different tasks.  Need to move people through Central Park? Pop on the pedicab body!  Hauling baked goods through a rainstorm?  Swap in the hard-top cargo shell!

The benefit of cargo trikes is that they operate without spewing pollutants, consuming fossil fuel, or killing people in horrible crashes.  As Gregg explained, the trikes provide “organic transport;" they run on renewable energy (food, not fuel), they enhance the health of those who use them and they improve the communities in which they operate by creating safer, calmer, quieter streets.  Cargo trikes are also efficient users of scarce city space; even a huge tricycle like the King Kong Cargo Cart has a much smaller footprint than a taxicab or delivery truck.  This is tremendously beneficial when operating in the congested streets typical of New York and other big cities.

Obviously, cargo trikes can’t completely replace motorized transportation; if you need to haul ten tons of concrete or carry a load of I-beams, a truck is the way to go.  But there are plenty of situations in which tricycle transportation is ideal – particularly whenever a relatively small load needs to be moved a relatively short distance.  In a busy, population-dense city like New York, this type of shipment happens all the time – and it’s terribly inefficient / pretty insane to use a delivery truck (which pollutes the air, guzzles gas, makes a racket, clogs up the streets, chews up the pavement, and threatens the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists) just to move a few pounds of stuff two miles across town.

Among the types of cargo particularly well-suited for tricycle transport is food – which is exactly what many of Revolution Rickshaws' customers carry in their trikes.  A few notable examples: Birdbath Bakery, Blue Marble (very cool ice cream trike), Vezzo (pizza trike!) and Norwich Meadows Farm (cargo trikes have been used to help distribute the farm’s CSA shares in NYC).

Revolution Rickshaws also provided City Harvest with a fleet of three cargo trikes, which the organization uses to salvage food for New York’s hungry.  City Harvest uses trucks as well – but their cargo trikes fill an important transportation niche, handling the sub-50 lb food pickups for which a delivery truck would be grossly inefficient.

Of course, you can haul more than just food on a tricycle; Gregg and Helen carry people in pedicabs, move stuff for businesses in cargo trikes, and even transport furniture on flatbed trikes for customers who want a CO2-emission-free apartment move.  At the event I attended they presented a slideshow of other creative tricycle uses, including a mobile coffee stall, rolling chocolate shop, dry cleaner’s delivery trike, recycling collection trike, mobile garden trike, and mail delivery trike (a city in the UK maintains an entire fleet).  Check out other examples in the Cycles Maximus photo gallery.

The slideshow ended with a photo of a man in Bangladesh pedaling a tricycle loaded with an impossibly enormous pile of brightly colored fabric.  This, Helen noted, is a common sight in cities throughout the developing nations of the world.  Smiling, she added, “Maybe we can catch up.”

Cargo Trike Stats:

  • Weight 187 lbs with pedicab body; 119 lbs with flatbed
  • Cargo Capacity: 551 lbs with pedicab body; 619 lbs with flatbed (the tricycle gearing allows the cyclist to transport these huge loads - but the workout can get pretty rigorous as carrying capacity is approached; especially when the terrain is hilly).
  • Length: 7.7 ft; 8.5 ft with cargo attachment
  • Width: 3.9 ft
  • Speeds: 24 (3x8 internal hub)
  • Brakes: hydraulic disk brakes in rear; hydraulic rim brake in front
  • Tires: heavy duty moped style (Gregg says they'll go a year without a flat)
  • Lights: Superbright LED rechargeable
  • Awesomeness Factor: High