Toronto and other Ontario cities turn to large cargo e-bikes to ease delivery emissions and congestion
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Jan 27, 2022
Josh Kozelj

After approving smaller cargo e-bikes in 2020, Toronto last month joined a five-year Ontario pilot program that will see more (and bigger) commercial e-bikes replacing vans and trucks, easing congestion and pollution

Toronto joins pilot program to introduce more micro-mobility to the city. Photo: PenguinPickUp

After approving smaller cargo e-bikes in 2020, Toronto last month joined a five-year Ontario pilot program that will see more (and bigger) commercial e-bikes replacing vans and trucks, easing congestion and pollution

Last month, the City of Toronto approved a plan that permits the use of cargo e-bikes that weigh over 120 kilograms on public roads and bike lanes. 

Come spring, pending agreement on final details with several companies that do local deliveries, the city expects to be testing roughly 20 to 40 large cargo e-bikes in the downtown core. The large e-bikes, fitted with a box or platform to hold cargo, will be allowed to park in commercial loading and delivery parking zones currently used by trucks and vans. 

Nazzaereno Capano, Manager of Transportation Policy and Innovation at the City of Toronto.

From the city’s perspective, the implementation of the large e-bike project will help Toronto in meeting sustainability goals relating to its TransformTO initiative to get the city to net-zero emissions by 2040. 

“If you’re removing a larger, internal, combustion engine truck or van making deliveries with these e-cargo bikes, it will reduce the emissions,” says Nazzareno Capano, manager of transportation policy and innovation at the City of Toronto in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.

There’s also a further potential payoff in reducing parking and traffic congestion.

New provincial regulations

The new program is being launched in accordance with a new cargo e-bike regulation and pilot program for municipalities introduced by the Ontario government early last year. The provincial pilot, which runs for five years (ending March 2026), requires that municipalities choose to opt-in and change their bylaws to allow for the use of any cargo e-bike weighing more than 55 kilograms on public streets including bike lanes and cycle tracks.

Toronto had previously approved the use of cargo e-bikes weighing less than 120 kilograms in 2020, making it one of the first municipalities in Ontario to approve bylaw amendments to allow for the expanded use of pedal-assisted cargo e-bikes.

The city’s new pilot will build on its experience with the smaller cargo e-bikes, which helped support businesses meeting demand for local deliveries since the start of the pandemic.

A desire on the part of some of these same private businesses to use larger cargo e-bikes led them to lobby the province for the new rules. The city also played a supporting role in that lobbying, says Capano.

“The current regulations of the Highway Traffic Act didn’t allow [over 120 kg e-bikes] to be on the road,” says Capano. “Over time, through discussions with the province, they saw there was a need for this.”

Transportation key to cutting emissions

Toronto isn’t the first city in Ontario to sign on. Ottawa joined the pilot last September, while London City Council set out to collect public feedback on the rollout of large e-bikes this past summer but has yet to make a decision on joining the program. 

The appeal of cargo e-bikes in urban areas is obvious. Cities everywhere are looking at ways to cut emissions from transportation to help them meet their climate-action goals. In the Toronto and Hamilton municipal areas, transportation accounts for 34 per cent of total emissions.

Awareness of the potential for electric bikes to help combat emissions has been rising in recent years, amplified by the surging demand for e-commerce deliveries over the same period. A report published by the City of Toronto last November found that between 2016 and 2020, e-commerce sales grew by more than 350 per cent in Canada. 

Since then, the pandemic only heightened the online shopping demand, with e-commerce sales making up 5.9 per cent of total retail sales in Canada in 2020 — up 2.4 per cent from 2019. 

Larger bikes hold greater potential

In writing its new regulations, the province worked with the municipalities to come up with a definition for what constitutes a cargo e-bike under the law. 

In Ontario’s definition, cargo e-bikes are electric-powered bicycles with a maximum power output of 1,000 watts and speed of 32 kilometres per hour. They must have a platform or box that businesses can use as an alternative to delivery trucks, or individuals can use to transport larger personal items. 

The e-bikes are not permitted to be used on major highways and also have a maximum length of four metres and height of 2.2 metres.

“With anything the province does, they like to pilot things for a little while to just get a little additional learning,” says Capano. “We thought it was a great idea.” 

In Toronto, while Capano says its use of smaller cargo e-bikes was a valuable first step, he also believes that the larger bikes — with a wider storage capacity and increased flexibility — will help the city embrace widespread usage of this emerging zero-emission transportation option. 

Matthew Roorda, Professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto.

“Some of the larger e-cargo bikes, if the box is at the back, can be lifted off and loaded with new parcels added on,” Capano says. “So they are a little more flexible in terms of loading.” 

Matthew Roorda, professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, agrees that the increased cargo capacity of the 120 kg cargo e-bikes is an added benefit compared to the traditional smaller e-bikes. He adds that there might be more safety features on a larger bike that could also aid user safety on the road. 

“From the perspective of driver safety, some of these features can be put on the heavier cargo bikes,” Roorda says. “In particular, if you want to have electric assist on the bike that weighs as well.” 

Private sector interest

Five companies, including Canada Post, DHL, Fedex, Purolator, and PenguinPickUp, have expressed interest in participating in Toronto’s cargo e-bike pilot. 

Brad Baker, vice president of operations of PenguinPickUp, says in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada that his company has three fully operational larger cargo e-bikes that could be deployed for the pilot. 

Brad Baker, Vice President of Operations at PenguinPickUp.

“You have a lot of capacity in terms of cube and weight,” says Baker. “You can literally back it up to a curb, roll [the container] off at a store, or a warehouse.” 

In a best-case scenario, Toronto’s new large cargo e-bike pilot will go as well as the one that New York City launched in 2019. It start with 100 bikes operated by three companies — UPS, DHL, and Amazon — and by last year it had expanded to 350 bikes. 

In a 2021 report, New York estimated that each cargo e-bike that replaces a van or box truck resulted in a savings of seven tonnes per year of carbon dioxide emissions. 

“We have some similar type of road network as New York,” says Capano who views that city’s program as a template for Toronto’s pilot. 

“We wanted to emulate some of the things that have worked well in New York and Montreal.” 

Lessons to be learned

Ontario’s five-year pilot project is expected to foster discussion and provide flexibility for adjustments as needed. 

While companies may eventually implement larger fleets, Capano believes starting the pilot project off with an overall fleet of 20 to 40 cargo e-bikes will help both the city and private companies to assess what factors are working or not.  

Capano says, parking accessibility in the downtown core is one factor he will be monitoring in the pilot.

“Some of the issues with them is where do they get deployed from? Where do you store them overnight?” Capano says. “Those are some other things they need to deal with, and can they build some partnerships with say the Toronto Parking Authority to use their parking facilities and charge these things overnight?” 

For PenguinPickUp’s part, Baker is hoping to grow their company’s e-bike fleet and make it easier for customers to choose e-bike deliveries. But for now he’s excited at the prospect of being one of the first to bring a zero-emission delivery solution to Toronto. 

“If you’re living in a small neighbourhood and your children are playing on the street, I’d rather see an e-bike opposed to an electric truck,” Baker says. 

“A play on this for us, equally important to sustainability, is making our city a more livable place.”

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