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April 17, 2016
Johan Erlandsson

Small container could shift more goods from motor vehicles to cargo cycles

On the International Cargo Bike Conference (ICBF) 2016, Velove CEO Johan Erlandsson chaired a workshop on containerization in cycle logistics. There were way more people attending than expected, so instead of the planned small group, informal roundtable discussions, the workshop became more of a seminar, using microphones etc. Some interesting results and opinions can be reported from the event

Introduction by Kees Verweij – Buck Consultants International

Kees Verweij – Buck Consultants International the importance of containerisation
Presentation slide: Kees Verweij – Buck Consultants International

Kees Verweij introduced the audience to the history of the sea and air container in freight, and why it has taken over long distance freight. The container gives advantages, the most important being that it is containers that are handled, not the goods. And with standardised containers, logistics become more efficient and thus also lower in cost. There are also some drawbacks with container use, eg. the need for infrastructure investments and that there will always be some need to relocate empty containers. The full presentation will probably be available soon at http://www.cargobikefestival.com/.

What differs the small city logistics container from other small cargo carriers for city logistics, such as roll cages, EU pallets, and sacks? Are there drawbacks?

If the small container for city logistics is compared with load carriers like the pallet, the roll cage, and the sack, there are both advantages and drawbacks. Advantages first:

With the goods in a locked container, the logistics operator have better control of the goods from the terminal to final distribution. It becomes more difficult to lose goods in transit. This could also mean that logistics operators will be willing to mix their goods with competitors goods, opening up for transporting more from different logistics operators on the same vehicle.

A container, if well designed, is weather protected. This gives the possibility to handle the goods outdoors, and can also open up for transporting containers in open vehicles such as flatbed trucks and barges.

It is possible to design containers for stacking. Current initiatives in small containers are however not discussing stacking as high as sea containers are stacked, but at least one container stacked on another to make better use of space in trucks.

The goods in a container can be pre-sorted in sections, making final delivery easier and more efficient for the courier. Ideally, the courier gets full information in hand terminal (e.g. smartphone) about the content in the container, so it is just a matter of snap on and go.

The major drawback that was raised in the workshop is that the use of the container does not encourage consolidating goods, a successful method to gain efficiency in city logistics. But there were also examples raised that downplayed this drawback and examples that the container can also open up for other types of consolidation:

  • Several containers from competing operators can go on the same vehicle in final distribution, thus giving the delivery density of consolidation, without the micro terminal/consolidation center unpacking/sorting inefficiency.
  • Several containers from competing operators can go on the same vehicle (e.g. trucks, barges) when being transported on longer distances, eg from external terminals to city centers.
  • Containers can be pre-loaded with consolidated goods for deliveries in residential areas, increasing handover efficiency.

Projects and applications of small city logistics containers to date

DHL Container Logistic solution electric cargo bike last mile
DHL City Container Last Mile Solution from Velove

DHL Express has been running a container pilot test since 2015. A 1 m3 container (the City Container by Velove) is loaded with around 40 parcels in the same external sorting terminal as where all their vehicles are loaded. In this case, the terminal is 25 km away from the city center of Almere, where the container content is delivered. The loaded container is lifted into a van with a forklift. The van goes to the city center, where the container is shifted over to a Velove Armadillo cargo quadricycle. The van continues on its delivery route, outside the city center. Later, the container is picked up by the van again and transported back to the sorting terminal.

DHL Express had delivery by cargo bicycle in place before this pilot, with a two-wheeled cargo bike. With the introduction of the container and higher capacity cargo quadricycle, delivery efficiency has increased. More parcels are delivered per hour. The couriers are also happy with the ergonomic qualities of the quadricycle and container with its full side access and comfortable height. The speed is a bit lower compared to the lighter two-wheeler without a big container but is well made up by not having to do refill returns and the presorted contents in the container. Thanks to the agility of the full-suspension Armadillo, the speed difference is kept to a minimum. The DHL pilot with containers will now be extended.

There are Radkutsche Musketiers in operation with detachable boxes. They are placed at flower shops, where they are preloaded with flowers, saving a lot of waiting time for the courier.

Not participating in the workshop, but being at the ICBF 2016, BubblePost and Evolo showed their new cargo trike with detachable box, allowing for preloading in their centrally locating terminals, increasing handover effeciency. Fully loaded boxes are lifted onto the trike with a forklift.

BusyBike has developed a container system for the Urban Arrow. A separate platform is used to switch the container on and off the bike manually.

Pre-loading in central terminals or at a shop to cut handover time seems to be the main advantage of a container in the current applications, apart from the DHL case.

Other possible applications

The use of containers may open up for other possibilities for cycle logistics than the ones already being shown powerful above:

With centrally located small container terminals (possibly in combination with other city logistics functions, like consolidation and recycling), traditional logistics operators have an easy way of dropping of containers and either do the final distribution with cargo cycles themselves, or subcontract a cycle logistics operator for it.

In e-commerce for home delivery, where the time slot is relatively short (e.g. 6-9 pm), a fully loaded van may not have enough time to deliver all parcels, thus making in it an inefficient choice of vehicle. In these cases it could make sense to have a motor vehicle to distribute small, pre-loaded containers to each residential area, where a cargo cycle would do the last mile delivery. This could also open up for more local cycle logistics, not only in city centers. as the operator then has a good daily contract to start its business with.

With very rapid e-commerce developing (1-3 hours from order to delivery), a small container could be used at local shops/terminals for preloading as the orders come in. That saves time in handover to the small final distribution vehicle.

As the containers can be built weather protected, it opens up for transporting them on open barges and unloading them outdoors, making city logistics on waterways more feasible.

Mobile depots are being tried out by several logistics operators today. The use of pre-loaded small containers in the depot could cut handover time to the small distribution vehicle.

Is standardisation important? If so, what is important to standardise?

This topic was unfortunately missed out a bit in the short time given for the workshop, but there have been quite a lot of input before the workshop, and also some other related steps taken during ICBF 2016.

Some possible areas of standardisation:

  • How the container is moved on and off and anchored to cargo bikes, and outer dimensions (so different cargo bikes can use the same container)
  • How it is moved around and anchored in motor vehicles and terminals, and outer dimensions (for easy integration in the existing logistics system)
  • Inner dimensions and shelf systems (to be able to use standard 60*40 cm tray sizes, be able to stack sensitive cargo etc)
  • Door locks

Summing up all comments that have come in before and during the workshop, it seems that the main priority is to standardise the anchoring system to the cargo cycle. This is expressed by both cycle logistics operators and vehicle manufacturers.

The container that is used in the DHL is 1 m3 big and has EU pallet dimensions inside. In standardising the size of the container, a main decision seem to be to go for either EU pallet dimensions inside, to be able to use half and quarter pallets in city logistics, or outside, to make it fit better in big vehicles and terminals.

A decision was made during ICBF 2016 between Radkutsche and Velove to develop a platform for the Radkutsche Musketier to be able to take a container of the dimensions and with the anchoring system that DHL is testing. Also other cargo cycles and trailer manufacturers have shown interest of taking first steps like these towards standardisation. Johan is inviting cargo cycle and trailer manufacturers to develop adapters for their products, giving the option to use them as a container transporting vehicle. The earlier communication starts, the better chance the container is developed to work for as many cargo cycles and trailers as possible.

Are container terminals needed for the success of container based city logistics? Should they be publically or privately owned/managed? How should they be organised?

In this last topic, Johan presented an idea of municipalities taking a more active part in supporting city logistics by providing a terminal service to facilitate the shift of goods from big vehicles to small, and back, and also opening up for more consolidation. These terminals would support efficient  city logistics both with and without the use of small containers. The idea is that the city provides space, service and security in a good location, but not dictating exactly which city logistics solutions should be used, and which operators should run it. In this way, logistics operators can negotiate with the city about the city logistics solution they would want to use, and the city will be flexible in helping them out to provide the best service for that. A service like that could make it easier for a city to introduce regulation against inefficient use of vans and trucks in the inner city. 

If this was in place, it would be easier for all traditional logistics operators and cycle operators to switch small goods handling to cargo cycles, with the business model that suits them best. It could also mean that possibilities for consolidation increase, with many operators using the same terminal rather than setting up their own central terminals.

There were mixed responses to this suggestions.  There were positive responses, but in general it seems that the concept is new and that it will take some time to consider and understand it. Especially cycle logistics operators that already have been proactive with setting up their own good terminals in place will have to evaluate how a city-driven system like this can help them grow their business.


The use of a small container seem to have some exciting possibilities to making city logistics more efficient and to open up for shifting more goods from motor vehicles to cargo cycles. Some first traces of container use can be found at logistics operators, and the first small steps are now taken towards standardisation. As always, there is not one optimal solution for city logistics and this also goes for the use of small containers.

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