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Bike-based delivery businesses growing in downtown Toronto

Perhaps you’ve seen them around town: cyclists careening the streets with large trailers and cargo carts treading behind them. These deliverymen and women are passionate and relentless, delivering packages around the city year-round in an effort to support local businesses and leave a minimal impact on the environment. They represent a small but growing movement in the city of Toronto to create and nourish a pedal powered and sustainable downtown economy.

In cities such as Mumbai, India, cargo bike delivery is nothing new. For more than 100 years “Dabawallas” have delivered locally made lunches by bike and train to offices daily. In one of the most densely populated cities in the world, the system is perfected and executed with almost no error rate.  This is done without the use of technology and the business model is simple, including only the overhead company, the Dabawallas and the customers.

Bicycle delivery has since spread from Spain to San Francisco, but in Toronto it is still a relatively new venture, reserved for only a handful of small businesses and local shops that have embraced cycling as the most sustainable form of goods delivery. Slowly, it’s beginning to spread to other regions in the GTA. It is still nowhere near the bike friendly areas of Copenhagen, Norway and Paris, places that inspired Bradley Wentworth to launch his Toronto-based cargo bike delivery company Red Riding Goods three years ago.

With his trademark red Bullitt cargo bikes, Wentworth wants to change the way Toronto delivers goods. His small team of four part-time employees currently treks more than 1,000 kms in bike deliveries each week, a number Wentworth expects to quadruple by the end of the summer as he expands his fleet. He says bike delivery not only encourages businesses to use local suppliers, but it is also affordable and reliable. Once more companies catch on, the demand for cargo bike deliveries and delivery companies will increase, something he says will only help his business.

“In this city there is always going to be demand for transportation,” Wentworth told Yonge Street after delivering a load of beans from Pilot Coffee Roasters to Voodoo Child café on College St.

“My original idea for the business was to replace vehicle trips with bike trips. There’s a huge amount of money to be saved there, but to do that you have to change policy and behavior. It’s a lot harder than shipping coffee by bike.”

But coffee is a good place to start.  Many local roasters such as Merchants of Green Coffee deliver via bike. As does Coffeecology, a Hamilton-based roastery that delivers freshly roasted fair trade beans to residences solely by bicycle. Coffeecology uses Abram Bergen, founder of cargo bike company The Hammer Active Alternative Transportation (THAAT) for deliveries. When it came time to expand to Toronto he dreaded the idea of not using bikes. He discovered Laurie Featherstone of Featherstone 2 Wheels Green Delivery online and hired her to deliver in the city.

“Our coffee is all organic and fair trade. We wanted to deliver freshly roasted coffee to people’s homes and from an environmental perspective doing that with a fossil fuel powered vehicle would be a disaster for us,” says Roger Abbiss, founder of Coffeecology.

Featherstone is an independent franchise and one of the most well known faces of Toronto’s cargo bike scene. Abbiss likens her to the mailman. She bikes more than 600 km a week in bike deliveries alone using a beat up mountain bike and an old trailer, equipment she hopes to replace with a soon-to-be-launched IndieGoGo campaign.

“Toronto is starting to get going but definitely there’s room for growth with bike delivery,” Featherstone says.  She launched her business when she moved back to Canada after years of coaching rowing in the States. She got a job driving a delivery van before realizing bike delivery would allow her to meld her passions for athletics and the environment. Her first job was to deliver sprouts and she now works fulltime, often six days a week during farmer’s market season.

“It’s a really good example of what you can do without a car. I have a business because people need stuff moved, but at least it’s done environmentally cleaner and it’s more connected to community. I get to talk to people more. As long as we are a consumer society there will always be a need for a delivery of goods,” she says.

Red Riding Goods currently serves more than 20 restaurants and cafes delivering takeout orders and small goods, and more than a dozen small companies including bike shops and artisans. Many companies in the city have been eager to tap the benefits of cargo bike delivery and have their own bikes. North of Brooklyn Pizzeria, Sweet Lulu and Lilly’s Lunches all offer delivery services via cargo bike.

Owl and Goose, a small green smoothie company that delivers to coffee shops, yoga studios, gyms and residences around Toronto, uses their own independent bike guy named David (he asked that his last name not be used) to deliver their products. Although the environmental factor aligns with owner Vicki Gryspeerdt’s vision, it wasn’t her main motivator.

“It just makes sense in terms of being in line with our mission, but also it seemed practical with parking and speed of delivery,” she says. Owl and Goose delivers by bike year round, but also uses a low-emissions vehicle and the TTC for larger loads.

Bikes may not always be the fastest option (though Wentworth says they often are in the core), but they’re affordable and consistent. They require no licenses or gas, and the cost of operating a bike delivery business is relatively low, as are delivery costs.

Red Riding Goods charges flat rates based on varying zones that run between Jane St. to Victoria Park and Woodbine, and from Eglinton to Lake Ontario ($10 within zone A and up to $20 in zone C). Featherstone’s parameters are similar, from Keele st. to Coxwell Ave., and from Front St. to Eglinton. She charges by the kilometre ($2 in zone one, $2.50 in zone two).

Beyond a burgeoning economy, there’s an opportunity to shift the city’s urban dynamic and even its design. Wentworth continues to be inspired by Paris, a city with the world’s largest bike share program, where almost everyone bikes, and politicians are aggressive in the way they (re)design and allocate street space. He says Toronto could learn a lot from the city and he intends to become the man to make this happen. He wants major couriers such as FedEx to begin enlisting fleets of cargo bike deliverers and he wants to help implement these programs.

“I want to influence transportation policy on a bigger level, or help companies do this,” he says. “Long-term, I only see good things in that direction. You’ll have businesses lobbying for better bike lanes, for example.”

Several local bike companies manufacture cargo bikes. There’s Cappell Custom Carts located on Ward’s Island and Invodane Engineering, which makes cargo bikes in addition to pipeline and manufacturing projects. Many other local shops such as Sweet Pete’s and Curbside Cycle import (Dutch models are popular), a sign of  its growing popularity among individuals as well.

“Bicycle delivery is probably one of the most extreme ways of delivering product in the city, but it makes total sense,” Abbiss says. “It is absolutely the way we have to do things in the future.”

Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street’s managing editor. You can follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.