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Manoeuvrable monster bike: The "Nanuk Megaliner" measures around seven metres and has a turning circle of 2.7 metres. The electric heavy-duty bike can carry 500 kilograms or just under four cubic meters of cargo and costs 27,000 euros net.

Photo: Max Lautenschlaeger / Deutsche Bahn

It is cold on this Monday morning, many streets and cycle paths in Hamburg are covered with a layer of snow and ice. The gritting services in the Hanseatic city can hardly keep up. It's not a good idea to get on a bike now – but that doesn't apply to Christian Rusche (44). "Of course, we will continue to deliver goods. We've been doing this for twelve years, even in snow and ice." This is not a problem with the three- and five-wheeled cargo bikes, says the founder and CEO of Cargo Cycle, the first cargo forwarding company in Hamburg using pedal power.

Despite a persistent cold, some pride is audible in his words. Even after more than a decade, the entrepreneur and vehicle designer still has the idea of CO2-free delivery traffic in German cities. "It's still my passion and the whole team puts their heart and soul into it."

In front of us is the "Nanuk Megaliner". "Green transport. With muscles and electricity" is written on the tarpaulin of the cargo bike. "One of the largest in the world," assures Rusche. The little monster measures just under seven meters in length and can carry 500 kilograms. Because it is just about one meter wide, it is therefore allowed to ride anywhere where bicycles are allowed. There is space on the loading area for three Euro 3 pallets in a row.

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Financed his studies with rickshaw rides: Vehicle designer and Cargo-Cycle founder Christian Rusche

Photo: PR

Two mega cargo bikes replace a 7.5-tonne truck in city traffic

Rusche designed and built the huge cargo bike, and the fourth will soon be in service in Hamburg. Two of them are moved by Cargo Cycle in Hamburg on behalf of its customer DB Schenker, and another is operated by the international freight forwarder in Coburg with its own driver. Cargo Cycle also operates for the logistics service provider Dachser in Hamburg – two "megaliners" replaced a 7.5-tonne truck on the last mile. In Belgium, the Ziegler logistics group has two "megaliners" in operation. Other logistics companies have enquired. One in Wiesbaden, for example, wants to use the "Megaliner" to deliver Ikea furniture in the future, because it has found in tests that "many more" customers can be delivered in this way at certain times than with a van.

Cargo Cycle still manufactures the heavy-duty bike and is constantly tinkering with improvements. The "Megaliner" costs around 27,000 euros net, including battery and tarpaulin. On the other hand, the logistics start-up has discontinued the production of smaller cargo bikes. Rusche doesn't like to talk about the order backlog – for competitive reasons.

In Hamburg, DB Schenker fills an electric truck with cargo in the Wilhelmsburg district in the morning and drives it to the transshipment point in Altona. There, the drivers repack the cargo onto the cargo bikes and then pedal it to customers in the city of Hamburg. In the evening, the bikes curve back to Altona and recharge their batteries. One charge is sufficient for up to 100 kilometres in urban areas, depending on the choice of battery.

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For icy transports: Cargo Cycle also delivers fresh fish to restaurants and hotel kitchens with solar-powered freezer boxes on the cargo bikes in Hamburg for the "deutschesee"

Photo: PR

"We are very satisfied with the use of the cargo bikes in Germany," a company spokeswoman told manager magazin. For more sustainable logistics solutions, DB Schenker is not only pushing ahead with the electrification of its vehicle fleet, but is also using cargo bikes. Especially in the city centre, the "XXL Cargo Bike", as the haulage company calls it, is "ideal" for last-mile deliveries of goods. Overall, Schenker still operates a manageable number of around 100 smaller cargo bikes in Europe. Due to the individual shipment structure, which also varies from office to branch, the use of cargo bikes is not possible everywhere, it is said.

DHL upgrades electrically for the last mile

Competitors are also increasingly focusing on CO2-free delivery: The parcel service DPD transports around two million parcels a day in Germany and wants to have reduced CO2030 emissions by 2 percent on the last mile by 80 - mainly through the use of electric vehicles, explains a spokesperson on request. The market leader DHL delivers parcels electrically in half of its delivery districts, and the rate is expected to rise to 2025 percent by 70. However, this does not say anything about the number of parcels (6.2 million daily throughout Germany).

There are currently 55,000 vans on the last mile, 25,000 of which are purely electric. By the end of 2025, their number is expected to rise to 38,000. Each of these vehicles saves an average of four tons of CO2 annually, says DHL Group spokesman Alexander Edenhofer. He admits that transports between cities or large depots are still predominantly handled by conventional trucks.

Letter carriers, who also deliver small parcels, are almost entirely electric: with around 13,500 e-trikes and around 5700,2 other e-bikes. The delivery drivers delivered 3.0 million such parcels per week by e-cargo bike. As a result, they save 4.2 tons of CO<> per year compared to conventional delivery of parcels by car, explains Edenhofer.

As a bicycle forwarder, Cargo Cycle fears neither the big nor the small competitors. The start-up has not been driving for the large parcel delivery companies for a long time because they pay "far too poorly". The young company can obviously afford it: "There is much more demand than we can handle," says Rusche. In addition to the megaliners, Cargo Cycle is on the road in Hamburg with seven other, smaller cargo bikes. According to Rusche, who financed his studies with rickshaw rides for tourists, the start-up's cargo bikes cover a total of around 52,000 emission-free kilometers in Hamburg per year. Overall, the CO2 savings amount to seven to nine tons per year. In addition, there are the time savings: Depending on the volume of goods and traffic, a customer saves one and a half to three hours a day with a delivery of a cargo bike, the entrepreneur meticulously calculates.

Cargo bikes could replace every second transport of goods by car

However, Rusche also knows that many goods cannot be transported with a cargo bike. He is "not an enemy of the car," explains the bike logistics entrepreneur. "Through our service, we try to clear the road of those vehicles that are not necessary for transporting certain things." Protagonists of bicycle logistics estimate that cargo bikes could replace up to 50 percent of the freight transports carried out by car in a city.

At the same time, the efforts of many municipalities to push back cars from the city centre are benefiting service providers such as Cargo Cycle. These are also benefiting from companies looking for alternatives to zero-emission logistics to achieve their ESG goals. In doing so, the start-up boss relies less on the support of politicians and more on economic reason: "No matter what politicians do, the cargo bike will prevail on the last mile, because it is 30 percent more efficient," Rusche is convinced, referring to a study by the German Parcel and Express Logistics Association.

Subsidies are on hold

That's why the managing director reacts calmly to the fact that the federal subsidy of up to 2500 euros for a commercially used cargo bike is currently on hold and could possibly disappear completely in the course of the 2024 budget restructuring. In any case, the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (Bafa) is currently no longer approving any new applications, confirms the German Bicycle Logistics Association (RLVD).

"The industry doesn't really need funding. Why should the state subsidize a vehicle that allows me to drive the last mile more efficiently and quickly, and which is also cheaper than a conventional van – with which I can save money as an entrepreneur?" asks Rusche. Cargo Cycle, which is operationally profitable but reinvests its profits, has never taken advantage of subsidies, says the entrepreneur.

The Bicycle Logistics Association, on the other hand, warns against letting the subsidy expire. The self-employed, craftsmen and smaller delivery services have been in high demand for the funding over the past two years. Until the temporary stop, Bafa paid out around 4.8 million euros in funding for around 3320 electric cargo bikes and cargo trailers in the current year until mid-November.

Bicycle logistics lobby sees young companies at risk

If the subsidy were to disappear, the young manufacturers of these bikes in Germany would be particularly at risk. These start-ups produced 100 to a maximum of 1000 units per year. "Funding is essential for competitive prices and market ramp-up. Otherwise, many young, innovative companies, their suppliers and service providers are threatened with extinction," warns Tom Assmann, Chairman of the Bicycle Logistics Association.

Jonas Kremer, head of business customers at cargo bike dealer Isicargo, is currently in the middle of year-end business. "That has now collapsed," he reports. Customers are unsettled by the impending funding stop, which is currently slowing down business. According to Kremer, Isicargo is the leading dealer in Germany for commercial cargo bikes – and the boss is also the board member of the German Bicycle Logistics Association.

Tax cuts instead of subsidies

For some players in the bicycle industry, on the other hand, the topic of subsidies goes completely against the grain. "If you go the classic way, you as a company would have to run up a storm with the associations and insist on the funding," says Thorsten Heckrath-Rose, head of the premium bicycle manufacturer Rose, in an interview. In reality, however, the complexity of the tax system, cross-subsidies, lobbying and the associated bureaucracy is "no longer bearable". His vote: "Completely dismantle subsidies and subsidies, radically reduce taxes in return, abolish exceptions in the tax system." In this way, "good solutions can prevail better," the manager is convinced. And this would then be "with great certainty no longer one's own car in the inner cities".

Rose has been calling for a 30 km/h speed limit in the city for a long time. Where there are no cycle paths, bicycles belong on the road on an equal footing with cars, he says. Then cargo bike traffic will also continue to pick up speed, "because there is finally more space". In view of the prospect of traffic-calmed city centres, craftsmen or logistics companies would "increasingly rely on alternatives such as cargo bikes in the city" and could thus offer "significantly more service hours that they would otherwise spend in traffic jams in the van or looking for a parking space," says Heckrath-Rose.

Should (transport) policy steer so radically into the future? Cargo Cycle founder Rusche keeps a low profile. With a smile, he prefers to say where he sees Cargo Cycle, which currently has twelve permanent employees, in five years' time: continue in Hamburg with 100 employees.