Pedal power for the last mile

Online shopping stinks. It’s loud. And it causes traffic jams.

The ever growing numbers of e-commerce lead to more and more delivery vans, polluting and congesting the streets of our cities and putting additional pressure on urban traffic management.

The traffic managers in Stuttgart are now doing something about it: electric cargo bikes shall take over deliveries for the so called last mile, the final bit to the receiver. This will reduce emissions, noise and car traffic in the inner city.

But, as it turns out, it’s not that easy. Or, as Bernd Bienzeisler from the Fraunhofer Institute puts it: “It’s a real challenge.”

Deliveries without emissions

Needed are areas to reload the freight from vans to the cargo bikes. But these areas “do not exist” in the city, says Bienzeisler. Stuttgart is densely populated, space is a scarce resource. The Fraunhofer Institute now works with the City of Stuttgart to create at least some areas to be used as ‘micro hubs’.

Micro hubs are what Wolfgang Forderer, director in the city’s department for sustainable mobility, calls a “second level of distribution”. The first level are the logistic centres on the outskirts of Stuttgart, where the big trucks arrive and reload their freight to smaller vans that drive in the city.

Simple, but extremely effective

Those vans should now stop at the edge of the inner city and reload again, to cargo bikes. So far, three micro hubs are in operation in Stuttgart. The logistic companies UPS and DHL are using different types of cargo bikes and special sack trucks for the delivery in the pedestrian areas, mainly to shops and other businesses.

The logistics company Dachser, aiming for an emission-free delivery within a pilot area of about four square kilometres in central Stuttgart, is even testing an all-electric truck for the first part of the chain. For the reloading in the city, Dachser works with one of the established micro hubs.

Smart loading zones

To use the limited space efficiently, Forderer wants to apply digital technology and create ‘smart loading zones’ where drivers easily can find a free spot and book their parking time via an app. Stuttgart is testing an application developed by a start-up from Barcelona.

The goal is to improve parking rotation and space availability. Before the pilot in Stuttgart, the technology has been tested in Belfast and Dublin. The programme manager in Dublin found the concept “simple, but extremely effective”. At the same time, the city gets real-time data to better analyse the flows of goods and the logistic needs.

One van = twenty cargo bikes

Responsible for Stuttgart's cargo bike funding scheme: Ralf Maier-Geißer © Maier-Geißer
Responsible for Stuttgart’s cargo bike funding scheme: Ralf Maier-Geißer © Maier-Geißer

For the freight of one van, up to twenty cargo bikes are needed.

Given the amount of goods and the expected increase of deliveries, it’s already clear that there is not enough public space available in Stuttgart for the ‘second level of distribution’. The city is therefore testing the use of private spaces like car parks for the reloading of cargo bikes.

Demand for parking is usually low early in the morning and at night, so some spots in car parks could be made available for storing and reloading of goods at those times. This is currently tested in three car parks in Stuttgart, as part of a project funded by the German federal government.

New use of parking spaces

The use of inner-city parking spaces “will change fundamentally in the coming years”, says Bienzeisler, whose Fraunhofer Institute is also a partner of this project. A central part is a flexible pricing system. The parking lot is paid only for the time of the reloading, at a rate depending on factors like demand and traffic volume. Little traffic means low prices – an information made available in real-time for the logistic company that can decide when the price is attractive.

“This is an ideal solution,” says Raimund Rassillier, director of Velocarrier, a cargo bike logistics company in Stuttgart. For companies like his, “permanent lease of a central space would not be financially feasible.”

Bienzeisler sees dynamic pricing of parking spaces as “a mega-issue for traffic management and the promotion of sustainable mobility.”

Holy metal

It might come as a surprise that Stuttgart, where people sometimes refer to the car as “heilig’s Blechle” – “holy metal”, puts so much effort into replacing cars in the city.

Over many years the car has made its mark on Stuttgart.

After Carl Benz patented his ‘Motorwagen’ in 1886 and the automobile became civilisation’s most wanted toy for more than a century, Stuttgart quickly became Germany’s car capital. Home of Benz’ corporate offspring Daimler and the sports car manufacturer Porsche, the city got rich thanks to the automotive industry.

But Stuttgart was also the first city in Germany which had to introduce a large-scale driving ban in 2019 due to heavily polluted air. And the 600,000 people in the densely populated Stuttgart basin suffer from endless traffic jams.

So, something has to happen.

Stuttgart’s mayor Fritz Kuhn from the Green Party wants a car free inner city “well before 2030”. The initiatives promoting cargo bikes are part of this strategy.

Run on cargo bikes

Cargo-Bike-Day in Stuttgart ©
Cargo-Bike-Day in Stuttgart ©

And the people in Stuttgart pick up the trend. When the city launched a funding programme for electric cargo bikes for families in 2018, within one month twice as many applications were received as there were funds available, says Ralf Maier-Geißer, responsible for the programme.

Stuttgart topped up and has financially subsidised more than 600 cargo bikes so far. The target is 1,500 bikes, Stuttgart invests a total of €2 million. Families who replace a car with the cargo bike get an additional ‘sustainability bonus’ after three years.

Another 100 cargo bikes will be for rent for families who can’t afford to buy a cargo bike even with subsidy.

The city also supports the building of garages for the big cargo bikes in residential areas. Two containers with space for up to twenty cargo bikes each are already set up, six more shall follow.

High tech on wheels

High tech: fuel cell cargo pedelec © City of Stuttgart
High tech: fuel cell cargo pedelec © City of Stuttgart

And there is also good news for Stuttgart as city of engineers. The cargo bike might technically not be as complex as a car, but there is room for innovation.

A European project led by the German Aerospace Centre is developing electric cargo bikes using a fuel cell instead of a battery. Equipped with a hydrogen tank, this bike has a higher range than other electric bikes and can be refuelled within seconds.

Stuttgart’s Wolfgang Forderer is enthusiastic. “I was skeptical at first, but since I have tried it out, I am fascinated. This is really high tech.”

Stuttgart is, along with Groningen and Aberdeen, a partner city in the project. Starting in 2020, seven of the fuel cell cargo pedelecs shall be used for the inner city logistics as well as for the city administration, for example in parks. Hospitals, universities and companies are invited to test the fuel cell bikes, especially for transport between different sites.

Promoting cargo bikes: Stuttgart's Wolfgang Forderer © City of Stuttgart
Promoting cargo bikes: Stuttgart’s Wolfgang Forderer © City of Stuttgart


Stuttgart is a perfect testbed, Wolfgang Forderer says. With its difference in altitude of 340 metres within the city, it provides sufficient challenges for the fuel cell bike.

Or, as Forderer puts it in his Swabian dialect: “Wenn’s hier tut, tut’s überall.” – “If it works here, it works everywhere.”