Can These Simple Cargo-Hauling Bikes Save Our Cities?

How a scrappy collective of anti-capitalists and anarchists is changing the way New York gets deliveries—and possibly breaking our addiction to cars along the way.

Can These Simple Cargo-Hauling Bikes Save Our Cities?

Throughout May, National Bike Month, our People of Interest series is spotlighting New York cyclists who are breaking the mold and making a difference on two wheels.

On a spring morning in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, Joe Sharkey fastens a Dean & DeLuca box to the bed of his cargo bike. Amid the commotion of all the diesel-spewing trucks and vans loading and unloading shipments on this industrial strip, Sharkey’s orange cargo bike stands out – tiny, silent, and completely carbon-neutral.

Today, he’s delivering catering for Dean & DeLuca, the gourmet grocery chain, on behalf of Doordash, an on-demand food delivery app. But Sharkey, an avowed anti-capitalist with an easy smile and a radio-ready voice, sees his part in this mission as much more important than the portobello sandwiches and artisan cheese platters currently filling his cargo bed.

Joe Sharkey leaving the Dean & DeLuca loading docks in Chelsea, Manhattan.

“Cargo bikes is my religion,” says the 36-year-old cycling evangelist who does everything he can to resist the chokehold of cars. “If you think about the pervasiveness of the automobile and the combustion engine in our lives and how utterly dependent we are on them to move things around,” he says, “you just need to imagine that you can do that with a bike instead, with human power.”

This line of thinking is what inspired the founding of the NYC Cargo Bike Collective – Twitter handle @ReplaceCarsNYC – in late 2012 in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It started when two friends who practiced Zen meditation together – Rene Netter, an anarchist and biking enthusiast from Germany and Barry Schwartz, a small business owner and tempeh maker – had this vision of a cargo bike club. Tired of seeing cars and trucks clogging up local streets, they saw cargo bikes – bicycles designed in various ways to haul stuff, like Sharkey’s two-wheeler with a flat bed between the small front wheel and the seat – as an alternative. Their collective makes cargo bikes, uses them for commercial work and public-good projects, and advocates for their increased adoption.

A year earlier, Sharkey, a lifelong cyclist who moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn in 2008, happened upon a cargo bike operated by the food delivery company Aqueduct Logistics. He went right up to the company’s owner and said, “Hire me. I’d like to ride and learn and help you do this.” With that minimum-wage job under his belt, he teamed up with Schwartz and Netter after moving to Ditmas Park himself.

“For me, it’s about work being pleasurable,” Sharkey says, “and riding these bikes is pleasurable. It’s exercise, it’s exciting, it’s relaxing, you’re here in the elements, doing something real. And it’s a full-body meditation – you have to be hyper-present.”

Since joining the CBC, which now has about two dozen people actively affiliated in one way or another, Sharkey has devoted himself to developing it, to “spreading the cargo bike way,” as he puts it. Recently, he formed an LLC with the three other core “cooperators” (their preferred term for members). There are also about five contractors, a few of whom will soon be on-boarded at Doordash, which reached out to the collective in the first place because their drivers were constantly having trouble finding parking.

Sharkey pulls out of the loading dock area and heads east on 28th Street. He signals and hangs a left on Tenth Avenue, where he merges with the traffic, fluidly riding with it, rather than alongside it, as his yellow fluorescent ‘hi vis’ vest flutters in the wind. Though he appears small and vulnerable among the faster-moving gas-powered vehicles, he calmly pedals along, supremely at ease in this Darwinian automotive space, maneuvering and changing lanes as if he were driving a car, an approach he calls being “a vehicular cyclist.”

“It’s safer this way,” he says, since he doesn’t put much faith in bike lanes. “My tactic to safety is to be seen.” He parks by 37th Street and hurries into an office building carrying the Dean & DeLuca box and a red Doordash insulated backpack called a “hot bag.”

Back at the loading docks, he heads into the Dean & DeLuca commissary and emerges with the next shipment – two large white Dean & DeLuca boxes and a full hot bag. After securing this bulky load and checking the paperwork, he sets off for the Verizon building downtown and turns left onto the Hudson River Greenway.

Sharkey signals at an intersection in Lower Manhattan, heading to the Verizon building.

He can usually figure out routes on the fly and stops at red lights only when necessary. “The trick to cargo bikes,” he explains, “is not stopping.” When you’re carrying a 200-pound load, “if you stop moving forward, the laws of physics are no longer on your side to balance,” so it’s better to keep pedaling, a tip he always offers novices since the whole thing can easily tip over. “I do obey the laws of physics,” he adds, “but other laws I have very mixed feelings about.”

He drops off one box and then rushes to East 10th Street, where the recipient eagerly awaits him outside. He then attends to the Doordash app on his phone while waiting for a colleague who’s coming to hand off paperwork. His five-hour shift began at 7:30 am and is just about over. On a high-volume day, he might ride 40 miles making deliveries; today it was about 25. Doordash pays a flat rate of $25 an hour.

As to why cargo bikes are so efficient, Sharkey cites “last mile logistics” – the final leg of an item’s trip from the fulfillment center to the customer – and points to European studies that found cargo bikes cut the time and cost of deliveries in dense urban areas because of their ability to bypass traffic as well as their absence of costs for fuel, parking, insurance, etc… “The last mile of any logistical chain is the most expensive,” he says.

While cargo bikes have long been embraced from Africa to Asia and especially in Europe, where they were invented over a century ago and organizations such as Cyclelogistics now actively study and promote their use, the United States, with its love for large gas-guzzlers, lags behind. But with the cycling movement gaining traction as cities aim to be greener, cargo bikes have started to catch on in some places, utilized by everyone from moving companies to parents taking their kids to school.

Sharkey checking the Doordash app to see where his delivery is supposed to be dropped off.

Mirza Molberg, who has just finished making Doordash deliveries for Le Pain Quotidien, the café chain, pulls up on his cargo bike. Molberg, who is also 36, lives in Brooklyn and does three shifts per week. He says he likes the consistency of this gig, which he’s been working since April. “For the most part, it’s pretty great,” he says, “it’s not go-go-go till you faint, which happens with bread.” (The collective delivers bread for the She Wolf Bakery daily and has done lots of work with food startups.) Molberg, who quit his salaried job to do this, has been with the CBC since its founding.

They also use the bikes for volunteering, like a Sunday morning compost run Sharkey used to do, and the collective has a “direct action wing.” Sharkey himself comes from an activist background, joining Critical Mass and the Occupy Wall Street movement as a cyclist organizer. The CBC’s “Food to People” initiative provides support to protesters, loading up a few cargo bikes with food and drinks that are donated, reclaimed from dumpsters, or otherwise acquired, and serving them up at jail support and protests, like on this past May Day in Bryant Park and Union Square.

When it comes to commercial work, Sharkey says the collective puts the riders first and tries to create more decent wage jobs for cargo cyclists. Ultimately, says Sharkey, who doesn’t know how to drive, the cargo bike way is about “less cars, more bikes and safer streets.” The key to achieving that is demonstrating that you can move stuff with human power. Now in the process of moving from Brooklyn to Upstate New York, Sharkey will be setting up a Hudson Valley CBC chapter; a Silicon Valley chapter was created two years ago. “Anyone’s welcome to open a chapter as far as I’m concerned,” he says.

“This is about creating a new culture – a post-car culture,” he continues. “Every time you bike in the street, you’re creating a car-free area. Just doing it, that’s the idea.”