It is 8:45 and I am riding up Pine Street like any other morning, having safely navigated all the traffic on my route from Lower Queen Anne. As I approach the Central Co-Op my groggy eyes notice something unfamiliar coming towards me: a giant blue box on wheels. A second glance reveal this box is actually piloted by a guy pedaling away on what appears to be a very sophisticated cargo bike. He must be lost…this is not Europe. Heck, it is not even Portland. Silly guy, bikes are for Portlandia.
The cargo bike I saw belongs to Freewheel, a new start-up providing “carbon-free cargo” for “last-mile delivery.” A passion for cycling and sustainability inspired CEO Dan Kohler to start Freewheel as a way to address the counter-intuitive nature of many urban delivery systems. While delivery drivers sit in traffic Dan zooms by using a combination of bike lanes and side-streets too narrow for large delivery vehicles. While drivers search for parking or block traffic and risk parking tickets to find a nearby space, Dan pulls right up to the door and starts unloading. While those delivery trucks consume gallons of fuel everyday, Dan just needs some food and water. Freewheel is not just delivering time-sensitive packages or picking up lunch like other bicycle delivery companies; it is providing a high-quality delivery service that reduces pollution and contributes less to congestion and parking shortages. Simply put, Freewheel is redefining urban business delivery in Seattle.
So if sensibility is what makes Freewheel a successful business, what makes it good for Seattle cycling? Well, to answer that I think about the lessons I learned from a semester studying in Copenhagen, Denmark. In Denmark bikes outnumber people and cargo bikes are just as common as minivans in the U.S. Hundreds of miles of bike lanes, bike “superhighways,” and aggressive bike policy contribute to the nearly one-third of Copenhagen citizens commuting by bike, but the real factor of success is culture. Bikes outnumber cars in Copenhagen 5:1 and make up about a third of all commuter travel (CPH Bicycle Account). In Copenhagen cycling is not a niche activity but rather something everyone enjoys as a way to get to work, school, the store, and just about everywhere else. And by everyone, I really mean everyone:
– Photos courtesy of Cycle Chic. I LOVE this site, but you will see the same thing if you Google image search “Copenhagen bicycle”
By comparison, 40% of Seattleites lack access to a working bicycle. Two-thirds of people who ride at least a few times a year do so primarily for recreation. And less than 10% of Seattleites ride daily (SDOT). The difference in culture is clear:
– Photos from Google Images.
Seattle’s cycling scene is largely dominated by guys in $300 spandex suits and hipsters rocking interesting accessories. Where are the business people with their briefcases and shiny shoes? Where are the dads escorting their kids to school or moms hauling the twins to day care? Where are the grandparents riding to their local retiree group? Where are the people hauling groceries in their cargo bikes?
While I am still holding on to the hope that I will see the streets filled with these types of riders tomorrow, I know Seattle is not culturally prepared for this type of bicycling. However, Freewheel is a small but important piece in beginning a transition towards a more holistic cycling culture. Freewheel is extending biking into the business realm in a serious way. The bike itself brings significant visibility to cycling. Through advertising partnerships with local favorites like Molly’s Grown to Eat and Middle Fork Roasters, Freewheel is showcasing the importance of cycling in connecting businesses to build strong networks that support the local economy and pave the way for more sustainable futures.
Freewheel is already capitalizing on Seattle’s rich fascination with coffee and local/organic produce. As the company’s success grows and word spreads, I am confident we will see a wider range of businesses taking Freewheel seriously. Dan keeps the details of new partnerships under wraps, but he assures me he is working on new interesting and iconic delivery opportunities. More than anything, Freewheel’s focus on cargo bike deliveries is exactly what Seattle’s bicycle culture needs: a healthy dose of utilitarian functionality.
-Freewheel is bringing cycling functionality to Seattle.