Clothing, glasses, printer cartridges, beer kegs, crates of drinks … For the past few weeks, these everyday goods have been delivered to shops in Strasbourg city center by river, then electric bicycles.
With this “innovative” water-bike combination, Voies Navigables de France (VNF) intends to offer a “green delivery model, with low CO2 emissions”.
Every morning, from Monday to Friday, the journey of goods begins in a warehouse nestled at the bottom of the river port on the banks of the Rhine, in an Alsatian capital which has just elected an environmental mayor.
A few employees are busy distributing the packages in closed boxes and the drinks on pallets. Then a crane drops them aboard a barge which in 27 minutes reaches the Fisherman’s Quay, on the Ill, the river that borders the historic center of Strasbourg, passing in front of the European Parliament. A journey without traffic jams, silent and very low polluting: the barge is propelled by natural gas.
As soon as it berths, “bicycle-freighters” load the trailers of their rather imposing two-wheelers while checking the order forms and recipients: bars, restaurants, hotels, shops, but also e-commerce enthusiasts.
The boxes weigh up to 180 kilos … hence the interest of electric assistance. “The content ranges from the envelope of a few grams to the 40 kilo beer keg”, specifies Jean-Sébastien Ohmann, conductor of this small hive in his capacity as operations manager of Urban Logistic Solutions (ULS), the company organizing the deliveries.
– To the cathedral –
“We have broken down the city center into 17 zones. The principle is to have the same cash register for one or a few streets. Depending on the race, it takes 2 to 6 minutes to reach the Place de la Cathédrale” , he specifies.
“It is certainly less frantic than at Uber or Deliveroo”, remarks Felix who, with six colleagues from ULS, begins a ballet of bicycle-freighters in old Strasbourg where he will meet the many couriers of the “uberized” couriers.
“The massification of volumes is the key to our last mile urban river logistics solution, because it compensates for the additional cost of the boat compared to the van”, explains Thomas Castan, CEO and founder of ULS.
– “The equivalent of 150 vans” –
At the end of 2019, the company won a call for projects launched by VNF with the support of the city of Strasbourg and its agglomeration.
Interrupted after a month by the health crisis, the service has been running at full speed since early June. Sixteen tons are delivered each day, but Mr. Castan assures us, “advanced commercial contacts” must lead before the end of the year to 122 tons daily, “or the equivalent of tours of 150 vans”.
In addition, the barge does not leave empty, since it brings back the packaging and drink lockers to the port.
The Strasbourg regional office of VNF wishes “to show that such a regular service can work and be reproduced elsewhere, by combining ecological advantages with a solid economic model”, underlines Pierre des Roseaux, its deputy director.
Advantage of this mode of delivery: it is “without time constraint”, argues at VNF, while most road vehicles are banned from 10:30 in the center of Strasbourg, classified “low emissions zone”.
ULS, which employs 12 people, is in talks “with 12 other cities in France, Benelux and England”, according to Mr. Castan.
In France, the river represented 2.1% of freight in France in 2016 according to the latest report from the Ministry of Ecology, against 9.9% for rail and 88% for road.