Pedal Powered & Proud


by Kim Motylewski

For one driver atMetro Pedal Power, the workday begins at 6 a.m. She pulls her three-wheeled work cycle up to Petsi Pies on Beacon Street, Somerville; loads boxes of muffins and pies into a spacious breadbox behind the seat; and pulls away.

Pastries make for easy riding to the several cafés on this early morning route, but with 40 cubic feet of cargo space under its shiny red cap, this trike can haul up to 500 pounds of deliverables if need be.With a twist of the throttle on her handgrip, the driver can send extra power to the wheels from a battery-operated motor, and in seconds get a heavy load moving at 10 miles per hour.

Later in the day the driver will be happy for that power assist when the cargo hold becomes a giant crisper drawer loaded with 20 storage bins full of fresh vegetables. These will be the farm shares from Enterprise Farm inWhately, one of four CSAs that deliver produce to their members through MetroPed. The farmers carry their goods to MetroPed’s grotto-like garage and offices in Union Square, Somerville. The bikers then carry the food to customers’ doors.

{loadposition articleads}

Dave Jackson, owner and operator of Enterprise, callsMetroPed “a really good deal, and a tremendous convenience.”

Jackson saysMetro Pedal Power saves his farm time and money by enabling him to make few stops in town. His customers benefit from the option of door-to-door service at a modest additional cost—about $3 per delivery. And MetroPed benefits as well—another small business whose green and local mission resonate with Jackson’s own.

MetroPed’s business concept is simple: human-powered, final-mile delivery service in the urban core. Working bikes and trikes are commonplace across the developing world and the European Union. Americans are just beginning to catch on, andMetroPed hopes to lead the trend.

In the U.K. postmen make their deliveries on utility bikes called the MailStar. In Portland, Oregon, Hotlips Pizza delivers pies by bike. And in Springfield, Missouri, inmates at a prison hospital haul tools, trash and supplies on heavy-duty trikes.

So far MetroPed has focused on food-oriented businesses: In addition to Enterprise Farm, Red Fire, Silverbrook and Parker farms all employ the service. So does Fiore Di Nonno, the Somerville-based mozzarella company; Taza Chocolate; and Zigo, a carry-out and catering business in Cambridge. Lionette’sMarket in Boston fills customers’ grocery orders with MetroPed’s help.

“I’m a big supporter of the sustainable agriculture movement,” says MetroPed’s owner and CEO, Wenzday Jane. “Practically every building in the city needs food delivered to it one way or another.”

Beyond the edibles market,MetroPed provides same-day and next-day delivery to Harvard Book Store’s customers.They distribute magazines and they are moving into the office supplies market as well.

Jane’s primary strategy is to target customers who share her concerns about human health, livable cities and planetary well-being.The trikes operate pollution-free, except for the battery-related emissions. But Jane’s vision is bigger than a courier service for bulky stuff.

“We see ourselves as a hub for alternative transportation,” she says. “We want to change the way people think about human-powered transportation.We are proving you can do serious work on a bike.”

Jane is a long-time bike activist. In the past, she worked with the nonprofit organization Bikes Not Bombs, restoring bikes in low-income areas and training kids in mechanics. At one time she hung with SCUL, the Subversive Choppers Urban Legion, a close-knit crowd who build and ride experimental bikes, including impossibly tall ones. To stop at a corner these daredevils balance themselves against signposts.

Now in her mid-30s, Jane comes across as friendly, bright and grounded. One senses a calm and focused person with a determination to change the way we do business. Having worked as a machinist, she knows how to build and fix things—an idealist with concrete knowhow.

Jane purchased the delivery company last fall from its founder, Andrew Brown, a local physician who imported five of the work cycles from England at great expense. Inspired by the habits of the Dutch, he called the venture the New Amsterdam Project.

The business was floundering when Jane stepped in. Since then she has changed the name to the more explanatory Metro Pedal Power, reached out to many new customers and restored stability. Jane envisions building a line of similar cargo cycles that could be popularized here at lower cost than the imports. She says her bikes will be equipped with solar collectors to recharge the batteries and run the onboard refrigeration units.

To realize that vision, Jane’s got to recruit some like-minded trailblazers, business people ready to buy or lease for their own use one of the cargo carriers she now owns. A personal chef might be a good candidate, or perhaps a plumber, a library network or a florist. Metro Pedal Power would then provide maintenance and support services.

There are no takers for this yet, but it’s not clear what, if anything, that means for the company’s potential. It may be that few are as tough as MetroPed’s drivers—willing to brave freezing rain and wilting humidity to get the job done. Or it may be that potential customers simply haven’t considered the pedal-powered possibility. This old idea of
transportation is new again in American commercial culture.

MetroPed’s clients praise the friendliness and professionalism of its staff, and the reliability of the service. Larry Slotnick, cofounder of both Taza Chocolate and the Livable Streets Alliance, believes that bicycle- based delivery has tremendous potential.

“There is a growing movement toward support of local economies. It’s the Main Streets movement, the Local First movement,” which are motivated to keep money, jobs and vitality in their hometowns. Slotnick predicts that MetroPed will benefit from this trend, and partner with more and more customer-service businesses.

As Slotnick sees it, MetroPed’s job is “to convince prospective customers that there’s no risk in shifting their delivery from a motorized vehicle to a bicycle.” He urges MetroPed to harness the power of the internet by “offering customers web-based access to scheduling, tracking and billing, just as UPS does.”

Six months into the venture,Wenzday Jane is game for the challenges ahead. “We’ve made a decision to make this work. The positive developments outweigh any concerns that have arisen.” She says her sense of the possibilities loom larger than the worries. “I try to take things as they come, and pedal toward success.”

Kim Motylewski is a Cambridge-based journalist covering food, health and the environment. She’s been transporting children and groceries in her bike trailer for the last 8 years.