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Getting down to business with bicycles
Move By Bike, a moving company in Sweeden, uses cargo trailers manufactured by Iowa-based Bikes at Work, Inc. (Photo courtesy Jim Gregory/Bikes at Work)

The scene is a TV commercial cliché we've all seen countless times. A Ford F-150 or Chevy Silverado rumbles through the worksite, as a voiceover extols the truck's cargo capacity and rugged reliability.

The message is clear: If you have hard work to do, a truck is the tool you need.

Hardworking people around the country and right here in Savannah are defying this notion. They are using bicycles to get the job done.

When thinking of working bikes in Savannah, pedicabs might be the first vehicles that come to mind. Or perhaps restaurant delivery bikes. Vinnie Van Gogo’s has offered pedal powered pizza delivery for decades, and others have since begun using bikes to dispatch sandwiches and other edibles.

Jim Gregory of Bikes at Work, a bicycle cargo trailer company, counts local delivery services among his customers along with some occupations you might not expect, such as urban farmers, carpenters and other tradespeople.

Based in Ames, Iowa, the Bikes at Work offers trailers that are up to 8-feet long and capable of carrying 600 pounds.

“Many organizations and businesses choose bicycles to transport goods and materials because they see it as the most ‘green’ method of transportation,” Gregory said. “But they also choose them because they are easier and safer to operate in areas with large numbers of pedestrians, or where motor vehicles are prohibited.”

Like Downtown Savannah on March 17.

Rene Teran, executive director of WellFED, uses a truck to transport his magazine, but a bicycle comes into play for distribution.

“A truck first drops large stacks of our magazines at strategically-placed locations throughout the downtown and midtown area,” Teran explained. “A cyclist then follows a specific distribution route with a bike trailer capable of holding these large stacks. We know exactly when and where the cyclist will need to refill, so we’re able to have stacks there waiting for them.”

The trailer is a critical part of the equation.

“While researching commercial composting operations for a pilot program we’re starting here, we found a commercial composting business in Gainesville, Florida that had fabricated their own large bike trailer,” he said. “The trailer is custom-made to haul the large amount of materials involved in composting, in addition to doubling our capacity to distribute magazines and cutting the amount of refill points in half.”

Why not just deliver all the magazines via truck?

“Our business tries to maintain the lowest carbon footprint possible, in everything we do. So using bikes is essential to that goal,” Teran said.

“Aside from that, the biggest advantage is being able to quickly get from one distribution point to the next.”

With more than 400 delivery locations within an area bounded by River Street and Park Avenue on the north and south, and East Broad Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard on the east and west, efficiency is important.

“That entire route snakes through the city at nearly 20 miles long and takes a single cyclist anywhere from 8-10 hours to complete,” he said. “We’ve tried it by car and the same route can take nearly twice as long, using over a quarter tank of gas to complete the same 20 miles.”

Bikes at Work has sold trailers to bicycle-powered moving companies, which might sound like a concept for a “Portlandia” skit, rather than a viable business model. Still, there is mounting evidence to counter those who see bicycle-based businesses as gimmicks or novelties. UPS has even added bicycles to its delivery fleets in the United States and Europe.

While some entrepreneurs are surely making the decision to go by bike for altruistic reasons, they are also keeping an eye on the bottom line.

“There are, of course, the environmental benefits of being quiet and non-polluting, and they provide the benefit of healthy exercise,” Gregory said.

“But bicycle transport provides other, more direct benefits over motor vehicles. The upfront cost is substantially lower; the cost of maintenance is minimal; and the cost of fuel, taxes and insurance is zero.”

Teran offers simple advice for business owners who are contemplating using bicycles in their operations.

“Do the math,” he said. “Run calculations for distance, time, fuel and maintenance for an entire year and see if it’s right for you. Sometimes the numbers won’t necessarily be in favor of the bike, at which point you have to make a decision based on larger factors, like overall environmental impact.”

More business people appear to be doing the math and finding that bicycles are a good match, both for their corporate cultures and revenue goals.

“The trend definitely seems to be increasing,” Gregory said.