On a recent drizzly gray afternoon, Wenzday Jane straps on gaiters to keep tire spray from soaking her socks. Then she hops onto a ruby-red three-wheeled cycle van with a silver-winged "NAP" monogram emblazoned on its cargo hold – and pedals smoothly into thick Boston traffic.
Her mission: Deliver 150 pounds of gourmet chocolates and cheeses from industrial kitchens in Cambridge, Mass., to shops and restaurants across Boston, while emitting zero pollution.
In a city choked with diesel-spewing delivery trucks, the fledgling New Amsterdam Project (NAP), a Cambridge-based cargo-hauling company, is pedaling toward profits aboard an emissions-free fleet of urban "cargo trikes."
China, India, and other developing nations have long utilized bicycle-based delivery for many goods – but are shifting toward engine-powered vehicles. Across North America, bicycle delivery services exist in several cities. Yet pedal-powered hauling for cargo has been largely a no-show in the United States.
That makes NAP stand out for its sole focus on human-powered cargo delivery, says Andrew Brown, the company's founder and CEO. A psychiatrist by training and lover of all things bicycle-related, Mr. Brown launched the company last fall and now finds himself dividing time between cycling to companies where he counsels workers – and making deliveries.
"We're getting trucks off the road, that's one of our goals," says Brown. "Each time we make a delivery, we demonstrate ... that there's a better way – a system that is less expensive, better for their products, better for the environment, and for their community."
Actually there are many goals for this windmill tilter. An encounter in an Amsterdam coffee shop in 2005 – in which a local man regaled him with stories about his nation's bicycle culture, a place where politicians and even the queen ride regularly – set the wheels in motion.
The gentleman bluntly said the US had made a "bad habit" out of driving cars too much – when bicycling was so much more pleasant, Brown recalls.
An expert in helping people leave bad habits, he began pondering how he might help America quit its addiction to the "automobile habit." He might have a chance, he reasoned, if he could demonstrate for a capitalist society that it can be highly profitable to keep people fit, lessen dependence on oil, and help the environment.
Research led him to a British company, Cycles Maximus, that makes commercial trikes used by the government to deliver the Royal Mail. One of their trikes' key features is an electric-assist. It allows even diminutive riders to haul 800 pounds up hill – and zip away from a stop at the pace of a car. It doesn't replace pedaling: the driver must pedal for the assist to work.
That effort is a key point for Brown. Whether delivering pies, chocolates, organic produce, or green building products, NAP's ultimate motive is to show people bicycles are a great way to stay fit, as well as break the internal-combustion stranglehold.
"It's almost like cars are the sea within which we live and we're so attached to them, it's so habitual," he says. "We are trying to lead the way, to set an example about how to get away from cars altogether."
As utopian as that might sound, there are a few tentative signs that Brown might be onto something. High gasoline prices and rising concerns over climate change do seem to be opening the door to interest in cycling to work – and just perhaps, a new way of delivering many goods in crowded urban settings.
Signs include rising numbers of bike commuters, especially in places like Portland, Ore; Boston; Boulder, Colo.; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C., says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group based in Washington.
"Gas prices are making people think twice about how they get around," he says. "What NAP is doing is in the vanguard of this movement. Even if it isn't common yet, it's definitely coming. It just makes good sense."
Perhaps so, but even Brown admits there is "a huge cultural hurdle" to overcome in the land of the pickup truck.
"People do laugh," he says. "They can't understand how a bicycle can possibly function in a way commensurate with an automobile, much less a light truck."
But there are signs some do get it. Pedal Express in Berkeley, Calif., and Revolution Rickshaws in New York City are two companies specializing in bicycle-based delivery and pedicab operations that will also deliver heavy loads by cargo cycle. Greg Zukowski, president of Revolution, sells cycle vans from Cycles Maximus, including five sold to Brown for around $12,000 each.
"We're mainly a courier messenger service that uses these trikes," Mr. Zukowski says. "But [cargo delivery] is something we're doing more of every day."
There's also been a surprising, if somewhat elusive, endorsement of the cargo-cycle concept by a big industry player: United Parcel Service. UPS tested the cargo-cycle concept over the 2007 Christmas holidays in several Vermont communities with bicycles pulling small trailers, according to Seven Days, a weekly based in Burlington.
Just how much UPS likes the idea isn't something the company is talking about right now, however. "It's something I've been told is not public at this time," says Heather Robinson, a UPS spokesperson.
Brown admits NAP isn't making money just yet. Both he and Ms. Jane, the company general manager, are still working to get the word out. Yet for a half-dozen companies like Taza Chocolate, Brown's concept of cycle-based delivery for their "fair trade" chocolate matters a lot.
"We believe our customers are quite interested in lowering their carbon footprint," says Alex Whitmore, a Taza co-founder. "We think NAP's approach to delivery does that for us, which is pretty sweet."