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New company takes pedal-powered delivery to the next level

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on April 3rd, 2009 at 2:39 pm

B-Line co-owner Kathryn Racine-Jones astride one of her company's delivery vehicles.
(Photos © J. Maus)

A budding Portland business is aiming to take traditional bike-based delivery services to an entirely new level. B-Line Sustainable Urban Delivery -- which opened for business in early March -- is a start-up company founded by the husband and wife duo of Kathryn and Franklin Racine-Jones.

"We hope B-Line can help add green core jobs and create a different type of city...we're trying to create a new model of distributing goods in urban areas."
-- Franklin Racine-Jones, B-Line co-owner

The Racine-Jones' (Kathryn is 36 and Franklin is 38) moved to Portland from the San Francisco Bay Area this past August, on a leap of faith that their idea would find fertile ground in a town known for bikes and an earth-friendly way of doing business. So far, it looks like they've made a great move.

The idea is simple: Use specially modified cargo bikes to deliver goods in Portland's urban core. In the process, they'll spare downtown streets from large delivery trucks (which, Franklin pointed out to me, are usually only partially loaded), and provide a more earth-friendly method to go the "last mile" in a company's distribution chain.

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B-Line PDX - new bike-based delivery service-6
Outfitted with a special cargo box,
the bikes can haul up to 600 pounds.

Bright-eyed, but far from naive of the realities of small business, Franklin -- who worked as a bike and pedestrian planner with David Evans & Associates in Eugene before moving to the Bay Area -- says so far, the response has been "overwhelmingly positive".

I met Franklin and Kathryn recently at their office, which looks right out at the busy bike lane on SE Madison at 6th Avenue.

The pair have have long been passionate about bicycles and, while on a bike tour from Japan to Ireland in 1999 (they both taught English in Japan for three years), they saw first-hand how bicycles had great potential as cargo vehicles. "On that trip," Franklin recalled, "we saw people moving all sorts of things by bike."

B-Line PDX - new bike-based delivery service-5
A pedal-assisted electric motor helps with the heavy loads.
B-Line PDX - new bike-based delivery service-9

Another bit of inspiration came from a former colleague of Franklin's whose brother started the New Amsterdam Project (which is now known as Metro Pedal Power), a bike delivery company in Boston.

Far beyond just an eco-friendly way to deliver goods, the Racine-Jones' see their company as a way to fundamentally change the city. "We're not doing this because it's novel," said Kathryn, and Franklin continued the thought, "We hope B-Line can help add green core jobs and create a different type of city...we're trying to create a new model of distributing goods in urban areas."

Like many entrepreneurs at the start-up phase, Franklin and Kathryn have many big ideas like connecting local farmers to restaurants (they rode their bikes to the opening of the Portland Farmer's Market) and expanding into new goods like office supplies and wine.

At just a few weeks old, they seem to be doing quite well.

B-Line PDX - new bike-based delivery service-7
Franklin and Kathryn.

In the past two weeks alone, Franklin estimates they've delivered 5,000 pounds of produce for their first customer (a Eugene-based distributor). The produce is dropped in bulk at the B-Line headquarters and then Franklin and Kathryn deliver the goods into Portland's urban core to restaurants like Bijou Cafe and Higgins. Besides the obvious savings in carbon emissions, Franklin says he has saved the city 27 trips taken by large delivery trucks (which means less wear-and-tear on streets, less congestion, and less safety risks to other road users).

B-Line has also picked up the delivery account for Portland Roasting Company and just today began delivering large packages of roasted coffee beans to 21 locations throughout downtown.

"Creating more sustainable communities is at the heart of what we're doing, the bikes are just a tool to accomplish that."
-- Kathryn Racine-Jones, B-Line co-owner

The two bikes currently in the B-Line fleet (they plan to add more as necessary, and hopefully have future bikes made locally) are made by Cycles Maximus and are imported from London, where they are put to use as pedicabs and as official vehicles of the Royal Mail service. The Racine-Jones' had their fleet outfitted with a custom-made cargo box. The pedal-assisted bike is outfitted with an electric motor (made by Lynch, also a British company) and can carry up to 600 pounds. Even without a full load, the going is slow. The bike moves through Portland's streets and bikeways at a leisurely 8-10 miles per hour. But Franklin is quick to point out that, "It's not about speed."

"Creating more sustainable communities is at the heart of what we're doing," says Kathryn, "the bikes are just a tool to accomplish that." On that same note, Franklin described a recent delivery; "When I'm riding in the Pearl District, the bikes feel like they just belong in that environment. There's no double parking, no idling outside of cafes, it's a very human-centered endeavor."

B-Line joins a growing cadre of bike-powered businesses in Portland. There is talk of joining forces and organizing under one umbrella. In a city of many like-minding business owners, a new paradigm might be closer than we think.

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  • patrick April 3, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    oops, was trying to link to this photo of these nifty machines as spotted in the wilds of the South Park blocks.

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  • Dave April 3, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    This is fantastic - I've thought a lot about how this kind of thing would be great in Portland, especially delivering goods from local farms and other food producers (like Portland Roasters, breweries, etc) to restaurants and stores - it just seems like it makes so much sense, both idealogically and practically.

    I also potentially see a great benefit for local bike builders to work together with products like clever cycles' stokemonkey to deliver the solutions that will enable this kind of thing - It seems like this is really an ideal place to do something like this.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) April 3, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    i didn't mention it in the story... but at about 4 feet wide or so, these bikes might present some issues to other bike lane users. also, i wonder if the electric motors they use (and any such motors for that matter) are legal on bike lanes and multi-use paths.

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  • Dave April 3, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Yeah, that's an interesting issue - maybe more businesses like this cropping up will get more and more discussion going on a city and state level regarding accommodating different modes of transportation on our roads. I mean, just normal citizens are one thing, but when it's a business - seems like it might catch different peoples' attention.

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  • bikieboy April 3, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Jonathan, there's a section of the ORS that defines when it's ok for an electric assist bike to use bike lanes/paths - as i recall, it's under a certain speed (un-assisted by pedaling), and under a certain wattage.

    have the link bookmarked at work -- but i've got to get busy with the baba ganouj so you're on your own finding it in the vast ORS online tomes...

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  • girl-shawn April 3, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Another cool pedal-powered cargo co-op that's been around for a few years (in Berkeley):
    http://www.pedalexpress.com/berkeley/

    Up to 1000 lbs., purely pedal-powered. Awesome.

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  • Scott Mizée April 3, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Excellent. Love to see this!

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) April 3, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    thanks bikieboy.. i seem to remember that the ORS said specifically that the lanes were to be used only by vehicles powered "exclusively by human power".

    i need to look it up.

    -----

    ok, i just found this (thanks to Ray Thomas' website):

    An electric assisted bicycle may also be operated on a bicycle lane or path so long it has fully operative pedals for human propulsion, an electric motor with power output of less than 1,000 watts, and a top speed less than 20 miles per hour on level ground.

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  • She April 3, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    It seems to me on the streets with two lanes, they could easily take the right hand slow lane and leave the bike lane for narrower, fully human powered.

    I drive an electric car and I often stay in the right hand lane when possible to let faster cars pass me.

    This is GREAT! I love seeing thoughtful green businesses using bikes and electricity wisely to do business!

    Thanks for covering this Jonathan.

    "One of my other bikes is an electric car - really an electric Motorcycle"

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  • epic April 3, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Yeah B-Line!!

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  • joel April 3, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    i ran into the racine-jones outside stumptown coffee and bijou the other week, and was thrilled - i was on my long haul and almost made myself late for my morning mail runs because i was so excited to chat with them about what theyre doing, which fills in a wonderful niche in between what we do at magpie (rapid bike delivery of small packages and cargo) and what is typically done by truck.

    this is really exciting stuff for us cargo bike junkies, and the idea of the various pedal-powered delivery companies working together, from traditional messenger services through heavy cargo haulers like b-line, and inclusive of smaller niche food delivery business and the like, is certainly an intriguing concept, to me at least.

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  • wsbob April 3, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Design looks pretty good. A few questions: What about rearward visibility for the bike operator? Mirrors?

    How about signaling for turns? Will road users behind such a vehicle be able to see hand signals made by the bike operator, or will it be equipped with mechanical or electric turn indicators?

    600 lbs...plus weight of bike and rider? Mama-Mia ! Thassa one heckuva lot of weight. Thing better have good brakes.

    Seems like this could be a great business, one that Big Brown will paying some attention to.

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  • nature Boy April 4, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Cargo bikes are the new tall bike. I'm imagining these giant roving bikes going all over town to meet up with smaller cargo bikes for more efficient delivery time and area coverage. Like movable hives with worker bees. When they start hiring, Jonathan, we would love to know.

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  • Schrauf April 4, 2009 at 7:28 am

    Wow, hire them out for bike moves!

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  • Coyote April 4, 2009 at 8:42 am

    Wonderful idea. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It is cute and it is green, but can B-Line really compete with conventional delivery companies? Conventional delivery companies use large trucks because it is cheaper. And as the recession deepens, will businesses be willing to stay green as they struggle to keep the doors open? I know in my office we are looking at everything to cut costs in an effort avoid cutting staff.

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  • Vance April 4, 2009 at 9:47 am

    I wanted to echo J's comment up there too. Are these things going to be using downtown cycling lanes? If not, how is that going to work in a regular lane?

    Seeing this kind of thing leaves me wondering how a city reconciles itself with it's citizens who have been banned from doing this sort of thing in the recent past? Also, I personally have been regulated out of business twice in the core, as an independent bicycle messenger, let alone this concept. Why these folks?

    How is this going to impact existing independent companies like Magpie, and other solo-indies? Will B-Line's operators be required to carry a class-C license? How will this impact pedestrians, and powered wheelchair users?

    Nah, best of luck and all, but I'm dubious, and a bit incredulous too. It wouldn't take too many vehicles like that to further clog the core.

    Oh and hats off to the original Be[e]-line Messenger, Andy Logan!

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  • Ken Wetherell April 4, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Welcome Racine-Jones duo and congratulations on your launch of operations! Portland Pedal Power looks forward to joining you soon. As Joel mentioned in his comment above, there is so much room for bike-based transportation businesses in Portland. :)

    @Coyote: "but can B-Line really compete with conventional delivery companies? Conventional delivery companies use large trucks because it is cheaper."

    Based on my discussion with Jan, the founder of CAT (www.catoregon.org) and Eugene's Pedalers Express, he said [I'm paraphrasing], "our costs are far lower than the automotive-based competition, so our rates are lower."

    Beyond all the other wonderful benefits to the community, this makes sense on a purely economic basis.

    Bravo!!

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  • [...] MB in the news BikePortland.org Blog Archive New company takes pedal-powered delivery to the next level New company takes pedal-powered delivery to the next level Posted by Jonathan Maus (Editor) on [...]

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  • steve April 4, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Yay, we have switched from gas powered to coal powered. We all remember where electricity comes from, right?

    I will be impressed when it is actually pedal powered.

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  • [...] Posted by fairracing31 This is not about anything motorized, but it would be cool if it was. BikePortland.org Blog Archive New company takes pedal-powered delivery to the next level That is a "Immigrant" ice cream vendor's wet [...]

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  • mark April 4, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    that's awesome. only thing. that metal will be awfully hot this summer when it's reflecting the sun onto your back!

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  • grimm April 4, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Saw B-Line pedaling through ladd's as we made our way to the de ronde. Great business. Keep pedaling. :)

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  • Zaphod April 5, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    steve... you cannot be serious. Somehow you're suggesting that a little electric assist is a bad thing? Here's a company that's moving impressive volumes of cargo and they're doing it with a hybrid of pedal and electric power. It's a tiny fraction of the alternative.

    You *could* argue that they should be pure sweat power but bringing 600 pounds from zero to 8 mph hour after hour is really hard on the body. Nevermind fitness, doing this will trash the knees in short order and then the cargo gets loaded into a sub 10 mpg Econoline van or stinky diesel.

    None of us are zero footprint ecologicially. This business is about as green as possible.

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  • Bill Stites April 6, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Best of luck of luck to B-line; they are breaking important ground regarding efficient freight delivery.

    Electro-human hybrids are incredibly efficient. We have a new eTrike in the works, that is strikingly similar to what B-line is using presently. The Stites Design version will be like a shrunken down pick-up truck, with a generic flat-bed that could be adapted to myriad uses.

    Sprinter vans be scared!!

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  • david April 7, 2009 at 9:40 am

    That's super great! I own Wingnut Confections in Portland and have been doing all of my business transportation and deliveries via bike for 5 years now. I may be talking to them in the near future about helping deliver my vegan organic candies!

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  • [...] Bike Portland: New company takes pedal-powered delivery to the next level [...]

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  • BURR April 7, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    restricting cyclists to ill-conceived cycle tracks will have a huge negative impact on businesses like this.

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  • Sarah H April 7, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Apart from wear-and-tear, congestion, and safety risks you mention, large delivery trucks also introduce terrible noise pollution and thick revolting fumes for nearby cyclists and pedestrians to fill their ears and lungs with. As a full-time pedestrian and city dweller, the reductions in noise and exhaust clouds were the first benefits that occurred to me of a B-Line style alternative. awesome! I'd love to see a B-Line pedaling through my neighborhood. (Unfortunately, though, I live in SF, a far less progressive city than Portland.)

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  • [...] Jonathan Maus over at bikeportland.org did a nice article on B-Line Sustainable Urban Delivery. If you have seen these bikes around town they can’t be missed. Link [...]

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