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Knox: The Cargo E-trike

We added the City's first electric-assist cargo tricycle to central fleet. We wanted to know if we could encourage employees to use a zero-emission vehicle for work trips.

The experiment

We used a grant to buy a three-wheeled, front-loaded, cargo tricycle with electric assistance. We wanted to help City employees lead by example while conducting City business. We hypothesized that for short-distance trips, the trike would be a reasonable replacement for a car or truck. That's assuming that an employee needed to carry something for their work trip, making walking or taking the MBTA less feasible.

The name for the City's employee vehicle check-out system is FleetHub. We analyzed FleetHub data for trips made between September 2018 and September 2019.

  • Number of trips: ~6500
  • Median distance (round-trip): ~9 miles
  • Number of trips at or less than the median distance: ~2500

Working with Public Works, we offered to host the prototype for two years to "kick the tires" on the trike. We are currently exploring logistics around:

  • storage and maintenance
  • data management
  • employee training
  • resident perceptions and feedback, and
  • vehicle checkout and return.

We took inspiration from other cities and organizations who were testing whether cargo bikes and trikes made sense. In particular, we looked at:

  1. Madison, WI: partnered with a local manufacturer to add a cargo bike to their fleet
  2. Denton, TX: bought a trike to replace employee car trips for hauling things around town
  3. Hoboken and Jersey City, NJ (along with an Arboretum in Arkansas): bought cargo trikes for landscaping work, including hauling mulch and compost.

Closer to home, we see examples of cargo bikes at:

  • the Arnold Arboretum
  • the BiblioCycle at the Boston Public Library, and
  • the BPM Blueberry, the market’s produce cargo trike.

We initiated the purchase of the trike in March 2020, before Boston declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19. With the pandemic, our launch timeline was delayed. The community meetings that we also imagined employees would need the trike for moved to virtual sessions. We are being responsive to the moment and finding new, safe uses for the trike until public meetings return.

Why we did this

The Environment Department released the City's Climate Action Plan update in October 2019. We wanted to explore a prototype that aligned with that commitment.

One thing the plan calls for is reducing municipal carbon emissions. The City's "Central Fleet" of vehicles accounts for roughly 25 percent of our local government emissions. So we wondered a few things:

  1. If we added a cargo electric-assist trike to the fleet, would employees want to use it instead of a car or truck?
  2. How would residents perceive the City’s use of the cargo e-trike to reduce our emissions?

The trike also supports Go Boston 2030, the City of Boston’s long-range, equitable transportation plan. Go Boston aims to encourage mode shift away from single-occupancy vehicle trips toward low-emission modes of travel. These included walking, biking, and public transit.

We hope to learn what benefits this zero-emission vehicle can bring through testing. 

City of Boston cargo tricycle parked near City of Boston central fleet vehicles
Knox alongside two of the City of Boston's central fleet vehicles, known as FleetHub.

Watch: Virtual naming ceremony

Honoring Kittie Knox

We wanted the City's first cargo e-trike to be doubly special. So, we decided to name it after a trailblazing Bostonian: Kittie Knox.

On August 20, 2020, in the virtual naming ceremony, the tricycle was named after Katherine “Kittie” Knox. Knox was a biracial West End resident in the 1880s who confronted racial and gender stereotypes in Boston’s bicycling community. Mayor Walsh also proclaimed August 20, 2020, Kittie Knox Day in Boston.

We also partnered with Women's Advancement and the Environment Department. We incorporated the virtual naming ceremony into Women's Advancement's commemoration of the 100th anniversary of suffrage.

What We Learned

Reduction in employee car trips

During the prototype period, employees took 85 trips with Knox and logged 362 miles (for an average roundtrip of 4.25 miles). According to employee reports, 27 of the 85 trips (32 percent) otherwise would have been taken with a Central Fleet vehicle or some other car. A pool of 34 employees opted in to use the trike for work purposes. We hypothesize that the pandemic played a large role in subduing employee interest in using the trike, particularly while some City employees were still on a work-from-home policy due to the pandemic, and because public meetings moved online. 

Employee productivity and satisfaction

We hoped that by avoiding Boston's notorious vehicle traffic, employees would:

  • be more productive in their tasks, and
  • also feel increased satisfaction in their work.

Research shows that cycling has the highest "commute well-being score" and brings physical health benefits

We did not suggest mandating that everyone use the trike, or that cargo trikes or bikes replace all trucks and cars in the fleet. However, for specific types of tasks and work trips — chief among them, hauling heavy things a short or medium distance — the trike seems to have increased employee satisfaction, as evidenced by the following self-reported quotes:

“I'm happy to report that my first event with Knox went well. Overall, I look forward to using her again!”

“It was so useful, a little hard to go over bumps with so much stuff, but honestly made all the difference. Who needs parking?”

 “...I think most people would take a fleethub but I don't have a license so I would have carried [my cargo] on the train very uncomfortably or someone helping me would take them on a Fleethub. Thank you for making it possible to have a mode of transportation that allows me (us) to arrive at public engagement meetings with all our cargo!”

“Thank you! It was a blast riding it! I felt a bit more comfortable riding with it on some higher-stress streets than I would on my normal bike. I think a combination of the size and having the electric assist…”

Improved community perceptions

We know many of our plans and goals ask a lot of our business community and residents. We hoped that through leading by example, we could show our many constituencies that we, too, are doing the work necessary to make Boston carbon-neutral by 2050.

We weren’t able to learn as much in this domain as we hoped, primarily because the majority of the prototype happened while the City was still under its public health emergency declaration due to the Covid pandemic. Even once that was lifted, entirely in-person public events have been slow to return. However, anecdotally, when residents encountered Knox on the street or at Neighborhood Coffee Hours or other events, they indicated joyful surprise that the City was actually testing out this vehicle type in its fleet. 

“...Constituents and BID members came up to the trike and had so many questions! They were excited to see this idea being tested and were super impressed.” 

— City employee who brought the trike to Boston Blooms

There were a few interactions on Twitter, with residents asking whether we could copy the Arnold Arboretum, which has some of its arborists using e-bikes for tree maintenance, and whether we would consider developing a residential lending program for cargo e-bikes.

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