The London Nocturne, in its eighth year, took place in the UK’s largest and oldest wholesale meat market, Smithfield Market—also known as London Central Markets—on the evening of Saturday June, 7th. The first year of the races in 2007 drew a crowd of about 5,000 people, and this figure grew to about 15,000 at last year’s event. The annual London Nocturne is a series of bicycle races, taking place over a 1.1 kilometer (around seven tenths of a mile) circuit in Smithfield. The races include: the Folding Bike race, Penny Farthing race, the Brooks Retro Criterium, and a newly added Barclays Cycle Hire race for this year. When the annual races aren’t taking place here, Smithfield bustles with meat porters all night long, transacting meat sales until the early morning hours, much like they did for the past 800 years. Today we see a historic food place in the City of London transformed into an arena for the night cycle racing community. This is just one of the many ways in which food and bicycles come together in London.
Aside from the excitement of the London Nocturne, bicycles and food actually come together on a regular basis in London. Bike couriers delivering food–a job that some racers do on the side—is one such regular connection. What is it like to deliver food by bicycle in 21st century London? I spoke with Martin Hardiman, Logistics Director and part-owner of Bermondsey based bakery, The Little Bread Pedlar, who also let me ride along with him on a typical delivery route to find out. I learned how their delicious pastries travel through the streets of London’s inner city districts with the advantage of having the knowledge and know-how only London cyclists can have. Delivering food by bicycle is not necessarily a new idea. Bicycles are a 150 year old technology and were invented with delivery in mind. In the 1880′s one British newspaper was dependent on bicycles for circulation, and iterations such as the Danish “Transporter” in 1925 and 1911′s “Bradbury Tradesman’s Carrier Cycle” all included baskets and bins for cargo. Yet, ever since Martin started rolling out on Pashley’s Deli bike in 2011- with baskets filled with their selection of viennoiseries and other delectable pastries – he has noticed a marked rediscovery and reinvigoration of the Deli bike around London being used for food delivery.
Additionally, London is seeing improvements to cycling infrastructure – with more cycle lanes, shared bus lanes for cyclists, and the Cycle Superhighways–which are increasing bicycle ridership and bringing awareness around the presence and equal rights that cyclists have on London roads. Although, bicycle delivery is not uncommon in London–there are many bike shops that offer a courier service that is included into the other services they offer–food delivery by bicycle may be the way forward for local businesses looking to tap into the market of environmentally conscious customers.
Martin said that the reason LBP uses bike delivery over other motorized means, simply came down to the bike being the most prudent business choice. Delivering by bicycle means savings on vehicle maintenance, congestion charge fees, insuring drivers, and the long list of up-keep needed to run cars and motorbikes. Even with the introduction of the London Congestion Charge in 2003, there are still issues with long journey times and traffic, which can negatively affect a food system reliant on delivery of goods in and throughout the city. Through using bicycles as a means of conducting business, alternative business models are proven to be possible within a city. LBP is a good example of how food can travel within the city sustainably and quickly. According to a London case study by Making the Modern World, one of the four main reasons for introducing a congestion charge in London was to make the “distribution of goods and services more reliable, sustainable and efficient”. Which in the case of bicycle delivery, is quite true along with the other improvements as outlined in the study here. To see a list of what a typical commute to, from and in London looked like prior to congestion charge, click here; a dire reality. However, when making deliveries by bike, there are disadvantages as well as advantages – after discussing with Martin, as well as experiencing a route myself as ‘shadow pedlar’ – these become more apparent.
After the pastries are carefully loaded into the baskets and trailers, we set off at about 6:05 on a Friday morning, the streets are quiet and peaceful. Apart from the deadlines for pastries to arrive fresh at their destination, the main reason Martin leaves for his Central route early is to avoid, as he put it, “Getting caught in the madness.” He’s referring to the morning rush and hubbub of London traffic. We make seven stops on this route, all in the space of about an hour and fifteen minutes. Before crossing back over Southwark Bridge, the city is exceptionally alive with the sounds of lorries, vans, cars, motorbikes; and that’s what we leave behind us as we make our way back to Bermondsey. Congestion in such a tight space, as is the case on London roads, is a source of much stress for everyone using them, from drivers, cyclists, to even pedestrians. So setting off early is a way to avoid stress, as well as allowing for deliveries to arrive on-time, in an efficient manner.
In the early days of LBP, Martin was the sole pedlar, with Nichola baking (who is LBP’s head pastry genius and part owner). Now three years on, they have become a well-oiled operation with four regular pedlars delivering on weekdays, and just two at the weekend. They have four major routes which cover the West End, The City & Central, The City & East End, and the South and West. During my shadow ride with Martin on The City & Central route, I get to experience what a pedlar might go through on a typical ride. There certainly were challenges in the beginning of LBP, but those experiences only inspire more innovative ways to change delivery methods and improve logistics.
Martin, having lived in London his whole life, has the advantage of knowing the city’s streets, short-cuts, and the most effective ways to move through the city on a bike. Local knowledge is always an advantage when cycling around a city, and provides an extra edge over a courier in a car or van. Not that we did this, but bikes are better able to navigate through narrow passages, ride up on pavement, run red lights and otherwise cut corners. The rider’s knowledge, confidence, and experience all help the delivery process run smoothly.
At the same time, there are disruptions that can arise on a route. Luckily, we didn’t run into any ourselves that morning, but Martin tells me of the potential issues they’ve had in the past. On LBP’s maiden voyage to Leila’s shop in Shoreditch, he said the pastries arrived damaged inside the deli basket. The way to fix that was to introduce ‘pastry pillows’ which were made from repurposed coffee sacks, and lowering air pressure on bicycle tires. Little changes like these made pastry delivery much smoother so that the stock arrives in perfect condition each time. In times of inclement weather, while it may not be pleasant, deliveries happen rain or shine. This is London, after all, and rain is just part of the reality. If deliveries stopped because of rain, LBP wouldn’t be very successful. Even if they were to ever miss or cancel deliveries for some reason, LBP would communicate that to the customer. Communication, in an open and honest manner, allows for good business relationships to thrive, and, with that, an understanding when things don’t go quite to plan. Martin didn’t mention any instances where deliveries were missed, and it seems to not be an issue.
A more obvious challenge to bicycle delivery is the danger element involved. Although accident and injury will always be a factor in bicycle delivery, LBP is fortunate enough to have not experienced many in the years running. Martin pointed out that a business with a major bicycle element, “Attracts good people”, for whom cycling is a part of their daily lives and the couriers are experienced cyclists. In fact, LBP has seen a steady growth of their business over the last few years and the rewards of cycling have outweighed the potential dangers.
Evidently, LBP doesn’t seem to be part of the mainstream world of cycling and the bike delivery world. For LBP, deliveries only happen at certain times of the day, ideally when traffic and congestion is at its lowest point. Customers that stock LBP products are aware of what is manageable on the delivery side of things, although that is not to say that limits what LBP aims to achieve when delivering more pastries, faster, and further. It was clear on my shadow ride that, after a while, there is a certain element of predictability to bike deliveries. For example, who are the regulars you’ll see out and about on your deliveries, where you might see traffic wardens or bike police, or which lights to run and others to be cautious of. This regularity differs from many other bike courier companies in London, which receive jobs booked with little notice and deliver at any given time of day. LBP shows that there are many clear advantages and rewards to bicycle delivery. Along with it’s efficiency over cars, it’s a great way to stay active, healthy, be outside and–while at times it is risky–for the most part, cycling is still fun for the couriers.
Yet, some couriers in other cities may not have the same experience as those at LBP, such as one NYC one courier for a Chinese restaurant that a New York Times writer followed. Receiving barely any tips after traveling miles in the cold while dodging aggressive taxi drivers was this courier’s experience. This courier, the article implies, is one of many. While treatment and safety might continue to be an issue in food delivery, bicycles do show promise over delivery cars. Even if across the pond, perhaps the example of The Little Bread Pedlar can spark innovation for others to see how we can use a 150 year old form of movement to distribute food around London and other mega cities more sustainably and efficiently for business and fairly for the courier of the 21st century.