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Tf GM Gylnis on cargo bike in front of grocery store

The Future is Bright and Green

We find out about the origins and future plans of a cargo bike logistics co-op that formed during the pandemic, Chorlton Bike Deliveries.

In March 2020, when the country ground to a halt, many people still needed to access local services such as doctors and also shop for groceries and other everyday commodities. Yet the lack of understanding as to how the contagion spread drove many into extreme isolation and depression, unable to obtain essential goods. Some people rise up at times of adversity, asking, 'What can we do?'

Chorlton Bike Deliveries (CBD) is one such group of people; friends with some time on their hand for one reason or another, who combined sustainable travel with community spirit to provide a service to support local people and the local economy alike.

Now Then took an opportunity to speak to Glynis Francis – a co-founder of CBD and the lady who first cut the ribbon to celebrate the opening of the Fallowfield Loop – about being a road warrior, dealing with COVID and future challenges. Glynis set the scene for us...

It was a part of the response to COVID in Chorlton. There was a small group of people who very quickly got together and said ‘What needs to happen here?’ about all sorts of things in the area here. Then two of us, both cyclists, said, ‘We must be able to do something on the bike with all the restrictions of travelling and so on.’ I said to be careful what you wish for here, because I know the people at Manchester Bike Hire. What we could do is see whether they've got a bike that they could hire us, loan us, give us, whatever, and we could just start from there.

And that's exactly what we did. We got the bike, not really knowing quite what we were going to do with it. It was sat in my backyard for the best part of two weeks while we thought up a plan.

A lot of streets in Chorlton have a key person who then runs the WhatsApp group for that street. Most of that came about during COVID. So we could quite quickly communicate with 80 streets: ‘If you think you know somebody that's vulnerable and needs some shopping doing or needs some things lifting, let us know.’ So it was fairly open handed and we would do it as volunteers.

Tf GM Glynis on a cargo bike

Glynis on one of the Chorlton Bike Deliveries cargo bikes.


It sounds like a core team of volunteers was quickly established...

The biggest gift really is the amount of time that we all had in that space. The second biggest gift now is that we're all very well, active, rooted, connected, in love with all various networks that Chorlton have got going. If you wanted to start a revolution you would start it with us. There are not many people that we don't know one way or another. And we would ride in on a bicycle.

People are always so impressed, 'Who's made it [the bike]?' etc. I've never made any money out of it, because we're standing around chatting to people. But that's part of our reason for being; it’s helping people see that there is an alternative – you can actually do family shopping on this bike. You don't need to drive a car.

And that's the thing that's underpinning it all. This is a wonderful opportunity to really raise the game locally about greenhouse gases and the dependency on fossil fuel driven vehicles. We are all connected with a wish to see fewer cars and vans – particularly for all the very short journeys that happen. Starting off in COVID when nobody could go anywhere, we had empty streets, which were idyllic. Who wouldn't want to ride a bicycle?

Tf GM cargo bike

The CBD website states that in the 10 months since their launch, riders have replaced 4,800km (3,000 miles) in cars/vans with pedalled ones. This has saved 840kg of carbon dioxide emissions – roughly the amount 38 ten-year-old trees absorb per year. I'm doing more cycling myself, but I found the streets are so hectic now, since lockdown restrictions eased. How has this affected the deliveries?

I think I've been a bit of a road warrior, you know, for a long time. I just know that you have to take your space in the road, and in many ways an e-cargo bike is a good one because actually you’re travelling now a little bit faster. You can't ride in the gutter. With a hi-vis jacket that says ‘Chorlton Bike Deliveries’, and when you're able to just go a bit faster with an e-bike, I think you can hold your space in the road as another vehicle really.

I recall receiving a delivery from Carringtons Fine Wines [in Chorlton]. I just looked at the bike because it was a cargo bike and thought, ‘You must have really strong legs, mate. Getting around on that will keep you fit.’

[Glynis laughs.] I mean, I've just done huge quantities of food shopping from Unicorn today. I try and do as many shops at one go and then I can set off and do myself a little loop. Getting going [on a cargo bike] probably requires a fair amount of strength and agility. But like any load, once it's moving, fine, you wouldn't know. And with some electrical assistance, it's really not difficult.

We do five days a week at the minute. There's a core group, and we're now a registered company, limited by guarantee and a not-for-profit organisation. We're also registered as a co-operative. We've got about another 30 people who are part of our pool of volunteers, and some of those people also need paid work. So, when we get a gig that we're getting paid for, then we would pay that worker. For instance, Teresa this morning has been out and picked up bread from Holy Grain at the bottom of Deansgate. It's delivered to 12-14 houses here in Chorlton. Dan, the owner of Holy Grain, is charging his customers and paying for us to do that personal bread delivery. [Teresa] will get paid for that. At the same time, I've done shopping and delivery for people who are shielding or aren't able to get to Unicorn and I've done that for the love of it. People make a donation and that goes into the kitty. So we are a form of hybrid at the minute.

And it's still got the community at the heart. You aren’t going to exploit anyone because they need you. It's a case of supporting each other through these difficult times.

Definitely – and we're not interested in doing a Deliveroo or an Uber Eats. Another contract we've got that we get paid for is the first one with the NHS. So we pick up twice a day, five days a week from surgeries, picking up samples that need to go to the lab. We do a circuit of health centres, doctor surgeries, and then they get taken to Withington hospital and then it goes to Wythenshawe. It stops having a van stop-start, stop-start all the way around Chorlton, picking up what sometimes may only be one or two samples.

The more we can keep the traffic off the roads… We'll have to see what happens because people are still afraid to actually use public transport, but then it's been offset as well because more people nowadays are able to work more flexibly from home or do two days in, three days from home. So, it doesn't feel as intense as it used to be.

But you can't let it get to you, because if you do then you'd give up. You know there are people who say, ‘I bought a bike, but I'm too scared to ride it,’ and they've given up. People that want to work or volunteer with us, they just have to be road warriors. They might not call themselves that, but it ain't for the faint hearted.

Glynis Francis, Chorlton Bike Deliveries

So you've actually got a premise whereby you're not limiting yourself – are you basically saying, ‘We've got a bike; what do you want to transport?’

We haven't quite gone down the route of saying, ‘Here's a bike; give us a call and we'll see how we can help you,’ although people do that. Our website says, ‘Here are the numbers of the traders.’ I think the website does a good job, given that none of us have done any of this before, let alone logistics. So we've negotiated with a number of traders in Chorlton to say, if a customer can ring up, for example Carrington’s or Adams [grocers] or on the website make an order, that trader can then use our app to say, ‘I've got 1, 2, 3 or 4 deliveries…’

So the Cocoa Tree in Chorlton; they will take an order through their website, or over the telephone, and then they will get on our app and say we've got these deliveries, and we try and funnel them, so that we can build up a good morning of work or a good afternoon or a good day, rather than having an odd one here and an odd one there. We deliver chocolates on a Wednesday or a Friday. And then we also deliver for the cheese shop and I think that's a Wednesday and a Friday. So Wednesdays and Fridays, we probably can most of the time afford to pay somebody for most of the day, or split it between two people. The more we get on one day, the more chance we have earning enough to make it worthwhile for somebody.

How is any insurance arranged?

We've got Public Liability Insurance and Employers Insurance. So it's not for personal accidents. If they [cyclists] happen to bump a vehicle out on one of our bikes, they wouldn’t be covered. I don't think anybody covers anybody for accidents at work. So yeah, whoever you worked for, that would be something you'd have to cover that yourself.

People are freelance. I can't even say they're part time; it's so irregular, just so small hours. So I've done this work this morning, and any money that I've earned will go into the kitty. When we've got enough money in the kitty, we can afford to pay people even if the work is not coming in, but we need to get to that tipping point really where we're more confident the work is coming in with money. And we're not there at the minute. A lot of people, they could take the money and they don't; they just put it into the kitty. We're building up our baseline really.

Even when COVID goes down and we start to get some resemblance of previous lives, you've built a network which is self-sufficient and will keep on going; you’ve now made those contacts.

Yeah, I think being rooted in the community and working with community groups will benefit us. For example, there's been a programme for people who are pre-diabetic and there has been a parcel of food to go out to them. Those companies aren't going to get those contracts, and they will not be interested in them because they're one off and they can't run the business in that way. We will do those things.

It's an interesting one, because if you say in what order we should we put our key [business] drivers. Is it employing people? No, it's not. Is it about reducing vehicles on the roads? Yes, it is. Is it about the health and wellbeing of our community? Yes, it is. It needs to tick all those boxes, but we're not driven by making money and profit, and we're not driven by just employing people for the sake of employing them. It needs to have more to it really.

Tf GM Nick from Chorlton Bike Deliveries outside cheesemongers with cargo bike rsz

Nick from Chorlton Bike Deliveries outside Chorlton Cheesemongers with a cargo bike


I was talking to people at Unicorn, because obviously they've got 20 plus years’ experience of retail and grocery. What they would say is things take a natural dip in the summer for groceries, but they will pick up again in the autumn. The traders that we've been working with all say it's a bit down. We've probably been doing more voluntary work these last few weeks [of July] and I think we expect to do that during August, but I think it will pick up again and hopefully we'll get some new traders that will think bicycle deliveries are good for their credentials as well.

Have you come across the new delivery companies now that are setting up around Manchester? One of them is called Gorillas. They're offering a 15-Minute delivery service.

Yes. In the end, they are going to win out because they're into making money. We can't hold ourselves against those people, but they probably aren't interested in starting a delivering service for the library for people who have ordered books. I think we're probably leaning a bit more towards the public sector, rather than chasing 30 items, or whatever. I don't think anybody can beat us on that, but then we're not trying to make money. We're privileged enough to hold high values. We might have to be a bit more ruthless if we were driven by finances.

COVID obviously frightened people, people who would never have said they were anxious types of people. I think the kind of shockwave and the sense of powerlessness and having personal lives restricted and so on. In some ways, [CBD] were actually quite empowered. Look what we can do on a bicycle. We're volunteers. We’re masked up. We're doing our best to keep ourselves safe and now we're doing the best to keep you safe.

So many people have left fantastic messages. People have just said, ‘We represent our future, represent some hope.’ ‘It's been very uplifting to see you cycling around Chorlton.’ We stood for something that people were looking for.

I suppose the thing about Gorillas and all these other companies is we'd love to talk to other people who are looking at bicycles and logistics and so on. Everybody's got to learn to share. And we've all got our little part to play.

When there was a need and everybody's looking around, there's always some people standing up and taking initiative.

We did a couple little videos for Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) and Unicorn. Unicorn has been like a big sister to us. One of the directors said we're helping build resilience in the community. I think that's a really poignant comment, because in the face of so many things being scary, actually here we were doing something super positive.

Did you get any feedback from TfGM?

They loaned us two bikes and then two trailers and we still have two trailers. They were able to very directly help us get started. I think that was because we actually know people, rather than because they've got a policy resource. So I think we hit lucky at the right time, to be honest. But I think now they've all moved on, a year, 15 months later, and Andy Burnham driving his election campaign around integrated transport and travel and all the health and wellbeing issues related to that. All businesses need people to move about Greater Manchester. I think the ducks all line up now. TfGM are shaping up to that bigger agenda, and I think we represent one little pocket of good activity that will make that contribution really.

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