May 06, 2014

Back to the Future to Mitigate Global Warming: Are Firms like Postmates Part of the Answer?

As I have noted several times in past blogs, progress in reducing greenhouse gas emission into the atmosphere has not been sufficient to deal with the problem.  This weekend the Seattle Times published an article about Chinese coal usage that was downright depressing. And today, the U.S. climate change assessment came out, painting a scary picture of the impacts of climate change on the U.S.

But every once in a while, new businesses come up with innovative ideas that provide a bit of optimism.  In this case a service called Postmates, a delivery service with a large bicycle fleet.

The idea of this service is sort of like Amazon on steroids:  instead of huge warehouses, whole cities becomes warehouses. 

A tricycle in an Amazon Warehouse

And just as some Amazon staff use bicycles to gather items in their vast buildings, Postmates cycle around major cities picking up a wide variety of items to be delivered to customers within an hour.  Like take-out food, medicines and pharmacy items, or anything else.  Including delivering a gift to a friend or transporting a package between any two locations in a city.

Postmate courier delivering items

What I like about Postmates is that most of their deliveries are by bicycle and that they are operating in a number of major U.S. cities (e.g., San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle, and DC).  I understand from their website that they are in rapid expansion mode now.   The reduction in car usage resulting from their service has to be substantial, thus lessening emissions of CO2 and particulates in these urban locations.   So instead of driving around to pick up a meal or an item, a bicycle courier can do this for you with no greenhouse gas emission.

Perhaps Postmates should open a branch in Beijing. 

If you are interested in this company, they have a fun app (Android or IOS) to get items delivered from your favorite local places or to pick up an item you want transported to another location in your city.


  1. Bicycle delivery makes sense for many small packages. The advantage for the community is the small parking area needed for the bike (no trucks double parked) along with the climate advantages.
    UPS has been using bike delivery in the Portland, OR region for the past half-a-dozen years and of course in the days before fax machines, bike couriers were common in large urban areas. There was even a cheezy movie with Kevin Bacon about the NYC bike culture. I'm too lazy to look up the movie's name.
    I prefer using my bike for short errands when the cargo is light. It's usually faster than walking and is much more green than starting the car. Seattle is somewhat vertically challenging but any bike courier worth her salt will take pride in powering up the hills.

  2. Just so you know, bicycle messenger services have thrived in New York since at least the 1970s, when I used these services in my business. One thing you seem to forget, Cliff, is that these are premium services. Higher price for higher speed. Also the idea that these services use less CO2 than trucks is ludicrous. You have a single human pedalling his bike crosstown to deliver a single Manila envelope, instead of a truck with thousands of such packages. Do the math. You may well be trying to save the world from CO2, but this ain't gonna contribute a bit to that effort.

  3. Cliff,
    I'm really interested in your take on the Climate report. Hoping you'll post something on it.
    Dan M

  4. The first time I visited China in 1982 the bicycles were everywhere. As the years went by things changed, the average Chinese obviously prefered to travel by auto and bicycle use plummeted. Scooters and small cars dominate the landscape today, people use it as a status symbol I'm sure but are truly concerned by the sickening condition of their atmosphere. It used to be when things got bad atmospherically bicycle riders would put tiny holed nets over their heads, wear surgical masks and cover up well as you would do riding a bicycle outdoors. I, to this day, have pictures of my wife and I standing in Tiananmen Square early in the morning, the sky was thick with smog, orange gray colored stuff reminiscent of LA in the 60's and 70's. The population has come a long way in a short time but they know pollution is killing them and want nothing better than to be rid of the foul air. Their infrastructure is so far advanced but there's still so far to go. They have passed the USA in so many ways but still fight to improve the health of their cities air and water because of the sheer number of humans trying to survive in such a small area. It's quite an experience to see their land and what they've done over the years to push themselves into the 1st World category technologically. They are seriously rethinking the bicycle use thing but I wouldn't want to ride or even walk through their air. Since the car has been taking over from the bicycle use in the past 20 years or so the policies like making licenses extremely expensive or schooling extremely lengthy have become commonplace. They are trying to cope though the best they can considering the conditions.

  5. A welcome, inventive drop in a very large bucket but it is going to make a much, much larger effort to have a real effect. Sure, companies like this are part of the answer. So are you and I. So is our government, arguably the only force large enough to alter the momentum of our economy in any realistic time frame. I am not optimistic.

  6. Here in Victoria we've had bicycle couriers all over town for at least a decade. Doesn't seem to have stopped B.C. from shipping it's carbon heavy coal across the sea, apparently in the belief that the CO2 produced by burning it won't affect us as long as it's burned in China.

  7. Thanks for letting me/us know about Postmates. I used them this afternoon! And I'll use them again.


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