When big trucks cruise down city streets, they can cause headaches, as Philadelphians know all too well. Distributors’ trucks often gum up the works on main thoroughfares, while Amazon vans create logjams on more residential roads.
Longtime Mount Airy resident and bike proponent Alison Cohen saw this problem as an opportunity. What if electronic cargo bikes — which have significantly smaller footprints, both physically and environmentally — could defray the impact of these deliveries?
Cohen is a road-tested entrepreneur: She’s the founder and CEO of Bicycle Transit Systems, the company behind Philly’s ever-expanding Indego bikeshare and bikeshares in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and she played pivotal roles in launching similar programs in Boston, Washington, and New York.
In late 2019, she and Bicycle Transit CFO Jenn Grega invested in a 500-pound e-bike to experiment with this idea; little did they know, the coronavirus was about to make delivery more popular than ever.
Once the pandemic hit, they watched small brick-and-mortar shops struggle under shutdown orders. It added a new dimension: They could also offer a central online platform to small businesses, allowing customers to shop local with the same delivery convenience offered by the likes of Amazon.
That’s how Bloc Delivery came about. Go on its site and you can buy everything from batteries to bread, or from dryer balls and goat milk soap to artisan cheese and an Aeropress. Its goods are sourced from about 25 retailers in Northwest, West, and South Philadelphia, including Monarch Hardware, Germantown Bicycle Supply, Philly Game Shop, Good Buy Supply, Big Blue Marble Bookstore, and Weavers Way, Mariposa, and South Philly Food co-ops.
Equipped with three hefty e-bikes that can easily hold 10 grocery runs’ worth of food, Bloc has delivered to roughly 4,000 customers since it launched in spring 2020. It recently launched next-day delivery in 23 city zip codes — pretty much everywhere but the Northeast and furthest-flung West Philly. Before, Bloc delivered within a prescribed radius of the stores it works with. Now, a customer in South Philly can order products from Philadelphia Runner in University City or the Nesting House in Germantown and have them on their doorstep the following day.
We spoke with Cohen about Bloc’s decision to deliver (nearly) citywide, its ambitions for the future, and the logistics of its day-to-day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did you decide to ramp up to next-day delivery citywide?
What we’re trying to do is source the kinds of products that most people get on Amazon at locally owned businesses instead, and the only way to really do that is to provide full city coverage. For example, something like school supplies, turns out, is very hard to find from a non-Amazon or a non-chain. But there are a few. So if we want to provide school supplies where you keep your money local, we have to source that in, say, West Philly. If we want to supply electronics — not every neighborhood has an electronics store.
We were initially worried about the logistics of delivery across the city, but we deeply believe that this is a giant opportunity. We need to get the customer uptake, and the way to get the customer uptake is to offer something that no one else does. When you think about being able to keep your money local, no matter what you need to buy, it’s extremely powerful.
Do you see Bloc as a competitor to Amazon?
We’re like a fleck of dust on the skin of Amazon at the moment, but absolutely. I think there are millions of people, even within our city, who use Amazon but hate the fact that they use Amazon. You’re aware of the fact that you’re ripping apart your community. You’re aware of the fact that you’re supplying more fuel for climate change. You’re aware of the fact that the dollar that you spend locally gets recycled six times in your community, and this one is just going somewhere. But it’s so convenient and they have everything, and so you do it anyway. And we know that there’s so many people out there like that, and we just have to find them.
And whether it’s Amazon or Walmart or Target, it’s better for the communities to do it this way. The general retail market is so big, even if it’s just a tiny slice that we’re able to get, it’s a huge impact on the communities and huge impact on climate change. What we’re trying to do is normalize this kind of delivery, in the hope that it’s the seed to help push lots of different companies [to adopt it]. Because there’s no one doing any sort of electric cargo bike delivery at scale.
What’s next for Bloc?
Our hope is to demonstrate that there is a really big consumer market here in Philadelphia for people who want to spend their money locally and with minority-owned businesses, and then take that blueprint and bring it nationwide. I did this in bikeshare, where there are a lot of similarities. Bikeshare technology started in Europe, and I was one of the leads in taking what was successful in Europe and implementing it at scale in a different model in the U.S. There is delivery at scale with these bikes in Europe, not necessarily with the online marketplace.
Our first mountain to climb is to find funding. We do have a lead investor for a round. There’s so much momentum in this space of marketplaces and delivery that we really feel like we need to be competitive. So what we want to do is prove Philadelphia out as a large city that has a market for this service; we think we can do that in a year or two. And if we can prove Philly as a great demonstration market, then we think we can scale very quickly.
Walk me through a day in the life of a Bloc Delivery driver. Are they all expert bikers?
We don’t use gig-economy workers, so these are staff. One of the main differences is we don’t do just one order at a time. It’s not this last-minute thing with workers waiting around. They know they’re staffed for a certain period of time, and they’re paid for the time that they spend working. Depending on if it’s a co-op order or if the volume is low, we might do the shopping as well. They get alerted the day before in terms of what orders, how many orders, which route. They show up, pick up the bike. It might be shopping at Weavers Way, then picking up with Wild Hand, the yarn store, up here in Mount Airy. Maybe you’re doing these deliveries and then you’re making a relay drop down to Brewerytown, where another driver is picking up the drop to deliver down to South Philly. As they deliver orders, they work with our dispatch, who texts the customer saying, “Here’s a picture of this one dropped off.”
We have about seven to 10 people on staff. Our riders depend on the volume at any particular time. We provide training as soon as they start. They definitely have to be comfortable with riding on city streets. Some of our best delivery specialists were by no means expert bikers, but were very excited about the mission and got trained up and comfortable with the vehicle. The vehicle itself unloaded is 500 pounds. It has a 40-cubic-foot capacity. Whatever you put in it, pretty much you don’t feel it, because the vehicle itself is heavy. You couldn’t do this without the electric assist, which has a max speed of 15 miles an hour.
Looking at the site, your client mix offers a lot of products. How did you curate this list? Are you finding shops to work with, or are they coming to you?
It’s a mix of both. We definitely get some inbound, and we have a local business liaison who initially went out targeting specific businesses, but we’re being much more intentional about our product and business mix these days. So we need an office supply store, we need an electronic shop, we need a hardware store. We need more gift shops. We want to make sure that we have more Black-owned businesses, so we proactively reach out to some of those, too.
On your site, you basically go shopping like you would on Amazon, and then check out and it’s all processed through Bloc?
Correct, it’s a single checkout for multiple small businesses. And that’s what we think the power of this is. If you’ve tried to spend your money locally, it’s like, “This one I order online and I can order delivery. This one is curbside pickup and they’ll call me in two weeks. This one ...” It’s a mix everywhere. This is just a single transaction, and then we deal with the backend stuff and it shows up on your doorstep the next day.