By Barbara Kessler

Biking. It’s not just for hearty commuters and weekend racers anymore. With the energy pinch on, people are finding more uses for two- or three-wheeling, whether it’s puttering to school or the grocery. Even businesses are finding ways that bikes can solve problems.

Cargo bikes deliver food for cityTake City Harvest in New York City. The food rescue agency collects leftovers and unwanted produce from farmer’s markets, restaurants and groceries, and delivers it to various agencies and soup kitchens serving the poor and displaced.Since it opened as the first food rescue organization (in 1982), City Harvest has grown and grown, and today it operates 17 refrigerated trucks that collect food all over the city.

Make that 17 trucks sitting and idling in a whole lot of traffic, particularly the portion of the fleet that serves Midtown Manhattan, a free world mecca of idling and traffic congestion. Meanwhile, many of City Harvest’s donor vendors, who give their leftover sandwiches, donuts and salads at the end of the day would sometimes have to wait for those trucks to get to their store by closing time. It could be touch-and-go.

City Harvest, searching for a way to get to the food faster and more efficiently began eyeing bikes. They’re used to courier documents and small packages all over NYC. Maybe they could address the efficiency issue and also reduce their carbon footprint by increasing their foot power?

The group found a way when they contracted with Revolution Rickshaws, which fitted three three-wheel bikes with cargo compartments that could carry up to 500 pounds of food, said Jennifer McLean, vice president of operations for City Harvest.

Instead of big trucks slogging away, “the biker is able to jet over there and not get stuck in traffic,” Ms. McLean said. “It’s constant pedal and pick up and pedal and pick up.”

Of course, the group had to hire fit drivers for the new cargo bikes (they had to pass physicals), and the bike food pickups are restricted to more than 20 but less than 50 pounds. But once three bikes were on the road, City Harvest was able to reassign some trucks to routes in the boroughs, making that end of the operation more efficient as well.

So far everyone’s happy with the new arrangement, which has cut waiting times, gas costs, carbon emissions and traffic frustrations, Ms. McLean said. The newly hired bikers, all former bicycle couriers, have been muttering a bit about the adjustment to the three-wheel machines, she said, but they’re generally in a great mood at the end of the day because they get thumbs up all day long from those who see they’re on a mission.

Now if only the need for that mission weren’t so great. The group expects to distribute about 23 million pounds of food this year, turning it quickly to poverty agencies so that the leftovers are used within a day or two.

Spiraling food and fuel prices are putting higher demand on those serving the poor, and bringing new clients, some of whom are looking for their first ever free meal or a grocery bag of food.

“We’re seeing people emailing us,” Ms. McLean recounted, (they’re saying) ‘I have a college degree, I have a wife and kids, I need food’.”