Are E-bikes an Urban Revolution on Two Wheels?

When it comes to news and stats on e-mobility, electric cars and buses get the lion’s share of attention. But it’s actually their two-wheeled cousin, the electric bike or e-bike, that’s the top-selling electric vehicle worldwide. Are e-bikes about to usher in a whole new era of transportation?

Author Anna Rees, 03.07.17

When it comes to news and stats on e-mobility, electric cars and buses get the lion’s share of attention. But it’s actually their two-wheeled cousin, the electric bike or e-bike, that’s the top-selling electric vehicle worldwide. Are e-bikes about to usher in a whole new era of transportation?

E-bikes tend to look pretty much like standard bicycles, but they’re fitted with a motor, a battery and controls. Riders have the option of regular pedal-powered cycling (as with standard bikes), or switching on the motor to either support pedaling (pedal assist – e-bikes with only this function are also known as pedelecs) or completely power the bicycle (electric only or throttle control), requiring no pedaling at all from the rider. The speeds that e-bikes can reach depend on the power of the motor, but some models can go up to 28 miles per hour (45 km). Charging an e-bike’s battery is simply a matter of plugging it into a standard wall power outlet at home. According to Evelo, most standard batteries have a lifespan of about 300 – 1000 charges, depending on the quality. Sealed lead acid batteries used to be the norm for e-bikes, but newer models are increasingly being equipped with lithium-ion batteries, which have three times the lifespan.

E-bike popularity is picking up speed: An estimated 35 million models were sold in 2016, and annual global revenues are expected to hit a huge 24.3 billion USD by 2025. According to a 2010 paper from MIT, e-bikes produce about the same amount of carbon emissions as regular bicycles over the course of their entire lifecycle.

But where e-bikes really stand to make the most impact, is offering an alternative to short(er) trips made by car. The same MIT paper found that, over their lifecycle, e-bikes use less than 10 per cent of the energy that a sedan uses per mile.

Bye Bye Car?

While bicycle use is increasing throughout cities in the US and has always been popular in most parts of continental Europe, appealing to people’s greener selves often hasn’t been enough to get them to completely ditch the car and trade it in for a humble bicycle. And often the main reasons are very simple. A 2012 study conducted in Washington D.C. found that one of the biggest obstacles in getting people to switch from a four-wheeled to a two-wheeled commute is arriving at work sweaty.

E-bikes take up some of the physical slack of cycling, making a morning commute to work or riding up hills far less sweat-inducing. Crucially, e-bikes facilitate cycling among people who might have difficulty with “analogue” cycling, such as people who are inactive, drive cars regularly or the elderly. They also make it easier to cycle with loads, like groceries and children. In fact some companies have already introduced electric cargo bikes as courier services, which can carry heavier loads than standard bicycle couriers and eliminate the need for vehicles to do the same job. 

E-bike uptake varies from region to region: the largest market for e-bikes is China (though this may decline in coming years due to saturation and new regulation banning their use in some cities), about 152,000 units were sold in the US last year, while about 1.6 million e-bikes were sold in Europe in 2016 (with the Netherlands and Germany leading the e-bike charge).

Bike Initiatives and Incentives

One of the reasons e-bike uptake has been so slow in the US is that legislation in some states lumps these cycles in with mopeds and scooters, preventing e-cyclists from using bike lanes. Lack of proper cycling infrastructure and the cost of e-bikes (the price of a decent model starts at around 1500 USD) have also hindered e-bike uptake worldwide. There are, however, a number of initiatives in place around the world that look to promote e-bike use and help overcome some of these obstacles. Cities such as Oslo in Norway and Shandong in China have introduced subsidies to help bring down purchase prices, while bikesharing programs from Baltimore to Berlin have introduced e-bikes as part of their fleet. There are even a whole load of DIY options, for handy people who want to make their existing bicycle into an e-bike and save a bit of money in the process.

Even the private sector has jumped on board: UK-based social enterprise Green Commute Initiative allows employers to buy e-bike vouchers for their employees, who can use the vouchers to hire e-bikes for their commute to work. The voucher is paid for via a salary sacrifice on the part of the employee. Their work caught the eye of the City of London, which has partnered with the organisation to coordinate a series of events that allow people to try out e-bikes and discover quieter cycle routes through the UK’s capital.

The Beauty of E-Bikes – No Effort Required!

As the cost of lithium-ion batteries reduces, so too will the overall price of e-bikes, which may increase uptake of this type of e-mobility. One of the biggest things working in favour of e-bike adoption (especially when compared to e-cars) is that switching from analogue to electric doesn’t require any additional effort or infrastructure.

Switching from a car to an e-bike does require planning and thought, but no more so than switching to a regular bike would, and e-bikes can perform some of the same duties normally carried out by cars, such as longer trips and helping people transport cargo. This, coupled with improvements in cycling infrastructure could help make the shift from car to e-bike that much easier and entirely sweat-free.

The future looks bright for e-mobility. Want to find out which countries are leading the way, how electric vehicles are now holding their own against the rest of the market, and what innovative startups are doing to keep e-mobility moving forward? You can find all the articles here: RESET Special E-Mobility.

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