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Urban Densification Is The World War II That Will Drive The Electric Bike Boom

We’re not in a post-War period when major industries are looking for new things to build. We’re not in a particularly high gasoline price time frame either. Yet electric bicycles are taking over city streets globally.

As we cast our eyes forward to the future of two-wheel transportation, it’s worth casting our eyes back to the causes of the motor scooter boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Step through motorized sit-down two-wheelers barely existed before WWII, but afterward they were everywhere. What caused that?

This article is part of the series on disruptions occurring within the two-wheel vehicle space including electrification that is leading to a full CleanTechnica report in 2019. Have an insight that’s important or a portion of the space that the series hasn’t covered? Get in touch via comments or email.

Biella, Palazzo Boglietti Mostra “BiellaVespa – Il ritorno del mito” – Modello originale di MP5 Piaggio Paperino (1944) image by Twice25 under CC BY-SA 3.0

This is the original 1944 prototype of the Piaggio Vespa, Italian for wasp. During the war, Piaggio wasn’t a manufacturer of the charming Roman two-wheelers adored by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, but of Pontedera fighter planes. The warplane factory was destroyed, but more to the point, Italian manufacturers were heavily constrained by the Paris Peace Treaties from building warcraft. Manufacturers such as Piaggio had to find other products to build, and the scooter was one of them.

Fuji Rabbit 150 image by Eric under CC BY 2.0

This is yet another 1946 scooter, the Fuji Rabbit. It actually predated Vespa production by 6 months. Inspired by American GI scooters and with some US engineering assistance, Fuji Sangyo, a part of the former Nakajima Aircraft Company, retooled from building Japanese fighters and bombers to individual transportation. In fact, the scooter was mostly made of repurposed aircraft parts, including the rear wheel of a bomber which became the front wheel of the scooter. Once again, treaties precluded Japanese war manufacturers from continuing to build airplanes, and so scooters arose.

Mitsubishi Silver Pigeon from 1946 image courtesy Mitsubishi

Vespa and Fuji weren’t alone in turning from war machines to diminutive two-wheelers. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Co. Ltd., formerly a wartime shipbuilder, also had a peace dividend with its Silver Pigeon. The Silver Pigeon and the Fuji Rabbit were considered so important to Japan’s post-war economic revival that each was presented to the Emperor of Japan in 1948.

Mopeds experienced a similar boom post WWII, with Italy’s Mosquito, Germany’s Hilfsmotor, France’s Velosolex, and the UK’s Cyclemaster. They experienced another boom in the 1970s around the OPEC oil crisis.

We’re not in a post-War period when major industries are looking for new things to build. We’re not in a particularly high gasoline price time frame either. Yet electric bicycles are taking over city streets globally. The chart shows European growth of electric bicycles in Europe, a very strong market for them. It’s dwarfed by Chinese figures of course, and in turn the electric bicycle market in North America is a fraction of European figures at present, but still increasing very rapidly, with new stores and products springing up in cities and on streets every day.

So why are electric bicycles booming?

There are multiple factors in the evolving thesis this series is exploring in preparation for CleanTechnica’s first report on disruption in the two-wheel vehicle space. The first is that more and more people are living in dense urban areas. Traveling tens of kilometers for work or leisure is rarely required, and if it is transit is much more likely to exist for a portion of the journey. The second is that Millennials and Generation Y in North America are not in nearly the same economic position the Boomers were, with cheap house prices and high wages, so the expensive toys that motorcycles evolved into are out of reach financially. Finally, the factors of urban densification and constrained fiscal resources for younger generations shift many potential car owners to other modes.

Electric bicycles, as with scooters and mopeds before them, are excellent for moving through congested cities quickly, especially when cycling infrastructure such as separated bike lanes are in place. They are much cheaper than alternatives, are easy to lock up with other bicycles and while many jurisdictions might want them to be licensed as mopeds, enforcement is next to impossible when they are silent and the drive train is as discrete as modern electric bikes often are.

As was explored in the earlier CleanTechnica articles in the series on nostalgic design and extremes in the electric bicycle space, many of these vehicles aren’t discrete however. As with New York’s crack down last year, more regulation and enforcement is coming with the greater numbers of electric bicycles.


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Written By

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc, co-founder of distnc technologies, and Strategic Advisor and Board Observer for Agora Energy Technologies. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. His published analyses of low-carbon technology and policy have been seen in Forbes, Quartz and the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation site. His work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. He's available for consulting and speaking engagements, and Board positions.

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