The e-bikes are coming, the e-bikes are coming! And in most places, they are already there. How should countries and cities respond to the invasion of electric bikes on their streets and paths?
This article is part of the series leading to a major CleanTechnica report on disruption and innovation in the two-wheeled motorized vehicle space. Past articles have included the innovative disruption facing the space from electric-assist bicycles, the challenges facing major motorcycle firms such as BMW and Harley-Davidson, the different issues facing startups such as Zero and Alta, the unexpected impacts that are emerging, what’s driving the transition, and the prevalence of retro design in the space.
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.
What are the benefits of electric bikes for cities and countries?
The first is obvious: congestion. Electric bicycles take up exactly the same amount of space as a bicycle, which is next to nothing. As the image shows, they take up barely more space than a city bus to move the same number of people. They spread out more thinly and typically are off to one side, not taking up an entire lane either. Electric bikes are used almost entirely in urban areas for commuting along surface streets, paths, and trails.
If 1,000 people switched from cars to electric bikes for half of their ~500 commuting trips per year of 10 kilometers, that would be close to $2 million of societal value gained.
Studies have made it clear that most people who take up electric bikes aren’t people who are already cycling, but people who are returning to cycling later in life and who typically aren’t driving their cars. Electric bicycles displace the traffic on the right of the image, not the left or center.
If it was only congestion, that might be enough right there. But as was pointed out in a recent CleanTechnica article about a systematic review of the research, electric bikes make urban populations healthier.
“There was moderate evidence that e-cycling provided physical activity of at least moderate intensity, which was lower than the intensity elicited during conventional cycling, but higher than that during walking. There was also moderate evidence that e-cycling can improve cardiorespiratory fitness in physically inactive individuals.”
But they do that in a couple of ways. First, the people who ride the bikes are healthier. That’s a first order effect. In many cases, people on electric bicycles aren’t in the best of shape, returning to activity after years of more sedentary behavior. They tend to be older than the average cyclist, and less likely to be wearing lycra wrapped around sculpted abs.
The second is air pollution. Researchers at the University of Oxford and University of Bath published a report in May of 2018 which had some key things to say about urban air quality:
“A quarter of the total health costs of outdoor air pollution in the UK is from cars and vans, equivalent to over 10,000 premature deaths per year.”
Air pollution in cities causes health damages for everybody in the city. And everyone ends up paying for it. The direct health benefits have added societal impacts from loss of productivity, among other things. A healthier populace is a more productive one. And with most electric bike riders displacing cars for commuting and errands, every electric bike is taking a nick out of that air pollution problem.
The UK impacts are roughly equivalent for most European cities but higher than in Canada and the USA due to higher numbers of diesel cars on the roads in Europe than in North America. However, even gas cars cause population impacts which are quantifiable, negative, and significant for population health.
Next, there’s the question of noise pollution. Electric bikes are about as noisy as bicycles, which is to say nearly silent. Noise is annoying and in urban areas it impacts health as well. Dr David Rojas from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health in Spain studies the impacts of noise and other forms of pollution in urban areas.
“Noise produces a stimulus to the central nervous system and this stimulus releases some hormones, … (This) increases the risk of hypertension, and hypertension has been related with many other cardiovascular (and) cerebrovascular diseases like infarction (heart attacks) and strokes.”
Cars are a primary source of urban noise, although they aren’t typically the loudest or most annoying source of noise. Every car that isn’t on the road due to someone on an electric bicycle is a reduction in urban noise that has benefits.
The City of Vancouver in Canada quantified the cost benefits of cycling vs driving a few years ago in a study. Electric bikes are in the same ballpark as normal bicycles, and displace car use. The net benefit to society of someone getting on an electric bicycle instead of in their car is around $3.50 for a 5 kilometer (3 mile) commute. That’s without a lot of diesel cars on the road, so increase these numbers somewhat for Europe.
It’s worth pointing out that electric bikes have seen their share of accidents and that the collisions can be more severe due to greater speed and mass of the bikes, but there’s little evidence to show that it’s sufficiently higher than for bicycles to wipe out more than pennies of that difference and it’s likely a wash with noise pollution gains.
The last point on this thread is that people ride electric bikes further than unpowered bikes, from 50% to 90% further. While people considered trips of up to 7.5 kilometers on bikes as reasonable on average, they considered trips of up to 14.1 kilometers reasonable on electric bikes. That’s closing in on $10 of societal benefit per trip, $20 per day. If 1,000 people switched from cars to electric bikes for half of their ~500 commuting trips per year of 10 kilometers, that would be close to $2 million of societal value gained.
So electric bikes make riders and everyone else healthier. And congestion is eased. That’s a no-brainer already, but there are two more points.
Assuming the same 1,000 people switched the same number of trips in their average North American 28 mpg cars, how much CO2 would be avoided per year? That’s about 54,000 miles (84,600 kilometers) of driving avoided. And in normal cars that’s about a million pounds (454,000 kg) of CO2 emitted. But not with electric bikes. Want to meet emissions targets? Promote electric bikes.
As another CleanTechnica article pointed out recently, electric bikes are already a $1.5 billion dollar global market and it’s growing at near to 10% annually. That economic growth includes new retail outlets in urban areas. It includes new service jobs. It includes new manufacturing opportunities. Electric bikes are more expensive than bicycles which means greater tax revenues for the areas. Electric bicycles are good for the economy directly, not just indirectly through health and productivity benefits.
Electric bikes make everyone healthier. They reduce the societal subsidy for driving cars. They increase productivity. They increase the economy. They reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cities and countries should be promoting them as avidly as possible. But do they? An upcoming article will look at cities and countries that are regulating against them. Another will look at specific actions urban planners should keep in mind when planning for the inevitable increase in electric bike traffic.