As we cast our eyes forward to the future of 2-wheeled 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 2-wheelers barely existed before WWII, but afterward they were everywhere. What caused that?
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.
Another 1946 scooter, the Fuji Rabbit, 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.
Vespa and Fuji weren’t alone in turning from war machines to diminutive 2-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 timeframe either. Yet electric bicycles are taking over city streets globally. The chart above 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. The first is that more and more people are living in dense urban areas. Traveling tens of kilometers for work or leisure in cities 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 drivetrain is as discreet as modern electric bikes often are.