Why Bikes and E-Bikes Are the Fastest Ride to Zero Carbon

Sixty percent of trips in North America are under 6 miles. Who needs a car for that?

Urban Arrow e-bike

Gazelle/Urban Arrow

Governments in the U.S. and the United Kingdom are about to spend billions of their respective currencies on electric vehicle subsidies and infrastructure. This is good news and a big step in the right direction, but is it the best strategy, and can it happen fast enough? Associate Professor Christian Brand of Oxford's Transport, Energy & Environment, Transport Studies Unit, doesn't think so.

Brand is known to Treehugger for his recent study covered in "Riding a Bike Has One-Tenth the Impact of an Electric Car," in which he noted it takes a lot of metal and lithium with a lot of embodied carbon to make EVs, giving them a lifecycle carbon footprint of about half that of Internal Combustion Engine (ICE), which is not enough of a reduction to get us to zero by 2050. It is an argument that I have made before, and critics have pushed back by noting that if someone is gonna buy a pickup anyway, half is pretty good.

But Brand thinks it's not good enough for a number of reasons. Writing in an Oxford newsletter, Brand says the changeover to EVs is going to take way too long to make a difference in the current carbon crisis and that focusing on EVs is actually going to slow down the race to zero emissions. "Even if all new cars were fully electric, it would still take 15-20 years to replace the world’s fossil fuel car fleet," wrote Brand.

And all new cars are most certainly not electric; In the U.S., only 331,000 were sold in 2019, compared to 900,000 ICE-powered Ford F-150s. According to the Boston Consulting Group, it will be 2030 before EVs outsell ICE-powered vehicles. Instead, Brand suggests that we have to make it easier for people to find alternatives to cars. He wrote:

"Transport is one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise because of its heavy fossil fuel use and reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure – such as roads, airports, and the vehicles themselves - and the way it embeds car-dependent lifestyles. One way to reduce transport emissions relatively quickly, and potentially globally, is to swap cars for cycling, e-biking, and walking – active travel, as it is called."

Of those active modes, Brand sees e-bikes as being transformational because they go farther, they make it easier for older people and those with disabilities to keep active and keep out of cars. He notes that "in the Netherlands and Belgium, electric bikes have become popular for long-distance commutes of up to 30 km. They could be the answer to our commuting problems."

share of vehicle trips
US Department of Energy

That's a bit extreme, and not even necessary, since according to the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly 60% of all car trips are less than six miles. That's an easy bike ride and an easier e-bike trip. And you don't have to be doctrinaire and sell the car yet, just change some of the trips. According to Brand, "We also found the average person who shifted from car to bike for just one day a week cut their carbon footprint by 3.2kg of CO2."

riding cargo bike
Delivering Christmas cookies and soup to neighbors on the RadWagon e-bike. K Martinko

Brand also notes the big focus is always on commuters when there is a lot of other driving being done. He even links to Treehugger senior writer Katherine Martinko's post on this subject:

"While public policy tends to focus on commuting, trips for other purposes such as shopping or social visits are also often done by car. These trips are often shorter, increasing the potential for a shift toward walking, cycling or e-biking. E-cargo bikes can carry heavy shopping and/or children and can be the key ingredient needed to make the shift to ditching the family car."

Brand calls for more safe cycling infrastructure, including separated bike lanes, and for serious investment in cycling.

"So the race is on. Active travel can contribute to tackling the climate emergency earlier than electric vehicles, while also providing affordable, reliable, clean, healthy and congestion-busting transportation." 

This is happening already, and not just among the young and fit.

Brand linked to a post by the young and fit Martinko, but it's a common complaint that "not everyone can ride a bike" and "you can't do your shopping on a bike." While this post was being written, a man in London was busy on Twitter dismissing the possibilities of using bikes instead of cars.

Poor Mr. Jones got seriously ratioed for this by a bunch of bike and e-bike riders between 50 and 70, including me and others who pointed out that "This is ageist and completely inaccurate, btw." Or "What was your point? I thought it was “people don’t bike because they can’t carry stuff, especially if they’re oooold”…which has now been thoroughly disproved in the replies."

One even noted that you can carry an entire campsite.

It is hard in North America to convince people that it is safe for everyone to ride a bike everywhere because it's not. Seventy-four percent of Americans live in suburbs that were designed around cars, and car-centric planning is still the rule.

Even in a city like New York, with a higher percentage of people riding bikes and taking transit than anywhere else in North America, cars still rule. But the wonderful thing about e-bikes is that they work in suburbs where things are twice as far apart because you can comfortably travel twice as far. That's why Christian Brand is right; we have to move fast and change the focus from electric cars to getting people out of cars. Putting everyone in an EV is a lovely idea but we don't have time.

View Article Sources
  1. Brand, Christian et al. "The Climate Change Mitigation Effects of Daily Active Travel in Cities." Transportation Research Part D: Transport And Environment, vol. 93, 2021, p. 102764., doi:10.1016/j.trd.2021.102764

  2. "FOTW #1042, August 13, 2018: In 2017 Nearly 60% of All Vehicle Trips Were Less than Six Miles." U.S. Department of Energy, 2018.