Why don't electric bikes get the kind of support that electric cars do?

me on a bike at brooklyn cycle shop
© Sun & Air Bike Shop/ TreeHugger Ilana on an e-bike

A lot of money is being spent on promoting electric cars, but we need an "all of the above" strategy.

Recently we wrote about how Alphabet's Waymo division might get almost half a billion dollars in federal tax credits for buying 62,000 hybrid Pacifica minivans, and wondered whether the money might not be better spent on buying half a million e-bikes. After all, e-bike sales are exploding; according to Bloomberg, "powered bicycles are quickly filling the needs of urban commuters, especially in Europe and China." They note that e-bikes and cars are not directly comparable, but that their use overlaps.

Think of electric vehicles — from scooters to buses — as being along a spectrum of ways to move people. The only model that could span the entire spectrum is the automobile, which can drive one person a few hundred feet or a handful of people thousands of miles. Everywhere along that spectrum, though, another electric option challenges the car in more narrow uses.

So why is so much money, energy and attention focused on one mode of transport, the electric car? Why not all of the above?

In the UK, University of Westminster transport researcher Rachel Aldred thinks there should be much smarter investment, including e-bikes. She writes in Cycling Industry News:

By 2014, according to the European Cyclists’ Federation, Germany had spent €1.4 billion of public money on R&D for electric cars, announcing in 2016 another €1 billion of subsidies. All this effort helped put 25,500 purely electric cars on German streets. Meanwhile, 2.5 million e-Bikes (pedelecs) appeared, without fanfare and almost without subsidy.

She notes that because e-bikes can go longer distances and deal with hilly terrain, it could double the potential mode share over conventional bikes. Yet with the exception of a few cities, not much is done to promote their use. She concludes:

If we enable it, e-Bikes will be core to sustainable mobility. But government still sees ‘low emission vehicles’ as being cars, vans, and lorries, meaning most ‘green’ spending goes to the most wasteful types of vehicle, and e-Bikes are marginalised. This is despite air pollution experts like Professor Frank Kelly stressing the need for mode shift, and the many advantages of e-Bikes over cars, including health. There’s growing evidence that e-Bikes replace car trips, maintain cycling at older ages, and allow people who might not otherwise be able to cycle to participate. Far from being ‘cheating’ they will help enable maximum use of the bike infrastructure we need to be building, for both personal and freight transport.

Lloyd on bikeTreeHugger Lloyd on an e-bike in Copenhagen/CC BY 2.0

This is the epiphany here, the realization that, as Horace Dediu put it, e-bikes will eat cars. A lot of people who bike regularly don't feel the need for electric bikes (and even have said they are "cheating") but the real transformation, the real change is the fact that e-bikes are attracting people who don't bike a lot, like TreeHuggers Ilana and Sami have demonstrated. They really can replace cars for a lot of trips.

It is time to rethink our preoccupations with electric cars and particularly the obsession with self-driving cars; it is time for an "all of the above" strategy that promotes bikes, e-bikes, pedestrian infrastructure that provides serious alternatives to cars. They are out there and people are using them; as Nathaniel Bullard of Bloomberg notes, "every new bike on the road is a car that is not being used, or one that might not be bought in the future."

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