E-Bikers Ride Much Farther and More Frequently Than Regular Bikers

They are not 'cheating,' but are serious transportation.

Man without helmet talking on phone while riding e-bike
Man without helmet talking on phone while riding e-bike.

 Amriphoto/ Getty Images

People used to complain that using an e-bike was "cheating," which I thought was dead and gone, writing a post two years ago, "Let’s Stop Even Talking About E-Bikes Being 'Cheating'" Yet as this recent tweet demonstrates, it is still happening.

I have tried to make the case that e-bikes are often used differently than regular bikes, that people use them more often and go much farther, and have quoted a study which finds that e-bike riders get as much exercise as riders of regular bikes because they ride farther. Now a new study, "Do people who buy e-bikes cycle more?" gives us real numbers, and they are huge. Not only that, but the e-bikes are replacing cars more than they are replacing bikes.

The researchers, Aslak Fyhri and Hanne Beate Sundfør, studied the before-and-after habits of people who bought e-bikes in Oslo, Norway. The e-bikes were Euro-style pedelec designs, which means that the rider has to pedal for the motor to run, there is no throttle. They compared these results to a group who were interested in e-bikes but had not yet purchased them, asking the questions:

  1. If buying an e-bike is related to a larger change in total cycling kilometers than short term access
  2. If buying an e-bike is related to a larger change in cycle share than short term access
  3. If the study outcome is dependent upon the choice of the comparison group.

The Dramatic Results

The people who bought e-bikes increased their bicycle use from 2.1 kilometers (1.3 miles) to 9.2 kilometers (5.7 miles) on average per day; a 340% increase. The e-bike's share of all their transportation increased dramatically too; from 17% to 49%, where they e-biked instead of walking, taking public transit, and driving.

The researchers call this the "e-bike effect," but worried that people might be riding so much because they just bought the bike and there is the novelty of it, so they are using it a lot, similar to what happens when people buy fancy gym equipment. They discounted this because in fact, people rode their e-bikes more the longer they had them; "it confirms previous findings indicating that people tend to go through a learning process where they discover new trip purposes for where to use the e-bike."

But Norway isn't the USA

Many in North America will likely suggest that this is Scandinavia, it's different. In fact, the researchers note that Norway doesn't share the Danish or Dutch use of bikes as transportation, and in Oslo, the cycling shares are low.

Norwegian cycling culture has been dominated by recreational cycling for the last few decades. Hence, the context of Norway to a certain extent can be compared with that of the U.S, where the few studies that have hitherto been published indicate a mode shift from cars to cycling following from e-bike access.

The authors conclude:

E-bikes are increasingly turning into an essential part of the urban transport system, and can be an important contribution to reducing environmental impact from transport by shifting people away from motorized transport....We find that the increased cycling is not just a novelty effect, but appears to be more lasting. Our study thus indicates that policy makers can expect a positive return of policy measures aimed at increasing the uptake of e-bikes.

If we really want to see a permanent uptake in the use of e-bikes, we need policy measures that provide a safe place to ride and a secure place to park. Then e-bikes can truly take their place as part of the urban transport system.

I also believe that this study puts paid to the question of whether e-bikes are "cheating." E-bikers are going so much farther, so much more often, that it's clear that they are being used differently. They are not just an easier bike to ride, but are being used as a replacement for cars and transit. And after all, who is cheating here?