E-Bikes Will Eat ... Buses?

©. Big Easy with kids on back/ Surly

A lot of people are buying e-bikes instead of taking transit.

I have written that E-bikes will eat cars and that Cargo e-bikes will eat SUVs with great pleasure; I am not sure I am so happy writing about how they are eating transit, but it looks like they are.

Tipster Keith sends us a title and a study – Modal shift implications of e-bike use in the Netherlands: Moving towards sustainability? – that includes data from around the world, showing how "e-bikes prominently substitute car trips for commuting and shopping." Something that I have always suspected is confirmed as well: "E-bikers in less urbanized areas seems to be more likely to reduce their car use."

The researchers find that much depends on local context.

Where public transit constitutes a large share of travel, notably in Chinese cities, a large proportion of e-bike users have shifted from public transit, particularly buses. The substitution of c–bikes with e-bikes is prominent in countries where cycling already accounts for a substantial share of trips, such as the Netherlands and Denmark. In areas with low cycling levels like North America and Australia, there is a more prominent transition from car travel to e-cycling.

The only data from North America is from Portland, Oregon, hardly representative of the country, but among e-bikers surveyed there, "E-bike trips replaced 45.6% car trips, 27.3% active transport/public transit trips, 25.3% would not have been taken, and 1.8% other trips." But the data from China was really interesting because fully 50 percent of the e-bikers were using it to replace buses. In transit-heavy cities like New York and Toronto, a bike that can take you farther with less work looks awfully attractive right now. The study was published in January, but extrapolate this.

Gazelle under the bentway

Gazell Medeo on the Bentway Park/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

With people stuck at home and tightening their purse strings, many feared that the hardship would be acutely felt by the scores of electric bicycle companies that have popped up over the last few years. But as it turns out, the opposite is true. In fact, sales of electric bicycles appear to have exploded recently.

Toll attributes it mostly to recreational riding, "a way to remain active while keeping their distance from others." But others, particularly in Europe, are seeing this as the future of commuting. According to Medical Express:

The transition to more bike-friendly urban environments "is necessary if we want our cities to work," said Morton Kabell, who co-chairs the European Cyclists' Federation. "A lot of people will be afraid of going on public transportation, but we have to get back to work someday. Very few of our cities can handle more car traffic," he said. In addition to bike lanes separated by curbs, Kabell backs subsidizing electric bicycles, which could encourage commuters who have longer or hilly journeys.

This is a big worry in many cities, that people who previously took transit will start driving to work instead to avoid contact with others. If fewer people take transit, then operating income drops and transit operators cut back on schedules, making it even less attractive to riders. Emily Badger writes in the New York Times:

The cumulative effect is that mass transit faces a future potentially uglier than the period after the Great Recession, when many agencies made deep service cuts that took a decade to rebound from. And nearly all of the ways they will have to adapt indefinitely — cleaning stations more frequently, running vehicles below capacity — will be costly.

In this Streetfilm, Doug Gordon of the War on Cars comes up with suggestions to prevent New York from returning to the way it was before:

  • More space for restaurant seating
  • A safer bike lane network
  • Wider sidewalks for pedestrians
  • An effective congestion pricing plan
  • Bus only lanes and busways

Melissa and Chris of Modacity tweet the same message in fewer words: "With so few cars on their streets, cities around the world are carving out an unprecedented amount of space for cycling. But as things ramp back up to 'normal' in the 1.5 metre society, we must now ensure that this reallocation remains permanent."

Almost everyone has enjoyed the blue skies, the safer roads, the quiet. Promoting bikes and e-bikes, and making better infrastructure permanent, could go a long way towards keeping it that way. I worry about how we will get our transit systems back on track; perhaps that's where all that congestion charge money should go.