E-Bikes Can Unlock the Suburbs for Alternative Transportation

When it comes to dealing with carbon emissions, electric cars are not the only answer.

Mayor Hidalgo on an e-bike in a bike lane
In Europe, they get e-bikes: Here is Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on an e-bike in a bike lane.

Chesnot/ Getty Images

A recent survey from the United States Conference of Mayors, titled "Leveraging New Technologies to Modernize Infrastructure and Improve Energy Efficiency in America’s Cities," made interesting findings: Of the 103 U.S. mayors surveyed, 55% believed "all-electric vehicles" were the most promising technology from a list of 20 options presented to them.

An infographic of the survey results showing what promising technologies 103 U.S. mayors placed value in.

Mayor's Climate Protection Center

By all-electric vehicles (EVs), the report clearly meant e-cars and the entire 20-page document, published in November 2021, did not mention e-bikes even once.

electrifying new york

NYC Department of Transportation

Treehugger's Eduardo Garcia recently covered New York City's plans for a massive EV charging network, with 40,000 chargers serving 400,000 electric cars by 2030. If you think people fighting over parking spaces is a problem, you ain't seen nothin' yet. And again, in the entire report, not a peep about e-bikes.

We have noted that they are not ignoring e-bikes in Europe, and are promoting them for use everywhere, writing: "E-bikes can enable alternatives ways to travel to the private car for people living in urban, suburban and rural areas, where the public transport network can be sparse and infrequent."

Now a new study, "E-Bikes and their capability to reduce car CO2 emissions," finds that e-bikes could reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions significantly and that the "e-bike carbon reduction capability is greatest in rural areas." The study estimated how far individuals are comfortable and capable of going by e-bike and noted that they were particularly useful on the urban fringe where people are now forced to own cars. They did statistical analyses to figure out what proportion of the population was fit to ride an e-bike while carrying 33 pounds, which is equivalent to carrying a small child, shopping bags, or day-to-day items. They assumed there was safe infrastructure, noting that this is a governance issue, not a question of the ability to ride.

Study authors Ian Philips, Jillian Anable, and Tim Chatterton assume the maximum distance people would be willing to do on an e-bike is 20 kilometers (12.42 miles), which may be enough for someone in rural England to get to a town but won't do much in rural North America.

Share of american population living in suburbs

Pew Research

However, according to Pew Research, the vast majority of Americans live in urban and suburban areas now, which puts 86% of the American population within range of e-bike use and the same logic applies: Suburban drivers travel longer distances by car, so their use of an e-bike instead will reduce CO2 emissions more dramatically than urban e-bike users. Urban core dwellers have short distances and lots of options, while the authors note that suburban and rural areas have poor public transport and are car-dependent, so there is even greater untapped potential for e-bike use. They note that promoting e-bikes is a progressive policy because cars are expensive to own and operate. They also worry the conversion to electric cars will be slow.

 "Although the CO2 intensity of the car fleet will improve as it moves towards electrification, this is progressing too slowly to avoid the need for parallel reductions in car use and the simulation is an attempt to quantify the scale of carbon reductions if a switch to e-bikes were to happen in the near-term. Mass uptake of e-bikes could make a significant early contribution to transport carbon reduction, particularly in areas where conventional walking and cycling do not fit journey patterns and bus provision is relatively expensive, inflexible and, certainly in the UK, has diminished over recent decades."

The study authors do not publish the entire simulation because they are using data from many different studies and come up with a number for carbon savings in England. But, as they note, "The issues of urgency, equity and the need to achieve reductions in all areas, not just urban centres, applies everywhere."

And indeed, when you look at cities, suburbs, and towns across North America, there are the same issues of urgency and equity. This is why the almost single-minded focus on e-cars seems so misguided when a faster and fairer approach would be to try to reduce the number of cars and make space for the safe and secure use of bikes and e-bikes.

Embodied Carbon and Operating Energy Matter

I have tried many times to stress the importance of embodied carbon, the upfront carbon that is emitted while making cars and the batteries, and the study authors note the difference in the resources needed to make them.

"E-bikes require less material and have lower manufacturing emissions than cars, for example, an e-bike battery is only 1–2% of the size of an electric car battery meaning less resource use per e-bike. Electrification of heat, cooking and transport raise issues around electricity grids and supplies. E-bike chargers in the home draw relatively low power (500W–1400W) and would run on existing circuits, so would not specifically require upgrades to the domestic electricity grid. It is also important to note that the power required to charge an e-bike is significantly lower than for electric cars, particularly the rapid charging of cars."
How many e-bikes can on electric car charge?

Lloyd Alter

But the authors also note how e-bikes put a lot less stress on the household and the power grid. After seeing a tweet comparing how much electricity e-cars use compared to houses, I started a little spreadsheet and just added a column showing how many e-bike charges one could get out of an e-car. A little Nissan Leaf carries enough electricity to fill 80 average e-bikes and a Ford Lightning could fill 300 of them. A more sophisticated analysis would take their range into account, but it is obvious that an e-bike moves a human a lot further per watt/hour.

People will continue to say "not everybody can ride an e-bike." It's true—and not everybody can drive a car. The conclusion remains that from any basis of comparison, be it speed of rollout, cost, equity, safety, the space taken for driving or parking, embodied carbon or operating energy, e-bikes beat e-cars for a majority of the population.

Why politicians and planners in North America are ignoring this opportunity is a mystery to me.

View Article Sources
  1. "Leveraging New Technologies to Modernize Infrastructure and Improve Energy Efficiency in America’s Cities." Mayors Climate Protection Center, 2021.

  2. Philips, Ian, et al. "E-Bikes and Their Capability to Reduce Car CO2 Emissions." Transport Policy, vol. 116, 2021, pp. 11-23., doi:10.1016/j.tranpol.2021.11.019

  3. "A growing share of the population lives in the suburban counties of large metro areas." Pew Research Center, 2020.