The E-Bike Spike Continues With 1 Selling Every 3 Minutes

In the United States, two e-bikes were sold for every electric car.

E-bike rider in London
E-bike rider in London.

 Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images

E-bike sales outstripped electric car sales in 2020, according to the United Kingdom's Bicycle Association. The trade association notes: "160,000 electric bikes were sold in extraordinary conditions last year, the recap on the year reveals that one e-bike sold every three minutes. Electric cars tallied 108,000 sales with a subsidy to buy attached."

This would not seem surprising, given that electric cars cost about 20 times as much as electric bikes. But guess which mode of transport gets all the attention and the infrastructure investment, with the government spending another 20 million pounds ($27.75 million) on charging points that they often stick in the middle of sidewalks? However, the government is also spending 2 million pounds ($2.78 million) to promote the use of cargo e-bikes for businesses to replace delivery vans, which contribute to dangerous nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions along with carbon dioxide.

Mark Sutton, the editor of Cycling Industry News, wrote about where the bike spike is going in the U.K. and describes how the bike and e-bike industry is changing. He notes our cities have to respond to the bike boom because 77% of U.K. bike retailers believe "lack of safe infrastructure" is the biggest obstacle to growing cycling levels.

Sutton notes:

"Infrastructure is not just cycle paths, however. For a true end-to-end journey to become viable by bike things like cycle parking must be factored in, employers will have to begin to cater and even incentivise non-car travel (property with showers and cycle-friendly access are now  worth more) and residential areas will have to be linked to arteries. People won’t take that first step if the view outside their door is terrifying."

He also does a great explainer of why the real estate development industry in the U.K. has picked up on the bike boom, encouraging people not to drive. He asks: "Are they virtue signaling to encourage go green, or do they know something most people do not about use of space?"

It's a fascinating argument: Developers want to build more, but they know that there isn't room for a lot more cars, which "spill out of our own individual spaces and on to public land, where in theory they have no real right to be." And as we recently noted, when you add more cars, they move more slowly and eventually, not at all. Sutton has a great analogy:

"Fill a funnel full of marbles and then top that up with sand – which filters through the bottleneck? Size and efficient use of space matters and city planners now understand this thanks to the wealth of data at our fingertips. Why are cycle lanes empty, many ask? Because they’re efficient movers of people, traffic jams only ever occur at the lights."

Meanwhile, in the USA...

E-bike rider in LA

Halbergman/ Getty Images

According to the World Economic Forum, e-bike sales in the U.S. were up 145% from the previous year, with roughly 600,000 e-bikes sold. And, according to Micah Toll of Electrek, they could have sold more if they had been available. There were 296,000 electric cars sold—down a bit from 2019 because of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the budget proposed by the Biden administration is going big on support for EVs. According to IHS Markit:

Rebates to subsidize EV purchases by consumers and direct spending on federal purchases of EVs would reach close to $1 billion in FY 2022, and a new tax credit would be created for purchases of medium- and heavy-duty zero emission trucks. Also, the budget envisions tax credits worth $236 million in FY 2022 for installation of EV chargers, as well as hundreds of millions more to upgrade the power transmission system, which would benefit EV users.

The multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan puts $174 billion into vehicle electrification, but just $20 billion into programs that “improve road safety for all users, including increases to existing safety programs and a new Safe Streets for All program to fund state and local ‘vision zero’ plans and other improvements to reduce crashes and fatalities, especially for cyclists and pedestrians.”

Courtney Cobb of Streetsblog has reservations about priorities.

"My worry is that funneling billions into vehicle electrification will continue to prop up our car-centric transportation system and enrich car companies instead of challenging car dominance with investments that reduce the need for cars. The provisions for vehicle electrification also include rebates for electric car purchases. I can’t help but think we could get more people on electric bikes, a more efficient and sustainable form of transportation, via vouchers for purchase with a fraction of the funds. More people on e-bikes instead of e-cars would be a win for addressing climate change, and reducing traffic crashes and congestion."

Most of the e-bikes being sold are being used for transportation, not recreation. They are often replacing cars on commutes to work or to the store. Putting money into bike infrastructures such as bike lanes and parking gives you a lot more bang for the buck when you are trying to reduce carbon emissions, and helps eliminate congestion as well.

We love electric cars on Treehugger, and it's great that they are getting a boost in the budgets. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that there is a serious e-bike boom happening right now, or that we can't keep expanding our cities horizontally and vertically without reducing the proportion of people who drive cars, electric or gas—there simply isn't enough room.

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Of course, if the same investment was made per citizen who used a bike as transportation as was made for everyone who drove, every cyclist could buy a garage for it too. Nobody is asking for equity or logic, just a recognition that e-bikes could be key to getting a lot of people out of cars, and to unlocking the suburbs where distances are longer and 75% of Americans live. It's probably a smarter investment.