What Is Needed For an E-Bike Revolution?

Good affordable bikes, a safe place to ride, and a secure place to park.

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

 Amriphoto/ Getty Images

At the start of a presentation by the head of a bike company, he noted that "the electric bike will be the most popular electric vehicle of the next decade." In my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," published on September 14, I have a section discussing e-bikes and what we need to do to have a real e-bike revolution. Some of this has been the subject of Treehugger posts before. Here's an excerpt from the book:

Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

The wonder of the e-bike is that it so radically expands what two wheels can do. It opens cycling to older people, those with disabilities, people who live in hilly cities where regular cycling requires serious effort. It flattens hills and distance. My former co-worker Lisa has cystic fibrosis and now just throws her oxygen tank in the carrier and is cycling around Atlanta. It flattens seasons too; you dress as you would for a walk, knowing that you will not work up a sweat if you don’t want to.

An article [covered in Treehugger] demonstrated that if just 15% of a city’s population switched to e-bikes, it would reduce the carbon emissions from transportation by 12%; that's not a lot of bikes; in Copenhagen, 50% of people ride. 15% is also not a stretch at all, and a higher percentage is possible, but not if you only talk about the bikes themselves; they have to be part of a bigger package.

3 Things Are Needed for the E-Bike Revolution:

winter e-bike ride
Rad e-bike can be ordered online.

K Martinko

1) Decent Affordable E-Bikes

Whereas e-bikes have been popular in continental Europe for years, they are just beginning to have a significant impact in North America. Since bikes were seen more as recreation than transportation, e-bikes were seen as “cheating”—you are not getting as much exercise. They were often conflated with electric scooters, the Vespa-like things with dinky useless pedals, that were often being driven by people who lost their licenses for DUI.

Then there was the patchwork of regulations across North America, confusion about whether e-bikes are bikes or some other form of vehicle. This was all figured out in Europe years ago, where Pedelec e-bikes had 250-watt motors and no throttle (but picked up the riders’ pedaling and gave them a boost), and a top speed of 20 km/hr were treated like bikes.

American exceptionalism being what it is (More hills! Longer distances! Faster traffic! Heavier people!), they had to reinvent the wheel and have a 750-watt maximum, 28 km/hour limit, and throttles so riders can just sit there like on a motorcycle, instead of being on a bike with a boost. But at least there were now rules, and companies like Rad Power Bikes started selling decent e-bikes for under $1,000 (my Dutch-built Gazelle costs three times that). They sell them online, which I originally thought was a terrible idea, thinking we should support our local bike shops and make sure that they are assembled properly by experts, but many people, mostly women, told me that so many bike shops are staffed by misogynist bike snobs who treat e-bike shoppers dreadfully. They convinced me that buying online wasn’t such a terrible idea after all.

2) A Safe Place to Ride

Maisoneuve bike lane
Separated bike lane in Montreal.

Lloyd Alter

Since most politicians and planners considered bikes to be recreational, they were loath to give up any road space for bike lanes, and every one of them became a contentious political battle. Most North American bike networks are patchy, inconsistent, and full of parked cars because they are not properly separated.

When the pandemic hit, many cities suddenly became big fans of bike lanes, given the dramatic increase in ridership due to people wanting to avoid public transit. It’s hard to tell how many of these lanes will remain after the bug is gone, but I suspect that many people who took to bikes and e-bikes out of necessity will fall in love with them.

But for bike lanes to work, the network has to be continuous, not just dumping you into the middle of a busy street. It should be protected so that it doesn’t become the FedEx lane. It needs to be maintained and properly plowed. In Copenhagen, they clear the lanes before they do the streets. They have to be treated like proper road infrastructure, not as an afterthought.

3) A Secure Place to Park

Oonee bike storage
Oonee bike storage. Oonee

Parking remains the missing link. Whereas zoning bylaws have required car parking for decades, they are just beginning to require bike parking. Municipal facilities are few. Systems being proposed in North America include Shabazz Stuart’s Oonee, an interesting modular system of bike storage lockers that is advertiser supported. But he is having trouble finding places to put them and is getting little municipal support. We have such a long way to go in all three of these issues. I follow Shabazz Stuart’s Twitter account from New York City; he tweeted in August 2020:

"Sad story to share @NYC_DOT. Was at local bike shop when a young woman showed up to donate her bike. She was throw- ing in the towel. Had been excited to #bikenyc to work but got doored by a taxi (she was ok) then had her seat stolen. So she’s done. We failed her. Do better."

We all have to do better. In the Netherlands or Copenhagen, vast multilevel secure bike parking lots at train and bus stations encourage multi-modal transport; in the cities, bike parking is everywhere. This is going to be needed in North American cities too for e-bikes to really take off as a form of transportation.

And it is going to take off, because people are finding that e-bikes are effective transportation alternatives. A recent study [covered in Treehugger] found that people who switch to e-bikes increased their travel distance from 2.1 to 9.2 km per day on average, and the use of the e-bike as a share of their transportation increased from 17% to 49%. That is a serious modal shift.

When Everything Is in Place, It Can Make a Huge Difference in Your Transportation Footprint

Gazelle under the bentway
My Gazelle in Bentway Park, Toronto.

Lloyd Alter

In this book, we are sticking to the personal, so let’s look at what my e-bike does for me. The city of Toronto where I live is built on the north shore of Lake Ontario, and most of the city is built on a tilt, all sloping down toward the lake. A few miles north of the lake, there is a steep escarpment, the old shoreline left over from the last Ice Age when the lake was much bigger. On a regular bike, riding down to work or school was always a breeze, but at the end of the day, you had a long slog through the sloping city, with a really big hill right at the end. The e-bike flattens out the city, and the escarpment is no longer daunting.

I find now that I am always on the bike, pretty much year-round (last year there was one day in winter when I didn’t ride to teach, the snow had not yet been cleared). Twenty-five grams of carbon per kilometer? I can live with that.

When you ride an e-bike, hills don’t matter. Weather matters, but not as much as when you are riding a regular bike because you don’t need to work up a sweat, so you just dress as if you were walking. Snow matters, but that is a governance problem of taking bike lane clearing seriously, which they do in Scandinavia but not yet in North America.

All of this leads me to conclude that e-bikes are a far better way of dealing with transportation emissions than electric cars. They won’t work for everyone, but they don’t have to. Imagine if we gave a fraction of the attention to bike and e-bike infrastructure and subsidies that we do to automobiles, it could change everything.