How E-Bikes Can Save Cities

They reduce congestion, costs, and carbon.

A young woman on an e-bike smiling at the upper left corner of the frame.

Nazar_ab / Getty Images

Writing in The New York Times recently, Jay Caspian Kang calls for free e-bikes for everyone. Kang wants city governments to buy an e-bike for every resident over 15 years old who wants one. He notes this would be a lot less costly than the electric car and truck subsidies that the federal government is handing out and that there would be benefits in air pollution, carbon emissions, congestion, billions in road repairs, and the quality of urban spaces.

"Plus, it’s fun," he writes. "You get some exercise, you can lug two small kids and a load of groceries up and down hills with minimal effort, and you can avoid the alienation that comes with sitting in your car."

Kang's article is written somewhat tongue in cheek, addressing the problems of e-bikes, including the fact that "everyone looks like a giant nerd on their e-bike, which means you have a city of giant nerds." His response: "I have no solution to this problem."

But his proposal to give everyone an e-bike is not unserious and he is not the only one looking at how effective e-bikes are at reducing carbon emissions or improving the quality of urban life.

Study cover

Urban Transport Group

E-bikes are much more popular in Europe and the United Kingdom than they are in North America, and a new study by the Urban Transport Group—UTG, which represents the U.K.'s urban transport authorities—titled "Fully charged: Powering up the potential of e-bikes in the city regions" looks at how effective e-bikes can be at reducing carbon emissions by getting people out of cars, which they seem remarkably effective at doing:

"An evaluation of e-bike schemes across continental Europe found that typically around half of e-bike trips replaced car trips and that in some cases, as many as 70% of e-bike trips were previously made by car. This report also finds evidence that e-cargo bikes have the potential to revolutionise first and last-mile travel and logistics, replacing up to a quarter of commercial deliveries in cities,50% of commercial service and maintenance trips, and 77% of private trips."

We have often noted that e-bikes let more people go farther, with real personal benefits.

"On average, people owning an e-bike cycle further and more often than those who use a regular bike, and therefore spend more time outdoors. A study on the physical benefits of e-bikes showed that a reduction in cardiometabolic risk factors was achieved with just four weeks of e-bike commuting."

The study also notes the average length of an e-bike trip is five miles, compared to the three-mile average for regular bikes. And where most people consider bikes useful in cities, e-bikes work well in suburbs.

"By facilitating longer journeys by bike, 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. For example, in Denmark, cycle routes designed for e-bikes link cities to towns and villages improving connectivity and accessibility of a range of facilities."

The study looked at different scenarios, including an Accelerated Growth (go Dutch!) Scenario where e-bikes increase to 7% of all trips in the UTG cities, which is hardly Dutch or Danish levels of cycling, with regular bikes and e-bikes totaling 18% of all trips. This is in the UTG cities (London, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands and West Yorkshire) where now only 2% of trips are by bike, 57% are made by car, and 40% by other modes including walking and public transport.

Getting to 18% doesn't sound particularly extreme or unrealistic and leaves lots of room for those who still want to drive cars. But the benefits are significant: It would take 1.6 billion miles of car and taxi miles off the road each year. There are monetary benefits from reduced congestion, accidents, and reduce greenhouse gases; there are health benefits from reduced risk of premature death and absenteeism from work. And there are carbon benefits: 390,000 metric tons per year, the equivalent of planting 20 million trees.

The report notes that to get people on to e-bikes, there are problems that have to be dealt with.

  • Cost: E-bikes are expensive and subsidies might be required.
  • Security and storage: "Cycle theft can threaten users’ confidence, with many of those who fall victim never returning to cycling."
  • Safety: "Safety issues and concerns when cycling or considering cycling can arise from a variety of areas including availability and quality of separate cycle routes, other road users’ behaviour and crime."
  • Speed: This is an important issue, particularly in North America where e-bikes are permitted to go faster than in Europe. "Interviews with e-bike owners in the Netherlands and the UK revealed that other road users generally do not anticipate the speed difference of e-bikes compared to regular bikes. Almost all participants mentioned the need to ‘re-adapt’ their cycling style by learning to moderate their speed and anticipate the reactions of other road users."

But overall, the benefits of getting just 7.5% of the population on to e-bikes are significant, and these kinds of changes in roads and bike storage can be done now without any fancy new technologies and with a lot less time, money, metal, and lithium than is needed for electric cars.

All of this brings us back to Kang's idea of free e-bikes for everyone! It actually makes sense. The data and the studies from other countries demonstrate that it would work. We should take it seriously.

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