Here Come the Electrics. Could E-Bikes Be the Electric Revolution Cities Need?

Bike rack at The E-Bike Store in Portland, Oregon.

Bike rack at The E-Bike Store in Portland, Oregon. Gregor Macdonald

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Electric bikes are poised to take off, even outpacing electric car adoption. But, as with all efforts to promote alternatives to driving, city leaders would need to make infrastructure changes.

Attempting to battle street congestion from a growing fleet of package delivery vans, New York City rolled out a trial program this December for e-bikes, granting sidewalk space to pedal-assisted cargo carriers across lower Manhattan. While the initiative is just a baby step, it could end up being an initial template for cities focused on climate change and reducing emissions, as they find themselves not just accommodating e-bikes, but actively promoting their use. 

While some transportation officials in recent years have focused on efforts to promote residents’ adoption of electric cars, in cities the future may very well be in electric bikes. That’s certainly what the market suggests, as e-bikes sales are set to soar, far outpacing the rise of electric cars. By one estimate, global e-bike sales will reach 40 million annually by 2023—a rate of adoption so fast that one e-bike purchase will occur for every two cars sold. The heady growth is expected to be largely driven by consumers, as e-bikes start to cleverly exploit two enticingly rich segments of the transportation market: a big group of potential riders who’ve not yet come to cycling and, more generally, the short-trip category of travel of distances less than 15 miles.

E-bikes are deceptively simple. Yes, their main feature is an electric-motor assist, one that allows recreational riders to get over hills, cargo bikes to carry loads, and commuters to arrive at the office without breaking a sweat. Most see an e-bike as just a battery strapped to a regular bike, but they are so much more. “Some are saying that e-bikes are like smartphones on wheels,” says Oliver Bruce, a New Zealand-based transportation consultant and co-host, along with Horace Dediu, of The Micromobility Podcast. The podcast’s tagline, “the car will be unbundled,” goes to the heart of their thinking. Micromobility’s work shows that U.S. car travel, as measured in the number of trips, are not the long-distance journeys you might assume. In fact, half of all trips in this country are bunched up at the short end. The implications are profound. Rather than replacing cars full stop, e-bikes may do something far more impactful: chopping down the number of short trips people take by car. Micromobility emphasizes the craziness of using a two-ton vehicle to run brief errands. But in that craziness lies the e-bike opportunity.

Riding an e-bike in Portland, Oregon (Gregor Macdonald)

Early ebikes were quite heavy, with an awkward looking battery block affixed to the downtube. Today, with battery technology getting cheaper and smaller, current models prompt a double-take, as the battery shrinks and is nearly hidden. The quiet motor works simply, too, providing just the right power to maintain a rider’s cadence. “We have just passed the early adopter-phase of the market,” says Wake Gregg, proprietor of The eBike Store, the oldest in Portland, Oregon. “In the early days, buyers conducted a lot research into the mechanics of e-bikes but today, with so many models on offer, a couple will come in the store and ride out the same day, having bought two.” New features include the ability to use a mobile app to adjust the calibration of the drivetrain, allowing the user to select how much power to draw from the battery. Other digital controls unlock a range of choices in navigation, lighting, security, and safety that could become addictive once e-bikes get into the hands of riders. 

Preparing in Portland

Cycling’s first wave in the early part of this century helped cities like Portland, Oregon brand themselves as bicycle friendly. Portland is only one of five communities nationally to consistently achieve a platinum rating from the League of American Bicyclists. But Portland just updated its zoning code in a major, multi-decade overhaul as a way to both anticipate and encourage cycling’s second wave, as e-bikes roll out and many future riders—people still not on a bike today—come into the market. How big is this group of future riders? Chris Smith, a member of Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission, explains that only 8 to 10% of the population is on a bike today. Two categories of rider, the fearless (composing just 1 or 2%) and the confident and enthused (around 6%), are the bulk of the market. These categories, Smith remarks, are increasingly used by other cities as well. “The next group, however, is the interested but concerned, and they represent 60% of the population,” says Smith. “The game is to get those people out there, and that will take protected bike lanes, encouragement programs and end-of-trip facilities.” 

Portland has a long-term goal that 25% of commuting trips and 25% of all trips in the city will be by bike. While bike routes and lanes are already very present in Portland, the city is still expanding, now rolling out its first hard-separated bike lane along North Rosa Parks Way, a crosstown thoroughfare.

The major change undertaken in Portland’s zoning code concerns what happens when the trip ends: bike parking. Coming into force on March 1, 2020, the aim is to create secure bike parking for residents and daily users of apartments and commercial buildings and, also, to accommodate visitors. “With this zoning change,” says Smith, “we have checked off one of the boxes” as Portland leaders recognize the need to create many more end-of-trip bike facilities. 

Bike parking courtesy of the Portland Bureau of Transportation

The zoning code change also pays particular attention to cargo bikes and e-bikes. “Yes, 30% of the long-term parking must be horizontal,” says Smith. Why does that matter? Historically, developers have met bike parking code requirements by provisioning vertical storage. This has worked well for light-weight bikes. But many people have trouble lifting even a light-bike onto a hook. The zoning code change in Portland recognizes that cargo bikes and other e-bikes are gaining traction. And even though weight optimization in e-bike design is improving, these heavier bikes require a level port, often with a low to the ground “staple” (the term of art, Chris Smith says, for a bike rack), and more floor space. Notably, bike parking in Portland will also accommodate electrical charging.

Eclipsing Electric Cars

Intriguingly, many of the changes coming to the bike industry mirror the ways cities and manufacturers have started to prepare for electric cars. But e-bike sales are soaring past EV sales in many domains already. In a presentation, Micromobility’s Oliver Bruce shows that e-bike sales in Europe, for example, were roughly 2.5 million units in 2018 versus just 240,000 EV sales. This comes at a time when other mobility companies, like Uber, have jumped into the e-bike sharing space with the appropriately named Jump line-up. Such high rates of e-bike deployment are burrowing their way into short-trip segment of the transit market. Paris, for example, has started to report that on a number of its large boulevards the number of bikes generally are starting to match the number of cars. Deloitte, in a major report published in December, has forecasted that 130 million e-bikes will be sold globally over the next three years. 

Ian Kenny, Turbo e-bike brand leader at Specialized in Morgan Hill, California, says the bike industry generally has developed its expertise around biking as a sport. “But,” he asks, “what if the future of local transportation looks more like an e-bike, than a car?” Kenny echoes the thoughts of Portland’s Chris Smith, recognizing the opportunity of cycling’s next wave. And Specialized, which manufactures both regular and e-bikes, is thinking about how to serve that new category. “There's a much bigger group of potential riders out there, who are going to start to expect a level of service that they would get with any other vehicle. And that's what we're building and designing for."

Sales of e-bikes are also starting to take off in the United States. The E-Bike store’s Wake Gregg estimates sales are on pace to be up 50% this year, now that the market is going mainstream. Ian Kenny reports that at Specialized, “Turbo e-bike sales have more than doubled in the past 3 years.” Although e-bikes are of course more expensive than regular bikes, prices continue to come down as the technology improves. Value, in particular, is a key metric to understand the e-bike appeal as, say, a $3,500 model would perform and replace many trips by car. Micromobility’s Oliver Bruce’s points out that in most regions no extra license or registration is necessary to get on an e-bike. And, given that a typical e-bike can go as fast as 20 mph, that’s a speed that often exceeds local traffic speeds during rush hour. 

That speediness is something people cautious about the growing trend have also noticed, raising questions about whether to allow e-bikes on paths also used by pedestrians. That’s an ongoing debate in Massachusetts, where advocacy group MassBike has proposed changing state law to allow people on slower electric bikes access to paths. It was also alluded to by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently, when he vetoed legislation to legalize both e-scooters and throttle-based e-bikes often used by delivery people. In his veto message, Cuomo said those e-bikes, which don’t require pedaling, are similar to mopeds, which require special licenses. But the slower pedal-assist e-bikes are still allowed despite Cuomo’s veto. 

Emissions Friendly and The Tech Advantage

In the United States, data shows that for a third straight year gasoline consumption has seen no growth. Over the past decade, vehicle-miles driven per capita have risen a little, but remain below the peak. There is much to suggest that car ownership, therefore, remains at high levels of penetration but the growth of trips has been curtailed. This is exactly the kind of landscape Oliver Bruce says is fertile for the new wave of e-bikes, and not just in the West. “In India and Africa especially, where urbanization is really accelerating, e-bikes just work better than cars,” he says. That suggests that some of the leapfrogging we saw earlier this century, when many markets skipped over phone landlines and went straight to mobile, could play out similarly for e-bikes.

One way e-bikes could become more affordable is through financing of what is admittedly a large purchase. More companies are considering this factor, with Specialized starting an installment program. It’s worth pointing out: both in developed markets and developing markets, financing historically has been crucial to consumer adoption of new technology. 

Getting e-bikes into the hands of consumers in a friction-free transaction may also play out like mobile phones. Zygg of Toronto is now offering e-bikes as subscription service for a flat $99 per month. Both Oliver Bruce and Ian Kenny also forecast that e-bikes will create their own ecosystem, with a variety of ownership types and a flowering of technology. They even foresee a time when your bike’s app system can receive OTA (over-the-air) updates. “An area we are focused on is, what would a future of e-bikes look like if you had preventative safety technologies built in,” says Kenny. “We already have a sensor on helmets,” says Kenny, “that can detect when you’ve had a fall. And, that connects to the same app ecosystem with your Turbo e-bike.” 

To bring potential riders off the sidelines and onto the streets, however, cities will, as Chris Smith says, have to check all the boxes when it comes to building infrastructure that makes people feel safe. Portland, despite its brand and adoption of the Vision Zero program, has actually seen road fatalities increase in recent years as traffic enforcement has not kept up with population growth. Similar failures of policy have also been seen in New York, where cycling has grown at a pace more quickly than sufficient road protection, although the city is about to expand its cycling network. Overall, however, the growth of cycling could create its own constituency and cities are about to learn that expenditures on street improvements for cycling yield tremendous value when trying to combat both congestion and road accidents. As a first mover city, Portland’s signal about the coming wave of e-bikes is worth a listen.

Gregor Macdonald is a journalist who regularly covers cities, climate and energy. He is based in Portland, Oregon.

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