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Are electric bikes the next revolution in urban transport?

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

This article first appeared and @BeachHappy magazine by Martin Liptrot, Founder 98Republic.

Photo: LA Times website

In 1897, Hosea W. Libbey of Boston registered a patent for a bicycle

powered by an electric motor. But while the inventor tweaked his design

and idea to enable production, along came the internal combustion

engine, the automobile was born, and transportation was transformed for

the next century.

There is no disputing that when it comes to personal transport the car is

still king, but now - 120 years after Libbey’s initial idea - electric bikes

are making a quiet but dramatic comeback. In 2018, electric bike riders

covered 586 billion kilometres worldwide – mainly short urban journeys,

ones where cars are at their least efficient.

Pollution, traffic congestion and the pursuit of healthier lifestyles are now

global concerns and residents of our booming and growing cities are

looking for new alternatives to meet their transport and commuting


“Electric bikes are one of the most environmentally sound modes

of motorized transport today” said Jon Egan, a leading urban

transport and planning consultant and commentator on electric and

autonomous vehicles.

“Their battery-powered motors help make short commutes easy

and longer journeys more feasible. As the technology continues to

advance, as the price of the battery drops, electric bikes will

become more affordable and continue to challenge the motorbike

and car as the preferred form of transport in many of the world’s

most congested cities.”

And it is in the rapidly urbanizing developing nations where electric bikes

are taking root most quickly.

In the 1990’s, China implemented strict anti-pollution laws to combat the

toxic air quality which was having such a terrible public health and

economic impact. Promoted as a stylish and youthful transport

alternative, electric bikes are now seen as a ‘must have’ with young

urban professionals in China’s big cities where they outnumber cars by

two to one.

“You have to consider the history of personal transportation in

places like China and across South East Asia to understand why

electric bikes have been so warmly embraced.” said Egan.

“Cars were always too expensive for most families and bikes,

motorbikes and scooters were the established transport choice.

That not only makes adoption of the electric bike a more natural

progression, it also means the road and transport infrastructure is

already more ‘bike friendly’.”

The pace at which electric bikes are being adopted across Asia shows

the promise they hold.

“For anyone who has spent time in Bangkok, Hanoi, Guangzhou or

Manilla - you can only imagine the potential improvements to air

quality, the reduction in noise pollution and, hopefully, fewer road

traffic fatalities as electric bikes continue to reshape

transportation.” Egan added.

But what about in the West? Are US and European commuters ready to

make the change too? The global market for electric bikes in 2018 was

judged to be worth nearly $21billion, but even though sales in the USA

were only around $77million, that was almost double the value of the

year before.

Egan believes more can be done to encourage electric bikes.

“Persuading a suburban family to swap their SUV for electric bikes

is already a big enough challenge, but the way our cities have

been designed around the car - multi-lane highways, strip malls

and the automobiles absolute dominance leading to an absence of

sidewalks and bike lanes – we will have to make significant

changes to our urban landscape to accommodate huge numbers

of electric bikes.”

But there are places in the US where electric bikes are being trialled and

successfully introduced. The new urbanist community in Seaside,

Florida has seen electric bikes become part of the solution it is looking

for to address its traffic challenges.

“The success of Seaside and the wider new urban communities in

Northwest Florida attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year

and as traffic congestion increases, electric bikes are being rapidly

adopted as a solution.” Said Justin Dunwald, manager at YOLO

Boards and Bikes, a US manufacturer of electric bikes.

“The authorities have imposed parking bans, closed roads to traffic

and pedestrianised the town center – measures being taken to re-

establish the town’s founding principle - a walkable, bikeable

community where cars aren’t necessary.” explained Dunwald.

“Electric Bikes offer visitors the chance to enjoy the healthy

benefits of cycling but provides the helping hand of a motor for

those extra few miles or climbing hills and inclines.”

Tourist destinations are a great way to seed ideas and try new things.

Visitors to Seaside from car-centric locations like Dallas, Atlanta and

New Orleans are more likely to rent electric bikes, use them to head out

for a day at the beach or for dinner one evening as a vacation


If the experience is a good one, maybe they will consider trying it out

again when they return home, initially as a leisure option, but starting to

break the stranglehold of the car on their transport choices.

So how can the adoption of electric bikes be fast-tracked and


Affordability of course is critical. The cost can vary considerably. About

$1,000 can get you an entry-level electric bike which can get the rider

around town no problem. Between $2,000 and $3,000 and beyond, e-

bikes get better motors and are designed for specific uses - commuting,

mountain biking, trail riding. It is not an insignificant investment, but a

heck of a lot cheaper than a car.

Marketing data suggests, like with other electric vehicles, the battery is

the biggest part of the cost. But as with other devices, as the technology

advances prices drop. It will also be important to extend the lifetime of

batteries to give value to owners over the lifetime of the bike. In China,

cheaper bikes use lead-acid batteries which have a life span of around 2

years, whereas higher end bikes use lithium-ion batteries which last 6 or

7 years.

And following China’s lead in introducing strict air quality and pollution

control, regulators in our cities and towns can make electric bikes a

more attractive commuting choice too.

In fact, the opportunity for electric bikes to make a telling contribution to

reducing global warming is most pronounced in semi-rural or suburban

areas. Urban city dwellers in the West already have other low carbon

transit alternatives – natural gas buses, subways and e-scooters. In the

suburbs, journeys are typically in the electric bikes ideal range of 5-15

miles and are largely solo riders. Switching to electric bikes for these

relatively short trips could save millions of tonnes in carbon emissions

and other pollutants.

And, as with any new technology, there are entrepreneurs and

disruptors creating new business models.

Eric Quidenus-Wahlforss and Alexander Ljung, the founders of music

streaming service SoundCloud, have launched a new electric bike

subscription start-up called Dance. 

“Buying and owning an e-bike is a hassle.” Quidenus-Wahlforss

told reporters at CNBC.

“That is why we set out to create a frictionless e-bike subscription

service with no upfront costs and all-inclusive services. Dance is

the perfect solution for those who are looking for a healthy,

environmentally friendly, time-saving and joyful form of mobility.”

And for urban professionals who have already taken the step of ditching

car ownership in favor of ride-sharing apps, they can now download

apps for electric bike sharing services. Citi Bike, owned by Lyft has

4,000 e-bikes at hundreds of locations in New York City and Motivate,

also a Lyft company, has nearly 1,000 electric bikes in the Bay Area.

These subscription services are also big business in India too. Founded

in 2017, Yulu currently boasts 2.5 million users and 10,000 electric two-

wheelers operating across Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Bengaluru.

The e-bike membership scheme plans to increase its fleet size to

100,000 electric bikes by 2021, according to Amit Gupta, Yulu Co-

Founder & CEO.

Electric Bikes are on the cusp of changing the way we travel. They meet

our need for independence, they offer healthy exercise, contribute to

tackling air pollution and global warming but, most of all, when you get to

try one out – they’re a whole lot of fun.

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