Are electric bikes the next revolution in urban transport?
Updated: Feb 10
This article first appeared @30A.com and @BeachHappy magazine https://30a.com/electric-bikes/ 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
“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
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
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.