Are electric bikes the future of green transportation?
Nearly everything we do contributes to our carbon footprint. But a two-wheeled solution is zipping through the world at 20 miles an hour.
Sales of electric bikes, or e-bikes, are on the rise.
In 2021, more than 880,000 e-bikes were sold in the U.S., compared with 608,000 electric cars and trucks. That’s up from 450,000 e-bike sales in 2020. Cities, counties, and states are implementing e-bike rebate programs to respond to growing demand. And as commuters look for more sustainable and accessible ways to travel, many are asking if e-bikes are the solution.
“People just find that [e-bikes are] fun,” says Jennifer Dill of Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC). “I don’t think we can undersell how that can motivate people.”
How do e-bikes work?
E-bikes have the same components as your traditional, so-called acoustic bicycles: frames, seats, handlebars, and wheels. They differ in their power and speed.
The speed of a non-electric bike relies on the rider’s physical strength and endurance. Casual cyclists can pedal at 10 to 14 miles per hour, depending on the terrain and weight of the bike and the rider.
E-bikes, however, are fueled by batteries, making them heavier. Some models have a pedal assist system with a motor to amplify pedaling power, while others have a throttle and don’t require pedaling. The max speed an e-bike can reach is 28 miles per hour, which is comparable to moped speeds.
“[An e-bike] splits the difference between a car commute and a regular bicycle commute,” says Wake Gregg, founder of The eBike Store in Portland, Oregon.
E-bikes have either hub-drive motors or mid-drive motors. Attached at the back of the bike, hub motors are simple, durable, and affordable but inefficient at higher speeds. Mid-drive motors, mounted in the center of the bike, can handle a wider range of torque and speed but are expensive and difficult to maintain.
Because e-bikes can go faster, they require more safety precautions than traditional bikes.
“You’re going to be moving faster than cars think you will. They may not see you,” says Gregg. When stopped at red lights and intersections, he recommends cyclists look at the front wheels of cars to ensure they’re not headed in the biker’s direction.
Safe e-bikes cost thousands of dollars, providing a huge obstacle for some would-be riders. Many jurisdictions have started following the lead of cities like Denver, which launched an e-bike rebate program in 2022, to reduce costs. The proposed E-BIKE Act would provide a nationwide $1,500 tax credit for e-bikes.
A more accessible bicycle?
E-bikes require less physical exertion than traditional bikes. The pedal assist can encourage riders to bike farther and more often than they would on a traditional bike, leading to more exercise long-term, according to research on rider behavior.
This feature also makes e-bikes a versatile option for older riders and individuals with disabilities that would otherwise prevent them from biking. Some women chose e-bikes because they make them feel safer, research says.
In 2019, Shared Mobility Inc. (SMI), a nonprofit advocating for accessible, equitable transportation, partnered with the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC) to better understand the mobility needs of older adults, people with disabilities, and veterans.
“The focus groups revealed there was a lot of need for recreational options and [improved] quality of life,” says Mitch LaRosa, SMI’s chief development officer. “Ultimately, [e-biking] gives folks more confidence to get outside and do things.”
After receiving more than 3,000 donated e-bikes from Uber Technologies in 2020, SMI collaborated with local community-based organizations to pilot free e-bike libraries in Buffalo’s East Side and Niagara Falls. The successful libraries have since inspired similar programs in cities like Los Angeles.
Pedaling into the future
E-bikes are a powerful tool on the road to sustainability. When it replaces trips made by a car, an individual e-bike can reduce CO2 emissions by 225 kilograms each year. That’s equivalent to the emissions produced by one passenger flying economy from Philadelphia to Chicago.
Experts say the biggest hurdle to adopting e-bikes on a large scale is infrastructure. Most cities–especially low-income neighborhoods and communities of color–don’t have pedestrian-friendly planning. That includes unsafe streets for people not driving cars.
“We need infrastructure that makes people feel safer and that is safer to be traveling on any type of bicycle,” Dill says.
The national nonprofit PeopleForBikes advocates for safer speeds, protected bike lanes, traffic reduction, and more inclusive road planning to make cities more bike-friendly.
“It’s one thing to get an e-bike into the hands of someone who is interested in having it,” says Ash Lovell, the organization’s e-bike policy and campaign director. “It’s another thing to have someone feel confident and comfortable where they are riding.”
E-bikes also need public storage and charging stations, adds Lovell. PeopleForBikes is supporting a New York City government initiative to convert defunct newsstands into charging stations. The nonprofit will also publish a guide in August about how to ride e-bikes more safely.