In developed countries, the automobile often represents the most desirable attributes of effective transportation: flexible, fast, and effortless. But is it the right choice for increasingly dense urban environments?
Automobiles for personal transportation are a Pandora’s box—countries that once encouraged them now find it impossible to curtail their use, even as gridlock paralyzes city streets and vast energy resources are used to inefficiently move citizens. Moving a person in a car requires moving 3000 pounds of metal. But there’s potentially a better way: electric bicycles.
Electric bikes (e-bikes) provide an alternative to cars for flexible urban transportation, and municipal governments should encourage their use in cities through infrastructure and policy. Compared to the weight of an average auto, moving an electric bike requires moving only 50 pounds (plus the rider, of course). Almost all the bike’s energy is going towards moving the person.
E-bikes have a battery and electric-assist motor that lets them cruise with minimal effort at 20 mph for up to 30 miles before recharging. They can be charged quickly with home plugs. The bikes let users skip around dense auto traffic, cost a few hundred (China) to a thousand (U.S.) dollars, and can run on less than a cent of electricity per mile. Even if the bike’s approximately 300 watt-hour battery was charged using coal electricity (not ideal, but a worst case) it would take 81 bikes to emit the same amount of pollution as one car traveling the same distance. And the pollution from e-bikes would generally be released at power plants outside the city—not within breathing distance of citizens.
E-bikes cannot replace cars entirely—they cannot easily haul cargo or multiple passengers, are vulnerable to inclement weather, and lack the long ranges and high speeds of automobiles (though this is less an issue for average city driving).
Yet e-bikes can reduce auto use, and have proven popular even in countries where automobiles are relatively ubiquitous and affordable. In Europe, for example, e-bike sales have been rising at 20 percent per year as consumers see them as inexpensive alternatives to cars, buses, and subways for urban transit. E-bikes are increasingly becoming a symbol of the most developed areas, rather than the least. They are becoming synonymous with areas where citizens are conscious of fuel costs, parking and traffic difficulties, and the environment.
E-bikes are on their way towards leapfrogging past cars as the superior method of urban transit … at least in some places. Barriers continue to exist.
Overcoming E-Bike Barriers
E-bikes are most numerous in China, where 130 million are on the road and 32 million were sold last year. Their low upfront price, flexibility, and low operating cost have made them staggeringly popular. The market had been growing at a stunning pace (over 30 percent per year), but several cities in China recently banned the bikes. Why?
Culturally, the bike represented pre-industrialized transportation and was crowding out the cars that would symbolize China’s status as an economic superpower. Chinese government entities are generally interested in promoting “modern” technologies in cities as signs of progress. Hence, there has been a major push to expand auto use and ownership in China—large-scale car use is the symbol of a fully developed country.
Practically, the bikes were causing accidents while zipping at high speeds through traffic and over sidewalks. The bikes were jam-packing roads and making traffic conditions even worse for passenger and freight vehicles. Transportation infrastructure has traditionally been designed around cars, and Chinese cities did not want to support a technology that could render their roads unusable to autos.
Though city governments were correct in trying to slow market growth of a technology using road and regulatory infrastructure not designed for it, unequivocally eliminating the use of e-bikes misses an opportunity for energy-efficient urban transit.
Fortunately, that tide is shifting. Major urban centers in developed countries are doing everything possible to get citizens out of cars and onto alternative transportation systems: bikes, subways, buses, etc. And in China in particular, well publicized urban air pollution challenges are prompting leaders to enact limits for new car licenses issued each month, forced vehicle retirements, and other strategies.
Yet dealing with the issue of e-bikes (as well as regular bikes) on existing roads is difficult. Cars and bikes travel at different speeds, maneuver and accelerate differently, and are vastly different sizes. Expecting them to share the same space leads to crowding and safety issues for both vehicles.
Ideally, bikes could possess their own infrastructure—like pedestrians use sidewalks rather than trying to share the road with cars. As cities look at expanding lanes on roads, building highways through cities, or employing other methods to control auto traffic, they instead should donate the space towards dedicated bike transportation lanes, as some have done. Boulder, Colorado, for example—home to one of Rocky Mountain Institute’s offices—boasts 159 centerline miles of on-street bike lanes and multiuse paths and underpasses.
No matter how big the roads for automobiles get, there will always be more people ready to fill the space and create traffic. Instead, cities should focus on getting people out of cars. To some extent this can be done with subways and dedicated bus lanes (though less flexible in timing and delivery than cars and bikes), but the cheaper option is to encourage bike use among citizens. E-bikes are part of that system, as they decrease the effort to use bikes and thus make them more appealing for the general populace. This also makes them appropriate even for those who are elderly, out of shape, or otherwise not capable (or willing) to put forth physical effort for transportation.
The Danish Approach
In Europe, the Danish cities of Copenhagen and Odense have emerged as paragons of the advantagesof investing in bike infrastructure. When the use of conventional bikes began to expand rapidly during oil price jumps, the cities began an aggressive campaign to establish and promote bike infrastructure. Bikes were removed from the roads by creating dedicated cycling lanes. In recent years, the growth of e-bikes has been referred to as an economic savior, rapidly expanding biking’s popularity and leading to $170 million in economic activity within the city. As the popularity and number of dedicated bike routes within Copenhagen has continued to grow (40 km of paths built recently), 40 percent of commuting is now done by bike. By further infrastructure expansion (with an emphasis now on widening bike lanes) the city has a goal of 50 percent of commuters using bikes by 2025.
Cities like New York City, which recently mimicked Chinese cities in banning e-bikes, could learn from this that bans are not the most effective way to separate cars and bikes.
As e-bikes move off auto roads and onto dedicated transportation routes—whether on-road lanes or bike-specific paths—it will reduce many safety concerns. If e-bike safety incidents continue, it may be necessary to treat them as motor vehicles and require users to be licensed and trained for safety and appropriate behavior, such as is expected of automobile and motorcycle drivers.
Leapfrogging Autos In Developing Countries
In Southeast Asia, gas-powered tricycles are popular for local transportation. But within the past year, a potentially paradigm-shifting move has been afoot, according to Danny Kermode, senior policy advisor for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission and an RMI alum. There he points to a $300 million Asian Development Bank loan—supported by another $99 million from the Philippines—to develop an electric tricycle to replace the aging, dirty gas-powered ones.
The project initially hopes to put 100,000 clean, energy-efficient e-trikes on the road in the Philippines, with new e-trike owners financing their vehicles under a subsidized lease-to-own arrangement. Eventually, ADB hopes e-trikes will replace 3.5 million gas-powered motorcycles and tricycles currently on the road.
Meanwhile, Meralco, Manila’s energy provider, is developing EV charging station technology with an eye toward the e-trikes, whose lithium ion batteries can charge to 50 percent capacity in less than 30 minutes. In addition, five solar charging stations will be able to charge e-trikes without drawing any power from the grid, notes Kermode.
As the Philippines reels from the devastating aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the most powerful storm in the recorded history of Earth, it is a tragically potent reminder of the importance of getting our transportation system off fossil fuels to combat climate change. From the Guardian to ABC, there’s been no shortage of stories about the link between the severity of storms like Haiyan and the influence of global warming.
But arguably, the most poignant story came from the UN climate talks currently taking place in Warsaw, Poland. Earning a standing ovation, Filipino diplomat Naderev Sano—head of the Philippines’ national climate commission—chastised the world for its relative inaction to address such an urgent problem. Sano gave his impassioned speech just four days after Haiyan decimated his country, many of his relatives still unaccounted for as he fought back tears.
E-bikes won’t prevent another Haiyan, but they do have the potential to get cars off the roads in urban environments—improving air quality, reducing energy demands, and reducing parking and traffic issues. Though occasionally not practical due to weather, freight, or distance, they are appropriate for most everyday uses. Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities in China were correct to reduce the growth of the market until safety, traffic, and other barriers could be addressed. E-bikes’ rapidly growing popularity had overwhelmed a system not designed to support them. However, rather than simply banning them, urban centers should look into providing dedicated and separate transport corridors for these vehicles.
Citizens will always desire flexible transit options, and a city where every person looks to a car for primary transport is not one that should be encouraged. E-bikes are part of an overarching system where the car is rendered an infrequent choice for transportation, rather than a consistently necessary one. Only by breaking our addiction to autos, and our autos’ addiction to oil, can we truly transform transportation. E-bikes can and should be part of that transformation.