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How many wheels should your next EV have?

E-bikes are now preventing (a lot) more emissions than all the Teslas in the world
August 1, 2023

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If some U.S. politicians have their way, Uncle Sam will soon be cutting checks for up to $1500 to almost anyone who buys an e-bike. The Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart for the Environment Act (yes, it spells e-bike) is designed to plug a gap in Biden’s sprawling Inflation Reduction Act that last year provided generous incentives for electric cars but skipped their two-wheeled brethren. “Cycling is the most efficient form of human transportation ever devised,” said Earl Blumenauer, co-sponsor of the Act and founder of the Congressional Bicycle Caucus. “By burning calories instead of fossil fuels, we can make our communities healthier and more livable.” E-bikes would seem to be that rare win-win: A zero-carbon alternative that’s also much cheaper to buy and run. But in a world of 1.5 billion cars, how realistic is it for two wheels to replace four? Here’s how the road race is shaping up.


• • •

Two Wheels Are Better Than Four

1.  Leading the carbon pack. Take a peek at this surprising new chart below, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. You’re not reading it wrong: e-bikes are displacing twice as much oil as all the world’s electric cars, buses, vans, and trucks combined – nearly a million barrels of oil every day. That’s about two percent of total road fuel demand. This is because e-bikes can get the equivalent of up to 4,000 miles per gallon, making them climate heroes even when relying on electricity generated from fossil fuels. 

2.  Burns the right kind of energy. Here’s another counter-intuitive punch: e-bikers actually get more exercise than manual pedal pushers, according to a survey of over 10,000 Europeans in 2019. That’s because e-bike riders tend to ride longer distances—traveling about twice as far as conventional cyclists over a typical week. A more recent study in Australia also found that e-bike usage helped improve physical and mental well-being among inactive, obese users.

3.  More e-bikes = fewer cars. No one is suggesting e-bikes can tackle epic road trips or a trip to the lumber yard, but over half of all car trips in the US (and around the world) are less than three miles, and two-thirds are under five miles, according to the US Department of Energy. Almost all the e-biking in a 2022 Swedish study was at the expense of car usage. That is to say, e-bikes weren’t replacing walking trips or pedaling but car journeys—which decreased by a hefty 37%.


• • •

Get Real. It’s A Four-Wheeled World

1.  The elephant in the road. The forests aren’t burning because you pop to the neighborhood market in your car. A detailed 2019 study in Cardiff, Wales found that only around 40% of short trips could realistically be replaced by walking or bike riding (it’s that lumber yard problem again). And even if all those were replaced, transportation’s CO2 emissions would only shrink by 5%. Electrifying long distance trucks, delivery vans, and passenger cars will have a much bigger impact in the long run.

CO2 emissions from short car trips

Source: Neves, A and C. Brand. 2019. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice.

 2. Subsidize EV driving, not EV sales. Electric cars could rival e-bikes in displacing emissions if we get smarter about incentives, according to a fascinating new study from researchers at Harvard. The current IRA tax refund makes buying an EV cheaper, which only benefits wealthier people with a federal tax bill. It can even lead to some buying an additional vehicle, they note. Instead, governments should be rewarding driving an EV, as that’s where the climate benefits of zero-emission batteries kick in. Using paybacks or charging discounts to turn high-mileage (and often poorer) drivers like rideshare operators and taxicabs electric could move the carbon needle a lot more effectively.

3.  More e-bikes = more injuries. E-bikes may sometimes be faster than cars but they certainly aren’t as tough. A Dutch study last year found that e-bike riders are 1.6 times more likely to end up in the emergency room than commuter bike riders (although still only half as likely as mountain bikers). The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated ER visits due to e-bikes, scooters and hoverboards more than doubled from 2017 to 2021. “I honestly believe that we probably are only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Marko Bukur, a trauma medic at New York’s Bellevue Hospital told Fortune magazine. “A lot of the injuries that are coded (in the electronic medical record) as conventional powered devices are probably e-devices.”


• • •

What To Keep An Eye On

1.  New York. America’s densest city has been the first to see the consequences of an e-bike boom. Ultra-fast delivery services abound – but so do increasingly serious collisions as a result of e-bikers interacting with other road users in bike lanes and on sidewalks, BoingBoing reports. The city was late to legalize electric micromobility transport, and some politicians are now talking about mandatory insurance, licensing, and registration. Will increased regulation slow e-bike adoption?

2.  The U.S. House. The E-BIKE Act’s 30% incentive would be popular with urban residents, with nearly half saying they would be “extremely likely” to use an e-bike if the measure passes. But that could be a tough sell for politicians in rural areas, even though those are the very places that promise the greatest carbon reductions from increased e-bike usage.

3.  Splitting the difference with a trike. Bloomberg reckons three-wheelers are the hottest new EVs, especially among older riders (one in five Americans will be over 65 by 2040). E-trikes are slower and less wobbly than e-bikes, and can carry a lot more stuff. The latest models are (apparently) a lot better at going around corners than kids’ trikes were, but are still a pain to park.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine


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