Are e-bikes the future of urban mobility?

Electric bike sales are charging ahead while e-bike sharing programmes are sparking into life cities all over the world. Delivery companies, too, are using e-bikes and e-trikes to do the rounds. We investigate the growing popularity of pedal power with a difference

Home Road Bicycles Electric Are e-bikes the future of urban mobility?

The world of transport is undergoing a battery-powered revolution and the vehicle that will convey us on an eco-friendly journey into the future of mobility could be the electric bike.

The e-bike took a while to get moving – the first patent was awarded as far back as 1895 – and until recently it was seen as a clunky solution for cyclists who had lost their puff. By adding a light lithium-ion battery and adopting some funky new designs, however, the e-bike is rapidly becoming the cool way to get around town.

Are e-bikes the future of urban mobility?
Are e-bikes the future of urban mobility?

Winning new fans

It's easy to see why. E-bikes are cheap and eco-friendly, easy to park and chargeable at any normal electric power point. They can also average about 22kph, which makes them a match for city cars and about 50 per cent faster than the average cyclist.

E-bikes are also a pleasure to ride. They make molehills out of mountains – no wonder San Franciscans love them – and thigh-sapping headwinds are a breeze. Even the bike-mad Dutch have seen the light; in 2018, more than half of all adult bikes sold in the country were electric. The locals may have a passion for traditional bikes, but they also have a steely eye for what makes good sense.

Elsewhere, e-bike sales continue to accelerate. Consultants at Deloitte believe as many as 130 million e-bikes will be sold globally between 2020 and 2023, according to its report Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Predictions 2020, reaching 40 million a year in 2023. In contrast, sales of electric vehicles are only set to reach 43 million a year by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency's 2019 Global EV Outlook. E-bikes are winning the race.

E-bikes are for sharing

E-bike sharing programmes are also taking off. In 2018, Madison, Wisconsin, became the first US city to make its bike-share programme entirely electric, and the BCycle system now has 45 stations and 300 e-bikes. In a pilot program, the e-bikes, which cost $5 to rent for 30 minutes, generated up to five times as many trips as standard bikes. 

Morgan Ramaker, executive director of BCycle, which operates in 43 US cities including Cincinnati, El Paso, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Omaha, Philadelphia and San Antonio, is not surprised. “E-bikes are great,” he told Wisconsin TV station Channel 3000. “It opens it up when it's bike-share because it's more affordable.”

Unsurprisingly, Uber noticed the trend and bought the e-bike sharing company Jump in January 2018, with perhaps surprising results. In the six months following the acquisition, the number of trips by new e-bike sharers on the Uber platform went up by 15 per cent while those for shared cars and SUVs dropped by 10 per cent.

Delivering the future

E-bikes are also wonderfully versatile. Commuters can use basic models to dodge traffic and save time and energy on the way to work. Reconfigured models can be used to carry toddlers safely to school or even make local commercial deliveries. 

Forget the old butcher's bike with a front basket. E-bikes are perfect for delivering relatively small cargos in double-quick time. In the US, fed up with UberEats, DoorDash and GrubHub nibbling at its slice of the fast-food pie, Domino's piloted e-bikes to enhance its delivery service. Up to a dozen large pizzas at a time could be delivered with ease.

For Domino's, e-bikes are replacing both cars and bicycles, but the electric cargo bike could soon do the same for smaller delivery trucks. UPS is testing electric trikes capable of carrying up to 181kg. The potential is huge. E-cargo bikes could be used for 20 per cent of deliveries, the Deloitte report suggests, which would account for tens of billions of deliveries a year worldwide.

That really would be a mobility game-changer, helping to cut congestion, noise and emissions while freeing space for pedestrians and other road users. No need for Olympic velodrome-worthy thighs. Just the latest technology to give the good old bike a boost.