There has been much discussion about the merits of electric-assist bicycles (or pedelecs) on social media in recent days. To provide our perspective, with the kind permission of Island Press, we’re publishing the following adapted excerpt from our new book “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality”. It argues e-bikes are absolutely essential to make urban cycling a more broad, inviting, and inclusive activity. If you enjoy this excerpt, the full volume is NOW AVAILABLE from Island Press as a hard copy or e-book (use promo code “4DUTCH” for 20% off the print version), and pre-orders will start shipping from Amazon, Indigo, and other outlets very shortly.
If there’s one thing on which manufacturers, retailers, and advocates can agree, it’s the potential of the electric-assist bike—or pedelec—to swiftly push city cycling into the mainstream. For over a decade now, e-bikes have been leading a quiet revolution on European streets, where a battery-powered motor has added a new level of mobility, diversity, capacity, and range to what was already an amazingly efficient machine.
Industry insiders will admit that their long-term business plans are centered on e-bikes, with their increased profit margins and servicing costs. Those in advocacy circles are excited about their undeniable ability to close both the gender and age gaps, flatten hills, and remove sweat from the equation, thus addressing many of the barriers to the widespread embrace of cycling as a form of transportation.
As development director of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) in Brussels, and president of their Cycling Industry Club—a support group representing 40 of the world’s biggest bike companies—Kevin Mayne has his feet placed firmly in both camps. “I think there’s not a shadow of a doubt the e-bike is a tool to bring more people into cycling,” he affirms boldly. “There are people that perhaps wouldn’t cycle without the feeling they get from extra support. So that broadens the number of participants.” The other advantage it offers, Mayne maintains, is making journeys that weren’t previously conceivable feel possible. An added electric boost offers those who believe they can’t cycle due to terrain, temperature, or distance an option to arrive at their destination in a timely manner, feeling fresh and composed.
The science backs up Mayne’s claims, with a 2015 study from Norway’s Center for Gender Research finding that e-bikes are ridden twice as far and twice as often as traditional, non-motorized bicycles, with the biggest impact on women and seniors. This offers some potentially dramatic changes to transportation patterns within cities, with very real impacts on car ownership and motor vehicle congestion rates.
A 2017 study from the German Federal Environmental Agency discovered that, in an urban setting, regular bikes are faster than cars for trips up to five kilometers. With pedelecs, this radius is increased to ten kilometers, with a marginal difference for distances up to twenty kilometers. “We’re no longer talking about the bicycle as a solution for five-kilometer trips,” states Mayne. “We’re talking about the bicycle as a solution for most trips.”
There are still some purist voices that denounce e-bikes as “lazy” and “cheating,” but Mayne argues that they must be ignored. “If we take the voices of the sporty fit to write the books, we end up with helmets and Lycra, and we end up with no e-bikes. So we have to switch off those voices,” he insists. “It’s not for you. It’s for someone else."
Despite its mostly flat terrain, the Netherlands has emerged as the world’s largest pedelec market per capita, with electric bikes making up almost a third of new bicycle sales in 2016. Denmark is a close second, proving to experts like Mayne that infrastructure is absolutely critical, and e-bikes won’t sell in significant numbers without a safe space on which to ride them: “The numbers show that countries with good and developing infrastructure have good and developing e-bike markets.”
The fact that over 80 percent of e-bike sales in the Netherlands are made to people over the age of 50 demonstrates their unparalleled ability to preserve personal mobility and encourage healthy, active transportation habits well into old age. “There is a need in society to get older, heavier, less fit, and different gender groups active,” acknowledges Mayne. He believes the e-bicycle and e-tricycle offer real opportunities in that area, and governments facing ballooning healthcare costs should be thinking about them as game changers: “We’re familiar with personalized mobility scooters for the really elderly on the high street. This is a bridge. And it’s a lot cheaper.”
To see that return on investment, Mayne and the ECF are lobbying governments all over Europe to reconsider their fiscal policies related to electromobility. “If, for reasons of inclusion, you want to make the e-bike part of your solution, they are expensive. So cost is clearly is a barrier. Including them in any taxation benefits, or electric-mobility subsidies, is essential,” he suggests. While many bureaucrats seem to be betting on a transportation future centered on the electric car, they’re ignoring the fact that e-bikes could provide them with a much bigger return on investment.
Germany provides the most striking example of this, where €1.4 billion ($1.7 billion USD) in electric-car subsidies resulted in just 24,000 units sold as of 2014. Meanwhile, with zero government subsidies, an incredible 2.1 million e-bikes now motor along German streets.
But Mayne’s major challenge over the coming years will be to convince industry players to get behind the ECF’s push for safer streets and better bicycle infrastructure in urban centers across the continent: “I’m communicating back to the industry: ‘This looks like a magic bullet at the moment, but you need to support us on getting infrastructure built and making roads safer, because the market will plateau.’” In order to fulfill those optimistic business plans, and realize the projected profits, these business owners must help ensure that their customers have great places to ride.
And so, tempering the expectations of manufacturers, retailers, and advocates is perhaps Mayne’s most important role, as well as emphasizing the fact that those new users and new trips won’t appear without significant investments in active transportation. Getting the basics right has to come first when it comes to increasingly cycling rates and sales of new bicycles—whether electric-assist or not. As Mayne points out: “The underlying belief that e-bikes will fix everything is a bit like expecting e-cars to fix everything. It’s just another form of the same mobility. So the underlying issues of infrastructure, parking, and safety are not resolved by the technology.”
On that front, their daunting and difficult work is just getting started.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, “Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality”is NOW AVAILABLE from Island Press as a hard copy or e-book (use promo code “4DUTCH” for 20% off the print version), and pre-orders will start shipping from Amazon, Indigo, and other outlets very shortly.