While the ongoing revolution in electric vehicles (EVs) has received much deserved media attention and public interest, as well as government policies to support their adoption, a similar revolution in electric bicycles (e-bikes) has flown under the radar, despite the significant potential of this innovative technology as a tool for achieving a sustainable energy future.
Over the past 10 years, e-bike technology has improved greatly. All the same types of conventional bikes are now available as e-bikes, from road bikes to mountain bikes and everything in between. Plus, there are novel models of e-bikes, such as cargo e-bikes, that take advantage of the added power they offer. Perhaps most importantly, costs have gone down every year due to improved battery economics, the same as has happened for EVs.
E-bikes make cycling feasible for more people than conventional bicycles because they are less physically demanding to use. The oft-cited barriers to cycling – such as hills, long distances, or arriving sweaty at work – are much less of an issue. (1) Consequently, the potential for widespread use of e-bikes in place of vehicles is much greater than for conventional bikes.
The potential for e-bikes increasing the number of cyclists and frequency of bike trips could be important from a sustainable energy perspective. (2) The more people who use e-bikes instead of vehicles for everyday trips, the greater the reduction in energy demand. For fossil fuel powered vehicles, that means every e-bike trip in place of a vehicle trip directly contributes to reducing GHG emissions and air pollution. E-bike trips that replace EV trips are also important, since e-bikes use only about 5% of the electricity used by an electric vehicle to travel the same distance. (3) This could be important in an electrified future when BC no longer has surplus electricity.
Replacing vehicle trips with e-bikes has the highest potential among daily commuters who normally drive alone and travel relatively short distances to work. In Metro Vancouver, BC’s largest urban area, over two million commuter trips occur each week, with over 60% of all commuters driving alone. (4) The median commute is less than 8 km, a short trip by e-bike. (5) Altogether, e-bikes could replace tens of thousands of commuter vehicle trips each week just in Metro Vancouver, even if commuters were to e-bike to work only once or twice per week. The potential for BC as a whole is similarly substantial.
Convincing large numbers of people to e-bike to work in Metro Vancouver or other parts of BC even a couple of times per week may sound far-fetched. However, it has already happened in northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. There, public policies encouraging cycling – and more recently e-cycling – have been in place for years. Granted, BC is more mountainous than these countries, but with e-bikes hills make little difference. A large transition to e-bikes in place of vehicle trips is possible in BC, but there need to be strong public policies in place to encourage it.
One of the main obstacles to the mass adoption of e-bikes is the high purchase price. (6) Although e-bike prices have gone down, a low-end e-bike still costs at least $1,500, with most commuter models between $2,000 and $3,000. While some vehicle commuters could afford these prices, many others could not. (7) The federal and provincial governments offer generous subsidies totaling $8,000 for a new EV to address their comparatively high purchase price. (8) Unfortunately, the only program supporting the purchase of e-bikes arises in the same SCRAP-IT program, at $1,050, if you scrap your car. (9) A subsidy for the purchase of e-bikes designed for commuting – rather than recreation – would strongly encourage purchases by commuters who otherwise would not buy an e-bike because of the cost. Even a relatively small subsidy of $500 could make a big difference.
Another option is a program designed to encourage employees to commute by e-bike. Such programs, called “bike-to-work scheme” or “cyclescheme”, have been employed with great success in the UK and Ireland for many years. (10) A cyclescheme is a government-supported employee program that combines a tax incentive benefit with a zero-interest loan from an employer for the purpose of purchasing a bicycle or e-bike. The loan is paid back incrementally from an employee’s paycheque over several years, and the tax benefit reduces an employee’s income tax. In exchange for these benefits the employee commits to use the bicycle to commute at least some of the time. If employed in BC exclusively toward the purchase of e-bikes, a cyclescheme program would likely result in many more employees commuting by e-bike, replacing thousands of vehicle commuting trips every week. (11)
To achieve an 80% reduction in GHG emission by 2050, provincial, federal and municipal governments will need to consider all sustainable energy options, and support those that can make even a small difference. Many different tools will be needed. E-bikes can make a small but significant impact on energy demand, reducing GHG emissions and air pollution in the near term and spending on future energy projects in the long term.
1. Winters et al. (2011). Motivators and deterrents of bicycling: comparing influences on decision to ride.
2. There are also other benefits such as increased physical activity and reduced traffic congestion, air pollution and noise pollution.
3. As compared to a Nissan Leaf.
4. Translink (2013). 2011 Metro Vancouver Regional Trip Diary Survey: Analysis Report. Figure 2.1.1 and Figure ES8.
5. Statistics Canada (2019). Results from the 2016 Census: Long Commutes to Work by Car. Table 5.
6. Another major obstacle is rider safety. Fortunately, the municipalities that make up Metro Vancouver and in other areas of the province have long term plans to greatly increase the number of separated bike lane.
7. The median income in Metro Vancouver is $36,000 per year. For many lower income vehicle commuters the additional cost of purchasing an e-bike, on top of the cost to own and operate a vehicle, would be unaffordable.
Statistics Canada (2017). Household income in Canada: Key results from 2016 Census.
11. For details of an e-bike-to-work scheme designed for BC and estimated benefits see: Jackson, M. Policies to Encourage Commuting by Electric Bicycle in Metro Vancouver.