“The bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine.”
John Howard (1987)
The media are heralding an electric bicycle boom. Headlines highlight an increase in sales, they praise their advantages, and they predict a promising future where electric bicycles play a leading role in urban mobility. Moreover, research is attempting to specify their efficacy compared to other modes of transportation and estimate their overall cost and acceptance on the market. Maintaining this rising trend will depend on our understanding of the role this type of vehicle can and should play within urban mobility and street usage as a whole. Let us ask some questions about electric bikes that will allow us to discuss their advantages and disadvantages.
Are they new? Electric bicycles were invented shortly after conventional bikes. Patents were registered as early as 1890 in the United States, but were not further developed until the 1940s, when the automobile industry was dedicated to the war effort and cars were in short supply. Another boom took place during the oil crisis of 1973. In the 80s, the assisted pedaling system was invented; by the 90s large brands all had commercial models, and in 2005 the development of lithium batteries led to another boost in production.[i]
Since then, sales have increased progressively, until recently, when there was an unprecedented rise. Now, the historical crisis that requires a change in transportation patterns is the result of environmental deterioration that creates climate change and pandemics. And bicycles are, once again, part of the solution.
Is there a boom? The activity in workshops and the demand for replacement parts after the lockdown showed that many people were dusting off their old bikes,[ii] while others decided to buy one. According to manufacturers, the demand increased 400% compared to before the pandemic. The models sold were mainly affordable options, but sales of electric bikes also increased.[iii] In addition to individual bicycles, the use of public bikes increased. In a Madrid without tourists, BiciMAD, which only has electric bikes, saw an average of 300 new user registrations every day between April and May.[iv]
Are they good because they require little effort? Among the main reasons for not riding a bike is that you’ll arrive at work all sweaty.[v] The electric motor solves that problem, making it possible for more people to ride bikes. According to sector surveys,[vi] 39% of Spaniards would be willing to use an electric bike to go to work.
However, viewing the lack of effort as an advantage reinforces a concept of transportation that is based on the comfort inherited from motorization, disincentivizing healthy habits. Relying on electric motors obfuscates other possible and necessary solutions. First, we must provide a good cycling network which, through appropriate design, reduces the impact of excessive slopes and the effort it takes to fight for space on the road.
Are they faster? Electric bikes can reach a speed of 38 km/h,[vii] something that should be considered in terms of road safety. The risk of injury in the event of an accident increases, together with the danger for pedestrians if cyclists end up driving on the sidewalk. However, the average speed in an urban environment depends more on other factors, such as the purpose of the trip, type of route, traffic conditions and infrastructure, and the cyclist’s physical ability and skill. For example, if you’re biking to work in Madrid, BiciMAD users record speeds similar to cyclists with their own bike (15.71 and 15.75 km/h), with bike messengers (19.6 km/h) far outpacing them.[viii]
Do they pollute? Electric bikes are highly efficient compared to cars and motorcycles;[ix] however, they are not emissions-free. In Spain, the electricity they consume largely comes from burning fossil fuels. They do not emit gases while in use, but we must consider the energy and emissions involved in all steps from extraction for their manufacture to waste management (including the battery). Thus, an electric bike emits around 300 kg of CO2 over its lifespan, which averages 20,000 km.[x] This is a much smaller footprint than a car, but higher than a mechanical bike.
Are they cheap? In the national market, aside from the cost of an electric bike (around 1200 euros) or converting a conventional bike (500 euros), you can expect to spend about 29 euro per month on maintenance if you’re riding around 300 km.[xi] The complexity of repairs increases dependence on technical services and while conventional mechanical bikes do not expire, the electric motor lasts about 10 years and batteries last between one and two years.
In the case of public budgets, it should be noted that the cost of shared bike systems with only electric bikes (3,172 euros per bike and year) is almost triple that of conventional bikes (1,081 euros).[xii]
Does the government pay? The incentive is justified by the potential to reduce the use of private cars. Therefore, funding policies should be analyzed as a whole. Studies on electric bikes put the Spanish government’s investment at 1.3 million euros, which it used to subsidize the purchase of approximately 6,700 bikes from 2013 to 2015.[xiii] Comparatively, the 2015 PIVE Plan (Incentives Plan for Efficient Vehicles) awarded 225 million euros for the purchase of new cars.[xiv] During the pandemic, in June, when there was no specific action taken for bicycle transportation or electric bikes, 3.75 billion euros was announced to boost the automobile sector.[xv]
Regionally, since 2015 only the Barcelona Metropolitan Area and the Basque Energy Entity continued to fund assisted pedal bikes. Recently, the Community of Madrid and Valencian Community launched their own funding programs.[xvi] In Madrid, the 3 million euro budget is divided between bicycles, scooters, mopeds, and passes for car and scooter sharing that are awarded for scrapping cars over 10 years old.[xvii] In this case, it should be asked: if the objective is sustainable transportation, why are conventional bicycles excluded? And why don’t the passes include public transportation?
To sum up, electric bikes can contribute to a lower-impact model of urban transportation. To that end, their promotion should focus on usage that replaces transportation by car. It is not in public interest for them to compete with walking, conventional bikes, or public transportation. That is why it’s important to adopt push and pull policies, which incentivize healthy modes of transportation while restricting indiscriminate car use.
Electric bikes can facilitate bike usage by populations that require assistance pedaling and broaden the reach of transportation by bike. If there is a boom, let’s take advantage of it. If we really want electric bikes to proliferate, along with all types of bicycles, it is absolutely essential that we ease traffic and build quality cycling networks; a livable urban environment that allows us to fulfill all of our potential and helps us pedal out of this situation we are in.
Mateus Porto Schettino is professor of Architecture in the Grado en Arquitectura
[i] Origen de la bicicleta. Webikes, publicado el 3/10/2019 https://www.werbikes.mx/blogs/werbikes-blog/la-historia-de-la-bicicleta/#:~:text=%C2%BFQui%C3%A9n%20la%20invent%C3%B3%20y%20en,invenci%C3%B3n%20de%20este%20ciudadano%20alem%C3%A1n.
[ii] Fiebre ciclista con el desconfinamiento. ABC, publicado el 24/05/2020 https://www.abc.es/economia/abci-fiebre-ciclista-desconfinamiento-estamos-desbordados-lista-espera-15-dias-202005240313_noticia.html
[iii] El sector que será uno de los pocos que cierre 2020 en positivo. La Gaceta de Salamanca, publicado el 28/09/2020. https://www.lagacetadesalamanca.es/nacional/el-sector-que-sera-uno-de-los-pocos-que-cierre-2020-en-positivo-DH4768630
[iv] Las bicicletas públicas de Madrid registran 300 nuevas altas al día desde abril… Business Insider, publicado el 21/05/2020. https://www.businessinsider.es/bicimad-registra-300-nuevas-altas-dia-abril-plena-pandemia-644047
[v] Estudio Conecta – Fomento del uso de la bicicleta en Madrid (Coca-Cola Company 2015) https://docplayer.es/44067805-Fomento-del-uso-de-la-bicicleta-en-madrid.html
[vi] España apuesta por la bicicleta eléctrica: el 39% la utilizaría para ir a trabajar. Hibrido y Eléctricos. Publicado el 12/06/2020. https://www.hibridosyelectricos.com/articulo/bicicletas-electrica/espana-apuesta-bicicleta-electrica-utilizaria-ir-trabajar/20200612120245035868.html
[vii] Evaluación de una bicicleta eléctrica como alternativa de movilidad en la Ciudad de Cuenca. Santiago Javier Ordoñez Luna (2016). Disponible en: http://dspace.uazuay.edu.ec/bitstream/datos/6339/1/12509.pdf
[ix] Trabajo fin de Grado. Evaluación de una bicicleta eléctrica como alternativa de movilidad en la Ciuda de Cuenca. Santiago Ordóñez (2016). Disponible en: http://dspace.uazuay.edu.ec/bitstream/datos/6339/1/12509.pdf
[x] ¿Cuál es la huella de carbono exacta que produce una bicicleta eléctrica? Nueva Movilidad, publicado el 23/07/2020 https://www.nuevamovilidad.com/bicicletas-electricas/cual-es-la-huella-de-carbono-exacta-que-produce-una-bicicleta-electrica/
[xi] Lo que debes saber de una bicicleta eléctrica. Twenergy, publicado el 5/09/2019 https://twenergy.com/bicicletas-electricas/lo-que-debes-saber-de-una-bicicleta-electrica-1818/
[xii] Análisis de los sistemas de bicicletas compartidas en España Sistemas públicos – Informe ejecutivo Observatorio de la Bicicleta Pública en España Para la Red de Ciudades por la Bicicleta. Disponible en: https://www.ciudadesporlabicicleta.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Estudio-bicicleta-compartida-en-Espa%C3%B1a-2019-Sistemas-con-Estaciones-Informe-ejecutivo.pdf
[xiii] The Bicycle in the land of electric (auto)mobility Edorta Bergua Jiménez, en Hábitat y Sociedad (issn 2173-125X), n.º 13, noviembre de 2020, pp. 107-124. Disponible en http://dx.doi.org/10.12795/HabitatySociedad.2020.i13.07
[xiv] Real Decreto 380/2015, de 14 de mayo, por el que se regula la concesión directa de subvenciones del “Programa de Incentivos al Vehículo Eficiente (Pive-8)”. https://www.boe.es/diario_boe/txt.php?id=BOE-A-2015-5377
[xv] Coronavirus Comprar un coche eficiente y entregar uno de más de 10 años: los requisitos para acceder a las ayudas del automóvil. RTVE, publicado el 15.06.2020. https://www.rtve.es/noticias/20200615/requisitos-para-acceder-ayudas-automoviles/2018253.shtml
[xvi] Cómo solicitar la ayuda para comprar bicicletas o patinetes eléctricos en Madrid y Valencia. Antena 3 Noticias, publicado el 06.07.2020 https://www.antena3.com/noticias/economia/comunidad-madrid-comunidad-valenciana-ofrecen-ayudas-comprar-bicicletas-patinetes-electricos_202007065f032709e1e78a0001ccefc7.html
[xvii] ACUERDO de 21 de octubre de 2020, del Consejo de Gobierno, por el que se aprueban las normas reguladoras y se establece el procedimiento de concesión directa de incentivos para el fomento de la movilidad cero emisiones en la Comunidad de Madrid http://www.bocm.es/boletin/CM_Orden_BOCM/2020/10/23/BOCM-20201023-22.PDF