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Electric bikes on the rise

Can you stand one more post about electric bikes? The New York Times ran a follow-up recently, and it’s worth revisiting the topic.

First, the comment thread to the previous post about electric bikes has an interesting diversity of opinions, but to my mind pretty strongly underscores the potential value of this technology. Many everyday commuters and older riders find that the electric assist really makes bicycles a more practical transportation tool. The Times article provides further (anecdotal) support for this notion.

Second, I need to amend my previous assertion that in Copenhagen riders are indifferent to the technology. This claim was based on the highly scientific method of not recalling seeing a whole lot of electric bikes when I was in Copenhagen. According to the Times, in the Netherlands “a third of the money spent on bicycles last year went to electric-powered models.” That’s a somewhat tricky stat to parse, because electric bikes are much more expensive than regular bikes (and, of course, Copenhagen isn’t in the Netherlands). But suffice to say that electric bikes are gaining significant market share even in northern European countries with entrenched bicycle cultures.

Third, I should mention that, of the 120 million electric bikes sold in China, a lot are closer in size and power to a Vespa scooter than to a Schwinn. The diversity of electric vehicles is causing some traffic-planning chaos, as the more powerful models mix uneasily with the still more numerous traditional bicycles. Officials attempted at one point to ban electric scooters from bicycle lanes in Beijing, but quickly backtracked in the face of a public outcry. It seems to me that the happiest resolution to this problem would be to reclaim further roadspace from cars through the creation of scooter-only lanes on major roadways, but what do I know about traffic-planning in Beijing?

Fourth, one of the most important environmental questions is the extent to which electric bicycles are taking market share from traditional bicycles vs. cars. According to the Times article, surveys in some Chinese cities suggest that one out of every six electric bikes replaces a car. That strikes me as not too bad. The lead acid batteries in the bicycles present an environmental hazard, and of course coal-generated electricity isn’t emissions free. But my guess is that even at this relatively low replacement rate, the bikes come out ahead. (This data shouldn’t be generalized to other countries, as the transportation mix in China is utterly unlike that in the developed world.)

Fifth, there’s been a been a flare-up of blog chatter recently over whether we’ll ever see the “iPhone of cars” — a lightweight, low-footprint, networked vehicle that can move people around cities with far less environmental impact than even currently envisioned electric automobiles. Perhaps the iPhone of cars is an electric bicycle?

So to sum up: electric bicycle sales are growing rapidly from a small base, and the technology still seems as though it has the potential to broaden the appeal of the most resource-efficient transportation device yet invented.

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