This post is by Steve Garidis, executive director of the Bicycle Association of Great Britain
E-bikes have taken the world’s cycling markets by storm. They (mostly) look just like regular bicycles. They are ridden just like regular bicycles. And, in many countries, they have the same rules: no licence or registration is required to use them on the road.
E-bike riders are evangelical about them, many discovering (or rediscovering) a passion for cycling. They come with all the joys and benefits of cycling, and far fewer of the downsides; just a subtle and silent helping hand that flattens hills and dismisses the curse of headwinds.
Long gone are those days when cycling businesses, used to focusing on the enthusiast market, sniffed at e-bikes as ‘cheating’. E-bikes cost more than regular bikes, attract better margins and have attracted a new sort of customer. They are driving much of the growth and investment which the cycling industry has enjoyed in the past five years.
The UK is way behind the rest of Europe
As with much in the way of cycling, the UK is miles behind its European counterparts but, even here, e-bikes represented a third of the UK cycling market by value in 2021, although that was still only six per cent of the total number sold, according to Bicycle Association data.
Although slow to spot their potential, Westminster and the devolved administrations have taken note of the role e-bikes can play and sought to boost their uptake. According to government data, 70 per cent of Brits cycle just once a year or less. This is some way off England’s stated ambition for cycling and walking to become the “natural first choice” for all short journeys by 2040.
Despite larger than ever funding commitments for new cycling infrastructure (£2 billion in England over the current parliament), there is a long way to go. Just two per cent of trips are currently undertaken by bike in the UK and it has stayed at this level for decades.
Meanwhile, many other policies counteract progress, such as £24 billion on building more roads, and the recent fuel tax cuts, subsidising drivers to the tune of a further £5 billion. The current political environment is such that any policy promoting cycling in the UK must be defensible against those who would seek to portray cycling investment as a ‘war on the motorist’. So, instead, we see policies aimed at making cycling an easier choice.
The draw of e-bikes is that they offer a solution to some of the barriers to choosing cycling. For those would be cyclists who feel too hill-bound, too old, too far from their desired destination, or unable to keep up with the traffic or with their fitter friends, e-bikes are a more appealing option than a basic mechanical bicycle.
Framing e-bikes as enhanced bicycles is a mistake
Cycling is already a niche, marginalised policy area in the UK. In public policy terms it is dwarfed by road, rail, air, freight and public transport. If e-bikes are only framed as a sort of ‘enhanced bicycle’, policy makers effectively keep them in the niche. Or worse, they treat them as a niche within a niche, with a level of priority and funding to match.
If an e-bike is not an enhanced bicycle, what is it? In the context of transport and climate change policy, they should instead be treated as central to the electrification of transport. E-bikes are already delivering the electric revolution, so they should be seen on a par with other electric vehicles (EVs).
Relative to cycling, the EV sector has vastly higher profile, priority and investment. There is a longstanding government assumption that electrification of the transport system – meaning EVs replacing fossil-fuel powered vehicles – will solve the climate change impacts of personal, public and freight transport.
Unfortunately, as Oxford-based CREDS researchers and others have identified, even with best case assumptions, electric cars and vans will struggle to replace the current fossil fuel fleet in time to meet the country’s decarbonisation targets.
E-bikes are the ideal vehicle for most trips taken
E-bikes are low cost in EV terms. Their technology is mature, reliable and efficient. They require no additional charging or fuelling infrastructure. They are the ideal vehicle for most UK trips, as 70 per cent were under five miles in 2020. Our research also shows that up to one in three van deliveries could be replaced by electric cargo bikes.
Around 100 e-bikes use the equivalent battery cells which might otherwise be swallowed up by just one medium range electric car. Battery production is one of the key limiting factors in transport system electrification, so it makes sense to use them in the most efficient EVs.
Sales figures show that e-bikes are ready for mass adoption. Across Europe over five million were sold in 2021, more than double the 2.3 million electric cars sold in the same period (nearly half of which were plug in-hybrids, not fully electric). In the same year, in the US, 790,000 e-bikes were sold, compared to just 650,000 electric cars (including plug-in hybrid models). Across the developed world, e-bikes are already moving more people over to EVs than electric cars.
The UK cycle industry believes that the government should embrace e-bikes as the EV solution which can best accelerate transport decarbonisation, and in a way which is affordable to many more people.
We will keep making this case to the government, and hope for more action soon, but meanwhile, what else can our industry do?
It’s clear we too need to shift our paradigm from marketing ‘enhanced bicycles’ to would be cyclists, to showing people across politics and the wider population how to apply EV technology to the much bigger opportunity of decarbonised mobility. We need to start thinking of ourselves as a cleantech industry producing fully-fledged EVs which, alongside mature-tech bicycles, will be vital to reaching net zero in transport.