It was hard, looking for the worst e-bike photo in Getty Images: A guy without a helmet in regular street clothes talking on his phone while riding an e-bike. But I thought it demonstrated how e-bikes have become so normalized—the e-bike revolution is truly underway.
What is the e-bike revolution? That’s when e-bikes start replacing cars and are finally taken seriously as transportation. This is finally happening, with electric bikes outselling electric cars 2 to 1 in North America.
In “The E-Bike Spike Continues With 1 Selling Every 3 Minutes” we reported sales of e-bikes were up 145% with 600,000 sold in the U.S. and that it would have been even higher had there not been supply constraints. Studies have shown e-bike trips are replacing car trips rather than bike trips and that people are using them differently—traveling longer distances. A few years ago I wrote that e-bikes will eat cars and it is actually happening.
Why Bikes and E-Bikes Are the Fastest Ride to Zero Carbon
The reason this is so important is that it is faster and cheaper than a move to electric cars and requires a lot less lithium and other materials. Christian Brand of Oxford’s Transport, Energy & Environment, Transport Studies Unit wrote:
“Transport is one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise because of its heavy fossil fuel use and reliance on carbon-intensive infrastructure – such as roads, airports, and the vehicles themselves – and the way it embeds car-dependent lifestyles. One way to reduce transport emissions relatively quickly, and potentially globally, is to swap cars for cycling, e-biking, and walking – active travel, as it is called.”
We noted that according to the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly 60% of all car trips are less than six miles. That’s an easy bike ride and an easier e-bike trip. And you don’t have to be doctrinaire and sell the car yet, just change some of the trips. According to Brand, “We also found the average person who shifted from car to bike for just one day a week cut their carbon footprint by 3.2kg of CO2.”
Commenters note that there are so many barriers to this happening.
“I have an e-bike, but due to no protected bike lanes where I live, I rarely ride it. In addition having to carry around a heavy chain to lock it up and wondering if it will be there when I return from a store further ruins the experience. Until more protected bike lanes are built, few people will ride e-bikes for fear of an SUV or Ford F-150 running over you. Even with protected bike lanes, any thief with an electric grinder can cut through most bike chains, so people are scared to replace car trips with e-bikes for fear their expensive e-bike will get ripped off. So barriers remain that make ditching cars difficult.”
Specialized E-Bikes Are Climate Action
My other favorite example of the normalization of e-bikes is the marketing here by Specialized. It’s not about riding on trails or recreation: It is all about daily life. As the company states: “Carry it down stairs, zip across town, pack it full of groceries, it’s ready to take flight.”
The company pitch:
“We believe the future of local transportation looks more like a bike than a car. Where transportation is the fastest-growing cause of greenhouse gas emissions, the bike is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change. To us, the bike is that and more. It’s a tool for freedom, community building, and mental and physical health.”
Commenters are not impressed. “It sounds inferior and overpriced as many ebikes currently are while manufacturers are frantically scrambling to take advantage of a gullible and uninformed market which has been conditioned to pay much more for the “e” in ebikes than actually justified by the manufacturing cost.”
What Is Needed for an E-Bike Revolution?
I wrote a book this year and devoted a chapter to the e-bike revolution, noting that three things were needed for it to make it truly a success: decent affordable bikes (there is good news on this front), safe places to ride (the pandemic gave a big boost to bike lanes), and a secure place to park. (Sadly, this is still lacking.)
“All of this leads me to conclude that e-bikes are a far better way of dealing with transportation emissions than electric cars. They won’t work for everyone, but they don’t have to. Imagine if we gave a fraction of the attention to bike and e-bike infrastructure and subsidies that we do to automobiles, it could change everything.”
A commenter suggested some reasons that governments don’t like bikes, probably with tongue in cheek but there is some truth to this:
“A cyclist is a disaster for the country’s economy: he does not buy cars and does not borrow money to buy. He does not pay for insurance policies. He does not buy fuel, does not pay for the necessary maintenance and repairs. He does not use paid parking. He does not cause serious accidents. He does not require multi-lane highways. He does not get fat.”
Why Are E-Bike Regulations So Random?
This is a subject that really bothers me: the way bikes are regulated in North America. In Europe, where they know bikes and have great bike infrastructure, e-bikes are essentially bikes with a boost. They don’t have throttles—you have to pedal a bit to get the motor to kick in. Motor size is limited to 250 watts, although they can have short-term peaks that are higher. They are limited to 15 mph. The whole idea is that they play nice in the bike lanes.
In North America, the states and provinces that regulate e-bikes have type 1 bikes that can go 20 mph and have no throttle, a type 2 that throws in throttle, and a type 3 that can do 28 mph which is way too fast for a bike lane. They all look alike. They all can have motors up to 750 watts. It makes no sense, especially in countries that are new to e-bikes.
A lot of people disagree with me on this one, noting that distances are longer, there isn’t as much infrastructure so they have to share the road with cars and want to keep up, Americans are heavier, the cities are hillier—there are always reasons for American exceptionalism. I just worry there are going to be more crashes and regular cyclists are going to be scared off their bikes by all the high-speed traffic. Maybe I am just getting old, but I find that 20 is plenty.
Comment: “I sell 72v 8000w fat tire e bikes, bike frame 26 in rims it is a fat tire bike converted, has pedals, you can pedal choice is up to the rider. Bikes you are talking about go 15mph with a 150 lb rider.If you weigh 250 lbs you are going less than 10mph,what’s the point.”
BMW Introduces E-Bike With 186-Mile Range, 37 MPH Speed
And then we have BMW, the maker of cars that are notorious for making cars that are notorious for their aggressive drivers who one Finnish study found to be “argumentative, stubborn, disagreeable and unempathetic.” So, of course, they built a bike that breaks all the rules and goes 37 mph. Oh, but it will have geofencing to keep it from speeding in the bike lane, which I think they should put in all their cars. I thought this was unconscionable:
“Nope. This should be nipped in the bud. Limiting an electric motorcycle to e-bike speed does not make it an e-bike. It just makes it an intimidating menace in the wrong place. But then that is pretty normal for BMW.”
Van Moof is doing this too, and I griped: “I remain convinced that you don’t want people riding bikes of radically different speeds and powers in the same lanes, and if you want to expand the e-bike market, then people, both riders of e-bikes and everyone around them have to feel comfortable and safe.”
Perhaps I don’t know what I am talking about as this commenter suggests, “I usually agree with much of what I read on Treehugger but the author of this article must not be a frequent bike rider. Your claim that you favour 250 watts & 15 mph speed limits as in Europe clearly shows you do not have the riding experience to pass judgement on this.”
Politicians and Planners Are Missing the E-Bike Revolution
In this post, I “buried the lede” and wrote a title that didn’t reflect the main content of the post, because just when North American governments were throwing big bucks at electric cars and ignoring e-bikes, a British study came out that e-bikes could reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But also that e-bikes would have their biggest impact in suburban and exurban areas, like those the majority of Americans live in.
Urban core dwellers have short distances and lots of options, while the authors note that suburban and rural areas have poor public transport and are car-dependent, so there is even greater untapped potential for e-bike use. Rolling out e-bikes is faster, cheaper, fairer, and “the issues of urgency, equity and the need to achieve reductions in all areas, not just urban centers, applies everywhere.”
People will continue to say “not everybody can ride an e-bike.” It’s true—and not everybody can drive a car. The conclusion remains that from any basis of comparison, be it speed of rollout, cost, equity, safety, the space taken for driving or parking, embodied carbon or operating energy, e-bikes beat e-cars for a majority of the population. Why politicians and planners in North America are ignoring this opportunity is a mystery to me.
But some commenters love their cars. “Dismissing the total lack of privacy or protection from the elements, there absolutely nothing you can do on an e-bike save ride. .no movies, no music, no answering calls because your attention has to be focused on the handlebars. Then there are the insurance concerns.. again, because e-bikes offer no safety whatsoever—no seatbelts, airbags, 5mph bumpers or crushable cocoon interior—people become instant projectiles in any mishap. and you really wonder why e-bikes haven’t caught on here?”
Can an E-Cargo Bike Work as Your One and Only Bike?
Here at Treehugger, we had our own e-cargo bike revolution. Motors make it so much easier to push a heavier bike or carry a heavier load. Treehugger writer Sami Grover loves his and has carried “thirty pounds of ice, a crate of beer, bags of groceries—they all just got plopped into the front carrier, strapped down, and off we went.”
But he also found that the motor made it as nimble and easy to ride as a regular bike and concludes: “I’ve come to realize that for many people, in many situations, an e-cargo bike may not only be the only bike they need—it might be the only vehicle of any kind that they really need to own.”
One commenter notes that he rents a pickup once a year to mulch his backyard but carries everything else on his e-bike. “I hauled 80 lbs of dog and cat food last weekend with it!”
6 Things I’ve Learned From Riding an E-Bike
Senior editor Katherine Martinko got the e-cargo bike bug too, and rides it all winter in a very cold part of Canada, where the wind and snow blow off that big Great Lake in the background. She notes that it’s great for shopping:
“The e-bike is fabulously convenient for running multi-stop errands. About once a week, I take it to the post office, the library, the bank, and wherever else I need to go, and it’s faster than the car because parking is a non-issue. I pull up right in front of whatever building I’m entering and lock it to a bike rack or pole. I zip past traffic, often traveling faster than the cars around me and pulling to the front of lineups at stoplights. When I have a child with me, it’s faster to have them hop on and off the back seat than buckle them into a booster seat – and they love it.”
Readers agree; I liked one response in particular:
“My e-bike has become my primary mode of transportation so much so that I am selling my sports car. I haven’t driven it more than 20 miles in the last year. After reading your articles and those of Lloyd Alter, I was inspired to not store the bike all winter and keep riding. We don’t get much snow or ice here in central Illinois and temperatures all winter hover around 20°F (-6°C) in the morning when I leave for work to around 40°F (4°C) when I return home. With the right layers and no special gear, I was able to comfortably ride all winter. It has now been 14 months since I have ridden the e-bike to work daily and I have only driven twice in that time. Keep these great articles coming!”
Yes, You Can Ride an E-Bike All Winter Long
There is Lake Huron again, with all that lake effect snow and ice. But Katherine is a trouper and rides all year. There is great advice in this post on how to ride in winter, and I learned of a benefit to having a throttle on your e-bike: “When I took my e-bike on a particularly icy snow-packed shortcut last week, I found that using just the throttle worked better than pedaling with the electric assist, since every time I pushed down on the pedals it caused the tires to spin a bit.”
Commenters agreed: “I’m not shy about winter riding either, but it took some adjustment going from an analog bike to electric. Light throttle is better than pedaling on ice, and the most challenging surfaces for me have been wet ice (no grip), and refrozen slush that redirects your front tire sideways at times. My hands and feet were frozen too many times as a child, so I use heated gloves, and today I tried heated socks for the first time.”
Others thought we were all risking our lives. “This is highly conditional and frankly comes down to if you think it’s worth dying for.”
This Plumber Conducts 95% of His Business by Cargo Bike
Cargo bikes don’t just haul kids and groceries. Plumber Shane Topley moves more quickly around London by e-cargo bike. “It’s been a real eye-opener—and a big education—to realize how much of my business can be done by bike,” Topley explains. “The only thing I need the van for is taking big, heavy ladders. And realistically I could hire those and have them delivered. I could almost get rid of the van entirely.”
Years ago in an earlier post about cargo bikes I wrote, “I wonder what combination of difficult parking, high fuel prices, and congestion charges would make this way of doing business viable again.” I wasn’t even thinking about motors then, but perhaps this way of doing business is viable now.
It’s an Easy Swytch to Turn Your Bike Into an E-Bike
Conversion kits that turn your regular bike into an e-bike are becoming popular. My daughter Emma loves her Electra Dutch-style bike that we bought for $50, but she has a long slog to work. The Swytch conversion kit was easy to install and my daughter loves it—much more than my Gazelle e-bike. Emma says: “In general, I love it. It makes my ride easier without feeling like I’m riding a giant bulky e-bike. It’s got a phenomenal amount of power for such a little machine and seems like it has a good battery life too.”
“The real e-bike revolution is about transportation, not recreation. The Swytch is fun and perfect for the latter, but here it is doing the former, getting Emma through a 12 mile round trip in her normal work clothes without being exhausted or soaked at the end of it, on a bike that she loves. This is the e-bike revolution, this is how they will eat cars. I never believed that a little conversion kit could do this so well, but the Swytch pulls it off with aplomb. We are truly impressed.”
Comments were mixed: Some love their Swytch kits, others have been having problems. Others say it is overpriced. But we are still very happy.
The Best of 2021: E-Bike Edition
Treehugger has a team of editors who independently research, test, and recommend the best products. Here are some of their bike and e-bike related suggestions:
The Best E-Bike Locks of 2021
Electric bikes are becoming more popular and more affordable. But they’re still a substantial financial investment for most people. Once you’ve found your perfect e-bike, dropping some extra green on a high-quality bike lock (or two) is one of the best ways to protect your purchase.
The Best E-Bikes of 2021
The e-bike market share was valued at $23.89 billion in 2020. That’s up from $14.4 billion in 2019. Brisk sales of e-bikes are expected to continue over the next few years. Concerns about reducing carbon emissions are one reason some people have switched gears from driving their cars to riding an e-bike because they are better for the climate than fossil-fuel-powered engines.
The Best E-Bike Conversion Kits of 2021
No electric bike is as cheap as the bike you already own. If you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint, live in a small space, or practice minimalism, then repurposing what you already have can be a win-win-win decision. So, if you love your current ride but want to add some juice for getting uphill or for powering your cargo bike when you’re carrying a heavy load, you can, thanks to electric bike converter kits. To electrify your bike, you need a battery, sensors, controls, and a motorized wheel or a drive unit.