Europe’s embrace of electric bikes

As inner-city transport is thrust into the crosshairs in the fight against pollution and climate damaging emissions, promising trends are emerging surrounding public transportation and commuting practices.

Alongside a welcome rise of electric buses and other vehicles, another trend sees people sidelining cars altogether in favor of bicycles as a means to travel across cities, commute for work, take children to school and tend to errands.

A rise in cycling is especially evident across European cities, where it can be seen to be resulting from people becoming increasingly keen to change behaviors in an effort to reduce emissions and pollution.

Behaviors are also shifting in response to changing urban environments. Introduction of metered zones, new taxes, and increasing congestion are all combining to steer people away from the traditional commute by car in favor of a cleaner, cheaper, more flexible and healthier alternative afforded by bicycles.

Against this background, recent years have seen a sudden jump in availability of electric bicycles (e-bikes) – bringing with them all the advantages expected of electric-assist cycling and encouraging even greater numbers of people to switch away from vehicles and over to peddle power.

Featuring an integrated battery powered motor, e-bikes are a simple solution which might just be one of best in terms of tackling multiple challenges of inner cities at once.

Market boom

Kevin Mayne, CEO of Cycling Industries Europe, tells Northvolt: “Based on what we’re seeing and the current trends, we’ve massively upscaled our forecasts for e-bike growth in Europe.”

Kevin explained that when a cornerstone document for promoting cycling in Europe, the European Cycling Strategy, was published in 2017, it projected e-bikes could realistically reach 12 million units per year by 2030 in the EU. But just two years later, those numbers are looking to be a far cry from what could well be reality.

At the end of 2018 there were around 2.1 million e-bikes in Europe – a base from which Kevin explained: “We’re seeing companies and national markets reporting anything up to 20 to 40% compound growth. If we work from these kinds of numbers, the curve takes us to around 30 million e-bikes per year by 2030.”

Everyone underestimated the sales of e-bike.

And it’s not disruptive market newcomers embracing batteries driving this shift, as Kevin noted: “Just a few weeks ago, the world’s biggest bike company, Giant Bicycles, announced that e-bike sales were up 44% year on year in Europe.”

“It’s entirely realistic that we land somewhere between 15 to 18 million e-bikes per year by 2030.”

Noting that higher sales scenarios would be supported by several variables in play, Kevin suggested, “Subsidy schemes for e-bikes play a role, but not as much as you might think; e-bikes are proving very popular even in markets without that kind of support.”

According to market statistics 40% of all bicycle sales in the Netherlands through 2018 were e-bikes.

One factor that certainly does encourage cycling is its infrastructure. As Kevin described it, there’s a “very clear relationship between investment in bicycling infrastructure and per capita adoption of e-bikes.”

Above all, cyclists need safe inner-city cycle lanes, something which many cities typically don’t have and cannot accommodate without taking clear actions.

Recognizing the societal and environmental benefits of cycling may help to sway policy makers in favor of this kind of investment, but it’s not the only kind of infrastructure to watch out for.

“We estimate around €2 billion from the EU budget going into cycling infrastructure in the current year budget cycle,” said Kevin.

“A considerable amount of that investment is going towards so-called high-volume cycle highways. Together with e-bikes, these highways mean that we can bring people into the inner city from much farther away than otherwise possible. With e-bikes people might be willing to cycle 10 or 20 km, where previously the average distance was perhaps 3 or 4 km. Together, these things are really supporting the transformation from commuting by car to commuting by bike.”

What’s especially attractive about encouraging cycling, via e-bikes or the regular variety, is that cycle infrastructure consistently yields higher returns and cost-benefit ratios compared with other road or public transportation projects, although costing a fraction of the price.

For instance, investments in the London Cycle Network are reported to have produced a 4:1 return, while in Helsinki returns were twice as great, with €8 of benefits for every euro spent.

“And it’s a wonderful change,” says Kevin. “The new scenario not only reduces inner city congestion, but also relieves pressure on public transport. What’s more, in terms of investment in clean transport, reducing pollution, meeting climate targets and so on, cycling is just so attractive from an economic perspective.”