Can e-bikes reduce smog, energy consumption and traffic worldwide?

The global market for e-bikes is surging. These bicycles, usually equipped with pedals and an electric motor assist, are popular with consumers and commuters and are becoming part of local business delivery systems. The trend could significantly reduce particulate pollution and smog, as well as cut carbon emissions in the transportation sector.

Some governments are offering subsidies and tax incentives to e-bike buyers, while some companies are offering deals allowing customers to trade in gas two-wheelers for e-bikes. As sales and use grow, updated bike lane construction and safety rules setting permissible e-bike horsepower, speed and size will be required. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Can simply adding an electric motor to a human-powered bicycle significantly reduce urban smog, traffic congestion and energy consumption — and even help curb climate change? Yes, but many bumps in the road must be overcome to get there.

Today’s electric bicycles come in a range of two-wheeled e-bikes and three-wheeled e-trikes, varieties to meet consumer and business needs, with many millions already sold. The addition of an electric motor to the traditional bicycle’s powertrain has not only expanded its range and usefulness for recreation and commuting, but propelled it into commerce, largely for making last-mile deliveries or as taxis.

Among the e-bike’s advantages: Riders, combining pedal power with an electric assist, can climb steep hills, travel faster and farther. Electric bikes also allow the elderly or people with some medical limitations to ride.

But before e-bikes reach their full societal potential, the industry and the world’s nations need to overcome some impediments, including manufacturing capacity, battery reliability and safety, transportation infrastructure and culture.

A growth industry comes of age

“The global electric bike market size was valued at US$37.47 billion in 2022 and is projected to grow from US$43.32 billion in 2023, to US$119.72 billion by 2030,” according to Fortune Business Insights, a global marketing research company.

The Covid-19 pandemic especially accelerated demand as people moved away from using public transit, with fuel price increases also boosting demand. Growth happened everywhere, but the “Asia Pacific [region] dominated the global market, with China accounting for most of the e-bike market share,” noted the research firm.

We’ve seen a huge rise in [e-bike use] over the last 10 years and what we’ve seen accompanying this rise is a proliferation of different types of products, both very economical or not very well made, or high-quality products inaccessible … because of their price.

Ash Lovell, campaign director, PeopleForBikes

As of 2020, an estimated 130 million e-bikes were on the road in China alone. “Factors such as extensive bicycle infrastructure in developed and developing countries; including China, India and Japan; high vehicular and public transit congestion; and increasing stringency of emission regulations for gasoline motorcycles are attributed to the dominance of the [Asian] market,” Fortune Business Insights wrote.

Fortune also forecasts robust future growth in Europe. Major manufacturers are now building e-bikes in the US, Taiwan, Japan, the Netherlands, India and Germany. Elsewhere, the Middle-Eastern and African e-bike market was valued at US$805 million in 2021 and is projected to grow to US$1.2 billion by 2027. Worldwide e-bike sales are expected to soar to 60 million units annually by 2025 — a trend that will rocket the industry from a niche market to mainstream mode of mobility.

Good for commerce and the environment

While electric cargo bikes are already capable of replacing delivery trucks and cars in many situations, a number of factors inhibit their use, including cost, safety concerns, lack of infrastructure and limits to how far you can go on a charge, noted a 2023 study published in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives.

The report found that cargo bike owners reduce auto trips by 1-4 per week by using e-bikes. Other studies cited by the report noted that while e-bikes can definitely cut greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not clear by how much. On the downside, they will increase demand on electrical grids.

Bike Adviser, a US website dedicated to cycling, estimates that if “Americans replaced only 8 per cent of their short-distance car trips [of 5 miles or less] with e-bikes, we would save 44K metric tons of CO2 every day, which is equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 724,496 tree seedlings grown for 10 years.” One caveat: If electric bikes are to reach their full potential as carbon emission reducers, electrical grids will need to be powered by alternative sources, not fossil fuels.

A study by New York University (NYU) suggested increased e-bike infrastructure could lower carbon emissions in the New York metro area by as much as 30 per cent and especially help in low-income areas, considering just deliveries, let alone other uses. But there are barriers to increased use. “More distribution centres are needed to fulfil the growing needs of e-commerce activities. … A more complete bike lane network is needed to accommodate the future expansion of cargo bike operation, and more effort is required to improve the bike accessibility of distribution centres,” the NYU study concluded.

The use of cargo bikes for “last-mile” deliveries could reduce traffic and pollution, the Urban Mobility project of the European Institute of Innovation & Technology reported in November 2023. Cargo bikes are easier to park and can go where larger vehicles can’t, which compensates for speeds slower than autos.

“This result points towards an important finding concerning fossil-fuel driven transport vehicles, namely the likelihood that current business practices promote a high degree of inefficiency and significant levels of unnecessary emissions, noise and other risks caused by the use of faster, larger vehicles in urban environments,” according to the report, which examined transport systems in Stockholm, Sweden, and Barcelona, Spain.

While it’s a given that replacing gas-powered cars and trucks with e-bikes will help clean up air pollution that seriously harms public health (including tailpipe emissions of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and volatile organic compounds), it’s not clear how much, as the issue hasn’t been studied sufficiently.

E-bikes could be especially valuable for curbing urban air pollution in developing nations, outcompeting and replacing dirty, smog-producing two-cycle engines that run on a mix of gasoline and oil and which today power millions of super-polluting scooters, motorcycles and pedicabs.

Today’s gas “scooter spews out between tens and thousands of times more fine particles and toxic gases, proportionate to the amount of fuel consumed, than even heavy [gas-powered] trucks and buses,” noted a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Roadblocks ahead

But as mentioned upfront, bumps in the road lie ahead that could slow e-bike growth. First up are production issues. Manufacturers want to make and sell e-bikes worldwide. But there’s a catch: No international agency has yet stepped up to create global standards to classify e-bikes based on horsepower, speed, size, etc.

Those manufacturing standards will be needed to sell e-bikes internationally, cautioned Ash Lovell, the electric bicycle policy & campaign director for PeopleForBikes, an American bicycle industry advocacy group. European makers are working on doing just that, she added.

Until this happens, there’s also the problem of a large number of poorly constructed, unsafe e-bikes getting sold. “We’ve seen a huge rise in [e-bike use] over the last 10 years and what we’ve seen accompanying this rise is a proliferation of different types of products, both very economical or not very well made, or high-quality products inaccessible … because of their price,” Lovell noted.

Next roadblock: the need to design and build infrastructure and write rules for the road to serve an e-bike influx. Many factors must be considered, including driving regulations, traffic routes, charging infrastructure, redesigning bike lanes and loading bays to accommodate cargo e-bikes, defining exactly who gets to use those bike lanes and setting up hubs where trucks can drop off cargo for last-mile e-bike delivery.

Governments have yet to recognise e-bikes as unique vehicle types that require special consideration when planning travel lanes, charging stations and parking. A study in China found that “urban planners … need more time [to meet] the challenge of the dramatically fast bicycle electrification process.

For example, although electrified bicycles have significant higher speed (up to 25–40 kph or 15.5-25 mph) than conventional bicycles (less than 15 kph or 9.3 mph), they are [currently] all classified as bicycles by the Chinese government.” Those higher speeds make e-bike injuries more severe when involved in a crash, the study noted.

While bike lanes have been sprouting up on roads in wealthier nations for years now, they’ve generally been designed for traditional bicycles. E-bikes (or e-trikes) capable of faster speeds or pulling trailers or carrying wide loads make passing and navigating turns within standard bike lanes a problem.

E-bike riders likewise have a harder time going up and down sidewalk curbs, especially when they’re not cut, reported a paper from the Urban Cycling Institute of Amsterdam, released last fall. Cargo bike users also found it more unwieldy to activate light switches on sidewalks, the institute wrote.

Transportation planners will have to catch up soon because the market is growing everywhere. The German Bicycle Industry Association estimated that next year, half of all bicycles sold in Germany will include a motor — people bought nearly 2 million e-bikes there in 2021.

What about exploding batteries?

Another industry problem involves battery safety. Several types of rechargeable batteries power e-bikes, the most common being lithium-ion, accounting for 68 per cent of the market. Lithium batteries are more efficient, less expensive and take up less space and weight than alternatives such as lead-acid, the second-most common type, which is easier to recycle; and nickel-metal hydride batteries.

But lithium-ion batteries are currently prone to catching fire and have caused explosions and even killed people. To assure consumer safety, the world’s countries will need to develop regulatory safeguards.

In the US, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is developing mandatory battery safety standards. “It will take some time,” CPSC press secretary Patty Davis said. Meanwhile, CPSC told manufacturers to comply with voluntary codes UL 2849 in the US and EN 15194 in Europe.

“What we’re finding is there’s not a lot of compliance,” Davis added. “We’re still seeing fires.” CPSC has recalled lithium-ion batteries at least 10 times in the last four years, she said. “Until [standards] are mandatory, there will be shoddy products out there that put consumers at risk.”

In March, CPSC opened a public comment period on an “advance notice of proposed rulemaking” for e-bike safety, not including battery hazards. CPSC is separately working on a project to “enhance the safety of high-energy batteries in consumer products, especially for micromobility products,” according to the agency’s FY 2024 Operating Plan.

Rad Power Bikes, the largest e-bike maker in North America, told CPSC, “Poorly manufactured e-bike batteries and related electrical components, which generally use lithium-ion batteries, can cause unique fire-safety challenges … not covered by the existing bicycle standard.”

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) wrote the agency that the “nation’s fire and emergency service is responding to multiple incidents per day involving consumer-based products (e-bikes, scooters, wheelchairs, etc.) and their batteries in thermal runaway.”

IAFC concluded, “Increased community education is needed to better explain the risks of both using the wrong battery for a piece of equipment, and the wrong charger for a specific battery. … The next step would be to create a method for the community to safely dispose of damaged batteries and compromised devices. Another key aspect the IAFC is concerned about is the [safety of the] charging infrastructure.”

An ongoing effort to make e-bikes safer and more energy efficient involves creating a self-charging battery that stores energy used when pedalled. The Solar Bicycle Project has developed a solar-powered battery, but it is presently large and bulky and only offers enough power in sunny climates.

Solar power could reduce the need to install recharging stops. The EU in 2023 put into force a law to ensure batteries are sustainable, safe and circular (codifying the use of less harmful materials in battery making, and assuring the collection, reuse and recycling of spent batteries).

Paying for an e-bike surge

While much cheaper than cars, motorised bikes still cost more than traditional bicycles, which inhibits market growth, especially with low-income people.

The US is combating that problem, with at least 52 state and local governments already instituting incentive programs to encourage residents to buy e-bikes, though legislation for a national tax credit remains stalled in Congress. Most of these incentives involve rebates, but some use vouchers to subsidise purchases, or tax credits. Some programs are capped while others employ income limits or phasedowns.

Colorado, for instance, currently offers a point-of-sale rebate of US$500-1,100. This spring, it is initiating a US$450 tax credit. Maine is starting a grant program to help low- and moderate-income residents buy e-bikes “to offset transportation that would otherwise be provided by fossil fuel vehicles.” Santa Barbara, California, is loaning e-bikes so people can try them. In San Francisco, you can trade in your car for an e-bike and get some cash back (within income limits).

Tax credits don’t help as much as rebates or vouchers, Lovell said, because “to wait to get a rebate until [buyers] file their taxes won’t work for people who are cash-strapped.”

Many subsidy programs are just getting started, so it’s too early to judge their effectiveness. But an evaluation of a financial assistance program for public employees in New Zealand found the “scheme was broadly successful,” with 39 per cent of employees saying they probably wouldn’t have bought an e-bike without the subsidy.

In Africa, startup company Spiro, is looking to eliminate fossil fuel-guzzling motorbikes and scooters via its innovative trade-in program, which exchanges gas-powered bikes for e-bikes.

Spiro, founded in 2022, has already offered trade-ins putting 10,000 e-bikes on the road in Benin, Toga and Rwanda and has a roll-out plan for 140,000 e-bikes in Uganda, and more than a million in Kenya. Traded gas-powered bikes are either scrapped or converted to e-bikes. Spiro is also helping deal with Africa’s lack of charging infrastructure and plans to install 3,000 stations in Kenya alone.

Last year, the United Nations Development Programme hosted a national workshop to promote the design and adoption of an electric vehicle-sharing model in Vietnam.

A further indication that electric bikes are trending is the world’s first electric scooter championship — a global Formula E electric race series originated by Lucas di Grassi in partnership with the UN Environment Programme. Sure, sustainability and carbon cuts are desirable, but the thrill of racing e-bikes at speeds topping 60 mph is bound to attract buyers too.

Despite all the roadblocks, the future looks bright for electric bikes.

This story was published with permission from

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