By Michael Schwalbe
A sure way to get accused of cycling snobbery these days is to utter a discouraging word about e-bikes. To their proponents, e-bikes—bicycles equipped with batteries and electric motors—are a revolutionary technology that will get more people on bikes, reduce auto traffic, cut air pollution (thus helping fight climate change), and generally make the roads safer for everyone. Count me a skeptic.
I don’t doubt that widespread e-bike use would benefit the environment. All energy inputs and pollution emissions considered, e-bikes have a much smaller carbon footprint than any kind of car—gas, hybrid, or electric. The more people who transport themselves with e-bikes rather than cars, the healthier, cleaner, and less climate-ravaged the world will be.
So whence my skepticism?
Part of it comes from a general aversion to marketing hype. In the case of e-bikes, the loudest voices touting their virtues have been those of manufacturers and retailers (for example, the trade association masked by the grassrootsy name PeopleForBikes), with amplification from industry-allied cycling publications. It’s often easy to forget the bottom line: these folks live by getting us to buy more stuff. If many of our environmental problems stem from overconsumption, it’s fair to wonder if more consumption is the solution.
It still takes energy, much of it generated by fossil fuels, to extract and refine the raw materials out of which e-bikes are made; more energy to build them; more to ship the bikes to market; more to operate them; and more to recycle or dispose of them. So the carbon footprint of an e-bike, a forty-pound piece of motorized machinery, is not size zero.
A better comparison is between e-bikes and regular bikes. Trek, one of the biggest bicycle makers in the U.S., offers some data about this. According to Trek, the carbon output associated with building an electric mountain bike can be more than double the amount associated with building an equivalent regular bike. The extra materials needed to build an e-bike—battery, motor, and all else—raise the environmental cost substantially.
But perhaps more important is the net benefit if people who wouldn’t otherwise use a bike for transportation will use an e-bike in place of a car. On paper, this makes sense; it is just a matter of someone using an e-bike, instead of a car, often enough to offset the carbon costs of the e-bike. At a certain point—X number of miles by e-bike instead of car—the planet comes out ahead.
Trek says the tipping-point number, for a regular bike, is only 430 miles. As Trek puts it, “If you ride about 430 miles you would have otherwise driven, you’ve saved the carbon equivalent of what it took to make your bike.” If we double the number for an e-bike, that’s still only 860 miles. Use an e-bike instead of a car for 143 six-mile trips and the environment wins.
Estimates from other sources, looking at the larger picture, are less sanguine. Researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK examined the potential of e-bikes to reduce carbon production and reached this conclusion: “To halve the emissions of car use with e-bikes, the average adult in England would be riding about 5,000km [3,107 miles] per year.” Just offhand, that seems like an even less realistic goal in the car-loving U.S. than in England.
To be clear, the potential environmental benefits of e-bikes, relative to cars, are not an illusion conjured by clever marketing. Science and common sense agree on this. Yet the opposing forces of U.S. geography, poor cycling infrastructure, and car culture—it’s not just your car, it’s your freedom—are likely to keep these benefits out of reach.
What ultimately matters is how many people can be persuaded to use e-bikes in place of cars, for how many miles. If enough people’s fears of hills, sweat, slowness, distance, and unsafe roads—the fears that keep them from using bikes as transportation—are allayed by e-bikes, then perhaps the rosy promises of manufacturers and retailers will come true some happy day.
My retro-grouchiness (I admit it) doesn’t keep me from seeing that e-bikes make sense for some people. I mean people who have physical limitations, or who will leave the car parked if using an e-bike is an option, or who just won’t ride a bike any other way. If you are one of these people, go for it. Get an e-bike.
Despite the seductions of ease and power, I’m not going to buy an e-bike; it would be a solution to a problem I don’t have. Not yet, anyway. And now that I don’t commute, I am already putting more miles on my bike(s) every year than on our aging Honda Fit. Most of these car miles are not replaceable, practically or safely, with bike miles.
Nor would an e-bike make me a better cyclist. An e-bike would let me go faster and climb hills more easily, but that wouldn’t make cycling more enjoyable. For me, much of that enjoyment comes from the strenuous physicality required and nurtured by unplugged cycling. When the day comes that my legs need extra help, I’ll forgo the motor and do what I would advise most other people to do. I’ll get lower gears.
Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.