In part II, I described the extraordinary growth of electric bikes in China, which grew from novelty items in 1998 to almost one e-bike per ten people today. What caused this growth? What can we learn from China about overcoming the Northwest’s four barriers to e-bikes?
The economic context of e-bikes is radically different in China than in the Northwest. In China, most buyers of electric bikes are stepping up in vehicular speed and comfort from heavy, low-performance bicycles. They are opting for electric bikes not in place of cars but in place of bicycles, motorcycles, or scooters. In the North America, e-bike buyers are stepping down in vehicular speed and comfort from the automobile. (Actually, they’re mostly buying an additional vehicle, to use in place of their car some off the time.)
Chi-Jen Yang, a policy analyst at Duke University, has examined Chinese experience with electric bikes in detail. He argues that their proliferation over the last decade has been “a policy accident.” Overrun with noisy, dangerous, fast, polluting motorcycles, more than 90 major Chinese cities have cracked down by banning or limiting new licenses for motorcycles. But they haven’t regulated electric bikes—even electric bikes (like many in China) that are essentially motor scooters with decorative pedals. So motorcycle demand, burgeoning with China’s economic miracle of the last decade, has switched to electric bikes.
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Mr. Yang’s research suggests that technological advances and market forces had little to do with China’s e-bike miracle, which helps explain why electric bikes are still outmatched by other technology in North America as well. He strengthens his case by demonstrating that across the Formosa Straits, Taiwan launched massive national subsidies for electric bikes and electric scooters in 1998, intending to trim urban motorcycle pollution and speed as Chinese cities were doing. Taiwan spent tens of millions of dollars making electric two wheelers cost competitive with gasoline-powered ones, but it abandoned the program four years later as futile. Not only were consumers reluctant to buy electric vehicles, many retailers refused to sell them. Mr. Yang quotes one scooter retailer as saying, “for every ten consumers who purchased an electric scooter, ten of them would come back to complain.” Unlike China, Taiwan did not ban or restrict motorcycles, and no amount of subsidy could flip the market toward electric vehicles.
A decade has passed since Taiwan’s failure, and electric-bike (and scooter) technology has improved, but Mr. Yang’s point remains:
Subsidies resulting in comparable price and superior environmental performance may be insufficient to make electric vehicles a commercial success, while limiting the fossil fueled alternatives could be highly effective in forcing the market penetration of electric vehicles. These market dynamics may also apply to the wider electric vehicle market.
Electric bikes, as the forerunners of electric cars and trucks, have tremendous potential, but they’re unlikely to win more than a toe-hold in a marketplace long dominated by petroleum-powered vehicles. Unless public policy makes petroleum-powered vehicles far less attractive, as China did for motorcycles. Petroleum is just too phenomenally effective and (still) cheap. Electric bikes will inch upward in market share in the Northwest, becoming less like novelties and more like regular bikes in their prevalence. But they will not sweep through the population as they have in China, unless we act through public policy to make their fossil-fueled competitors less competitive and cycling in general much more attractive. Specifically, we can
- Enact climate policies that put a price on carbon through a carbon tax or a fair cap and trade system.
- Make dramatic progress in threading a complete network of continuous, separate, named, signed, and lighted bikeways through our communities, so that cyclists (pedal and electric) are shielded from auto traffic, as shown in this photo from Copenhagen. Progress such as that envisioned in Portland’s bold new bike plan.
- Grow our cities up rather than out, constructing compact communities where walking, cycling, and transit are better alternatives than driving for many trips. Density is as important a determinant of cycling as infrastructure.
Electric bikes are promising. They deserve our respect. Their champions, manufacturers, and retailers deserve our encouragement. But the biggest favor we can do for them is not to subsidize them but to change the price of fossil fuels, the layout of our streets, and the design of our cities—creating the kinds of places in which cars become less necessary and bikes become more normal.
The hope that electric vehicles, perhaps led by electric bikes, will displace petroleum-fueled vehicles rapidly, simply by out-competing conventional vehicles on cost and performance is wishful. On the 40-year timeline we have to effect a near phaseout of carbon emissions, it is dangerous thinking—magical thinking. The only way the electrification of transportation will work is if we do what China did: write laws that make the alternatives—fossil fuels, in this case—accountable for their ecological consequences.
That’s not a welcome observation, I realize. We’ve met with setbacks and disappointments on the path to strong climate policy in the past year, first in the Oregon and Washington legislatures, then in Copenhagen at international climate negotiations, and more recently in Washington, DC. There’s something appealing right now about the notion of sidestepping politics entirely and instead inventing our way to an economy beyond carbon. I do not believe that’s possible.
I do not believe it because, over 25 years of studying issues like these, I’ve observed again and again the same patterns evident in this Parable of the Electric Bike. Clean technology has enormous potential, but it rarely sweeps a market unless laws make prices tell the ecological truth or otherwise constrain unsustainable practices. Carrots alone don’t usually work—even lots and lots of carrots; we also need sticks. Voluntary, market-based strategies rarely suffice, though they do demonstrate what’s possible and create momentum for changing the rules. Technology cannot solve problems created by bad public policy, but good public policy can unleash the potential of technology, leading to better solutions than we previously imagined.
So, go ahead and buy an electric bike—or an electric car—if you like. Surge up hills. Haul bigger loads. Replace some more car trips in your own life. Sing the body electric. I might do the same.
But let’s not get distracted from the real work before us, which is to change the rules by which we get and sell fossil energy, and by which we build our streets, neighborhoods, and cities.
Electric vehicles aren’t the answer to our prayers. We are.
I think dismissing infrastructure as a determinant of cycling is too simmplistic. While land use and density certainly are necessary, they are not always sufficient. Matching density with supportive facilities is a more complete solution than density alone.We do have to continue our work on more efficient and sustainable land use, but it also has to be accompanied by infrastructure improvements to support safer, more convenient and more comfortable cycling facilities on roads and trails.Many infrastructure improvements are already working to grow cycling in many communities, and they are much quicker than the long, slow evolution of cities to more sustainable models.Still that’s a small point of polite disagreement in an otherwise thoughtful series of articles on the sputtering e-bike revolution.John Luton, Councillor, City of Victoria and Executive Director, Capital Bike and Walk Society
Excellent series. Thank you for all the work on this piece. In addition to revealing the true cost of fossil fuels, subsidized car parking could also be removed to reveal the incredible advantage of free parking for bikes (and e-bikes).It seems like the best way to get someone to ride a bike is to get them to go on just one destination bike ride in their city. Most people are hooked forever after that. I wonder if the same effect would apply to e-bikes? What if a company promoted them by making it easy to try them out?
John Luton,Thanks for your comment. I agreed with you and I made a small edit to my phrasing. I never intended to suggest infrastructure isn’t key. I just meant that density matters too. In fact, it’s a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Infrastructure is too.
1 percent of people will ride their bike today. When gas hits 1.50 a liter, 1.25 percent will ride their bike. When it doubles, 1.5 percent will ride their bikes…That’s just the way it is…If we could get 3 percent of Canadians to bike to work – there would be a revolution… But ain’t going to happen…
Gas in the USA needs to hit $4 gallon to see any behavior change.Unfortunately when it did in 2008, people bought gas scooters not electric !
Great series.Very thorough, but might miss the point just a smidge. Electric bikes aren’t going to save the world. Yes, they don’t need to be subsidized. But even if they won’t save the world, they might make a big difference in getting people to commute more than 5 miles, or for people to take on heavier loads (a la the first image in the first article). In some places, maybe that could mean a 5% mode share, or more, for bicycles (regular + electric), which would be a significant contribution. And over time it can build from that.The other thing is your use of the word “culture” and the phrase “bike culture.” The reality is that culture is constructed. The real issue is whether or not the bicycle is treated and considered a co-equal form of transportation. Where it is, and it is in those places because of the accumulation of decades of planning decisions and practices that favor sustainable transportation, then people treat bicycling as just something you do. Is that “culture” or merely the result of a land use and transportation planning regime and regulatory structure, and the response of the transportation consumer? I argue that it is not culture, but the result of urban planning, regulatory structures, etc.The Portland house moves are still an example of risk taking/challenge/protest. I can’t imagine many people in Copenhagen feel compelled to move via bike. They probably just use a moving service or rent a car. And guess what, that’s ok.When we use the word culture to describe sustainable transportation practice, without delving deeply into why this practice is in fact occurring and how it got to the place where it is today, then we are disserving the “cause.”Oh, the other thing (surprisingly) that you forgot, is the need maybe for charging outlets at worksites, as part of accommodation requirements (zoning). Maybe some street-based charging stations too?(also interim bicycle and pedestrian planner, Baltimore County, Maryland)
(Please re-post this as a community service)Less than 20 car companies (The ATVM people say there were tons of applications but only a handful were car companies) applied for $25 BILLION DOLLARS in taxpayer money managed by a certain smug group of people at DOE in order to get loans to make green cars for Americans. This was not all of DOE that did bad things, just a private cadre of men led by Lachland Seward and Matt Rogers and his McKinsey “Partner” who flew back and forth to their homes in Silicon Valley every weekend on the taxpayer dime.There was enough money to help every single one of the car companies that applied. The administrators applied their interpretations of the law in order to benefit the large lobby group-related firms and avoided every one of the “politically unconnected “independent American companies.The amount of lobby and influence money spent by each awardee is in direct ratio to the amount of money awarded. Pay-to-play was the process.The smaller companies, due to lower overhead, could have dramatically more productive results with the money than the large burdened companies yet the money was given out based on political career advantages for the administrators rather than the technology advantages for Americans. The way the ATVM people set it up (Google “Siry says stifles innovation” for more), the smaller applicants were prevented from getting outside investor funding.All of the people that reviewed the applications had political and financial connections to GM, Ford, Chrysler and the large Detroit recipients.Each of those smaller American companies had technology and resources that presented a powerful economic threat, if they got the loans, to the large politically connected companies that did receive funds. The big car companies wanted the small companies cut-out at all costs.The Section 136 law was written to provide first-come-first serve funding but when the small companies got their applications in first, while the big ones arrogantly felt that they did not even need to apply because it was already pre-staged for them, the ATVM officials changed the rules in order to remove the first-come-first-serve standard of the law in order to cut out the smaller independents.Some of the companies that have gotten money have backed out of making the electric cars they said they would make. But they still get to keep the money.The Section 136 Law was created by the lobbyists for GM, Ford & Chrysler when they saw that they were about to go bankrupt and wanted to tap into additional taxpayer dollars by claiming the money was going to be used for electric cars in order to win rapid support for Section 136 by tugging at heartstrings. In retrospect, the money mostly went to gasoline car projects. Multiple public hearings have already shown the sister loan guarantee program to have been a failed program via intentional delays, the head was fired and replaced & massive complaints have been filed by many.Some of the companies that got the money have already wasted more money than other companies applied for as their total request.Some of the companies that got taxpayer loan money are not even American companies and/or are doing their manufacturing offshore with non-American employees. Thus, the ATVM process has cost American’s jobs.Those who got the money had to fill out little, or no, paperwork, went through little, or no, review and were connected to the DOE people who gave them the money and shepherded them through the process. Those who they wanted to keep out were forced to jump through more hoops, were slow-tracked in review and had made no political deals via hired law and lobby firms that the big companies has used to conduit “influence”.The decision about who would get money was made in 2008 by a private group who then pretended there was a lengthy review throughout 2009 but in fact, the money was pre-wired for a select few. The ATVM group lied to the other applicants about their application station when Lachlan Seward had already personally decided, without review, that his connections would get the money and ordered his staff to tell the applicants, for over a year, that they were all on the way to funding. This caused those applicants to expend money and brand reputation which they lost because of Sewards lies.All of the things that the rejected small companies (who did not pay lobby fees) were rejected for, were the same things that the insider big companies were doing. In at least two cases, big companies who were in violation of Section 136 rules were guided by reviewer-insiders to change their whole business structure in order to become suddenly “compliant “with section 136 while smaller companies received no such “help”.How does this affect you? It cost you and your friends jobs, it delayed American innovation, it made your family have to breath toxic petroleum fumes for another decade, it furthered a corrupt practice and it hurt domestic small business. This was all about money. Controlling who got to make money off of the technology and who got to delay electric cars so the old oil and steel guys could still make money off of their old assets.
Keep in mind, an electric bike imparts a very large weight penalty along with significant drag from the electric motor windings and magnets that have to be overcome with a little bit of throttle all of the time except when going downhill.You don’t want to try to ride one around just to use the throttle to get up hills. It would not be worth the energy expended between hills.”..for every ten consumers who purchased an electric scooter, ten of them would come back to complain.”I’ve talked to two ebike dealers and they both said essentially the same thing but in America, customers don’t just complain, they demand a refund.Most are designed to meet European government regulations and as a result are clunky and slow by design. Many customers are expecting a cheap electric scooter but get a bicycle they can’t lift, that turns off at 15 mph, and takes six hours to recharge.And if they bought the low-end model, it came with lead acid batteries which don’t last a year. In a nutshell the electric bikes sold today perform poorly, are unreliable, and cost too much. That can all be fixed and I’m sure it is only a matter of time. Battery costs are still the main hurdle.A month ago I test rode the A2B electric “bicycle.” Some guy had just bought it “used” from a local dealer and was nice enough to let me take it for a spin. I would not be surprised to see it returned again and sold again. Looks cool, rides like a Big Wheel tricycle.I prefer to drive for longer trips, or in bad weather. I prefer my electric bike for most in town trips because it is faster than driving, safer than a scootger, and there are no parking issues. It has just the right amount of power and speed and I do my own maintenance. You can’t buy a bike like this but it is the bike everyone should be selling. It crosses that critical performance break point.
Hi from Auckland, New Zealand.I bought a wisper.co.uk electric bike 6 months ago. It’s great for a gentlemanly cycle over the hills into the office wearing my suit, with no need to shower, iron shirts, etc when I get there – unlike the ‘regular’ cyclists. Even better – I get to stay home later and have breakfast with my kids, unlike those ‘regular’ cyclists that leave home early so that they have time for their showers, shirt ironing, etc after they get to work. Exercise – I do that earlier in the morning, while the air is still fresh and clean, and the cars haven’t hit the roads in their thousands.But yes, infrastructure is a major concern with ignorant or aggressive car drivers always an issue. Off road cycle ways will be a big boost.I also totally agree with ‘tax the bad’, don’t try and pick favourites to subsidise. That just tilts the playing field and disadvantages other competing beneficial alternatives. Not to mention opening the door for the antics described above by Sandy Jhorde.
Dear Russ Finley,While you are correct that eBikes are heavier, some motors have the ability to freewheel and do not impose a ‘parasitic’ motor drag. The A2B is a direct drive motor that does not freewheel.I would encourage you to try an Pathfinder, Giant, Kalkhoff or eZee. Yes, the Giant will turn off at 15mph, but none of these have motor drag -and the Pathfinder & eZee will take you to 20 MPH -the Kalkhoff 24 MPH before the motor turns off. These are very reliable bicycles, with strong warranties.What are you riding? Is it homemade, and is it legal?All the best,Wake GreggOwnerThe eBike StorePortland, OR
Great piece. The other lesson I take—it’s a parable after all—is the dilemma of unintended consequences. Ebikes didn’t take off in China because of the latter three policy choices you mention (carrots); they are common because of the bans put in place (i.e., very big sticks). But, as you note, the move from scooter to ebike is really lateral. If in the U.S. a bigger stick (i.e., gas tax / cap and trade) were used to get people out of their cars, from the users’ perspective, an ebike would be considered a large inconvenience. Pushing people into a mode of transit they find difficult or frustrating would risk breeding resentment, and I can imagine the angry suburban moms asking Congress how they are supposed to carpool via ebike. I think you are correct that the U.S. is simply not a biking culture.All this is to say that capturing the externalities of fossil fuels may unleash some good unintended consequences, such as new technological innovations, better land use patterns, and altered commuting habits. But it seems unwise to design a policy designed to push people in one direction—in this case, out of their cars—without simultaneously creating a viable place for them to go. Simply hoping that something like ebikes will fill the gap won’t do it, as you recognize. Still, regardless of how big they make the bike lanes, I think there is a fairly low ceiling for future ebike usage. I don’t know enough about the current measures before Congress to say how well they consider what happens next, but it seems important to avoid what happened during the last stretch of $4 gas. If people view public transit options as overcrowded, underfunded, and poorly planned, then I’m afraid they push to get back into their cars rather than lobbying to improve the transit. So I suppose the dilemma is that while some unintended consequences are good and you can’t plan for every contingency, it’s a bad idea to assume that the unintended consequences will adequately respond to the new needs.As a postscript, I’m in Beijing right now and have listened in on some interesting conversations about ebikes. I’ve heard the ban characterized less as making gas scooters accountable than picking on an easy target. At least two intriguing questions have come up: how well have the bans really addressed the targeted problems (air quality, traffic) and to what degree have they created a new problem (battery disposal for ebikes). I haven’t yet read the paper you refer to so perhaps it hits on those points.
In the 1960’s, Denmark was as car-happy as the US. Since then, they’ve built safe biking infrastructure, and now they have double digit bike modeshare percentages. Where there are safe places to bicycle, for everybody ages 7 to 70, many people enjoy bicycling, even Americans. “Safe” doesn’t mean simply “big bike lanes”; it means a complete grid of bike pathways, physically separated from car traffic, with safe crossings at all intersections with car traffic. For example, Davis, CA has dozens of ped/bike tunnels and bridges across busy highways and arterials.
One thing I constantly find missing from the discussion about eBikes is what to do with the spent batteries. The battery packs are designed for a about 350 charge cycles before they need to be replaced. That’s about two years of commuting if you charge the battery every other day. So, every two years each eBike is sending toxic metals to the landfill since we don’t recycle lithium batteries in North America. Not very green. Stick to regular bikes or modern high-efficiency gas scooters that get 120 MPG, have low emissions, and a life cycle of 15 years.
It’s illegal to put batteries in the landfill. They can be reused as non-traction batteries and then recycled to recover those expensive metals.
I have an add-on pedlac kit, Bionx. I love it and do almost all my transportational and recreational trips with it. But I doubt more than a few Americans will switch to bicycling, with or without assist, or even gasoline powered scooters. The automobile is just too convenient and useful. Even if we had to pay the full environmental cost of gasoline and the price of gas was $10+ per gallon, people from the lower middle class on up would just switch to the most efficient hybrid car they could find, and they would keep on driving. We are too affluent and the car offers too much for it to be displaced by bicycling.I could see Americans approaching 5% of trips by bicycle or pedelac due to high fuel costs, but not much more than that. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
I recently try to buy one for my son who is going to high school. I found the price relatively cheaper in China compare it here with almost same product. Because valumes are limited here and sellers have to make margin for what they sell. If the market is here, the price of ebike could cut half. With 20″ wheel folding bike weight less than 40 lbs and speed at 15-20 miles range in 20 miles and cost under $500.00, people can bring it into car, tax, bus or train.
Noting an earlier post about getting Canadians to Bike to Work, the numbers in many cities are already higher than those suggested by “Demetrius”.In Victoria, nearly 8% of afternoon commute trips were by bike (2006 Capital Regional District Origin and Destination Survey), the highest in the country, but Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa also have high numbers of commuter cyclists and participation is growing.A nod to some earlier comments also about infrastructure and density, the mode splits for cycling are highest in more compact urban centres and erode as suburban design and land use patterns fill the roads with cars and trucks.Gas prices alone will not shift behaviours if alternatives are not supported, and that includes safe and appealing infrastructure as well as mixed use community design that provides live, work and goods and services providers within walkable or cyclable distances.
I don’t believe in forcing people to change the way the commute or drive with carrots or sticks. The technology is ready and makes economic sense or it does not. Everything the government tries to manipulate generally ends in hardship and disaster for most people. I do believe that we need to invest heavily in research and developement of electric vehicles for the free market. I am an engineer and I know first hand the benefits of electric vehicles. The only problem, which you state in your article, is current battery storage and charging times. Some of the newer battery technologies are aproaching the low end of usefullness for daily transportation. We are not there yet but we will be. The amount of time it takes depends on how many engineers are working on the problems. I can see the day when we will surpass the effectivness of gasoline in battery and electric vehicle technology. Those will be the days.
Good series of articles. In 2008, when gas was $4/gallon I started looking at gas scooters and then electric bikes. I ended up finding a Veloteq on eBay for $850 after shipping and decided to give it a shot. It looks like a scooter with pedals but does meet the governments requirements for an electric bike (The pedals are useless by the way). I ride it during the summer months when it’s not raining and my car just ends up sitting in the driveway for weeks at a time unless I’m going out of town. The range is about 20-25 miles, and with only a 2.5 mile commute to work that’s fine. Most people would be scared of riding a scooter that only goes 20mph (though the governor “accidentally” never got connected so depending on hills my speeds range from about 18mph to 30mph) but when you stay off main roads, traffic isn’t what one really expects. Cars typically pass me shortly after a stop light and then I’m sort of alone on the road for awhile until the next group of cars comes along. It’s really not too bad. Before my e-bike I had ridden my regular bike to work a few times but since I wear a suit and tie sweating was an issue. I thought about a more traditional e-bike, but then I’d need a rack or backpack which doesn’t hold all that much. My e-bike has storage under the seat and a cargo box on the back, which I replaced with a larger one. I can actually carry quite a bit of groceries. Another advantage is in the summer it sucks getting in a car that feels like an oven and doesn’t have time to cool down on a short drive, and that problem is gone with the e-bike. As far as repairs, so far I haven’t needed any. I tighten the brakes once or twice a year and I did replace the original batter which the eBay seller hadn’t taken care of correctly. So far it’s worked great and my main hope is to sometime find an economic alternative to the lead acid battery so my range will be longer and weight lower. I’ve found some LiFePo4 batteries that I may give a try after seeing how long the new lead acid battery lasts when handles correctly. The manufaturer was supposed to be switching to a new nickle-zinc technology but the battery partner decided to put that off for a while.BTW, I’m in Bloomington, Illinois and also ride a mountain bike and road bike and do triathlons. There’s only a few roads here I have to stay off of completely and quite a few semi-main roads I ride on that most people would be concerned about, but they work out quite well. The decision to get an e-bike had nothing to do with inability to pedal manually and everything to do with green transportation. When you look it from a logical prospective, does it make sense to get into a vehicle, basically a large, 1000+ lb box, powered by an inefficient gas engine, in order to carry one 100-200+ pound person to work and back, often not picking up anything along the way? Aside from when you need to be sheilded from the weather, why do you need a vehicle designed to carry 4-5 people in order to carry just one. That’s why I thought some sort of e-bike made more sense. A 160 lb bike carrys me and a decent amount of cargo around and operates for pennies, how many pennies I’m not really sure because charging it has not noticable effect on my electric bill whatsoever.Hopefully this gives some of you who are curious about e-bikes some real world prospective. Sorry for being so long winded.
Thank you Alan for well written and well thought out article.
I agree that adopting similar legislation would be the way to successfully follow in China’s footsteps. Still, as much as we might admire the Chinese electric-bicycle/scooter success story; Chinese demand for gasoline powered vehicles is growing swiftly and will have a far greater environmental impact — of the negative kind.
We aren’t likely to see such political change in the United States as a whole. Some cities however, can so penalize car use in urban areas, particularly during commute times (such as London as already done) to make bicycles, and electric two-wheel vehicles a major advantage.
Others have posted about the need for charging stations and outlets that riders of electric two-wheelers can use. Having the ability to charge when running errands and at work allows the use of smaller and lighter batteries. Coupling this with the rapid improvements of various forms of Li-ion based batteries and other options such as zinc-air looming on the horizon, the penalty of riding a hybrid-electric bicycle is rapidly declining.
The solution in large part is for municipalities to provide free parking and 110v outlets for two-wheel electrics. These vehicles take up minimal space and due to their small batteries, are not expensive to charge.
I ride a Native Z6000 scooter (designed and imported by Electric Motorsports of Oakland, CA) and enjoy the quiet and efficient ride, the only limitation is range and the need to find charging in convenient locations. The price was very competitive with gas-powered scooters and I don’t miss having to fill up at the pump!