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.

  • 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

    • 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.