The electric bicycle could be the real transport game changer in our polluted cities Image: REUTERS/Jason Lee
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Electric cars are all over the media as major disrupters of urban mobility. These stories seem to consign to oblivion that electric cars take up as much space as their combustion counterparts and, arguably, take up even more of our time than guzzler cars – and that, in terms of sheer numbers, the real game changer is the electric bicycle.
Time is the single most precious thing we humans have. It’s the one thing money can’t buy.
The quality of our time depends mainly on personal choices. Yet, many of us lack what one could call “time hygiene.” Hygiene understood as a set of practices conducive to maintaining a certain quality of health. Likewise, we could think of time hygiene as practices conducive to quality of time: an optimal time balance, preventing stress and promoting happiness, through conscious choices.
Our everyday choices affect how much time we have for our preferences. Our daily commuting habits take up a lot of this time. Most people seem unaware that bicycles are roughly as fast as cars in cities, and that during rush hours, they are much faster than cars – in Europe, on average, 40% faster. Comparing electric cars and electric bicycles doesn’t change the equation in favour of cars. On the contrary, electric bicycles are even faster than bikes without assist. And they are by far faster than electric cars when we add to the actual travel time the amount of time that we spend working to afford our vehicle.
Just consider a normal urban commuting distance of 10 kilometers (six miles). Forget about rush hour, on average, it would take about 20 minutes for an electric car and 33 minutes for an electric bike to travel such a distance.
Cars and bicycles don’t come for free, though. To earn money, we work hard for long hours.
Let’s translate the money we earn in time spent working for it: the average cost of an electric car, including purchase cost and maintenance, is the equivalent of 40 minutes of work for every 10 kilometers travelled by that car. The cost of an electric bike, instead, is the equivalent of only six minutes of work every 10 kilometers. At this point it appears obvious that electric cars, as well as their combustion counterparts, take a lot more of our precious time than electric bicycles. They are simply not time hygienic.
Time hygiene is about finding more time for ourselves: to think; to do what we like. Leisure activities such as contemplation, going for a stroll or a bike ride boost our overall health, wellbeing and creativity. In this sense, time hygiene embraces effectiveness as a way to work better – and not just more.
In a world where 75 million people relocate from the countryside to the city every year, the time we spend stuck in traffic has become astonishing. In the United States, the average commuter spends 100 hours per year sitting in traffic – which amounts to half a year in a lifetime.
Urban planning and design are helping us to shift from a car-centric system to a bike-centric one by making bicycles and bicycle infrastructure superior in functionality and attractiveness. Yet, cities still need to be redesigned to become electric bike-friendly. For example, we see already tons of electric car-charging stations in our cities, but none for electric bikes. Wouldn’t it be great if we could charge our own bicycle while it’s parked in front of our workplace, at the station or wherever? Certainly, more people would be encouraged to ride an electric bike if they were less concerned about access to power and running out of power.
Bicycles themselves are changing, luring current car drivers out of their cars onto two-wheelers – or three wheelers. Electric bicycles’ massive arrival in cities is the significant step in this direction. They allow riders to move faster and longer than on ordinary bikes, without getting drenched in sweat on their way to work.
Many cargo bicycle companies, including Butchers & Bicycles, have entirely shifted from powerless bikes to electric bikes. Hilly countries like Switzerland are seeing a sudden surge in bicycles, because parents now can ride uphill with their kids and the groceries – electrically assisted. Aesthetics obviously plays a big role too and beautiful car designs are finally being matched by beautiful bicycle designs.
Research shows that cities around the world now are gradually moving away from car-centric transport, with electric bicycles representing a massive chunk of this. For example, Madrid and Copenhagen now offer electric bike-sharing, while commuters across England, Holland and Denmark can ride to work on “cycle superhighways” that are larger than normal bike lanes and have few or no interruptions for cyclists, who can exploit the full potential of their electric bicycles.
There’s another trend, in some parts of the developing world, where economic growth has nudged millions of people who used to move by bicycle to shift to motorbikes. Hanoi, Vietnam and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso have been called respectively motor scooter city and the land enthralled by mopeds by US media. In these spots, electric cars have had a hard time spreading, yet the downside of combustion engines is being felt.
Electric bicycles could also be the game changers in these locations, where people have already realized that two wheels move faster than four – and they want clean air. In Japan, the demand for electric bikes overtook that of small motorbikes nine years ago, while in Germany some 6,000 postal employees now deliver mail riding electric bikes instead of scooters. In the whole of Europe, sales of electric bikes are now well over one million units per year. In Asia, a staggering 33 million electric bikes were sold last year.
Lack of investment
Despite the obvious benefits of electric bicycles, and their fast-growing popularity, electric cars are still being touted as the mobility solution of the future. Public sector strategies help, fund, and reinforce this counterfactual trend, with almost no investments made in electric bicycles. Look at Germany where, until 2014 (latest numbers available), the subsidies for electric cars amounted to €1.4 billion, while those for electric bicycles were … well, none. At the end of 2016, there were only 25,500 electric cars circulating on German roads, but as many as 2.5 million electric bikes.
Just imagine how many more cyclists could help save our cities and prevent further global warming by adopting electric bikes, if they received strategic and financial support similar to electric car drivers.
And imagine, on a personal level, how much more time we could gain – for our kids, families, ourselves … for whatever we wish, if we just embraced a better time hygiene – and an electric bike.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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