The ‘Electric Bikes World Wide Report’ (published in 2009) recently estimated that the European population of Light Electric Vehicles (LEV’s) has now exceeded 100 million units, and indicated that Europe represents the second largest growth market after China. In response to a number of concerns voiced about in regard to safety and the merits of claims made in relation to the sustainability of LEV’s, the EU has published two documents: the first establishing the legal definitions of what constitutes an electric cycle and the second outlining their policies for the promotion of such modes of transport. While the European Union’s ‘Intelligent Energy’ committee may be fully behind the promotion of LEV’s, some sceptical voices have begun to raise questions about the ‘safe and green’ credentials of the electric bicycle, citing recent e-bike bans in China. How justified are these criticisms towards the e-bike, and are there any grounds for concern?
The Chinese market for electric bicycles has grown exponentially- in 2009, more than 22m units were sold along with many more millions of kits for home assembly. The automotive industry in China has, alongside their economy, changed rapidly in the last decade, with tens of millions of rural dwellers moving to cities and accessing motorised transport for the first time. This rapid growth in auto ownership has filled urban road capacity in cities like Zhuhai and Guangzhou, compounding civic planning adjustment issues that authorities in Europe- where patterns of migration are clearly different- would be able to mitigate at a more comfortable pace.
However, in China it would appear that the main concerns of local governments come not from environmental issues but from the safety hazards of crowded and congested streets, to which electric bikes can be a perilous addition. Importantly, many of the bikes in China are actually electric scooters , pedal-free with a throttle and therefore not ‘true’ e-bikes. Some Chinese officials in particularly congested areas have not only taken the regulation route favoured in Europe, but have banned the use of electric bicycles altogether. Beijing, however, has also recognised that the electric bike is the primary transport method by which Chinese cities can realistically combat pollution and congestion while remaining accessible and economically active. With that in mind, Chinese authorities are partnering with businesses and pioneering methods of making e-bikes greener.
E-bikes, the Environment, and Safety
The main environmental issue to be addressed for e-bikes is the battery ; lead-powered acid batteries cause harm not from ‘tailpipe’ emissions but rather from the production, recycling and the disposal processes of batteries, spread over the life cycle of the vehicle. In the Chinese market, the relatively cheaper lead acid battery has proven popular; but manufacturers are now being compelled by the Chinese government to use greener lithium batteries. In a volt to volt comparison, lead acid batteries are four times cheaper than the higher energy density Lithium-ion (Li-ion) favoured by European and UK distributors. However, they last for a fraction of the time, so in terms of life cycle costs are less energy efficient and more expensive. China’s e-bike manufacturers, such as Xinri, are now partnering with universities in a bid to improve their technology.
What about the 6-8 hour charge time for e-bike batteries? Detractors claim that it is a waste of electricity, and could affect the efficiency of power grids. This claim, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. Electric bikes are recharged by plugging into standard wall outlets- most users indicate that they usually charge their bikes at night, which can improve the efficiency of the power grid; excess electricity production capacity can be used to power batteries which are actually used during the day, when demand for electricity is at its peak, meaning it is very unlikely that peak or daytime demand would be increased even in the event of a mass increase of LEV usage in Europe. Secondly, a direct KWh/100 km comparison between a Car, and an electric bicycle shows a ratio of 47/3.8- a well organised car share, in a typical four door sedan style passenger car would still be less energy efficient than each individual passenger cycling to work on an electric bike!
One final electric bike myth relates to the safety of bicycle use. This issue relates more to the perception of risk, rather than any actual evidence of increased e-bike usage increasing dangerous behaviour, or the number of recorded accidents. In fact, the EU paper ‘Give Cycling a Push’ published in February 2010 states that the converse is true: in 2002, cycling traffic in the city of Odense (DK) increased by 20%, while accidents involving cyclists decreased by 20%. Similar results have been seen in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. And what about those Chinese safety concerns? The bans, of course, emanate from regional and federal authorities. China is keen to be a ‘car superpower’, and the government is promoting the use of cars to help achieve this goal; this can involve preferential treatment for the industry. Such treatment occurs to the detriment of other forms of transport like the e-bike- both in government publicity, and in the Chinese marketplace regulations. China’s populace, however, is apparently keen to continue using the eco-friendly, quieter, and cheaper electric bike.
If there are dangerous elements of cycling, they usually involve the cyclists’ fear of traffic and the risk to cyclists from other, larger vehicles. Electric bikes, in this regard, are thought to be safer than traditional pushbikes. In particularly hilly areas, or points like junctions and traffic lights, electric bikes can invaluable in improving the confidence and road awareness of cyclists; allowing them to accelerate away from danger or keep pace with larger vehicles.
So what’s next for electric bikes?
The Chinese are currently attempting to regulate their booming e-bike industry. There are at least half a dozen manufacturers, and the market is growing exponentially; with government pressure to vastly improve the quality of exports, while keeping costs down. E-bike exports are still projected to grow quickly, particularly to Europe and North America. However, it is clear that European manufacturers are not resting on their laurels; the Dutch in particular have continued to innovate. Tellingly for such a bike-loving nation, the Dutch Bicycle of the Year award in 2009 was won by an electric bike (the Gazelle Chamonix Innergy); e-bikes sales in the Netherlands have tripled in three years. Increasingly, electric bikes are being identified as a prime means to access those ‘non-cycling’ demographics (such as the over 55′s) which have, so far, been resistant to marketers’ attempts to lure them out of their cars and into greener modes of transport. It is promising for e-bike supporters that EU policy is actively encouraging and helping cities to improve their cycling infrastructure. With both Chinese and European e-bike manufacturers making rapid inroads into electric car technology, we would appear to be at the beginning of a bright period of sustainable transport innovation- both in the electric bicycle sector and beyond.