Why e-bikes will replace city cars

Over half of the world population lives in cities with typical commutes between 5 and 25 km per trip. Yet, only 1 to 5% of all commutes are made by bike, the rest of trips are done by public transport or by individual cars.

  • In the US, over 75% of trips are made using individual cars, 5% by public transport and less than 1% by bike… Setting aside New York, no city in the US has more than 40% of its population commuting by public transport. Even in the greenest and most innovative US cities — such as Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cambridge — bike commuting stands at 8%.
  • In Europe, the picture is similar with 60–70% of trips made by car, 15–20% by public transport and 1–10% by bike (depending on countries). This might surprise some Europeans as we picture the busy subways of Paris or London when thinking of Europe; megacities where commuters use public transport at 70%. However, these cities stand as exceptions: 50% of commutes are still done by car in French cities over 400.000 inhabitants, with public transport representing less than 25% of trips.

Moving one ton of metal — or two if you have an SUV — with a gas-powered engine to get to work everyday is one of the largest contributor to global warming: transportation represents 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, out of which 50% comes from individual cars.

3 options exist today for car commuters to switch to a greener mode of transport:

  1. Switch to public transport: easy to say in megacities where public transportation networks are dense, not so easy in medium sized cities or suburban areas with sparse and infrequent bus lines. More investment could certainly be geared towards improving public transportation networks, yet, less dense areas are bound to have less efficient networks as it wouldn't make economic sense to have 10 metro lines for a medium-sized city.
  2. Switch to electric or hydrogen cars: this will be the topic of the next article where we will look at the environmental impact and the ability of these types of cars to rapidly replace current gas-powered ones.
  3. Switch to a light mobility solution: electric scooters, one-wheels, Segways, electric skateboards… In this article, we will focus on electric bikes (e-bikes) as they are the most versatile solution with high speeds and the ability to go for long distances.

My goal in this article is to demonstrate how e-bikes can replace a significant proportion of cars in the next 10 years, specifically in urban and suburban areas. A quarter of Europeans commuters already say that they are willing to switch to an e-bike according to a 2019 Shimano survey. Let's look at the 3 main barriers to making this switch happen : (1) high cost of e-bikes (2) too long commute distance (3) arriving sweaty at work.

  1. From "e-bike are too expensive" to "I'm saving every month"

Reason #1 for not switching to an e-bike is cost according to 34% of respondents to the Shimano survey. In reality, the cost of an e-bike depends on the comparison point. If compared to a standard bike, then e-bikes really are expensive. If purchased instead of a car, then e-bikes are a bargain. While remaining a long-term goal, replacing 100% of car use cases is not realistic for e-bikes on the short term (e.g. groceries, family week-ends, holidays…). Hence, we will compare the full cost of ownership of an e-bike with the marginal running cost of a car for commuting.

This is a conservative approach as car running costs only represent about a quarter of all car-expenditures with the bulk of costs lying in depreciation, insurance and interest payments. According to a global analysis led by RACV, for a medium-sized car, the marginal running cost — including fuel, tires and servicing — is 15–20¢/km.

In comparison, the full cost of owning and running an e-bike will be below ~7¢/km, twice less than the marginal cost of a car! This number has been estimated assuming a daily commute of 10km (one-way) and the following cost items:

  • Depreciation (5¢/km): an initial e-bike purchase of 1000€ with a 3-year residual value of 300€. This is a conservative estimate as you can find e-bikes starting at ~600€.
  • Servicing (2¢/km): a yearly 100€ refurbishing spend for tire replacement and other minor fixes.
  • Fuel(0.1¢/km): a typical 0.5kWh battery will cost less than 10¢ for a full refill that will last for 80km — assuming standard US/EU electricity prices

Not only are e-bikes nominally cheaper than cars for a commute, they also benefit from generous subsidies in most environmentally-conscious cities. In Paris for instance, a subsidy of 400€ is given for those buying an e-bike, effectively making e-bikes 3x cheaper than a car to operate.

2. From "My commute is too far" to "I'm saving time by biking"

Reason #2 for not switching to an e-bike is the long commute distance according to 31% of respondents of the Shimano survey.

In the Grand Paris — an urban area including Paris and its suburbs, similar in population and surface to Berlin or London — 5% of commutes are made by bike if under 3km while it is less than 1% for commutes over 8km. Clearly, distance is a concern.

Any effective alternative to cars has to be at least as fast since no one likes to wake up half an hour earlier in the morning... Though, with an average car speed of ~30km/h in a city vs. 10km/h for a non electric bike, typical car commute stands at 20mn vs. 60mn by bike.

With an e-bike, the electric motor assists you with the equivalent of a professional Tour de France cyclist pushing you up to 25km/h (for a typical 500W motor). The most powerful motors have a 3000W assistance, the equivalent of a whole Tour de France cycling team pushing you up to 72km/h!

These speeds are theoretical though and cities can be chaotic. Using Strava, I have measured that I can casually ride my e-bike from one side of Paris to the other at an average speed of 18km/h.

2 changes need to happen to make sure that e-bikes become at least as fast as cars in cities:

  • Updating the legal speed limits for e-bikes so that they are no longer limited to 25km/h in Europe and 32km/h in the US. Car speed limits are differentiated based on road conditions and it would be absurd to drive at 30km/h on a highway. The same logic should apply to e-bikes with higher speed limits on the safest bike path (e.g 50km/h on a well separated double bike path) while the most crowded city center paths should have lower speed limits (e.g. 15km/h on a path shared with pedestrians). These limitations could even be automatically enforced through the GPS of connected e-bikes. Some bike manufacturers have tried to trick the system by offering users US-settings (32km/h) on European bikes (25km/h rule) but regulators are starting to take notice. Following an injunction from German police, VanMoof has removed this month the US-setting option it used to offer to its Europeans users. These speed rules designed 30 years ago for thermic moped need to be rethought for technology packed e-bikes.

Police in Germany are stopping VanMoof bikes and taking them off the road if the maximum speed exceeds 25km/h. I find it quite ironic. After all, this is the same country where I used to drive at 260km/h on the Autobahn and get a thumbs up from the very same police. Ties Carlier, VanMoof co-founder

  • Investing in bike paths to provide safe rides separated from cars, shorter paths than through main city roads and higher riding speeds. Since the Covid pandemic, most European cities have accelerated their investments in new biking infrastructure. For instance, in October, Paris mayor announced a vast ecological transformation plan for the city that will reduce by half parking spots in the city to free up space for new mobility solutions.

These changes will enable e-bikes to achieve speed parity with cars so that biking becomes the fastest commuting option for trips from 1 to 15km.

3. From "Arriving to work sweaty" to "Arriving fresh with a smile"

Reason #3 for not switching to an e-bike is the lack of comfort and the fear of arriving sweaty at the office according to 25% of respondents of the Shimano survey.

To arrive at the office without breaking a sweat, you need the electric engine to kick in right when the pedalling effort becomes too important for a casual ride. While motor hardware is excellent already, software configurations could still be optimised for comfort as assistance often kicks in either too late or without enough power. It only takes a hill with poor assistance to ruin this beautiful shirt you've just put on.

For instance, my Dutch VanMoof has a hard time detecting Paris hills and weirdly shifts to the highest gear with no assistance in certain hills... To solve this, manufacturers could open API-access to the electric engine controllers so that third parties can provide riders with personalised settings. No single configuration will fit every rider, this is why we need an open environment where various software providers build control-interfaces and algorithms to optimise each rider assistance based on their preferences. For instance, a lazy commuter like myself would be interested in an interface with a Google Maps view of his commute and the ability to fine-tune the assistance for each segment of the trip. A Sunday cyclist going for endurance rides might be interested in burning as many calories as possible and only have the assistance kick in when reaching his physical limits.

Besides pedal-assistance, e-bikes comfort will come over the next decades from new tech features that will redefine the biking experience. The automotive industry innovation has been spear-headed by premium car manufacturers that have brought to market safety and comfort features like automatic parking, adaptive cruise control or collision-avoidance system. These systems — also called Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) — have helped transform cars from basic mechanical devices to easy-to-use secured objects relying on sensor data and complex software programs.

Premium e-bike manufacturers have started bringing this same innovation to the bike world with companies like CowBoy, VanMoof or Angell rethinking the biking experience with features such as Boost button, eShifter, Kick Lock or Fall Detection. All these features have the same goal of re-inventing the two-century old biking experience for a new smoother and safer experience.

The exponential rate of innovation in the automobile industry has only been achieved because global car manufacturers have incorporated in their cars the innovations from countless small suppliers with new hardware parts, innovative sensors and new software programs. The e-bike industry could leap-frog its current rate of innovation by creating a bike software ecosystem so that suppliers can interface through a standard protocol to any bike manufacturers data. With this environment, third parties will be able to build Advanced Biker Assistance Systems (ABAS) that can operate across all e-bikes.

These new systems are yet to be invented by bike manufacturers and their suppliers but some of my personal favorites would include Lane Control to keep to the right side of the bike path, Obstacle Avoidance to avoid pedestrians appearing on the path or even Pot Hole detection to avoid falls due to poor street conditions. All these new systems are software-based and

With most of the successful and innovative e-bike companies founders coming from the tech world, we can have good faith that these new features will emerge over the coming years.

I couldn't conclude this article before confessing that I've left out the top reason making commuters hesitate before switching to an e-bike: the fear of bad weather for 37% of respondents to the Shimano survey. While I love riding my e-bike most of the year, I must confess that in the cold and rainy months of winter, I usually leave my bike warm in the parking. For this challenge, we still have to come up with some innovative solutions either to make biking in the rain as comfortable as driving or to provide a green alternative during these cold and rainy months.

This being said, the transition to e-bike is picking pace globally. Pre-covid, Deloitte estimated that 300m e-bikes will be in circulation by 2023, a 50% increase vs. today and investors are preparing for this ramp-up with over $165m poured into e-bike startups last year — that's more funding than the past 4 years combined.

Rapidly and massively switching to e-bikes for commuting could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 3.5% — the equivalent of South America’s emissions — if all commuters switched away from gas-powered cars. In the US and in Europe, the impact will be even greater as transportation typically represents 30% of greenhouse gas emissions instead of 16% globally.

Beyond the environmental impact, e-bikes have a tremendous positive impact on the well-being as well. Since switching to an e-bike (and before Covid), I ride across beautiful Paris to arrive at work with a smile on my face and a refreshed mind. On top of that, I've truly rediscovered the city in its diversity beyond the major subway stations and I've felt districts getting closer to one another

In the next decade, e-bikes will re-invent our perception of cities and reduce our daily carbon footprint. While there is no silver bullet in the ecological transition and many solutions will need to be deployed to decarbonise our economy, e-bikes are one of the most promising as a replacement to cars for urban commuting.

Ex-startup founder & BCG consultant, exploring green hyper-growth solutions