E-bikes: the pollution + traffic solution?

Around the world, more and more people are moving into cities and towns from rural areas. As cities grow, there is more traffic on roadways and increasing pollution from large numbers of gas-powered cars, scooters, and trucks.

E-bikes may be one solution for reducing traffic congestion and air pollution in cities.

puppy in electric cargo bike
And electric cargo bike carrying a puppy. Image by cely_ via Pixabay (Public domain)

What is an e-bike?  

The “e” in e-bike stands for electric. An e-bike has an electric motor. E-bike riders combine pedal power with an electric assist. The electric assist allows riders to  climb steep hills and travel faster and farther than they could with only regular pedal-power by foot.  E-bikes allow people with some medical limitations to ride bicycles.

Electric bicycles come in a range of two-wheeled e-bikes and three-wheeled e-trikes. In some places, e-bikes are used as delivery vehicles and as taxis.

The use of e-bikes could reduce traffic. E-bikes are smaller and easier to park than cars or trucks, and they can go where larger vehicles cannot. The use of e-bikes instead of gas-powered cars and trucks could also reduce air pollution that harms public health. Because e-bikes are new, scientists are only beginning to figure out how much e-bikes will help clean up air pollution.

An e-trike. Image by Team EVELO via Pexels (Public domain)

More and more e-bikes

E-bikes are becoming popular around the world. As of 2020, an estimated 130 million e-bikes were on the road in China alone. Major manufacturers are now building e-bikes in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, the Netherlands, India, and Germany. It is thought that people around the world may be buying over $100 billion worth of e-bikes by the year 2030.

As of 2020, an estimated 130 million e-bikes were on the road in China alone. Image by V.T. Polywoda via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

New bike technology brings new challenges

Before e-bikes can reach their full potential around the world, there are still many challenges to meet. Some of these challenges are:

1. There are no global manufacturing standards for e-bikes.

Some e-bikes are high quality, but others are poorly constructed and potentially unsafe. Nobody has yet created global manufacturing standards to classify e-bikes based on horsepower, speed, or size. European e-bike makers are working on creating e-bike manufacturing standards.

2. Roads and traffic rules need to be developed to meet the growing use of e-bikes.

Governments have yet to recognize e-bikes as unique vehicle types. City planners need to consider e-bikes when planning travel lanes, parking, and charging places for e-bike batteries.

Bike lanes are usually designed for traditional bicycles. E-bikes are capable of faster speeds. Sometimes they carry wide loads or pull trailers, which make passing and navigating turns within standard bike lanes a problem. E-bike riders have a harder time going up and down sidewalk curbs.

3. E-bike battery safety needs to be improved.

A few types of rechargeable batteries power e-bikes. The most common e-bike battery type is lithium-ion. Lithium batteries are more efficient, less expensive, and take up less space and weight than other types of batteries. But lithium batteries sometimes catch on fire, and have caused explosions.

One effort to make e-bikes safer and more energy efficient involves creating a self-charging battery that stores energy used when pedaled. The Solar Bicycle Project has developed a solar powered battery, but it is large and bulky and only offers enough power in sunny climates. Solar power could reduce the need to install recharging stops. 

Despite all of these challenges the future looks bright for electric bikes.

David Brown adapted this story for Mongabay Kids. It is based on an article by Charles Pekow, published on Mongabay.com: