Are Electric Bicycles Catching Cars As Europe's Favored Transport?

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Smart eBike electric bicycle

Smart eBike electric bicycle

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It shouldn't come as a surprise to discover that there are more bicycles around than there are cars.

They're vastly cheaper for a start, and require no pesky tax, parking fees or indeed, fuel. As far as methods of transport go, they're second only to walking for inexpense.

More newsworthy is that the electrically-assisted bicycle, or e-bike, is starting to take its own healthy slice of the market--particularly in Europe.

Navigant Research reports figures from the European Cycling Federation on both car and bicycle sales figures from 2011. The former figure is around 13 million, the latter closer to 20 million--like we said, not too surprising.

Notably, while European car sales fell by 2 percent between 2010-2011, e-bike sales went the other direction, rising by a full 22 percent. With European car sales still suffering in 2013--for non-premium brands, at least--could the e-bike be taking over in the continent's towns and cities?

If it is, the reasons for the increase in popularity are various.

Smart eBike Test Ride

The increasing difficulty of owning a car in Europe is one factor. Parking is expensive, fuel costs are often twice that of fuel in the U.S, and buyers are taxed to the nines from every imaginable area. There are taxes when buying the car, when entering cities, annual vehicle taxation, paying for fuel, and even taxes on those taxes--paying purchase tax on an already-taxed product like fuel.

Throw in increasing congestion, roads limited to certain types of vehicles or taken over by lanes for public transport and often ignored when in need of maintenance, and owning a car is more like a punishment than a convenience sometimes.

Next to that, a bicycle is a breath of fresh air. Even more so if it offers you some of the otherwise useful elements of motorized transportation, such as ease of use. Even the smallest amount of electric assistance can reduce effort on hills, while cities themselves are becoming more bike-friendly--extra bike lanes are appearing, buses and trains are offering places to store bikes, and bicycle racks are springing up in the center of towns.

CBS (Statistics Netherlands) data shows that people are riding further on e-bikes than they would on a regular bike, by around 2 miles on average--suggesting e-bikes aren't merely a replacement for the average bike journey, but being used for journeys that may once have required a car.

In the Netherlands alone--a particularly bike-friendly country--riding is now second only to cars (and ahead of trains) in terms of distance traveled, and e-bikes have contributed a full 9 percent to that figure.

There is, of course, the argument that people are just looking for more fun and healthy means of transportation these days--mixing business with pleasure.

E-bikes still have a way to go before they alone overtake annual car sales figures. And they'll never be as suitable for longer journeys. But in Europe's cities, they're looking more and more like the best way of getting about.


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Comments (6)
  1. "Next to that, a bicycle is a breath of fresh air"

    Unless you are biking behind a dirty truck... :)

  2. Unfortunately there is a potentially very significant downside. It's one thing to have a burgeoning bike scene in the majority of the US and other counties where there is plenty of room to accommodate bicycles and cars safely, even to provide separate - and separated - carriageways. It is another matter entirely in congested cities where you can't separate them. As ebikes are that much faster and more expensive than bikes the up-shot will be either much more regulation of ebikes, perhaps even registration - rider qualifications and insurance, even. Or, we will see more of New York and some Chinese cities' reaction - the outright ban of ebikes from the streets.

  3. As ebikes are faster, they can more readily share the road with cars. Each ebike removes a car from the street and therefore reduces congestion. Ebikes are ideal for tight, congested cities where specific bike facilities are not feasible.

  4. Hi Martin, Electric bicycles are strictly regulated according to Federal law so that they will NOT be significantly faster than regular bicycles. As soon as an electric bicycle can travel over 20mph on electric power, it loses its classification as an ebike and becomes a moped. In Europe they take this one step further, requiring ebikes to travel at 25kph or less, with the added requirement that the pedals must be turning in order for the motor to engage.

  5. Forbes - Believe me... I know this! Unfortunately, a/ no-one who rides ebikes in the UK, at least, cares a hoot about the regulations (probably don't even know there are any) and b/ the same applies to 99% of police officers!

  6. I totally agree with the points made about eBikes. I'm building an eBike myself soon with a how-to book I got from this Kickstarter project:

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