The Rise of E-Bikes in Europe: A Look at the Phenomenon

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Battery-powered bicycles are now outselling pedal-only models in several European countries. A transportation researcher explains the policies behind this boom.

If you think electric bicycles are gaining popularity in the US, just look at Europe.

In countries like Austria, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, battery-assisted bikes now make up the majority of bike sales. They are also rapidly gaining market share in France and Switzerland. This summer, North Americans vacationing in Europe can expect to see e-bikes being used for commuting, school runs, and leisure rides.

European policymakers are thrilled by this growth as it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve public health, and free up street space. Nations such as Italy and Finland, along with cities like Paris and London, have introduced rebates for e-bike buyers. This strategy is also being adopted in various US states (including Colorado and Connecticut) and cities (like Denver and Washington, DC).

Despite the growing market share in the US, e-bikes only accounted for about 15% of adult bike sales last year. As Europe leads in e-bike adoption, North America can learn from their experience and anticipate potential challenges.

Philippe Crist, who holds dual citizenship in France and the US, is the micromobility research lead at the Paris-based International Transport Forum, part of the OECD. In a recent conversation with CityLab contributor David Zipper at the ITF Summit in Leipzig, Germany, Crist discussed the benefits and challenges of Europe’s e-bike boom. The conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

What Makes E-Bikes So Popular in Europe?

Countries like Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands have a longstanding tradition of using bicycles for daily travel. Many residents are now upgrading to e-bikes for easier and faster trips. Data shows that e-bikers travel at higher speeds than pedal cyclists, making errands and commutes more efficient. Additionally, e-bikes are attracting older adults who can continue cycling with the added motor assistance.

How Does E-Bike Adoption Change Cycling Habits?

For most Europeans, switching to an e-bike doesn’t drastically change their cycling habits since they already use bikes for transportation. However, e-bikes encourage more frequent and longer trips, broadening the scope of daily travel.

Government Policies Fueling E-Bike Adoption

Governments in Austria, Belgium, and other countries where e-bikes dominate the market have provided financial incentives for e-bike purchases. France offers rebates and has implemented long-term lease programs in regions like Ile-de-France, where people can rent e-bikes for a nominal fee. These initiatives have led to significant sales increases post-lease.

Corporate Tax Benefits and E-Bike Leasing

Belgium, known for its high rate of company cars, has introduced the mobility budget, a tax-protected benefit for transit passes, e-bikes, or e-bike subscriptions. This shift has encouraged more Belgians to purchase e-bikes. E-bike leasing has also become popular, with companies like Swapfiets and Dance offering easy and cost-effective rental models.

Impact on Emissions and Public Charging

While the impact on emissions is uncertain, e-bike adoption likely hasn’t significantly reduced transportation emissions since many buyers are replacing regular bicycles. Public charging infrastructure for e-bikes is not a priority because most e-bike batteries last for several days of daily travel. However, commercial e-cargo bikes may require more frequent charging.

Challenges and Future Considerations

The main challenge with e-bikes in Europe is managing the speed pedelecs, which can reach up to 45 kph and pose safety risks. Policymakers are debating how to regulate these high-speed bikes, potentially restricting them from certain bike lanes. Wider bike lanes and dedicated networks for electric micromobility could also help accommodate the growing number of e-cargo bikes.

Lessons for North America

North America has a significant population of people new to cycling for daily travel. E-bikes can replace more car trips, especially with the improvement of bike infrastructure in cities. US mayors looking to promote e-bike use should focus on increasing overall cycling through quality infrastructure, connected networks, and speed management.

By learning from Europe’s experience, North America can better promote e-bike adoption and address potential challenges.

Author: Benjamin Dai

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