Electric Bike

E-bikes are no new invention. 

The first patent for an e-bike was registered on 31 December, 1895, to Ogden Bolton for a battery-powered electric bicycle with a “six-pole brush-and-commutator direct current (DC) hub motor mounted in the rear wheel”.

But they didn’t catch on until Yamaha built one of the first prototypes of electric bicycles in 1989, and later invented the pedal-assist system in 1993. Over the next decade worldwide production of e-bikes grew by 35 per cent. 

Today, thanks to improved tech, affordability, and growing concern for the environment, they are on the up-and-up worldwide, with Asia Pacific region one of the largest e-bike markets in the world. 

The first patent for an e-bike was registered in 1895.

New technology like lithium ion batteries (LIB) is now fuelling a surge in interest and affordability for consumers.

“My other car is an electric bike”

Consultancy firm Deloitte predicts that there will be more than 130 million electric bicycles sold globally between 2020 and 2023, by which time there will be a whopping 300 million electric bikes on roads worldwide (to put this into context, 3.1 million electric cars were sold in 2020, and BloombergNEF is projecting that will rise to 14 million by 2025).

“Globally, more and more cyclists are taking to the roads, assisted partially by an array of technological advances. We predict that tens of billions of additional bicycle trips per year will take place globally in 2022 over 2019 levels. This means fewer car trips and lower emissions, with spill-over benefits for traffic congestion, urban air quality and improvements in public health.” 

Electric cargo bikes are expected to become the preferred option for last-mile deliveries in urban areas, because of their environmental benefits and that they take up far less road space than cars or vans when parked. One study found that e-cargo bikes can make deliveries 60 per cent faster than vans, while emitting 90 per cent less carbon dioxide than diesel vans and 33 per cent less than electric vans. 

The global e-bike market was estimated at $US36.52 billion in 2021, according to research released in November last year. The report from The Business Research Company identifies encouragement from governments as a major force behind the growth that is expected to reach $US59.49 billion by 2026.

While Australians are still missing out on the electric cars we were promised it looks like e-bikes are the EVs set to take over the streets this decade. 

Policy failure at the federal level looks to be at least part of the reason. In an announcement timed to align with the COP26 climate talks in November last year, the Morrison government released an electric vehicle strategy that critics say is badly flawed. 

It delivers no financial or tax support to switch to electric cars, they say, and it leaves Australia “10 years behind”. Electric vehicle policy expert Dr Bjorn Sturmberg went further and last year said Australia was “becoming a bit of a backwater” in the space with EV market slow and prices high.

Electric cargo bikes are expected to be the preferred last-mile delivery option in cities.

An electric commuter future 

As a way to fill the policy gaps, electric bikes are not a bad way to go. They’re better for the environment, more compact, easier for the mobility-impaired, and make climbing hills and carrying heavy loads much easier with their pedal-assist capabilities and built-in racks, baskets, and cargo features. 

One Australian survey found that 60 per cent of respondents purchased an electric bike to replace their usual car trips, while 49 per cent said they wanted to be able to ride with less effort. 

Steve Fleming, owner of E-Ride solutions, an electric bike supplier, says that the demand for e-bikes has been growing steadily, spurred on by the cultural and lifestyle disruption of the pandemic. He says his  business now has customers in every major city, with major uptake in Sydney especially. 

However, he said that delivery delays caused by a destabilised global container freight supply chain as a result of the pandemic has meant that he has been unable to keep up with consumer demand for e-bikes. “The demand is there, the problem is that we can’t keep up with it,” Mr Fleming told The Fifth Estate.

Tech drives price point 

Unfortunately, electric bikes aren’t a cheap investment. They can range from $800 to more than $12,000 for a high-end version including lights, racks and panniers. 

Most electric bikes have lithium-ion batteries with 8Ah–28Ah capacity, and 24V–48V voltage. And depending on factors like whether you are pedalling, how heavy a load the bike is carrying, the wind strength and direction, and whether you’re driving up a hill, the bike will need to be recharged every 30-100 kilometres. 

China has been in the lead for quite some time when it comes to bicycle sales because Chinese e-bikes use lead-acid batteries, which are cheaper than the lithium ion common in America and Europe, bringing the final price of the e-bike down. Thanks to these batteries, an e-bike costs an average of $167 in China, compared to an average of $815 in North America, and $1546 in Western Europe. 

However, since the prices of lithium ion battery packs have plummeted by 89 per cent in the past decade and only continue to fall, it is expected that 60 per cent of all e-bikes sold worldwide will come with LIBs by 2023. 

Growth of e-bikes (2020-2025) is projected to be higher in the Asia-Pacific region than in the rest of the world. 

A global trend

Globally e-bikes are growing, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, but with a highly fragmented market.

In the US, the electric bike market continues to boom. The US imported nearly 790,000 electric two-wheelers in 2021, according to the American Light Electric Vehicle Association, up from 463,000 in 2020. 

In Europe, where bicycle culture as a standard commuter vehicle has been going strong for decades, e-bikes are popular both because workers don’t have to push themselves so hard and risk arriving at work dripping in perspiration, and in colder climates they can bundle themselves up in warm clothes.

In Copenhagen, where 62 per cent of commuters use bicycles, a government survey found that 49 per cent of people used an e-bike because it was faster than a bicycle. 

E-bikes are considered a safer and easier alternative for older riders, and the technology allows riders to rest assured atop their bicycle, safe in the knowledge that they do not need to tire themselves out going up a steep hill and they are not destroying the earth with bad commuter habits. 

The bike-share economy allows commuters to test out e-bikes before making a big purchase.

Share economy improves accessibility 

In answer to the high price point, Australia has seen a surge in e-bike sharing services like Lime, BYKKO, and Beam that are disrupting micromobility in urban centres across the country. Borrowing an e-bike from Lime costs $1 to unlock via an app on your smartphone and 45 cents a minute to cycle. 

These services have strong potential to shift people away from cars and towards electric bikes because they allow commuters to test them out before they make that big purchase.

The Canberra Electric Bike Library allows commuters to replace their car with a borrowed e-bike free of charge.

The Canberra Electric Bike Library is an example of a community project meant to encourage people to replace their car with a borrowed bike. The project, operated by SEE-Change and Switched on Cycles and funded by the ACT Government, currently has a fleet of 10 bikes on offer free of charge (albeit with insurance fees payable). 

According to Project Officer Zuleka Chan, there has been huge interest in the project, with “more people coming in every single day”. 

She says that “97 per cent of people give positive feedback, and 80 per cent of people want to buy a bike” after using the service. The Library has also resulted in almost a quarter of participants purchasing their own e-bike after loaning one or attending a come-and-try session.

The project began in mid-2020 (“the best time to launch a project” Zuleka jokes) with a pilot project which was then extended a second year due to demand. She has high hopes that it will be extended in the future. Ms Chan says that people who use their bikes come from diverse demographics ranging from young commuting professionals, to retirees, to families with children, and even people taking their dogs out for the day. 

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