Next in Tech

The Future of Cars Looks a Lot Like an E-Bike

The electric vehicle revolution is already here — sporting two wheels and a pair of pedals.

by Tom Vanderbilt
Originally Published: 
Inverse; Getty Images
Next in Tech Issue 2023
We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Transportation, like most human behaviors, is shaped by a mixture of utility, convenience, visibility, and familiarity. As energy-conserving, satisficing humans, we reach for what is easy, what we can see, what we know. Nearly one-third of car trips in America, for example, take us less than one mile. Why not walk or ride a bike? Because our impulse to drive is a virtual muscle memory. Habits, notes Charles Duhigg, “shape our lives far more than we realize — they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

When the bike-share system CitiBike arrived in New York City a decade ago, I immediately and enthusiastically signed up. There was just one problem. The nearest station, in those early days, was precisely a mile from my house. As transportation planners have found, people are generally unwilling to walk more than half a mile to a transit stop — and so was I. The subway, meanwhile, was a block away. As you might imagine, whatever my intentions to embrace the service, I generally defaulted to the easier option. It wasn’t until a bike-share station opened a block away that I became a regular user. My behavior only changed because the context did.

The next great behavioral transformation for me came five years later when CitiBike introduced its first e-bikes to the system. Like many cyclists, I initially shrugged it off. Why would I want to pay more and not even get any exercise out of it? Then I took one to a meeting in Manhattan. The incline of the Brooklyn Bridge, usually rendered arduous by the weight of the bike, was suddenly effortless. I arrived in a nonschvitzing state, minutes sooner. It was fun, fast, and I could stay above ground — I was instantly converted.

I am hardly alone in my transformation. As Jordan Levine, a spokesperson for Lyft (the owner of New York’s CitiBike since 2018), notes, the bike-share system set a one-day record for ridership on Sept. 12 with some 160,000 CitiBike trips. Of those, 79,000 were e-bikes — despite the fact that e-bikes only comprise about 30 percent of the fleet. E-bikes, in general, notes Levine, are seeing three times as many rides as regular bikes. And e-bikes are not only being ridden more but differently: 62 percent of trips over bridges (whose arch provides a sweat-inducing hill) were on e-bikes last year. And it’s trending upward, with this year’s e-bike ridership 54 percent higher than last. More than 700,000 unique riders — the population of San Francisco — have used a CitiBike e-bike in 2023.

For all the many years of often exasperated study into the holy grail of infrastructure, incentives, education — and whatever else — that would get more people riding bikes in America, it turns out that what may end up being one of the biggest levers of change for alternative transportation in America could be rather simple: Just add power.

The United States is undoubtedly in the throes of a great engagement with e-bikes, even beyond that great behavior-shifting “black swan” that was the pandemic. While e-bike sales data can be a bit spotty, it’s been suggested that in 2021, more e-bikes were sold in America than electric cars. Even as the bike industry as a whole saw a post-pandemic retraction in 2022, with volume down 16.9 percent, e-bike sales were up 16 percent, continuing an impressive run of ever-increasing growth. Some of those sales have come thanks to incentives, as in the city of Denver, which, a few months after announcing a rebate program, had to hit pause — as more than 6,000 buyers snapped up bikes. (Research showed the e-bikes replaced 3.4 car trips per week.)

But do e-bikes represent a fancy upgrade for people who would have biked anyway, or are they bringing people out of their cars (what planners call “mode substitution”), even creating new cyclists? John MacArthur, who heads the Sustainable Transportation Program at Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center, says that preliminary data from some “naturalistic” behavior studies (i.e., actual usage data, not self-reported surveys) show that some 40 percent of people’s e-bike trips are replacing car trips. “We are seeing that e-bikes get more people biking, and more people biking more often,” says MacArthur. Historically, he says, data have shown “people will bike up to 5 miles in one directional trip.” With e-bikes, he’s been seeing trips lengthen — as much as 9 miles one way (for trips that might be classed as utilitarian, rather than sport or leisure).

When MacArthur himself — a longtime cyclist — acquired an e-bike a few years ago, he says he “let go” of the instinct to view cycling as exercise. “It is a utility,” he says, “a device for getting around the city.” He no longer looks at other cyclists and wonders if he’s going slower than they are. “It’s all about getting from point A to point B in the easiest, functional way, without driving a car.” He thinks bike share programs should feature only e-bikes, and not priced, as is often the case, at a premium; rather, they should be considered as subsidized public transit. (Income-adjusted pricing and “e-bike library” programs in many places are an effort to bridge the equity gap.) The arrival of e-bikes is also prompting discussions about the meaning of proper bike infrastructure. “What do future bike lanes look like?” MacArthur asks. “How do we design them differently because of the speed differential?” He points out, however, that e-bikes are not as different from conventional bikes as one might imagine. “On average, a person on a standard e-bike only goes about 3 miles an hour faster on an e-bike,” he says. “I mean, I was passed today by a guy on a fixie.”

The rise of e-cargo bikes — particularly user-friendly “longtail” bikes, like RadPower’s RadWagon or Tern’s GSD S10 — could be particularly transformative in terms of mode shift. Puneeth Meruva, whose Flywheel newsletter takes a very specific, but fascinating, look at the used e-bike market as a way to track trends, notes that cargo bikes represent a small percentage of used e-bikes sold last year. He predicts this will change. Why? Because they are ridden the most, by far, of any e-bike category. An expensive e-mountain bike might be fun for a spin on local trails, but it’s not going to suffice for the school run. “When we hope to bring new people to micromobility that weren’t already avid bicyclists,” he notes, “catering to use-cases like hauling heavier loads or transporting multiple riders is critical.”

And, as often happens with new technologies, those use cases may evolve. Horace Dediu, a market analyst who heads Micromobility Industries, notes that elsewhere, e-bikes came in first largely as a leisure product before shifting to more functional uses. In countries like Germany, “it’s one of the few technologies where older people were earlier adopters than younger people,” says Dediu. Micromobility products, like e-bikes, are comparable to the early days of the car industry, when thousands of different players jousted in the newly created market. (There are currently more than 700 companies producing e-bikes, according to Dediu.)

“There were no roads worth driving on when the car was invented,” he says — it was, ironically, the “Good Roads” movement of cyclists that helped usher in the automobile. But infrastructure moves at a different pace than consumer goods. “Whereas consumers have a beautiful sort of smooth s-curve adoption, infrastructure tends to be... nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens... and then suddenly everything happens.” In other words, the e-bike revolution is off to an encouraging start and winning over many a car-eschewing fan. The real question is how far it can travel on its own power.

This article was originally published on

Related Tags