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Electric Vehicles Will Not Save Our Cities, but Electric Bikes Might

Have you noticed all the new vehicles zipping around your neighborhood? In just the past few years alternatives to automobiles have popped up in many American cities, sparking controversy in some cases. Bike and scooter sharing apps have populated our urban landscape with all-electric car alternatives and, in the process, showed us how many millions of Americans are desperate for a car-free way around town. As cities are re-thinking car dependence and the associated inefficiencies, we need a replacement mobility option. The technology already exists, we just need to invest in them the way we’ve invested in cars over the last hundred years. 

Cities are running out of space. Car-based design has reached its limit due to the simple fact that each additional lane or parking space only incentivizes more drivers and more cars. This is known as Braess’s Paradox, postulated by German mathematician Dietrich Braess back in 1968. Yet, it has taken more than fifty years to update urban planning and move away from car-dependence. Finally, following the lead of several European cities, Americans are starting to rethink their mobility options and rediscovering the greatness of bikes. 

Human mobility has always been central to our lifestyle and society. Before civilizations existed at all, the uncanny ability of humans to run, jog, and walk for long periods of time led to our ascension as apex predators and, eventually, to the formation of complex social networks. In other words, mobility is what made us human. According to S.S. Wilson’s Bicycle Technology (Scientific American, 1973) humans are relatively efficient in terms of calories expended to move bodyweight. Only horses and a few others from the animal kingdom outrank humanity–but that’s before we created the bicycle. A human on a bike is the most efficient mode of transportation in the known world, a fact that made Steve Jobs liken the computer to “a bicycle for the mind.” 

In America, however, most households don’t see a bike as a realistic option for everyday transportation. Ask the average American if they could comfortably ride a bike to do most daily activities and they’ll probably laugh at you. ‘We’re too spread out for bikes,’ they say, and it’s true, most American cities lack the density that makes bikes perfect for, say, Paris or Amsterdam. Yet, the reality is a bit different: most of our commutes aren’t as far as we think. Using data from the National Household Travel Survey, doctoral students at Columbia University found that 95 percent of household trips were under 30 miles, at least 45 percent of all trips were within 10 miles, and the overall average was only 9.4 miles. For urban commuters, the average trip was even fewer miles, down to 8.5. That distance is easily manageable on a bike, even without a boost from a battery pack. Add e-bikes to the equation and the landscape looks much friendlier for any and all riders.

What is missing, though, is infrastructure. The key to building a biking culture is creating conditions for safe, efficient travel by bike. We know that bikes are much more space and energy efficient than cars and can lead to a much healthier lifestyle. Now we need to build the infrastructure that makes travel by bicycle as easy and comfortable as traveling by car. The good news is, relative to car-based construction, protected bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure is much less expensive, and it’s easier and faster to build. Since 2014, when Mayor Anne Hidalgo was elected, the city of Paris has built over 1000 km (621 miles) of bike lanes, all for about €150 million. Simply making a point of investing in and promoting cycling has a profound effect on urban mobility, inspiring a 70 percent increase in cycling traffic. All it takes is a little bit of effort from our political leaders. 

Their incentive to build these bike lanes is the unexpected effect on the local economy. A study out of Portland State University found that bike lanes can benefit local businesses. Fourteen bike corridors in six different American cities boosted business and employment in retail and foodservice along the route. Plus, the cities gained extra space that businesses have reclaimed from cars. When one neighborhood in San Diego built protected bike lanes, sales at local businesses along the route increased 24 percent. Providing alternatives to automobiles means more people get to enjoy the space that previously was reserved for machines, that foot traffic is what drives economic activity. 

According to Smart Growth America there is a strong correlation between walkable urbanism and economic activity. By comparing key economic indicators like rent prices and gross regional product, researchers found that the economic hubs like New York and the Bay Area are benefiting from their dense, walkable urbanism. Nationwide, the top 30 US Metro Areas account for only 7 percent of land area but an astounding 56 percent of our nation’s GDP. Even within metro areas, the pattern holds true. In New York, 55 percent of the metro area’s gross regional product originated in less than 1 percent of its land, primarily in neighborhoods with a walk score greater than 70. In Dallas/Fort Worth, 0.1 percent of land space generated 12 percent of metro GRP. 

This walk score is calculated using a point system for distances to nearby amenities. The closer the walk, the higher the score. A similar methodology can be used to calculate a bike score and a transit score and the only metro in the top five in each category is the Bay Area. Unsurprisingly, the Bay is a global technology center and has the highest GDP per capita in the study. Certainly, a large part of that is the insane rents and home prices endemic to the Bay and truly California at large for several decades. But, that’s the point isn’t it? We have to let more people live in our walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly cities now that we know how much economic activity is generated by those cities and their densest urban cores. 

This is all to say nothing of the fact that our only way forward in this era of rapid fossil-fuel-induced climate change is a green energy transition. Electric cars, unfortunately, are not going to save us. They are, after all, just cars. But electric bikes are another story. The battery for the average electric bike is less than 1 percent of the size of a Tesla battery with 16 percent of the range. Even before considering all the materials used and space occupied by cars, EVs are simply less efficient than e-bikes, it is hard to be efficient when you need a 1.5-ton machine to move a 200-pound human; most of what that car is moving is just the car! The government subsidies that pay for up to 20 percent of an electric car could buy five e-bikes at full price.

Thankfully, several government initiatives are in the works. The state of California recently approved $10 million in funding for e-bikes in the state budget, and in July, the Electric Bicycle Initiative Kickstarter for the Environment, or E-BIKE Act, was introduced in both houses of Congress. The bill would provide a 30 percent tax credit (up to $1500) when you purchase an electric bike. The same way the government is incentivizing the switch to electric cars, with a tax credit worth up to $7500, they’re hoping to help people make the switch to electric bikes. 

Americans got accustomed to cars rather quickly. In about half a century we went from zero cars to an entire nation built around them. We spent over $100 billion on just constructing the interstate highway system. But construction is only part of the costs of this infrastructure. The state of California spends over $50 billion annually maintaining our freeways. America went from under 5 percent car ownership in 1915 to over 20 percent in 1930. In the forty years between 1945 and 1985, the number climbed to 75 percent of Americans owning a car. All we’d have to do to create a similar spike in e-bike ownership is invest in the infrastructure that makes cycling safe, effective, and available to everybody. 

Some cities are actively pursuing bike-friendly policies and projects; San Diego’s new Mayor Todd Gloria is dedicated to making the city, “a world-class bike city,” by investing $200 million in a ‘Bicycle Master Plan,’ partnering with DecoBike to install 185 bike-share stations, and eliminating traffic lanes in favor of bike lanes around the city. 

Portland, Oregon has long been known as America’s number one bike-friendly city. Beyond the immediate benefits of their extensive cycling network, research has shown that the protected lanes incentivize cycling and also have tangible societal benefits. Safe bike lanes provide lower-income residents with mobility options beyond cars, removing a significant cost burden and also decreasing interactions with police, of which traffic stops are the most common. Investment in cycling infrastructure provides immediate benefits for society’s least privileged people. 

In other words, the future of urban mobility is the bicycle. A century of devoting resources and space to an incredibly inefficient mode of transit has hurt the livability and the density of our cities. There are cultural and political tailwinds to enhancing bikes in a way that will make them a viable alternative to cars. Electric bikes could change the way we design our cities and are bound to have an incredible impact on the neighborhoods and properties that embrace them.

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