Electric bikes are breaking through in Europe’s carmaking capital

Electric bicycles are poised for a breakout year in Europe’s biggest economy.

Electric bicycles

Battery-powered two-wheelers will outsell traditional bikes in Germany for the first time in 2023, according to projections from the country’s industry group. They’re already dominant in the mountain bike category, where nine in ten bicycles are powered by a motor.

While the e-bike boom hasn’t meaningfully pushed up the total number of bicycles sold, their higher average price tag means there’s more money changing hands. Revenue has more than tripled over the past decade, to €7.4 billion last year.

The rising popularity of electric bicycles is partly due to technology improvements such as smaller and more energy-dense batteries. Consumers also have gotten more comfortable using them thanks to micromobility sharing services from the likes of Lime, Tier, Voi and Bird. Another powerful driver is policy, and its impact is felt the world over.

While US electric-car incentives within President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act have made headlines, there’s also growing federal, regional and local support to electrify bicycles. Bike and scooter media firm Micromobility Industries has tracked 87 active incentive programs in the US and Canada that encourage adoption, with over 230 similar efforts across Europe. This list doesn’t include the many infrastructure programs, from France to South Korea, aimed at installing and enhancing cycling infrastructure.

It’s unclear to what extent electric-bike rides are replacing passenger-car trips, and similarly difficult to get a clear sense of just how common it’s become for people to trade in their four-wheeled vehicles for two-wheelers. But the maturation of the e-bike market across Europe probably is playing at least a small role in depressing car demand.

Europe has lagged behind China and the US in recovering from the initial pandemic shock to the auto industry, and Germany has been particularly hard-hit. German manufacturers’ domestic passenger car production slumped to just under 3.1 million in 2021, down by almost half from five years earlier and the lowest since 1975.

Of course, e-bikes may more often be replacing the role of the hibernating bicycle — a recreational device used only when the weather is nice and the battery is fully charged. To get beyond the fair-weather riders, companies need to cater to people that move around for a living and offer realistic potential to reduce car trips.

San Francisco’s environment department in March started a pilot program to transition some 30 workers in food delivery to electric bikes. This is just the latest initiative that should attract the attention of companies like Zoomo and Whizz, which lease electric two-wheelers to delivery riders.

Companies in China manufactured more than 20 million e-bikes last year, and the country has the highest uptake of both commercial and privately used electric bicycles. A healthy share of China-made e-bikes are exported, but many end up with local consumers and delivery drivers for services like Alibaba’s and Meituan.

Electric bikes are significantly cleaner to build and operate than combustion-engine cars. However, they’re only more beneficial to the environment than the traditional bicycle if they’re actually displacing journeys in larger, less-efficient vehicles.

E-bikes are great — and clearly a growing number of people appreciate their swift and effortless acceleration — but they finally need to prove they’re more than just fun.

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First published on: 16-05-2023 at 08:52 IST