Dr. Rachel Aldred: Why the electric bike business must lobby Government

Electric bikes are considered to present an immense opportunity to the market, but do we truly understand just how impactful these mobility machines could be? University of Westminster transport researcher Rachel Aldred puts the Propensity to Cycle Tool to use, analysing the potential of the segment; asking could it be greater with Government backing?

By 2014, according to the European Cyclists’ Federation, Germany had spent €1.4 billion of public money on R&D for electric cars, announcing in 2016 another €1 billion of subsidies. All this effort helped put 25,500 purely electric cars on German streets. Meanwhile, 2.5 million e-Bikes (pedelecs) appeared, without fanfare and almost without subsidy.

While e-Bike sales are growing in the UK, they’re still a niche transport mode. Yet they could play an important role in growing cycling. In the Propensity to Cycle Tool project (pct.bike) my colleagues and I looked at cycling potential in England and Wales, based on commute trip characteristics. One scenario, ‘Go Dutch’, calculates how many commutes would be cycled if English and Welsh commuters were as likely as the Dutch to cycle trips of a given length and hilliness. This would mean a mode share of nearly 20% – seven times higher than current levels, with hotspots of up to 40% in compact, flat, and urban areas.

Rural, less dense, or hillier areas are lower, though (Cornwall’s on 10%) and it’s here that e-Bikes will matter most. The PCT e-Bike scenario adds to ‘Go Dutch’ an assumption that people use e-Bikes for some longer or hillier trips, based on data from Dutch and Swiss travel surveys. In the E-bike scenario, Cornish commuter cycling potential jumps to 19%. In some authorities cycling potential more than doubles, with Caerphilly rising from 8% to 18% of commuters cycling (currently 1%). Supporting e-Bikes will help us get best value out of new cycle infrastructure; which could see substantial use even outside dense cities.

Yet little is done to encourage e-bike use here, barring a few laudable local small-scale programmes, and the limited help of the Cycle to Work scheme. Only some employers offer it, so most people – all those not in paid work, and many workers, miss out. It’s regressive: a maximum saving of £420 for higher-rate taxpayers but only £320 for standard rate taxpayers. Meanwhile, the government gives people up to £4,500 to buy electric or hybrid cars.

Other European cities and countries are starting to redress the balance and do more to support e-Bikes. Sweden offers citizens (not just selected commuters) money towards buying an e-bike. Cities do too, Munich providing up to €2,000 and Vienna up to €1,000 towards an e-cargo bike, recognising the potential of these bikes for freight. E-Bikes will increasingly feature in dockless bike hire. Uber has bought up e-bike hire firm Jump, seeking to integrate e-bike hire into the Uber app.

If we enable it, e-Bikes will be core to sustainable mobility. But government still sees ‘low emission vehicles’ as being cars, vans, and lorries, meaning most ‘green’ spending goes to the most wasteful types of vehicle, and e-Bikes are marginalised. This is despite air pollution experts like Professor Frank Kelly stressing the need for mode shift, and the many advantages of e-Bikes over cars, including health. There’s growing evidence that e-Bikes replace car trips, maintain cycling at older ages, and allow people who might not otherwise be able to cycle to participate. Far from being ‘cheating’ they will help enable maximum use of the bike infrastructure we need to be building, for both personal and freight transport.

Related: Black Lion Bikes leads the charge on calling for Government subsidy