Electric cars are not the future (electric bikes are)
When we started working from home we stopped using our cars and for a brief moment, the clouds parted. We saw a world in which the air we breathe became cleaner and we clung, for a moment, to the hope of a smog-free future. Maybe that could be our future, we thought, if we changed all our gas-powered cars out for electric ones.
Indeed, as carbon emissions plummeted by up to 30 percent worldwide, stock in electric vehicle manufacturers soared by up to 616 percent―the inverse correlation implying a sort of aspirational environmentalism: The idea that electrification could save us from our gas-powered woes.
But that reasoning assumes―incorrectly, as it turns out―that the fuel powering our vehicles is the delineating factor separating a dystopian future from a Utopian one. That polluted, congested, and unhealthy cities are caused by the way we are powering our cars, when in fact the vehicles themselves might be the real source of our distress.
More vehicles = worse public health
Carbon―the thing everyone wants to talk about when we talk about vehicle emissions―is only part of the problem. More pertinent to the concerns for our lungs is something known as particulate matter (or PM2.5). This debris is the sort kicked up by cars, suspended in the air by smokestacks, and―in the case of inversion―held at face level for months on end.
Electric vehicles (EVs), though they produce 15 times less carbon than gasoline cars, only produce two times less particulate matter―and that is a problem for our health and wellbeing. When inhaled, particulate matter contributes to premature death from heart disease, heart attacks, and lung disease to say nothing of asthma and other respiratory ailments.
“Electric vehicles still present a lot of the same impacts that cars do,” says Nick Norris, city planning director for Salt Lake City. “They still create tire and brake dust, they still require maintenance of our streets, they still take up space, and they’re a relatively inefficient way of moving people around given the space they take up.”
Indeed, electric-powered cars pose many of the ill-effects gas-powered ones do―and not just to our air. According to a study published in BMC Public Health, car owners in the United States get less than half the amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity non-car-owners get each day―and the more access residents have to privately owned cars, the less physical activity they get.
In other words: the more reliance we have on our cars, the less reliance we have on our own two feet―and that’s true whether we drive a Chevy or a Tesla. Decreased levels of physical activity result in a deficit when it comes to our public health―with 31.7 percent of US citizens getting less than 150 minutes of exercise each week, increasing their risk of death (by all causes) by 20-30 percent.
Though privately-owned EVs are hardly better than their gas-powered forebears, it remains to be seen whether their tech-enabled cousins, autonomous vehicles (AVs), will be more beneficial if used publicly, rather than privately. “In a ridesharing format, and integrated with public and active transportation modes,” the Annual Review of Public Health reports, “all these characteristics could promote physical activity, improve the urban environment (air quality and noise), and provide more public space to support a healthy urban design.
“On the other hand, major risks can be present when AVs are implemented for individual use, depend on fossil fuels, lead to more miles traveled, exacerbate traffic congestion, and increase occupancy of public spaces; all of these factors result in more sedentarism, degradation of the urban environment (air quality and noise), and reductions in the amount of public space available for social interaction and physical activity.”
Fewer cars = better public health
There is, however, an alternative to automobiles and we were able to witness the effects of those alternatives during COVID-related shutdowns in 2020―when our air became cleaner and our populations became healthier, despite the looming presence of a pandemic.
According to the fitness tracking device Fitbit, when shutdowns first occurred the week of March 22nd, 2020, the US saw a 12 percent decline in the number of steps taken compared to the same week the year prior. Cities with the strictest shelter-in-place orders, such as San Francisco and New York, saw declines closer to 20 percent.
But then something interesting happened: In April, once we started working-from-home in earnest and shelter-in-place orders became less strict, we started getting more workouts per week than we did last year with walking, biking, and yoga all surging in popularity. Forty-two percent of users increased their active minutes during that time with 31 percent maintaining their usual average.
And then, because we didn’t need to wake up as early to drive to work, we started sleeping longer and more consistently. Forty-five percent of Fitbit users increased their sleep duration in April and bedtimes normalized. We’ve been going to bed earlier on weekends and later on weeknights, resulting in less “social jet lag,” a factor that can negatively impact heart health.
Thanks to this sudden increase in movement and sleep, Fitbit reports that our resting heart rate has dropped by 1.26 beats per minute in users aged 18-29, a huge win for heart health!
More bikes = better public health
The fact that we are getting outside more is something of an understatement. National Parks have been inundated with visitors, campgrounds have been booked up, RV sales are skyrocketing, trails are overflowing, and Backcountry is scrambling to keep up with the suddenly ravenous demand for kayaks and paddleboards. But one industry, in particular, has seen an absolutely meteoric rise: the bike industry.
In the second quarter, new car sales were down 34.3 percent while new bike sales were up 71 percent. The sudden surge in bike sales created shortages and supply-chain issues no one in the industry could have foreseen. “We’re selling a lot of bikes,” says Kevin Tisue, director of engineering at Pivot Cycles.“Obviously people are home and they want to get outside and do stuff because they don’t want to go do other things in public so they are buying bikes to do that.”
If the bike rush is any indication of our current mindscape, it’s clear we’ve re-imagined our lives for a more active world. “It’ll be interesting to see how it lasts and what people do with all the bikes they are buying and whether they keep using them,” Tissue says. “One would hope that that would lead to a longer-term effect.”
That longer-effect is in reach if we want it, all we have to do is design for it. “Most streets are 132 feet wide,” Norris says, “and we’re dedicating less than 5 percent of them to people, whether that’s walking or streets with bike lanes. Twenty percent of our population can’t drive a car, but we’re only giving them five percent of the space.”
Norris wants to remove at least 20 percent of cars from Salt Lake City streets. “If we were to increase all of those distances to a minimum of 10 feet wide sidewalks, a minimum of 10 feet wide separated bike lanes, and feet for green space,” he says, “55 percent of our rides would still be dedicated to cars… and it could take 20 percent of the cars off the road. That’s a huge number, but it’s happened in other places. Look at Copenhagen, Amsterdam, etc., and what they were able to do with biking. They were car-centric 30 years ago and they’ve completely changed that.”
It’s true. Amsterdam was redesigned for cycling in an effort to reduce congestion and now we have a case study of what it’s like when cities orient themselves around bikes instead of cars. In Amsterdam, investments were made in bike paths, bike parking, and better-organized streets, and now, 27 percent of all trips in the Netherlands are made by bike with adults ages 20-90 spending 74 minutes per week on the bike.
Researchers estimate that Dutch people live half a year longer than they did prior, with the total economic health benefits estimated at €19 billion (roughly $22 billion US) per year.
“We are big believers in ‘build it and they will come,’” says Jason Winkler, owner at INDUSTRY SLC and one of the developers behind Salt Lake City’s emerging Granary District. He believes that if we redesign our streets for bikes, everyone will start biking to work. “The street closures are a great example. It’s not a surprise that closing the streets and making them pedestrian and bike-friendly is going to be a bit hit with people, that it’s going to be really, really popular and people are going to love it.”
Though we adapted during the pandemic, taking advantage of newly closed streets with a sudden surfeit of walking and biking, it remains to be seen what will happen when we are forced to move ourselves much farther away from our homes. We may have a booming bike industry, a city that is reorienting itself around bikeability, and European models for success, but that’s no match for a 30-mile commute down I-15.
That’s where e-bikes come in.
More e-bikes = better cities
If the bicycle’s core faults are time (“it’ll just be quicker to drive”) and effort (“I’ll be too sweaty when I get there), then the e-bike conquers those restraints with speed and ease (“It’s just as quick, and it’s easier than a car”). Assisted by an electric motor, e-bikes can go upwards of 20 miles per hour while making use of bike lanes and avoiding parking garages. And the category is exploding―up 109 percent compared to last year.
“I think e-bikes are actually going to be the future of moving within cities and climates,” Norris says. “They move people very efficiently and effectively, they take up little space, they’re lower cost, they have fewer environmental impacts, they’re more accessible to people in transit, and they’re cheaper to charge and fuel. I really think that that is going to be a significant change for cities.”
It is. According to a study on e-bike use in the Netherlands, 40 percent of e-bike trips would have been made with a car if an e-bike had not been available. That means 40 percent of e-bike trips would have been spent as sedentary time rather than active time, and 40 percent of e-bike trips would have put 40 percent more cars on the road.
E-bikes have become so pervasive in Europe that they have inspired an even easier category: electric motorcycles. Founded in Sweden with North American offices in Utah, Cake Bikes thinks their quiet, light-weight adventure bikes are the future. “The team is very passionate about two wheels, very passionate about bicycles as a means of transportation,” says Zach Clayton, US brand manager at Cake Bikes. “And we recognize that cities are starting to ban vehicles. Paris, for example.”
Clayton is referring to initiatives of many European cities, including Paris, who have made it their imperative to improve air quality by removing cars from the city. Paris, for one, instituted “Paris Respire” in 2016 which bans cars from certain districts on Sundays and holidays. The city has since increased parking meter rates, banned free parking in many areas, started converting areas along the Seine river into a park, and plans to add more than 600 miles of bike lanes to the city.
Paris follows Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and Cambridge, among others highlighted by the European Commission, who have successfully removed cars from their cities, and have seen decreased congestion, increased public health, and increased economic benefits as a result. “Of the reasons why people don’t ride motorcycles, safety is number one,” Clayton says, “But we’re looking down the road, thinking that in the future there’s going to be fewer cars on the road and more motorcycles.”
In the US, as abroad, there is still some ambiguity when it comes to how and when electric bikes and motorcycles can be used for commuter transportation. “That’s something that comes up in our conversations,” Clayton says. “If we’re truly trying to be this all-inclusive utility commuter, what happens when you’re in New York City and you can’t be seen and you can’t be heard on the road, but you also can’t be in the bike lane?”
Clayton imagines this will give rise to a more hybrid vehicle-use scenario. “What we’ve seen is that there will be an increased need for two, real means of transportation,” he says. “We’ve seen companies like FedEx and UPS already exploring with [e-bike delivery]. They can get in and out of some areas quicker with a bike than they can with a large truck.”
Commuting will see similar mashups. Though bicycles may be able to replace cars in many instances, there will still be occasions when two weels just won’t be enough―like winter, for example, when we might opt instead for remote work, public transportation, or even privately owned vehicles.
But even a change as small as purchasing an e-bike could completely rewire the way we think about our cities and their health. In a not too distant future, two-car households could become one-car households with a quiver of e-bikes. Households of all incomes could afford to get themselves to and from work in a timely manner. Teenagers could drive themselves everywhere.
The air we breathe could become cleaner. The lives we live could be healthier.
Electric vehicles could never promise to do all of that. But e-bikes can.