Can e-bikes transform our cities? | FT Tech
Sales of electric bicycles, or e-bikes, are booming. At the same time, innovations in battery technology have extended the range an e-bike can travel. The FT’s Harry Dempsey explores the impact they’re having on commuting, deliveries, and the cities we live in
Produced by Alpha Grid. Presented by Harry Dempsey
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It's an almost silent revolution. Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, as they're better known, are exploding in popularity, accounting for over 12 billion euros worth of sales in Europe last year.
Hi, how are you?
How are you doing?
I've come to the Focus factory in Cloppenburg in northern Germany. On the production line are e-mountain bikes, a relatively new segment of the market.
What you can see currently there is one of our most important bikes.
And that's an e-bike.
It's an e-bike. It has 130 millimetre travel. So you can see it has two suspensions in the front and in the back.
Sales of these are up by 60 per cent since last year.
Looking at the demographics, our main target group is, like, 30 to 55, 30 to 60. It was quite male driven. But it's becoming more female as well.
But this sort of tech will cost you thousands of euros.
The entry price point went quite up through technical developments. Now the entry is around 3,500. And it goes up to 10,000. It's a very serious invest for the people who buy it.
600km south, just outside Stuttgart, are the headquarters of German engineering giant Bosch. Traditionally a leader in automotive parts, the company now also builds motors for over 100 bicycle brands. They even have their own e-bike test track.
It's very unique that you have your workshop and your laboratory. You can take the test bikes and the demo bikes and go out here.
Today, they're testing a new anti-lock braking system. Innovations in battery and engine technology have accelerated the trend for electric bikes. Limited by EU law to a speed of 25km per hour, Bosch's engines can achieve a range of around 150km using a high-energy density lithium ion battery. Do you see that being one key technology, or is this rather more like sort of iPhone, where lots of different technologies came together and then you've got this sort of brand-new product?
Actually, it's exactly like you describe it. It's a variety of different technologies. And they are combined now in one system. And the idea is to have the physical experience of riding an e-bike blending into the digital experience of using a smartphone app or cloud services. So there is a whole bundle of technologies going into this experience.
One in six Germans now owns their own e-bike. But in the small city of Vechta in Lower Saxony, that figure is even greater. Vechta ranks third for e-bike penetration in Germany. Personal e-bike ownership here stands at 25 per cent. And catering to those e-bikes is starting to change Vechta's transport infrastructure.
We have built a place for 300 bikes to pack them directly to the railway station. We have also built more and more park places outside everywhere because it's important if you want to go to the city by bike, you need some place where you park it. And so it's also a part of our infrastructure. We think as a bike driver.
Larger urban areas are feeling the effect too. I've come to the city of Bremen. Hi, Maike.
It's already rated as one of the most bike-friendly places in the world. But authorities here say the existing infrastructure needs adapting to the new e-bike age.
Electric bikes are quite fast. So what we are having on building are special routes, special lanes for bikes which are broader. So it's more safe to go fast. And it's like a speedway for bikes, actually.
London's population has almost hit 10mn. And concerns about pollution, congestion, and more recently, industrial strike action have led to an uptick in e-bike use. Shared micromobility schemes like Lime and Tier are plugging the widening gap between cars and public transport. While last-mile delivery is transforming the way we shop. The rapid delivery market quadrupled in size in 2021. Australian start-up Zoomo manufactures and leases e-bikes to gig workers and consumers, as well as quick commerce companies, including Deliveroo and Gorillaz.
People today are Amazon Prime natives. Two-day delivery is not enough. Really, I want it in 15 minutes.
And the best way to do that is to have a micro fulfilment centre in a city and a fleet of e-bikes ready to deliver whatever it is you want. Amazon started trialling e-bikes in New York City, which is taking more and more vans off the road, and replacing them with these light electric vehicles. When you start to take these big vehicles off the road, you reopen the roads to what they were essentially meant to be used for, which is not cars, but it's for human activity.
Other parcel delivery companies have tapped into e-cargo bikes as a way of navigating densely populated urban environments. FedEx is trialling e-bikes throughout Europe and Canada, while UPS recently unveiled its e-quads, battery-powered ultra-slim four-wheeled cycles that don't pollute or get parking tickets and speed pass traffic by using bike lanes. The advent of e-bikes has made cycling an ever-increasing part of our future. But in a way, it's also a return to the past.
We've been through a century, really, where we've given over our cities to the motor car. And we've designed most of the infrastructure for motor cars. And we've been in total subservience, really, for an awful long time. What has happened over the last decade or so is that we realise that actually cities are for people.
In 1949, cycling accounted for more than 14bn vehicle miles travelled in the UK. But by 1974, as cars took over, that figure had shrunk by 80 per cent.
Yeah, I would like to see the period when we were so dominated by cars as a blip in history, really. It takes time to make these changes. But all around the world, we are seeing this shift from car-dominated cities to cities where they're designed much more for people.
E-bikes have gone from occupying a niche segment of the market to being a mainstream mode of transport, and even status symbols, with companies like Porsche and Lamborghini developing luxury models. With purchases projected to hit 40mn next year, e-bikes are now outstripping sales of electric cars in Europe, the UK, and the US and in the process, transforming the way our cities function.