The term micromobility refers to all sorts of individual transportation with comparatively lower speed and weight: e-bikes, e-scooters, regular bicycles, mopeds, etc. With the electric bicycle market steadily growing, this may have a high chance of transforming urban life. This article will be exploring the importance of micromobility and why it is a sustainable choice when shaping our future cities.
Environmental impact of e-bikes
Typically no one even thinks about the environmental impact of a conventional bike. Compared to any other vehicle this is clearly the most eco-friendly way to get around. Does that change when switching to an e-bike instead? The short answer is no – on the contrary. Taking a deeper look into the capabilities, the carbon footprint, and battery disposal explains why.
E-bike carbon footprint
As an e-bike runs on electricity it does not directly release damaging emissions that pollute the air. Keep in mind that the energy required to charge the battery is not necessarily derived from renewable sources, some emissions may be caused along the way. However, in comparison to any other vehicle, this is still minimal. One 250Wh charge is enough for 50km of riding. This is about 40 times less than needed by a Tesla electric car.
The CO2 footprint of the manufacturing should also be included. There are many ways of estimating CO2 footprint when making comparisons to other types of vehicles. The simplest is to go by weight. The total manufacturing CO2 footprint of about any transportation device is roughly proportional to the manufactured mass. Comparing a 1600 kg EV to a 16kg e-bike would yield a manufacturing CO2 footprint for the e-bike of 1% of the EV as a rough estimate.
Most electric bicycles are powered by lithium-ion batteries with lead-acid as the exception. When the lifespan of the battery is surpassed you can dispose of them at special recycling facilities including household e-waste collection points or battery-recycling drop-off locations. It is illegal in most countries to discard them via ‘regular’ trash that ends up in landfills. Generally speaking, lithium-ion batteries are considered the least hazardous and ecologically damaging battery option as of now.
Overall, there are very few negative impacts of an e-bike on the environment. Especially compared to the impact of other modes of individual transportation. Depending on factors like the emissions from the energy source, an electric bicycle can be regarded as a zero-emission vehicle.
E-bikes as an alternative
The first question that most likely appears when considering switching to an e-bike is whether it can replace other kinds of transportation including cars, buses, and trains.
Several factors can determine the suitability of e-bikes as a daily mode of transportation:
- Charging time
- Weather resilience
35 to 80 km (22 to 50 miles) on a single charge is what you can typically expect from an e-bike when pedaling casually. As the range is vastly affected by numerous aspects including speed, pedal mode, battery, weight, terrain, temperature, and more, those numbers can vary considerably.
Charging time and weather resilience
Charging an e-bike battery typically takes from 3.5 to 6 hours. An e-bike is reliable in all weather conditions. It just needs some extra care when the weather gets cold, snowy, or rainy. Often equipping the bike with fenders and winter tires as well as taking the battery indoors when not used is all that is needed to get through a typical winter most places. When riding, dressing for the weather is the smart thing to do. With modern outdoor gear, this is fairly easy even for rough conditions.
Prices for e-bikes are all over the place starting from €600 to over €7000. Most models are between €1000 and €2000. With the cost of alternatives including running costs for fuel, parking, ride fares, etc., the e-bike is a very cost-effective solution compared to most alternatives.
Micromobility potential in urban areas
The vast majority of car trips are short. The research company INRIX found that in the 25 most congested metro areas of the US 48% of the trips are under 3 miles (4,8 km) of which 20% are under 1 mile (1,6 km). Germany counts 58% of the trips under 3 miles with 15% making up the ones under 1 mile. In the United Kingdom, 67% of car trips are under 3 miles.
From these data points, it is clear that various micromobility solutions hold great potential for car replacement. The majority of the population lives in densely populated areas (cities) which are also where most of the shorter trips are made. This makes micromobility solutions such as e-bikes even more relevant in those urban areas.
Generally, the e-bike is a good fit up to 20 km distances, which typically accounts for about 90% of the commute distances. This is the main reason e-bikes are so transformative – especially for urban areas (where 80% of the population typically lives).
The e-bike market has not yet reached its full capacity. Mastering the challenge of a responsible and sustainable transformation of urban life and its infrastructure is key to making this happen.
Why electric cars (EV’s) are not the best solution
Currently, the electric automobile industry experiences an abundance of support with great amounts of subsidies and tax benefits. Replacing conventional cars that run on gasoline is purported as an essential step of the decarbonization process.
At first glance, electric vehicles seem to be the solution for freeing the transport sector of CO2 emissions. This is partially true if the energy is coming from clean sources like solar power, wind energy, and hydroelectric. In that case, the car doesn’t leave much of a CO2 footprint while being driven.
The CO2 footprint thus really depends on where you are located. For instance, driving in Iceland where renewable energy sources make up for 85% of the total primary energy is eco-friendly. Meanwhile, in the United States, only 12.6% are derived from renewable energies making it a lot less green. The CO2 footprint of the EV manufacturing and transportation process also needs to be taken into consideration as mentioned earlier.
When looking at the complete picture, in a comparison between 1) EV and 2) a combination of an e-bike for short trips and a (shared) EV for the few longer (+20 km) trips, the e-bike solution (2) wins by a huge margin.
Reducing car traffic is not only important for climate reasons but also for safety reasons. Car traffic is responsible for nearly 1.3 million deaths every year. It is the leading cause of death for people aged between 5-29 years.
Switching cars from black to green does not change this statistic. Switching transportation to lower-mass micromobility vehicles does change this. Reducing speed also improves the statistic. With average car weights, 80% are killed when hit by a car going 50 km/h or faster. At 30 km/h, more than 50% will survive being hit. Due to the much lower mass, this problem is dramatically reduced with micromobility vehicles. Remember the kinetic energy formula from physics? E = m * v^2 explains why lower speed and lower mass are so much safer.
Particle pollution from tires is also a big issue in urban areas and is responsible for many deaths. This is directly related to the weight of the vehicle and to the speed. In Copenhagen (pop 0.8M) more than 400 people die every year from particles. At least half the particles from cars are not from the exhaust. Switching to EVs will actually increase the non-exhaust particle pollution due to the higher average vehicle weight.
Transforming cities with micromobility
Most cities are very car-oriented, meaning that the infrastructure is designed for cars – not for bike and foot traffic. On a positive note adding new bike lanes can be a comparatively simple task with great potential.
Taking a look at how far politics have come in regards to encouraging micromobility, the future looks promising. For instance, Paris has established ‘un nouveau plan vélo’, a new bike plan that is set to build 450 km of new bike lanes by 2026 providing interconnectivity of Paris, the Greater Paris metropolis, and its surrounding municipalities.
Another example is Berlin being the first city that introduced pop-up bike lanes during the COVID-19 pandemic that are now to stay permanently. The senate there recently decided on a plan to build nearly 3000 kilometers (1864 miles) of bike lanes by 2030 transforming the German capital into a ‘bike city’.
There is a significant link between expanding the infrastructure and cycling growth. Research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes an increase in cycling of 41.6% attributable to enlarging the bike lane network. That shows the effectiveness of investing in bike-friendly infrastructure and thus in sustainability.
The use of the area in cities is also an issue. As an example, Copenhagen, which is already quite bike-friendly and where only about 30% of the households own a car, still reserves more than 50% of the area between the houses for cars. This is questionable in the longer term from a democratic point of view.
Micromobility key points
With progress being made in many European cities we are moving closer to the goal of green and efficient urban life. Micromobility including e-bikes is destined to hold a big share in that transformation.
Further to the shift away from combustion engines towards electric vehicles, the total mass of short-range vehicles also needs to be reduced. This is due to CO2 in manufacturing and use, but also due to safety and particle pollution. This seems to be mostly overlooked by the vehicle industry, with innovative exceptions like VOV being a prime example (also using our torque sensor to create the best possible ride feeling while increasing battery range). To quote Marianne Bailey of VOV: “All EV’s must be light-weighted significantly to reduce the battery size“.
For further “reading”, this YouTube video on “The 10 Micromobility Commandments with Horace Dediu” is highly recommended.