The fast changing technology of bicycles to E-Bikes
Cycling's technological transformation: Making bicycling faster, easier and safer.
The progression from 1 percent to 2 percent may seem unimpressive at first glance—but given the low bases, the difference will be marked. Tens of billions of additional bicycle rides per year means fewer car trips and lower emissions, with spillover benefits for traffic congestion and urban air quality.
Underlying this growth in bike-riding is an array of diverse technological innovations, including predictive analytics, product and application design, wireless connectivity.
digital urban planning tools, 3D-printed parts, and electrification. These innovations—which, for the most part, are being developed separately by a disparate range of companies—are making cycling safer, faster, more convenient, and easier to track and measure. This, in turn, makes it a more attractive option for first-mile, last-mile, and overall travel, furthering its rising popularity.
Growth in urban bicycle use can drive profound societal changes: reductions in traffic and pollution, less-crowded public transit systems, and improvements in public health. The need for more effective transportation is particularly acute in cities. Every week, an estimated 3 million people move into cities around the world.2 By 2050, 2.5 billion more people are expected to be living in cities than today.3 Moving all these people around may strain capacity on existing transport options. Bikes can pick up some of the slack for shorter journeys: Nearly three in five private car trips in the United States in 2017 were shorter than 10 kilometers, and just under half were shorter than five kilometers.
Even today, bicycle trips number in the billions each year.
While we anticipate bicycling to become more widespread in the future, it is far from rare even today. There are currently six cities in the world where bicycling occupies more than 10 percent of all journeys. True, the top three are relatively small, but the next three have a combined
population of 45 million. Add in Beijing, Bangalore, Shenzhen, Buenos Aires, and Delhi, and we are looking at several billion bicycle trips annually, even though bicycling represents less than 10 percent of journeys in each of the latter cities.
Electrification: My other car is an e- bike
Of the slew of the aforementioned bicycle-related technologies, the development and spread of e-bikes, which use batteries to assist pedaling, stands out for its potential to boost cycling’s growth.
Electrifying a bike is not a new idea: The first patent for an electrically powered bicycle dates from 1895.5 The concept, however, did not catch on like wildfire. Even earlier in this century, e-bikes remained relatively rare in most of the world. Between 2006 and 2012, for example, e-bikes represented less than 1 percent of all annual bicycle sales (standard and electric) in the United States.6 The exception was China, where 37 million e-bikes were manufactured and 32 million sold in 2013.7 By contrast, only 1.8 million e-bikes were sold in all of Europe that same year, while Japan recorded only 440,000 and the United States a measly 185,000.8
Now, thanks largely to recent improvements in lithium-ion battery (LIB) technology, pricing, and power, the e-bike market is seeing a surge in interest, particularly for high-
end models. Between 2020 and 2023, more than 130 million e-bikes (using all battery technologies) are expected to be sold, and in 2023, e-bike sales are expected to top 40 million units worldwide, generating about US$20 billion in revenue. To put these numbers into context, only 12 million electric vehicles—that is, automobiles and trucks—are expected to sell in 2025; at the end of 2018, just 5.1 million electric vehicles were in circulation.
Advances in LIBs are a strong sales driver. Although more than 80 percent of the e-bikes sold each year were using heavy lead-acid batteries as recently as 2016, the falling price of much lighter LIBs has shifted the market. Over the entire four-year forecast period between 2020 and 2023, we expect about two-fifths of all e-bikes sold globally to feature LIBs, with the proportion of LIB-powered e-bikes starting out at about 25 percent in 2020 and rising to more than 60 percent in 2023. LIBs are now becoming available in variants for different applications, with models specifically designed for commuting (for fast acceleration at a low pedaling speed), cargo (for heavy loads), and mountain bikes (ideal for fast sprints and steep hills) now available.
Bike makers and sellers are already seeing e-bike sales pick up the pace. One global bicycle manufacturer’s e- bike H1 revenues for 2019 were up by more than 40 percent year over year. In Germany, e-bike sales in 2018 rose by 36 percent to nearly 1 million units; almost a
million more were sold in Germany in just the first half of 2019.16 More than half of all adult bikes sold in the Netherlands in 2018 were electric, and e-bike sales at speciality stores in the United States surged to more than 400,000 units, a 73 percent increase. Spain recorded a 55 percent year-on-year increase in e-bike unit sales in 2018, selling 111,297 e-bikes for an average of 2,165 euros each.
All those sales mean a lot of e-bikes on the streets. By 2023, the total number of e-bikes in circulation around the world—owned by both consumers and organizations— should reach about 300 million, a 50 percent increase over 2019’s 200 million. These 300 million e-bikes will include both privately owned e-bikes and e-bikes available to share.
What’s the appeal of e-bikes? One big plus is that battery assist makes bicycling less of a physical effort. This translates into faster speeds; easier acceleration after a stop, such as at a traffic light; and a power boost when going uphill, facing headwinds, carrying heavy loads, or some combination of the above. Once a specific speed has been attained, the assist stops. In Europe and China, battery assistance stops at 25 kilometers per hour; any faster, and the rider must power the bike on their own.
On an e-bike, a bicyclist can attain an average speed of about 22 kilometers per hour, about 50 percent faster than the average 15 kilometers per hour for a standard
bike. This increased speed could cut journey times by two-thirds. At such speeds, an e-bike might even outpace a car, bus, or subway. Moreover, riding an e-bike requires less effort than a standard bike. An e-bike ride is more akin to a stroll than a sprint, meaning that bicycling can be done in a suit rather than spandex. One test found that e- bikers sweat two-thirds less than regular cyclists. This matters to commuters: Not having to pack a change of clothing or shower after a ride removes a significant disincentive to bicycling.
E-bikes open up bicycling to many who might otherwise hesitate. Because the electric motor takes over when energy levels flag, e-bikes can encourage people who feel out of shape to get back in the saddle. According to one survey, 20 percent of Londoners who don’t bicycle say that they are too old or unfit to do so. And the effect doesn’t end with out-of-shape able-bodied individuals. Electrification can be a game-changer for the disabled: The motorized elements of an e-bike can be integrated into a wheelchair that can then be ridden in bike lanes or on the road. For the disabled, this can make moving around a city far faster than traveling by bus (even with ramps) or rail (assuming station platforms have been adapted and lifts added).
Yet electrifying a bicycle does more than making it easier to pedal. E-bikes can also be secured and unlocked via a smartphone app, and the same technology makes it possible to more easily locate an e-bike if lost or stolen.
Electrification can also improve safety. Most higher-end e- bikes have very large, bright, battery-powered front and rear LED lights—not as important for daytime pleasure rides, but critical for winter rush-hour commutes, which in the northern hemisphere often occur in dusk or even complete darkness.
Yes, most or all of this can be done on mechanical bikes, too. But ... it usually isn’t. Buying these capabilities integrated into an electric bike eliminates hassle for the rider. Consider someone using battery-powered front and rear lights on a standard bike. Nonintegrated lights are easy to steal, so the rider would have to remove them after the morning commute, carry them to the office or classroom, find somewhere to store or charge them, and then bring them back and remount them for the ride home. At home, the entire process must be repeated if secure parking is not available. An e-bike’s integrated lights, on the other hand, are always there, always powered, and hard to steal, and they only run out of battery if the bike does.
Electrification enables greater experimentation in form factors as well. Bikes can be reconfigured to carry toddlers safely, transport a week’s worth of groceries, and make local deliveries—without requiring Olympian levels of fitness to operate.
Perhaps the most compelling factor favoring e-bikes’ eventual uptake is the ubiquity of the charging network.
Unlike electric cars, e-bikes do not require a new network of fast chargers or the installation of specialized chargers in parking lots: Recharging an e-bike merely requires plugging the battery into a standard power socket for a few hours. A modern house is likely to have more than 60 electricity sockets;27 a modern office building housing 1,000 workers may have more than 5,000. In contrast, only 150,000 public fast chargers for vehicles were available globally as of the end of 2018, of which 78 percent were in China.28 Additional e-bike batteries, which can be carried in a backpack, typically weigh only around 2.5 kilograms.29
E-bikes may soon start to invade the niche currently occupied by automobiles thanks to their convenience, utility, and relatively low cost. Even electric cargo bikes, though more expensive (at about US$8,000) than standard e-bikes, are much cheaper than most cars—and may be just as useful for running most errands. According to one survey, 28 percent of e-bike buyers bought the e- bike as a substitute for a car,30 not as an upgrade to a bike. Uber’s foray into e-bikesharing offers further suggestive data. Six months after Uber purchased e- bikesharing company Jump in January 2018, trips by new e-bikesharers on the Uber platform had gone up 15 percent while the number of car and SUV trips decreased by 10 percent, with the greatest shift happening between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.31 Auto manufacturers themselves are getting in on the action. GM has launched a folding e-bike.
Maserati has designed a 10,000-euro electric racing bike that won the German Design Award in 2019.33 And Volkswagen is marketing an e-cargo bike with a maximum load of 210 kilograms (including the driver).
Electric cargo bikes, in fact, could become a preferred solution for last-mile delivery in cities.35 They emit zero carbon, and occupy far less road space than cars when in use or parked. Logistics companies could use comparative data to determine when using e-cargo bikes instead of cars or vans would improve delivery times and reduce costs. One study found that e-cargo bikes could be used for 20 percent of deliveries.36 This means that e- cargo bikes could make potentially tens of billions of yearly deliveries worldwide: In the United States alone, delivery volumes are rising by 20 percent per year, with forecast of 285 billion shipments in 2021. In the near term, standard-sized delivery trucks could get squeezed out by e-cargo bikes. UPS, for one, is testing electric trikes that can hold up to 181 kilograms with a capacity of 2.7 cubic meters.
The impact on take-out food delivery worldwide could be especially high. Beijing alone sees 1.8 million food deliveries every day. A dozen pizzas would overwhelm a mechanical bike, and could be awkward even for a moped —but they might fit perfectly on an e-cargo bike. In trials, Domino’s Pizza found that e-bike deliveries were not only faster than delivery by car, but also received higher customer service ratings.
Bikesharing: Bringing bikes to where the riders are
There are billions of bikes in the world, with hundreds of millions of them under individual ownership—but only a small fraction of them are regularly used. One reason for this is because bikes are seldom around when you most need them. With the rise of bikesharing, this may be about to change.
Bikesharing makes bicycles available at the point of demand. More than 1,000 dock-based bikesharing programs exist worldwide, representing tens of millions of shareable bikes. The bikesharing market is even attracting bike manufacturers seeking to diversify; specialist folding bike manufacturer Brompton, for example, has 45 rental locations in the United Kingdom.
Although bikesharing usage is still relatively low—in the United States, for instance, only 45 million trips were made on shared bikes in 2018,45 as opposed to the 115 million cars and trucks driven on US streets every day— electrification should make bikesharing more appealing in the future by offsetting one of its major current drawbacks: the weight. Shared bikes are designed to be up to three times heavier than a standard bike, both to make them more robust and able to withstand heavy use, and to make them less attractive to would-be thieves. But heavy bikes can be harder to ride, and they may discourage the less fit from making the attempt. An electrified e-bike, on the other hand, can be both robust and easier to pedal than mechanical shared bikes.
Electrified bikesharing programs, docked as well as dockless, are likely to proliferate in 2020 and beyond. Of the 192 cities in the United States with bikesharing schemes, more than 40 already include e-bikes in their fleet.48 Madison, Wisconsin, for example, converted all of the bikes in its bikeshare program to electric in June 2019.49 In trials, the Madison e-bikes had generated up to five times as many trips as standard bikes; since the move to all-electric bikes, the program’s ridership has risen by a factor of 1.5 to 4.50 Conversely, in cities where e-bikes have been withdrawn, bikesharing usage has declined.
Besides being more user-friendly, shared electric bikes may offer better economics. Hello Bike, a Chinese shared mobility company that started offering shared electric bikes in 2017, has stated that e-bikes are its most profitable division. The aggregate number of Hello Bike’s e-bike and e-scooter rides, at 700 million per day, is more than twice that of standard bikes.
Technologies beyond electrification: Improving the cycling experience
Beyond electrification, technology can offer a host of additional tools for improving the cycling experience, whether on an e-bike or a standard one.
Technology can show when bicycling is the smart choice
In many cities, average car speeds are getting slower and slower, and car trips are getting correspondingly longer and longer. This trend may make bikes, particularly e- bikes, the fastest way to get around in some areas. One 2017 analysis pegged average car speed within a mile of the center of London at 5.13 miles per hour, 19 percent slower than 2016’s 6.25 miles per hour. At that, London is still faster than Manhattan, where cars average 4.7 miles per hour in midtown. In Moscow, a study found that drivers spent an average of 210 hours in 2018 in traffic queues. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen—where 62 percent of residents bike to work, school, or university57—49 percent of one survey’s respondents said that their primary reason for bicycling was because it was faster, a greater proportion than cited health benefits, cost savings, or the environment.
Bikers seeking to plan their commutes down to the minute can draw on a range of technologies to help them do so: first, by recording bike journey times; second, by sharing this information with others; and third, by helping them plan even faster routes. The most accessible tool is the smartphone. Using an app, bikers can not only easily log and share their journey times, but also receive time estimates based on aggregated user data. Citymapper, for example, estimates bike journey times for three different
types of routes: quiet, regular, or fast. Taking this concept a step further, cyclist-specific smart mobility platforms have recently been piloted in Cologne (Germany), Porto (Portugal), and Trikala (Greece). Bikers on these platforms can upload information on road conditions, building sites, or unexpected incidents such as road accidents, which the platform then shares with other cyclists.59
Apps can quantify the cycling experience in other ways as well. They can calculate the number of calories burned, as do the Strava and LimeBike apps, or measure the amount of greenhouse gas not created as a result of not driving, as do some health apps. This kind of information may not motivate everyone to bike, but for those who like their exercise with a bit of gamification, it can act as a further incentive.
Apps also exist for bikesharing. As of July 2019, Google Maps displays bikesharing stations’ locations, as well as how many bikes are available at each, in 24 cities. Bikesharing companies’ own dedicated apps can pinpoint available bikes’ locations and their prices as measured by range. Uber, as mentioned above, now rents bikes through its app. And in the United States, Lyft offers Citi Bike rentals through its app—having also purchased Motivate, the United States’ largest bikeshare operator, in July 2018.
Over the coming years, transport apps will likely include real-time information designed specifically for cyclists in
the same way that Waze does for motorists. Indeed, these apps could consolidate data on all modes of transportation, allowing commuters to compare journey times across modes at any time.
Technology can make bicycling safer
A major reason that people do not ride bikes—of any type —is because of safety concerns. Here, too, technology can offer multiple solutions.
Accelerometers and gyroscopes, available on most smartphones, tablets, and action cameras, can be used to detect a crash. Some bike helmet models can use this capability to call a predefined number on the rider’s smartphone in the event of a collision. Wearable airbags are also available. Hövding’s wearable airbag, worn as a collar and charged via USB, measures the cyclist’s movements 200 times a second to monitor for abnormalities. In the event of an accident—signaled by an abnormal movement—the airbag inflates to cover the neck and head with an air-filled cushion, dramatically reducing the risk of concussion and almost completely eliminating the risk of skull fracture.
Wireless technologies can also help bikers signal their turns to other road users without taking a hand off their handlebars, which some cyclists feel unsafe doing. Bluetooth-enabled indicator lights integrated into bike helmets, with switches mounted on handlebars, eliminate
this difficulty; some such helmets even incorporate a brake light. Other helmet models feature short-range communications (up to 900 meters) via an intercom system, complete with integrated microphone and speakers. Up to four cyclists can be connected on the same network.
Additive manufacturing (3D printing) techniques can improve helmet crash resistance, as well as create highly protective bespoke helmets. One vendor, HEXR, uses 3D scans of a client’s head to 3D-print a helmet constructed with a hexagonal honeycomb cell inner shell. HEXR claims this helmet offers percent more protection than a regular polystyrene foam helmet, as each printed cell can buckle and bend under impact.
Technology can help protect bikers from social dangers as well. Female cyclists, in particular, can be at risk of being physically attacked, and are often subjected to verbal abuse from drivers or male cyclists about their clothing, speed, body size, or even the merits of bicycling while pregnant. To help combat these issues, manufacturers are beginning to integrate increasingly high-quality cameras into helmets, lights, and bikes. Filming antisocial behavior does not address the root of the problem, but it may deter or dampen it. Not only can this improve safety for women riders, but it may also help increase overall bicycling participation rates, which tend to be higher in markets where women feel safe bicycling. In the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, for instance, there
is minimal difference between male and female participation rates in cycling, and overall bicycling rates are among the highest in the world. On the other hand, one study of trends in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia found that male cyclists outnumbered female cyclists by about two to one. In New York and London, about three-quarters of commuter cyclists are male.
Technology can help redesign cities to be more bike-friendly
For the past century, cities have primarily been designed around cars. Bicycles and their needs for space and storage have usually been an afterthought, if indeed they were thought of at all. The construction of a 10-story garage would not merit a write-up in a local newspaper. The opening of a three-story bike park adjacent to a train station in Utrecht, Netherlands made news around the world.
But although cars are likely to remain prevalent for decades to come, a growing number of cities are beginning to reallocate available space to accommodate other forms of transport, including bicycles. Giving bikes more space is very likely a critical step toward making cities more hospitable to bicycle use: Many people who might otherwise embrace cycling are frightened off by the prospect of sharing a crowded road with big metal vehicles with only a helmet for protection. The good news
is that there is plenty of space to reallocate. The United States has more than a billion parking spaces, for instance, and more than half of all of the country’s downtown space is given over to roads or parking.
In some cities, effective road redesign has prompted notable habit changes. London has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in creating standalone bike lanes. Partly as a result, cycle journeys in the city grew by 5 percent in 2018, with more than 4 million kilometers traveled by bike each day. The deployment of a dedicated bike lane on one of London’s busiest bridges, which required the removal of a lane previously used for cars, enabled a 5 percent increase in the number of people crossing the bridge during peak usage hours. On the flip side, city planning that fails to consider bicyclists’ needs can drive bicycling participation rates down. For instance, the proportion of adults bicycling five times a week in Cambridge, UK fell from 32 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2017, a decline attributed partly to developers’ failure to incorporate bicyclists into plans for new streets, road junctions, and bicycle parking.
Data and analytics technologies can aid urban planners’ efforts to devise bicycle-friendly solutions. The amount of data available to planners is growing, while advances in analytics are making this data ever more useful. London’s transport authority is using a digital tool called Cynemon to help inform investments in the city’s bike lanes. This tool applies algorithms to data synthesized from multiple
sources to determine what routes bikers are most likely to take along Greater London’s network of streets and urban paths. Strava, whose consumer app collects data from millions of bikers and runners around the world, aggregates and anonymises this data through its Metro product and makes it available to departments of transportation and city planning groups to use in improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Depersonalised, aggregated data from mobile network operators could also be used to understand commuter journeys.
New tools to analyze traffic flow can further improve data quantity and quality. Vivacity Labs has developed an AI tool that can classify road users by transport type from a video feed. Unlike older automated methods that rely on weight to trigger a response, this technology can be used to count bikes and pedestrians as well as heavier cars, buses, and trucks.
Bicycles and bike accessories themselves can be fitted with location and motion sensors to yield useful data. In the United Kingdom, Manchester’s city council subsidized a program that equipped bikers with See.Sense lights to capture data on routes, journey times, problem spots such as potholes, and key pinch points or stoppages. The council used the aggregated and anonymized data to understand what routes cyclists were using and where safety concerns were highest due to factors such as lack of infrastructure, adverse road conditions, or overexposure to traffic.
What about e-scooters?
Bicycles aren’t the only two-wheeled vehicle people use to get around. The “micromobility” sector also includes e- scooters, which have attracted a great deal of attention in a number of locales.
E-scooters incorporate many of the technologies that are making cycling better and easier: batteries, GPS and data capabilities, app-based access, and availability through sharing platforms. However, despite their popularity— millions of e-scooters have been sold to individuals and to rideshare fleets, and tens of millions of e-scooter trips are taken per year—we have excluded e-scooters from this chapter’s analysis. The reason: We expect that e-scooters will be overwhelmingly used only for first- and last-mile travel, not for entire commutes of many kilometers that can take half an hour or more.
E-scooters’ higher injury rates may also nudge users toward e-bikes and other safer modes. A 2019 Calgary, Canada study of scooter injuries reported to hospitals found that the risk of injury per trip for scooters was 120 times higher than for motorists, and 600 times higher than for buses, compared to a study based on police reported injuries.
The bottom line
The technology industry has a large role to play in encouraging greater bicycle use—a goal that can help society address many challenges arising from continuing global urbanization. Improving the technology itself— better data analytics to support urban planning, or faster battery recharge times, or apps that help people integrate bicycling into their commutes—is only part of the picture. The other, equally important part is to support policies and programs that promote bicycling.
The tech industry can’t do it alone, however. Many vertical sectors should be involved for cycling to make a dent in certain entrenched challenges. For example, consider public health and the related issue of health care costs. Standing at an estimated US$8.9 trillion in 2020, health care is one of the developed world’s biggest expenses. The adoption of healthier lifestyles could help lower these costs in some markets. To this end, instead of prescribing pills, doctors could offer programs designed to change behavior, such as encouraging exercise. This is actually already happening to a limited extent: In the United Kingdom, some doctors are referring patients to a 12- week bicycling course with the aim of making them more confident about being on a bike—and, hopefully, to make bicycling a habit.
The health benefits of bicycling and other forms of exercise have been proven many times over. As just one example, one major study that followed 236,450 participants for five years found that bicycling to work was
associated with a 41 percent lower risk of dying compared with commuting by car or public transport. Cyclists also had a 52 percent lower risk of succumbing to heart disease than noncyclists, and a 40 percent lower chance of dying from cancer. Even riding an electric bike can improve a person’s health; an e-bike may require less effort, but less effort does not mean effortless. One US study found that people who rode e-bikes for 40 minutes each week for a month improved in cardiovascular health, aerobic capacity, and blood sugar control, while also losing body fat.
In association with national and local governments, health care systems could use data models to predict the long- term financial benefits of health improvements driven by behavioral modification programs. These analyses could then be fed into cost models for the redesign of cities and towns to encourage more bicycling.
Employers, too, should be involved in shaping healthier commuter habits. Many companies already invest heavily in a range of worker well-being initiatives. Businesses can encourage people to bike to work in many ways, such as converting existing car parking space to space for bikes (10 bikes can fit into a single standard car parking space). New buildings could plan to build in ample space for bikes from the beginning; Zurich’s AXA Winterhur office, which was designed with 1,000 bike parking spaces, is one example. Office entrances could include a dedicated ramp for bicyclists.
Calendar apps can add further incentive by encouraging workers to bicycle to their next meeting rather than drive or take a cab. The app could show projected travel time for a range of options, including for mechanical and e-bikes; as observed previously, cycling in major cities is likely to be faster than driving or taking public transportation, and e- cycling faster still.
In terms of usage, bicycling still makes up only a small fraction of urban transportation modes. In terms of impact, however, bicycling can be immensely important— and the more people who bicycle, the greater the likely societal benefits. As technologies continue to improve, bicycling will most likely continue to become easier, faster, and safer. That’s good news for cities worldwide as they search for more economical and more sustainable ways to move people and things around.