E-bikes have been around for over a decade, first as urban utility machines and, increasingly, as performance models for enthusiast recreational riders. But there’s a persistent criticism that using a bike with electric assist is cheating compared with conventional, purely human-powered machines. (This isn’t the only reason people hate e-bikes, but it’s a common one.)
So it’s fair to ask: How, exactly, are e-bike users cheating? Sure, if you enter an organized, nonmotorized bike race on an e-assist model, that’s cheating. You owe it to your peers to compete on equal terms. But if you ride a traditional, solely human-powered bike, and you’re upset that you got beat to the top of the climb by someone on an e-bike, or if you grimace when a rider on a midtail cargo bike speeds by on the bike path in town, consider that someone else’s choices don’t have anything to do with you. It’s not as if you’re getting less of a workout.
Of course, there’s the argument that e-bike riders are somehow cheating themselves out of the proper physical benefits of riding a bike, a criticism that seems thoroughly rooted in our puritanical drive to equate hard work with virtuosity. But a growing body of research suggests that even that argument fails. According to many studies, e-bike users ride at moderate to vigorous intensity levels (admittedly, they ride faster, too). Studies also show that they often cover longer distances than people on pedal-only bikes. Plus, in many cases, e-bike trips are replacing car trips.
As a caveat, a number of these studies either feature small sample sizes or are surveys, in which it’s harder to prove true causation. But the general conclusions are consistent: riding an e-bike offers genuine health and fitness benefits. This is true whether you’re an urban commuter or an enthusiast getting after it.
No, the Motor’s Not Doing All the Work
Electric assist definitely reduces the human effort necessary to go a given speed, but by how much? A small 2017 study (only eight participants) in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity compared exercise intensity for e-bike commuters with pedal-only bike commuters and found that, in terms of intensity, e-bike commuters were still engaging in moderate physical activity, similar to brisk walking.
Brisk walking might not be what you’d call a hard workout. But consider that public-health officials identify physical inactivity as one of the most significant problems in public health in the U.S. The foundational government recommendation for baseline physical activity is at least 20 minutes a day of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as... a brisk walk.
A 2018 study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine recruited 32 overweight, sedentary participants to compare the cardiorespiratory fitness benefits of commuting on an e-bike versus commuting on a conventional bike. At the end of a four-week trial, where subjects rode at least three days a week, researchers found that peak oxygen uptake, a measure of aerobic fitness, actually increased more in the e-bike group than the group on conventional bikes.
Initial research suggests that the fitness benefits aren’t only relevant to sedentary individuals. A brand-new study out of Brigham Young University, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, compared measured and perceived exercise intensity in a group of 33 amateur cyclists who hammered a short loop on both conventional and electric mountain bikes. The study found that the average heart rate for riders covering the loop on an e-bike was 93.6 percent of their heart rate while riding the same loop on a conventional mountain bike. (Rider speeds on the e-bikes were also four miles per hour faster on average.) Surprisingly, however, participants’ perceived exertion for the e-bike loop was much lower than for the conventional bike loop. That is: they didn’t see riding e-bikes as physically taxing, though they were, in fact, exercising at the same physical intensity.
Collectively, this research hints that riding e-bikes offers physical benefits, even though it doesn’t seem like exercise.
People Who Use E-bikes Ride More Than People on Conventional Bikes
Back in 2016, the European Journal of Applied Physiology published results from a small University of Colorado Boulder study that quantified usage patterns over four weeks of real-world e-bike commuting. Twenty sedentary subjects were recruited to ride at least two hours a week at whatever pace they chose. Participants saw significant improvements in objective health measures like blood pressure and glucose tolerance. They also voluntarily rode twice as much as required: four hours a week on average and almost 200 miles per participant over the four-week study.
Yes, we should be cautious of inferring conclusions from studies with small sample sizes. But the general pattern in the University of Colorado Boulder study is backed up by other research. A 2018 survey from the National Institute for Transportation and Communities at Portland State University canvassed almost 1,800 North American riders, mostly commuters, who had recently purchased e-bikes. Some 25 percent of respondents had used their conventional bikes daily, but that number almost doubled when they converted to e-assist rides. Notably, 6.6 percent of survey respondents didn’t even own a conventional bike before buying an electric-assist model, and some 93.5 percent of those participants rode their e-bike at least once a week.
When asked why they hadn’t previously ridden as often, participants had three common responses: hills were too difficult, destinations were too far, and they didn’t like to arrive sweaty. Those are all things that e-bikes can help with.
Finally, in June, a massive survey published in the peer-reviewed journal Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives found that physical-activity levels were similar between e-bike riders and conventional cyclists, in part because e-bike riders had “significantly longer trip distances.” The more striking comparison was between e-bikers and non-cyclists. Authors reported “substantial increases in physical activity” in people who switched from cars to e-bike commuting. (The survey had over 10,000 initial respondents in seven European cities and over 1,000 participants still responding to biweekly questionnaires after a year.)
E-Bikes Aren’t Just Replacing Conventional Bikes. They’re Replacing Cars.
The accusation that e-bikes are cheating completely falls apart if the alternative is hopping in a car. A 2017 research paper in Transportation Research offers some insight. First, the authors examined 14 older studies showing that access to e-bikes reduced car trips substantially, with the bikes replacing cars for between 35 and 76 percent of trips. Then the authors set up an original study in which 80 residents of Brighton, England, were loaned e-bikes to use; here they found a more modest effect, with a roughly 20 percent reduction in car miles traveled.
The authors noted that Brighton in general has lower rates of car use and higher rates of walking than other parts of the UK, so impacts on driving might be lower than the same experiment conducted in other parts of the country. But the June Transportation Research survey broadly corroborates the findings: e-bike use led to 23 percent fewer trips by conventional, pedal-only bikes and 25 percent fewer car trips (rates varied city to city).
E-bikes, it seems, are so seductive that they replace car trips even when people don’t intend to use them that way. A different 2017 study in Transportation Research found that e-bike buyers in the Netherlands were using e-assist models to replace conventional bikes, not cars, but that car trips went down as a result. People were more willing to commute on e-bikes than on conventional ones.
So is using an e-bike cheating? Research shows that the physical benefits of e-bikes and conventional bikes are more similar than critics make them out to be. Even if you account for the assist, e-bike users seem to ride their bikes more frequently and for longer periods, which makes the physical-fitness contest a draw, at worst. If we look at cargo bikes, which riders use to haul heavy loads, I suspect any differences nearly disappear. And for urban use, at least, they’re replacing sedentary travel modes at equal rates to replacing conventional bike use. This means the comparison isn’t always e-bike to bike—it’s e-bike to sitting on your rear in a 180-horsepower, 4,000-pound sarcophagus.
The point isn’t what you’re riding, it’s that you got out at all. Maybe the next time you grab your car keys, ask yourself: Why do I need to use the car for this trip? What are the obstacles to doing it by bike, and would an e-bike help solve those issues? Maybe the real cheating is that alluring, lazy excuse we all give ourselves: it’s easier to go by car.