In 50 Years, Will E-Bikes Have Served Their True Purpose?
For the sake of our planet, let’s hope so
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
In America, few modes of transit combine a childlike sense of joy with a valid fear of death quite like the bicycle. Urban bike commuters and child-hauling suburbanites can both see that America’s roadways were designed with cars in mind, not pedestrians or cyclists. We’ve known since the early 1950’s that air pollution is linked to cars and transportation—the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States—and can’t help but wonder: what will it take to finally release us from our toxic car-based identity? As of 2021, electric bikes have been outpacing global EV and hybrid auto sales, and a study by Deloitte estimates that by 2023, there will be roughly 300 million e-bikes around the world. Cars have been beating regular bikes in the war for America’s roads for decades. But with e-bikes on the rise, a less-polluted, less car-centric society may finally be in our future.
“It would be a huge contribution if we got everybody out of their cars and onto bikes,” says Adam Markham, director of the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The more we do to reduce emissions, the faster we do it, the less damage there will be.” Markham warns that the international “Paris Target” to keep average global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels is highly unlikely. “We’re currently around 1.1 degrees and it’s possible we might go to four degrees, and that becomes not just dangerous but catastrophic.” Alarming as this may be, fighting climate change isn’t why most people ride an e-bike. According to a 2018 study by Portland State University, the majority of riders are motivated to buy e-bikes to increase their range and speed, and to handle hills more easily. “Americans who would never have considered riding a bike were thrust onto this thing and woah! these e-bikes can make cycling easier,” says Larry Pizzi, general manager of Alta Cycling Group and board director of the nonprofit PeopleForBikes. “The pandemic cast a bright light on the biking category, creating a whole new generation of cyclists.”
To get an inside take on the future role of e-biking, we spoke to leading experts in cycling, climate science, urban planning, and micromobility. From sustainable batteries to better bike infrastructure, here are some predictions about how e-bikes will transform—both themselves and our car-mad world—by 2073.
Helping to Decarbonize and De-Car Cities
In the best-case scenario of what e-bikes could do for urban policy planning, consider this: in 50 years, cities and suburbs could be brimming with wide and protected bike lanes running parallel to the sidewalk. Restrictions on cars could include environmental taxes, more one-way streets, bans on internal combustion engines, and priority given to ride-sharing vehicles. Eliminating half the cars that exist today could reallocate more space and funding for people taking mass transit and bikes.
Juliet Scott-Croxford is the North America president at Brompton, a folding bike brand that saw direct-to-consumer sales of its electric models rise 239 percent in the U.S. in 2022. Scott-Croxford envisions a future in which every parked car was shared by multiple people, and each vehicle had a rack containing four e-bikes. “This would create a network of flexible transit between e-bikes and cars where you only pay for what you use and have access to the right mode of transportation for the job wherever you go,” she says.
Caroline Samponaro, the head of micromobility and transit policy at ride share company Lyft, also envisions a future in which we’ve dropped the single–occupancy dependent transit system and created micromobility hubs with various charging capabilities. “In 50 years, we will have made U.S. investments in greenway networks, connecting more rural and less dense towns with safe bike superhighways,” says Samponaro. Lyft’s Citi Bike program in New York saw 18.3 million trips and 40 million miles traveled on e-bikes in 2022, and the company recorded a more than 50 percent increase in bike ridership since 2020, a growth Samponaro attributes to e-bikes.
Scott-Croxford thinks widespread adoption of e-bikes will come to fruition with cities across the U.S. implementing e-bike rebate programs. Denver’s program has cut 2,040 metric tons of carbon dioxide and saved nearly $1 million in avoided fuel and electricity costs, according to one study. And the federal E-BIKE Act, currently pending in Congress, would offer all Americans a refundable tax credit of 30 percent off the purchase of an e-bike, up to $1,500.
By the 2070s, there should finally be more bikes than vehicles on the road in U.S. cities as municipalities get less hospitable to cars. Mikael Colville-Andersen, a renowned bike photographer, founder of the non-profit Bikes4Ukraine, and an urban design consultant, sees this substitute effect happening now in Europe, where many cities have removed parking spaces to make driving difficult. The urban transformation will take longer to happen in America last due to what he calls “the brain fart of a century of car-centric planning and thinking.” But, he says, “it’s only a tiny window in the history of humans and it has a shelf-life.”
Sustainable Battery Tech Will Be Needed
Used in everything from phones and laptops to electric vehicles and bikes, lithium-ion batteries are hardly green inventions. They rely on rare-earth metals like nickel, lithium, and cobalt, the latter of which is frequently compared to a “blood diamond” for the associated inhumane mining practices in places like the Congo. Ravi Kempaiah, a battery scientist and the founder of Zen E-Bikes, predicts that by 2073 more devices will rely on sodium-ion batteries, which are cheaper, resistant to cold, and more climate-friendly than the ones we currently use. In the next 50 years, alternate power sources like hydrogen fuel cells could also become a viable option.
In the meantime, Kempiah is trying to make e-bikes last longer. In his opinion, the technology’s current limits make the bikes feel disposable.
“The majority of e-bikes sold in the U.S. are between $1,500 and $2,500 and are bought at Costco or online with warranties often lasting up to one year, and batteries lasting up to three years,” says Kempaiah, who until recently held the world record for the longest e-bike ride. This summer, Zen will launch e-bikes and standalone batteries with twice the lifetime of regular e-bike packs. Kempaiah says Zen is working to build a battery that will last four times as long as current lithium-ion ones, and is able to be recycled after 12 years, which could cut down on mining. America faces a long road ahead to implementing sustainable battery solutions on a large scale, but it no longer feels like an elusive quest for success. In June 2021, the Biden administration called for an end to cobalt and nickel in batteries; Nissan announced in 2022 that it will introduce cobalt-free batteries by 2028; and Tesla is shifting to lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, which contain zero cobalt and nickel, for its Model 3 and Model Y cars.
In the future, federal legislation will likely mandate that batteries be recycled and kept out of landfills. In November 2021, PeopleForBikes joined forces with the non-profit Call2Recycle to offer a first-of-its-kind battery recycling program that accepts batteries from nearly 40 bike suppliers and has over 1,800 specially trained bike shops throughout the country serving as drop-off locations. “Call2Recycle is not an industry-wide practice, but it will be,” said Kempaiah, who believes that by 2073 we will primarily use recycled batteries to power e-bikes.
Smarter, Safer, and Seldom-Needed Machines
At the end of the day, the most sustainable bike battery is still a human one.
As popular as e-bikes are now, in their relatively early stage, the majority of the population may not need them by 2073. “Bikes have worked perfectly in every city on this planet for about 130 years. Why fix something that isn’t broken?” says Mikael Colville-Anderson. I think that the current wow factor will fade, like the Segway and e-scooters.” Colville-Andersen believes pedal-assist e-bikes to be useful for a select group of people, such as the elderly, but thinks cities will be better off without so many of them. “In 50 years, the e-bike will be around but people will realize that they don’t need one for urban trips; a normal bike will suffice in our re-designed, slowed-down cities,” he says. “The convenience factor of just walking out of a home and hopping on a bike without worrying about whether it’s charged or not will reign supreme.” However, for those engineering the e-bike’s full potential, this is just the beginning of an exciting new frontier.
David Devine, senior product director at Cannondale, imagines current barriers such as range anxiety, ease of charging, and cost of ownership will be a thing of the past. He also expects to see a very different product landscape, with improvements in motor efficiency, energy density of the battery, and safety. “The cycling industry will need to collaborate with automotive and other forms of transport to have a better connected awareness network for V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communication,” he says. “Being able to balance different levels of autonomous vehicles with driver-oriented transport will be important.” Cannondale, one of the first brands to partner with Bosch on urban e-bike development in 2010-2011, is at the forefront of connected bike technology with innovations like SmartSense, an intelligent network of lights and a rear-facing radar that helps riders be more aware of their surroundings and more visible to drivers.
These kinds of tech advances may be key to bridging the great divide, wherein e-bikes have done their job in helping create a safer new world with far fewer cars. “By the 2070s, we may still be tech-focused but analog solutions—like the normal bicycle—will return,” says Colville-Andersen. Even if non-pedal assist bikes become the norm, e-bikes may still hold significant value for some Americans. Yuba’s marketing director Justin Gottlieb says, “Electric cargo bikes will become the SUV or pickup truck solution for people to carry kids, adults, groceries, camping equipment, soccer gear and so much more while getting exercise and lowering their carbon footprint.” However the bike may evolve in 50 years, be it into an autonomous marvel with automatic braking and steering or a self-balancing bike, as long as there is a passionate ridership, the bike will be passed down like an undeniable heirloom, raising the next generation of happy-go-lucky cyclists.