Can e-bikes transform our cities? | FT Tech

Can e-bikes transform our cities? | FT Tech

Sales of electric bicycles, or e-bikes, as they’re better known, are booming. At the same time, innovations in battery technology have extended the range that 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.

It’s an almost silent revolution. Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, as they’re better known,
are exploding in popularity, accounting for over €12bn worth of sales in Europe last year.
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 130mm 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 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 three and a half thousand and it goes up to
ten thousand. It’s a very serious investment for the people who buy it.
Six hundred kilometres 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 one hundred 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 25 kilometres per hour,
Bosch’s engines can achieve a range of around 150 kilometres using a high
energy density lithium-ion battery. Do you see there being one key technology,
or is this rather more like an iPhone, where lots of different technologies came together
and then you’ve got this 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. We park them directly next to a railway station. We have
also built more and more parking places outside everywhere because it is 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. 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 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 10 million
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 Gorillas. 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 eQuads.
Battery powered, ultra slim four-wheeled cycles that don’t pollute or get parking tickets
and speed past 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 motorcar. We’ve designed most of the infrastructure for motorcars,
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 realised that actually, cities are for people.
In 1949, cycling accounted for more than 14 billion vehicle miles travelled in the UK.
But by 1974, as cars took over, that figure had shrunk by 80 per cent.
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 the 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 40 million
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.

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