Why Electric Cars Won’t Save The World, But Electric Bikes Might

by Corey Squire

There’s a lot of discussion around electric cars right now, and their potential for addressing the climate crisis.

Electrification is essential for substantially reducing carbon emissions, and transportation, comprising 28% of U.S. energy demand and being powered almost entirely by fossil fuels, is a key part of the equation. Running a car on gasoline is incredibly inefficient. The average vehicle on the road today requires a whole gallon of gas to travel just twenty to thirty miles, and given the ratio in weight between a typical car and a typical sole passenger, only 4% of that energy is actually used to move a person.

Electric vehicles offer an improvement. Being far more efficient, the MPGe of an EV can be four or five times greater than a typical gas car. In addition, since EVs are powered by the grid, some percentage of that energy will have been generated with clean, renewable sources. Combining these two factors, the typical EV can reduce carbon emissions over an ICE (internal combustion engine) car by around 83% percent. This is a meaningful improvement, but it doesn’t quite address the whole problem.

EVs, like ICE cars, require significant material resources and the embodied carbon from manufacturing remains high. Regardless, a car’s power source does not address the problem of parking. EVs’ physical space needs, arguably a bigger problem than pure emissions, would remain unchanged, and sitting in traffic remains equally miserable.

Since we need to remake our transportation system to cut out nearly a third of the nation’s carbon emissions, why not leverage this opportunity to reinvent travel to truly address the problems that ripple out from cars? Enter the electric bike. While we often think of eBikes as a bicycle upgrade, they’re much more powerful when considered as a car replacement. Of all the car trips taken in the United States, 52% are less than 3 miles, an ideal cycling distance. A recent explosion in new eBike forms and technologies now offer models that can power up hills, beat the rain, and carry anything from groceries to four kids. eBike makes bike commuting near-universally accessible, offering the benefits of cycling to parents, residents of hilly cities, those with longer commutes, and anyone who’d rather not arrive at their destination all sweaty.

The benefits of bike commuting include exercise, neighborhood connection, safer and quieter roads, less pollution, and an all-round more pleasant experience, resulting in happier commuters. But in addition, eBikes actually solve the problems that EVs are hyped to address: carbon. With a combination of human muscles and an electric motor, these centaurs can achieve efficiencies in the range of 1,000 to 4,000 MPGe depending on the level of assist, providing up to 133 times the efficiency of a typical car and cutting carbon emissions by well over 99.7%. A quarter of all miles driven in the United States are from trips under 10 miles, and if just half of these were made on eBikes rather than cars (ICE or EVs), total U.S. carbon emission would be cut by 2.5%, offsetting all domestic air travel.

So with all this potential, how can architectural design support and encourage widespread adoption of eBikes? First, provide ample protected parking and plenty of opportunities for charging. Traditional bicycle parking counts, based on those who have ridden in the past, are not going to cut it in a broadly inclusive eBike world. Subvert the contemporary site design paradigm and treat bike transportation as the norm, and cars–electric or otherwise–as an afterthought. People can still drive places if they like, but architecture should not feel the need to go out of its way for their needs. Provide minimum parking per code and advocate for less. Design that welcomes bikes welcomes people, and can unlock the incredible carbon reductions that eBikes have to offer. Electric vehicles will have their place in an electrified economy, but we need to recognize EVs for what they are, not a transformational technology but a subtly-more-efficient version of the status quo. Those who drive long distances and have means should convert to EVs. Everyone else, including the planet, would be better off if we shifted our focus towards eBikes.

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