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Electric Bikes

A German bicycle mechanic trying out the latest electric bike from his shop in Berlin.

Electric bikes are the most environmentally sound means of motorized transport in the world today. They come in many shapes and forms and are accompanied by a small battery-powered motor that can make hills manageable, journeys swifter, and longer trips more viable. As they grow more effective and affordable, e-bikes are increasingly drawing people out of more polluting modes of transportation, such as driving solo.

E-bikes are all the rage in China, where millions of people use them to commute and e-bike owners outnumber car owners by a factor of two. The trend dates to the mid-1990s, when China’s booming cities put strict antipollution rules in place. These pedal-motor hybrids are on the rise in many parts of the world, as urban dwellers seek convenient, healthy, and affordable ways to move around congested cities.

An e-bike’s battery gets its charge from the nearest outlet, tapping into whatever electricity is on hand—from coal-based to solar-powered. E-bikes have higher emissions than a regular bicycle or simply walking, but they still outperform cars, including electric ones.


Chinese e-bike owners: Ji, S., et al. “Electric Vehicles in China: Emissions and Health Impacts.” Environmental Science & Technology, 46, no. 4 (2012): 2018–2024.

“largest adoption of alternative fuel vehicles”: Cherry, Christopher. Quoted in Daniel Cusick “Can E-Bikes Displace Cars?” Scientific American. February 22, 2012.

China…e-bike sales: Mason, Jacob, Lew Fulton, and Zane McDonald. A Global High Shift Cycling Scenario. New York and Davis, CA: Institute for Transportation & Development Policy and the University of California–Davis, 2015.

urban trips…easy distance: Mason et al, Scenario.

more effective and affordable…[more] people: Fishman, Elliot, and Christopher Cherry. “E-bikes in the Mainstream: Reviewing a Decade of Research.” Transport Reviews, 36, no. 1 (2016): 72-91.

e-bikes sold in 2012: MacArthur, J., J. Dill, and M. Person. “Electric Bikes in North America: Results from an Online Survey.” Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2468 (2014): 123–130.

e-bikes…outperform cars…[most] mass transit: Cherry, C. R., J. X. Weinert, and Y. Xinmiao. “Comparative Environmental Impacts of Electric Bikes in China.” Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 14, no. 5 (2009): 281–290; Fishman and Cherry, “Mainstream.”

[cost vs.] a classic bike: Gunther, Marc. “Will Electric Bicycles Get Americans to Start Pedaling?” Yale Environment 360. April 22, 2013.

lead acid batteries: Fishman and Cherry, “Mainstream.”

first…patent for an electric bicycle: Bolton, Ogden. U.S. Patent No. 552,271. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 1895.

Others…working to motorize [bicycles]: Roberts, Ronald. “Electric Bike History, Patents from the 1800’s.” November 9, 2013.

fastest-selling alternative-fuel vehicles: Navigant. Electric Bicycles. Boulder, CO: Navigant Research, 2016.

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