The rise of the e-bike

The rise of the e-bike

E-bikes are bicycles with a battery-powered motor assisting the rider. With sales rising rapidly in many countries, e-bikes are likely to become a key component of a transition towards a low-carbon mobility. However, there is a scarcity of research into either the similarities or the differences between the practice of e-cycling and conventional cycling. The paper proposes a theoretical framework to address (e-)cycling based on the notions of motility (individuals’ cycling potential) and bikeability (spaces’ hosting potential). The framework is applied to a large-scale survey (14,000 bike commuters in Switzerland). The analysis shows that the e-bike makes it possible to overcome some of the barriers faced by conventional cyclists, such as distance, gradient and physical effort. The e-bike empowers more people to cycle, across social groups (women, couples with children, people over 40, people with a lower physical condition) and spatial contexts (suburban and rural areas). By reaching groups and spaces that are more motorised than average, the e-bike expands the practice of cycling as a complement or alternative to automobility. However, both e-cycling and conventional cycling share many characteristics (e.g. motivations) and face similar challenges (in terms of a lack of infrastructures, etc.).


1 Introduction

The e-bike is a bike with a battery-powered motor assisting the rider’s pedal-power. The riders choose the level of assistance, which kicks in as they pedal and then decreases and stops when a certain speed is reached (25 km/h for the pedal-assisted electric bicycle or pedelec, the most common e-bike, or 45 km/h for the speed-pedelec). Since the mid-2000s, sales have been rapidly increasing.

This paper focuses on Switzerland, where the e-bike has been steadily growing in popularity. In 2006, e-bikes represented only 1% of the new bikes sold (3,200 units), but by 2019 this had increased to 36% (133,000) (Velosuisse 2020), while by 2015, 7% of Swiss households owned at least one e-bike (OFS, and ARE 2017). Record growth has been observed in most other European countries also. In the Netherlands – the country with the highest modal share of cycling – the majority of adult bikes sold are now e-bikes (Reid 2019), and the European Cyclists’ Federation estimated in 2017 that 50 million e-bikes would be sold in the EU between 2018 and 2030, a prediction that has since increased to at least 150 million e-bikes by 2030 (ibid.).

The e-bike is part of the cycling renaissance. Despite its battery, it is one of the most environmentally friendly transportation modes, after walking and conventional cycling (Bucher et al. 2019; Fishman and Cherry 2016). Yet while it is likely to be an important component of a transition towards a low-carbon mobility, it is often overlooked in debates on e-mobility, which are usually monopolised by the e-car, despite the fact that the volume of sales of the e-car is much lower (Behrendt 2018).

This paper aims to understand better the practice of e-cycling and its differences and similarities in comparison with conventional cycling. The paper draws on the concepts of the system of mobility (Urry 2004), motility and hosting potential (Kaufmann, 2011) to conceptualise (e-)velomobility. In this theoretical framework, the use of the (e-)bike (in terms of cyclist profile and journey characteristics) is seen as resulting from the meeting point of individual cycling potential (access, skills and appropriation related to the bike) and the hosting potential, or bikeability, of territories (spatial structure, infrastructures, norms and rules). Here, mobility is regarded as an entanglement of movements, meanings and experiences (Cresswell, 2010) in a context of power, i.e. in the context of the dominant system of automobility. The paper, therefore, contributes to the field of mobility studies in its aim ‘to explore social formations, practices, structures, meanings and politics of the mobile world’ through the example of a new mode of transport and in the perspective of a transition towards a low-carbon mobility (Behrendt 2018, 64).

This paper is based on a large-scale survey of 14,000 bike commuters in Switzerland. It first addresses bicycle use, before looking at individual cycling potential and then at the hosting potential of spaces. E-cycling and conventional cycling are compared in order to identify how and to what extent the e-bike expands the practice of cycling. Results indicate that the e-bike presents an opportunity to overcome some of the barriers faced by conventional cyclists, such as distance, gradient and physical effort. Thus, the e-bike empowers more people to cycle and expands the practice of cycling to an increased range of social groups (including women, couples with children, people over 40 and people with a lower physical condition) and spatial contexts (suburban and rural areas). By reaching groups and spaces that are more motorised than average, the e-bike can be regarded as a complement or alternative to automobility. However, e-cycling and conventional cycling share many characteristics (e.g. motivations) and face similar challenges (lack of infrastructure, cohabitation with cars, etc.).

2 Theoretical framework

2.1 Addressing velomobility

Several authors have highlighted the importance of addressing cycling in a holistic way. Conventional models of transport planning and modal choice – based on minimising travel cost and time – are largely insufficient (Handy, Bert, and Kroesen 2014), since cycling depends on material conditions (urban forms, infrastructures) and takes on very different meanings with regard to periods of time, spatial contexts and social groups (Spinney 2009).

Some studies address these issues through the notion of cycling culture (Cox 2015). In countries with a mature cycling culture, such as the Netherlands, cycling is a ubiquitous and normalised mode of transportation. Other scholars view cycling through the lens of social practice theory, and analyse it as a combination of materials, competences and meanings (Spotswood et al. 2015; Watson 2013), while still others draw on the concept of the system of mobility. Taking automobility as an example of a system of mobility, Urry (2004) demonstrated that the car is much more than just a vehicle, but refers also to a socio-technical assemblage involving industries, infrastructures, rules, images, representation, etc. Other authors have applied the concept of the system of mobility to cycling with the term ‘velomobility’ (Behrendt 2018; Cox 2019; Koglin and Rye 2014; Spinney 2009; Watson 2013). However, they see velomobility as an incomplete system because it lacks dedicated infrastructures and social legitimacy in a context dominated by automobility. Indeed, automobility and velomobility ‘compete for people’s time, for road space, for resources, and in discourse’ (Watson 2013, 121), and automobility still has an ‘enormous competitive advantage in recruiting practitioners and sustaining performances’ in many countries (ibid. 124).

Behrendt (2018) takes the idea of velomobility further, to suggest the idea of e-velomobility to refer to the ‘practices, systems and technologies of electrically assisted cycling where velomobility’s pedal-power combines with e-mobility’s battery/motor assistance to propel the rider’.

This paper proposes to conceptualise (e-)velomobility, drawing on Kaufmann’s three dimensions of mobility (Kaufmann 2011): (1) movements in physical space (in this case, uses of the bike), (2) the ability to move, or motility (the individual’s cycling potential), and (3) the range of possibilities of a space – or the space’s hosting potential for a practice (its bikeability) (Figure 1). This approach shares principles with the others mentioned above, such as the need for a holistic understanding of cycling. The advantage of this approach is that it enables the identification of the various mechanisms of the (non-)adoption of cycling at both an individual and a contextual level.

Figure 1. The dimensions of (e-)velomobility (source: author; images taken from pixabay.com)

The first dimension of the theoretical framework – the use of the bike – covers factual elements that transportation studies traditionally address: the characteristics of the journeys (frequency, length, origin/destination, motives, etc.) and user profile (socio-economic status, gender, age, etc.). The extent to which the (e-)bike is used can be regarded as the meeting point of the cycling potential of the individual and the territory. These two dimensions are now discussed in the case of cycling.

2.2 Individual cycling potential

Individuals are characterised by their aptitude for movement, or motility, in a given physical, economic and social context (Kaufmann 2011, 37). This implies that mobility be thought of not only in terms of journeys but also of experiences, representations and the capacity to be mobile. It comprises three dimensions: access (‘can’), skills (‘know’) and appropriation (‘want’) (ibid.).

‘Access’ refers to the mobility options available to an individual (depending on price, time, etc.) and equipment, such as vehicles (cars, bikes, etc.), public transport passes or subscriptions to car-sharing schemes. These can all be regarded as part of an access rights portfolio, which comprises ‘all the instrumental resources which individuals get the right to use’ (Flamm and Kaufmann 2006, 171).

Skills and knowledge are often underestimated in transport studies, although they are necessary in order to utilise any mobility offer. Riding a bike, for example, requires skills in five fields in addition to keeping one’s balance while pedalling (Flamm 2004): the required physical condition, experience of concrete traffic situations, a good knowledge of the spatial context (in order to find a convenient route or avoid disruptions in the urban fabric, etc.), the ability to estimate the duration of the journey, and organisational knowledge in order to orientate oneself, to plan activities or to do necessary repairs. This last point refers to the notion of ‘convivial tool’, which Illich defines in his critique of the industrial system as a tool that enhances the ‘independent efficiency’ of its users and enables them to ‘master’ themselves (Illich 2009). Illich cites the mechanical bike as an example of convivial tool.

Appropriation, or enactment, defines the way in which individuals perceive and select mobility options according to their plans, aspirations and habits. The actual use of a transportation mode depends, among other things, on an individual’s attitudes and perception of the various modes. Mobility can be conceptualised as a combination of physical movement (getting from A to B), meaning (representations, political claims, etc.), and embodied experience (Cresswell 2010). These dimensions may each represent motivations for or barriers to cycling (Rérat 2019).

2.3 Spaces’ cycling hosting potential

For Kaufmann (2011), the hosting potential of a space refers to how receptive or suitable it is for certain modes of transportation. This receptiveness relates to the notion of affordance (Gibson 2014), which derives from the verb to afford, and connotes both provision or supply and ability to do something.1 In the case of cycling, I define the hosting potential of a territory and its affordances as its bikeability,2 which has three main aspects: spatial context, infrastructures, and rules and norms.

The spatial context refers to the topography and the weather conditions, and also – or more importantly – to the urban form. Density, compactness, functional diversity, the attractiveness of the landscape and the built environment along cycling routes are all factors that favour cycling (Handy, Bert, and Kroesen 2014; Pucher and Buehler 2012).

The hosting potential for the various transportation modes is also the consequence of power relations in space (as seen in the allocation of budget or surface) and of planning models (Koglin and Rye 2014). Modernist urbanism, influential mainly after the Second World War, promoted the separation of functional areas (living, working, recreating and moving about) and led to the marginalisation of cycling in planning. Transport infrastructures – for motorised traffic – were designed in what was thought a rapid and efficient way, with traffic flows segregated according to their speed. As a result, the street – the backbone of social life – had to give way to the road, where car traffic was to circulate without interruption.3 More recently, however, cities experiencing a cycling renaissance have implemented alternative policies through measures such as traffic calming and networks of integrated bikeways (Buehler and Dill 2016).

Bikeability refers not only to infrastructures but also to immaterial and symbolic dimensions, such as the rules of the road and social norms. For example, the cultural meanings associated with the car (freedom, social status, etc.) have participated not only in the rise of the automobile but also in the decline of other modes (Urry 2004), since the car has informally privatised public space so that other users feel neither legitimate nor safe on the road anymore (Lee 2015). Thus where the bike is rare, it is less tolerated and is the target of negative attitudes, as the minority practice of cycling may be perceived as a critique of the dominant system of automobility (Prati, Puchades, and Pietrantoni 2017).

Affordance is relational in that it links the suitability of a context for a particular use with the intentions and capabilities of potential users. This paper proposes a theoretical framework that combines individual cycling potential with the bikeability of spaces at various levels to help explain why some individuals cycle and some don’t,4 or, in a biographical approach, why some continue cycling while others stop and yet others take it up again (Marincek and Rérat 2020, H. Jones, Chatterjee, and Gray 2014). This framework may also be used to interpret differences between cities, countries or periods of time. In this paper, the framework is applied in order to identify the similarities and differences between e-cycling and conventional cycling.

3 The literature on the e-bike

The literature on the e-bike is still rather scarce, although rapidly growing (Behrendt 2018). Research is still often based on an exploratory approach or on small samples of early adopters, and does not provide a systematic comparison with conventional cycling, as this paper aims to do. This literature review is organised according to the theoretical framework presented above, and focuses mainly on Europe, as the literature in Asia and in the USA usually address electric bikes, which work without pedalling and are more like electric mopeds (Fishman and Cherry 2016).

The electric assistance may contribute to redefining some characteristics of the practice of conventional cycling. In terms of use, several differences are observed: ‘the speed of the e-bikes reduces the time required to travel a given distance or increases the range of travel for a given amount of time relative to conventional bikes. E-bikes also accelerate faster than conventional bikes, and accelerating to and maintaining top speeds require less physical exertion’ (Popovich et al. 2014, 39). Because of its ‘combination of leg and battery power’ (Behrendt 2018, 64), the e-bike could have an ‘intermediator role’ (Wolf and Seebauer 2014) or a ‘transitional step’ (Popovich et al. 2014) between conventional bikes and cars. Moreover, the electric assistance reduces the barrier of topography (MacArthur, Dill, and Person 2014, Johnson & Rose, 2015) and makes it easier for cyclists to travel further (Cairns et al. 2017; T. Jones, Harms, and Heinen 2016) including for utilitarian motives (Plazier et al. 2017).5

According to the research, the e-bike may enable more people to cycle, including some who could or would not otherwise make the same journey by conventional bike (Cairns et al. 2017; Dill and Rose 2012; Popovich et al. 2014). Several researchers have addressed the profile of e-bike users, although it has to be noted that differences may be due to the spatial context and the period of analysis, since early adopters may differ from newer ones. Men are more numerous than women in several studies (MacArthur, Dill, and Person 2014; Wolf and Seebauer 2014) although the opposite is also observed (Haustein and Mette 2016). Differences also depend on the type of e-bike, men being overrepresented among speed-pedelec users (Ravalet, Marincek and Patrick 2018). Retired people represent the majority of e-bike users in some studies (Wolf and Seebauer 2014), as the electric assistance makes it possible to go on cycling despite physical decline due to age (Leger et al. 2019), but in other studies, it is people in the second stage of their working life (40–65) who are overrepresented (MacArthur, Dill, and Person 2014). This may be because younger people are in better physical condition and/or because of negative perceptions of the e-bike (this will be discussed in more detail below). In terms of social class, e-bike users tend to have an above-average level of education and income (ibid.). This may be due to the price of an e-bike, as well as to the fact that those with a higher level of education are often observed among the early adopters of an innovation (Kapoor, Dwivedi, and Williams 2014).

In terms of skill, the electric assistance reduces the effort needed and is likely to facilitate cycling among people with a lower physical condition. It could also improve the extent to which cyclists feel at ease in traffic as it makes it easier to reach a higher speed and to accelerate quickly out of a stop sign (Popovich et al. 2014, 40). Yet the rising number of accidents is a source of debate as to whether the e-bike is more difficult to handle or whether the causes of the accidents are to be found in the lack of cycling infrastructures, the boom of e-biking or the fact that older people have a higher risk of serious injury (Götschi, Garrard, and Giles-Corti 2016).

The motivations for and barriers to using an e-bike may be similar to those found for conventional bicycles (Haustein and Mette 2016), but there are some differences related to electric assistance, such as the fact that it is possible to cycle despite steep gradients or long distances without sweating or feeling too tired, even for older people or those with a lower level of fitness (Dill and Rose 2012; Haustein and Mette 2016; MacArthur, Dill, and Person 2014; Popovich et al. 2014). It may also be easier to complete a succession of journeys (activity chain) or to escort children with a trailer or a child seat (T. Jones, Harms, and Heinen 2016). For couples, the e-bike may present a way of working out and cycling together, as it equalises the differences between physical conditions (Popovich et al. 2014). Health may be a motivation as well: e-cycling can satisfy moderate-intensity physical activity and generates health benefits (Gojanovic et al., 2011).

However, some characteristics of the e-bike may be perceived negatively. As they are more expensive than conventional bicycles, their owners may be more concerned about the risk of theft or the need for adequate storage conditions. They are also heavier and therefore more difficult to handle, and their extra weight may exacerbate ‘range anxiety’, which is the fear that the e-bike battery has an insufficient range to reach the destination (Popovich et al. 2014, 42).

E-bike owners are more present in suburban and rural areas than in cities (Ravalet, Marincek and Patrick 2018; Wolf and Seebauer 2014), which could be explained by the longer commuting trips. Conversely, in cities where the housing is older and denser, individuals may be dissuaded from owning an e-bike due to the lack of accessible parking space for these more expensive bikes.

As for regular bikes, cohabitation with motorised vehicles is a source of fear and danger (Popovich et al. 2014). On the one hand, crossroads and roundabouts could be potentially more dangerous for e-bikers because their speed may be underestimated by motorists (T. Jones, Harms, and Heinen 2016). On the other hand, the e-bike could be experienced as safer given its acceleration potential and the possibility of keeping a stable pace that would make it possible to circulate like a motorised vehicle (Dill and Rose 2012; MacArthur, Dill, and Person 2014). The average velocity of e-bikers differs significantly to that of other cyclists while riding uphill, and there seems to be a lower aversion of e-bikers to motorised traffic (Allemann and Raubal 2015).

Finally, in terms of social norms, the e-bike faces the same issues in countries with a low cycling modal share (e.g. in terms of legitimation) (Prati, Puchades, and Pietrantoni 2017). An additional feature for the e-bike is social stigma: it is associated with elderly people or with the idea that resorting to the electric assistance is ‘cheating’ and not ‘proper cycling’ (Behrendt 2018; Dill and Rose 2012; Leger et al. 2019; Popovich et al. 2014). Alternatively, however, riding an e-bike may be seen as choosing an innovative or technophile mode of transportation (Wolf and Seebauer 2014), which may help to overcome the social pressure of the car.

4 Methods

This paper’s comparison of conventional and e-cycling is based on a large-scale survey carried out in Switzerland among participants in the 2016 Bike to Work campaign. In Switzerland, 7% of all journeys are made by bike (OFS, and ARE 2017). This is higher than in most English-speaking and Latin countries and lower than in Northern Europe (Pucher and Buehler 2012).

The Bike to Work campaign is organised by PRO VELO, the national bicycle advocacy association. Teams of four employees commit to cycling to work as much as possible in May and/or June. The formation of teams creates a motivational effect: regular cyclists encourage sport and leisure cyclists as well as less experienced colleagues to join in. Thus, the campaign reaches a variety of cyclists, attracting people already convinced by utility cycling and others interested in giving it a try.

Nonetheless, participants are not wholly representative of all people riding a bike due to self-selection effects: the campaign concerns utility cycling (and not leisure or sport) and employed people. A larger population (including children, teenagers and seniors) would, however, make comparison difficult (and in any case the first two do not have access to e-bikes due to age limit).6

The online survey was sent by the organisers (44,726 emails, 13,744 questionnaires were filled in for a response rate of 31%). The survey aimed first to provide an overview of utility cycling in Switzerland. The questionnaire was designed to address in detail the dimensions of velomobility – uses, individual cycling potential, and bikeability – mainly through closed questions, which were the same for both conventional cyclists and e-bikers. Informed by the e-bike literature, this paper compares their answers and evaluates how the electric assistance changes the practice of cycling. Statistical tests determine the significance of the differences.

5 Empirical results

According to the survey, 10,833 of the participants used a conventional bike, 2,141 an e-bike and 147 another type (e.g. folding bike, bike-sharing scheme).7 This last category was removed, so that the sample is made up of 16.5% e-bike users8 and 83.5% conventional cyclists. The analysis compares the two groups in terms of uses (profile of users, characteristics of journeys), individual cycling potential (access, skills, appropriation) and the territory’s bikeability (place of residence and commuting journeys).

5.1 Uses

5.1.1 Profile of users

Several differences are observed in the profile of (e-)cyclists (Table 1). Women are more present among e-bikers (49.4%) than conventional cyclists (40.8%).9 E-bikers are also older (75.9% are aged over 40 compared to 57.4% for other cyclists) and more likely to live in a couple with children (55.5% vs 43.9%). Compared with conventional bicycles, the e-bike has a wider audience in terms of both gender and life course (age and kind of household).

Table 1. Profile of the participants

Differences regarding the level of income are small but statistically significant: e-bike users are slightly overrepresented among those with the lowest income (5.5% vs 4.1%) as well as the highest (17.5% vs 16.8%). In the first case, the e-bike may be an alternative to more costly means of transportation (a car or motorised two-wheeler), while in the second one it may be an additional mobility option.10

5.1.2 Characteristics of journeys

Commuting trips are considered both ways (both to and from work) in order to take into account topography and activity chains, and are found to last longer for e-bikers. Half of the users of a conventional bike spend 30 minutes or less on their commute, compared to only one-third of e-bikers, who are more likely to spend longer on their commute: 39.4% cycle between 30 and 60 minutes (vs 32.5%) and more than a quarter cycle for more than an hour (vs 19.5%). These journey lengths are globally quite long, which is partially due to Bike to Work (limited in time, competition, etc.). As we may expect that the extension of distances cycled concerns both kinds of cyclists, we can conclude that the e-bike is used less often for short journeys (to ride quicker) but more often to cover longer distances.

While three-quarters of the participants say that they cycle all year round, e-cyclists are more likely to reduce their practice (43.5% vs 33.2%) or to stop (26.5% vs 23.0%) when winter comes. The longer commuting trips and increased access to other transportation modes explain why e-cyclists are more affected by the season.

Finally, the bike is more often used for the whole commuting trip when it is electrically assisted (94.7% vs 87.5%), but much less for the first mile (from home to a station; 6.4% vs 12.7%) and the last mile (from

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