Lloyd Alter

Lloyd AlterlloydalterAugust 9, 2019

Surly pulling furniture
© Surly/ who says you can’t go shopping with a bike?

E-bikers use their bikes more, go longer distances, and often substitute it for driving or transit.

Fans of electric bikes often say they are riding further than they used to on “analog” bikes, to use a retronym coined by Andrea Learned. I have written about my own Gazelle: “I am using it more often than I used my regular bike, and I am going longer distances. I suspect that, because of that, I am probably getting as much exercise as I did on my bike.” But it was all apocryphal, until now.

A new study, with a mouthful of a title, “Physical activity of electric bicycle users compared to conventional bicycle users and non-cyclists: Insights based on health and transport data from an online survey in seven European cities,” finds that in fact it is true: e-bikers take longer trips and get pretty much the same physical activity gains as analog cyclists.

Physical activity levels, measured in Metabolic Equivalent Task minutes per week (MET min/wk), were similar among e-bikers and cyclists (4463 vs. 4085). E-bikers reported significantly longer trip distances for both e-bike (9.4 km) and bicycle trips (8.4 km) compared to cyclists for bicycle trips (4.8 km), as well as longer daily travel distances for e-bike than cyclists for bicycle (8.0 vs. 5.3 km per person, per day, respectively).

But perhaps even more significant is the dramatic increase in exercise among people who switch from cars to e-bikes, a much easier transition than from cars to a-bikes. “Those switching from private motorized vehicles and public transport gained around 550 and 800 MET min/wk. respectively.” A lot of people were doing this, too. In Denmark, the average user switching to an e-bike reduced driving by 49 percent and transit by 48 percent. In the UK, 36 percent reduced public transit use.

Gazelle under the bentway

Gazell Medeo on the Bentway Park/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It should be noted that this study looks at European pedelec e-bikes like my Gazelle, where people have to pedal a bit to get the 250 watt motor to kick in. Results probably don’t apply to overpowered throttle-controlled American e-bikes or scooters. Because, as the study authors note, with a pedelec, “using an e-bike requires moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity, depending on topography.”

E-bikers in the study tended to be older, had higher car access and higher body mass indexes (BMI,) but they still traveled farther and more often. So please put to bed that idea that e-bikes are somehow “cheating”:

This study has found that physical activity from travel-related activities is similar for e-bikers and cyclists… These findings counter the often-raised concern that e-biking may result in a substantial reduction of physical activity for traveling due to the electric assist of e-bikes, which reduces the required physical effort. As this study shows, average trip distance of e-bike and bicycle trips among e-bikers is significantly higher than bicycle trips among cyclists. Equally, e-bikers’ daily travel distance by e-bike was also significantly longer than daily cycling distance in cyclists.

What’s most intriguing about the study is how many people used their e-bikes as a substitute for cars. We have complained before that governments handing out subsidies for electric cars should be putting that money into e-bikes and infrastructure, and the study concludes with the same point:

In conclusion, this analysis supports the notion to accept, or even promote, e-bikes as a healthy and sustainable transport option based on e-bikers’ travel behaviour and self-reported mode substitution. Planers should be aware that e-bikers travel longer distances than cyclists. Thus, e-bikes might be used for longer commuting trips than non-electric bicycles. To accommodate (or promote) this new demand and to avoid conflicts with other road users in urban areas, cycling infrastructure should be expanded and may need to be adapted to accommodate higher speeds and address safety needs. The health benefits in terms of physical activity of using e-bikes, particularly when replacing car trips, should be factored in when considering subsidizing e-biking.

Big Easy bike has a nominal 250 watt motor with peak power of 600 watts when you need it.

Surly Big Easy at Trailhead, Minneapolis/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is so much to unpack from this study. It also looks at how e-bikes are easier for older riders, keeping them fitter longer. It also reinforces my opinion that the Europeans got it right by limiting speed and power on e-bikes and mandating that they are all pedelecs rather than throttle operated; you don’t get much exercise on a motorcycle. That horse is out of the barn as far as the laws in North America go, but that doesn’t mean that just because you can buy 750 watts and a throttle that you should. You want a bike with a boost so that you can still get some exercise, but also go farther, faster and easier for a longer, healthier life.