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The Green Life: Hey Mr. Green, Are Electric Bikes OK?

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November 21, 2011

Hey Mr. Green, Are Electric Bikes OK?

Bob Schildgen is Mr GreenHey Mr. Green,

You tout hybrids and electric cars, but what about electric bikes?

—Stan in Carson City, Nevada

I hereby tout and loudly tout e-bikes, as well as other bikes. A recent MIT study on bicycles’ life cycles suggests that both bikes and e-bikes use less than 10% as much energy as the average sedan while being responsible for less than 10% as much greenhouse-gas emissions. This study even takes into account the increased CO2 emissions from a bicyclist breathing harder while pedaling! So much for those goofy blogs claiming that bicycles are less efficient than cars.

A wider use of either of the two-wheelers would save billions of gallons of fuel and eliminate billions of tons of emissions. Many trips are so short that taking two-wheeled transit is fairly easy and may even be more convenient than a car, since there’s no fuel expense or hassles with traffic jams, parking, or parking meters. According to the National Highway Transportation Survey, 45% of all household roundtrips average less than 7 miles (an easy ride!), and these trips account for more than a third of all household miles traveled.

So why don’t more people get out of their cars and onto their bikes?

Well, yes, some are just too lazy. But the major barrier to two-wheel ridership is the fear of winding up injured, or as another piece of roadkill squished by a car or SUV. No amount of my touting bikes will alleviate that fear, though the following fact shows why that fear is actually unfounded: While statistics do show that the odds of injury or death per miles traveled are much higher for bicyclists than for motorists, the raw numbers are deceptive, because a few simple precautions can greatly reduce the odds of death or injury for any halfway sensible cyclist. For example, around 95% of bike fatalities result when the rider isn't wearing a helmet. Booze is also a big factor. According to the latest report from the National Highway Transportation Administration, a quarter of the 630 cyclists killed in the U.S. in 2009 had a blood-alcohol level of .08 or more, meaning they were legally intoxicated, and as prone to a catastrophic wreck as any drunken moron in a car. But the blood level of testosterone may be an even bigger factor, since men incurred 87% of the bike fatalities and 80% of reported bike injuries. Some dudes may have to settle for a sex change to survive.

The best way to combat the fear factor is to make our roads bicycle-friendlier, with more bike lanes, bike paths, and better signage, because the vast majority of injuries and fatalities do occur in crashes with vehicles. It’s abundantly clear that such improvements encourage more two-wheeled trips. Of 70 cities examined in a survey for the League of American Bicyclists, the 38 rated as “bicycle-friendly” enjoyed a 95% increase in bike commuting since 2005, whereas the 32 cities not rated as being bike-friendly have seen only half that rate of increase.

So the best way to boost ridership is to get out there and campaign for enhanced protection of cyclists from the ravages of traffic. No tout about it.

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