E-bikes could cut carbon emissions from transportation in half: greatest opportunities are in rural and suburban settings

May 2020 – A new study titled “E-bike carbon savings – how much and where?” from The Centre for Research in Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) in the UK concludes that e-bikes could cut carbon emissions from transportation in half, which seems obvious if you can get people to ride them instead of driving gasoline-powered cars. The question is who and how. But much more interesting is another finding that contradicts North American sentiments:

The greatest opportunities are in rural and suburban settings: city dwellers already have many low-carbon travel options, so the greatest impact would be on encouraging use outside urban areas.

People in big cities can cover short distances on foot, bike, or transit; they have options. In the suburbs, where distances are greater, it is not so simple. That’s where e-bikes come into play: “E-bikes are different to conventional bicycles. E-bikes have considerable range. We need to get out of the mind-set that only very short distance trips are possible by active modes.” We have noted before that because it is not as hard a workout, you can wear pretty much the same clothing as you would while walking, so temperature extremes are less of a hardship, meaning it can be done in more places for a longer season. And that extended range is meaningful.

Average Trip Length

Federal Highway Administration/ MOE= Margin of Error/Public Domain

As this National Household Travel Survey from the FHA shows, the average trip lengths in the USA vary between about 7 and 12 miles. That’s a serious ride on a regular bike, but it’s not hard on an e-bike. This is why it is so important to promote e-bikes and to build safe bike infrastructure, and as the study points out, not just in cities.

The UK needs a strategic national cycle network linking villages to towns and towns to cities to facilitate access to urban areas, not just access within them. In the short term this process can begin with tactical-urbanism and tactical-ruralism; for example, road space reallocation to aid social distancing, improving e-biking infrastructure, restricting car access or reducing speed limits on routes to towns to protect / enable cycling and e-biking.

Or, in the North American context, deep into the suburbs.

The study also addresses a question that always gets us in trouble on TreeHugger: how electric cars will not save us.

cars vs ebikes lifecycle analysis


Many people argue that electric cars are the solution. Replacing petrol and diesel cars with electric cars will reduce the CO2 per km driven (see Box 1). However, the carbon reduction capability of electric cars depends on: how they are built, the way electricity is generated to charge them and how people use them. Electric cars may be most useful in places where public transport is poor and e-bikes offer limited capability to replace car use. Electric and hybrid cars present risks of rebound effects which undermine their improved efficiency – for example, if cheap electricity and low tax make it more attractive to drive further, or if manufacturers make bigger, heavier electric cars.

Which, of course, is what the manufacturers are doing with electric pickups and SUVs.

Box 1 shows that e-bikes are almost 8 times more efficient than a medium sized hybrid car. To cancel out e-bike carbon reduction with rebound effects, this means people would have to ride almost 8 extra e-bike km for every hybrid car km they replace.

The key reason that the lifecycle CO2 emissions for the battery car are as high as they are is because of the upfront carbon emissions from the manufacture of the car, which is really directly proportional to its weight, and the heavier the vehicle, the bigger the batteries. So while everyone loves the idea of replacing ICE-powered cars with electric cars, we have to point out, as Brent Toderian does, that we have to reduce their numbers.

Toderian tweet

Tweet by Brent Toderian/Screen capture

The study concludes that this is the time to make a serious investment in alternatives to the car. We don’t have room for them all, we can’t afford the upfront carbon, and we don’t have time.

Include practical e-bike promotion schemes in the government’s Covid-19 economic recovery stimulus package. In the coming two years fund and implement pilot programmes that test approaches to incentivise the use of e-bikes to replace car travel. Focus on schemes outside major urban centres to maximise the CO2 reduction per person.

People in North America will continue to say that it can’t happen here, that the climate is more extreme, it’s too hot or it’s too cold, that the distances are too great. This is all true for many people, but for the average American, the distances are not too far for an e-bike. Studies have also shown that the real issue keeping people off bikes is the lack of a safe place to ride. We will never get everyone out of cars, but we don’t have to, and would never propose it.

What we can do is get serious about alternatives to the car. Give people a safe place to ride and a secure place to park and maybe some incentives, like those that are given to electric cars. As the study authors, Ian Philips, Jillian Anable and Tim Chatterton, conclude:

In this climate emergency we need to turn our thinking around. Policy makers need to move beyond the changes they think people would like and instead plan for a transport system which reduces its CO2 emissions as well as providing efficient, accessible mobility for all.