Are Electric Bikes a Passing Fad or a Revolutionary Transportation Tool?


How Could E-Bikes Transform Cities—and Suburbs?

Because electric bikes could enable so many more people to bike and to travel much farther doing it, they open up a world of possibilities to cut back on car-dependence and dominance in our communities. Strong Towns member and writer Johnny Sanphillippo recently picked up his first e-bike. He wrote in a post on his blog, “The electric bike makes almost all my trips viable without a vehicle unless the weather is particularly bad or I’m carrying big, heavy things. Not having to deal with traffic congestion or parking is a tremendous upgrade. And the distances I’m willing to go on a bike expanded greatly with the electric boost.”

What would it mean to hop onto an e-bike to pick your kids up from school five miles away or grab medications at the pharmacy, instead of climbing into a car? Think about the amount of money your family would save if you were able to replace one of your cars with an e-bike.

Ultimately, the design of your streets is going to determine whether e-bikes could take hold on a large scale in your city today. For an area that’s already fairly people-oriented, with bike lanes, narrow streets, and a navigable street grid, e-bikes are easy to plug in (pun intended). In a city or historic town, “micromobility is potentially better than cars at everything cars are good at,” says Burleson, “except for long trips and hauling things.” He described zipping past cars idling in traffic on his e-bike when he lived in San Francisco. 

In auto-oriented areas, on the other hand, e-bikes become more challenging to use. No matter how fast your bike can go, you’re probably not going to feel safe on a six-lane, high-speed stroad. Burleson comments that some suburban areas can still work well for e-biking, though: “The sparse suburbs are pretty much e-bike utopia. Inside the subdivision, [e-bikes] are fantastic because the cars are going slow enough.” And if you can get from your suburban home to a shopping area or office building using those slower residential streets, e-bikes could be a really powerful transportation tool.

However, “if you can’t get to the grocery store without going on a megastroad, that’s when you’re toast,” says Burleson. “Those things are cars-only.” 

It should be noted that Burleson spent the last several years in San Francisco and then recently moved to Austin. He doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that electric-biking is a lot harder in Austin than it was in the Bay Area. In San Francisco, Burleson commuted to work every day on a bike. Now, he only really feels comfortable taking the electric bike within a small radius of his house where there are reliable bike lanes or quiet residential streets. That means he can get to the park or a hamburger joint with his kids, and that’s about it. Beyond this, Austin is just too car-centric and full of stroads. In this Texas city, like so many other cities, biking is still mainly seen as a recreational activity, not a legitimate form of transportation. 

But we hope it doesn’t stay that way forever. Burleson sees a long-tail future for micromobility, where kids today who grow up with electric bikes and scooters will keep enjoying them into young adulthood and, eventually, if they move to the suburbs to buy a house or have a family later in life, they’ll ask, “Why can’t I keep biking and scootering here, too?” Burleson also points out that, with so many large corporations investing a ton of money into the micromobility industry, it’s probably not going away any time soon. 

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