How can we improve our cities—and the planet as a whole? The e-bike cometh—and it's going to change the world.

Ever hear about The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894?

It hearkens to a quandary that faced London, England, at the turn of the previous century. You see, as the inflow of horses-and-carriages increased toward the end of the 19th century, so did the accompanying manure. As such, it was woefully predicted that London would be buried under “nine feet of manure” by the mid-20th century.

City planners were confounded—horses were the cornerstone of overland transportation. Horses poop. That was that.

Of course, the proliferation of internal combustion engines sideswiped this crisis into oblivion—and created a new one in the process.

Today, rather than being buried under horse-patties, we’ve choked our roads with vehicle congestion, choked our lungs with particulate pollution and choked our planet with greenhouse gases (GHG).

We’re still confounded. Motor vehicles are the cornerstones of our overland transportation.They require mega-infrastructure to support and burn fossil fuels to operate. That’s that.

Electric cars ease the problems of particulates and GHG—by varying degrees, depending how the electricity is generated—but do nothing for congestion and its related problems. In fact, an increase of self-driving electric cars could make traffic complications even worse as everybody and their dog (literally) has a robo-car trundling them around our streets.

This time, an upstart solution isn’t arriving with a bang, but a gentle hum: electric bicycles.

In the past few years, pedal-assist e-bikes have gone from fringe-usage to increasingly changing the face of transportation and outdoor recreation. It’s happening at an ever-quickening pace. I live on a popular bike route in Vancouver, British Columbia. When my wife and I moved to this street four years ago, I saw the occasional e-bike glide by. Now, they number in the dozens daily.

My anecdote has teeth—Canadian bike retailers had difficulty meeting e-bike demand throughout 2020, and, globally, the e-bike market has been forecasted to grow by more than 60 per cent by 2025, (boosted by a well-recognized Covid-19 surge).

Even more than conventional bikes, e-bikes thrive as urban transportation. Legally capable of up to 32 km/h, when combined with effective arteries e-bikes transport citizens on short trips just as easily as a car, without the need for expensive fuel, pay-parking, insurance or costly maintenance.

Add studded or fat tires and you’ve ended the “but, Canadian weather...” argument. Add a cargo-deck and you’ve ended the “but, families...” argument.

Plus—they’re fun. Mountain e-bikes make downhill parks of any legal slope and they’re allowing folks to ride aggressively well into their senior years. Increasing battery range means long-distance cycle touring is more accessible too—200 kilometres-plus is on the docket; range that, until just a few years ago, exceeded that of many electric cars.

Just as “acoustic” bikes have, e-bikes face an uphill battle against 100 years of car culture. Against the concept of needing 2,000 kilograms of steel to carry 70 kilograms of human. Against the idea that transportation expenses should eat up one-fifth of your household income. And ultimately against the notion that cyclists and pedestrians are impediments, rather than equal users of our roadways. 

In this new decade, I’ll throw a prediction for the next: by 2031, e-bikes will be second only to public transit as the primary mode of urban travel, and will be as commonplace for inter-city travel as they are for intra-city today.

Wider bridges, expanded highways and electric cars aren’t going to solve the issues of congestion, pollution and climate change. It’s very deep doo-doo.

But the e-bike cometh—and it may just dig us out.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue. ("Trailhead," page 4).


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