Advocates say electric two-wheelers are a cheaper, greener option to decarbonize transportation

In the push to decarbonize Australia’s economy, much has been made of the need to transition to electric cars.

But proponents say there’s a much cheaper, greener EV to consider: the electric bike.

While you’ll likely have to get on a 12-month waiting list and scrape together at least $40,000 to buy a new electric car in Australia right now, you could get a battery-powered two-wheeler that costs less than 10 cents. to load, quite easily.

Chris Jones, president of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association, says that many of us have forgotten that bicycles are a form of transport and often see them simply as a means of exercise and recreation.

Chris Jones says that electric vehicles on two wheels seem forgotten by lawmakers.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

“It’s a bit sad that this humble, highly efficient and affordable electric vehicle is so often overlooked,” said Dr Jones.

“I think a lot of people, especially in Perth, have always seen bicycles as toys or recreation; they are very rarely seen as a means of transportation.”

But that is changing rapidly.

“[E-bikes] they are the most abundant electric vehicles on the market right now. Electric bikes outsell electric cars 10 to 1,” he said.

They range from about $1,200 to convert an existing bike to an electric motor and $2,000 to $3,000 for a factory-made electric bike, and running costs are “negligible.”

“My electric bike battery is about half a kilowatt hour. Based on Synergy [WA’s energy retailer] fees, that’s 3.5 to 7 cents to fully charge the battery,” said Dr. Jones.

‘You’re halfway there before you know it’

In the Perth Hills, we met Andy, who had cycled into Kalamunda town center to do some shopping.

He bought his second-hand electric bike six months ago after his license was suspended and said it had been a practical replacement for the car and that he planned to continue using it even when he got back behind the wheel.

“It’s more fun to go to the stores and move around than to get in the car and drive through traffic,” he said.

“And I haven’t had to worry about fuel, so that’s been good, especially with the price of fuel now. You pick the parking spots.”

Andy in Kalamunda with electric bike
Andy bought his electric bike six months ago and says it’s more convenient for short trips than driving.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

He’s used push bikes and scooters before, but what surprised him most about the electric bike was how easy it was to get around.

“It’s easier than walking to the car and jumping in and all that, turning it on and going,” he said.

“You’re halfway there before you know it.”

But for him it has highlighted the gaps in the cycling infrastructure in his neighborhood.

“The roads could be better, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t have realized that before.”

Elimination of barriers to riding

While there’s nothing an electric bike can do differently than a pedal bike, the electric motor removes the barriers to bicycling on trips where people would use their cars.

Road with uphill bike sign
An electric motor takes away much of the difficulty of going up hills.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

It’s also appealing to people who want to ride a bike but don’t have the fitness or desire to break a sweat, but want to keep riding, according to Henry Shiel, who works at Fremantle electric bike shop Solarbike.

“We see people who, for example, want to travel a relatively short distance, but don’t feel like they want to sweat too much,” Sheil said.

“The electric bike is like having a little hand to help you push yourself, you still put in a bit of effort, but otherwise you don’t sweat as much.

“On top of that, quite a few parents drop their kids off at school with the bikes.

“We also have older people, or people who have maybe lost their sense of balance, maybe after a little medical episode.”

Henry Shiel repairs an electric bike wheel
.Henry Shiel repairs an electric bicycle wheel. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

He said the store recently sold an electric tricycle to a young disabled man.

“He is able to go out with his family and keep up with them, and his father has told me that it has really been a great benefit to the young man in terms of his independence.

“And there is definitely a portion of people who have decided to do away with the car, because of the cost and the environmental impact.”

Two cyclists on a shared path at Claisebrook railway station on the Graham Farmer Highway in East Perth
Planners say encouraging people to cycle instead of drive will be crucial.(ABC: Emma Wynne)

While most electric cyclists choose to pedal with motor assistance, they often run into the attitude that having a motor to assist is somehow cheating or not giving them the full benefit of cycling exercise.

“I absolutely reject that,” Sheil said.

“I found that [having the motor] it meant I rode the bike on days I might have otherwise gone: ‘Oh, it’s too windy, it’s too rainy, it’s too hot’ and took the bus, or drove or whatever.

“Whereas with the electric bike, I found that I actually use the bike a lot more and therefore my aerobic fitness felt benefited.”

Reducing car use is crucial to reducing emissions

Removing that temptation to just jump in the car is vital if Australia is to achieve a goal of net zero emissions, according to Courtney Babb, a senior lecturer in urban and regional planning at Perth’s Curtin University.

“As part of the movement to net zero, we need to get people out of cars and reduce car use,” said Dr. Babb.

“There is a focus on electric vehicles to do that and reduce our emissions in that way, but that’s not going to be enough, we actually have to reduce car use.”

He says there is good evidence that electric bikes did just that.

“Research shows that electric bikes replace 20 to 80 percent of trips in different cities around the world, with cycle-friendly cities having the highest rates,” he said.

An aerial photo of a suburban street
A bicycle boulevard on a “safe and active street” in Perth’s northern suburbs.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

He noted that since the start of the COVID pandemic, there has been growth in sales of both bicycles and e-bikes, but barriers still exist, and one of the keys is cycling infrastructure.

“One of the main drivers for people to bike is to have safe cycling environments,” said Dr. Babb.

“We have a very good primary cycling network [in Perth]although it could also be better.

“But what’s missing is a lot of secondary links…bicycling on local streets and highways is generally considered unsafe.”

“The United Nations recommends that about 20 percent of transportation budgets be devoted to active transportation, and I think about 2 percent of ours is.”

Extend EV subsidies to bikes discussed

Several Australian states and territories now offer subsidies and discounts to buy electric cars.

Dr. Babb suggested that governments could consider extending such financial support to electric bicycles as well.

“I think that if the government has been serious about decarbonising transport, but has also addressed some of the problems associated with a very car-centric and car-dependent transport system, we need to think about solutions other than just electric cars and provide subsidies for people in favor of electric bicycles could be a way to do it,” he said.

“Even with a subsidy or a rebate for an electric vehicle, they’re targeting people who are on the wealthier end of the spectrum.

“With electric bikes, maybe you can target people who don’t have as much money to spend on an electric car and also substitute a lot of those trips within that 15-kilometre watershed where they live.”

A bike lane.
There are calls to extend subsidies and discounts to electric bicycles.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

Chris Jones agrees.

“I think the fact that really efficient two-wheel electric transport has been completely overlooked by the various schemes that are out there is quite disappointing,” he said.

“I think governments often forget how cheap electric bikes are as a transportation option.”

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