The next decade is going to be defined by a revolution of battery-powered transportation, and the vehicle that will lead the charge won’t be the Tesla Model 3 or even the wildly polarizing Cybertruck. And it definitely won’t be an electric scooter.
It will be an electric bike.
For years, electric bikes were relegated to niche status in most countries. Between 2006 and 2012, e-bikes represented less than 1 percent of all annual bike sales. In 2013, only 1.8 million e-bikes were solid in all of Europe, while customers in the US bought a measly 185,000.
But things started to shift, thanks to improvements in lithium-ion battery technology, pricing, power, as well a growing movement in cities to shift away from gasoline-powered cars to zero-emission vehicles. Now, analysts are saying they expect e-bike sales to enter warp speed over the next few years.
Deloitte, which released its annual technology, media, and telecommunications predictions last week, says it expects 130 million e-bikes to be sold globally between 2020 and 2023. It also noted that “the number of e-bikes on the roads will easily outpace other e-vehicles by the end of next year.”
I had to rub my eyes after I read that last part. It seems preposterous on the surface, given American attitudes toward cars (love ‘em! bigger the better!) and the media hype surrounding new EVs, especially from companies like Tesla. Also, Americans tend to view bikes more as recreational vehicles than as legitimate transportation, something you use in fair weather, not in the rain and snow like the Dutch. In the US and Canada, only about 1 percent of the workforce commutes by bike today.
But if you believe that e-bike sales will top 40 million annually by 2023, and then you look at EV adoption rates, it becomes an easier prediction to swallow. At the end of 2018, there were just 5.1 million electric vehicles were in circulation, and only 12 million electric vehicles (cars and trucks) are expected to be sold in 2025, according to the International Energy Agency’s 2019 Global EV Outlook. (I’m no math expert, but last I checked 40 million > 12 million.)
That dramatic increase in sales seems to herald a dramatic shift in the way people get around. Indeed, Deloitte predicts a 1 percentage point rise in the proportion of people who bike to work from 2019 to 2022. That may not seem like much on the surface, but given the low bases, the difference will be impressive. Tens of billions of additional bicycle rides per year means fewer car trips and lower emissions, with spillover benefits for traffic congestion and urban air quality.
Jeff Loucks, executive director of Deloitte’s Technology, Media, and Telecommunications center, said that e-bike sales in the US won’t be increasing evenly across the country. He predicts that cities, in particular, will see the biggest adoption rates.
“We’re seeing more people move into the urban core of cities throughout the United States,” Loucks told me. “And it’s just going to put a huge load on the roadways and on public transportation systems if some of that isn’t taking place by bike.”
Deloitte is not the only group predicting an e-bike revolution. Ryan Citron, an analyst for Guidehouse (formerly Navigant) told me he expects a total of 113 million e-bikes to be sold between 2020 and 2023. His figures, while slightly less than Deloitte, still envision an impressive surge in sales. “And yes, e-bikes are the best selling EVs on the planet!” Citron added in an email to The Verge.
E-bike sales have been growing steadily over the years, but they still only represent a small portion of the overall bike market in the US. E-bike sales jumped by an incredible 91 percent from 2016 to 2017 and then another 72 percent from 2017 to 2018 to reach an impressive $143.4 million, according to the market research firm NPD Group. Sales of electric bikes in the US have grown more than eightfold since 2014.
But NPD’s Matt Powell thinks Deloitte and others may be slightly overselling the e-bike boom. Powell said Deloitte’s predictions “seemed high,” as his firm was only forecasting 100,000 e-bikes sold in the US in 2020. He also said he did not agree with the sentiment that e-bikes would outsell electric cars over the next few years. Still, NPD acknowledges that the fastest-growing segment in the bike market is electric.
Still, it’s true that electric car sales have been soft in the US. While Europe passes aggressive policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions in new vehicles, the Trump administration has been trying to roll back Obama-era rules aimed at improving fuel efficiency. Tesla has sold hundreds of thousands of vehicles, but legacy automakers have struggled to find similar success with their first EVs.
E-bikes may be gaining popularity, but it is certainly the case that they aren’t for everyone. Many people feel unsafe biking or need a car to haul kids or cargo. But Deloitte says that electrification enables greater experimentation in form factors. Bikes can be reconfigured to carry kids, groceries, or even local deliveries without requiring thighs of steel and Olympian levels of fitness to operate.
E-bikes have some obvious advantages over EVs — they’re cheaper, easier to charge, and don’t require huge investments in supportive infrastructure — but there may come a time when electric cars start to outsell electric bikes.
But if cities make the necessary changes to encourage more people to bike — such as building a network of protected bike lanes, restricting car use in certain areas, and offering safe places to lock up and store bikes — it stands to reason that e-bikes can maintain their top spot in the hierarchy of electric transportation.