DCA – Six statements about electrically-assisted cycling.

DCA Blog by Paul Plazier. He recently defended his PhD research conducted at the University of Groningen, on the potential for e-bike use in the Netherlands in different populations and spatial contexts.

For over three years, my life revolved around doing research about the rise and potential of electrically-assisted cycling in the Netherlands (I previously wrote about it in this blogpost). This summer, I successfully defended the resulting PhD thesis: “Power to the pedals: perspectives on the potential of e-bikemobility for sustainable and active transport systems”.

Dutch academic tradition prescribes that the thesis should be accompanied by a loose-leaf addition containing statements about the research. These “propositions” have the purpose of igniting a lively discussion during the PhD defense. Some of these are serious, others are comic or cliché. However, in general, they provide the audience with a handy summary of the main findings of the thesis and the reasoning of the researcher. Therefore, I present you my PhD research about electrically assisted cycling in the Netherlands, in six statements:

Statement 1 – Electrically-assisted cycling is the best out of two worlds, and should be more prominently featured on sustainable mobility agendas

Thesis results suggest that electrically-assisted cycling can combine the benefits of active and motorized travel. On the one hand, and similarly to walking and regular cycling, e-biking has positive effects on health and wellbeing. On the other, it provides the cyclist with a greater ease of use and increased range, similar to car and public transport use. Using these insights, electrically-assisted cycling can be stimulated more effectively, within specific target groups or for specific purposes (e.g. among current car commuters). This should have a more prominent role in sustainable mobility agendas.

Statement 2 – The global electric mobility discourse would benefit from a greater emphasis on e-bike mobility, instead of the current emphasis on electric automobility.

“Electric mobility” often still implicitly refers to “electric automobility. This “car-centric understanding” of e-mobility was discussed in-depth here. Electric cars can be effective in mitigating some problems (e.g. local CO2- and noise pollution). However, for others, they are far from being a solution (e.g. use of space and traffic safety in urban areas). Nonetheless, there is considerable political support for electric cars: in the Netherlands for example, sales have been stimulated through subsidy programs – although the effects are mixed. In the meantime, and without similar incentives, e-bike use has grown much faster, and nowadays it is far more widespread than electric car use. Thus, it seems that e-bikes at least deserve a proportional level of attention in policy and practice.

Statement 3 – Contrary to conventional beliefs, elderly people can in fact be “trend-setters”

Innovation-adoption theory states that it is generally younger people who are the first to embrace new and innovative technologies (e.g. the newest phone, or the electric car). They like to be pioneers and “set an example” to their environment, and they are willing to accept the potential risks of adopting a technology that has not yet been proven. Older people in turn are more wary of potential risks, and thus more often lag behind with the decision to adopt new technology.

For e-bikes, however, the exact opposite turned out to be true: in the Netherlands, the early adopters of this transport mode were older individuals. They were the first to see the advantages of the technology, which helped them to remain mobile, or re-gain autonomy. Today, increasingly younger populations follow their lead. The stereotype picturing older people as “laggards” has in this case been debunked.

Statement 4 – Want to encourage sustainable behavior? Forget about sustainable behavior.

“Sustainability” is not a motive for behavior change. The findings in this thesis suggest that e-bike adoption only rarely results from idealistic motivations. For many, the environmental benefits of e-biking instead of automobile use are an added bonus. But as one participant stated: “I don’t think, ‘wow, that’s neat, I saved the environment!’ More like, ‘wow, that’s neat, I saved on gas’ (laughs). If you ask me, was the environment a motive, I say no”.

To realize large-scale behavior change, sustainable transport alternatives should offer more tangible benefits: contribute to physical and/or mental health, fun, ease of use, comfort, or lower costs. Such benefits can increase the likelihood of sustainable decision-making behavior in the mobility domain.

Statement 5 – Key events in the life course can be a catalyst for behavior change, but these effects can be replicated.

Moving, changing jobs, the birth of a child.. Such events can interrupt habitual behavior, and lead to a re-evaluation of travel behavior and mode choice. One of the studies showed that most of the e-bike commuters adopted an e-bike following such an event.

But you can‘t force people to change jobs or move houses in order to realize behavior change. However, findings suggests that the effects of such events can be replicated: the organization of an e-bike pilot, in which participants break with habitual travel behavior, and get the chance to try out an e-bike for two weeks, can be a powerful tool for this purpose. The same goes for financial incentives (e.g. from the employer): suddenly, the “expensive e-bike” becomes a realistic option.

Statement 6 – Travel time holds inherent value. The traditional notion that travel time should be minimized at all costs, no longer holds.

Much money and effort is dedicated to minimizing our travel time (e.g. increasing road capacity, improving traffic flow, etc.). But travel time is valuable, and findings suggest that this is especially the case for e-bike users. E-bike commuters for instance don’t mind the fact that their journey to work takes longer by e-bike than by car. Enjoyment, health benefits and “being outside” make up for the loss of travel time.

In the Netherlands, many “bicycle highways” are currently being built. These long, straight sections of cycling infrastructure have the purpose of offering a comfortable commute to and from cities, and often run parallel to existing roads and highways,. However, one of the studies showed that participants tended to avoid such routes. They preferred alternatives: somewhat longer, but more interesting itineraries, further away from the noise and pollution caused by the roads the bike highways run parallel to.

Such an example shows that investments in bicycle infrastructure should not just aim to realize the fastest or most direct route (i.e. minimalized travel time). Care should be taken to include environmental quality and quality of the journey into such designs. This makes the journey enjoyable, and travel time “valued”. And this, in turn, is a concrete example of a tangible benefit mentioned under statement 4.

Interested in the thesis? It can be found here.

Research output, so far and in the near future, can be found here.

For questions or remarks, don’t hesitate to shoot me an e-mail: p.a.plazier@gmail.com