DCA – E-bikes on the rise: new users, new opportunities?

An e-biker on the outskirts of Groningen (Paul Plazier)

Paul Plazier – PhD candidate at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen. His Phd research investigates the potential for e-bike use in the Netherlands in different populations and spatial contexts by combining quantitative and qualitative approaches.

Telling people I do research on the use of e-bikes in the Netherlands is a sure way to spark up a lively conversation at parties. Some will argue that e-bike users are swarming bike paths, cycling uncontrollably and much too fast. Others, in turn, will bring up a colleague who comes to work by e-bike every day, or point at the older couple who now spends weekends cycling in Drenthe or Zuid-Limburg.

It is clear that e-bikes speak to the imagination. Indeed, their popularity in the Netherlands is undeniable. Recent sales figures show that one in four new bikes sold has some form of electrical assistance. An important contributor to this growth seems to be a growing popularity among increasingly younger populations, the rejuvenation of e-bikes.

Such developments are interesting. E-bikes’ lower demand in physical effort and increased cycling range can mitigate dependence on motorized transport for everyday activities. Vice versa, the resulting increase in moderate physical activity and the limited environmental impact of e-bikes could benefit public health and contribute to the greening of transport systems. A study by Jones, Harms and Heinen revealed the e-bikes’ potential to replace short car journeys. By substituting car, bus or train, e-bike use in the everyday context could be a logical ‘next step’ to further increase traditionally high cycling levels in the Netherlands.

E-bikes appeal to new generations

The development of e-bike use in the Netherlands challenges conventional assumptions on technology adoption. Here, older adults proved to be early adopters, while middle-aged and younger populations have lagged behind. But as said before, this tide has been turning. Our research interest is in the new generations of e-bike users.

In one study, we targeted the motives and travel behaviors of adult e-bike commuters. For this purpose, we tracked outdoor movements of commuters traveling from their home to the city of Groningen during winter and spring using GPS. Over 60% (n=193) of the commuting trips were e-bike trips, with an average length of 14.1 kilometers (see table). Particularly important in the decision to commute by e-bike proved to be the outdoor experience. Traveling by e-bike often meant a longer, but more enjoyable commute than using car, bus or train. Participants were even inclined to choose enjoyable routes over shorter or faster routes when using their e-bike. Interestingly, use was lower outside of work or when combining multiple activities, and all participants kept using car and public transport interchangeably. Yet, results provide support for local governments to develop networks of appealing bicycle commuting routes between, or to and from cities.

paul plazier DCA blog 2

To better understand attitudes and motivations of e-bike use in even younger age, we joined an e-bike pilot held among students at the University of Groningen, who got to use an e-bike for a month. Students were nearly unanimous in their enthusiasm. Contributing factors were the bike’s speed, ease of use, the enjoyable experience of assisted cycling and independency from public transport schedules. Interestingly, the social stigma of e-bikes as ‘old people’s bikes’ did not resonate. Yet, potential for adoption by students during their university years was not identified. This seems understandable, considering affordability and competition with normal bikes and free public transport. Yet, it seems that the value of the pilot can be sought in familiarizing younger generations with e-bikes: students indicated they were more likely to consider e-bikes as a transport option in later life after participating in the pilot.

The rural opportunity

Despite the general enthusiasm identified in the aforementioned studies, our results also hint at the limited value of e-bikes in dense urban settings. In an upcoming study co-funded by Provincie Groningen and Gemeente Eemsmond, we turn our attention to what we could consider to be the e-bike’s “rural opportunity”. We will target rural areas with a combination of low population densities, widespread activity places, high car-dependence, high (forced) mobility, and problematic public transport provision. The question we ask: could rural populations benefit from increased mobility if an e-bike is added to their transport options?

Previous contributors to this blog have pointed to the blooming (academic) interest in cycling. And although e-bikes are not so new anymore, their growth and user diversification will likely continue to trigger new questions in the near future. In an attempt to contribute to the academic debate – and lets not forget those casual conversations –  I will try to do my part to slowly unravel some of its mysteries.

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