These little vehicles could revolutionize how we use our urban spaces
If aliens landed on earth and looked at the way we transport ourselves every day, they would undoubtedly think that we had lost our minds. The average American spends almost half an hour — each way — commuting to and from work. We do so by ourselves more than three-quarters of the time. This is despite the fact that almost every car sold in the United States is built for four or more passengers, meaning that our transportation network is running mostly empty almost all the time. An airline would quickly fold if it was flying planes that were 80% empty all the time, but this is standard practice when we’re driving cars.
Our system is incredibly wasteful, but that’s just when the cars are actually moving! Most cars sit still 22 or 23 hours every day, and a staggering amount of our urban space is devoted to storing them. In many urban cores, up to 25% of our most valuable real estate is reserved for parking. Another 30–40% of our cities are designated for roads — which have to consist of many lanes to accommodate the large number of big, mostly-empty cars — meaning that we reserve more of our urban territory for cars than for people.
Even if we can achieve a world of hyper-efficient electric cars, this is a hugely wasteful system. Transporting a bunch of single passengers around encased in a ton-and-a-half of metal is wasteful at every step — from the materials needed to manufacture cars to the animals, they turn into roadkill to the parking spaces needed to store the cars all day long.
The answer, of course, is for people to switch away from car-based transportation. Until recently, this left us with only a few options: live within walking distance of work (which is difficult for many people), take public transit (great where it’s available, but public transit is inflexible, and building new transit is expensive and politically difficult in many parts of the country), or bike to work (too difficult for many people, and nobody wants to show up at the office soaked in sweat).
The advent of e-bikes might change all this. These vehicles are pricey compared to other bikes, but they cost a small fraction of the price of a car. E-bikes can transport their passengers at up to 20 miles per hour without significant physical effort. They carry batteries with ranges of 20–50 miles, and those batteries can be charged back up during the workday for the ride home if necessary.
Imagine an urban area where a significant percentage of commuters traveled by bike or e-bike. First, reconfiguring the transportation system wouldn’t take much compared to the alternative. In many cities, adding a light rail line would cost billions and take decades to make it from idea to completion. Adding more lanes for cars is extremely expensive, as well. In contrast, accommodating a growing population of e-cyclists would often cost nothing more than the cost of painting new lines on the roads to create bike lanes.
Even though e-bikes are slower than cars, commute times might not change for a lot of people. I live about 10 miles from my workplace, and my car commute takes 25–30 minutes at rush hour. A ten-mile e-bike ride that allowed me to bypass the traffic jams at 20 mph would take about the same amount of time.
Reconfiguring roads to favor bike lanes would constrict the space available to cars, but we could move a much larger number of people with the space available if each of them was on a one-seater bike rather than a hulking SUV. This video, by the PTV Group, shows the space required to hold 200 people on various types of vehicles:
E-bikes, of course, do have some drawbacks. It might be tough to take the kids to school (or bring in those bake-sale cupcakes) on a bike. There are some parts of the country where the weather might make biking to work a little less pleasant than others. And e-bikes aren’t free, of course.
But it seems entirely possible that many families might be able to replace at least one of their cars with an e-bike, which will cost a tenth as much as a car, take up a tiny fraction of the space, and waste far less energy. By one estimate, an e-bike uses twenty times less energy than a Tesla to transport a person.
E-bikes solve a surprising number of problems inherent to our wasteful transportation system. They would likely allow most of us to get where we are going but would produce less pollution, take up less space, and be less wasteful than our current car-based system. We could take all those parking lots and six-lane roads and turn them into things we actually need — parks, affordable housing, outdoor dining — rather than just storage for our cars. E-bikes may be a crucial tool in our quest to make our transportation system sustainable.
Source: by George Dillard, https://worldhistory.medium.com/