We're in the midst of a quiet transportation revolution right now. Recent advances in electric motors and batteries have made electric cars a reality and they're getting cheaper and better every day. A lot of people have noticed this, but electric bicycles (eBikes) haven't gotten nearly as much attention. These machines are so efficient they can have lower emissions per mile than walking or pedaling a regular bike. Back to the Future II promised us hoverboards by 2015. Instead, we got eBikes that get over 1,000 MPGe and save us thousands more dollars than they cost. Maybe the future's not so bad?
Our 1,000 MPGe Reality
People can get pretty impressed when they read that a Tesla can get the equivalent of 140 miles per gallon of gas (MPGe). This makes sense because we've become accustomed to terribly inefficient gas cars that get 30 MPG or worse. Once you do realize that eBikes easily get over 1,000 MPGe, even an EV will seem downright inefficient. Let me take a moment and do some math to show the insane MPGe of eBikes (feel free to skip to the next heading if you hate numbers and just want to take my word for it).
MPGe Math 48V * 14Ah = 672 Wh 672Wh / 1000 = 0.672 kWh 0.672kWh / 33.7 kWh/gal = 0.02 gallons 25 miles/0.02 gallons = 1,250 MPGe
The Radrover eBike is one of the better selling eBikes in America and yet most people have never heard of it. It has a 48 Volt (V) 14 amp hour (Ah) battery pack. These numbers mean that its battery holds 0.672 kilowatt hours (kWh) total energy. The EPA estimates that 1 gallon of gas is equivalent to 33.7 kWh so this battery has the equivalent energy of about 0.02 gallons of gas. That's about 2.5 fluid ounces, which would be the tiniest gas tank ever! This miniscule amount of energy propels the bike 25-45 miles on a full charge depending on how much you pedal.
Lets assume no pedaling so the bike is 100% powered by its electric motor. This gives it the low end of 25 miles of range per charge. Divide 25 miles by the 0.02 gallons of gas equivalent of the battery and you get an insane 1,250 MPGe for this bike. And this is for a nearly 70 lb eBike with super fat off road tires. A much smaller GoCycle Gx can go 25 miles using just a 0.3 kWh battery pack giving it nearly 3,000 MPGe! No car can come close.
Still Room to Improve
We're still just at the beginning of the eBike revolution. There's a lot of room left to improve their motors, batteries and the electronics that control them. The improvements to this tech that are being spurred by electric cars should trickle down to eBikes eventually. I expect in a decade or so we'll see lots of eBikes weighing under 30 lbs which will make them easier to handle and even more efficient.
The electricity that fills their batteries is also getting cleaner with renewables starting to replace fossil fuels in much of the world. In upstate NY, home of the lowest emissions per kWh in the U.S., a Radrover produces the same emissions as a gas car getting over 2,700 MPG and a GoCycle is over 5,000! To put this in perspective, just one solar panel on my roof generates enough electricity to propel a Radrover nearly 15,000 miles each year.
Emissions are low even when charging from the grid in the place that produces the most emissions per kWh in the entire U.S., Honolulu Hawaii. There it produces the same amount of emissions as a gas car that gets over 400 MPG. It probably goes without saying, but it is a safe bet that there will never be a production gas car that gets 400 MPG.
What About Kids/Cargo?
One reason many people don't consider eBikes is that they don't think they can haul enough. These people probably haven't looked into cargo bikes and trailers much. After doing some research I bought a used Madsen bucket bike to chauffeur my kids around town with. It can hold 600 lbs of weight so it also works to haul groceries, bags of cement, whatever you can throw in it.
A Madsen can't really fit 4x8 sheets of plywood, but Bikes at Work makes a trailer attachment just for that! You can even go really fancy and build a Carla Cargo trailer. With its own integrated electric motor and brake this trailer can effortlessly pull huge loads behind any old bike.
There are cargo bikes and trailers that can handle pretty much anything you can throw at them. Add an electric motor and they'll glide effortlessly along while getting around 1,000 MPGe. Their up front prices may be in the thousands but they make up for this by having next to no operating costs. Just look at all these crazy cargo hauling contraptions!
How Much Do They Cost?
High cost is a big part of why there still isn't an eBike in every garage. The prices of eBikes can vary wildly depending on price, quality and features. A tiny, but powerful, Swagcycle is just $500 while a fancy GoCycle GX costs $3300! Of course you can also build your own eBike to get the exact price/performance ratio you really want to.
With so many new eBikes coming out these models and prices will be outdated very quickly. There are also lots of sales on the old models and around Black Friday that can save you hundreds more. Check out the eBikes section at Electrek to see the latest models if you're considering buying one.
While all of these bikes may seem expensive when you compare them to cars they're downright cheap. Maintenance costs for eBikes are just a few bucks a year for things like brake pads, tires and chain oil. Even if you pay a fancy bike shop to do it it'll probably cost under $100/year.
Fuel costs for these bikes are so low they're almost non-existent. In the U.S. we pay between 9 and 30 cents per kWh and it can be even cheaper if you install your own solar panels. Even at 30 cents it costs less than 1 penny per mile and at 9 cents it's just 1/4 of a penny. If you pay $2.50/gallon and drive a 30 MPG car you'r paying over 8.3 cents per mile. If you ride an eBike for 100 miles instead of driving that car you will save over $8 on fuel alone.
Of course $8 is a lot less than the $1100 purchase price of a Ride1Up 500 series. You'd have to ride that bike nearly 14,000 miles to pay for its cost on fuel savings alone. But of course there are more costs to driving than just fuel. There's maintenance, depreciation, insurance, etc. When the IRS added all this up they figured driving a car cost 57.5 cents/mile in 2019.
An $1100 eBike pays for itself in under 2,000 miles using the IRS cost per mile estimate. With a 10 mile each way commute it'd take less than 100 days of riding to pay for this eBike. Even if you drive every time the weather is bad you could still get this done in one year and the eBike will probably last well over a decade. The return on investment (ROI) of an eBike can easily be over 100%/year if you use it enough. The only other investments that can consistently return that much are Ponzi schemes.
If you're trying to have a profitable life it's important to choose the right tool for the job. If a eBike can handle a significant number of miles you use a car for then it is likely a worthwhile investment. This is true if you have to spend extra for a cargo eBike or a trailer or you run a cheap electric car that costs half the IRS per mile estimate.
Will the Battery Last?
One part of an eBike that might not last a whole decade is the battery. Batteries are rated in charge cycles which describe how many times they can be fully charged and discharged. An eBike battery should last hundreds of charge cycles, maybe even 1,000. If you get 25 miles of range from a full charge then going 1,000 miles would take 40 full cycles. If you get the full 1,000 charges from your battery it will take you 25,000 miles!
Given the stresses eBike batteries are placed under I don't think 25k miles is likely. The temperature extremes and high current draws eBike batteries face will probably degrade them faster than batteries that live cushier lives. Still 5-10k miles is certainly possible. Also, if your eBike battery does die while you're out riding you can always just pedal it home.
The other good news is that battery prices just keep falling. They have been dropping by around 20%/year for over a decade now. This is a big part of why eBikes from 10 years ago weren't great values, their batteries cost 10 times a much! Right now a good eBike battery pack can be had for $500. By the time you have to replace the battery on a new eBike this will be substantially less. It's crazy to think, but by 2030 an eBike battery may be cheaper than its tires.
Won't it Be Stolen?
Another big fear with bikes is that they'll get stolen. This is a sad fact of life in many places and will probably continue until we sort out a lot of deep underlying problems like drug addition and poverty. That being said the last time I had a bike stolen was in 6th grade and I've ridden thousands of miles since then. That childhood memory still haunts me though so I came up with a nearly free DIY GPS bike tracker. Its probably overkill, but it lets me sleep better at night.
Why Not Just Pedal?
Okay, so now you're probably convinced that eBikes crush cars, even electric ones. How do they compare to regular old pedal bikes though? Surprisingly, it turns out that an eBike has lower emissions per mile than even a regular bike. How can this be?
Food vs Electricity
To calculate the emissions of a bicycle you need to look at the emissions of the extra food a rider must consume to pedal that bike. This depends on what that food is and how fast the bike is going. The worst case scenarios, pedaling a bike really fast with meat heavy diet, gets around 50 MPGe. The best case scenario gives you 175 MPGe but it requires riding a bike under 10 mph and eating a low emission vegan diet, two things very few people do. My riding style/diet gets around 100 MPGe, which is better than any gas car but still well below a 1,250 MPGe Radrover.
Of course, the reality in America is that we eat for enjoyment and we often eat too much. The millions of dollars Americans spend trying to burn calories makes this pretty clear. We're going to eat that delicious burrito for lunch whether we go biking or not. In this case is it really right to attribute the emissions of that burrito to biking? It was going to get eaten no matter what and all the bike did was keep it from being burned at the gym, or padding our waistlines. From this perspective a pedal bike actually has an infinite MPGe.
If biking is truly causing you to eat more food then adding electric assist to your bike will help both cut your emissions and save money on food. How much money it will save can also vary dramatically based on what you eat. If you bake your own bread for 25 cents a loaf an eBike won't cut your grocery bill much. If you eat lots of steak, salmon and fresh vegetables then an eBike could easily save you $10/day on food. A cool feature of eBikes is that you can pedal as much as you want. If you have a crazy big lunch one day you can lower the assist level on your ride home to burn the extra calories.
Pedaling a bike also provides a lot of health benefits from exercise. Getting some moderate exercise every day helps your body so much, and we know that more exercise is better (up to 90 minutes of exercise per day, after which we don't have enough data to say for sure). At the same time we've also found that eBike riders get about the same amount of exercise every day as regular bike riders. This is because eBikers use their bikes more often and go further on them, while still pedaling some. You also use your core muscles to steer and balance an eBike even if you aren't pedaling.
So What does Profit Greenly Ride?
With all this eBike evangelizing you probably expect that I ride one every day. If I lived in a bigger city I would certainly do this, but my town is downright tiny. Even with multiple trips around town it's hard for me to ride more than 5 miles in a day. I want the exercise I get from those 5 miles to help offset my burrito habit so I still pedal them. If my kids get too heavy to haul around, or I get injured or something I can certainly see adding an electric motor to my bike in the future.
I did buy an eBike for my wife's field work. This involves regularly visiting a nearby stream to collect over 60 pounds of water samples. She was renting a car for this for a whopping $40 a day! Even worse the closest it could be parked was a long walk away up hill from the sample sites. Her new Radrover and trailer setup can ride right down to the stream saving time and effort. By removing the $40 rental feel they will pay for themselves in just 40 uses. Considering that she'll be collecting samples from this area hundreds of times over the next few years this seems like a no brainer investment. Hopefully this example will help you think of some task you currently do with a car that could be more profitably done with an eBike instead.
Profit Wrap Up
If you went back in time and told someone from the 80's that in under 30 years we'd have vehicles that could get over 1,000 MPG they wouldn't believe you, but this is the amazing reality we live in. Even just thinking about how a bike like this generates less emissions per mile than on powered by your own muscles is kind of mind bending. Sure, it's still a good idea to get some exercise, but if you're using a car for short drives around town then you should really look into an eBike. It'll help you profit greenly with lower total emissions and more money in your bank account. Happy riding!