China has over 150 million electric bikes, for good reason. Their experiment with car-based cities showed very quickly that cars simply take up too much space and conflict with more space-efficient solutions in urban areas.
Cars injure or kill a lot of people. So Beijing now has many fenced-off road lanes for use by bikes and other low-speed, compact vehicles.
A lot of money is tied up in a car and the depreciation cost is high: in three years, the value of a new car can halve. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, an average household spent $195 per week on motor vehicle-related costs in 2015, of which only a quarter was fuel cost.
Many spend far more. Annual fuel use contributes over five tonnes of carbon emissions per household.
The cost of new roads in urban areas is astronomical and the impact of disruption during construction and maintenance is high.
The ‘avoidable cost’ of traffic congestion in Australia was estimated at $16.5 billion in 2015, and predicted to increase to around $30 billion by 2030 (see here).
Parking space is expensive; it also forces everyone to travel further by taking up land that could be more productively used and limiting access to railway stations, workplaces and services.
There are much cheaper solutions with lower environmental impact.
Many Australian owners of e-bikes have enthusiastically described how their lives have been transformed. E-bikes deal with the hills, headwinds and sweating that discourage bike riding. They can carry substantial loads, including young children. And they can outpace peak hour car traffic.
But the common complaints from both e-bike users and observers are that they don’t work well with either pedestrians or cars because they accelerate rapidly and go too fast (click here for example).
The cheap ones are not very durable and the good ones cost too much. And you can’t take them on most public transport, especially at peak times.
So what do we need?
We need e-bikes that have sensors and smart speed controls. When they are near pedestrians, they would slow down and avoid them. They would warn riders of nearby cars or other dangers and slow acceleration to match traffic conditions.
Beyond that, we need new kinds of compact low-speed personal electric vehicles that can be carried on public transport.
Already many people use electric skateboards. Some use fold-up scooters that could be motorised. My dream is a fold-up e-scooter with an integrated bag so it can become a wheelie bag on public transport.
Governments should be subsidising smart e-bikes and other low-speed personal vehicles, and accelerating roll-out of infrastructure to support them.
Alan Pears is Senior Industry Fellow, School of Global Studies, Urban and Social Studies (GUSS) at RMIT University. This article was originally published on Renew Magazine. Reproduced with permission.