When the e-bike was first introduced, teenagers wouldn't be seen dead on one of these bikes. They were for elderly, dodgy cyclists like their grandparents! Now the e-bike is trendy and increasingly popular with school children. The bike industry is happy, but is it all good news?
School children on regular bikes - a thing of the past? Photo © Holland-Cycling.com
At the Amsterdam RAI bike exposition of 2014, one of the big Dutch bike manufacturers predicted that in five years time everyone would be cycling on an e-bike. Why battle against the wind on a traditional bike if it's not necessary? The audience was quite shocked: What about the health and environmental benefits of conventional cycling? Is this a desirable development?
The prediction was not as far fetched as you might think. At the time, the e-bike was no longer exclusively for older aged cyclists or cyclists with health problems. The new mode of cycling had been happily adopted by a younger generation: physically fit cyclists in their 40s and 50s who didn't necessarily need the electric pedal support, but simply found the e-bike a nice and easy alternative to the traditional bike.
Now that the e-bike is gradually becoming the norm, more parents are buying their children an e-bike for their daily ride to school. It's mainly in rural areas, where the journey to school might be 10 to 15 km. For some children it is quite normal to do such distances by bike, despite wind and rain. Other children take the bus, which often takes long and is relatively expensive. When they are 16, many buy a moped or scooter, which require a license and insurance. The e-bike is seen as a more convenient and cheaper alternative.
While some years ago teenagers wouldn't be seen dead on an e-bike, now there is no shame in turning up at the school gate on one. The bike industry has even started targeting this group of young consumers. Trendy models are now available with or without electric pedal support. Sometimes you can hardly tell the difference between an ordinary bike and an e-bike - not until you're on it and put it at full power, as the youngsters like to do to get to their destination as fast as possible.
There aren't yet any statistics on how many school children use an e-bike, but last year the overall sale of e-bikes increased by 16.1%. The bike industry is happy, but is it all good news? If young and healthy school children, who would otherwise have cycled on an ordinary bike, are encouraged to start using and e-bike - what are the consequences?
Once used to an e-bike, it's hard to imagine the teenagers will ever want to ride a regular bike again. In other words, the e-bike will become the norm. Bikes without electric pedal support might not disappear entirely, but they will become harder to find and probably more expensive, a niche product for sportive cyclists that want to cycle 'the old way'. The recent shift in popularity might be an indication that this could happen quite fast.
In many countries the introduction of e-bikes has persuaded more people to take up cycling, getting them out of their cars. However, in Holland the e-bike is mainly marketed as a comfortable alternative to the traditional bike. What does this mean for the health and environmental benefits of cycling? Will cyclists become lazy? Clearly energy consumption, CO2 emissions and use of resources will increase. These negative effects are easily overlooked by Dutch media.
Commercially the e-bike is a great success. Even in Holland where there are already more bikes than people, more new and expensive bikes are being sold. Whether we like it or not, the e-bike is here to stay.
For more on the e-bike, go to our High speed on cycle paths series: