Electric bikes are growing in popularity, and for many good reasons. The latest industry statistics from the Bicycle Products Suppliers Association (BPSA) show that shipments of ebikes were up 92% in 2020, adding $31 million in new business. That’s huge!
In fact, a new survey of ebike owners was recently completed by Portland State University and the University of Tennessee. This is the biggest survey ever conducted of electric bike owners in the north America, and the results are quite revealing.
The use of electric bikes is a rising phenomenon in North America, as a growing number of manufacturers produce a wide variety of ebikes, accommodating the needs of diverse populations.
With the growth of the ebike industry, ebike users are an increasingly integral part of both the transportation network and recreational trail system. However, little research has been conducted on ebikes within North America, especially on the individuals who have purchased ebikes.
The first-known U.S. ebike owner survey was conducted by Portland State University in 2013. The 2013 survey aimed to understand whether ebikes have the capacity to reduce barriers known to deter individuals from riding a standard bicycle for any given trip, including trip distance, topography, time and physical exertion.
The authors believed that if these barriers could be reduced by the electronic assist of the ebike, then the propensity for diverse groups of individuals to bicycle could increase, especially for populations known to be disproportionately impacted by these barriers such as females, older adults and those with a physical limitation.
Additionally, ebikes provide the potential for individuals to ride to further destinations, ride more and carry more cargo. Through these interrelated benefits ebikes may increase the diversity of people bicycling, increase distances traveled by bicycle, and change the purposes for which bicycles are used.
The just-released study sought to strengthen our understanding of these issues, and to reveal whether the findings from the previous study have changed over time and with the growth in the ebike industry. This study also hoped to overcome multiple limitations of the first study by targeting a larger portion of the population by connecting with ebike manufacturers and enhancing survey distribution techniques, and by asking respondents a refined and expanded set of questions.
Additional questions also permit the researchers to delve into topics underexplored or unexplored in the 2013 study, including safety implications and mode replacement. This report looks to present the results of the 2017 survey and compares results to the 2013 study when appropriate. The data of the two surveys are not statistically compared in this report but may be done in future analysis.
This current survey was distributed online through ebike blogs and forums, multiple social media platforms, manufacturer and retailers’ e-mailing lists, and cards left on ebikes throughout the Portland, OR, area. A total of 1,796 respondents who own or regularly operate an ebike within North America completed the survey.
Analysis of the survey results indicate that there has been little change in the primary reasons individuals are motivated to purchase an ebike, and they tend to be related to various barriers which deter individuals from riding a standard bicycle; reducing physical exertion, challenging topography and replacing car trips continue to reign as a few of the most important reasons for buying an ebike.
The findings also reaffirm significant discrepancies in how these barriers are perceived by various subgroups of the population, as defined by the respondents’ age, gender and physical ability.
Older adults and those with a physical limitation are more highly motivated by factors related to reducing the effort of riding and health, fitness and recreation. On the other hand, younger adults and those without a physical limitation are more highly motivated by factors related to replacing car trips and making their commute easier, quicker and more cost effective.
The survey found that female ebike owners are more concerned with topography, carrying cargo or children, and being able to keep up with friends and family on bicycle rides when compared to males. These motivations are directly related to discrepancies in how various populations tend to use their ebike; younger adults and individuals without physical limitations reported utilizing their ebike more heavily for utilitarian purposes rather than recreation and exercise, and the opposite is true for older adults and those with a physical limitation.
Through analysis of the survey responses, it became evident that ebikes are making it possible for more people to ride a bicycle, many of whom are incapable of riding a standard bicycle or don’t feel safe doing so.
Additionally, the electric assist of the ebike helps to generate more trips, longer trips and different types of bicycle trips. These findings are represented by the high value attributed to being able to overcome hills easier, ride farther and faster with less effort, and being able to carry more cargo or children when needed.
Thus, making daily utilitarian trips easier for some and enhancing recreational opportunities for those who desire such activity. When the respondents’ most recent ebike trips were analyzed, the results indicated that ebikes have the capacity to replace various modes of transportation commonly used for utilitarian and recreational trips, including motor vehicles, public transit and standard bicycles.
The majority of the utilitarian trips (i.e., errands and commutes) being made by ebike are replacing motor vehicle trips, which signifies an impressive decrease in vehicle miles traveled. With increasing concern for reducing emissions by motor vehicles and minimizing the congestion of motor vehicles in urban and suburban areas, ebikes can serve as a healthier and cleaner way to travel.
This is especially important when considering how ebikes make longer trips more feasible, as distance to destinations is a key deterrent to riding a standard bicycle. Thus, ebikes could potentially serve as a practical means of transportation for people who live in the suburbs and have a longer commute.
Although it is not clear if creating a safer trip is a key factor in the decision to purchase or convert to an ebike, this report reveals that many respondents feel safer riding an ebike than they do a standard bicycle and they value an enhanced sense of safety.
With the help of the electric assist, ebike users can take longer routes to avoid utilizing dangerous streets, they can accelerate quickly to get through wide intersections or away from a potential conflict, and they are able to keep up with the pace of traffic which minimizes the speed differential.
Respondents were approximately eight times more likely to report that their ebike has helped them avoid a crash than they were to report that their ebike has significantly contributed to a crash; however, as vulnerable users of the transportation system they often have conflicts with motor vehicles.
In addition to the conflicts that are shared with standard bicyclists, such as inattentive drivers and poor shared-road conditions, ebike users face the danger of motorists misjudging their speed.
Perceived safety plays an essential role in whether an individual is likely to ride a bicycle for a given trip; thus, by enhancing one’s sense of safety ebikes could potentially tap latent demand for bicycling by encouraging those who may not feel safe on a standard bicycle.
Supportive and protective policies could help cities capitalize on the numerous environmental and social benefits ebikes have to capacity to generate.
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