Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

In just ten years’ time, all those of us who rely on petrol and diesel vehicles for our daily commute will have to find alternative, more sustainable methods of getting to work every day. Away from the dramatic headlines about emissions targets, smaller tweaks to government policy are set to have a substantial impact on people’s lives. Take, for example, the electric bike subsidy scheme.

Announced by transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris this week, the scheme will slash the prices of electric bikes from next spring to bridge the gap between current, carbon-emitting modes of transport and electric cars. Coupled with the new road pricing proposal, the result might be that in a decade’s time, we are much less reliant on the roads network altogether.

As an alternative to urban motor vehicle use, electric bikes allow users to travel more conveniently, making longer trips sweat-free and more viable. By using an attached electric motor, electric bikes allow users to negotiate steep inclines and cover long distances. Though purely active forms of transport have a smaller target market, electric bikes and pedal-motor hybrids appeal to people of all ages, careers, and fitness levels.

With the government planning to promote the use of electric bikes through granting subsidies to make them more affordable, we ought to consider how far financial incentives will go to ensuring the success of electric bikes. Will it be enough?

Electric bikes are expensive. Although still cheaper than a car or motorbike, electric bikes are far more costly than conventional ones, currently costing between £500 and £2000, dependent on size, model, and terrain. Their accessibility within the consumer market is limited and a move to subsidise the purchase of electric bikes has become apparent, potentially reducing the cost by hundreds of pounds. Grants are currently available for “electric cars, electric vans, electric lorries, electric taxis, even electric motorbikes, but not electric pedal cycles.” Subsidising the costs of electrical alternatives to increase use and competition between businesses is nothing new. But, only by increasing the popularity and demand of the product will developments in technology and efficiency follow.

Even after subsidies, electric bikes remain more expensive than conventional ones. To encourage users, traffic infrastructure must be expanded. A reduction in the perception of danger is vital to promoting electric bikes as a beneficial alternative mode of transport. Anyone who has driven through London, particularly in rush hour, will appreciate how manic it is. Increasing the number of dedicated bike lanes, will reduce conflicts and traffic, not only benefitting cyclists and making it safer for them but other road users too. 

Whist electric-powered motors offer a cleaner alternative to internal combustion engine-powered vehicles, electric bikes require charging at outlets. This means using the energy that is sourced from the area and potentially diverting emissions rather than reducing them. Without a widespread move to renewable energy sources to supply major cities, the legitimacy of electric bikes as a sustainable alternative does come into question. Though it is important to remember that despite this, electric bicycles still outperform cars and motorbikes when it comes to levels of emissions. To minimise the environmental impact of charging points, a move to greener energy sources must be accelerated. However, considering government plans to advance nuclear energy as a clean energy source, this issue should soon become negligible.

As witnessed with the rental trials of electric scooters across the country, users often fail to either return the product or do so without damage. Therefore, it is private ownership that presents itself as the solution to the promotion of electrical bikes, allowing owners to more easily integrate the new mode of transport into their daily routine.

Ultimately, the post-coronavirus recovery has provided a great opportunity to harness the innovative minds of the market, with electric bikes being a perfect example. To ensure the success of sustainable transport alternatives, they must be: safe to use, financially attainable, efficient, and environmentally beneficial. Through introducing measures to ensure these criteria are met, electric bikes will be provided with the equal platform they deserve and need.