Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused oil prices to shoot up, electric vehicles were having a moment. The ad lineup for the Super Bowl is a reasonable barometer of automakers’ priorities, and for the 2022 game, six companies, from Chevy to newcomer Polestar, ran commercials featuring electric vehicles (up from just one last year).
Of note for outdoorsy folks, the lineup is clearly shifting from dainty Priuses (Prii?) and Leafs (Leaves?) to brawny electrified Silverados and Cybertrucks. From the new Ford F-150 Lightning to Rivian’s R1T—which will feature a perfectly ’grammable camp kitchen made in collaboration with Snow Peak—the auto industry is getting very close to offering EVs that are every bit as camping-trip-worthy, ski- vacation-worthy, and generally adventure-worthy as their internal-combustion-powered cousins.
So you might be tempted to upgrade: If you could have all the utility your current rig offers, free of both the cost and guilt of fossil fuels, what’s not to love, right?
Aside from availability (that electric Silverado is planned for 2024, for instance), there’s another reason to slow-roll your enthusiasm. While EVs are better choices than internal-combustion (ICE) cars and trucks on some measures, they still come with big costs, literal and figurative. I’m here to make a different argument: Whatever your goal—to save money, the planet, or your sanity and health—the EV that will change your life isn’t a car, truck, or SUV. It’s an e-bike.
I can hear the guffaws and but-but-buts already.
“I can’t go skiing with an e-bike!”
“That cargo bike won’t fit a fifth of my car-camping gear.”
“I’m a contractor!”
We can “what if” all kinds of specific scenarios for which an e-bike doesn’t work. And if you need a new vehicle to replace that beloved early-aughts Tacoma with 300k on the odometer and enough rust that you can almost see through the floorboards, by all means, make your next four-wheel vehicle an electric. What I’m advocating here is not a Cortés-burned-his-ships moment where you forgo four-wheel transportation entirely. I’m saying keep your old car; get an e-bike, and use it to replace car trips. I’m saying that I want that stat about the typical car sitting parked 95 percent of the time to go up even more. I’m saying that even for skiers, car-campers, and contractors some of the time, this works because an e-bike, especially today’s cargo variety, is actually far more capable for your daily use than it seems.
Americans like SUVs and trucks because they’re rugged, capable, and versatile. They can haul lots of stuff, and you can mod them or add accessories to make a sweet overlanding/car-camping rig. But as Strategic Vision’s annual survey of 250,000 vehicle owners notes, roughly a third of pickup truck owners haul something in the bed of their truck once a year or less. Sure, car camping relies on a car. How many days a year do you camp, really? The rest of the time, that devotion to maximum utility means we’re severely over-gunned, using a 4,000-pound vehicle mostly for trips of less than six miles: to inefficiently ferry one person to and from work, schlep 50 pounds of food home from the local grocery store, or drive a handful of miles to the trailhead for a run. That’s all stuff an e-bike can handle with ease. And camping, when you get right down to it.
With our actual, daily use in mind rather than our imagined #livingmybestlife version, comparing four wheels (ICE or EV) to two, an e-bike comes out clearly on top on almost every measure. And people are noticing. The last two years, e-bikes have outsold EVs in the U.S. Recent research shows there’s significant public interest in mode-switching to bikes if cities have safe infrastructure; some 70 percent of people in the 50 largest metro regions in the U.S. say they would like to ride more, but don’t because of concerns about safety in traffic. That’s not just recreational riding: a recent McKinsey survey found 32 percent of Americans would prefer to commute by bike.
All of that says that the smartest play—for your wallet, for the planet, and for your health and happiness—isn’t to swap your gas guzzler for an EV, but to keep your current vehicle and buy an e-bike to use as a second (or first!) vehicle for all the stuff for which it’s a far better choice than a car.
For Saving Money
One big aspect that attracts people to EVs is the prospect of saving money on things like fuel and maintenance. Fuel costs to drive an ICE vehicle 10,000 miles a year (about $700-$1600) are roughly two to four times the cost to charge an EV for the same amount of driving, according to AAA’s 2021 Driving Costs study. Gas has gotten more expensive in 2022: $1,840 for the average vehicle studied, which widens the gap further. You can estimate your specific costs in AAA’s new Ownership Costs calculator.
But for e-bikes, costs are dramatically lower than either ICE or electric vehicles, thanks in part to the relatively tiny batteries and the fact that e-bikes’ hybrid power source (electric and human) makes them highly efficient. In the heaviest use-case scenario—riding so much that you fully drain the 500 watt-hour battery 365 days a year, and living in the priciest state in the US for electricity costs (Hawaii)—the cost to ride an e-bike would be a little over $50 per year. Half that use, at national average electricity costs, your annual fueling cost would be $10, or about 2.5 percent of the cost of EV charging.
What about other costs, like registration, insurance, and depreciation? Factor in those and you can expect an EV to cost you about $7,500 per year ($2,500 without estimated depreciation), says AAA. That’s about mid-pack measured against various ICE vehicle styles. So unless you’re stepping down from a full-size ICE pickup or SUV, you won’t actually save much, if any, money switching to an EV.
There isn’t a single great resource for ownership cost of bicycles; estimates range from as low as $100 to more than $800. Both are wrong, in my view; the lower estimate doesn’t realistically cover maintenance costs, while the higher one attempts to account for fueling in terms of extra calories for the rider. But bikes are already among the most efficient means of transportation ever created, and a lightweight electric motor means you’ll burn fewer calories to ride, not more (although the difference isn’t as large as you’d think). In short, the extra calories burned by pedaling are a rounding error in the scheme of your normal diet.
Maintenance? Riding a few thousand miles a year, figure you’ll go through two tires (the priciest e-bike tires are about $80 each) and two chains ($60 per chain for a high-quality e-bike specific model). Add another $50 for labor for all that. Annual complete tuneup? About $100. Miscellaneous repairs like a flat tire or brake adjustment? Another $50 to $70.
So your total cost to operate an e-bike, including charging, would be around $500 a year. That’s about $2,000 less than it costs to operate an EV, and closer to $6,000 less if you factor in squishy costs like depreciation, for both an EV and a bike. You’re not saving the full $2,000, however. Since you kept your current car, you’ll still have a lot of those costs.
If you drive 10,000 miles a year normally and cut that by a third with your e-bike, you’ll save about $225-525 on gas at $4/gallon. Maintenance savings are harder to directly measure, but figure you’ll save 25 to 50 percent there too (another $200 to $400, ballpark). If you can get your car mileage under 5,000 a year, you (modestly) lower your insurance costs by switching to a low-miles plan. All told, you’ll save $400 to $900 a year just by replacing a third or so of your car miles with bike miles. Drive less, save more. And you still have a car.
For Fighting Climate Change
Transportation is—narrowly—the biggest single source of carbon emissions in the U.S. And cutting miles by switching to a bike is also the most effective way to cut your carbon output from transportation. That’s because any vehicle has a total carbon footprint broken down into two parts: creating it (production phase) and operating it (use phase). The figure that captures both of those is called a Life Cycle Assessment.
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is usually expressed in terms of grams of carbon dioxide produced per mile driven, which spreads the carbon produced in making the product over its estimated lifespan. According to Tesla’s 2020 Impact Report, a grid-charged Model 3 in the U.S. has an LCA of 180g/mile, assuming it lasts about 200,000 miles with only minor repairs (aka it doesn’t need a new battery pack). It’s worth noting that figure is for a sedan; an E-SUV or truck would have a higher per-mile cost. That figure jumps around depending on how it’s charged. In Europe, says Tesla, the Model 3’s LCA drops to around 120g/mile thanks to electricity production that relies more on renewables and nuclear than our domestic power supply, while in China’s coal-and-gas-heavy grid it’s over 300g/mile.
In any case, using the U.S. figures, that means a Model 3, in its lifetime, will produce 36,000kg, or almost 40 tons, of carbon dioxide emissions. (A typical ICE vehicle creates about 66 tons of CO2 over the same lifespan.) For an EV, by far the biggest chunk of carbon emissions comes from creating it. Your current vehicle, of course, already exists; the carbon emissions from creating it are already a sunk cost. Just riding a bike rather than driving lowers both the carbon emissions from the car’s use phase, and negates the massive carbon emissions that would come from buying a new EV. This is basically Patagonia’s “Buy Less” campaign at a scale that dwarfs trying to get another ski season out of those shell pants.
What about bikes, though? They have a carbon cost too, right? Last year, as part of its sustainability initiatives, bike brand Trek published a detailed look at the carbon footprint of its products. Trek’s average bike requires 174kg of CO2 to produce. The only e-bike included in the analysis—the full-suspension Rail mountain bike series—is a decent proxy for cargo bikes in its aluminum-framed versions, and requires 190 to 240kg of CO2 to produce.
Factor in charging costs (it takes two to three percent of the energy needed to charge a standard EV), and an e-bike ridden 2,000 miles a year has an LCA of about 10-15g/mile if it lasts 10 years on the original battery, frame, and motor. That’s 12 to 18 times more efficient than a Tesla on a per-mile basis, literally an order of magnitude smaller than for even an EV charged completely via renewable energy. Doubt my math? This new study shows very close results.
As the energy grid (hopefully) shifts away from fossil fuel sources toward more renewables, that will drop the total carbon cost of all electric transportation. If that doesn’t happen, or happens slowly, electrification still helps, but at a substantially lower level. One new study estimates that, if the current fossil fuel-heavy grid doesn’t shift more toward renewables, half of all the benefits of increasing EV use will be negated by increased emissions from rising electricity use, which makes carbon-efficient transport like bikes even more important.
None of this, by the way, addresses the carbon footprint of infrastructure, and last time we checked electric cars weren’t any smaller or lighter than ICE cars. The carbon cost to produce a single parking space (176kg) is slightly less than what Trek emits making the average e-bike. Bikes still need lanes and parking too, of course, but far less; you can park five to 10 bikes in a single car space, for instance.
For A Better Life
When it comes to capability, a car or truck seems like the clear winner, right? And in some situations—really bad weather, when you need to carry a lot of stuff, or if you’re headed out of the city and into the wilderness—they’re absolutely preferred.
But bikes, especially the cargo variety, are surprisingly versatile, since car trips are often single-occupant (40 percent) and short-distance (60 percent of trips are under six miles), carrying small cargo loads like groceries or none at all. Even compact cargo bikes can haul at least 350 pounds including the rider. Urban Arrow’s acclaimed Family frontloader model has 16 cubic feet of cargo capacity in the box: plenty spacious enough for a Costco run. Need to ferry people around as well? Whether longtail, compact, or frontloader style, most cargo bikes can also carry two to three people (two adults or an adult and two kids). And check out the Twitter hashtag #carryshitolympics for inspiration on all the stuff you can realistically carry on a bike.
Other benefits? You get free VIP parking everywhere you go. You’re never stuck in traffic. Commuting or erranding by bike means you get exercise while getting stuff done, creating more free time to spend with family, friends, or doing things you love. And cargo bike converts can all tell some variation of how riding has helped deepen their interactions and adventures with their family, how the kids never get bored and love taking “the big bike” instead of the car.
That extra life satisfaction might be one of the biggest dividends of mode-switching, although it’s hard to measure. But it’s not the only quality-of-life metric. Riding instead of driving actively makes your city a more pleasant place to live, for everyone.
That’s because electric vehicles sidestep only one small part of what makes personal car ownership such a stubborn problem for cities. They may run on electricity, but they’re still cars, and you don’t fix car problems with a different kind of car. A new analysis from Germany estimates that the average person’s lifetime cost of car ownership is between $600,000 and $1 million. Roughly a third of that is what economists call externalities: costs paid by other people, in the form of time lost to traffic congestion, higher mortality from particulate and noise pollution, and the effects of climate change.
EVs are absolutely a vital part of fighting climate change, and will play an essential role in greening our transportation system. But they are not, in themselves, a fix. As Peter Norton, professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Fighting Traffic” says, an EV is an improvement on cars “like a filter is an improvement on a cigarette.”
All this time, we’ve been talking about e-bikes, which raises the question: Why couldn’t you just do this with regular, pedal-only bikes? You can, of course. But the addition of lightweight electric motor-assist is the secret sauce that transforms the e-bike experience for utility riding.
E-bikes simply change the geometry and geography of a city. They shrink distances and flatten hills. The motor boost of two to three times your normal power output turns errands and hauling even heavy cargo from an arduous grind that only the most committed (and fit) environmental activist would consider into an enjoyable enterprise accessible even to people trying to change a sedentary lifestyle. They’re horizon-expanders, daily adventure-enablers, and conversation-starters—say, when rolling past the line of cars at school to pick up your kids. E-bikes, along with other forms of micromobility and a sustained investment in transit, are the keystones to healthy, carbon-neutral transportation in cities, ending dependence on fossil fuels and depriving autocratic regimes of the engine of their repression.
If any of what I’ve talked about matters to you, then keep your car for as long as you can. Just drive it less, and replace those miles with an e-bike. Try it for three months. I doubt you’ll go back.