Will 130 Million e-Assist Bikes Save Tomorrow’s Cities?

Bicycling with Deloitte to the Winter Farmers’ Market

I began a late January Saturday morning in Indianapolis by reading “Cycling’s technological transformation,” a fifteen-page segment of Deloitte’s much longer Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Predictions 2020. I had been alerted to the report by a summary published on social media by Carlton Reid, historian and journalist in the United Kingdom. According to the Deloitte report, cycling will be the second most important innovation in 2020, the roll-out of industrial 5G being first on the list and the continued rise of podcasting as third.

The Deloitte writers “predict that tens of billions of additional bicycle trips per year will take place in 2022 over 2019 levels” and “will double the number of regular bicycle users in many major cities where cycling to work is still uncommon.” A graph shows the percentage of journeys taken by bicycle in “the top 22 cities” around the world. Montreal is the only North American city on the graph and is one of 16 where the percentage of trips by bicycle is less than 10 percent. Even in those cities the total number of bicycle trips per year is several billion.

The subtitle for this report is “Making bicycling faster, easier, and safer.” The major emphasis is upon the development of “an array of diverse technological innovations,” the most important being electrification made possible by using light weight lithium-ion batteries. These easily charged batteries make it possible to improve lighting, lock bikes more securely, and help cyclists ride faster. The result is that cycling becomes “a more attractive option for first-mile, last-mile, and overall travel.”

I have been an aggressive road cyclist for a full half-century and commuted to my teaching post year-round even when the high temperature hovered around zero. I have been retired for more than twenty years, am widowed, and no longer own an automobile. My two classic road bikes, powered only by my legs and lungs, are my primary means of getting around town. In my flat, mid-western city, freeway overpasses seem to be the steepest grades anywhere near.

Arthritis is settling into place, however, and the value of e-assist cycling is becoming attractive. This next summer, I may acquire a new bike, an e-assist, small-wheeled, fast-folding bike that really can be used for the first and last miles of a trip. The Deloitte report shows that I will be right up to date with the latest trend.

In the meantime, it still is winter in Indianapolis, and at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning time for my weekly bike ride to the Winter Farmers’ Market, scarcely a mile from my front door. My winter road bike has fenders and a generator-driven light. I could ride on a wide, public trail—an engineer’s delight—all the way from my apartment to within a block of the market, but my preferred route is on public streets with OK paving and easy-going traffic. With backpack and front basket, I make the trip most Saturdays, but this morning I hesitated for reasons not discussed in the Deloitte report—temperature of 34 degrees; snow flurries; and wet streets.

After stepping outside to confirm that the streets were not slick, I layered on my rain clothes and rode to the market. On fall mornings earlier in the season, there sometimes are a dozen or more bikes fastened to the bike stands during the hour I spend at the market shopping, snacking, listening to the music, and talking with people. One recent morning the number of bikes was much reduced, but one of them was a beautiful Santana triple. Today two bikes were fastened to the stand when I arrived. Both were gone when I came back out, but another bike had taken their place.

Staff at the headquarters booth tell me that attendance averages about 1,500 during each three-and-a-half-hour Saturday morning. Like me, people spend their time wandering around among some fifty-five to sixty vendors. Most of them, I am confident, live within six miles of the market, the “shorter journeys” that Deloitte says constitute “nearly three in five private car trips in the United States.” So why don’t people bicycle to the market?

Recent conversations with family and friends provide one answer, that most people have not learned how to ride in traffic or equipped themselves or their bicycles for uses other than casual recreation. For them, new skills and new attitudes would have to be learned. If my wife, who had not bicycled as an adult, were still living, we would drive to the market every week just as most other people do.

I’m all for making bicycling faster, easier, and safer in the ways described in the Deloitte report. I hope that my city, Indianapolis, continues its efforts to improve streets and the cycling infrastructure to encourage an ever-greater number of people to bike instead of drive on short trips—a mile or two, maybe even five or six. Something else, however, also has to be done.

The Deloitte editors conclude their report with a full page entitled “The Bottom Line” in which they state that improving bicycling technology “is only part of the picture . . . The other, equally important part is to support policies and programs that promote bicycling.” They focus attention on two topics: (1) How riding a bicycle, even an e-assist bicycle, can improve health; and (2) How employers can become “involved in shaping healthier commuter habits.”

The report acknowledges that even with these changes in attitude and policy, bicycling will continue to be “only a small fraction of urban transportation modes. Even so, “in terms of impact . . . bicycling can be immensely important” to improving the quality of life in cities like Indianapolis and the well-being of our planet home.

4 Responses to Will 130 Million e-Assist Bikes Save Tomorrow’s Cities?

  1. etwicks says:

    Keith,

    Interesting (for lack of a more erudite word) post. Thank you for it. I definitely see an e-bike in my future…when the prices get more reasonable, if they do. I could buy the new/used car I might need for the price of the ones that a few friends have and that I am lusting after.

    So glad you are still out there this time of year. It’ll ride all year, and so far 2020 has been relatively mild for us.

    Continue to be well!

    Fondly,

    Elizabeth

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. Callie Smith says:

    Keith,

    Thank you for this essay! I’m glad to begin seeing Indy through your cyclist’s eyes.

    Best,
    Callie

  3. I agree, Keith, that e-assist is a great option especially in hilly areas like Portland. It will get many more people out cycling and should not be viewed as a “cop-out” to regular cycling. Thanks for the information.

    • I’m well-acquainted with Portland’s hills, especially up Montgomery Drive, north on Skyline, and back down Germantown Road to the St. Johns Bridge. That bridge and I, by the way, came into the world in the same year.

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