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E-bikes make more sense than EVs, so why do EVs get all the attention – and subsidies?

I’m in the e-bike business, so I obviously have a particular perspective on these things. But from where I stand, it looks like government support for the electric car business is all about supporting car manufacturers and has very little to do with the environment, or common sense for that matter.

2011 was supposed to be the ‘breakthrough year’ for electric cars in the UK. The British government set aside subsidies for sales of 8,600 electric vehicles in the UK in 2011, trumpeting that the UK was now ‘a global front-runner in the market for ultra-low emission cars’. Yet by October last year, there was a grand total of 1,107 electric cars registered in the UK, against 28.5m petrol cars. Total sales for 2011 were just 1,082. And at the end of the year, millions of pounds of EV subsidies – that could have put tens of thousands of e-bikes on the road – remained unspent. Annual global sales of e-bikes are around 30 million – so why aren’t more being sold and supported, right here in the UK?

‘Politicians make decisions based on political issues, which are very often money issues. If we consider the economic importance of the oil and car industries to any western politician, we can instantly understand that, at best, they are not going to regard e-bikes as important. And at worst, they may take the stance of some Chinese car makers who have opposed e-bikes on the perception that an e-bike owner might not buy a car – because an e-bike is “enough”,’ says Ed Benjamin, who leads ecycleelectric.com, an international bicycle, bike and light electric vehicle consultancy.

At the moment, it seems government support for e-bikes mainly consists of not getting too much in the way. Which is helpful. But is it enough? The government’s own climate advisers say it needs 1.7m electric cars on the road by 2020 to meet emissions reductions targets. At this rate, that looks pretty unlikely, even according to EV industry optimists. The climate advisers have next to nothing to say about e-bikes.

It’s not just governments that ignore the potential of e-bikes. The media, including specialist environmental news services, tend to be most dazzled by electric cars that at the moment are but a tiny part of the actual market for all electric vehicles, while the startling growth of the e-bike market around the world is largely ignored. In 2012, just 40,000 electric cars were sold globally, (18,000 in the US) compared to around 60m fossil fueled cars.

The problem with existing subsidies for EVs is that they tend to favour the very wealthy because EVs are so expensive in the first place. Even Fox News takes on the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement in criticising US EV subsidies: ‘This time however, billions in federal subsidies for electric vehicles are going those who need them the least: the 1 percent.’

Let’s set aside far-sighted China, where there are 130 million e-bike users, and take a look at how the UK compares with the rest of Europe. Here, I estimate total sales amount to around 8,000 to 10,000 units annually. That is a ridiculously small portion of the European market, in which 1,2m units were sold in 2011, according to Benjamin.

And let’s also remember the advantages of cycling. With 58% of the population overweight according to some estimates, and the NHS predicting that half the population will actually be obese by 2030, a government concerned with increasing health costs should surely be looking at ways to get people to be more active? Though there’s obviously less effort involved in cycling on a pedelec compared to an ordinary bike, pedelec users frequently report weight loss. Health experts regularly extol the benefits of even small amounts of increased activity. We don’t need people to do triathlons before they start to improve their health.

The benefits of cycling have been well documented by Cycling England, while the annual costs, even a decade ago, of inactivity, were around £8.2 billion a year. There’s even a slightly mind-boggling German study, which shows through obsessively detailed calculations that e-bikes can be greener in some circumstances than ordinary bikes – because, in a nutshell, feeding fussy human beings uses up more energy than fuelling bikes.

The benefits go well beyond health, and containing carbon emissions – reducing air pollution and tackling traffic congestion are also urgent and costly challenges. No amount of additional electric cars, on the other hand, will help deal with obesity or congestion.

As for those reduced carbon emissions, and costs – I calculate that at the moment, an e-bike can take you 960 miles for the cost of a first class stamp.

The automotive industry is moving deliberately slowly on supporting electric vehicles. They’re under pressure to do it, but the relative simplicity of electric cars will greatly reduce the huge market for automotive spares. In the meantime, the focus on their creeping efforts is distracting from e-bikes – a huge success story in every country that supports them.