A timely and revealing feature posted January 10 on CBC’s weekly online Technology & Science Newsletter What on Earth, written by Andre Mayer, explores the fact that e-bikes, not electric cars, may hold the key to greener transportation. In the article, Gregor Macdonald, a journalist and author of the ebook Oil Fall, who has chronicled the way electric cars have been disrupting the petroleum industry, admits he slept on a development that might have an equally significant effect on oil demand – and consequently on carbon emissions. The feature continued:

“I consider myself to be someone who’s very on top of these trends, and I have nearly missed the e-bike explosion because it’s happening so fast, said Macdonald. “It’s blown up in the last 12 to 18 months.”

Suffice to say Macdonald is now up to speed on the e-bike surge. These devices — which still have pedals, but also contain a rechargeable battery and can hit speeds of 25 km/h — have seen tremendous growth in recent years. In a report released in December, market research firm Deloitte said it expected global sales of 130 million e-bikes between now and 2023.

That outlook is a lot more bullish than the one for electric cars. For example, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, whose projections are generally seen as more optimistic than those of other research firms, sees the number of electric cars worldwide hitting the 130 million mark closer to 2030.

Electric cars have long been viewed as the most effective way to decarbonize the transportation sector, but Macdonald believes people are waking up to the benefits of a smaller, stealthier ride. For one thing, they’re cheaper: Whereas the lowest-priced electric car is about $30,000, a new e-bike is in the $1,000-$5,000 range.

Macdonald said a typical adult rider can get a range of about 30-40 kilometres on a single charge, which makes e-bikes well-suited to the average daily commute (provided the weather is nice). If you get a slightly larger e-bike with a bit of storage, you can transport your groceries and even other people.

“It’s not that [e-bikes are] going to replace cars wholesale, but they’re going to replace trips made by cars,” said Macdonald. “A $3,500 [US] e-bike is going to allow many families to think about going from two cars to one car.”

Another reason e-bikes are gaining traction is that many people have abandoned the notion that bikes are purely meant for exercise, said Darnel Harris, executive director of Our Greenway, a Toronto-based mobility advocacy group.

“As much as we talk about health and the importance of health, society-wise … we gravitate towards a comfortable ride that’s safe and practical,” he said. In the past, the default solution would have been a car. But e-bikes provide another option to get around without breaking a sweat.

While some people have expressed concern that the rise of e-bikes and other modes of low-speed transport are making bike lanes more crowded and precarious, Harris said it really comes down to how they are regulated.

Not surprisingly, Europeans have something to teach us. Harris said bike lanes in the Netherlands are built for “more than 20 different devices,” including bikes, scooters and even a wheelchair-friendly vehicle that looks like a Smart Car.

Harris said the key is recognizing that “we shouldn’t really be building bike lanes. We should be building mobility lanes for different types of low-speed devices — which the Dutch have done for decades.”