Aug 20, 2020 - Technology

Electric bikes see a pandemic-driven spike

Man rides electronic bike in Madrid, Spain

Photo: Samuel de Roman/Getty Images

Electric bikes are seeing a major spike in sales that began even before the coronavirus pandemic but has sharply accelerated since March.

Why it matters: E-bike manufacturers are racing to keep up with the newfound demand as people, wary of crowded public transit and facing less congestion from commuting cars, adopt new ways of getting around.

Sales of e-bikes in the U.S. increased 190% in June compared to June 2019, according to new research from The NDP Group. (E-bikes add an electric motor to traditional bicycles, making it easier for riders to pedal up steep hills and extend their rides.)

  • Yes, but: Ridership of shared e-bikes (such as those owned by Lime and city bike-share companies) has gone down during the pandemic. Those sectors are "still recovering" from a lack of commuters and tourists, Matt Brezina, a tech investor and pedestrian and cyclist advocate in San Francisco, told Axios.

The big picture: Many U.S. cities, including New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have been closing certain streets to traffic, lowering speed limits and adding protected bike lanes, all key factors in helping people feel more comfortable on bikes and less threatened by cars.

  • Some cities were far along in enhancing bicycle infrastructure prior to the pandemic, while others snapped into action when COVID-19 hit.
  • "A car-free space that would have taken 10 years and 100 community meetings to implement has instead been rolled out in weeks because of the COVID emergency," Brezina said.

Be smart: Smart urban design is necessary to get and keep people comfortable using bikes and e-bikes in dense areas, Jennifer Toole, president of urban planning and engineering firm Toole Design, told Axios.

  • Slowing automotive traffic and maintaining dedicated, separated bike lanes make the biggest difference, Toole said. That can be a tough transition for many cities where getting through the streets by car as fast as is feasible is the norm.
  • But change is coming. "The pandemic has opened us up to some options that were much more difficult before," said Toole. "People are willing to think outside the box about the way we use our streets."
  • E-bikes were growing more popular even before the pandemic, as prices sank and designs improved, Toole noted.

What they're saying: VanMoof, an e-bike company based in the Netherlands, nearly quadrupled its e-bike sales year over year in the second quarter of 2020. In the U.S. alone, VanMoof's e-bike sales nearly doubled in the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.

  • VanMoof CEO Taco Carlier told Axios his team is struggling to keep up with customer demand, especially as they work from home, but he's not surprised. "The breakthrough was going to happen for years," he said.

What's next: It's hard to predict how sustained newly adopted pandemic-era habits will be. But e-bike use has skyrocketed and may not go down even after people return to their regular routines, as they get used to pedaling around their cities, which in turn are changing to become more bike-friendly.

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