The global pandemic has transformed the way people travel for work – if they are going into the office at all – and this transformation is here to stay.
In most circumstances, this means fewer miles driven, vacant public transport networks, and unfilled flights. Yet, one means of transportation is bucking this trend – the electric bike.
Since the pandemic took hold in the UK, electric bikes have been impossible to keep in stock.
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Sales more than doubled last year, with one in every five pounds spent on cycling invested in an electric bike, according to recent data from the Bicycle Association. Heightened anxiety over public transport and a surge in physical activity during lockdown led to unprecedented demand.
With social distancing remaining in place for some time to come, capacity on public transport will continue to be limited as well as people’s desire to travel on it. This is the electric bike’s moment, and it’s already having profound long-term implications for transport policy. Governments and businesses are investing big in the electric bike, in a bid to reopen the office in a safe, sustainable and cost-effective way.
The UK’s race to make cycling faster, easier and safer
The UK has always lagged behind its European neighbours in terms of cycling. Cycling in the UK has been regarded more as a sport, than a commuting option. Only six percent (3.1 million) of people cycle as part of their commute, whilst nearly double that figure (6.1 million) ride for sport or leisure. The majority of UK commuters have historically relied on cars or out dated public transport, causing congestion issues in many of our cities and leading to London becoming the worst city in Europe for healthcare costs from air pollution.
The pandemic highlighted transport systems cannot go back to where they left off before lockdown. Overcrowding, congestion and air pollution are all fundamental health and environmental issues that we have collectively engineered over many decades. As governments look to recover and build back greener, we can engineer out of these problems.
City planners have realised the strategic importance of electric bikes. They offer a fundamental solution to saving CO2, reducing traffic and improving mobility, which is why the race to build more cycling lanes and pedestrian areas is on.
According to a mass study across Europe, the average e-biker travels 95% further than a traditional cyclist (9.4km vs. 4.8km) enabling a far larger percentage of people to cycle to work.
The government has already pledged a £2 billion package for cycling lanes and pavements. Ministers are looking to roll out grant schemes in Spring to boost the number of people using battery-assisted bikes, appealing to city workers, those less fit or older.
Despite efforts to increase cycling, there are concerns that these grants will simply end up being a subsidy for wealthy people to buy expensive bikes they were already likely to and not improve affordability or accessibility enough to move the needle for others.
To get it right, governments will need the right incentives and infrastructure in place that ensure regardless of fitness level, age and income, commuting via cycling is economically feasible and within reach, for everyone.
If done right, a mass uptake post-pandemic in electric bikes could provide a real alternative to commuters that have relied on public transportation, or cars.
How business can bring their staff back to the office
With the introduction of pop-up lanes during summer, levels of cycling in the UK had soared by as much 100% increase on weekdays, according to Secretary for Transport Grant Shapps. People realised with a bike they could get from here to there in less time than taking public transport or driving, and even quicker when using an electric bike. This rise is even more impressive against the backdrop of the steep rise in home working over the same period.
It’s clear people are changing their behaviour and attitudes towards cycling in ways that will outlast the pandemic.
Businesses are also recognising that their workers no longer want to deal with the stress and hassle of commuting. With work travel only likely to get more complex, organisations must get smarter – and the electric bike is key to this.
Whilst the Cycle to Work government scheme has been around since 1999, it still isn’t widely adopted. Frustrations around vouchers, tedious admin and complex processes have long been sources of pain, stopping mass business adoption.
To change this, and drive uptake amongst all employees, businesses need to invest in programmes that allow employees to sign up quickly, provide affordable pricing, whilst removing the barriers for riders to owning an electric bike including insurance and cycling gear.
As we emerge from lockdown, businesses and governments must ensure the right infrastructure and incentives are in place to get workers back to the office safely. The electric bike will be pivotal for this, and if done right, we’ll be a step closer to achieving urban sustainability, whilst improving the health and wellbeing of city workers.