I recently became an owner of an e-bike, which has been a big trend recently with e-bikes outselling electric cars in the United States last year and doing so by even bigger margins in Europe.
The success of the e-bike market is an interesting business story. There’s never really been a concerted push for e-bikes — they have instead benefitted incidentally from the general push for better and cheaper batteries, largely due to industrial policy aimed at creating electric cars and the dispatchable storage needed for all-renewable electrical grids. But even though electric cars have absolutely gotten cheaper and more popular, they’re still held back by concerns about range and the convenience of charging relative to conventional cars.
E-bikes, by contrast, are just straight-up better than bikes.
They’re also just one part of the larger set of major transportation innovations we’ve seen over the past decade. This began with Uber and Lyft revolutionizing the market for taxi rides, and continues with bike shares (which are now going electric), electric scooters, and even the occasional electric unicycle, at least in my neighborhood.
It’s a very exciting time, technologically speaking. But I also worry that in the United States, it’s never going to amount to much outside a handful of cities. And that’s because transportation and land use are fundamentally complements. If you’d never built stuff around train stations, railroads wouldn’t have been very useful. If you’d never de-concentrated people and activity away from the train stations, cars wouldn’t have been very useful. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we should redesign cities from the top down around the idea of cargo e-bikes and shared scooters, but for these new technologies to be useful to people, it has to be possible for patterns of construction and land use to change in response to the new technology. And so far, it mostly isn’t.
All about my e-bike
Since I’ve gotten some questions about this in mailbags and because this is my newsletter, I’m going to be self-indulgent and talk a bit about myself instead of about policy.
After some consultation with the internet, I got a RadCity 5 e-bike. I’m perfectly satisfied with it, though after experiencing the condition of D.C.’s roads, I kind of think I should have sprung for the RadRover with its off-road capabilities. So what’s it good for? Why would you want this?
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of bicycling in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, you know those cities have top-notch bicycle infrastructure. They are also very flat.
Washington, D.C. does not have a reputation as a super hilly town, but it’s actually built on a big slope up from the banks of the Potomac River. If you walk or drive around, this mostly isn’t noticeable, but one of the main exceptions — the slope up to Columbia Heights — is right by my house. And the basic killer app of the e-bike is that it lets you be lazy about hills. You can operate in full moped mode if you like (which will hurt you on range, of course), but the most natural way is to pedal with motorized assistance. You basically do light exercise as if you were biking on flat ground whether or not the ground is actually flat. Steve Jobs compared the computer to a bicycle for your mind; the e-bike’s motor is like a bicycle for your bicycle.
By the same token, you can also let the motor do the lifting when you need to carry something moderately heavy. I see a lot of people using e-bikes to transport kids who are too small to ride their own bikes.
Long story short, it’s like a bicycle but more useful — you can carry heavier loads and navigate hillier terrain without being a hard-core athlete. It’s more expensive than a traditional bike, but batteries have been getting cheaper. And unlike an electric car, which is better than a gasoline car in some ways but worse in others, the electric bike is just better. What’s more, because the battery is relatively small, you can detach it from the bike and plug it into any outlet anywhere. It’s closer to charging a laptop or a cell phone than to an electric car — you can do it almost anywhere.
Urban transportation is a geometry problem
So why is this good? Well, for starters, it’s nice to get a little light exercise in life.
But the main thing is that Washington, D.C. is full of destinations where parking is moderately scarce. It’s not like “real America” where every single place of business has dedicated parking, and while most residents have a parking space for their own vehicle, they don’t generally have spare parking for visitors.
Because bicycles are much smaller than cars, it’s usually pretty trivial to find a place to park one. Of course when too many people start parking their bikes in a disorderly way, locked up to street signs and such, people get annoyed. But if you create dedicated bicycle parking racks, you can fit a much higher density of bicycles into a given geometry. Marginally usable sidewalk space can become bicycle parking. The space occupied by one car can hold eight bikes. Bikes are small. These days they even sell bikes that you can fold up and take inside with you.
Much of that is true of the current generation of electric scooters, which are normally even smaller than a bike. And while an Uber is as big as a car (indeed it is a car), one of the main virtues of hailing a cab is that you don’t need to park it.
Of course, we have long had a very useful solution to the geometric problems of urban density — mass transit.
And transit is great. Part of the reason e-bikes have boomed in D.C., I think, is that Metro frequency has been disastrous in recent years, mostly thanks to catastrophic procurement failures that have seen a large share of our railcars out of service. If WMATA functioned better, more people would use it and there would be less interest in alternatives. But more broadly than that, Metro and most mass transit systems that I am aware of are built on the assumption that large numbers of people are going to be commuting into the central business district. These days, thanks to remote work, fewer people are doing that. But just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean you necessarily want to be home all day. People are going from neighborhood to neighborhood to run errands, have meetings, do lunch, and otherwise live life in a more flexible way.
Our cities have become inflexible
The built environment of cities has traditionally changed with transportation technology.
Most old cities are built around seaports or navigable rivers. When trains were invented, cities could be usefully positioned at the intersection of a railroad and a river. Because trains are very fast but only stop at train stations, locations very close to a train station had a lot of economic value. But the value of proximity to the train station would decay rapidly with distance. As a result, a lot of railroad-era cities took a built form that was both very dense and also quite small. These kinds of small, old cities scattered around Pennsylvania, New York, and New England seem odd in today’s world when density and bigness seem to go naturally together. But it fell out from the technology.
Big cities, rather than being built around a train station, were built around subway lines or streetcar networks.
Then cars came in and changed everything. You could be further away from stuff. And more importantly, although a five-mile commute is more convenient than a 10-mile commute, there are no hard tipping points. Car geometry makes particular locations less special and encourages a flatter social geography.
But note this doesn’t happen by magic. If you made a rule that said all major destinations need to be within a convenient walking distance of a train station, then there would be no shopping malls or suburban office parks. Cars are useful for navigating a suburban geography, but the geography exists because we let people start building things that you wouldn’t build if cars didn’t exist.
All of which is fine. I’m mostly an urbanist (I live in a walkable neighborhood, I write columns about my new e-bike, etc.), but the idea you sometimes see in urbanist circles that getting cars and building car-supportive infrastructure was bad is insane. Cars are popular because they are very useful. There is a lot of car-supportive infrastructure because cars are popular. The problem is that the technological transition to the Automobile Era coincided with the rise of a very prescriptive land use planning regime. And a key conceit of this regime is not that people probably will want ample parking associated with buildings, but that they should be required to build ample parking associated with all new buildings.
Space is valuable
It feels almost silly to type this out, but the big issue with parking spots is they take up space. And in some places, space is expensive. So absent parking requirements, there would probably be somewhat less parking in all the places where land is expensive. And with parking somewhat scarcer in all those places, you’d see more scenarios where you need to pay for parking or else worry about parking being unavailable. In places where parking is scarce, you’d naturally see more people opt for micromobility solutions like e-bikes and scooters. And as those became more widely owned, the cost-benefit of providing parking would shift somewhat.
Where would it land exactly? I have no idea.
What I do know is that while free markets are imperfect tools, this specific thing — aggregating preferences for how to meet tradeoffs in a varying set of circumstances — is exactly the thing that markets are good at. How many pairs of shoes does a person need? That’s the kind of question my grandfather helped the government answer during World War II rationing. But during normal times we just say however many pairs they want to own. Some people spend heavily on shoes, others do not. Some concentrate their footwear budget on a small number of items, while others spread it across many. We don’t try to figure out the right answer, we let it vary across people and situations, and we let it change over time as the relative price of shoes versus other things changes.
Technological change over the past 10 years has objectively made personal car ownership less vital than it used to be. Something like an e-bike or a scooter for daily use and an Uber or a Zipcar for occasional car needs is a decent combination for a lot of people. But in economic terms, one of the main advantages of being a one-car instead of two-car family or a zero-car single person is that it reduces your need for car storage. If the regulations governing the built environment require tons of parking, there’s no way for most people to actually capture that upside.
The other infrastructure issue with e-bikes — and I say this as a fan and occasional user of them — is that absent a well-maintained and _large_ bicycling path network, they actively make bicycling worse for both traditional riders and each other.
It’s the car problem in miniature: if you’re the only car on the road, driving is _great_, but driving in rush hour traffic in even small to medium sized cities is miserable. Similarly, if you’re one of the few e-bike riders around, you can cut through cities like a knife. But any non-trivial number of them reveals instantly the hard limits of bike infrastructure that in most cases was a hostile afterthought: having dozens of e-bike riders of varying levels of skills and aggression all easily maintaining speeds of over 20mph on these paths makes for a hair-raising experience as a traditional rider or worse yet a pedestrian on shared paths. And the additional weight of the batteries makes stopping harder and crashes inevitably more injurious.
The smart thing to do here would be to start taking lanes from cars on popular arteries as e-bike traffic ramps up. My expectation is that what we’ll actually get are blanket e-bike bans in a lot of cities instead. (And that’s not even getting into the ugly failure modes of lithium ion batteries — you really should not be charging large ones inside your residence.)
One of the dumber parts of the struggle to get rid of parking requirements is that cities will often grant exemptions to them if developers grant certain concessions, so now groups that benefit from those concessions fight to keep them. So now we have some "Affordable Housing" organizations fighting to keep them.