Can e-bikes transform our cities? | FT Tech

It's an almost silent revolution. Electric  bicycles, or e-bikes, as they're better known, are exploding in popularity, accounting for over  €12bn worth of sales in Europe last year. I've come to the Focus factory in  Cloppenburg, in northern Germany. On the production line are e-mountain bikes,  a relatively new segment of the market. What you can see currently there is  one of our most important bikes. And that's an e-bike? It's an e-bike, it has 130mm travel. So you can see it has two  suspensions, in the front and in the back. Sales of these are up by 60  per cent since last year.

Looking at the demographics, our main target group  is 30 to 55, 30 to 60. It was quite male driven, but it's becoming more female as well. But this sort of tech will cost you thousands of euros. The entry price point went quite up through technical developments. Now the entry is  around three and a half thousand and it goes up to ten thousand. It's a very serious  investment for the people who buy it. Six hundred kilometres south,  just outside Stuttgart, are the headquarters of German engineering giant  Bosch. Traditionally a leader in automotive parts, the company now also builds motors for over one hundred bicycle brands. They even have their own e-bike test track. It's very unique that you have your  workshop and your laboratory. You can take the test bikes and the  demo bikes and go out here.

Today, they're testing a new  anti-lock braking system. Innovations in battery and engine technology have accelerated the trend for electric bikes. Limited by EU law to a speed  of 25 kilometres per hour, Bosch's engines can achieve a range  of around 150 kilometres using a high energy density lithium-ion battery. Do you see there being one key technology, or is this rather more like an iPhone, where  lots of different technologies came together and then you've got this brand new product? Actually, it's exactly like you describe it. It's a variety of different technologies and  they are combined now in one system. And the idea is to have the physical experience  of riding an e-bike, blending into the digital experience of using a smartphone app  or cloud services. So there is a whole bundle of technologies going into this experience. One in six Germans now owns their own e-bike. But in the small city of Vechta in Lower Saxony,  that figure is even greater.

Vechta ranks third for e-bike penetration in Germany. Personal e-bike  ownership here stands at 25 per cent, and catering to those e-bikes is starting to change  Vechta's transport infrastructure. We have built a place for 300 bikes. We park  them directly next to a railway station. We have also built more and more parking places outside  everywhere because it is important if you want to go to the city by bike, you need some place  where you park it. And so it's also a part of our infrastructure. We think as a bike driver. Larger urban areas are feeling the effect too.

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I've come to the city of  Bremen. It's already rated as one of the most bike friendly  places in the world. But authorities here say the existing infrastructure needs adapting to the new e-bike age. Electric bikes are quite fast. So what  we are building are special routes, special lanes for bikes, which are  broader. So it's more safe to go fast and it's like a speedway for bikes, actually. London's population has almost hit 10 million and concerns about pollution, congestion and more  recently, industrial strike action have led to an uptick in e-bike use. Shared micromobility schemes  like Lime and Tier are plugging the widening gap between cars and public transport. While last-mile  delivery is transforming the way we shop. The rapid delivery market quadrupled in  size in 2021.

Australian start-up Zoomo manufactures and leases e-bikes to gig workers  and consumers as well as quick commerce companies, including Deliveroo and Gorillas. People today are Amazon Prime natives. Two day delivery is not enough. Really I want it  in 15 minutes and the best way to do that is to have a micro-fulfilment centre in a city and  a fleet of e-bikes ready to deliver whatever it is you want. Amazon started trialling e-bikes in  New York City, which is taking more and more vans off the road and replacing them with these light  electric vehicles. When you start to take these big vehicles off the road, you reopen the roads to  what they were essentially meant to be used for, which is not cars, but it's for human activity.

Other parcel delivery companies have tapped into e-cargo bikes as a way of navigating densely  populated urban environments. FedEx is trialling e-bikes throughout Europe and Canada. While UPS recently unveiled its eQuads. Battery powered, ultra slim four-wheeled cycles  that don't pollute or get parking tickets and speed past traffic by using  bike lanes. The advent of e-bikes has made cycling an ever  increasing part of our future, but in a way, it's also a return to the past. We've been through a century, really, where we've given over our cities to the motorcar. We've  designed most of the infrastructure for motorcars, and we've been in total subservience really  for an awful long time. What has happened over the last decade or so is that we realised  that actually, cities are for people. In 1949, cycling accounted for more than 14  billion vehicle miles travelled in the UK. But by 1974, as cars took over, that  figure had shrunk by 80 per cent. I would like to see the period when we were so  dominated by cars as a blip in history, really.

  It takes time to make these changes. But all  around the world, we are seeing the shift from car dominated cities to cities where  they're designed much more for people. E-bikes have gone from occupying  a niche segment of the market to being a mainstream mode of transport, and even  status symbols with companies like Porsche and Lamborghini developing luxury models. With purchases projected to hit 40 million next year, e-bikes are now outstripping sales  of electric cars in Europe, the UK and the US and in the process transforming  the way our cities function.

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