This is a guest post by accessibility and sustainable transport advocate Tim Adriaansen It originally appeared here.  

A friend calls you and asks for your help.

They tell you that while out and about nearby, they slipped over and landed arms-first. Now their wrist is swollen, hurting like heck and they’re feeling a bit queasy from the whole experience. Their car is parked just around the corner, but they don’t feel up to driving. Can you help to get them to the hospital?

Of course you can.

You both jump into their car, and set off in the direction of the local medical centre. You drive onto the motorway, only to get stuck in traffic. It’s stop-start every few seconds, with brake lights glaring, in rolling bands, from windscreen to horizon.

But there’s a handy button on the dashboard labelled simply as “Reduce Traffic”. Once pressed, a quarter of all the cars on the road disappear, and everything speeds up to free-flow.

Would you push it?

(Don’t worry – the occupants of all those disappearing cars also arrive safely at their intended destinations!)

Soon enough you arrive at the hospital. But there’s a queue here, too. There’s a wait to see the doctor, another wait for the radiographer. Everywhere you look, the system seems to be creaking under the pressure of too many patients and not enough capacity.

At the reception desk sits a small gold bell. The label says “Relieve Healthcare System”. Once chimed, the workload of every doctor and nurse in the country suddenly becomes more manageable. People get sick less often, and heal more quickly.

Would you ring it?

On the way home, with your friend’s arm in a fresh plaster cast, you notice the fuel light coming on in their car. You decide to help them out by filling up the gas tank, to keep them going while they heal. You pull into the service station and get started when a young mother begins to do the same on the pump opposite you. Her two young children are in the back of the car, restless.

“Mum! Can we get an ice cream?” one of them pleads.

You see the young mother smile at her child, then turn to watch the numbers counting upwards on the fuel pump. Her smile fades, and for a moment, her face gives way to the pressures of raising a young family at a time when it seems like the price of everything is increasing more quickly than ever.

“Not today sweetie”, she replies to a disappointed child.

Then you see it: A button on the keypad in front of you that reads “Reduce Fuel Prices”. If you press it, everybody at this service station, and at every station across the country, will get 20% off their fuel bill, no questions asked.

Would you press it?

Miracles do happen

A magical button which clears traffic off the motorway network might seem like a fantasy unicorn. But in 2019, scientists at Delft University of Technology found a way to do just that.

Working with a study cohort who previously drove to and from the university campus, the researchers were able to immediately and permanently reduce the amount of driving people did by 25%. How did they do it?

They gave them e-bikes.

An e-bike a day keeps the doctor away (many doctors also ride e-bikes themselves)

Study participants were loaned an e-bike for 8 weeks — deemed long enough to ‘break’ the driving habit — and instructed to use it for commuting at least twice per week. They were free to use it more often, including for non-commuter trips.

After the study period, the authors reported a “Significant decrease in car use and significant increase in e-bike and bicycle use.”

Three months after the completion of the pilot study, car use was still 25% lower than before, and both push-bike and e-bike mode share had increased significantly. (The researchers suspect that participants enjoyed using the e-bikes so much, it rekindled their enjoyment of riding any type of bicycle, so they kept on riding — even after they had to give the e-bikes back).

Understanding long-term changes in commuter mode use of a pilot featuring free e-bike trials. Danique Ton & Dorine Duives, 2021.

Of course, this was in the Netherlands, a whimsical fantasyland of tree-lined bike paths stretching from windmill to windmill. Who wouldn’t want to experience such a joyous commute, flying along on your electric wheels, taking in the smells of tulip fields and fresh made cheese?

Thankfully, various e-bike schemes and trials have been popping up all around the world, with consistently fantastic results. In terms of Light Vehicle Travel (LVT) reduction, a Swedish trial found that once they got their hands on an e-bike, people drove 21% less, while a U.K. trial put the figure at 20%. A survey of 1,796 North American e-bike owners found that 34% of respondents used their e-bike to get to work or school, and that roughly half of those had previously used a car.

Saving time by saving lives…

There have also been some unexpected findings when it comes to e-bikes. One of the biggest, perhaps, is that e-bikes tend to have greater health benefits than traditional push bikes.

To understand this, it’s best to start by understanding one of the most important mantras when it comes to helping people practise regular exercise:

The best exercise anybody can do is the one they’re going to keep doing.

In the pursuit of convenience, we’ve constructed urban environments where movement has been designed out.

Sprawling suburbs mean that the distance from home to the nearest shops, school or workplace are often too far to walk. As roads have filled with greater numbers of ever-bigger cars, light trucks and SUVs, they have become hostile places to ride a bicycle. The rise of online ordering means that many people are forgoing a walk around their favourite stores or local supermarket. Even the micro-movements we once made, like crossing the office to talk to a colleague, are often replaced with digital messaging services or sending an email.

Modern built environments often suppress physical activity.

Humans have built ourselves into immobility, with devastating consequences —including alarming rates of heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, cancer and mental illness.

Around the world, and particularly in OECD nations, nearly half of all adults get less than the minimum recommended amount of physical exercise. Sport and gyms are attractive to some, but a chore for most.

That’s where e-bikes come in. First and foremost, as we’ve already seen, e-bikes tend to replace around 20% of seated, mostly sedentary, car journeys with moderately active pedalling and balancing.

But the reason e-bikes are the secret weapon against inactivity is the inescapable feeling of joy that people get when they ride them.

A Bike Rave in Tāmaki Makaurau, 2021 (Image: Bike Auckland)

The most common reasons people purchase e-bikes are for recreation, to replace car trips and to make riding a bike easier. They’re not purchased in an attempt to punish oneself into better health. Yet they achieve those results anyway.

Because people enjoy riding their e-bikes so much, they end up using them more often and for longer duration than they would have used a traditional push-bike. The cumulative effect is that they get more exercise, not less — along with all the health improving benefits this brings.

A 2019 study concluded: “e-bike use leads to substantial increases in physical activity in e-bikers switching from private motorized vehicle and public transport, while net losses in physical activity in e-bikers switching from cycling were much less, due to increases in overall travel distance.”

Now, if you’re a keen cyclist, you’re probably still going to get more exercise on your push bike. But most of the population aren’t keen cyclists; and for them, an e-bike would give a major boost to their daily activity levels.

…and saving money by saving the world

As if the transport and health benefits of e-bikes weren’t enough, their strongest selling point is yet to come:

Filling the tank on an e-bike costs around 20 cents.

Nobody is arguing that we should be using e-bikes for every trip. A variety of different motor vehicles will still be required to meet everybody’s transport needs. But for most people, an e-bike could be a fun, healthy and practical way to complete at least some of their regular journeys.

A woman pedals a long tail cargo bike in traffic; emblazoned on the side of the cargo box is the phrase "I'm a replacement car", in German.
“A replacement car”, Germany.

A recent study from Brabrant, in the Netherlands shows us, perhaps, what is possible. While the Netherlands undoubtedly have a more advanced cycle network than most countries around the world, they also still have all the transport needs of any other developed nation (set to a backdrop of a generally unfavourable climate!)

There are Dutch tradespeople, families with children, elderly and disabled people. All of them have diverse transport needs which will mean that for some, a bicycle is never a practical option.

In the Brabrant study, participants who previously used a car as their main mode of transport were provided with an e-bike. They were also paid, per kilometre, to ride it (€0.15 per kilometre during the peak hours and €0.08 per kilometre in the off-peak hours). For the duration of the study, 73% of trips ended up being made by e-bike.

This gives us an approximate “best case scenario” to aim for: On average, roughly three-quarters of trips can be completed by e-bike, if conditions allow it.

Now imagine what it might mean for families if they could replace some, or even most, of their car use with something that cost so much less to operate. As GenLess points out – in Aotearoa, an e-bike can get you to work and back, 5 days a week for a year, for about $20.

Every trip made by e-bike is a trip that’s not burning fuel. It means a tank of gas in the car lasts longer, lowering household fuel bills in line with the reduction in car use.

And every litre of petrol and diesel not burned means less climate-heating carbon emissions. Every time somebody has an opportunity to jump on an e-bike instead of taking the car, they’re helping to protect future generations from the impacts of climate change.

A RideReport summary of the highly successful e-bike subsidy scheme in Denver, Colorado concluded that “establishing a program similar to Denver’s e-bike rebate program would likely reduce GHG emissions from transportation in cities and save residents money.”

It’s not often that climate action will cost us less than the alternative. But when it comes to e-bikes, we can save money and save the planet at the same time.

An e-bike marketing campaign from Evo Cycles.

Pedalling past the barriers

Taken together, the benefits of widespread e-bike adoption are unparalleled. We have a technology available to us, right now, which can make a huge difference to some of the most pressing issues of our time.

But there is a catch: the families that would benefit the most from a modest reduction in fuel prices are the families who struggle to come up with enough money to purchase an e-bike in the first place. We need to help them break free from car dependance.

With an e-bike rebate scheme, we can reduce the cost barrier to this transport miracle pill. A modest cost reduction in the purchase price, or covering the full cost for disadvantaged individuals, will go a long way to freeing up our roads, improving our health and fighting global heating.

Keen to support the call for an e-bike rebate scheme in Aotearoa New Zealand? Sign Kirstie Klingenberg’s petition here.

Just some of the many kinds of e-bikes that await you. (Image:
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  1. We have a couple of e-bikes – the old one that made Auckland bikeable for me in the first place (still going strong after 7 years!). And the new one, which can be adapted to suit any member of the family and can carry a passenger or a week’s shopping (love you, Tern HSD!).

    Our car still gets used… but has cobwebs on it.

  2. Just illustrate this point, we are a family of 4 (kids 4 and 7) that owns one car, one e-cargo bike and another e-bike. I estimate 2/3 of our vehicle trips are on the bikes with the remaining 1/3 in the car – mostly longer trips or at night. Both parents use the bikes for commuting and school/daycare drop-offs and pick-ups. A fair number of recreational trips are also on the bikes. On Saturday I did a 25km half day round trip with the kids with multiple stops on the cargo – great fun! For many (but not all) people these sorts of changes would be do-able, the most difficult part is making a start.

    1. This describes my family pretty well too.
      I recognise the part of the article that basically talks about the privilege to get here (can afford the bike, can work remotely a couple of days a week, have storage etc). But still, it’s well within our collective grasp to make this a reality for everyone.

  3. As another illustration, we are an older couple. Still own a small ICE car which hardly gets used but comes in handy at times. For longer trips we try and use buses and trains where we can, but sadly there are almost no long distance trains to use. And the ones left are very expensive (hence the ‘Future is Rail’ campaign ) We shop using electric bikes as we have good cycleways from our village to the main shops. We have a trailer for the bikes and use that regularly. We have time for slower trips and dont mind getting wet occassionally.

  4. I would like to know which school has the most students biking to school in Auckland.
    Belmont, Western Springs? I have no idea.
    We need a competition to find a winner. People like to read headlines and good news stories about our winners.Top schools and students could be rewarded and thanked.
    It would be interesting to interview some of the students and their parents to find out why they are biking and the benefits for all involved and especially the cost savings.
    Where I live I see no students biking to school and wonder if we are making progress.

  5. I used to cycle to work till I got knocked off on Ponsonby Road due to lack of cycle infrastrcture. Live in Birkenhead now but give me a cycle path on Birkenhead Ave, Onewa and across the bridge and i’d use it in an instant. In most places that wouldn’t sound like asking for much but here in NZ it’s like asking for the seas to part.

      1. Bike infra on Manukau Rd would be a massive win. Having biked it a lot, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about that particular road. A few km of easy grade, straight line between a huge catchment of residential housing currently developing into higher density and one of the biggest shopping areas in NZ. If you took away the obstacles almost anyone who can ride a bike could do it easily from Greenwoods to Broadway in 10 or 15 mins, even by analog bike. It genuinely takes longer to to drive and park, multiple times I’ve left cars that passed me at the Royal Oak end behind at the queues for the traffic signals.

        Only thing is that every time I ride it I feel like I get cut off dangerously, dangerously overtaken only to pass the cars again at the next lights, and then fear for my life dealing with the Broadway bus gauntlet. Somehow it’s both a major cross town road link but still allows parking on both sides most of the time and has a full median strip the whole way.

    1. Well, you have that lovely bike path on Onewa Road. The one where they put the street signs, bus stops, T3 lane cameras and every construction sign they put up. Oh, and you have to share with pedestrians. And bins. And driveways. And you don’t have right of way over cars coming from sideroads or people suddenly turning into them from Onewa Road without respect for any person not in a car.

      But there are signs there that this is a bike path. Surely no need to improve it as nobody uses it these days so that would just be wasted money.

      1. Sounds almost as good as the on-road bike lane on East Coast Rd. You know, the one that stops at intersections and is protected by a layer of paint.

    2. Would love to bike/e-bike over the bridge to work. Wow haha that Onewa road “bike path” should be on Ninja warrior with the obstacles

    3. If only Local Boards all understood bikes. For Onewa Rd, at least it is legal to ride on the “Shared path” (footpath), but that is far short of enough space for safe cycling, to get to Northcote Point and the harbour crossing that isn’t there. Reallocation of space may be feasible but costly – 3 lane with dynamic control of the centre lane, with at least one kerbline moved to create a 2-way cycle path. It would mean no on-street parking (allowed off-peak now for the many shared driveways with too many cars to fit off-street). Hard to motivate for that without a harbour crossing.

      1. Motivating for that would be easy if we’d had even 5 years of:
        – AT explaining the benefits of a transformed system wherever and whenever they can,
        -AT taking every opportunity to follow best practice around making big shifts when the opportunity arises. AT could have ushered in the Big Switch during the pandemic disruption (when their own public sentiment analysis showed that the majority of Aucklanders wanted road space reallocated to pop up cycle lanes, including if it means the loss of parking), during the regular disruption that accompanies infrastructure upgrade disruptions, and during irregular events such as the bridge damage and the recent climate event disruption
        -a Board that actually keeps at arms’ length from politics, that has a functioning discussion culture, that does its due diligence, and that uses the governance tools it has available to ensure outcomes are achieved – instead of acting as an HR department.

  6. The thing I don’t like about the Light Rail proposal is that it addresses a small subset of Auckland along Dominion Rd, is phenomenally expensive and bound to blow out. For the estimated $15B (and this I’d just based on what I’ve read in the papers) you could electrify all 3000 Auckland buses, provide free fares for about 3 years, electrify 6 ferries, build a second crossing across the harbour catering exclusively for buses, bikes and pedestrians; and offer every household in Auckland $1000 towards an electric bike/scooter. I suspect with the volumes mentioned, you could also start NZ towards becoming a powerhouse in the production of electric transport. Just a thought.

    1. One of the big problems of biking in Auckland (or most places in NZ to be fair) is I don’t want to bike to a shop only to come out and someone has taken my bike. There needs to be a big push of secure bike parking too.

      1. Just even more bike racks outside shops where they are visible. Finally tried out K’Rd cycleway the other day and right where you probably needed more racks there was less. At least they had some, many Auckland places have nothing suitable.

    2. I don’t know what this post has to do with light rail but this seems like a red herring to me. First of all the 15B number is ridiculous. It’s for the super fund’s absurd tunneled option, a properly done simple surface option would be an order of magnitude cheaper. Secondly even if we did cancel LR altogether, good luck convincing the government to spend $15B on Auckland PT upgrades that are operated by Council. Thirdly, even if we did roll out your proposed upgrades, there are plenty of problems that remain unsolved – the CBD would still be jammed up with buses with no way to increase capacity, even if they are electric, and there are still no good transit options for the Northwest, just to name two.

      Finally I fundamentally disagree with the notion that LR only helps the area along Dominion Rd. The first stage down Dominion has always been the first stage of a plan which will reach a massive segment of Auckland, eventually transforming transit options in the Northwest and North Shore with additional lines. The catchment of the full plan would have an appreciable percentage of Auckland’s population within it, and this is without getting into the flow-on impacts the rest of Auckland would see in reduced congestion, economic benefits, etc. from even a single LR line.

      1. If it costs $29 billion then they are doing it wrong. For God’s sake AT, just go and hire an entire team of people from Spain where they can do such things for a tenth of the price. Designers, detailers, engineers, tunnel diggers, train builders, the lot. Enough of this bullshit “scaring everyone” talk of $29 billion. Just hire experienced, competent people.

        1. Maybe they took the CRL current price divided by the original estimate to get a reality to bullshit factor and applied that to the estimate. That one has been increasing at a about $1million per week.

        2. “Maybe they took the CRL current price divided by the original estimate to get a reality to bullshit factor and applied that to the estimate. That one has been increasing at a about $1million per week.”

          Eh. CRL had the bad luck to be in the middle of Covid and yes, large construction projects DO blow out regularly. It’s normal. I’d expect that the percentage blow-out of the City Rail link will probably be lower than the usual motorway project!

          The issue with govt’s light rail costs is that those are PRE-construction blow outs. Like East West Link, it’s become absolutely ridiculous even without the “in practice” blow outs every large project like this has almost assured.

    1. Can someone enlighten me, as the policy around why e-bikes weren’t part of the rebate scheme?

      An old dunger for a clean car is still a car on the road adding to congestion. We had a chance to take cars some cars off the road, full stop.

  7. Thanks for your presentation last night, Tim. The social psychology perspective was really fascinating.

    For myself, I’m a long time cyclist. I bought a commuter ebike when I moved house and my commute length doubled to 16 kms each way.

    The ebike has been fantastically versatile. I’ve used it for commuting, transporting kids, groceries, towing trailers full of gardening stuff, and overnight camping. These are all things I can do on a meatbike too, but the ebike makes them much more practical, and it has been used instead of our car many times.

    I bought a cheap old SmartMotion ebike for my wife too, who has lost a lot of fitness post-kids. The “ebike grin” was great to see, she instantly fell in love with it.

    I have also helped convince three people at my office to buy ebikes and start commuting on them!

    Considering the subsidy petition, I like the idea a lot. Replicating the UK Ride To Work scheme, where a payment plan and zero tax is done through PAYE, may work here too. The car EV subsidy is fine but excluding bikes (& e-motos IMO) is really limiting.

    There are so many puzzle pieces to figure out here to improve mode share. One thing that really bugs me is shops that have nowhere at all to lock up a bike. Wandering around trying to find a pole or bar that won’t get in peoples way is such a pain.

  8. Kids have switched bikes for scooters.

    High reliability, low maintenance, low price, no flat tyres, no helmet requirements, no lights, footpath legal and easy to stow in a car, bus or classroom.

    Smooth, continuous surfaces and priority over side roads are more useful to them than chip-seal bike lanes.

    1. Quite something to see PB Tech offering E Scooters as part of their S23 Ultra pre-sales. Can’t recall a cellphone being bundled with a mode of transportation before.

    2. “Kids have switched bikes for scooters.”

      Because they can be used on footpaths, which are still kinda safe, and safe enough for parents to let their kids use them. It’s the same with adults. A scooter allows you to legally be safe on the footpath when the road gets too hazardous.

      Its a failing of our road design, not a sign that scooters are best (albeit I’ll admit for really short trips – say 1-2km – they probably do better than bikes even in the Netherlands).

      The good thing is that there doesn’t need to be sh**fight between scooter users and bike users. Good bike lanes are awesome for scooter users (powered or not) too, and the speed environment (especially powered scooters VS bikes in general) is quite similar. So the bike lanes can help both groups, rather than cycling advocates having to see scooters and an undesirable distraction.

  9. I think the First Easter Tour of Jerusalem began on a donkey, Miffy.

    Would the Second Coming be by bike or bus?

    1. And yet according to many the whole reason Auckland is a shambles is that everywhere has been covered with bike lanes.

      1. Hmmmm. Pretty sure that Auckland was a shambles long before they started installing any bike lanes.

        1. Yes, I was responding to CT’s comment. The fact is there are hardly any cycleways yet they are still blamed for all that is wrong or perceived to be wrong

        2. “Yes, I was responding to CT’s comment. The fact is there are hardly any cycleways yet they are still blamed for all that is wrong or perceived to be wrong”

          Well, AT announces every cycleway 5 times and the consults at least three major versions of it before building half of what was originally proposed 5 years later. So there’s a lot of talk radio and Herald grievance content that can be produced by all that dragging-out.

  10. As an ex cycle courier I still enjoy pushing my “Bravo” mountainbike with racing tyres around from time to time, E Bikes hurtling past much bigger than my 26 incher and although relatively heavier, nothing like those other beasts known as SUVs and UTEs that still threaten the futuristic travel society. But yes making E bikes accessible to all would save our city in days. EVs still sit in traffic at rush hour as the train speeds past, and they are more often than not single occupant, completely reversing any “climate positive” from a fossil fuel free private vehicle. Bikes and trains are, as they have been for hundreds of years, the only sustainable option, just now they all come electrified, which is why wasting money on motorways and highways is ignorant last century thinking. It is 2023 and we should know better!

    1. Spot on! And curiously, many people pay at least some degree of lip service to this. But the reality is, we are still importing 1000’s of fossil-powered SUVs and Utes every week, we are still advertising them as desirable prizes to possess, and we are still planning more highways for them to run on. The message isn’t getting through.

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