Can’t Get to Work? Try Electric Bikes

A small niche industry suddenly finds itself at the heart of a major transportation snag for workers who are afraid of public transit.

It was a nice but niche addition to a centuries-old mode of transport. Now, experts are wondering if electric bicycles will play a dramatic role as offices in urban or large suburban settings struggle to find a way to return to some semblance of normal.

The vehicles, which are just like pedal bikes but with electric motors, would allow workers to avoid traveling in overpacked public transport where there is a high risk of spreading the coronavirus. The added electrical power would also make such bikes usable by a greater portion of the population. And they can take people longer distances, according to a recent study by the UK-based Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. “I know for middle distances—of around eight miles—it works,” says Christina Harrington, Korn Ferry’s head of advisory for Sweden. “That’s not walking distance for most people.”

While e-bikes seem like an elegant way to get folks safely back to work, the solution belies a host of issues, some easily solved and some less so. In the United States, the idea seems to have initially taken off like a rocket. In March, sales of the vehicles surged 85% compared to the same period a year ago. By April, some stores were finding they had sold out.

The surge appears to have caught this corner of the bike business off guard. In terms of restocking, experts say a global supply chain so bogged down could stall things considerably. “A lot of bikes and components come from China,” Harrington says. “There could be a challenge to get the volume of bicycles that are needed.” Making matters even worse for the bike shortage, automaker General Motors killed its electric bike program in May.

For corporations, the stakes are fairly high. Until the pandemic struck, many had invested billions in concentrating their headquarters around major urban centers with ready public transportation. Now, as some are trying to reopen, they are already facing heavy resistance from workers concerned about virus exposure on public transportation. Electric bikes can help but are not cheap: a mid-range e-bike would cost the worker $2,200. Depending on the individual’s income, that price tag could be a stretch. “Not all employees may be inclined to get one,” she says. The famously bike-friendly Netherlands partially solves that problem by offering tax benefits to people who ride to work, says Madeline Dessing, managing director of the Netherlands for Korn Ferry. Bike commuters can make mileage claims with the government in much the same way employees make expense claims. Of course, that isn’t how most countries operate.

Then there is the need for a suitable bike-friendly infrastructure. Some cities are designed to include traffic lanes dedicated solely to bicycles. Without such undertakings by city governments, many potential cyclists may be wary of riding a bicycle through urban traffic alongside trucks and cars. “The importance of a good infrastructure helps in accelerating this trend,” Dessing says. And that infrastructure includes places to store the bikes while people work.

There also needs to be an inherent understanding by car drivers of the needs of cyclists, Dessing says. Anyone familiar with New York City traffic will know the conflict that can arise when the two types of commuters come into contact. New York City recently gave over 100 miles of roads to cyclists and pedestrians, which may help ease tensions. Still, in the longer term, it’s unlikely that cars will go away. “Car driver awareness is key,” Dessing says. “It helps when learner drivers get used to the fact that there will be lots of bikes on the road.” While that is true in much of Europe, it is less so in cities elsewhere in the world. “I know when I lived in Singapore and Hong Kong, the car drivers looked at me like I was ridiculous,” she says.