girl in front of school bus with folding cargo bike

Electric Cargo Bikes Have Car-Like Utility but Bicycle-Like Costs: Cool!

It might seem obvious that someone who adopts a car-free lifestyle is making sacrifices in order to live by their principles. The implication is that we should pity them. Cars can go faster, farther, and carry a lot more stuff than bikes, right? So they’re better, right? Not necessarily. Urban families are finding that an electric cargo bike can be a step up—a big step up—in meeting their transportation needs. And any task they can’t do on a bike they can accomplish with a rental car or carshare car.

When we look at the amount of time we spend on driving, the distances we go, and the amount of stuff we carry in our cars most of the time, an electric cargo bike can accomplish the same tasks over half the time, but for about 1/100 the cost. Think about that. Would you pay 100 times more for appliance A even though it can only do twice as much as appliance B? If you drive, that’s the decision you’re making.

I recently read Reinventing the Automobile by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns. This book has a lot of great ideas about the future of transportation, though I couldn’t help wondering why they are pushing futuristic little cars (shown on the cover of the book below) rather than advocating for here-and-now electric cargo bikes. Chapter 9, Personal Mobility in an Urbanizing World, begins by noting that since 2007, more people live in urban than rural areas. They follow up with a lot of interesting statistics about how people actually experience driving in an urban environment. I looked at that data and compared it to what I know about electric bikes. Here’s what I came up with.

Cars can go faster and farther than ebikes but don’t need to in urban areas.

  • Top speed of a typical automobile: 90mph; of an ebike: 25mph.
  • Average road speed in most cities: 15 to 25mph.
  • Range of an automobile: 300 miles; of an ebike: 25 miles.
  • Average daily driving distances in the United States: 50% drive 25 miles or less.

Cars don’t often carry more than two people. Electric cargo bikes are capable of carrying two people or a total of 500 pounds of people and cargo.

  • Average number of automobile passengers: 1.59.
  • Average number of all car trips that are single occupancy: 60%; of commutes by car that are single occupancy: 85%.
  • Carrying capacity of a small pickup truck or car (including driver and passenger): 1,000 pounds; of a cargo bike: 500 pounds.

Owning and operating a car costs about 100 times the cost of owning and operating an ebike. 

  • Fuel cost per mile of a car: 15.0 cents; of an ebike: 0.1 cents.
  • Monthly cost to own and operate a car: $600 to $900; an ebike: $20.