The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Electric bike sales are booming. In the United States, retailers more than doubled their sales in 2020 and demand has only increased. Globally, we’re expected to reach 40 million e-bikes sold in the year 2023. It’s easy to see why. On the spectrum of transportation options, e-bikes have some clear benefits: They use a great deal less energy (and therefore cost less) than a personal car. They save a lot of effort (and are therefore more convenient) than a regular bike. And depending on your route, they can even be the fastest way to arrive at your destination.
It’s easy to find testimonials from people on the internet who have swapped a car for an electric bicycle. In fact, we produced a video about this very topic with Grist reporter Eve Andrews a few years ago. These anecdotes often come from people living in dense cities, where trip distances tend to be shorter. But what about folks who live in suburban or rural towns — are e-bikes still a good deal?
As part of our video series Crunch the Numbers, we decided to look into how much carbon and cash the average American household could save if they swapped out their vehicle for an e-bike.
Let’s crunch the numbers!
Ok, so if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna need a really good data set. Fortunately, every few years, the good folks at the U.S. Department of Transportation put out a report that details the nation’s driving habits. So, based on those numbers, let’s take a hypothetical:
The average American household includes 2.5 people and 2 vehicles. Let’s consider a hypothetical family that has matching RAV4s (the most popular non-truck sold in the U.S.!) and lives in Florida (a place where the cost of owning a car is close to the national average). But oh no! Due to a paranormal-induced accident, one RAV4 gets totaled. So this average American family is now faced with a decision: Do they replace their RAV4 with another car, or an e-bike that’s great at hauling cargo?
Let’s look at the first contender, a used 2021 Toyota Camry. According to the Department of Transportation, the average American household drives 17,815 miles a year. In a two-car household, let’s make it simple and say the new Camry will drive half (8907.5 miles), and the still-functioning RAV4 will drive the other half.
(Editor’s note: If you’d like to follow the number-crunching in our Google Spreadsheet, follow the link here.)
If we plug these two cars into this online tool from AAA, we can calculate our Florida family’s approximate cost of car ownership over five years. This includes fuel, maintenance, depreciation – even financing for buying the Camry! When you add all that up… the grand total for five years of ownership comes to $86,617.64.
Now let’s see how the e-bike stacks up. For the purposes of this video, I chose the Blix Packa Genie e-bike because it purports to be “a natural car replacement.”
But how many driving trips could an e-bike actually replace? In the U.S., nearly 60 percent of trips are five miles or less. In theory, all these trips could be replaced with an e-bike. That would include things like trips to the grocery store (median distance 0.9 miles) or school (median distance 2.7 miles). If all of these short-distance driving trips were replaced, we calculated that the e-bike would account for 2,575 miles of the household’s 17,815 mile total.
The family’s remaining RAV4 would need to compensate for longer trips the new e-bike can’t make. By plugging the RAV4’s additional usage into the same cost estimation tool from AAA we determined the family’s one car would add up to: $53,097.35 total over five years. For the e-bike, there’s the initial cost of $2,000 plus all the gear the family will need, annual charging costs, and parts and maintenance. That brings the five-year cost for the e-bike to around $4,700.
The total cost of the e-bike and car option? An estimated $57,861.41. That’s nearly $29,000 cheaper than the car-only version over those five years!
OK, but what about the carbon footprint of each option? For the Camry and RAV4 combo, there’s a great tool from MIT that breaks down CO2 costs per mile in three categories: fuel use, fuel production, and vehicle production. So, taking our average American family with their two cars, driving an average 17,185 miles per year, we get 36.3 metric tons of CO2 emissions over a five-year period. If we do the same calculation with the e-bike and RAV4 option, we get a grand total of 30.5 metric tons of CO2 — That’s 5.8 metric tons of CO2 less than the car-only household.
So if you’re anything like the average American household, you’d save lots of cash and CO2 by swapping even just one of your cars for an e-bike. But that’s admittedly a pretty big “if.” Most people are not the average American household. Factors such as where you live and who you live with can greatly affect how safe it is to bike and how much you need to drive in the first place.
With that in mind, here’s a link to our Google Spreadsheet calculations, so you can copy the doc, tweak the assumptions, and better understand the data.