Cities are bike-crazy. Will it help the climate?

By John Fialka | 12/17/2021 06:35 AM EST

Urban residents are increasingly turning to bikes and scooters instead of cars in a societal shift that could help reduce carbon emissions, according to a series of recent studies.

A worker piles salvaged e-bikes and scooters before taking them to be recycled in Beijing.

A worker piles salvaged e-bikes and scooters before taking them to be recycled in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Urban residents are increasingly turning to bikes and scooters instead of cars in a societal shift that could help reduce carbon emissions, according to a series of recent studies.

But the so-called micromobility movement being documented by researchers has a peculiar boom-and-bust history that has made its future difficult to predict.

A recent study by McKinsey & Co., the global management consulting firm, found that micromobility companies suffered “devastating declines in ridership and revenue” from Covid-19 in 2020. Then a year later they appeared to be headed toward a quick recovery.


The reason? Home workers who suddenly were recalled to their offices began using e-bikes and scooters to commute because they feared “the risk of infection” from using buses and trains.

“They wanted mobility options that could get them where they wanted to go without sharing equipment and airspace with other occupants,” explained Andrew Duvall, a behavioral scientist with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He leads a team of 20 researchers that’s studying micromobility.

“The behavioral shift of people being attracted to more energy efficiency and creating less emissions is what gets our team excited about this,” he said.

Duvall added that there is evidence of a generational shift, including a trend showing that young people in cities are climbing into automobile ownership later in life than they used to.

“Getting a car key and a driver’s license are no longer the icons of freedom of mobility that they once were,” he said, noting that it can cost $8,000 a year to own and maintain a car. Renting or buying an electric bike or scooter can cost much less.

A recent NREL study shows that Americans being lured by micromobility are likely between the ages of 16 and 60. In normal times their bikes and scooters would be headed toward school or work. But as Covid eases, those bike and scooter trips could often be combined with longer bus or train rides.

The study estimates that they have the potential to save 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline annually in the U.S. They could also pose some safety problems, because the U.S. lags behind Europe and parts of Asia in separating bike lanes from cars.

NREL scientists noted the need for more research on how weather differences, like snowy winters, may impact the safe use of more bikes and scooters in the U.S.

On the other hand, the reduction of traffic congestion as a result of shifting to smaller vehicles might help crowded cities decide how to manage more bike and scooter traffic.

‘Authoritarian car’

There have been lessons learned worldwide since the summer of 1965, when an activist group in Amsterdam tried to reduce air pollution by buying a bunch of used bicycles, painting them white and offering them to the public for free rides. The "White Bicycle Plan" was supposed to “eliminate the gaudiness and filth of the authoritarian car.”

Within a month, many of them had been stolen. Others were tossed into the city’s famous canals.

But biking persevered.

By 1995, the Danes had established a network of 300 rental bikes in Copenhagen. They were locked to a “dock,” and riders had to pay a deposit to use one. The system did not make money, but the city took it over and began tinkering with ways to improve it.

In 1998, a German company found ways to disburse bikes around cities that could be unlocked using digital codes by renters using cellphones and credit cards. It was the birth of a “dockless” system that allowed users to leave them on the streets.

The two systems have spread around the world, but there was no nation that fell in love with them as much as China. Once it was discovered that bicycle sharing might make money, over 30 private companies took the plunge, renting bikes in over 100 cities.

Many of them went broke, leaving piles of damaged and abandoned bicycles. That forced Beijing to limit its fleets of shared bikes to no more than 800,000.

“Many of those companies collapsed because they grew too quickly and didn’t have models that were financially sustainable,” explained Duvall, the NREL researcher.

A smaller number of Chinese companies, however, found ways to improve the system. Now, according to some estimates, 13 of the world’s 15 largest bike-share systems are in China.

France has had better luck with microbility. It has over 50 cities equipped with bike-sharing systems led by Paris and Lyon. According to one French study, the electric bike is the champion of this system. They are rented 57 percent of the time compared with manual bikes.

Because they can reach speeds comparable with cars, the study noted, “people are less afraid to impose themselves on the road.”

According to the NREL and McKinsey studies, it is still early days in the world of micromobility. Electric scooter companies, having watched the various dramas in the bicycle world, have been boosting the durability and life span of their models.

New ones come equipped with swappable batteries and sensors in Europe.

“There is a lot of interest in learning from mistakes of the recent past to improve outcomes in the near future,” explained Duvall, whose study pointed out that electric scooters with seats have become very popular in China, Indonesia and India. “They are rapidly becoming the dominant vehicle.”

Piaggio, an Italian scooter company, is appealing to an environmentally concerned customer. “Listen to the sounds of nature,” begins a recent company ad for the Elettrica model, which can seat two.

“You can navigate the urban streets in absolute silence, whether you choose eco energy-saving mode or opt to push the engine by selecting power. Either way, as you glide around town, the complete absence of acoustic pollution will ensure you appreciate the smooth riding experience to the max.”