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The Environmental Cost of Electric Bikes vs. Cars and Motorcycles

Posted by Rommel Lim on

Ours is a world based on consumption that, in the end, amounts to waste and changing the environment. The focus of this article is to compare the environmental impact of cars, motorcycles and electric bicycles. The electric bicycle has been considered as the cavalry of the 21st century because of the rising costs of fuel, increasing stress levels and the impact of fossil fuels on the environment and people’s health. It is also crucial to include traditional bicycles in the comparison as people, especially in China prefer to use traditional bicycles instead of electric bicycles. So, why electric bicycles? Let’s look further into the environmental impact of electric bicycles first.

Electric bicycles and pedelecs are considered to be dominantly emission-free vehicles but the process of making them is not totally emission free. The disposal of batteries and parts of electric bicycles when they reach the end of their life cycle is also not emission free. In the United States of America, most of the electricity is generated by way of burning natural gas or coal, that makes up about 66% of all the production of energy in 2014 based on the reports by the US Energy Information Administration. Coal and natural gas are followed by nuclear energy, taking up about 20% of the energy production, and finally by renewable sources of energy at about 14%. Renewable sources of energy are making larger contributions every year, but are still, so far, the minority at present so the burning of fossil fuels for electricity is something that Americans cannot avoid. Calculating the numbers that represent the impact of electric bicycles on the environment is not as straightforward as it might seem because it also depends on the habits of the user.

In general however, a single electric bicycle has a low impact on the environment. If someone used their electric bicycle for 1,000 miles every year, you would expect somewhere between 20,000 to 25,000 watt hours. This is almost the equivalent of running an air-conditioning unit for 22-28 hours. This might be too sweeping a suggestion but it gives you a good estimate of the scale. If you want to look for ways to get rid of having a huge impact on the environment while charging an electric bicycle, you need to consider portable solar generators. As to the manufacture of electric bicycles, only little information is present about it but about 80% of electric bike components are similar to traditional bicycles so electric bicycle manufacture is not really that different from traditional bicycles in the way they are manufactured. Every manufacturer of electric bicycles will have different standards but largely depends on the country the electric bicycles are manufactured.

Now, let’s look at traditional motor vehicles such as cars and motorcycles. There are really a lot of ways to look at environmental concerns when you investigate traditional motor vehicles. Just considering the number of processes, maintenance and components would be daunting as the ways of looking at these factors could be infinite. We are going to start with a few general facts before going to more specific details. The carbon footprint of manufacturing a compact car like a corolla, focus or civic is 5-10 tons of carbon dioxide. For a full-sized luxury sedan or compact SUV the carbon footprint of the manufacture process is 15-20 tons of carbon dioxide. For full-sized trucks, the carbon footprint is 25 tons of carbon dioxide. For carbon dioxide emissions of cars based on 10 mile round trip commutes for over a year, an equivalent of 2,600 miles it depends on the type of vehicle. For a compact car getting 35 mpg or 68 gallons of gas, the carbon dioxide emission is .7 tons every year. A midsized car getting 20 mpg or 124 gallons of gas emits 1.3 tons of carbon dioxide every year. A large SUV/4X4 truck getting 14 mpg or 170 gallons of gas emits 1.9 tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Motorcycles are more efficient than traditional cars and get somewhere between 50-80 mpg, and even more for motor scooters. However, this does not necessarily make them a green alternative to cars. Based on findings by Mythbusters and CarbonPig.com, motorcycle emissions are greater than SUVs and cars because of fewer regulations on motorcycle emissions. This causes production of higher levels of PM10, VOCs, NOx and SOx. Every time you pay for gasoline, it is not just the product you are paying for, but the entire process of exploring the oil, refining, drilling and recovering. All gasoline products contain additives as well as some types that still have lead added to the products. This has become a health concern. Gasoline is not a green product and consumers must be aware of the environmental risks along with the negative impacts through every step of its lifecycle (as well as the geo-political ramifications such as human rights along with all-out warfare) from discovery and drilling to combustion in an engine.

There are many other concerns that revolve around motor vehicles. Many fluids need must be produced, leaked and disposed of which could cause environmental impact, such as coolant, brake fluid and antifreeze, engine oil. There is also the long term effect of vehicle disposal. They could not be readily recycled given the huge number of materials and parts. There are also impacts on roads from their tire, weight and brake particulates, that contaminate the air. The list goes on and on. Cars and motorcycles are also preferred by many because bicycles are only for the perfectly healthy and physically well. There are other alternatives to the environmentally conscious that the consumer might consider. They could consider carpooling, hybrid electric cars and public transportation. An electric bicycle might not be able to replace your car for some uses but when you compare the environmental impacts there is really no question. If you are going to use an electric bicycle as a replacement to car driving, you will help curb your carbon dioxide footprint and could even be really more efficient than pedaling a traditional bicycle which depends on your diet.


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