Are E-Bike Cycle Tours More Eco-Friendly Than Using a Regular Bicycle?

As a cycle tour operator, we have watched as cycle tours on regular/conventional bicycles have become less common than tours now using e-bikes. When we first started offering tours in 2011, we didn’t have any e-bikes in our fleet and very few people owned an e-bike. ‘Due to popular demand’, we purchased a few e-bikes and uptake was not significant at first, largely due to peoples’ prevailing idea that an e-bike was cheating. The number of e-bikes in our fleet has increased significantly and for some time we have had questions going through our minds “ are they ( e-bikes) a good thing for the environment and how eco-friendly is e-bike touring?”. Getting answers to those questions has proved easier said than done. As we have read and spent  hours considering how e-bikes align with our kaitiakitanga – the Māori concept of guardianship and protection of the environment. We have found a few surprising facts and figures and insight into some of the answers we seek. We would like to share a brief summary of what we found.

Firstly, when you consider what resources are needed to manufacture a bicycle, it seems obvious that a bike that needs electrics , a motor and a battery, in addition to the usual components of a bike, uses more materials and energy to make it. One source of information (https://www.bikeradar.com/features/long-reads/cycling-environmental-impact/) that gave good comparisons, noted that ‘The ECF ( a research organisation called European Cyclists Federation) estimates that e-bikes have a higher average manufacturing carbon footprint than conventional bikes, at 134kg CO2e compared to 96kg’.

So that is the manufacture of a bike, but that is only the start of the life of a bike. You then need to consider its Life Cycle ( it’s a thing, not a pun!). When manufacture, operation, maintenance, and disposal are considered for each bike type, there are some similarities. They will both need tyres and components replaced. We have noticed that the brake pads, chains and cassettes need changed more often on e-bikes.

There are GHG ( Greenhouse gases) emissions associated with the manufacture and disposal of a bicycle. This can then be divided by the average number of kilometres it will travel between production and disposal. It therefore follows that the more Kms a bike does in its lifetime the more environmentally friendly it will be. It remains to be seen how long the average life-span  of an e-bike will be. I suspect it will be much shorter than a regular bike, even if they were both well-maintained .

The operation of a bike, meaning what it takes to get a bike to move, needs energy. For a regular bike this comes from the person who provides the energy that comes from their food supply. The same also applies to e-bikes, especially as more and more are pedal-assist so the person has to still expend energy. The report points out that this is where a significant difference lies as it’s calculations show e-cyclists ‘needing’ less calories to travel the same distance.

The emissions from producing the extra food required to ‘fuel’ the cyclist per kilometre was considered in the report. This is done by working out how many extra calories it takes to cycle each kilometre and multiplying it by the average food production emissions per calorie of food produced.

The  calculation for the electricity used to charge up the batteries was based on European options that were not from renewable resources.  As you see this is not a significant amount of carbon usage anyway. If we allowed for the fact that worst case scenario in NZ is that 20% of the energy needed to charge batteries would come from non-renewable resources, then it is a minor part of the impact

In the shake down The European comparison  comes out as looking like this

    Conventional Bicycle   Electric bicycle  
Manufacturing emissions(g/km) 5 7
Food-related emissions (g/km) 16 6.3
Electricity emissions (g/km) 0 1.5
Total (g/km)          21 14.8
Conventional Bicycle v Electric Bicycle quick comparison table

 

This looks like good news for an e-bike holiday. An E-Bike holiday will have less of an environmental impact if the cyclists followed the assumption the report made….they needed less calories per Km so therefore the report assumed that meant they ate less. The calculations in the report showed that more than three-quarters of cycling’s carbon emissions come from food production.

Having watched many people on cycle tours I would have to say that is simply not the case. When people go on multi-day cycling tours, they are enjoying exercise, and they feel they can enjoy earned indulgences. They are on holiday, so they do not refrain from enjoying good food, wine and craft beers from the region. The plus side of that is the air miles on what they eat could be less, if they are drinking local beverages and eating in venues that use locally sourced ingredients.

 We therefore conclude that on a cycling holiday there is probably no significant difference between e-cyclists and cyclists as to the calories they consume. It also seems to be a trend that people who don’t cycle that much are now enjoying cycling holidays because they can use e-bikes. They may not be as cycle fit as those who opt for regular bikes and as a result, they may consume more food as their bodies churn through calories due to the exercise it is doing that it is not used to. The rewards are plentiful as a post-ride beverage is enjoyed and great food follows.

So where does this leave the cyclist who wants to go on holiday and leave a light footprint?

An e-bike is still an environmentally friendly option if you consume less calories than when on a regular bike. Where you get your ‘fuel’  from is also a factor, as a more plant-based diet will have a lighter footprint. The most environmentally friendly bike would be a regular bike (preferably not a brand-new bike) that has been well-maintained. If you stayed in environmentally friendly accommodation and did not have your luggage moved for you, then you would be environmentally tip-toeing your way around your holiday.

Of course, you can complete an environmentally friendly holiday in many different ways and as a provider of a variety of holidays, we make sure the environment is enhanced and that carbon emissions are offset. Our e-bikes get charged by electricity generated from solar panels we had installed. Even when out and about the e-bikes on tour may be charged from solar generated power and as New Zealand produces 80% of its’ electricity from renewable resources, charging e-bike batteries has a very minor impact on the environment.

In conclusion any type of cycling holiday has many variables that will impact on the degree of the holiday’s environmental footprint. Compared to other ways of exploring the region, cycling is still one of the most environmentally friendly methods with a light carbon footprint.

Rest assured we try to make sure  that what we are offering is as planet and people friendly as possible. A win win scenario is always a good outcome!

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