Why any government serious about achieving net-zero needs to focus more on electrically assisted bikes

21 November, 2023

Sally Cairns

Reading time: 4 minutes

DfT’s Zero emission vehicle mandate focuses on cars and vans, missing out on the potential benefits of e-bikes.

In the Department for Transport’s press release about their Zero emission vehicle mandate, they claim that this means the country will have “the most ambitious regulatory frameworkOpens in a new tab for the switch to electric vehicles (EVs) in the world”.

The only problem is that, yet again, the focus is on cars and vans. Electrically-assisted bikes – which have enormous potential to reduce emissions from travel – are not considered in the mandate. Now new research published by the ELEVATE research project (which is linked to CREDS) highlights that electrically-assisted bikes should be given more mainstream attention.

In environmental terms, e-bikes are likely to be considerably better than e-cars. In 2020, the International Transport Forum showed that, compared to an electric car, manufacturing, assembling and disposing of an e-bike generates less than 2% of the emissions of an e-car, [1] whilst other research suggests that e-bikes generate less than 4% of the emissions of an e-car per kilometre travelled [2].

E-bikes also have considerable scope to replace car journeys. Previous research for CREDS has shown that, at least in theory, electrically assisted bikes could realistically substitute for the equivalent of over 2,500km of car travel per person, potentially leading to savings of 24.4MtCO2 p.a., including use for trips in rural areas where sustaining high density public transport is often problematic.

New research by ELEVATE has involved commissioning YouGov plc to undertake a nationally-representative online survey of 2,000 English adults. More details of the results are given in the linked summary What does the ELEVATE national survey tell us about e-bikes?Opens in a new tab In short, key findings are that:

  • 9% of English households already own an e-bike
  • 16% of people have ridden an e-bike at least once
  • 25% of those who had not ridden an e-bike in the last month somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I see myself as the kind of person who might regularly ride an e-bike’
  • 47% of people were somewhat, fairly or very interested in the free loan of an e-bike for a month
  • 53% of people somewhat or strongly agreed that ‘the Government should do more to support e-bike use’ (with only 15% somewhat or strongly disagreeing)
  • 69% of people somewhat or strongly agreed that ‘e-bikes can be a realistic alternative for some car journeys’ (with only 13% somewhat or strongly disagreeing)

In recent years, the Government has commissioned pilot work in Cornwall, which showed that e-bike loans and try-out sessions could attract a range of people, and enable car use substitution [3]. This has led to the national Making Cycling E-asierOpens in a new tab programme, run by Cycling UK, which is currently operating in four areas. However, it is unclear how long this will continue. Moreover, there are no signs that the Government is ready to offer the type of e-bike grants that have proved very popular in Europe (typically £250-500 for an e-bikeOpens in a new tab) – even though it is happy to give out £350 grants for people to install EV chargepoints. Nor is there any talk about reducing VAT on bicycle purchase, which would help to align the bicycle with public transport.

If the Government wishes to have the most advanced electric vehicle strategy in the world, it is time there was more emphasis on electrically-assisted bikes, particularly given latest data showing that many people are interested in them and would be in favour of the Government giving them more support.


  1. Cazzola, P. and Crist, P. (2020). Good to go? Assessing the environmental performance of new mobility, pdfOpens in a new tab. Paris. Figures for vehicle and battery manufacture, assembly and disposal (including fluids), plus delivery to point of purchase, comprise 11,339,015 gCO2-eq for an electric car, compared with 168,510 gCO2-eq for a privately-owned electrically-assisted bike. Cazzola and Crist also provide figures for emissions per passenger km travelled by different modes, but their assumptions about e-bike energy use are relatively high compared with other estimates and advertised e-bike battery ranges, so are not quoted here.
  2. Weiss,M., Cloos, K.C. and Helmers, E. 2020. Energy efficiency trade-offs in small to large electric vehiclesOpens in a new tabEnvironmental Sciences Europe, 32 (46). This work suggests the mean real world energy use figure for e-bikes is 7Wh/km indirectly generating 2.1gCO2/km, compared to 184Wh/km and 54gCO2/km for an electric passenger car.
  3. Shergold, I., Chatterjee, K., Pantelaki, E., Hiblin, B. and Cairns, S. (forthcoming). Cornwall E-Cycle Pilot Evaluation. Report to Department for Transport.

Banner photo credit: Roo Fowler/Cycling UK 2023