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Environment and energy

E-bike trial weakens car use habit

10 May 2018
An electric bike
An electric bike in Tokyo. Image credit Øyvind Holmstad CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

E-bikes – pedal cycles fitted with an electric motor and rechargeable battery pack – could play a significant role in shifting our transport choice from cars to more environmentally friendly alternatives. Analysis by researchers in Switzerland showed that a two-week e-bike trial induced long-term changes in the mode of transport that came to mind when participants considered nine scenarios, including “visiting a friend in the closest city”, “commuting to work”, “going shopping” and “visiting the mountains with friends for a day”.

In the 2015 Bike4Car programme, car owners in 32 Swiss cities received free use of an e-bike for 14 days in exchange for their car keys. Participants’ views were surveyed immediately after they signed up to the trial. One year later, the same group completed a follow-up questionnaire.

People who took part were keen to experience the new mode of transport, which can be faster than conventional bicycles and allow riders to travel much larger distances. Participants also looked forward to having fun and becoming healthier. Typically, thoughts of improving transport efficiency or protecting the environment were lower down the list of motivations.

“We think that this is because increased health, fitness or fun has direct implications for our personal lives and wellbeing while energy-efficiency and environmental protection are much more abstract and distant concepts to many people,” said Corinne Moser of Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW).

Examining the longer-term effects of the trial revealed some extremely promising results.

“After one year, participants’ habitual association with car use had weakened significantly,” said Moser. “What’s more, we observed this not just for participants who decided to buy an e-bike once the free trial was over, but also for those that did not.”

Providing access to e-bikes helped people discover new paths and routes, and opened the door to thinking about alternative forms of transport.

The researchers conclude that e-bike trials such as Bike4Car have the potential to break mobility habits and contribute to more sustainable mobility patterns, which is an important breakthrough.

“With many other interventions – such as providing a free one-month travelcard for public transport – participants quickly revert to their previous behaviour once the campaign is over,” said Moser.

The idea behind the research is to assess the impact of interventions to promote energy-efficient behaviour at the local level. This involves collaborating closely with city representatives to identify upcoming schemes and evaluate their outcomes. As well as mobility choices, the team is also focusing on food and household warm water use as part of a drive towards more sustainable lifestyles in cooperative residential areas.

Moser and colleagues published their results in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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