With India planning to shift one-third of its vehicles to electric fleet by 2030, the government has launched a series of policy measures and incentives to promote electric and hybrid cars. The policy thrust on electric vehicles is aimed at enabling the country cut down on its excessive oil imports as well as address concerns over poor air quality across major cities. Notably, 14 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. Contrary to popular perception, it is not just major metropolitan cities like Delhi that figure in the notorious list but even smaller cities such as Kanpur, Agra, Gaya, Varanasi and Muzaffarpur. Over 660 million Indians live in places that do not meet India’s standards for what is considered safe exposure to fine particulate matter PM 2.5. A study estimated that Indians could live about four years longer on an average if India met WHO’s air quality standards.
When considered from this standpoint, India’s ambitious thrust on electric vehicles is highly welcome as it would not only pave way for cleaner air but also help check India’s burgeoning oil import bill. However, the focus of the entire government initiative to phase out diesel and petrol from Indian roads seems to be on electric cars and leaves out the other very viable as well as healthier alternative transport option of electric bikes. A greater thrust on e bikes will also serve to reduce dependence on petrol/diesel powered motorcycles and scooters while helping diversify the transport options for Indians.
E Bikes are winning the Globe
Electric bikes are an evolved version of the regular bicycles, fitted with an electric motor to enable motorized pedaling along with manual pedaling. This allows users to travel long distances using e bikes while making obstacles like an uphill road or a headwind much easier to traverse. Understandably, e-bikes are a favorite among people who are health and environment conscious. World over, e-bikes are becoming a major draw. According to a report by Persistence Market Research, the global electric bikes market is projected to register a CAGR of 4.7% during the forecast period of 2017-2022. China leads the globe with the largest consumption of electric bikes. It is in Europe, however, that the most impressive growth in e-bikes has been witnessed. Aided by a government subsidy on the purchasing price of e-bikes, France has registered a 90% plus growth in e-bike sales in recent years. According to industry estimates, around 148,000 e-bikes were sold in Italy in 2017, scoring a 19% increase in year on year sales. The e-bike market of UK is also reporting double-digit growth figures.
Notably, countries which have provided government support – in the form of subsidy or infrastructure building -- and imposed implementation of strict environmental rules, have witnessed the steepest growth rates in e bikes.
Is Replacing Car with Car a Sound Strategy?
Environmental pollution is an important yet not the only problem confronting urban dwellers. Traffic congestion that results in long back-breaking commuting hours everyday, is another major concern that depletes the standard of living. Replacing conventional fuel-powered cars with electric cars will hardly have any beneficial impact on this aspect of urban life. For improving the lives of urban residents, planners and policy makers must take a holistic view of the problem while devising alternative transport options. Apart from cars, motorcycles that are again powered by fossil fuels are another major way urban residents travel long distances. The proliferation of motorcycles is not viable in the long run. This is why focusing on just electric cars offers but a partial resolution to the urban problem.
Potential of E Bikes in India
Bicycles have a leaner volume, which means they can reduce traffic congestion. An e-bike gives you the same amount of utility as most two-wheelers minus the ill-effects on environment. Present day battery can last for up 25 to 35 KM of travel fully supported by motor and an eBike can zip at speed of 25KMPH. That is fast enough to cover most middle-distance commutes and one can always start pedaling when the battery runs out. The NITI Aayog observed that India could save up to INR 12 lakh crore of forex outgo towards oil imports by promoting e-bike usage. These bicycles can be used as an intermediate vehicle in multi-modal transport, where getting to the destination is the key objective. For example, office-goers might dedicate one day a week to ditch cars and ride to work on the eco-friendly two-wheeler. Similarly, for smaller distance trips on an everyday basis such as the ride to the gym, the visit to the nearest mall or grocery store, cars can be ditched too in favor of e-bikes. Fitness conscious residents can decide to pedal manually half way while shifting to the electric motor for remaining half of the journey.
As discussed earlier, the problem of environmental pollution is not restricted to top metropolitan cities. A number of Tier II & Tier III cities and even smaller towns are among the world’s most polluted cities. A number of these smaller cities such as Chandigarh and Lucknow also have road infrastructure amenable to use of cycling. It is in these tier II cities where travel distances are relatively shorter that e bikes have the greatest potential to be adopted as full-fledged transport vehicles. A study of bus commuters in Delhi found that around 7% of the commuters had total trip lengths of less than 5 km. For short distance commuters in Delhi, e bikes must be pushed as a viable alternative. These are real possibilities which can revolutionize transport in India, if given the right policy push.
What the government must do
While the market for e-bikes has shown a steady growth in recent years, it is imperative for the government to provide the right policy push to enable e-bikes become a common mode of transport. The government must incentivize R & D in e-bikes to help reduce product costs and improve efficiency; subsidizing purchase of e-bikes (much like France) can also boost e-bike sales and usage. Bike sharing schemes in European countries have been a major factor in propelling the growth of e-bikes; India can adopt a leaf or two from their example. Last but not the least, e-bikes cannot become viable in absence of necessary charging infrastructure. Giving adequate push to creating charging infrastructure in Indians cities must also be on the agenda for these efforts reach fruition.
Guest post by Pankaj M Munjal, Chairman HMC, A Hero Motors Company...