Analyzing e-bike commuters’ motives, travel behaviour and experiences using GPS-tracking and interviews

Plazier, P. 30-May-2017

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract

  • Paul Plazier
IntroductionA major development in transportation in the past years has been the growth of electrically assisted cycling or e-biking. E-bikes (pedal-assisted or bicycle-style electric bicycles) make it possible to cover longer distances at higher speeds against reduced physical effort. Coupled with high energy efficiency compared to conventional motorized transportation, this makes them potentially effective in reducing traffic congestion, associated environmental problems, and increasing users’ physical activity levels.Previous studies suggest that e-bike adoption can lead to substitution of trips formerly made using motorized transportation. An increasing amount of research has focused on e-biking, but less attention has been paid to e-bike use for commuting, and the extent to which it can substitute motorized commuting. More insight is needed to guide future actions to encourage functional e-bike use, in attempts to further establish low-carbon commuting habits. This paper adds to this corpus and gives further insight into the potential for mode substitution. We formulated three research questions: (1) What were motives for purchasing and starting to use an e-bike? (2) Under what conditions can e-bikes substitute motorized commuting? (3) Which role do travel experiences play in the daily commute by e-bike?MethodAll outdoor movements of 24 e-bike owners (12 men, 12 women, M=45, SD=9.3), living in the north of the Netherlands, were tracked with GPS for two weeks. GPS tracking took place from November to April 2016. The GPS data were analyzed and mapped, and used as input for follow-up in-depth interviews. We removed noise from the GPS data and defined trajectories by mode of transportation and categorized the types of destinations. The trajectories were visualized in a map for discussion with the participants during the interview. The interviews were semi-structured and coded using a grounded theory approach. Insights from the interviews helped control and validate the recorded GPS-data.ResultsThe majority of participants adopted an e-bike following changes in the work or home environment. These changes prompted participants to reconsider prevailing commuting habits. Sustainability was not found to be a key driver, but rather health was mentioned as an important motive for adoption and daily use. GPS tracking revealed that e-bike use accounted for the majority of recorded commuting trips, and competed mostly with car use. E-bike use was lower when more activities were combined and in non-work-related journeys, in which car use, conventional cycling and walking were more common. The findings provide little support for substitution of conventional cycling by e-biking. E-bike commutes mostly substituted use of car and bus in the old situation, and participants indicated shorter trips were still made by conventional bike. E-bike commutes took about twice as long as car commutes and about as long as bus commutes, although they covered shorter distances. Participants stated that commuting by e-bike gave them benefits of conventional cycling compared to motorized transport (enjoyment of outdoor, physical activity; independency) while mitigating its relative disadvantages (longer travel time; increased effort). Daily schedules and weather conditions were possible impediments, although electric assistance negated wind influence. Participants generally preferred enjoyable and quiet routes over faster and more direct ones. Cycling experience outside the city (enjoying the surroundings, maximizing e-bike speed) was different from within the city, where traffic density, multiple forced stops and complex situations made that assistance was not fully utilized. In general, the findings provide support for the idea that e-bikes can be effective in replacing motorized transport for the purpose of commuting, and emphasizes the role of positive experience in e-bike commuting. Discussion & conclusionThe finding that e-bike adoption mostly followed a key event (changes in employment, residence, relationships, health) corroborates earlier studies. Adoption was facilitated by participants’ personal history (being accustomed to cycling), intrinsic motivators (health) and existing facilitating conditions in the external environment (quality infrastructure, or employer benefits). Results also comply with earlier studies that found e-bikes to be highly suitable for long distance travel. However, lower e-bike use for journeys with multiple destinations contradict statements that users might reach a larger diversity of destinations by adopting an e-bike. Although car and bus offered shorter commuting times, we found that through electric assistance, participants considered cycling a realistic alternative. Results also stress the positive utility of travel. More than simply being useful for arriving at a destination, traveling by e-bike has intrinsic utility for the participants (e.g. exposure to environment, breathing fresh air) and utility for activities that can be conducted while riding (mentally preparing for the day ahead, or clearing the mind), resulting in longer commuting durations than strictly necessary. Furthermore, e-bikes seem to change travel behavior. Electric assistance gave participants opportunities to choose enjoyable routes over faster or more direct ones. However, assisted cycling in rural and urban environments was experienced differently, as the latter was often considered less safe or enjoyable. This suggests electrical assistance might serve different purposes in different contextsLimitations of the study concern the probability of self-selection of participants, the time-planning of GPS-tracking (winter/spring), the lack of quantitative assessment of mode use change, and the limited applicability of results to other contexts due to the study area’s quality of cycling infrastructure, high cycling levels and flat topography.Results imply that e-bikes can provide a good alternative to the use of car and public transportation. This supports future efforts directed at getting car and public transport commuters to use an e-bike. The growing appeal of e-bike commuting can lead to further acceptance of the e-bike as a functional mode of transport by populations of more diverse ages. Wider promotion of e-bikes for commuting, coupled with financial incentives from for instance employers, could contribute to growth in e-bike use for this purpose. Finally, actual and future development of fine-grained, appealing, high capacity bicycle infrastructure networks can further improve e-bikes’ competitiveness with car and public transport, and take additional advantage of the valuation of travel time. The important role of positive experiences in commuting by e-bike suggests that this factor should be explicitly taken into account in future actions in transport research, policy, and environmental design domains. Electrically assisted cycling or e-biking manifests itself as an appealing alternative to motorized commuting for those for which conventional cycling is not a realistic option. Its direct competition with car use means that efforts to increase e-bike use should be directed at car commuters. While e-bike commuting might not always be the faster option, enabling an appealing e-bike ride to work can mitigate the role of increased travel time in commuting. The findings suggests that health and enjoyment can make a significant contribution to realizing sustainable travel behaviour. Promoting health and enjoyment of e-biking can support the development of sustainable transport systems that support active and healthy lifestyles.
Original languageEnglish
StatePublished - 30-May-2017
EventScientists for Cycling Colloquium, Vélo-City 2017 - De Vereeniging, Nijmegen, Netherlands
Duration: 12-Jun-201712-Jun-2017


ConferenceScientists for Cycling Colloquium, Vélo-City 2017
Internet address


Scientists for Cycling Colloquium, Vélo-City 2017


Nijmegen, Netherlands

Event: Conference

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