Scooters and motorbikes are the biggest contributors to air pollution caused by vehicular emissions in India. Now is the time to start promoting e-bicycles as a sustainable alternative to gas-guzzling vehicles.



India’s electric vehicle push aims to reduce hazardous levels of air pollution and curb rising import bills on account of crude oil. But in order to get the desired results, the drive also needs to take into account the fact that one third of Indian households own a two-wheeler and use it extensively for daily commute. In recent times, focus has renewed on developing an eco-system for manufacturers of electric and hybrid cars to replace gas-guzzling automobiles plying on Indian roads.

Focus on two-wheelers

The government has launched a series of incentives and policies around which Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) are provided an enabling environment for designing and supplying electric vehicles, especially cars and parts to the market. However, only 12% of the urban population and 7% of India’s rural population use four-wheelers. An overwhelming 54% of its urban residents and 34% of its rural households owned a two-wheeler in 2015-16. Because of this skewed distribution of vehicle ownership, scooters and bikes are volumetrically the biggest constituency contributing to air pollution in India. The Centre for Science and Environment estimates that these vehicles account for 32% of all air pollution while private cars chalk up about 22%, and are merely the third largest source of vehicular pollution in bustling urban landscapes. Diesel-run trucks come in second at 28%.

Most significant polluters

Two-stroke scooters and mopeds are a significant source of vehicular pollution. According to a study by researchers of Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, low-powered vehicles are a major source of toxic air pollutants such as particulate matters, secondary organic aerosols and aromatic hydrocarbons.

Notably, dangerous particulate matter emissions are reduced by 80% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 70% in diesel vehicles under BS VI as compared to BS IV. Most cars and motorcycles in India run on old Bharat Stage IV.

Thus, BS-VI compliance for vehicles will be mandatory from 1 April 2020. However, authorities must examine if faster implementation is possible to urgently address air-pollution levels as they become worse with the progress of winter.

Urgency required in solving air pollution problem

Air quality is at unprecedentedly adverse levels in most of India’s major cities. As many as 14 of its urban centres appear in the World Health Organisation rankings of the world’s worst performing locations in terms of air pollution. And because vehicular pollution is one of the biggest sources of air pollution, vehicular emissions need to be dealt with first. In practice, therefore, it is two wheelers that need to be targeted urgently if the deterioration in air quality is to be limited.

Current transport models

In a society that is quite dependent on mobility to conduct business, find opportunity, education, health services and employment, it is not possible to phase out petrol-driven motorcycles and scooters at once. It is understood that given the lakhs of petrol and diesel vehicles being introduced to Indian roads every year and the massive dependence of trade, commerce and employment, on these modes of transport, it is difficult to disrupt current functions and mindsets and move towards EV (Electric Vehicle) usage. But there is a need to switch to e-bicycling.

Expected growth

E-bicycles are the next stage in the evolution of the ordinary bicycle, fitted with a battery-powered motor that conveniently grants users the option of motorised pedalling in addition to pedalling by foot. In comparison to ordinary bicycles, the distances that can be travelled on e-bikes are much longer, and the time and effort taken to commute are significantly reduced, especially when negotiating uphill climbs or facing severe opposing winds. Already, e-bikes are a rage among health and fitness enthusiasts. It is estimated that the e-bike market will grow at a CAGR of 4.7% globally between 2017 and 2022. These bikes can be conveniently used for city cruising, hauling light cargo or mountain biking. As a trend in itself, e-bicycling is driving the development of city infrastructure.

Alternative to bikes

At present, most e-bikes available in the Indian market offer speeds of up to 25 km/hr and batteries that last for 25-35 kilometres on a single charge (and if the battery gets drained you have the option of pedalling which is very convenient for riders).

On the other hand, electric bicycles are far cheaper to maintain, do not require licenses or cumbersome registration, and go without the toxic emissions associated with petrol-run motorcycles and scooters. Further, e-bikes are being developed that could go up to 100 kilometres without being recharged and the government plans to install charging stations every few kilometres to promote e-vehicle use in times to come.

As far as negotiating traffic is concerned, bicycles occupy leaner volume and offer greater maneuverability without losing control. Hence, they are able to overcome the problem of congestion. E-bikes can also be pedalled manually when the battery runs out. The bigger advantages follow when multi-modal transport is utilised for commute. E-bikes are portable and some even foldable, and offer distinct advantages over motorbikes when one needs to park the vehicle in a crowded zone. If one considers the wider discourse of ecological savings, import savings and congestion avoidance, e-bicycles make a compelling alternative to combustion-engine-driven two-wheelers.

More government support

Road safety is a challenging issue for pedestrians and bicyclists and has remained neglected for long. Whereas most European cities have dedicated lanes and traffic signals for cyclists, in India, even where dedicated lanes are present, they are trespassed upon by other vehicles, encroached upon, poorly lit and signalled. In addition, regulations for encouraging cycling are not being enforced with the necessary will. Holland, Denmark and Germany spend at least 10% of their transport budgets on cycling infrastructure. The government needs to put incentives in place for R&D for e-bike OEMs and help reduce production costs and enhance efficiency. Subsidising the price of e-bikes, as is being done in France, for example, can also boost e-bike sales and use. Bike sharing schemes in European countries have been a major factor in propelling the growth of e-bikes and India would do well to emulate such models.

The author is chairman and managing director, Hero Cycles