Today’s happiness and personal-finance gurus have no shortage of advice for living a good life. Meditate daily. Sleep for eight hours a night. Don’t forget to save for retirement. They’re not wrong, but few of these experts will tell you one of the best ways to improve your life: Ditch your car.
A year ago, my wife and I sold one of our cars and replaced it with an e-bike. As someone who writes about climate change, I knew that I was doing something good for the planet. I knew that passenger vehicles are responsible for much of our greenhouse-gas emissions—16 percent in the U.S., to be exact—and that the pollution spewing from gas-powered cars doesn’t just heat up the planet; it could increase the risk of premature death. I also knew that electric cars were an imperfect fix: Though they’re responsible for less carbon pollution than gas cars, even when powered by today’s dirty electric grid, their supply chain is carbon intensive, and many of the materials needed to produce their batteries are, in some cases, mined via a process that brutally exploits workers and harms ecosystems and sacred Indigenous lands. An e-bike’s comparatively tiny battery means less electricity, fewer emissions, fewer resources. They are clearly better for the planet than cars of any kind.
I knew all of this. But I also viewed getting rid of my car as a sacrifice—something for the militant and reckless, something that Greenpeace volunteers did to make the world better. I live in Colorado; e-biking would mean freezing in the winter and sweating in the summer. It was the right thing to do, I thought, but it was not going to be fun.
I was very wrong. The first thing I noticed was the savings. Between car payments, insurance, maintenance, and gas, a car-centered lifestyle is expensive. According to AAA, after fuel, maintenance, insurance, taxes, and the like, owning and driving a new car in America costs $10,728 a year. My e-bike, by comparison, cost $2,000 off the rack and has near-negligible recurring charges. After factoring in maintenance and a few bucks a month in electricity costs, I estimate that we’ll save about $50,000 over the next five years by ditching our car.
The actual experience of riding to work each day over the past year has been equally surprising. Before selling our car, I worried most about riding in the cold winter months. But I quickly learned that, as the saying goes, there is no bad weather, only bad gear. I wear gloves, warm socks, a balaclava, and a ski jacket when I ride, and am almost never too cold.
Sara Hastings-Simon is a professor at the University of Calgary, where she studies low-carbon transportation systems. She’s also a native Californian who now bikes to work in a city where temperatures tend to hover around freezing from December through March. She told me that with the right equipment, she’s able to do it on all but the snowiest days—days when she wouldn’t want to be in a car, either. “Those days are honestly a mess even on the roads,” she said.
And though I, like many would-be cyclists, was worried about arriving at the office sweaty in hotter months, the e-bike solved my problem. Even when it was 90 degrees outside, I didn’t break a sweat, thanks to my bike’s pedal-assist mode. If I’m honest, sometimes I didn’t even pedal; I just used the throttle, sat back, and enjoyed my ride.
Indeed, a big part of the appeal here is in the e part of the bike: “E-bikes aren’t just a traditional bike with a motor. They are an entirely new technology,” Hastings-Simon told me. Riding them is a radically different experience from riding a normal bike, at least when it comes to the hard parts of cycling. “It’s so much easier to take a bike over a bridge or in a hilly neighborhood,” Laura Fox, the former general manager of New York City’s bike-share program, told me. “I’ve had countless people come up to me and say, ‘I never thought that I could bike to work before, and now that I have an option where you don’t have to show up sweaty, it’s possible.’” (When New York introduced e-bikes to its fleet, ridership tripled, she told me, from 500,000 to 1.5 million people.)
But biking to work wasn’t just not unpleasant—it was downright enjoyable. It made me feel happier and healthier; I arrived to work a little more buoyant for having spent the morning in fresh air rather than traffic. Study after study shows that people with longer car commutes are more likely to experience poor health outcomes and lower personal well-being—and that cyclists are the happiest commuters. One day, shortly after selling our car, I hopped on my bike after a stressful day at work and rode home down a street edged with changing fall leaves. I felt more connected to the physical environment around me than I had when I’d traveled the same route surrounded by metal and glass. I breathed in the air, my muscles relaxed, and I grinned like a giddy schoolchild.
“E-bikes are like a miracle drug,” David Zipper, a transportation expert and Visiting Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, told me. “They provide so much upside, not just for the riders, but for the people who are living around them too.”
Of course, e-bikes aren’t going to replace every car on every trip. In a country where sprawling suburbs and strip malls, not protected bike lanes, are the norm, it’s unrealistic to expect e-bikes to replace cars in the way that the Model T replaced horses. But we don’t need everyone to ride an e-bike to work to make a big dent in our carbon-pollution problem. A recent study found that if 5 percent of commuters were to switch to e-bikes as their mode of transportation, emissions would fall by 4 percent. As an individual, you don’t even need to sell your car to reduce your carbon footprint significantly. In 2021, half of all trips in the United States were less than three miles, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Making those short trips on an e-bike instead of in a car would likely save people money, cut their emissions, and improve their health and happiness.
E-bikes are such a no-brainer for individuals, and for the collective, that state and local governments are now subsidizing them. In May, I asked Will Toor, the executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, to explain the state’s rationale for a newly passed incentive that offers residents $450 to get an e-bike. He dutifully ticked through the environmental benefits and potential cost savings for low-income people. Then he surprised me: The legislation, he added, was also about “putting more joy into the world.”
This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by HHMI’s Science and Educational Media Group.