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Tiny Electric Vehicles Pack a Bigger Climate Punch Than Cars

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The
Energy

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Transition

Tiny Electric Vehicles Pack a Bigger Climate Punch Than Cars

Two- and three-wheeled vehicles, used by billions of people, are moving away from fossil fuels to batteries faster than cars in countries that have made the energy transition a priority.

Rickshaw drivers wait for customers in Darbhanga, India.

Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

The
Energy

awefawe

Transition

Tiny Electric Vehicles Pack a Bigger Climate Punch Than Cars

Dec. 9, 2023Updated 8:35 a.m. ET

Big Oil faces a tiny foe on the streets of Asia and Africa. The noisy, noxious vehicles that run on two and three wheels, carrying billions of people daily, are quietly going electric — in turn knocking down oil demand by one million barrels a day this year.

In Kenya and Rwanda, dozens of start-ups are vying to replace oil-guzzling motorcycle taxis with battery-powered ones. In India, more than half of all new three-wheeled vehicles sold and registered this year were battery-operated. Indonesia and Thailand are also encouraging electrification of motorcycle taxis.

A man on a motorcycle wearing a green protective vest is in the foreground. Next to him is a bus and behind him is a motorcyclist who has stopped and is looking down.
Mazi Mobility has about 60 electric motorcycle taxis, known as boda-bodas, on the roads in Nairobi.Brian Otieno for The New York Times

China dominates the market. Its government began promoting electric vehicles decades ago in a bid to clean its smog-choked cities, which explains why a vast majority of the world’s electric two-wheelers are in China.

The shift to electric mobility overall has reduced global oil demand by 1.8 million barrels every day, according to BloombergNEF, a research arm of Michael Bloomberg’s financial data and media company. Two- and three-wheelers account for 60 percent of that reduction, or 1.08 million barrels.

Taken together, cars and smaller electric vehicles are projected to displace only 4 percent of total oil demand this year. Still, their growth is vital to the energy transition because transportation accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of all the changes the world is making to slow further warming, electric vehicle sales are the only category on track to meet climate goals, according to an exhaustive independent study.

Electric vehicles also solve the more immediate problem of air pollution, which the World Health Organization links to an estimated seven million premature deaths annually.

The big shift to tiny electric vehicles is underappreciated in the United States and Europe, where, despite the popularity of electric bicycles and scooters, the focus has been mainly on cars.

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Brian Otieno for The New York Times

The global majority, though, doesn’t roll on four wheels.

In Nairobi and Hanoi, motorcycles serve as taxis. In Mumbai, scooters can carry a family of four. In China, electric bicycles are how millions commute.

“Electric bikes are quieter, much more efficient and good for the environment,” said Jesse Forrester, the founder of Mazi Mobility, which has 60 electric motorcycle taxis, known as boda-bodas, on the roads in Nairobi. “There’s a quiet revolution now in Kenya driving this transformation for the future.”

Mr. Forrester’s firm is among several competing to establish an electric two-wheeler ecosystem, selling or assembling imported bikes, installing chargers and working with lenders to offer cheap credit.

Elsewhere, established motorcycle manufacturers are rolling out battery-powered models, including an electric scooter for under $1,800 by India-based Hero MotoCorp. Ride-sharing companies, like Ola, also based in India, are getting in on the business. And Honda recently said it was investing $3.4 billion with the aim of selling four million electric motorcycles a year by 2030.

The biggest obstacle to small electric vehicles is government policy. Countries like Mexico that subsidize oil rather than batteries have few electric two- and three-wheelers — or as Karla Ramirez, a motorcycle dealer in Mexico City, put it, they are “a niche product.”

Joseph Mwaura, an Ampersand swap station attendant, assists an e-bike rider in Nairobi with a fresh battery.Brian Otieno for The New York Times
E-bike batteries charging at a battery swap station.Brian Otieno for The New York Times

At a gas station on the side of a highway near Nairobi, a team from ARC Ride, one of the city’s leading electric boda-boda start-ups, was putting up a shiny new cabinet that opens with a phone app.

Put a spent lithium battery into an empty locker, take out a fully charged one from another and you’re good to go for at least 90 kilometers (56 miles) — nearly enough for a full day’s work for the motorcycle-taxi drivers.

ARC has installed 72 swap stations in Nairobi, and it has plans to set up over 25 more in the coming months, one for every couple of kilometers on the city’s busiest routes.

“We are interested in a solution that’s going to enable mass electric transport,” said Felix Saro-Wiwa, head of sustainable growth at ARC Ride.

Mr. Saro-Wiwa has a history in this business. His grandfather, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a human-rights activist who drew international attention to the social and environmental harms of oil production in his native Nigeria. He was executed in 1995 by a military government.

Kenya’s president, William Ruto, has set a national target of 200,000 electric motorcycles across the country by the end of 2024.Brian Otieno for The New York Times

There are around 1,500 electric boda-bodas in circulation in Kenya, a tiny fraction of the estimated 1.3 million boda-bodas in the country.

Still, Kenya is at a critical juncture in its energy transition. Fuel prices skyrocketed when Russia invaded Ukraine, and again after the Kenyan government scrapped fossil fuel subsidies in September 2022. That has driven up the cost of living, precipitated widespread, sometimes violent, anti-government protests and provided an opening for proponents of electric mobility. Battery-run vehicles are cheaper to operate, though they are still about 5 percent more expensive to purchase than gasoline models.

Boda-boda sellers like Mazi and ARC have teamed up with creditors offering cheap loans, which is the only way most drivers in Kenya can afford an electric motorcycle. Uber is testing Nairobi as the first African city with electric two-wheeler options. Kenya’s president, William Ruto, has set a target of 200,000 electric motorcycles across the country before 2025.

“We are interested in a solution that’s going to enable mass electric transport,” said Felix Saro-Wiwa, head of sustainable growth at ARC Ride.Brian Otieno for The New York Times

Many hurdles remain. Electricity is expensive. The government exempted electric motorcycle sellers from import duties — but the policy needs approval every year, which makes it hard for companies to plan. There’s a cumbersome bureaucracy to import parts. The depreciating Kenyan currency doesn’t help.

Electric bikes from different start-ups run on incompatible batteries and operating systems, hindering widespread use. Mr. Saro-Wiwa, though, is bullish that when the dust settles, the shift away from oil and gas will take off. “This is what the future of transportation in Kenya looks like,” he said.

Shankar Rai drives a three-wheeled electric rickshaw nine hours a day, six days a week…Rebecca Conway for The New York Times
…through the streets of Darbhanga, a mostly poor Indian city near the border with Nepal. He makes roughly 1,000 rupees ($12) a day.Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

Shankar Rai is on the cutting edge of India’s electric vehicle transition.

A 45-year-old father of three, Mr. Rai drives a three-wheeled electric rickshaw nine hours a day, six days a week through Darbhanga, a mostly poor Indian city near Nepal. He makes roughly 1,000 rupees ($12) a day, nearly half of which goes to a friend, who owns the rickshaw and charges it overnight. The rest goes to food and school fees.

“We are poor people so we manage to survive,” Mr. Rai says.

He is part of a $1.2 billion push by the Indian government to make sure 30 percent of vehicles on the road are battery-powered by 2030.

Much of that government largess goes to auto dealers, which pass on the savings to buyers of rickshaws by lowering prices.

The Indian government in investing $1.2 billion to make sure 30 percent of vehicles on the road are battery-powered by 2030.Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

In Darbhanga, a new acid-battery rickshaw, like the one Mr. Rai drives, sells for around 175,000 rupees, or $2,100. That’s half the price of a new rickshaw powered by natural gas. Charging the battery costs 20 rupees (25 cents), one-fourth of the price of filling a gas tank.

The rebates seem to be working. Reliance Industries, India’s biggest company, is converting its three-wheeled cargo vehicles from gas to electric. Food delivery services are going electric as quickly as possible.

Chetan Maini, whose company Sun Mobility builds charging infrastructure, said business was growing fast. Battery prices are dropping, helping to push down the cost of electric two- and three-wheelers. “When the crossover point happens here,” Mr. Maini predicted, “the effect is very quick, hockey-stick shaped, because it’s more price-sensitive.”

In Darbhanga, around 200 electric rickshaws are sold a month, according to Balaji Motors, a dealer. In two years, a sales manager estimates, electric rickshaws will dominate the streets.

By Indian standards, Darbhanga, with a population of 300,000 people, could be called a sleepy town. Quiet, though, it is not. Loudspeakers blast music from temples and advertising jingles from open-air shops. Horns honk; engines sputter.

In that soundscape, Mr. Rai’s purring electric rickshaw is a relative rarity, one that delighted a recent passenger, a retired teacher named Satyen Vir Jha.

The cost of charging a battery is 20 rupees (25 cents), one-fourth of what it would cost to fill a gas tank.Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

Mr. Jha, 65, chose the vehicle not just because it’s quieter, but also because it offers a smoother ride that’s easier on his bad back. “Other vehicles make my problem worse,” he said, “but not this one.”

For good measure, Mr. Jha wore a hernia band.

The driver, Mr. Rai, nodded in agreement. He drove a gas-powered rickshaw for 15 years before switching to the electric model this year.

Mr. Jha said he liked feeling that he was on the right side of history. “If all of the old vehicles on the road were replaced by these,” he said, “we will have fewer accidents and less pollution.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has blocked efforts to expand renewable energy and staked his country’s future on fossil fuels.Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times
Mexico’s government, like many others in Latin America, focuses subsidies on fossil fuels, along with bus and subway rides.Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

Balloons and reggaeton brought an all-day-party vibe to Karla Ramirez’s motorcycle showroom in the posh Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City. Of the 30 motorcycles on offer, one electric model — a gray-and-white bike called the Voltium Gravity — was displayed prominently.

On a recent Friday, when a slight, serious-faced customer named José Antonio Palmares strolled in, Ms. Ramirez gamely guided him to the Voltium.

At Karla Ramirez’s motorcycle showroom in Mexico City, roughly 55 vehicles that she sells on average every month, one is electric.Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

“It’s a completely different concept,” she said. “You don’t use gasoline, and it doesn’t pollute. And you can test ride it for free.”

Mr. Palmares said he liked the bike “for the environment.” But then doubt rolled in like a cloud: “I have a lot of hills in my neighborhood,” he said, “so I need power and some weight.”

Ms. Ramirez, a consummate saleswoman, led him to the model charging station, explaining that the battery could be swapped with a card swipe.

Mr. Palmares raised an eyebrow. “What if my battery goes dead in the middle of a ride?” he asked. He wanted to look at fossil fuel models.

Ms. Ramirez was accustomed to such misgivings. Of the roughly 55 vehicles that she sells on average every month, one is electric. It doesn’t help that the cheapest electric model is pricier than conventional bikes. Only 1,000 out of 1.25 million motorcycles sold last year were powered by batteries, according to the Mexican Association of Motorcycle Manufacturers and Importers.

An electric motorcycle displayed prominently at Ms. Ramirez’s showroom that cost more than conventional models.Alejandro Cegarra for The New York Times

The Mexican government offers few electric vehicle incentives. “Our president,” Ms. Ramirez grumbled, “loves petroleum too much.”

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has blocked efforts to expand renewable energy and staked his country’s future on fossil fuels, championing Petróleos Mexicanos, the state-owned oil company. His government, like others in Latin America, focuses subsidies on conventional fuels, along with bus and subway rides.

Price is the biggest barrier for electric two-wheeler enthusiasts, including Ms. Ramirez, who rides a gasoline-powered motorcycle and is eyeing an electric one. “But I need to save up the money first,” she said.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting from Darbhanga, India.

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