Electric bikes on the rise

Can you stand one more post about electric bikes? The New York Times ran a follow-up recently, and it’s worth revisiting the topic.

First, the comment thread to the previous post about electric bikes has an interesting diversity of opinions, but to my mind pretty strongly underscores the potential value of this technology. Many everyday commuters and older riders find that the electric assist really makes bicycles a more practical transportation tool. The Times article provides further (anecdotal) support for this notion.

Second, I need to amend my previous assertion that in Copenhagen riders are indifferent to the technology. This claim was based on the highly scientific method of not recalling seeing a whole lot of electric bikes when I was in Copenhagen. According to the Times, in the Netherlands “a third of the money spent on bicycles last year went to electric-powered models.” That’s a somewhat tricky stat to parse, because electric bikes are much more expensive than regular bikes (and, of course, Copenhagen isn’t in the Netherlands). But suffice to say that electric bikes are gaining significant market share even in northern European countries with entrenched bicycle cultures.

Third, I should mention that, of the 120 million electric bikes sold in China, a lot are closer in size and power to a Vespa scooter than to a Schwinn. The diversity of electric vehicles is causing some traffic-planning chaos, as the more powerful models mix uneasily with the still more numerous traditional bicycles. Officials attempted at one point to ban electric scooters from bicycle lanes in Beijing, but quickly backtracked in the face of a public outcry. It seems to me that the happiest resolution to this problem would be to reclaim further roadspace from cars through the creation of scooter-only lanes on major roadways, but what do I know about traffic-planning in Beijing?

Fourth, one of the most important environmental questions is the extent to which electric bicycles are taking market share from traditional bicycles vs. cars. According to the Times article, surveys in some Chinese cities suggest that one out of every six electric bikes replaces a car. That strikes me as not too bad. The lead acid batteries in the bicycles present an environmental hazard, and of course coal-generated electricity isn’t emissions free. But my guess is that even at this relatively low replacement rate, the bikes come out ahead. (This data shouldn’t be generalized to other countries, as the transportation mix in China is utterly unlike that in the developed world.)

Fifth, there’s been a been a flare-up of blog chatter recently over whether we’ll ever see the “iPhone of cars” — a lightweight, low-footprint, networked vehicle that can move people around cities with far less environmental impact than even currently envisioned electric automobiles. Perhaps the iPhone of cars is an electric bicycle?

So to sum up: electric bicycle sales are growing rapidly from a small base, and the technology still seems as though it has the potential to broaden the appeal of the most resource-efficient transportation device yet invented.

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  1. Dan - February 23, 2010

    Great round-up, thanks. It reminded me of my thoughts about how ebikes will share the road with traditional bicycles and cars.
    My use of ebikes is at lower speeds and safely blends with bicycle traffic just fine. I just want to smooth out the hills and haul cargo not get there as fast as possible.
    I’m not opposed to reclaiming further road space from cars which will probably have to happen because of the increasing number of humans wanting to get around. I’d rather see more ebikes than cars.
    It will be interesting to see how these transportation issues get resolved.

  2. Ed - February 24, 2010

    A couple of years ago, TreeHugger was proclaiming the virtues of a $299 electric bike (which eventually went on sale at Walmart, although the current model is $398). Now, this bike weighs 75 pounds with battery and you have to recharge the battery after each ride for six hours or more. So it is not a fun bike to own if you live in a walk up, and it is really only practical for commuting to work (as opposed to a trip to the store). But for some people it is a really great commuter.
    I think the key with electric bikes is to move them from oddity, boutique status into the mass-market category (to modify your phrase slightly, an “iPhone of transportation”). Walmart now sells a $1000 lithium battery electric bicycle. It still weighs 50 pounds with battery (only a slight improvement), but the lithium battery means you don’t have to recharge it after every ride, making it practical for trips to the store or to a friend’s house. And even though the bike isn’t available in Walmart stores (at least where I live), their policy of allowing online ordering and delivery and pickup at their stores, plus their full refund if you are not satisfied policy makes acquiring the bike easy and safe. And the thousand dollar price tag is cheaper than almost all other lithium battery electric bikes.
    By the way, I am not trying to shill for Walmart, I just think their prices and models to choose from are the best among current big box stores. But the NYTimes article specifically mentions Best Buy, and I notice they have the same sort of in store pickup policy for items bought online (although I personally don’t like the particular electric bikes they offer). The point is to make electric bikes available to everyone. Now if we can just get Newt Gingrinch to endorse the idea, or Arnold Schwarzenegger to say that cars are for girly men and regular bikes are so 20th Century, we might start to see more of them.
    Look for me on one in the spring.

  3. Adam Stein - February 24, 2010

    This is good info. A quick comment on bike weight: 50 pounds does not seem excessive. It’s not uncommon for mountain bikes to weigh 30 pounds, and commuter bikes in general tend to be heavy, especially if they have chain guards and fenders. In general, bike weight matters less than people often think it does, and the electric assist will more than compensate for the added weight. If the battery runs out, though, it’s no real trouble to pedal a 50-pound bike home.
    The real problem, as you note, is getting heavier bikes up stairs…

  4. Bob Meredith - February 24, 2010

    There is a bike called the yike bike that folds up and can be carried on the bus or up to the office. It is worth a look. look.http://www.yikebike.com/site/gallery/video/yikebike-discovery-channel

  5. Oliver Bock - February 24, 2010

    I am firmly convinced that electric bikes are here to stay and will fill an increasingly large niche for transportation. Aside from all the advantages mentioned above, these things are a whole lot of fun!
    We are taking off on a cross country electric bicycle trip on April 22 to prove that electric bicycles are reliable and viable. We are also visiting sustainability heroes all our route who are making contributions that will help America get on a sustainable path forward.
    Follow along http://www.thegreenriders.blogspot.com

  6. Timothy Graffius - February 24, 2010

    I have an A2B. Love it.

  7. Terry - February 24, 2010

    Electric bikes are indeed on the rise in the US. As a manufacturer of nearly 1000 electric bikes, I can attest that the buyers of these bikes are not using them for commuting or exercise. They are baby boomers who are buying them to have fun. Do they eventually use them for trips to the sore, bank, etc.? Yes, because it is more fun to go to the store that way. Do they get exercise on them? Absolutely since people tend to pedal most of the time while riding. Are they being eco friendly? Better than driving a car to the market. These people remember how much fun it was riding a bike as a kid but today there is just a hill or headwind that they do not want to fight. So, because they are not willing or capable to struggle up some hill, they should not be allowed to ride at all? Electric bikes allow them to get back on a bike and be a kid again. The baby boomer market will drive (or better pedal) this market to new highs. Go for it!

  8. Timothy Graffius - February 24, 2010

    My A2B bike weighs 105 lbs loaded and extra battery. I use the electric motor to power assist up the steps to the 2nd floor. No problem. Check out my video on YouTube youtube.com/timothygraffius

  9. Larry - February 24, 2010

    I import and sell a higher quality E-Scooters manufactured in China. They are “Vespa” like in style and although just like so many E-vehicles, the drawback is range. The general public in the USA is not accepting of E-Vehicle benefits vs. the inconvenience of having to recharge every 25 miles or so. Our country has yet to embrace the philosophy that living and breathing outweighs convenience. My company struggles to survive because of this as do so many others trying to survive in the E-Vehicle business. Ironic; China, one of the greatest polluters uses the most E-Scooters in the world!

  10. E. Daniel Ayres - February 24, 2010

    Frankly, as a 67 year old who communted to work on the same 1970 model Raleigh DL1 18 miles a day for ten years… That bike weighs, with its’ fenders, pedal straps and tool bag, a whopping 42 lbs.
    I still pull it down from a hook and ride to local destinations. The beauty of the design is that “built to last” assumption which has fundamentally disappeared from modern bicycle engineering standards. Like everything else, you can pay for quality, but the designs offered for mass consumption tend to be wear dated in totally unacceptable ways for the future of our planetary resource base. I will never need an electric bicycle. Some day, possibly, an electric powered wheel chiar.

  11. Andrew Langford - February 24, 2010

    My best e-biking so far was an electric assisted Brompton folding bike. I used this in England and, as it folded really neatly, it could go on luggage racks on trains and buses. I’d get to the bus/train station with power assist which halved the time of an otherwise 40 minute journey and saved me from the desperate feelings of not being able to climb the hills. I could tow a trailer with 25lbs on the back (books and models for teaching) with ease, do the hour into London on the train and have the same power assist when biking home at night on the return journey.
    Folding e-bikes are a boon to public transport designer too as you can get 12 into the space taken up by a single conventional bike.
    Way to go!

  12. Timothy Graffius - February 24, 2010

    I’m glad to hear your still part of that .01% who are still in great shape. I used to commute that way too on a bike but fell out of shape and gaining a lot of weight. I’m now 350 lbs. My bike is helping me get back into shape and not use gas. It costs .10 cents to charge the battefy and go 13 miles at my weight. My car costs .10 cents/mile.

  13. John in Easton - February 25, 2010

    I’m concerned that if I were to purchase an electric bike online, I might not find a local shop to do maintenance and repairs.

  14. Anonymous - February 25, 2010

    John,
    That is a concern of many. Fortunately, 90% of an electric bike is still just like a regular bike that any bike shop should be able to help with. There are 4 main components that make it an electric bicycle: the throttle, battery, controller and motor. Some of these are very easy to replace (plug and play type) if defective. There are electric bicycle stores popping up all over the US that would also be able to help with repairs. What are do you live?

  15. Russ Finley - February 26, 2010

    To be perfectly honest, John has a legitimate concern. Unless you live near the electric bike dealer who sold it to you, you will soon run into a maintenance problem with nobody to fix it for you.
    When the bike poops out, most won’t be able to troubleshoot and repair it. No reason to sugarcoat that reality. Most people are not very handy anymore.
    Imagine buying a car and having no repair shops or dealerships.
    There are only three answers.
    1)Make the effort to do your own repairs.
    2)Buy from a dealer who will make repairs.
    3)Hang it up when it breaks.
    I know two people who have taken the third option.

  16. Anonymous - February 27, 2010

    Russ,
    I do live close to the dealer in my area. http://segwayofsb.com
    I would always suggest one buys from a dealer who also works on the products.
    Most of my A2B uses standard bicycle components and as long as it is not an issue related to the electrical part of the bike most bicycle mechanics should be able to work on a hybrid bicycle. I live 3 blocks from a bike shop. They dont sell these bikes yet but they sure do sell bicycle accessories that will fit. Last week I got my first flat. I repaired it just like I would repair a regular bicycle. Take off the rear tire and put on a patch. I used my bicycle patch repair kit ant tools. I had a problem adjusting the disk brakes but I went to the bike shop and they adjusted them for me for free. Took the mechanic all of five minutes. I am a regular customer. Bike shops are going to love these hybrid bikes because we buy accessories. Lots of Accessories. The bikes dont come with many accessories.
    People who buy an expensive hybrid bike usually buy nice accessories. If one wants a cheap beach cruiser that they can leave out on the beach and dont care if it is stolen well they probably dont want to get anything any good, just junk………..
    http://www.youtube.com/user/timothygraffius

  17. Russ Finley - February 27, 2010

    I’ve found that bike shops are happy working on the bike components as well. I had a new rim strung up. That was a challenge because the spokes were so thick. The mechanic figured he would be seeing more of these and wanted to get up the learning curve.
    The electrical components are the problem.
    Saw another Terrapass bumper sticker today, this time on a Toyota Land Cruiser.

  18. Garad in Amsterdam - March 3, 2010

    That Times article may not be as ‘tricky to parse’ as Adam Stein says it is. Many bike owners in the Netherlands spend upwards of

  19. Ken - March 29, 2010

    This is a good point. I bought a BionX electric bike kit from only 1 of 2 authorized sellers in the Los Angeles area. It works great… when it works. After only 2 weeks the battery and motor died. I had to take it all the way out to Burbank from Santa Monica for them to eventually send it back to the manufacturer in Canada and wait 3 weeks due to customs to get a new battery and motor. However, I did a lot of research and the BionX system came out way ahead of all the others I looked at. I love it and use it to commute to work everyday. We don’t own a gas car (only a ford Think NEV), so more me, it makes the 8 mile commute to the new office great in the summer.

  20. Ed Fry from Electric Bikes Experts - March 31, 2010

    I guess like most “new technologies” the repair and support side will slowly follow on as more and more people buy electric bikes.
    Ordering from someone who can offer support and repair services is a no brainer…
    … but what would your thoughts be perhaps on a dedicated electric bike repair manual? Or DVD? With a list of parts and where to get them?

  21. Bobie R. - April 4, 2010

    A big advantage to have an electric bike is the availability for the cycle in the park and take an alternative route to avoid congestion. And then, eliminating noise pollution, and improving the environment from air pollution. Also, you might be interested in reading about hybrid bike.