Taming the Electric Bicycle: E-Bikes Win Converts in the U.S.

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No news story or movie about China is complete, it seems, without images of throngs of people riding two, three and four abreast down the street on bicycles, both manual and electric. This latter type, known as the e-bike, has seen exponential growth in recent years; one estimate had 100 million e-bikes plying China’s roads in 2009.

Now Americans, prompted by high gas prices and growing eco-consciousness, are slowly embracing the e-bike, too. E-bike sales in the U.S. have been growing at a 21 percent annual clip – albeit from a modest base – and could reach 785,000 a year by 2016, according to Pike Research, a clean energy market research firm.

Who’s buying e-bikes? Urban commuters, particularly those traveling long distances, and Baby Boomers who have lost a gear but still want to ride, said Bert Cebular, the owner of NYCeWheels in Manhattan, and a pioneer in the U.S. e-bike market.

“You get on the bike and you feel like you’re 30 years younger,” Cebular said last week as he steered a model through his narrow storefront on the Upper East Side where he’s been spreading the e-bike gospel since 2001.

The most visible adopters of e-bikes in New York, though, have been fast-food deliverymen, who often spend 12 hours or more on their bikes a day.

At MNCeBike, a downtown shop favored by deliverymen, an employee who identified herself as Kate said her clients need something that is easy to ride for hours at a time.

“A sense of lightness”

E-bikes come in different varieties but share common characteristics: unlike a motor scooter, they can be powered by pedals alone. A mounted battery pack, with a power output starting at 250 watts – about one-third of 1 horsepower – can also provide power to a motor in the rear wheel.

The motor can either assist pedaling, or, in some models, provide enough power to move the bike without any effort from the rider. A simple throttle switch on the handlebars controls the power.

To qualify as e-bikes under federal law, they must not have more than 1,000 watts of power or be able to exceed 20 miles per hour with motor power.

Large bike companies like Giant and Trek make dedicated e-bikes but companies like BionX offer battery and motor retrofits for standard mountain bikes. A BionX system starts at $1,195 while the basement-model integrated bike is $550.

An e-bike handles like the Schwinn of your youth (though the battery packs and motors double the weight of standard bikes), but delivers an extra kick that makes you feel like Lance Armstrong without requiring you to raise your heart rate.

“There’s a sense, when you’re riding down the road, of lightness,” Cebular said of the e-bike experience.

On the road to acceptance

E-bikes are far more accepted in Asia, where they are a step up from a standard bicycle for people who can’t afford a car, than in the U.S., according to Dave Hurst, a senior analyst with Pike Research who has studied the e-bike market.

“In the U.S., bicycles, in general, are not considered a viable form of transportation,” Hurst said. The same is true of their electric counterparts, he added. “People are not likely to use e-bikes for transportation and the people who are buying bicycles are doing it for the fitness and the fun of it.”

Still, Hurst said, the e-bike is winning an increasing number of converts among people who wouldn’t otherwise be one a bike, particularly in cities that have added bike lanes.

Deborah Fortier, a 60-year-old piano teacher who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is one such convert. She had been riding a traditional two-wheeler to her lessons but she was arriving “tired and sweaty.”

After she got her e-bike three years ago, Fortier started scheduling her lessons 15 minutes apart and arriving fresh. Now she is an e-bike evangelist and wants more Baby Boomers to abandon their cars for e-bikes.

“That would get more people thinking about going out and putting a basket on their bikes and doing shopping,” she said. “You get a whole wonderful new sense of yourself and the city.”

Article appearing courtesy Txchnologist.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

  • orillia3

    You present an overly optimistic view of ebikes. American car culture never accepted bicycles and there is some grudging bicycle infrastucture in larger cities, but car is king. The counter culture embraces bicycles. The ebike is somewhat in between both the automobile and bicycle, and is hated by both groups. It is too much like a bicycle which is hated by the car crowd, and too much like a motorized vehicle and hated by the bicycle crowd. The only people who really like ebikes are the people who use them. I could write several paragraphs on ebike usage, but will restrict my comments to your article.

    I believe the American Federal regulations under Consumer Product Safety Commission allows up to 750 watts motor, pedals and top speed 20 mph. The individual states can regulate them on their roads, and a few opt for the 750 watt limit, some 1000 watt limit (note this would be state law). There is a patchwork of laws as each state has their own, from adopting the Federal standard to making their own, to having ebikes illegal, and some are mute on the subject. Some are classed a bicycles, some as mopeds, some licensed some not and some not allowed at all. While ebikes might be here to stay, it will take a major attitude change on the part of both the general public and politicians to make ebikes anywhere even near a fraction of the users in some other countries.