|Wild for e-bikes (The Economist)|
Electric-assist bicycles are outselling electric cars. This is happening by a small margin in the US and by a huge margin in Europe, 62 to1. Worldwide last year (taking into the account the Chinese) the ratio of electric bikes sold to electric cars was 244 to 1. In China there are now more e-bikes on the road than all cars (electric or regular) put together.
I think this is great. E-bikes take far less energy and materials to produce than electric cars, they need far smaller batteries, and they consume far less energy per mile of travel. Of course the energy per mile required varies depending on how much the rider pedals, but even if the rider doesn’t pedal at all, the amount of mass being moved is roughly 7% of the mass of the same rider in a small car. Electric assist bikes require 40 – 70 BTUs of energy per mile while a small electric car requires 1200. (An average internal-combustion-powered car requires over 4000 BTUs per mile.)
|Easier to bike in heels than walk in them. (Currietech.com)|
Most states legally limit e-bikes to top speeds of 20 mph. Many e-bikes are limited through their electric controllers to 15 mph. Though some people worry about crazy, unlicensed e-bike riders, any two-wheeler that can go 30mph on flats without pedaling is not an e-bike—it’s an electric scooter. It is easy to create legislation that limits all e-bikes sold in a given state to top speeds of 15 mph, slower than your average twenty-something regular bicyclist. If your state hasn’t done this, your legislators should get to work.
My husband and I both have electric-assist bikes. They are great for zipping up and down the rather large hill we live on. We don’t ride them much because we enjoy riding our regular bikes more, but for grocery shopping my bike with an Xtracycle attachment cannot be beat. (It can carry five bags of groceries. Uphill. With no sweat.) It also on occasion transports children, even large, teen-sized ones.
|Goddess-like SUV of bikes|
My husband uses his electric bike to dash to the store or to pick up Chinese takeout on a day when he’s already biked a ton and wants to take it easy. (Again, we live on a big, big hill.) Having the two e-bikes and a membership in a carshare program gave us the confidence to drop down from two cars to one, a step that, at this point, has saved us tens of thousands of dollars. While access to carshare has proven handy, after four years we find we use our e-bikes a hundred times more.
An electric-assist fundamentally helps you fight gravity. Riding an electric-assist bike means you are guaranteed not to arrive sweaty at your destination. It makes transporting heavy things easy. It takes you up hills without panting. I find the boost in acceleration also allows me to spend less time in intersections, places bicyclists are most at risk. And when you’re just feeling tired and/or lazy, an electric-assist bike can keep you out of your car because, except in a full downpour, it’s truly as easy as driving. For short trips it’s usually faster. Plus, an e-bike is fun the same way riding a bike is fun, especially if you can ride on quiet streets away from car traffic. When you have the motor on, it makes a quiet hum and you feel as if a gentle hand is pushing you along. On it you breathe fresh air, you see the sky, trees and birds, you experience your city or town in a different way. It offers a far richer sensory experience than being inside any car does.
But there are drawbacks. After four years riding an electric-assist bicycle, I think I’m qualified to enumerate them.
1) Riding an electric-assist bike provides less exercise than a regular bike. This is why I began to ride mine less and less. Let’s be clear—an electric-assist bike provides way, way, way more exercise than driving a car (which basically requires zero.) And it does depend on how much you pedal. But I estimate on my electric bike I get two-thirds less exercise than on my regular one. I pedal constantly on my electric bike and use the motor only when I’m fighting gravity—going up a hill or accelerating from a stop. I can generally keep my quite heavy bike in motion on the flats without the motor at all. Still, it is fighting gravity on a bicycle that requires the effort and provides the exercise. So when you use a motor instead of your own effort for this, it just doesn’t have the same exercise effect.
An electric-assist bike is four to five times
the cost of a regular bike. For $500 you can get a pretty nice regular bike. A
decent electric bike that won’t fall apart in a year will cost more between
$1500 and $3000. Both kinds of bikes will require yearly maintenance—a bicycle
around $50 - 100, an e-bike around $100 -150? (Depends how many miles you put
on your bike as to how much maintenance you will need.) On my bike, after the
second year my controller shorted out and I needed a new one. (Part of this may
be due to the fact that my bike was creatively created out of a kit and may
have been more prone to shorting due to bad San Francisco pavement than a
better-designed bike.) That cost me $300. After year 3, I needed a new battery.
That cost me $800. The good news is in those three years, battery technology
improved, and I got a bigger, more powerful battery that was roughly the same
size and weight of my previous battery. My husband also had to replace the
battery on his electric bike after three years. Better battery technology in
the future may extend battery life, but I would say right now count on
replacing the battery every three years. The good news is that brushless electric
motors tend to have very little go wrong and should last a long, long time.
|Gorgeous but not cheap (Faraday Porteur)|
3) Electric-assist bikes are heavier than regular bikes. My electric-assist is a whopping 80 lbs, but that’s because I have a heavier-than-average bicycle with an Xtracycle attachment on it. Most e-bikes are 40 to 50 lbs while regular bikes weigh 25 – 30 lbs. This means you cannot carry an e-bike easily up a set of stairs, onto trains, hoist it onto the top of a two-tier bike rack, or put it on a bike carrier on the back of your car. (My husband’s ebike does fold up and fits in the rear of our hatchback car.) Though I don’t like to carry my regular bike up and down flights of stairs, I can do it. With an e-bike there’s no way.
4) The bigger the investment, the more worry about it being stolen. However, right now it is far easier to fence regular bikes than e-bikes, so I would say regular bikes are more vulnerable for the time being.
|Bike that bridge|
5) You cannot go infinitely far on an electric bike before you run out of juice. My bike has a range of 10 – 11 miles. Most e-bikes have a range of 15 – 20. (Their published, theoretical ranges may be higher than what you experience in reality, and certainly higher than what you will experience after a year of use!) On a regular bike, I’ve been known to go 44 miles in a day, though this is certainly not usual for me. However, even if I just want to go from my house in San Francisco to Sausalito for brunch, taking an e-bike is not an option unless I want to also bring the charger and then go hunt/beg for an electrical outlet.
Some regular bike riders resent electric-assist
bikes. (This is less true if you are older and they figure you have an excuse.)
When I ride my regular bike, I have a twinge of this—just sheer envy as the
person on an e-bike pulls away from the green light faster than me. Rather than
feel grateful the person is not spitting out poisonous exhaust fumes or mashing
me into a pulp as they turn right without looking, I feel resentment that the
rider is cheating on the communal fight against gravity. This is silly. Anyone
on a regular bike has much in common with someone an e-bike. Both are equally vulnerable
to car traffic, both have every reason to want good bicycle infrastructure, and
both are transporting themselves in ways that don’t damage the environment.
|(Mark Markovich, BikePortland.org)|
|For us aging boomers|
In general, if you are in decent health, under 65 and live somewhere without big hills, I would say an e-bike isn’t worth the extra cost and hassle. Regular bikes are very easy to ride except on steep hills, and, if you go slowly enough, take no more exertion (or sweat) than a pleasant walk. However, if right now you are limited from riding a bicycle due to health issues, hills, or you really cannot arrive at your destination with even a drop of perspiration, then an electric-assist bike might really be great for you. If balance or other issues prevent you from riding a bicycle, an electric-assist three-wheeler might open up the world in a way you never thought possible. Read this review from an amputee.
Forty percent of all trips made in the US are under two miles in length. Currently Americans drive 2/3rds of all trips under two miles. (American even drive 60% of trips under 1 mile!) Two miles on an e-bike takes ten minutes. Unless you live on a 55 mph highway, two miles in your car probably takes between eight minutes and twelve. Seriously. Time it next time from your house to the store and see how long it takes. (Include parking time.) For short trips, an e-bike is as fast and convenient as a car.
The world is changing. Gasoline will get more expensive, and energy in general will be getting more expensive per BTU for reasons I describe here. More and more communities are building bike lanes and bike paths. Cities are getting denser and so driving a car in them will only get more difficult (as I describe here.) Climate change means we can’t keep burning fossil fuels. An electric bicycle can be the way you address all these issues, get more exercise, and improve your health to boot. Plus, if you can replace car trips or even downsize a car by relying on an e-bike instead, you will save a great deal of money--$5000-$8000 per year (this is after factoring in e-bike costs). And if there is a gasoline shortage for any reason, you are home free.