Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Pluses and Minuses of Electric Bikes

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.
Gorgeous but not cheap (Faraday Porteur)
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.
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.
(Mark Markovich, BikePortland.org)
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.

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.


  1. Hi Karen,

    I like this post! I have one question - what do you do from a helmet perspective? I would feel unsafe without a helmet, but would have trouble arriving at work with "helmet head." So for weekends, errands, etc it would be great, but maybe not so much for work. I think in a place like CR, we might be in more peril on bikes/electic bikes because we have few bike lanes and frankly, few urban bikers. Car drivers might be less likely to expect riders here.

    1. I generally wear a helmet and then fluff my hair with my fingers when I arrive at my destination. (Maybe it helps that my hair is pretty resilient and I'm not too picky what it looks like?)

      In Amsterdam, no one wears helmets. Literally no one, and their injury and accident rate is a fraction of ours. But they have great separated bicycle infrastructure, there are more bikes on the roads than cars, and since everyone bikes, every car driver is also a bicyclist and/or has a loved one who cycles. This makes for very careful, bike-aware drivers.

      It's very true there can be a self-reinforcing circle with biking safety. (The more people bike, the safer it is to bike. The safer it is to bike, the more people bike.) The difficulty in the US is getting the circle started.

      Until you see bunches of bicyclists around, if you take low speed residential streets it really helps. At intersections, make eye contact with drivers, smile and wave, so you can make sure they see you. If your destination is on a street that is particularly gnarly with fast traffic (and few pedestrians), in my mind it's reasonable to ride the last few blocks on the sidewalk so you can get where you need to go safely. (I know in some places this is illegal but sometimes you have little option.) Also, start asking your city to put in bike lanes!

  2. Great post! Karen, do you have four or five favorite e-bikes you'd recommend? --voltairesmistress

    1. I have mostly ridden just my own trusty steed. I included the Worksman trike in the post because it has good reviews on Amazon and is made in the US (so people in the US can get it!) I saw a nice Pashley trike on youtube, but I'm not sure if it's available here. I included the Faraday Porteur just because it's so gorgeous. (Future bike? I can dream.)

      My husband has an Ecobike Vatavio that he got at Noe Valley Cyclery. (NV Cyclery also carries other brands.) It's been pretty good. The only real issue is that the back tire is tough to fix when it gets a flat. My husband generally does his own repair work, but when that tire goes flat, he has to take the bike into the shop. NV Cyclery sells Bionix kits and I believe they will install them on a regular bike for you. My kit wasn't Bionix, but I read good things about the Bionix system.

      I get my e-bike serviced here in San Francisco by Len at Electric Bicycle Outlet. He's the guy that got me my new battery, replaced my shorted out controller, and fixed up the rather kluged way my original electric motor kit had been put on my bike.


      He has quite a few different kinds of ebikes in stock to try out. Knowing what I know now, if I were to get myself an e-bike for the same purposes again, I might go with a Yuba Mundo electrified cargo bike.

      Another resource is NYCewheels. Big on line selection of ebikes.


      Of course, you can't try out any of them to see if they'll really get you up the hill . . .

    2. Thanks so much. --VM

  3. 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 ... ebikesfahrraeder.blogspot.com

  4. My brother is going to get an electric bike. He's been wanting to get one for a while. His "commute" to work(meaning 45 minute walk) would be a lot easier if he had a bike! Who knows, maybe it'll help him have more time to get on top of his work. Thiago | http://www.melbourneelectricbicycles.com.au/about-us/interstate-buyers

  5. It was really nice post! thanks for sharing.

  6. Very good post, the experience you shared is very interesting, the electric bike is really cool, but I think I still like regular bicycles.