E-bikes: Changing how we move

How do we know the dawn of e-bikes is upon us? Well there’s always the numbers (and I’ll get to those in a sec). But the ubiquity of a product may also be measured by its many iterations and imitations. Since we’re now seeing wonders like the world’s tiniest e-bike, wooden e-bikes, and “the 1987 Honda Civic” of e-bikes, I think it’s safe to call it: E-bikes have arrived.

What are e-bikes?

Electric bicycles are basically regular bikes with integrated electric motors that, when engaged, propels the bike forward.

Many of the models are “pedal-assist” meaning the motor kicks in when a rider pushes the pedals. The pedal-assist function may be calibrated or turned on or off, so the rider controls how little or how much physical effort to exert.

E-bikes on the rise across the globe

Worldwide, e-bike adoption is up. China, with its legendary traffic and more than a billion citizens, has led the pack for years, with nearly 37 million e-bikes sold in 2013. According to one report, China is estimated to have 355 million electric two-wheelers by 2018—one vehicle for every four people in the country.

E-bikes are starting to gain major traction in Europe as well. According an article in The New York Times last summer, e-bike sales rose close to 10 percent in Germany and The Netherlands in 2013 in spite of a drop in regular bike sales.

And the United States is shaping up to be the next e-bike frontier. Last fall, NPR reported that e-bike sales doubled in the U.S. from 2012 to 2013.

One major manufacturer is betting that trend will continue: Bosch—a company selling e-bike conversion kits that controls 25 percent of the European market—announced last month it was opening a United States regional headquarters in southern California.

Who rides e-bikes?

Commuters decide to go electric for a myriad of reasons. E-bikes are perfect for those with long commutes or folks traversing hilly terrain. They’re also an ideal option for those who don’t feel in good enough shape to bike or would rather not show up to the office a sweaty mess.

Take Joshua Brost, a 34-year-old communications director living in San Francisco. Last year, a new job made commuting by train possible. Brost ditched his car commute, got a regular bike, and used it to get between home and the train station.

“I realized within the first few weeks that I was in trouble,” he said. “After a really long work day and being on the train for an hour, and then having to bike up this small annoying grade all the way home wasn’t going to work every day. I’m not a bike messenger; I’m not clad head to toe in spandex. My bike was a means to an end for me.”

So Brost converted his ride into an e-bike and found he didn’t dread his trips to the train station any more. He liked that he could control the degree of “oomph” depending on his energy levels.

He also found that having an e-bike prompted him to explore the city more in his free time. “I already hated driving here and it’s made it a lot easier,” he said. “I don’t have a deal with [the bus] and I don’t have to deal with Lyft. I can just hop on my bike and go. And if there’s a big hill in the way, no big deal.”

Another recent convert is Scott Crosby, who used to commute from his home in San Francisco 40 miles south to Google Headquarters via pedal power before becoming a stay-at-home dad.

When Crosby and his family moved to the top of a steep hill in San Francisco, he bought an electric cargo bike to tote his 4-year-old daughter to and from school.

“I use it all the time just for day to day stuff now even when I don’t have the kids,” he said. “It’s almost always faster to go anywhere in this city when you factor in parking. It really has become my go-to rig for going anywhere if have to carry anything or if I don’t want to sweat.”

The day I interviewed him, Crosby said he and his daughter were stopped at a light with a rider on an identical e-bike, same color of paint and all.

“A few years ago I didn’t see any e-bikes, and now I would say 20 to 30 percent of bikes that go by are electric assist. I’ll see these people in business attire or non cycling clothes and they are just cruising up the hill, [and I realize] oh yeah, that’s an electric bike.”

Corporate appeal

E-bikes aren’t just a game changer for individual commuters. Companies are beginning to latch on to e-bikes as part of a suite of green transportation options for employees.

Facebook Inc., Headquartered in Menlo Park, CA, is currently allowing employees to borrow e-bikes with the hopes of enticing non-cyclists to bike to work.

“The e-bike can help take the fear out the equation for first-time riders or novice cyclists,” said Shea Mack, Facebook’s Bike Operations Manager. “And from what we’ve seen, the e-bike is a gateway to traditional bikes. As riders progress on the e-bike, they will often find that a lightweight road bike or hybrid can be just as efficient once they’ve put in enough miles and gotten used to being on a bike.”

Every employee that trades their car commute for an alternative mode saves the company parking costs, cuts down on regional traffic, and curbs C02 pollution. Additionally, it’s well-documented that biking promotes wellness and happiness.

“Employees will literally spend 30 minutes in a car to drive five to seven miles when it would take them the same amount of time on a bike, whether electric or not,” Mack said. “Our strategy is to change people’s perceptions as to why they need a car in the first place.”

Google has also hinted at using e-bikes for employee transportation. In a statement, Transportation Manager, Brendon Harrington, said: “Google’s been committed to reducing the number of single occupancy vehicles on the road for more than a decade, from providing commuter shuttles to encouraging self-powered commuting as much as possible to and from our campuses. We believe ebikes could play a significant role in continuing that work as they have tremendous potential to remove barriers to bicycling for many people.”

Where else will we find e-bikes?

Germany is using e-bikes to deliver mail as are UPS and DHL in other European cities. Police officers in Gloucestershire are testing them for neighborhood patrols. In Portland, OR, you can get produce, baked goods, and coffee delivered via electric-tricycle.

And there are many other potential uses: E-bikes have obvious appeal for traveling between buildings on sprawling corporate campuses, jetting from one terminal to the next at airports, and moving around large warehouses or data centers.

Facebook’s Mack recognizes the potential e-bikes hold for employees working at headquarters. “Cargo e-bike loaners for going to the store as well as sleek and comfortable e-bikes for going to and from work are all part of the plan,” he said. “Right now e-bikes are coming into their own.”

Top Five E-bikes on the market right now

Faraday Porteur: This beautiful all purpose e-bike is one of the lightest around; relatively affordable and extremely popular with urbanites.

Stromer ST1: With high end components and a powerful motor, this e-bike will get you there in warp speed.

Xtracycle Edgerunner: This baby was meant to haul … babies. The perfect bike for carting those kiddies.

VeloMini: This lightweight electric folding bike is perfect for packing on the train and then chugging up those hills.

Easy Motion Neo Race: Even if you don’t race, you’ll win on this super-charged road bike.


By Anna Walters, for Bikes Make Life Better

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