Electric bicycles | 7 MIN READ

E-bikes are wooing Americans

Electric bike sales in Europe have shown double-digit growth, with sales in the Netherlands surging by 24%. It’s estimated that about 350,000 electric bicycles were sold to customers in the United States in 2015. While an impressive figure, it’s merely a fraction of the 17.4M total bikes sold. What is this new category of bikes and why should you pay attention to them?

What are e-bikes and why are they becoming popular in the U.S.?

An e-bike, also known as electric assisted bicycle, is a type of bicycle that has an electric motor. The motor is used for either assisting the rider’s pedal-power and giving the rider a boost when needed or completely moving the bike on electric power. Both recreational riders and commuters can cover significantly longer distances and climb hills without breaking a sweat. These vehicles are still considered bicycles because they can be pedalled with or without the electric motor assist. Electric bicycles use rechargeable batteries to power the motor, do not emit CO2, and normally travel at speeds ranging from 20 to 30 mph.

Pedal assist bicycles are very popular among commuters and senior citizens in Europe and are finally seeing a deserved bump in popularity in the U.S as a healthy, sustainable method of transportation.

I would guess 90 to 95 percent of people in the U.S. don’t even know what an electric bicycle is, making mainstream adoption "very challenging."

says Ryan Citron, an analyst who commutes on an e-bike to his job in Boulder, Colo. Unlike Europe and China, both of which boast highly advanced bicycle infrastructure, the U.S. is primarily set up to commute by car, not by bike.

E-bikes have the following advantages over a car:

  • They are small enough to store in an apartment, eliminating the need for a garage
  • They are cheaper than a car
  • They don’t burn gasoline making them an eco-friendly option
  • They do not require insurance or license to operate
  • They are easy to pedal, you don’t arrive to the office sweaty

E-bikes are gaining popularity in the U.S. but the growth could be better.

Although the e-bike market in the U.S. is much smaller compared to that of Europe or China, more and more Americans are starting to see and appreciate the many benefits an e-bike can provide. As a result, e-bike market in the U.S. is experiencing a long-awaited growth.

Precise tracking of the e-bike business in the USA is somewhat complicated due to lack of HTS (Harmonized Tariff Schedule) numbers or uniform tariff that are specific for e-bikes. Oftentimes, importers use different descriptions for e-bikes or declare them as parts or toys.

The chart below shows the estimates of the e-bike sales by various world regions with projections for 2018 from Pike Research.

A factor that contributes to the bicycle market’s overall financial growth is the average price of a sold e-bike, which is going up. During e-bike’s short existence, the battery life, design, and overall quality have progressed, yielding modern e-bikes that are much more reliable than they were 4-5 years ago. Market trends show that customers are willing to pay between $2500 - $3500 on average for a reliable e-bike.

U.S. bicycle retailers found a way to market e-bikes to an older but active customer, something that European e-bike retailers have been doing for years. Baby boomers, aged between 52 and 70 as of 2016, account for approximately 25% of Americans. Many of them already love cycling, but can not ride a bicycle due to health-related issues, such as knee and joint pain or exercise induced asthma. Riding can also put a significant amount of stress on the heart, particularly for an older rider. The electric motor of an e-bike can help the rider compensate in areas where they might need additional assistance. For example, an e-bike lessens the effort required to propel the bike forward by doubling or even tripling the power projected onto the pedals by the rider. The use of electrical power also puts less stress on the heart during a ride since it promotes a steady heart rate elevation, reducing the likelihood of sudden spikes caused by climbing hills or navigating rough terrain.

Another demographic that seems to take interest in e-bikes is a portion of American youth who live in big cities. They often choose to commute by bike instead of a car, avoiding the inconveniences and responsibilities that accompany car ownership, such as insurance, parking, gas, licensing and overall maintenance costs.

With all the clear benefits it is surprising that e-bikes are not enjoying more popularity. What are the obstacles for growth?

E-bike market faces growth challenges in the U.S.

One of the reasons the U.S. e-bike market is significantly smaller than that of Europe or China is that there might actually be a difference in mentality. Both the European and the Chinese cultures regard a bicycle as a method of transportation while in the U.S a bicycle is treated more like fitness equipment or a method of recreation, a toy. Since e-bikes are designed to make cycling easier, they aren’t embraced by fitness-minded riders. Since fitness is primary reason Americans purchase and ride bikes, there’s very little reason for retailers to market and stock e-bikes, thus limiting the exposure of e-bikes in the marketplace.

E-bikes also carry an undeserved stigma of “bicycles for lazy people.” However, statistics show otherwise: e-bike riders tend to ride more than those who ride conventional bikes. Interestingly, statistics also show that e-bike riders are more likely to choose a ride over a drive, even if they are low on energy, because of the lesser potential for getting exhausted when electric support is available. Therefore, statistics suggest that the idea that e-bikes are for lazy people has very little truth to it, and is simply a misconception.

A fundamental factor in bicycle’s popularity in any country is the level of its cycling infrastructure and bicycle regulations. A safe cycling infrastructure is key to getting people out of their cars, as is shown by many European and Asian countries. Although the cycling infrastructure in major European cities outpaces that of the U.S., infrastructure and cycling culture in the U.S. are changing for the better; many major U.S. cities are seeing both regulatory and urban improvements, more bikes can be seen on the streets. Various bike sharing programs that began operations in recent years, like Citibike in New York or Hubway in Boston, help promote cycling to the masses - bicycles can be rented on-demand from hundreds of locations and only for a few dollars per day.

Finally, there’s ambiguity when it comes to classifying e-bikes. Although a federal law was signed in 2002 by G. W. Bush that exempts e-bikes with top speeds less than 20 mph and motor power less than 750 watts from state motor vehicle licensing, a few states have chosen to regulate the use of e-bikes*. To take matters even further, some counties and even cities have taken it upon themselves to regulate use of e-bikes. For example, in 2012 New York banned e-bikes as a part of a war against delivery services, citing safety concerns**. Under New York state law, riders need to register e-bikes as they would a motorcycle, moped, or car.

As these general cycling mental and infrastructure roadblocks become less of an issue with time, the U.S will see a greater e-bike adoption rates.

Popular use of e-bikes

Commuting

It’s a little known fact that most Americans reside less than 13 miles from work, which takes on average 22 minutes to drive. For commuters that fall within this distance, e-bikes make excellent commuter vehicles. E-bikes allow riders to travel farther and faster than they ever could on a conventional bike at a fraction of a cost of a car. In fact, energy efficiency equivalent of an e-bike and its rider lies somewhere between 300 and 700 miles per gallon, depending on the model! On top of that, e-bikes require very little maintenance and storage space, which makes them very practical in urban environments where storage is at a premium. There are even folding e-bikes that could be stored inside an apartment or even a trunk of a car. Notable models are: Rad Power RadCity, Faraday Porteur, Gocycle G3, Kalkhoff Sahel Compact Impulse and Stromer ST1.

Rad Power RadCity

Delivery services

Urban courier and food delivery services are already using bikes since they allow drivers to quickly traverse busy streets, can be parked almost anywhere and unlike an automotive fleet, require very little upkeep. By upgrading their bicycle fleet to e-bikes, such businesses could significantly grow their coverage area while increasing speed and volume of delivery. Since e-bikes can сarry significantly larger loads without straining the rider, delivery services can increase the number of deliveries done in a single trip or deliver much heavier goods. Luckily, there are some great cargo e-bikes on the market. Notable models are: Xtracycle EdgeRunner, Rad Power Bikes RadWagon and Daymak Florence.

Rad Power RadWagon

Transportation system

Notable proliferation and popularity of bike share programs such as New York’s Citibike, Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare and Chicago’s Divvy indicates that bikes are well on the way of becoming a part of urban transportation system. One of the biggest gripes of bicycles sharing roadways with cars in busy cities is the fact that bikes move significantly slower than cars, thus creating possibly unsafe situations. Electrifying bike share fleet could further its popularity and increase overall safety of the transportation system. By being able to travel extended distances at speeds similar to those of cars moving in city traffic, e-bike bike share programs stand a chance of competing with other inner-city mass transportation systems. Notable models: Rad Power RadWagon, Elby Bike, Stromer ST1, Easy Motion Evo Eco Lite.

Stromer ST1

Switching to en e-bike

Switching from a regular bicycle to an e-bike is really easy, it’s a bicycle after all. Obviously, the main difference between a conventional bicycle and an e-bike is the motor. You will also find a chunky battery occupying some space either on the downtube or over the rear wheel, and an LCD display with an integrated controller. Depending on a model, you might also find a motorcycle twist-grip shifter that controls the output of the electric motor or selects the level of pedal-assist.

It’s highly recommended that you test ride an e-bike before making a purchase and decide if it’s something that’s right for you. E-bikes are generally less agile than than their mechanical counterparts. The increased weight manifests itself not only in handling but also braking dynamics; most of the e-bikes are equipped with mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes to compensate for the additional weight imposed by the battery and the motor. If your first intention after getting on an e-bike is to find out how fast it can go, we suggest you reconsider and instead familiarize yourself with the bike at lower power levels. There are some surprisingly powerful e-bikes on the market, you just might end up on something significantly more “peppy” than you expected.

Make sure to see what it’s like to pedal the bike with the pedal-assist off. Because of the added weight of a lead-acid battery, many e-bikes are notably heavier than a regular bicycle. Are you capable of pedaling it home if or when the battery runs out of charge? Just like electric cars, e-bikes can take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours to charge. With motor wattage and battery capacities varying greatly, e-bikes most commonly fall in the 250-750 Watt motor and 150-1,500 watt-hours battery capacity range. While a 250 Watt motor will provide adequate assist for a commuter bike, a cargo bike or an offroad-capable bike is expected to have 500-700 Watt motor. Battery capacity is by far the most important deciding factor as it has a direct effect on the range you can travel on the bike while enjoying pedal-assist. A high quality city bike with a 450 Watt motor and 240 watt hour battery has a range up to 22 miles while traveling at 25 mph.

Stealth Bomber

On the other size of the spectrum is Stealth Bomber, an e-bike whose power at 4500 watts rivals many dirt bikes. This machine also has a 1500 watt hour battery that can travel at 50 mph for over 50 miles. Fortunately, at those power levels it can not be classified as an e-bike and it’s unlikely you’ll run into one of them on your local ride.

While the benefits of e-bikes heavily outweigh the negatives, it is still important to consider and be aware of the following disadvantages:

  • They are generally heavy, which can pose a challenge when the battery loses its charge
  • Women models can be expensive, with prices over $6,000
  • E-bikes are more complex, making them more difficult and expensive to maintain

A list of factors to consider before buying an e-bike:

  • Do you have parking or storage available at both the origin and the destination of your commute?
  • If you live in a multi-floor building, do you have an elevator or plan on using stairs?
  • How comfortable are you pedalling a heavy bike if a battery runs out?

References:

* http://pedelec.com/taipei/lectures/pdf/USA.pdf
** http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/02/hell-on-wheels-can-e-bikes-ever-go-legal.html

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