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Are Electric Bikes Part of Our Future

by Bike Shop Girl

Today’s E-Bike Wednesday Guest Article is brought to you by Elise Giddings.  Elise is co-owner of Cycle 9 bike shop in Carrboro, NC, which specializes in electric assist, cargo bikes, commuting and city bikes. http://www.cycle9.com

Elise will be featured in one of our upcoming Commute By Bike Podcast, look forward to the series starting next week.

Electric bikes.They’re the buzz word of the bike industry lately.Will 2010 be their year? or will they burn quickly as a fad and fade out as in the past? As a rider and dealer of electric bikes, I’ve watched the offerings grow from small, obscure companies, to today with a plethora of options, including major bike manufacturers jumping on the wagon. I have to say I’m pretty impressed by the offerings. Clearly the industry thinks these are going to be big and small and large companies alike are gambling big bucks on developing products and getting dealers to support them.Will they hit it big? I don’t know, but here are a few of my thoughts on the question.

My first ebike

An electric-assist hub motor

I’ve been interested in electric bikes for many years. My first bike was a ZAP bike in the early 1990s that I shared with my significant other. It employed a roller that went against your tire to help propel you forward, and I used it to assist me on my 12 mile each-way commute across town.The roller system worked ok as long as the road was dry, and you stopped occasionally to adjust the pressure on the tire.The battery was a golf cart battery strapped to the rear rack, and if I spared it’s use to the hills only, it would last all the way to work and half way home before giving up the ghost. But it did provide just enough help for me conquer my commute, a large factor being the few extra minutes it saved me.
By contrast, today’s ebikes are so much better, they barely compare. With my current electric kit, I can easily ride 20 miles or more, keeping my speed at 15-20mph over hills, even with cargo! The kit works reliably rain or shine, and the battery is 3 times the capacity for the same size and weight as my original ZAP kit. But most importantly, the kit has allowed me to free myself from my car, addressing my concerns about peak oil, environmental degradation, and quality of life for me, my kids, and my community.

The oil problem

As bike commuters, we generally understand the benefits of biking versus driving.We know that biking is healthy for us.We know that driving uses lots of resources.We know that our resources are finite and our environment is being polluted. But when I really started looking into the numbers, I was shocked.You see, through a friend I learned about the problem of Peak Oil. Peak Oil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil) is the concept that at some point the world will have reached the peak efficiency of oil extraction worldwide.That means that all the easily extracted oil will be used up, and the stuff that’s left will be more difficult, costly, and time consuming to extract. Many geologists argue persuasively that peak oil is at hand, but that we don’t realize it in the marketplace yet.And the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico just underscores that drilling for oil is risky and has lots of associated costs.

BP's Deepwater Horizon. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Once you dive into the consequences of a future of more expensive and declining supply of oil, all kinds of scary facts start popping out – oil is required for the production of plastics which are critical in the health care industry. It’s heavily embedded in the production and transport of our food supply. It’s used in the pharmaceutical industry, and will be required to manufacture and deploy solar panels, wind turbines, buses, bicycles and all the other elements of an
alternative energy future.
Yet, here we are, burning up oil by driving around. Over 60% (http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/energyexplained/ index.cfm?page=oil_use) of the US oil supply goes to
transportation, much of it personal and short distance.The internal combustion engine uses only 20% of the energy contained in gasoline while the rest is wasted in inefficiencies. And most of the energy consumed in driving is to propel the car – a big, heavy, metal box – not us or our stuff.
Clearly, we need to change (http://sf.streetsblog.org/2010/05/03/commentary-keep-drilling- stop-driving-use-oil-wisely/) our paradigm about transportation if we’re going to have an effect on this problem. And the sooner we can do that, the better off all of us will be. Once I realized this, I thought the best place to start would be with myself. I’ve always been a casual biker, recreationally and for transportation. But I had a problem if I was going to ride my bike more, and it came in the shape of 3 small people.

The kid problem

You see, I had 3 small people under the age of 5 to take care of and not only did they need to be transported,but I needed to have the energy to deal with them. After a lengthy internet search, a cargo bike was selected to transport them. But I didn’t live super close to town, and there were some big hills in the way. I didn’t think I could do it. I could barely pedal the bike up the 1st hill out of the driveway.This is where the electric assist kit transformed this into a realistic solution.

Electric-assist Madsen bike = no car today

With my kit, I can pedal the bike even with 3 kids or a week’s worth of groceries, over 12 miles of hilly terrain. I can do it every day and it doesn’t take forever or leave me sweaty and exhausted. It’s become a realistic and competitive alternative to the car. And in fact, it’s become the preferred option most of the time as everyone enjoys riding the bike more than riding the car, especially Mom!

Setting up this bike actually was a life changing experience for me, so I started a bike shop to help other people realize their own dreams of using their car less and their bikes more. Electric assist has been a big part of this.We help a lot of people like myself who want to electrify cargo bikes.

But we also help a lot of commuters with distances of over 3 miles to go. Some people are even riding 20 miles each way, and the electric assist just makes this commute much faster and more do- able. Instead of bike commuting one day a week, they’re doing it 3 or 5 days. We’ve also helped people with disabilities, people who are out of shape, and people who just want to have more fun riding their bikes. It’s been a pleasure watching all of these people dust off bikes and leave their cars in the garage. In my book, anything that enables people to do that is worth doing.

Would it be “better” if these people were able to bike under their own power without the assist? Maybe. But consider again this fact.The energy used by a typical electric bike is about 15 watt-hours (wh) per mile.The energy used by a typical car is 1,580 wh per mile.That means that you can ride your electric bike for 20 miles and use less energy than it would take to drive your car 0.25 mile.That’s a pretty startling statistic.

The adoption of electric bikes

Over the past 20 years, electric bike technology has made huge strides to where it is generally reliable and easy to use.This is not to say that everything out there is quality – there are still a lot of low quality and low powered bikes out there. But companies manufacturing the bikes and kits have started paying attention to what consumers want and I think we’ll see considerable weeding out of the stuff that is not worth it.

One of the biggest barriers to electric bikes in the marketplace that I see today is actually the reluctance of independent bike shops to take them on.Your local bike shop employees are probably dominated by hard core bike enthusiasts who wouldn’t consider an electric bike for themselves, and so are not very interested in selling them. I’ve also seen considerable reluctance on the part of mechanical staff to be interested or even willing to work on electric bikes, simply because it’s something pretty different than what they’ve seen before.The door has been left open for new specialty shops focused on electric bikes to pop up, and also for big-box retailers to get into the market.These retailers, in combination with the internet, have served to grow the market considerably.As the products increase in quality (and thus decrease in maintenance and support), and as consumer demand grows, I think local bike shops will come around.This would be a great thing, because local shops will always be the best place to get the service and support that bikes of all types need.

So, will electric bikes become a big part of the bike industry? My answer is, I sure hope so. The potential they have to encourage and enable people to ride more is huge. Both hard core riders who commute longer distances or are aiming for the car-free lifestyle, and for casual riders who would ride more if it was easier and more convenient. And riding bikes is good for our souls, our communities, and our planet.

 
Burley nomad 229

17 Responses to “Are Electric Bikes Part of Our Future”

  1. Rob says:

    I agree with the article. In the last 3 years or so since I bought my first electric bike Ive seen people electric bikes. A few that Ive seen actually have a small motor attached which Im not sure if its electric or not. The bikes with the small motor attached sound like a weed eater going the road. Its good to see other alternatives out there though.
    One day we wont be dependent on oil anymore and then we wont have to worry the disasters like we already see down in the south.

  2. Rider says:

    Nice article, and interesting personal story.

    And … you’re right. Electric bikes are gonna be big.

    Good luck with your store!

  3. Tim K says:

    Not sure how “big” they will be, my actual hope is that they will stay small and inhabit the niches that you specifically mentioned.

    For an individual with less than 10 miles to travel one way going electric kind of defeats many of the benefits of actually pedaling a bike. Sure your giving the oil companies a dodge, but depending where you live, your giving your money to the coal or nuclear power companies when you charge your batteries, unless you live off the grid.

    China is currently experiencing a plague of e-bikes and it is causing them all kinds of problems. Will I have to share my bike lane with you and your motorized vehicle? Why not mopeds? E-Bikes have a place, but lets hope it stays small so this obese and environmentally damaged country of ours looses some more weight.

  4. tim says:

    I bought my e-bike last year, love it. I have ridden many bikes all the way back to my youth(I’m 54). I usually commute and my commute now-a-days is 16mi RT. The e-bike makes it bfun and I don’t arrive all sweaty, a plus for riders who work in offices. The bikes fill a niche for older riders who still want to ride but may have health problems, I bought mine because of a bum knee/leg. We need to enmjcourage more bike riding and whle I agree the energy still comes from polluting sources, the amount to charge a battery is relatively small, so if one were to change to an e-bike you’d still be saving energy.
    Yes, I wish I could still zoom past me on a sleek road bike, or great commuter(I can still dream), but I no longer have those bikes, and after my first 2000mi on my e-bike I’m sold.

  5. Electric bicycles are so commonplace here in Japan that you no longer even notice them, they simply blend into the natural cycling landscape.

    Over the last 10 years prices have dropped to the point where the cheapest electric bicycle isn’t a lot more expensive than a a good quality ‘regular’ bicycle. Thus the number of electric bikes in everyday use has exploded.

    Recently Sanyo built a number of solar parking lots where users of electric bicycles could park, and while parked have their batteries topped up with solar generated power. If infrastructure took off like that elsewhere then you could easily dodge the oil, coal and nuclear power companies.

    For more information about electric bicycles in Tokyo please visit:

    http://www.tokyobybike.com/

  6. [...] Are Electric Bikes Part of Our Future | Commute by Bike [...]

  7. [...] on the Streetsblog Network, Commute by Bicycle has a post asking just that question. Big caveat up front: It’s written by a woman who owns a [...]

  8. [...] me map out nice routes to the places I go, and I’ll figure the rest out as I go.  I saw a post on Commute by Bike by a woman with three children under the age of 5 who ditched her car – and she didn’t [...]

  9. Tim K says:

    I am glad that they work for you. You are exactly the kind of niche group I am talking about, but I also know several 60+ year olds that still commute on a “regular” bike and enjoy the health benefits and the ride. A commute is not about racing, it is transportation.

    My main point is that for most people the e-bike is not a requirement and should not be promoted as such. People need more physical exercise in this country and pushing the electric bike as the end all will not solve all the problems of the world. As e-bikes gain power and endurance they will need to be moved out of bike lanes and into regular traffic, just like mopeds. Use the right tool when it is called for.

  10. paul says:

    I don’t know if riding my bike really is cheaper than operating my SUV.

    I mean gas is cheaper than most food, and I must consume twice as much food when biking 45 miles to work 3-5 days a week compared to driving. Plus all the bike gear that the cycling addiction brings is also expensive and has an impact. Tires, clothes, panniers, helmets, shoes, powerbars – I think I spend more on bike gear than I do on my car.

    I also have an eBike with 1000 watt Phoenix motor that I use for trips to the gym, shopping and errands, so that has an impact also. Many of these trips I would not make with a regular bike because the eBike is much faster, up to 36mph, and can carry more cargo without being difficult to pedal.

    I think you have to calculate a full lifecycle cost analysis of consuming much more food, and the impact of buying gear, when biking vs a few gallons of gas when driving that same distance.

    It wouldn’t surprise me all to discover that my impact is greater when biking than driving.

  11. Peter says:

    Here’s some good info on how e-bikes are actually more energy efficient than conventional bikes. The conclusions are on page 10 if you want to skip the details.

    http://www.ebikes.ca/sustainability/Ebike_Energy.pdf

  12. Ken says:

    Lucky you – gas is cheap. The only trouble is that gas supplies are finite & food supplies are renewable.
    I don’t know what your gas prices are in the States but here in England they are now $6.59 per US gallon & my car does 60mpg, but taking tyres & servicing into the mileage cost its far cheaper to commute by bike.
    I use a Trek Valencia Plus which provides electric assistance only when you pedal, so it makes my 21 mile each way commute manageable & reasonable at my tender age of 56.
    Next step is to get a solar charger for it. I don’t need a gym membership anymore and to be honest what is the point of using an electric bike to get to the gym & then paying to work out????
    I want to leave as much of this planet as possible for my kids & grandkids to enjoy so I’ve taken steps to lower my burden on the planet.
    Enjoy your low gas prices while you can – it will only take a political or natural disater to push the prices sky high.

  13. paul says:

    Hi Ken,
    I ride my bike, or eBike, to the gym for Pilates, Yoga, weight lifting, racquetball, swimming, spin, and similar exercises that cycling does not provide. I see the bike more as transportation, although it no doubt provides some exercise benefits.

  14. Mikes bikes says:

    They are becoming much more convenient and more and more people are buying them as the prices fall.

  15. Britta says:

    I just got my Izip Bike from currietechnologies and it has been so wonderful.

    I agree with all you ebike owners…much better option than driving.

    Yes, giving our monies to oil, coal, and nuclear companies is not good, but if we could cut back on all these things even a little, will make a difference.

    People are obese because a lot of them choose to be. Just because ebikes are going to be an awesome new hit, doesn’t mean its going to contribute to this obese world.

    With a negative attitude, you’ll stay unhappy, solutionless, and obese.

    But finding a way to do your part to positively affect your surroundings even a little bit counts.

    Obese people on ebikes will do go for them – it’ll assist in any pains they may have, it’ll get them outside and going, and also motivate.

    Ebikes are wonderful if you have health problems, its such a great idea.

    If you are considering an ebike, I highly suggest you do your homework and invest in one or two.

    Its definitely a great way to run errands, get outside, bicycle with an assist option, and a good start to a better lifestyle.

  16. JK says:

    I have an electric bike and commute to work. I lose no benefits because I pedal all the way. The motor simply allows a higher average speed.

    The cost is pennies per charge. Very inexpensive and very green.

    China is experiencing a “plague” of e-bikes? Were the 100′s of millions of non-electric bikes a plague also? Or was everything perfect until one hit the road with a little motor assist?

    Will you have to share the road? Ah, now I think we have come to your issue Tim. Sharing. Riding a non-electric bike requires sharing with all vehicles. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds, electric cars and yes other bicycles. And pedestrians. By law non-electric bicycles are vehicles in most states.

    An electric bike is just a bike.

  17. I started using an electric bike for commuting in 2006 (the same time I first read about Peak Oil).

    While we still have the overall sustainability question of powering the bikes in the future and disposing of the used batteries, they are far less polluting that the hundreds of millions of cars on the road.

    I think the electric bike can play a part in out future. But there is still a lot of education to be done.

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