The switch to battery-powered cars may get more media attention, but in the immediate future, the real revolution in electric transportation may be taking place on two wheels.
Rapidly growing in popularity, electric bikes, or e-bikes, are poised to create a renaissance of two-wheeled commuters, attracted to the extended range and easier commutes offered by this form of battery-powered transit. Deloitte predicts that between 2020 and 2023, 130 million electric bikes will be sold around the globe.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen them explode in popularity in Europe, and now that’s expanding to the U.S.,” says Kate Fillin-Yeh, director of strategy for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). “E-bike prices are poised to go down, while distribution is increasing.”
Fillin-Yeh has found that electric bikes are increasingly being introduced into bikeshare systems across the country, one way U.S. riders are starting to become more familiar with electric bikes, while more and more consumers are considering purchasing their own bikes. It portends a future with more electric bikes sprinting down city streets, making it easier for more people to use cycling as a main or primary means of getting around their cities.
“You can’t underestimate the joy factor of being able to push a button and zip down the street on a bicycle,” Derek Chisholm, an associate vice-president in the New Orleans office of AECOM, told Curbed. “A lot of people don’t know how much they’d enjoy it.”
Curbed spoke to current e-bike owners and experts to answer some common questions from those curious about electric bikes.
What’s an electric bike?
An electric bike, at the most basic level, is a standard bicycle outfitted with a motor that provides a boost, also called pedal assist. Think of it as regular cycling with a power-up, like a video game. That extra electric push can be a huge benefit when trying to surmount hilly terrain, haul goods, or go long distances (it’s a godsend when, say, biking over one of the bridges in New York City).
Electric bikes aren’t new, but they’ve gained popularity in the last decade as technology has improved and consumers have become more open to convenient, car-free urban transportation options. Between 2014 and 2018, electric bike sales have grown eightfold, per research by the NPD Group, though they’re still a sliver of the roughly $5.9 billion U.S. bike market. Like standard pedal bikes, they can be outfitted in numerous ways, with racks for hauling or larger tires for off-roading or rough terrain.
What are the advantages of e-bikes?
Electric bikes offer extended range and ease of use, which allow riders to commute without arriving at work sweaty, haul heavier goods, use bikes for more errands, and take larger trips. They also make it easier for older riders and those with disabilities to access cycling. All of these advantages were confirmed by a 2018 study by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities, which surveyed 1,800 e-bike riders who said battery-powered biking helped them take longer and more varied trips.
According to Pam Mandel, a 56-year-old freelance writer and self-described “hardcore cyclist” based in Seattle, as she got older, her knees and back started to hurt after long rides on her conventional bike, especially across her city’s hilly terrain. That changed when she bought her first electric bike five years ago.
“I sometimes miss my commuter bike, but while it was fun, it was just a slog,” she says. “The hills were sucking the fun out of it for me.”
The appeal of electric bikes was instantaneous. “As soon as you ride one, that’s what you want to do,” she says. “They lower the bar to entry for cycling, period.”
Nicholas Adams, a 40-year-old accountant for the University of Michigan who lives in Ann Arbor, felt the same way. When his family bought a new home in 2013 that was four-and-a-half miles from his office, a trip that included a particularly steep hill, he felt that it was “ludicrous” to pay for parking and sit in traffic in his car during rush hour. Once he tried an electric bike, it clicked. He sold his family’s second car a few months after first riding an e-bike, and says he now looks forward to spending an hour on the bike, riding back roads and getting fresh air.
“The fact that the change was so immediate was a reflection of how much better the experience was,” he says. “It immediately flipped a switch. This was way better.”
How can an electric bike change my commute?
In short, it can be revelatory. Mandel says using electric bikes to get to and from regular appointments around Seattle has given her something she never had while driving a car: a sense of certainty. She used to ride to a neighborhood called South Lake Union, an 8-mile trip that would take up to an hour and a half each way if she was stuck in rush hour traffic. With her electric bike, it was always 45 minutes, no matter what.
“I could schedule accordingly,” she says. “That made a huge difference in my attitude and commute.”
Adams says he’s using his electric bike for rides to work, errands, and going out with friends, even during cold Michigan winters. A combination of snow tires and weather-appropriate gear, such as rain pants and insulated jackets, allows him to tackle conditions that “would have seemed impossible” otherwise.
Are electric bikes more dangerous, since they go faster than regular bikes?
That’s not an off-base assumption, considering electric bikes are also heavier than traditional bikes. But most riders—including Curbed’s Alissa Walker, who has ridden an electric bike in LA—say they feel much safer.
Mandel said that riding electric bikes was much safer than normal bikes, because they have better acceleration, and the higher speeds mean it’s easier to keep up with car traffic on most roads.
However, she cautions that first-time riders—especially those who don’t have experience riding traditional bikes on city streets—should spend some time learning about safe riding, through a class or otherwise, to get a better sense of the rules of the road.
That extra boost of speed and safety can also be a boost to confidence, enough to perhaps bring more people around to the idea of bike commutes. Walker cited a 2006 study by Portland, Oregon’s bicycle coordinator Roger Geller that categorized adults into four groups when it came to biking in the city: “Strong and Fearless,” “Enthused and Confident,” “Interested but Concerned,” and “No Way, No How.” The vast majority, roughly 50 to 60 percent, fell into the “Interested but Concerned” category. Perhaps, Walker suggests, electric bikes can convince this group to try cycling.
What should I consider when buying an e-bike, and what model should I get?
Those in the market for electric bikes should try out a variety of models and styles, since there are many variations in both power and speed. For instance, in the U.S., there are three classes of electric bikes, all with different means of acceleration and top speeds: Class 1 is pedal-assist without a throttle (you can’t accelerate with a handlebar control); Class 2 has a throttle assist and tops out at 20 mph; while Class 3, which also has no throttle, can get up to 28 mph.
Potential buyers should give serious thought to how they’ll store their bikes, especially in inclement weather, since e-bikes can weigh 50-60 pounds, and can’t be carted up a few flights of stairs like a standard road bike.
There are many online resources for figuring out which electric bike model is right for you, including an excellent buying guide from The Verge that goes step-by-step through every consideration for a new bike, as well as an extensive review database at ElectricBikeReview.com.
Will “regular” cyclists tell me I’m cheating by riding an electric bike?
It happens, but so what? Mandel says that she has occasionally gotten comments and looks from other riders while sharing a bike lane in Seattle, and has even been told she’s “cheating,” which inspired her to write about her electric bike experience. But she brushes it off.
“So you want me to take my car next time?” she says. “Having an electric bike vastly eliminates the number of car trips I take. I live on the top of a big hill, and the grocery store is at the bottom. I simply couldn’t pedal up the hill with groceries without an electric bike.”
Do electric bikes really help the environment?
There’s no getting around the fact that electric bikes require energy, which typically isn’t generated by 100 percent renewable sources. So a single electric bike trip is less sustainable than a conventional bike trip.
But e-bikes make a huge difference when they replace car trips. The most recent National Household Travel Survey found that 35 percent of car trips in the U.S. are two miles or shorter. If a substantial number of those trips, especially shopping errands that might require hauling some heavy items or bags of groceries, can be replaced with trips on an electric bike, the emissions savings would be massive (not to mention the reduction in traffic and congestion).
What’s different about owning an electric bike versus a standard bike?
In addition to having to regularly charge a battery, Mandel says she focuses a bit more on maintenance with her electric bike. It’s not only heavier, which puts more pressure on the tires, but has a lot more electric parts and a motor she can’t repair as easily.
I can get a tax rebate for my electric car. How about my electric bike?
While electric bikes can play a huge role in getting drivers out of fossil fuel-powered cars and onto more sustainable electric transportation, there aren’t the same types of incentives out there for cyclists. According to Ken McLeod, while there aren’t any benefits from the federal government for e-bikes, many states are starting to consider them. Bicycle advocates in California have pushed for them, but haven’t been successful so far.
But even without a rebate, it’s worth doing the math and comparing car and e-bike ownership, says Adams. Electric bikes can seem like a big upfront investment, with many models ranging between $1,000 to $2,000, but compared to fuel, maintenance, and other costs associated with owning a car, they can save owners quite a bit.
“We sort of take car ownership for granted in our culture,” Adams adds. “But when you really start digging into how much money you’re spending on driving, electric bikes start to look very cheap by comparison.”
How can cities make life easier for e-bike riders?
Recently, many cities have added electric options to their bike share systems to give users more choices and allow those unfamiliar with e-bikes a chance to test them out. Fillin-Yeh says while there’s no question cities need to add more protected bike lanes to encourage cyclists and make trips easier and safer, there’s currently some discussion about whether these protected lanes need to be separated based on vehicle speed.
“Street design really shapes behavior,” says Fillin. “Giving people a safe place to ride can make all the difference.“
She advocates for cities to legalize and promote electric bikes as great options for reducing congestion. Cities can buy more electric bikes for city workers and encourage delivery companies to supplement their fleets with electric bikes.
“We’re focused on getting people to understand the purchasing power of cities,” she says. “There is lots of demand for curbside usage for deliveries, so incentivizing e-bikes for those kind of trips can make a big difference.”