The rise of the e-bike
July 02, 2014
by Rachel Walker
I surged up the final hill on my bike commute home. Buoyed by momentum and speed, I imagined myself kitted out, taking the lead in front of a cheering crowd…when out of nowhere, a bike that looked more cruiser than aerodynamic zoomed past as if I were standing still. There went my fantasy. Adding insult to injury, the bike’s pilot looked at least three decades older than me. She was perched upright, her helmet cocked loosely over her forehead, and she had the nerve to wave as she dusted me.
Initially my ego withered and all the oomph in my legs gave way to lead-like defeat. But as I scrutinized the combo as it gained distance ahead, I noticed the oversized hub and the rather large battery pack mounted to the frame.
I smiled in relief. I had not been overtaken by a mere mortal, but by a mere mortal riding what’s fast becoming the newest trend on two wheels: an electric bike, otherwise known as an “e-bike.”
While they may seem as if they sprung straight from an episode of The Jetsons, the technology behind e-bikes dates back to the early 1900s. Seems that turn of the century cyclists saw value in integrating a motor with traditional bicycle mechanics to give riders an extra boost.
These days, e-bikes are booming in popularity in Europe and China where they’re revered for their low impact on the environment. According to ZIV, a German industry organization, e-bike sales represented 10 percent of all bike sales at the close of 2012, a 15 percent rise over 2011 numbers. Because the motors used in e-bikes are electric and not internal combustion, these contraptions don’t emit any carbon dioxide directly (the source of their electricity, however, has an environmental impact, albeit one drastically smaller than a motorcycle or moped engine).
In China there are upwards of 120 million bikes on the country’s roads, up from a few thousand in the 1990s, according to the New York Times. Chinese e-bike exports, along with global interest in the phenomenon has contributed to the creation of a modern-day $11 billion e-bike industry.
United States of Electronic Bikes?
According to Smithsonian, the United States lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to e-bikes. In 2012, roughly 25 million e-bikes were sold in China while fewer than 100,000 were sold in the U.S. Does that mean the bikes won’t catch on here?
Decidedly not, says a report from Pike Research, which predicts that U.S. e-bike sales could climb to 350,000 in 2018. Still, that’s a fraction of the projected global sales, where China is predicted to be the industry leader, followed by India, Europe and Japan.
Why the dearth of electronic assisted pedaling on this side of the pond?
For one, the bikes are pricey, ranging from $1,000 for base models to upwards of $5,000. For another, they’re bulky and heavy (not that it matters if you’ve got a motorized boost on the hills). But perhaps the biggest impediment is the psychology behind e-bikes. The American ethos of hard work and independent striving can be discordant with the convenience of an e-bike.
On the rise
Still, e-bikes are on the rise stateside, particularly in San Francisco, where Blazing Saddles offers e-bike rentals and tours across the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition, some traditional mountain biking manufacturers, such as Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher, have ventured into the world of city bikes by releasing e-bike models, lending some traditional industry credence to the world of e-bikes. And, anecdotally, people around the country are reporting seeing more e-bikes than ever before. That may be in part to Currie Technologies, a California based company and PeopleForBikes member, who has been selling e-bikes in the U.S. since 1997.
Which brings me back to my commute. I live in Boulder, CO, on top of a hill at the base of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Not only do I bike to and from work, I cart around my kids on errands on our three-person cargo bike. I, for one, could use an assist. The only reason I haven’t yet test-ridden an e-bike is because my budget (and my garage) doesn’t have room for another ride.
Still, after the first time I got passed by an e-bike, I started taking note and realized that there are a lot of e-bikes in Boulder. No, I don’t have firm numbers. But Google “e-bike Boulder” and 2 million results pop up— links to retailers, mechanics, blogs, and more.
That’s impressive, particularly in a place as
snobby informed about bicycling as Boulder. Which makes me think that the hype about e-bikes is true. They are part of the future. And, apparently, the future is now.
PeopleForBikes President Tim Blumenthal on a leisurely e-bike ride.