Will America ever love electric bikes?

Most bikers scoff at them, but as the U.S. population ages and gas prices rise, expect to see more bikes running on batteries

Look for more people riding on battery power.
Look for more people riding on battery power. Photo courtesy of Busetti

The United States and China are different in so many ways. We borrow, they lend. We like to fly solo, they value their roles in larger groups. We follow the exploits of people named Snooki, they do not know the depths of Snookiness.

Then there are electric bikes. China loves them, America, not so much. Actually, hardly at all.

Let’s run the numbers: Last year, about 25 million e-bikes were sold in China; in the U.S. the number was under 100,000. According to Pike Research, U.S. sales might climb over 100,000 this year and could reach as high as 350,000 in 2018. But that would still be a sliver of projected global sales in 2018, just under 50 million. And it would not only be dwarfed by the market in China–which will still account for almost 90 percent of worldwide sales–but also will fall well below e-bike purchases in India, Europe and Japan.

So why have e-bikes been in such tepid demand here? After all, they run on a battery inside the frame, which has a range of roughly 30 miles on a full charge. They’re very clean–no gas combusted–amazingly efficient, and can go almost as fast as a moped, up to 20 miles per hour. And they can flatten hills that make grown men weep. Or as Steve Roseman, founder of the San Francisco—based Electric Bike Network, told Outside magazine, it’s like “a fairy godmother tapped you on the shoulder and made you twice as strong.”

Okay, there is the price. A good electric bike can start at $1,000, about three times the cost of a quality bicycle; some models, such as the ones now being used by the Los Angeles Police Department, can cost as much as $5,000.

But it’s more than that. A bigger problem is that the people most likely to use electric bikes in the U.S. don’t much like them. In fact, ask most cyclists what they think of e-bikes and they’ll tell you they consider them just one notch above Segways on the sloth meter. A bike with a battery? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t the whole point to pedal?

Plug and play

Well, yes and no. In China, particularly, electric bikes are a cheap way to get to work. Fitness is not a big part of the equation. You can pedal, but most Chinese don’t. The sensation has been described as something like gliding on a moving walkway at the airport.

Even outside China, e-bikes are coasting closer to the mainstream. Last fall Hertz started renting e-bikes in London. Also in the U.K., the first Electric Bike World Championship–appropriately an uphill race–will be held in Bristol this June. In Amsterdam, where pedaling to work is as routine as morning coffee, almost one out of every five bikes sold last year were battery-powered.

There are trends that could turn things around in the U.S. The obvious one is rising gas prices. Every time they flirt with $4 a gallon, electric bike sales in the U.S. bump up. If they hit $5, the bump could become a boom. There’s also the matter of aging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who like to ride bikes, but no longer yearn to feel the burn. For them, it’s glide time. In fact, that’s a big part of the e-bike business in Europe.

While fewer than 2 percent of Americans bicycle daily, there’s no question that the number of people biking to work in U.S. cities increases every year. And as the packs of bikers grow in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where the hills are beyond brutal, expect a lot more of them to avoid the heavy pedaling and go electric.

An update: Since posting this piece, among the responses I’ve received was an email from
Boris Mordkovich, a greentech entrepreneur from New York who’s in the middle of a cross-country odyssey to promote e-bikes in the U.S. He emailed from Milwaukee a note including the following comment:

“You’ve mentioned that a big problem in the U.S. is that most of the people who are likely to use them don’t like them. It’s actually not entirely the case. Most of the people in the U.S. either aren’t familiar with electric bikes or have misconceptions about them, confusing them with scooters, motorcycles and everything in between. As long as that’s the case, they fail to see the benefits in them. However, as soon as they are explained what an electric bike is and how it actually works, or better yet, take their first ride on it, the perception changes drastically.”

Batteries not included

Of course, a lot of cool things are still happening with non-electric bikes. Here are a few of the latest innovations:

  • A light touch: There’s no shortage of ideas for making bikers visible at night, but one of the more ingenious ones is GLOBARS, in which plastic tubing containing LED lights is wrapped into the handlebars.
  • Glow with the flow: A bike called The Pulse provides an even more stylish way to keep urban bikers safe. The middle of the frame is coated with photo-luminescent powder to make it glow in the dark.
  • Can a bike ever be too thin?: The aptly named ThinBike is designed for the urban biker with zero storage space. It features collapsible pedals and handlebars that can be twisted without moving the front tire, allowing the bike to shrink from 21 inches to six inches wide.
  • I’m pickin’ up wood vibrations: Okay, this isn’t for everyone, but it sure looks like one sweet ride. It’s a bike handcrafted from ash wood in Spain that demands that you don’t dare wear sweat pants when you climb aboard. Or if your taste in wood runs more tropical, check out the creation of designer Craig Calfee, who has built a bike of bamboo, right down to the spokes.

Video bonus: How could electric bikes not be mainstream if Jay Leno has one? Watch him take it out for a spin.

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