E-Bikes: The Future of City Travel

Will electric-assist attract more people to bikes?

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My wife and I discovered electric bicycles several years ago as a way to help our environment and find a new way to make our 20-mile (32 km) round-trip commutes in San Diego, CA. We had looked into electric cars and even considered doing our own conversion, but we had decided the technology and costs were not for us.

Now, as seasoned electric bike riders, it is a pleasure to know that we have met that goal and enjoy the boost of power the motor adds to our rides. It is also fun to field the questions I get from passers-by and other bike riders. Most people don’t take a second (or first) look, but many are eager to find out about how the bikes work, where to get them and how they ride. The inexpensive models my wife and I bought are heavy and don’t offer a great deal of speed, but they are comfortable and have fairly strong hill-climbing abilities. Especially considering the low initial investment we made, we find that they have paid for themselves many times over.

An Old Idea Made New

Since the introduction of the first bicycle, inventors have been working out how to add an electric kick to their rides. While the first electric bicycles were developed in the 1890s, it wasn’t until a century later that advances in technology gave us the e-bikes we know today. Many of the electric bicycles available now look a lot like regular bicycles; you probably see them every day. Affordable technology and increasingly familiar styles are taking hold in the growing electric bicycle industry, which promises to make biking more fun and convenient.

The promises of convenience and fun are what electric bicycle manufacturers are pushing to appeal to new riders. For those who see a rise in the road as something that sucks the fun out of their journey and for daily commuters who want a little help so they arrive fresh, revived and ready for their day, electric bikes may be the answer. Riders with health and strength issues might enjoy the benefits even more.

By adding a motor and battery to a bike, riders are able to both pedal and receive a boost, giving us what most people call electric-assist bicycles, or more commonly, e-bikes. The other designation often given is “pedelec,” although this refers to an e-bike that will only provide electric assistance while the rider is pedaling. These are used and sold throughout the European Union where only this type of e-bike is legal. Here in North America, where e-bike laws allow the use of a dual-control power system, e-bike motors can be activated by pedaling or through the use of a hand-controlled throttle or both.

A Growing Global Market

In the US, the federal government has given e-bikes the same legal designation as regular bikes in almost every way, with the exception that the electric-assist on its own cannot reach speeds higher than 20 mph (32 km/h) and that motors produce no more than 750 watts. Some states and municipalities also have additional requirements or restrictions, so it is important to know what is legal in your area. My state, California, follows the federal guidelines and has just a few additional requirements and restrictions for e-bikes and their riders. Here, helmet use is mandatory and riders must be 16 or older. Throughout Canada the law is similar, with motors restricted to 500 watts or less.

Many of the e-bikes on the market are a product of China. Much of that country’s personal transportation system is taking the form of an estimated 120 million e-bikes, although many of these are electric scooters without a pedal-assist option.

Some of the most efficient e-bikes come from and are designed for the European crowd. Part of the reason that these models are so efficient with their use of power is that you must supplement the motor with your own leg power. By “efficient” I am referring to the range in distance you can expect a fully charged battery to take you. Most e-bikes are rated at a 20–35 mile (32–56 km) capability. As you become more familiar with e-bikes, you will find that, after price, range is the feature most often asked about. Often it’s the hardest question to answer, since many factors have an effect on the range of an electric-assist bike.

If you use the power assist with your hand on the throttle with no pedaling while climbing a grade, your battery will deplete very quickly. And of course, if you do just the opposite, using the electric assist only when you need it, the range will climb in leaps and bounds. In addition to the terrain and the amount of power you use, the combined weight of the bike, rider and cargo also affect range. It is important to consider these factors as well as the battery and motor ratings to help determine the range of any e-bike.

Here in North America, e-bikes continue to gain footing, but the numbers pale in comparison to Europe and Asia. Still, word of the convenience and fun of e-bikes is spreading. We are at a time now where a large variety of trouble-free, lightweight electric bikes are available to every type of cyclist. And as the trends show, many e-bike converts are actually riders who only recently considered cycling as an option for their travel and recreational needs.

“There is no single market here that has the most growth,” said Justin Lemire-Elmore, founder of ebikes.ca and Grin Technologies Ltd. “Electric bikes appeal to older folks who have physical limitations; they appeal to young families for lifestyle reasons; they appeal to hot-rodders for thrill-seeking reasons. They appeal to cycle commuters looking to save time, to obese people looking to lose weight, to drivers sick of the hassle of car ownership, and to those who want but simply can’t afford a car.”

A recent improvement to the e-bike market has been big bike companies like Trek and Electra adding electric models to their line-ups. In the past, firms that made just one or two models would spring up and then disappear. Now we see lines with many options from brands like longtime e-bike maker Currie Technologies.

More Choices, More Power

Many modern e-bikes use powerful, lightweight and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are safer, stronger and lighter than previous battery types. Each unit will have a different charge time, based on its capacity. Follow the recommendations of the manufacturer to make sure your battery performs correctly, and it should last approximately the advertised three to five years with regular use.

Most e-bike motors have a hub motor integrated into the rear or front wheel of the bike. Some of the more expensive e-bikes use a mid-drive setup and have a frame specially built to accommodate the motor in an oversized bottom bracket. The motors are listed in different watt ratings with 250–500 watts being the most common. More powerful motors provide increased power and climbing ability, but in exchange they use up the battery’s energy at a greater rate.

The growing international and American market has meant the introduction of higher-quality e-bikes at a wide range of prices. Most high-quality models will cost between $2000 and $3500.

In addition to the electric-assist motor many e-bikes are equipped with lighting systems, fenders, racks for panniers and cycle computers. Today’s e-bike manufacturers offer cruisers, commuters and a growing line of sport models. If you want to carry more, groceries and children for example, electric-assist options are available on cargo bikes from Trek, Yuba and Xtracycle, among others.

You can also buy a conversion kit to make your own e-bike. Whether you’re purchasing a complete e-bike or a conversion kit, keep in mind that you usually get what you pay for. In other words, a better quality and more powerful e-bike is going to cost more than one that might be underpowered and troublesome.

Everyone wants to know how much my e-bike weighs. Generally, e-bikes weigh in at 45–60 pounds (20–27 kg). For some people, that’s a lot of bike to pedal if your battery goes dead during a ride. Since each model of e-bike feels different when used without the power assist, it is worth getting to know how comfortable you are pedaling it around without the power before you make a purchase. Then again, my vintage single-speed beach cruiser weighs more than most e-bikes, and I still ride it a lot.

Although some additional weight is involved, many e-bikes ride and feel like everyday bicycles. You have the option of leaving the power off as you ride or using as much push from the motor as you feel necessary. You will find on an e-bike that even though you aren’t required to pedal, it is natural to spin them as you go. As most e-bike motors are close to silent, only you know when it’s helping you on your way.

As far as maintenance goes, the bike itself needs the same type of service as any regular bicycle, including lubing the chain, putting air in the tires, fixing flats, and brake and gear adjustments. The actual power system should be close to maintenance-free, but if you do have trouble, it is important to note that many bike shops might be unwilling or unable to service your e-bike. “You should absolutely make sure that the shop has some track history and knowledgeable technicians and repair space,” suggested Lemire-Elmore. “While the expensive bikes are (and should be) more reliable, they often use proprietary technologies, which makes them much harder to service or maintain after warranty than the cheaper more generic units.” Before you buy an e-bike online, look for local options. Buying from a local store might be better in the long run because they can handle your service needs.

A Complement to Any Lifestyle

For Steve Shultz, his e-bike has become a perfect complement to his lifestyle. As the owner of a hybrid car and a few vintage motor scooters and mopeds, he likes the quiet, clean ease of an e-bike. The commute to his job at the local airport and the many activities he participates in all seem to mesh with his e-bike. Shultz cited “no parking hassles” as just one of the benefits, and he also enjoys bypassing the gas stations on his folding e-bike. He craves the freedom and clean air you get with cycling.

Although expense isn’t one of Shultz’s main considerations, a smile came to his face as he explained that to recharge his e-bike after a long ride costs less that fives cents. The folding ability of his particular e-bike means that he can use it to get around town and for commuting, but it will just as easily fit into the trunk of his car for adventures further away. Shultz said that since hopping on his e-bike, his fuel-powered vehicles seem to spend more time at home as his e-bike takes over their duties. Shultz’s story is just one of so many that I hear and read every day. Whether it’s for economic or environmental reasons or simply a way to get outside more, e-bikes can make a big difference in just about anyone’s life.

While many firms offer off-the-shelf e-bikes and conversion kits, there is a third option for those who want to add an extra boost to their current ride.  Colorado-based Ridekick makes an electric-assist trailer. With one simple attachment to the axle of the rear wheel and a throttle controller that straps to your bike, you get an electric push when you need it and the option to leave it at home when you don’t.

Recently, I organized and hosted a seminar in my hometown to help introduce e-bikes to people who were curious about the technology. After my hour and a half talk, some 80 people had a chance to test out any of the 30 e-bikes brought in by local shops and e-bike companies. There were so many positive comments that I intend to run seminars twice a year. To me, this is one more confirmation that people want information on e-bikes but may not yet know how to fit them into their lives and what their choices are.

Still a growing industry, e-bikes are attracting a lot of attention and providing a new experience for people who may never have considered biking as viable transportation. I’m hopeful that this growth means we’ll see quality and durability only get better. “Bicycles have traditionally been built to last for generations,” Lemire-Elmore told Momentum Mag. “I hope to see electrics able to carry in that vein too.”


Turbo Bob, a SoCal native, is a lifelong mechanic. His youth included bikes, kit-built hi-fi equipment and countless Rube Goldberg-type creations. Nicknamed by his friends, Turbo Bob has had a varied career path that includes being an aircraft electrical mechanic in the 82nd Airborne, a BMW specialist, and more recently a sewing machine technician. His bike blog draws a worldwide audience turbobobbicycleblog.wordpress.com

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