E-Bikes: Boom or Bust in North America

Will we see an e-bike boom in the near future?

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Will we see an e-bike boom in the near future?

There are currently too many barriers to entry and there is too much resistance from the general public for e-bikes to truly impact our transportation choices. A lot of manufacturers have yet to offer reliable, functional and practical e-bikes for transportation. The bike industry and shops are reluctant to spend the time and money required to develop this market. And current laws have flooded the market with lumbering electric scooters that should not be classified as electric-assist bicycles resulting in bans from some bikeways.

Do we want e-bikes to rise in popularity?

In a word, yes. Since many e-bike purchasers are not regular riders, e-bikes can be enabling tools that get more of the general population relying less on cars. E-bikes help make longer distances feel shorter, make hills less of a barrier, attract older people who may lack the strength and stamina to ride a regular bike and aid those carrying heavy loads. E-bikes used for transportation allow you to always dress for the destination and arrive refreshed and ready to go, no matter the distance or terrain.

How do we get more people interested in e-bikes?

We must raise awareness and understanding of e-bikes and their use. North America is attempting to regulate e-bikes with prohibitive laws before understanding what the product is and how it works. Excluding electric-assist bikes from bike lanes and paths can be compared to limiting wheelchair access as it denies access to personal mobility.

We need to accept e-bikes as part of our modern transportation system. Current attitudes marginalize and exclude e-bikes from important transportation discussions. E-bikes can be instrumental for introducing sustainable transportation options in hilly or spread out areas. We need to focus on these benefits and accept a potentially new ally in the push for a less car-dependent population.

We must separate electric-assist bicycles from scooters. Heavy electric scooters that are impossible to pedal should not be labeled as electric-assist bicycles. Establishing these differences can help the general population and lawmakers decide on efficient ways to regulate these distinct vehicles.

We need increased availability. E-bikes can attract new customers to bike shops that are willing to learn how to service, sell and embrace this market. A growing number of e-bike specific stores are opening while traditional bike stores are recognizing that higher price tags can yield greater margins, but more are needed.

Manufacturers must improve quality. A small North American market and a broad range of available e-bikes with greatly varying quality means consumers have to be extra savvy about their purchases. Since many shops may carry just one e-bike, making an informed choice can be difficult for consumers. For e-bikes to become an attractive transportation choice for North Americans, manufacturers need to focus on improving carrying capacity and allow the use of traditional baskets and panniers. In addition, front and rear lights on all models should be a requirement, not an accessory.

We encourage you to learn more about e-bikes and take one for a spin. When you do, pay attention to how easy (or difficult) it is to start from a stop. Some e-bikes give you a push right away while others require you to pedal hard to get going. And before you make a purchase read the instruction manual! Battery life, battery storage and how you use the motor can vary greatly and misuse can result in shorter battery life or extreme inefficiencies while riding.

E-bikes are a welcome, viable, fun and important transportation option. While their power remains untapped in North America, we hope to see manufacturers, shops and lawmakers embrace their benefits and increase the acceptance of their use. Go to your local bike shop and ask to test an e-bike today.

Mia Kohout & Tania Lo – Publishers, Momentum Mag


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7 Comments

  • Chris Keam

    Great article. So much to think about still, but hard not to see e-bikes as having real potential to leapfrog cycle commuting out of the distance problem, by making suburbs that are 20 or 30 km away from central business districts close enough to cycle, when electric assist is used.

  • orillia3

    You on the one hand, advocate removing restrictions, and on the other want to add them by making sure they look like bicycles. If they are the same width, same length, same speed and same power as a bicycle, what does it matter what it looks like. Besides the scooter styled ebikes are more practical for shopping, going to work in a suit or dress, are more comfortable to ride, and are actually more safe and stable. I myself have health problems that make sitting on a bicycle painful, but can sit in comfort on a scooter styled ebike. Your attitude would take that choice away from me. Electification of bicycle development is in its infancy, to freeze their design now for all time is short sighted. Think of electrified telephones having to look like rotary dial phones (yes I am referring to cell phones). Think of electrified typewriters being restricted to look like manual typewriters (yes they did for awhile, but have advanced into computers). Setting the power and speed limitations are all that is really needed and let the designers and consumers decide what they want. Maybe in another hundred years of development we will look back on the triangular safety manual bicycle design we have the same way we look at the Penny-farthing bikes of the last century.

    There are no studies or statistics to show scooter-styled ebikes are any more or less dangerous than regular styled ebikes, or even regular bicycles, either to themselves, pedestrians, or other bicycle riders. This is usually the ruse that cyclists use to remove ebikes from their bike lanes and trails because ebikes threaten the cyclists traditional privileged position, not from any real safety concerns.

    • sue

      wow, you need to lighten up on life, i think those of us looking into thgis are smarter than you credit us for!!!

  • Khal Spencer

    This industry is, at least in the U.S., still in its youth, if not infancy. E-bikes could not make it past the laugh test prior to the invention and development of modern, reliable, lightweight and high performance batteries and electric motors. The e-bicycle industry must mature this technology with better integrated designs that are attractive enough to get people out of their cars; given the low cost of gasoline and car-centric culture of the US, that is a daunting task. At present, even the “lightest” of these bikes is ponderous by any measure compared to a normal human powered bike of equal cost, meaning that in any but dead flat locations, one will indeed be dependent on the electric power a lot. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, although the physical fitness benefits of cycling will be largely missing.

    Second, you intend the market of the e-bike to be for potential, not current riders, as an alternative to the car. While the exchange of a car for an electric bicycle is laudable in terms of its drastically reduced carbon footprint and storage space requirements in the built environment, an e-bike is still a bicycle, subject to all the forces of gravity, friction, and momentum and completely lacking in air bags and crumple zones. New riders riding a bike that can reach high bicycle speeds (15-20 mph) with little or no training in bike handling nor any bicycling experience will be at elevated risk until they master the new vehicle. So will the rest of us sharing facilities with them. Please ensure that your efforts to encourage e-bike use for non-cyclists is matched by an effort to make sure these folks learn some basic bike handling skills and bike law. Especially if, as you say, they will be riding in hilly areas capable of pushing that bike to high downhill speeds. There are enough bikes collecting dust in garages now, put there after naive riders took a bad spill.

    Finally, while you criticize government regulation for hindering development, we must be sure that e-bikes, especially those intended for use on bicycle facilities, look and act more like bicycles instead of electric mopeds; designs and regulation should be standardized enough to allow a manufacturer to sell in all fifty states. Designs, if intended to be used on bicycling facilities, should not put human powered bicycling at risk. Again, since these will be intended for general purpose transportation, some concerns must be given for providing Federally-standardized safety features such as speed limiters, brakes, lighting and even perhaps fenders to keep crud off of their lighting surfaces. Currently, the laws regulating safety equipment on bicycles are designed for the bicycle as a toy, for example, the CPSC mandated all reflector rule. The resulting crazy quilt of bicycling equipment leads to cyclists taking senseless risks with their lives when riding at night or in inclement weather.

    As a longtime utilitarian as well as sport cyclist (I started riding to work in 1978 and only later started riding for endurance and sport), I welcome this new development and hope for better, lighter designs as the technology matures.

  • Bruce

    Ramon, you bring up some good points. I have a couple of follow-up thoughts.

    1. E-bikes would be good beyond just hilly areas. As the authors mention, there are people out there who don’t bike because it’s just a little too far/hard/sweaty to ride to work/store/etc. E-bikes could potentially increase the pool of riders willing to bike regularly, and any increase in visible cyclists on the road helps to grow the idea of bicycling as transportation in the mind of the general public. It might be nice to see some e-bikes added to the bike-share fleets sprouting up around North America.

    2. I’ve seen e-bikes in Europe that have no throttle. They are 100% pedal-assist. The harder you pedal, the more power they give you. This prevents using them like an electric scooter.

  • Ramon

    Problems:
    (1) e-Bikes desperately need special legal definition and regularity between states and municipalities. Currently, it’s all over the place.
    (2) Steel and aluminum bikes are almost 100% (by weight) recyclable. e-Bikes require battery pollution and the energy required to charge the e-bike comes with varying pollution issues.
    (3) e-Bikes are extremely expensive by comparison to normal bikes.
    (4) e-Bikes do not provide the beneficial calorie burning that normal bikes do.

    The only thing e-bikes are good for is helping people who live in hilly areas. Those areas need to be the bastions of e-bike marketing investment.

    Suggestion: Develop the e-bike drive so that one must be pedaling to receive power. Otherwise, it’s easily arguable as a scooter and thus can be argued to be a motor vehicle.

  • Ken

    I would buy an ebike for commuting if they were cheaper. In other countries, almost all ebikes cost under $500. In the US, prices are 3 times that. A recent news report said that commuter bikes last on average 2 years before they get stolen. I will never use an expensive bike for commuting.

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