Photo by Aaron Lutsch
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.