E-Bikers Gaining Ground in North America

What do a piano teacher, a delivery guy and trendy Dutch cyclists have in common? They’re adopting electric bicycles, the new face of commuting.

Written by:

By Charlie Richman

Photos by Ashley Fisher, Ben Johnson, Jun Nogami & Sue Anne Tay

Debbie Fortier, a piano teacher, zigzags across Manhattan to make her after-school tutoring appointments. With her regular bike, she “really used to regret that some of my students lived at the top of steep hills.” Now her BionX electric-assist bicycle, or e-assist, helps her arrive fresh. In summer, she heads to the carriage trails in Maine’s Acadia National Park. “I just keep thinking that more people should have these things,” she exclaims. “It would get more people out to enjoy nature!”

Heng Liew also cares about fresh. He’s a restaurant delivery guy from Malaysia, one of the many in New York who rely on e-bikes. Ask him why and he marvels at the foolish question. “It’s much faster!” His team has three BionX-equipped bikes delivering mostly Italian food and barbecue. “All the Chinese restaurants use them,” he said. “They buy cheap ones from China.”

Electric cyclists may be trendsetters, but they’re not always easy to find. They often go solo, using the boost from their e-bikes for practical everyday purposes and for fun. Many of them are among an increasingly expanding group of cyclists with a different approach to getting around.

The future of urban commuting could look a lot like Gerome Spinner. He has a 14-mile (22.5 kilometer) commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He ditched his car and is on his second e-bike, a Trek FX+. He’s neither a kid nor an athlete, and the grade on the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River used to wear him out. Now he only gets noticed because he doesn’t slow down much on the long climb. His electric motor-equipped bike also gives him the power to pedal through winter headwinds when most other cyclists shy away.

Florida retirees may glide around gated communities on these light electric vehicles. Not so Ann Ellis, a retiree who rides forest trails near her Montana home west of Glacier National Park. She appreciates her Currie e-assist as she scouts fallen trees in the mountains. (She returns later with her truck to cut the wood to heat her home.) She doesn’t see other e-bikers day to day, though neighbors feel the gas price pinch and are intrigued.

Ellis and other e-bikers find community at local e-bike specialty shops. Since e-cycling is still a tiny niche in North America, the online environment provides another essential meeting place at websites such as endless-sphere.com, visforvoltage.org and bikeforums.net (I recently started ElectricCyclist.com specifically for electric cyclists).

NYCeWheels has long been a resource in Manhattan and on the web, but newer shops, such as Philly Electric Wheels (PHEW), can have a strong community focus. Afshin Kaighobady opened PHEW in October 2009, selling affordable “pedal-assist” electric bikes (requires pedaling to engage the electric motor), as well as throttle-control models (no pedaling required) to his Mount Airy neighbors. “One woman works second and third shifts in a factory and had to take two or three buses to get home before her e-bike. Another, a heavy-set African-American woman, has two: one for herself, and one for friends.”

E-bikers also get together for group rides. In Vancouver, BC, Steven Luscher organizes regular monthly “Kilowatt Hour” rides (find them online at meetup.com). “Fascinating bunch of guys. And one gal. Usually,” says Barry Shell. Another ride is the “Southern California e-bike ride” where Lino Sacman and like-minded souls get together. Some of the regulars are “pretty hard core,” says Lino, but newcomers join them too.

How has the world of e-bikes been changing? Before 2007, e-bikers were typically male, 45 or older, and they bought e-bikes as toys, says industry consultant Ed Benjamin. Since then, high gas prices, environmental sensitivities and broader e-bike distribution have put more e-bikes on North American roads and helped build a more diverse community. This trend can be seen in Holland, where more than a quarter of new bicycles are now e-bikes.

Today, e-bikes are sold in specialty shops, regular bike shops and big-box stores. It’s not yet clear which will win out. Want it cheap? Try Walmart, Best Buy or the Internet. Need repairs? It’s good to be near Afshin. As technologies improve, populations age and economic and environmental forces become clearer, the electric cycling community will continue to grow.

Further reading: E-volution: The Age of the Electric Bike, by Justin Lemire-Elmore.

13 Comments

  • Angie Windrem

    We need to embrace change and not put up road blocks. I ride an e-bike almost everyday including most winter days, this is something I would not have dreamed of with my regular bike. It has become my primary mode of transportation. I also want to make note too that on many occasion I am passed by high-end road bikes going much faster than I can at full throttle. Please do not be disillusioned that there is no exercise involved either, there is typically several levels of assist to use on your e-bike. It is your choice of how much or how little you want to work (very similar to a exercise equipment in the gym) What this means for me is getting on my bike everyday & not being intimidated by large hills, headwinds, extra cargo, or the need to arrive fresh. We are not motorcycles or mopeds and have no way of reaching those speeds or more importantly releasing those kinds of emisions, so riding in car traffic can be just as crazy for us and we appreciate the calm & convience of the bike trails as much as any other rider. E-bikes make it possible for many people who before had no way of enjoying any kind of meaningful cycling or like myself who only enjoyed riding when the conditions where perfect. I rarely use a car anymore. In today’s world of climate change I encourage everyone to Please not stand in the way of new technology that is getting people out of their cars and onto bikes. Also please stop being so critical of people who for what ever reason require or prefer an assist (we all need a little assistance in life from time to time) I also ask that we e-bikers(the majority) who are respectful of others on the trails and in traffic not be judged by the few bad apples out there not following the rules. It’s like everything else, there will always be those who don’t play fair and traditional cyclists are no exception. My husband and I decided to purchase an e-bike a few years ago instead of a second car and couldn’t believe the level of interest & curiosity we got everywhere we went. This is an industry who’s time has come, with so many baby boomers wanting to continue having active lifestyles and the disastrouse effects of climate change, now is the time to foster inclusivity for all green transportation & exercise. My husband and I have become so passionate about green transportion we have actually opened up a bike shop here in Peterborough On (one of Ont. largest centre’s of seniors not to mention a very environmentally concience community) Believe me when I say the need is there and the excitement and enthusiasm for this form of cycling is intoxicating. We encourage people to become more than just fair weather or recreational cyclists by giving people many options such as extra cargo kits, trailors, gear etc…and yes electric assist is a very natural fit to bring people out of their cars and onto their bikes as their primary transportation. Cheers to cycling in all its many forms.
    Angie Windrem (Green Street)

  • monqi

    I’ve been riding a power-assist electric bike for 10 years. I had to buy it in Seattle because I couldn’t find one here in Vancouver (now they’re easy to find). I get the motor rebuilt about every 2 years at JV Bike. My daily commute is 35 km with a lot of hills. My particular e-bike requires me to pedal – the motor will not propel me along, it does however assist me. I appreciate this bike as it gets me to and from work quickly, with minimal sweat and with a smile on my face. I love cycling and have a regular bike for pedaling longer distances and when arriving “fresh” is not an issue.

    As an avid cyclist I can understand other cyclist’s discomfort with electric bikes using bike designated paths. I too take issue with people zipping along without actually pedaling. I think about all the time and effort advocates have put into the fight to get safer bike routes. BUT at the same time I ride an electric bike and will continue to use it for my commute.

    As noted by BC E-biker, “in the end, i think e bikes open up bicycling to a broader range of people. at very least, they create a transitional vehicle for people who are ready to trade their cars for an honest bicycle. change is incremental. lets be nice.” I agree! Change is incremental.

  • Ned Turnbuckle

    The problem I have with the e-bikes is them being used on non-motorized trails. What I’ve seen so far in every single situation is them being used as mopeds. They don’t use the pedals for anything but resting their feet. The ones I saw last week were on a bike/ped trail that’s RR grade. It’s completely flat. They were buzzing along at about 20 mph zipping around people with strollers, little kids on bikes and commuters.
    This isn’t an elitists opinion either. If people are going to call me out for that then why not call them out for trying to turn our bike paths through parks into motorcycle trails? These are designated as non-motorized trails. They aren’t designated as super highways for people on mopeds. I had a few of those older models about 20 years ago when I was a teenager. I only used the pedals to start them and when I ran out of gas. I didn’t ride any of them on bike paths though. I understood why I shouldn’t and it was against the law.

    I don’t generally get worked up about stuff but it’s pretty clear cut to me that when you go nascar on bike paths that families and children are given for recreation it’s the wrong direction completely. I’m also fairly upset that people would ask me to join the club of promoting bicycle/ped paths for non-motorized vehicles and then later those people start promoting motorized vehicles on those trails.

    I don’t really care about them in bike lanes on the street or if it’s a truly handicap person though. But some 35 year old guy that wants to use the Greenway in MPLS for his 5 mile commute to work? No way! It’s basically a way to avoid the traffic other motorized vehicles have to face and put your motor on our non-motorized bike/ped trail.

    Back to the elitists thing. You know I had a few mopeds when I was kid. I also had a few dirt bikes. I got my first motorbike when I was 5. It was an Arctic Cat. As a teenager I regularly tore the hell out of the Fishbox and Potfin farm fields. I also regularly got shot with salt pellets and ticked by the cops. I got my first 155 mph motorcycle at 19. That thing was f-ing fast as hell. It went from 0 – 60 in about 3.5 seconds on one wheel. That was at about 13,500 rpm’s and before I even shifted to second gear. You want an elitist point of view? Get f-ing real motorcycle.

    This is what I see happening in MN with this. 1. Say no them and things stay as they are on non-parkway routes. (Greenway, Three Rivers Trails…)
    2. Allow them and things change. There will be user conflicts due to the speed and carelessness of the riders and a speed limit that doesn’t exist will be imposed. Then we get to go back to the streets and hand it over to other people because who wants to ride at 10 mph? This simply isn’t being thought through far enough. As far as me driving to work and you cheating? I don’t even own a car. It’s not about that. It’s about keeping trails that were designated as non-motorized free of motorized vehicles. But, it is cheating. It’s riding a motorcycle.

  • Nic

    I just dont understand why this article is in the “magazine for self powered people.” Its not self powered, it still requires the burning of coal to use it.

  • D p

    ripping on e bikers isn’t going to get us anywhere. if the magazine for self-propelled people cannot reflect on a technology that aids in self-propelltion, then they should consider leaving out the bicycle from their articles.

    perhaps neo-ludite pedestrains might agree with you Jim, but let’s get wise to the problems that face our city and the world.

    i am able-bodied, and like Jim H, love to pedal. but loads of people (ie. those who prepetuate gas consumption) are not so inclinded.

    in the end, i think e bikes open up bicycling to a broader range of people. at very least, they create a transitional vehicle for people who are ready to trade their cars for an honest bicycle.

    change is incremental. lets be nice.

  • BC E-biker

    E-bikes allow people who may not (currently) be physically able to ride a “standard” bicycle the opportunity to go out and enjoy riding bikes again. No one, especially not the jim h’s of the world, should be allowed to take that opportunity away much less belittle, insult or badger anyone for choosing an e-bike.

    Happy, safe cycling everyone (even jim h).

    B!

  • BC E-biker

    Yes, I’m referring to you, jim h.

    The ignorance of your statements strongly suggest that you are as ignorant on the subject of e-bikes as you are about the people who ride them. I own four bicycles two of which are e-bikes that I use for commuting. Now, I’ve been commuting to and from work by e-bike for three+ years and guess what: I always pedal (as do most of my fellow e-bikers). If I didn’t pedal I wouldn’t have dropped forty+ pounds during my first 10 months of commuting.

    Yes, I dropped over forty pounds riding an e-bike.

    I find that there have been a number of damned good reasons to go electric besides the fact that e-bikes are fast, fun and make good economic sense. Consider this: I don’t require a shower or change of clothes when I get to work, I can haul significantly more cargo and I’m no longer the least bit bothered biking to work in poor weather. Rain, wind, extreme heat, bring it on! I’m pedaling my bike at a steady pace regardless of environment or geography and I can choose when and how much I increase my exertion levels. Bet you can’t say that. Did I mention fast? I average 35 kmh on the flat, still pedaling of course, fully laden with all my cargo. Hills? Who cares. Bring ’em on!

    Another point to consider is that e-bikers have all the same concerns and challenges as any other cyclists and alienating us with your mind-numbingly ignorant stance doesn’t help anyone concerned with issues of bicycling advocacy.

    To those who call e-bikers cheaters (and seriously, who and what are we cheating? Last time I checked commuting and pleasure riding weren’t competitive sports) then I say that similar logic dictates that those who use gears, lighter frames, skinny race slicks, wear flamboyant lycra clothes, coast down hills and draft must also be cheaters (but I don’t because I’m not so sadly linear in my thinking).

    Lastly, my successes as an e-bike commuter have inspired me to go car free. Hopefully I can unload my car this Summer. Tell you what, jim h, if you’re interested I’ll sell it to you cheap. It’s a sport coupe with a spacious hatchback so you’ll be able to load your bike into the trunk whenever you want to ride trails outside of town.

    Happy cycling.

  • jim h

    These are mopeds, people. Electric mopeds. Most of them still have pedals, but they aren’t used much.

    Momentum calls itself “the magazine for self-propelled people.” So what’s the promotion of electric powered vehicles? This is a total sellout.

  • Tim

    People always comment to me that I am cheating when I ride my electric bike. I turn around and ask them if they drove to work?
    I love my electric bike. I have been riding since 2005 in the hilly Greater Vancouver and have just replaced my first worn out battery at 12,000 km! I commute 15.5km to work and I usually average 25 km/hr. I pedal along the whole time. If I really push it I can get up to 29 km/hr average speed one way! Without the power I would average 20-21 km/hr. Since I have got my ebike I put on almost as much mileage as my car!

  • Bill Caulway

    I have a car/scooter(250cc) and a new E-bike. E-Bikes come in many flavors. Mine is a 500w/36v kit with a Lifepo4 battery. I live in hilly New England and will now ride the 9 miles each way to work and sell my scooter the next time gas hits $4/gal.

    Quick observations – I do not need to peddle on flats and the motor dose 90% of the work up hill. I cruise @ 20mph and go on sidewalks, roads( dirt/paved) etc. It is so much fun and I love plugging in to charge. No gas stations for me! Now my wife and I will ditch the second car when we retire and have one + 2 e-bikes.

    I purchased a kit and new bike, no big deal to assemble. I think that a-lot of people who want to get places fast and reliably without sweating and arriving tired will be into this. It just works!

    ENJOY!

  • Rich Gunn - SF

    Nice article. And timely. Wish you did not add a plug for Walmart and BestBuy, though (“Want it cheap? Try Walmart. Try BestBuy.”). These big chains want to put the small independent bike shops (and everyone else) out of business. They don’t need a plug from Momentum.

  • mee

    We are on the horizon of new motors and batteries, which are both lighter and more powerful the bike hopefully will be much more prevelent.
    http://www.thekpv.com

  • Cheryl Allen-Munley

    Those are some pretty bizarre looking E-Bikes. Check out Schwinn’s E-Bikes – they look traditional enough to use in a Tweed Ride. Also, read my article on E-Bikes in last issue of NJ Walks and Bikes:
    http://policy.rutgers.edu/VTC/bikeped/Walks_and_Bikes/Vol3_Issue2/electric1.html

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