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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.
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.