Electric bicycles have been mostly ignored in the US until recently. They have generally been spurned by the cycling community, where human powered fitness is respected most. However, electric bikes also had trouble winning converts from elsewhere. In addition to being expensive, they were heavy, they were slow, and they needed very frequent recharging. Put plainly, electric bikes sucked. Most previous models died as misshapen orphans.
That equation is about to change. For one, electric bicycles have been getting a lot better. The advent of reliable lithium-ion batteries means that electric bikes are lighter, much more powerful and can go greater distances between charging. Even better, they are cheaper than many earlier models. At the other end of the equation, the many costs of fossil fuels are more apparent than ever, both direct (price at the pump) and indirect (the spill in the Gulf, climate change, financial support of questionable regimes, etc.). These costs are not going to diminish, and more and more Americans are looking to move away from this model of energy use. All of these changes mean that the awesome potential of electric bikes is about to be awakened.
The biggest potential of electric bikes is that they will bring new converts to bicycles in general. There are a lot of folks out there who want to get away from a car-dependent lifestyle but are carrying extra weight in the meantime. For those who are not already fit, the prospect of biking everywhere can be quite intimidating. Electric bicycles can remove that intimidation. New models allow the user to set the level of power assist that they receive, and there’s always the throttle-only mode as a back up. Thus, even out-of-shape riders can get exercise while running errands without fear of being too tired to get back home. A more physically fit population that is less reliant on fossil fuels is a clear win-win.
Electric bikes have excellent car replacement potential. Even for relatively fit riders, having the option of electric power assist makes carrying heavy loads (think groceries, kids, other bikes, kegs, etc.) much more palatable. Electric bikes are also a relatively cheap form of practical car replacement. Full electric cars are only just now coming to market, and are likely to remain relatively expensive in the immediate future, even with subsidies. In addition to being lower impact, electric bicycles are well within the financial reach of most Americans. This is still true when compared to the cost of a conventional gasoline car.
Electric bikes are also very compatible with small-scale, renewable energy generation. Given their relatively small batteries, electric bikes can easily be charged by home-sized photovoltaic arrays, small wind turbines or even micro hydropower.
Lastly, a good electric bike is fun. The customers who’ve rented our electric bikes thus far have come back with enormous grins on their faces. They’ve been grinning not only from the endorphins of exercise, but because they got to see more of our city than they would either by foot or in a car.
All in all, electric bikes have major potential as sustainable transportation. Thus, we at BioWheels dig electric bikes. For those in the cycling community who remain skeptical, we would suggest not mocking electric bikes and their riders. After all, would you rather such riders be piloting a gas guzzler instead?
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