Well, like it or not electric bikes are growing in popularity and they look like they are here to stay. Many traditionalist have raised a questionable eyebrow at the growing popularity of electric bikes, also known as “e-bikes.” But even the most dedicated fixie hipster can’t deny the growing sales numbers world wide of e-bikes. Holland, a country already well renowned for its use of bikes as a primary transportation method, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of electric bikes on the roads. In 2009 dutch bike shops saw the sales of e-bikes exceeded those of standard bikes. Is it that Holland is ahead of the curve or that e-bikes have just found a useful niche in Hollands transportation system?
E-bike brake down
In order to understand the future of electric bikes it is important to understand the bikes them selves. In general e-bikes come in three different styles, or assists as the industry has come to coin. Throttle assist, pedal assist and throttle only are the most common types of e-bikes offered by the major e-bike manufactures.
Throttle assist is the blend of the three styles, it allows its user to engage the motor to add extra power to their pedal power, just engage the throttle for power without pedaling, or disengage the motor and ride solely on leg power.
Pedal assist is the most common system found and seems to be becoming the most popular as well. Many manufactures selling e-bikes in the U.S. are pushing their pedal assist models as their flagship bikes and kits. The pedal assist system only engages the electric motor to assist the rider’s pedal power; there isn’t a throttle-only option. Most pedal assist kits and bikes offer the user different levels of pedal assist by the electric motor. The pedal assist systems offer a more seamless transition between traditional pedal-only bikes and pure throttle bikes, which is indicative of their popularity. Users can still feel the rewards of reaching their destination under their own pedal power, with a little added help.
The throttle only system, such as the Volkswagen bike and the e-bike designed by Lexus, fall on the out skirts of actually being able to called a bicycle and start to move closer to the moped side of the spectrum. Yes, throttle only bikes still have pedals, a bike seat, and handlebars, but can they really be called bikes if there isn’t any rider power needed at all? Or are they just glorified electric mopeds?
Both throttle assist and pedal assist systems are available as aftermarket kits and as pre-assembled bikes with the electric motor and battery system integrated into the bike. Additionally most system are designed with a removable battery pack for easy charging, and the actual motor is found either in one of the wheel hubs, or attached to the drive or crank system. For an additional perspective on e-bikes, check out the article written by James Thomas of Bicycle design posted in Commute by bike, E-bike 101.
What does the future hold?
The implications of a growing electric bike market influences every aspect of cycling in America. E-bike options are becoming greater as major bike manufactures such as Trek and Giant enter the E-bike market. And as an article written in Momentum Magazine points outs, from a profit standpoint and a consumer standpoint, there is more money to be made selling lithium ion batteries than there is selling carbon fiber frames. So what are the greater implications of electric bikes on the U.S. cycling culture?
For many, e-bikes offer the ability to ride, commute, tour, or pull a trailer such as a child bicycle trailer or bicycle cargo trailer that otherwise couldn’t for whatever reason. Not everyone is an athlete and many live in places where the geography doesn’t lend its self to riding a bike easily. Some traditionalists might claim that using an e-bike is in someway cheating, but in order to cheat one must be in a competition and this is not about competition, its about alternative methods of transportation. I don’t think anyone would argue that one more e-bike on the road is far better then a car or truck.
E-bikes have the potential to open up recreational and utility cycling to a significantly greater population, such as person who dreams of commuting to work, but just doesn’t quite have the fitness, or has too many hills to make it to work on time, or is just someone who prefers not to show up drenched in sweat but would still like to commute by bike to work. Hauling a bike cargo trailer for personal or occupational cycling needs has been a niche thought to be populated solely by the committed alternative-bike lifestylists–those determined to complete all their subsistence needs using pedal power alone. The idea of hauling groceries home by bike and trailer doesn’t seem so appetizing to many Americans, but introduce a little electric assist and the idea not only seems more palatable but a down right fun experience. In addition to electric-assist bikes, these days electric assist bike trailers are starting to surface as well.
The same cycling opportunities that e-bikes open up to the commuter and bike utilitarians can also be considered for family cycling as well. Many parents who would love to take their little ones out for a bike ride but for whatever factors are intimidated by the idea of pulling a bike child trailer. Now they may purchase an e-bike or e-bike kit, removing the daunting physical experience of pulling a trailer from an otherwise sunny family outing.
E-bikes might even have an application for bicycle touring. Some of the charging logistics might need to be figured out if regular power isn’t available, but these days there are many quality compact solar charges available on the market, allowing a bike tourist to travel just a little bit further each day with more of a smile and less exhaustion.
I think that we will continue to see more and more people riding e-bikes in this country as time goes on, and why not? E-bikes are certainly no threat to the traditional bicycle. If anything e-bikes may provide the missing like, bridging the gab between the reluctant motorists and the dedicated cyclist. Will more people ride with the introduction of e-bikes? I think they will.
Cycling as recreation will always live strong in the hearts of those who enjoy cycling for recreation and fitness, but the average commuter in this country needs more brothers sharing the roads. The commute-by-bike and bike utilitarian movements are growing in this country, but by no means at an earth-shattering pace. Perhaps e-bikes will be the boost that cycling as an alternative transportation method needs in this country. As the variety of electric bikes grows and the prices become more competitive we will see more and more people using them, which is a win for every cyclist out there, electric or traditional.