Six months ago, I wrote part 1 of what I think will be a three-part series on emerging trends in micromobility. For those who have forgotten, micromobility is a class of transportation options typically focused on a single person taking a relatively short trip. Compared with walking, micromobility options are faster and allow trips of greater length. Compared with driving a car, micromobility options are significantly less expensive and more environmentally friendly.
In part 1 I wrote about e-scooters. As the weather has improved this spring, I have been out on my personal e-scooter several times and I still find it to be both fun and useful. In part 2, I’m going to focus on ebikes -- a transportation option that, like scooters, has grown rapidly in popularity over the past 5 to 10 years.
Although I have ridden traditional bikes on and off for most of my life, my experience on ebikes is limited to half a dozen trips on two different types of ebikes over the past couple of weeks. I am certainly open to feedback from more experienced ebike riders, but it seems to me that an ebike is not so much a new category of transportation as much as it is an enhanced version of an existing category. Still, the improvement is significant enough that it warrants its own discussion and I think it has the potential to impact urban transportation in a significant way.
As with e-scooters, there is not much reliable data on the number of miles traveled, or even the number of ebikes sold mainly because ebikes are often lumped in with all other bikes and because the ebike industry is changing and growing so rapidly. A recent article reported that in the United States the sale of bikes generally in 2020 was up 46 percent, but the sale of ebikes was up 140 percent. And because ebikes are more expensive, the difference in revenue is even greater. (1) Such numbers can be misleading, however, because the starting base for a new product like ebikes is so small that even a relatively small increase in actual numbers can be a big percentage increase. In addition, there are several ebike manufacturers that sell exclusively (or at least predominantly) through online channels which bypass many of the traditional bicycle industry groups that gather sales data.
Another way of gauging the growing popularity of ebikes is by their usage in bike sharing programs. Around the country, bike share systems are rapidly incorporating ebikes into their bike inventory and the result is that ridership numbers are increasing dramatically. Madison, Wisconsin became the first program to convert entirely to ebikes as of June 2019. Kansas City’s bike share program has included ebikes for over two years and they now account for roughly two-thirds of their fleet. Eric Vaughan, Director of Bike Share and Business Services for RideKC Bike, credits ebikes for expanding the range of riders and for increasing the rides per bike within their system. (2) That assertion is backed up by their ridership data that shows consistent growth for both total rides and ebike usage on a quarter by quarter basis (see chart). Although most bike share fleets are not entirely ebikes, the move to ebikes is so strong that nearly every bike share system has incorporated them to at least some degree.
My best guess is that in the U.S. ebike sales (in terms of numbers of bikes) probably account for roughly 10 to 15 percent of all bicycle sales. That number, while still relatively modest, is up from maybe one or two percent just eight to ten years ago, so the growth is definitely real. As a way of confirming my estimate, I checked the websites for Trek and Specialized -- two of the biggest brands in the U.S. Both offer a wide array of bikes for a wide variety of purposes and riders. By my count, Trek offered 47 ebike models out of a total of 272, and Specialized offered 44 ebikes out of a total of 196. Of course, the number of models offered doesn’t equate directly to sales, but if the big manufacturers are listing 19 percent of their models as ebikes, I’m fairly comfortable with my estimate.
Another thing to understand about ebikes is that there are two distinct types: pedal assist and throttle control. Pedal assist bikes (the more common of the two) link the level of assist from the motor to the effort the rider puts into pedaling. The harder you pedal, the more assistance you get. The higher end versions have multiple levels of assist so that you can choose how hard you want to work. The second type has a throttle on the handlebars to control the motor, independent of whether or not the user is pedaling. In either case, the bike can be single speed or have multiple gears.
Ebikes are a much bigger deal in Asia and Europe where biking is seen as a serious form of transportation rather than as simply a tool for fitness or recreation, as it tends to be viewed in this country. In those parts of the globe, ebikes outsell electric cars and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Ebikes have become so popular, in fact, that they are now made and marketed by motorcycle manufacturers such as Harley Davidson, Ducati and Yamaha, and by auto companies such as Porsche, Mercedes Benz and BMW.
My experience on an ebike
My first set of rides was on a 9-speed, pedal assist bike from Giant. It would probably fall in the middle of the pack in terms of price and it included some nice features like 4 different levels of assist (none, eco, medium and sport). My second set of rides was on a single-speed, pedal assist bike from the RideKC Bike Share program. This was a bike designed to be so simple that just about anyone could ride it regardless of skill or intelligence.
So what is it like to ride an ebike? Pretty much like riding a regular bike except your legs are always fresh, the road is always flat, and a brisk wind is always at your back. From the perspective of an old guy who tends toward laziness, this is bike riding perfected. Hardcore bikers probably think people on ebikes are cheating, but I don’t care.
On my first few rides, I tried to simulate a commute to work. The first was from my home to my old (pre-retirement) workplace. The roughly 7.5-mile ride took me a little over 30 minutes (on the “medium” assist level) and by the time I arrived I was perspiring a little bit, but if I could have toweled off and changed shirts I would have been fine for the day. According to my fitness watch, my average heart rate was between 100 and 110 bpm. For comparison, a similar ride at a similar speed on my regular bike would get my average heart rate over 130, and I would be sweating profusely.
My next ride was roughly the same length but I didn’t push as hard. My average speed dropped from roughly 15 mph to around 12 mph, but my average heart rate stayed below 100 bpm. In short, an ebike would easily make me consider it as a viable commuting option.
|Bike Share from RideKC Bike
My second set of rides were shorter -- the kind you might take if you were running an errand or meeting a friend for lunch. Again, I didn’t try to go especially fast (an average of 12 mph) but I was easily able to cover roughly 3 miles in 15 minutes or so. The bike-share bike was pretty heavily assisted but the gearing was low enough that it was harder to translate that into high speeds. Given the typical bike-share rider, that is probably very appropriate. On this set of rides I actually sought out hills as a test and found that even moderately steep hills were a piece of cake. According to my fitness watch, my heart rate barely broke 100.
Comparison with e-scooters
How does an ebike compare with an e-scooter? While both are very enjoyable to ride, I have to say that I think the scooter is more fun. It almost makes you feel like you’re a kid again. In addition, the compact size and foldable nature of a scooter make it easier to pair with transit. Many transit systems accommodate bikes to some degree but the added size and weight (particularly for an ebike) make it harder. Third, e-scooters are considerably less expensive -- like thousands of dollars less expensive.
On the flip side, I felt substantially safer on the ebike, mainly because I felt more visible to drivers and I didn’t have to worry about a random pothole or road irregularity knocking me over. Secondly, the ebike was definitely the more comfortable option for rides over two or three miles in length. Third, I would give the edge in speed to the ebike as well. You can find scooters that go quite fast but I wouldn’t want to ride them except on a nearly perfect trail. The larger wheels on a bike make speed feel safer and more enjoyable. Finally, ebikes have a big advantage in cargo capacity. There are even ebikes made specifically as inner-city delivery vehicles. The photo below shows my nephew on an ebike that he uses to haul his two kids (and their supplies) to various places and events in San Francisco.
|Ebike from Xtracycle
Ebikes as serious urban transportation
In the midwest, biking as a form of transportation (as opposed to recreation) has some serious obstacles to overcome. To begin with, the spread-out nature of midwestern cities increases the typical distance of each trip to the point where bikes are often perceived as inconvenient or impractical. In addition, midwestern cities are so dominated by the automobile that riding a bike can feel unsafe, particularly on major streets. So for many people, the car becomes the default choice for virtually every trip and other options aren’t even considered.
Every city, however, has a group of bike enthusiasts most of whom use bikes as a form of exercise, but who will use them for transportation from time to time. There are, of course, people who use bikes predominantly as transportation and that group has been growing slowly over time. The COVID pandemic increased the size of that group at least temporarily, but it is still a relatively small percentage of the population. The challenge is to increase the number of people that consider bicycles when their only need is to move from one place to another -- a transportation choice just like deciding whether to walk, take the bus, or drive your car.
That is precisely where I see the value of ebikes. An ebike makes bike riding so easy that it expands the range of people who will consider riding a bike for something other than recreation. Older people, for example, who had given up on bike riding because of the effort involved might easily be persuaded to give them another try. For people who already ride bikes, ebikes offer the ability to expand the range and speed of each bike ride so that the boundaries of what is reasonable suddenly include more possibilities. Finally, ebikes remove the issue of topography from the decision of whether to ride a bike or what route to take. The rolling hills that are common throughout the midwest seem to disappear on an ebike -- a feeling that changes the perception of bike riding to an amazing degree.
In addition, ebike manufacturers are producing products in a wide array of prices, styles and functionalities, including niche products that go beyond what traditional bikes have offered. There appears to be an ebike subculture that is not just converting existing bike riders but bringing new riders into the fold. The variety of models can accommodate the desires of both traditional and nontraditional bike riders, whether they are looking for something fun, hip, utilitarian or chic.
Finally, ebikes still offer health benefits despite the assistance provided by the electric motor. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity concluded that e-cycling provided physical activity of at least moderate intensity, less than traditional cycling but more than walking. (3)
Despite my enthusiasm, there are several disadvantages that need to be acknowledged. First and foremost is the issue of price. Although it is possible to buy an ebike for a little over a thousand dollars, the “sweet spot” for ebikes -- the point where you get both quality construction and a reasonable variety of options -- appears to be between $2,000 and $4,000. It is certainly possible to spend several thousand dollars more, but that would generally be only for a very specialized product or for the latest and greatest technology. In terms of quality of construction and components, a $2,500 ebike is roughly equivalent to a $600 to $800 traditional bike.
The second major disadvantage is weight. The typical commuter-style ebike is likely to weigh 50 to 60 pounds, roughly double the weight of a traditional bike. From the standpoint of riding, this doesn’t make much difference because the motor more than makes up for the extra weight. But a bike rider who lives in a third-floor apartment and is used to putting their bike over their shoulder and walking up the steps is going to quickly think about moving to the first floor. Even putting an ebike on a rack becomes a bit of a chore.
The final disadvantage, figuring out how to store an ebike, is mainly a combination of the first two problems. Ebikes are expensive enough that you aren’t likely to want to store them overnight or for long periods of time simply chained to a sign post with a WalMart bike lock. But the weight makes some of the normal bike options (such as putting it in a basement storage locker or an upper floor apartment) more problematic. In addition, you have to find a way to recharge it on a regular basis. Many ebikes have removable batteries which makes this easier, but it still can be an issue.
The impact of ebikes
On balance, I think the popularity of ebikes is here to stay and will grow over time. This is another indicator that cities need to take the role of bicycles seriously as a transportation option. More bike infrastructure is needed to really make biking as safe as it deserves to be and to encourage people who are on the fence to give biking a try. In addition, states need to update their laws for all types of micromobility devices so that the regulatory environment keeps pace with the latest technology.
As with other forms of micromobility, pairing ebikes with transit makes a great deal of sense as a solution to the first mile/last mile problem. This is particularly true with bike share programs which I think will continue to shift their fleets to ebikes and which, in turn, will continue to grow in popularity. Bike share stations should be increasingly teamed with transit stops and major employers should be partnering with bike share programs to provide employees a healthy and enjoyable way to commute to work.
Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting? Send me an email with your name and email address.
- “Now making electric bikes: Car and motorcycle companies”; Roy Furchgott; New York Times; March 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/business/electric-ebikes-pandemic.html
- Interview with Eric Vaughan, Director of Bike Share and Business Services; RideKC Bike; April 2021
- “Health benefits of electrically-assisted cycling: a systematic review”; Jessica E. Bourne, et al; International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity; November 2018; https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12966-018-0751-8
- Special thanks to Susan Crowe for generously sharing her ebike and to Dave and Aaron Johnson who both shared their perspective as bike enthusiasts.