Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

The Parable of the Electric Bike

by Alan Durning

01 - Juice Hawgs: Electric bikes aren't the answer to our prayers. We are.

Mmmm. An electric bike. Zipping through the city. Surging up hills without gasping for breath. Riding in business dress and arriving fresh and dry. Healthy, moderate exercise. No traffic jams. Free parking. Huge load-hauling potential. Near-free fueling. Zero emissions. Breeze in your face. Appealing!

So why haven’t e-bikes caught on (yet)? Especially in the Pacific Northwest, which is brimming with well-heeled tech enthusiasts? What’s stopping electric bikes from devouring automotive market share the way DVDs killed VHS? At least in good weather? Why aren’t they as commonplace on our boulevards as motorcycles or scooters or muscle-powered bikes or even motorized wheel chairs? Will they be soon?

Might electric bikes even be the vanguard of the electrification of all vehicles, rushing us through the long-awaited transition off oil and into a no-carbon future? Might this market-driven, job-creating electric vehicle revolution provide a detour around the bitter and intractable-seeming politics of climate laws? If we all push hard for electrification through the market, might we simply bypass the bickering morass of the US Senate, with its undemocratic procedures and filibuster rules?

I’m going to answer these questions. I swear. And, in the end, I’m going to conclude that the technical promise of electric bikes (and other electric vehicles) is not a short cut to a low-carbon, high-jobs future. Instead, it’s the other way around: good public policy is a short cut to electric vehicles. In other words, if you’re enthusiastic about e-bikes (and e-cars), you should work even harder for strong, fair climate policy; complete, compact communities; and best-in-the-world facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.

But that comes later. I need to start at the beginning, by which I mean the ultimate impetus for electric bicycles: the demand. Brynnen Ford, pictured above, illustrates. Brynnen uses her Madsen “as a minivan alternative.” She drives carpool with it, hauling kids to and from elementary school over the steep hills of Seattle’s central area. Before she electrified her cargo bike with an eZee motor and battery from, the hills were too much. “I tried doing it last year without the electric assist and while sometimes I could do it, other times I would opt for the car . . . so I wouldn't die of exhaustion from carrying the kids up the hills. Now, I almost never opt for the car.”

For Matt Leber, of Bellevue, Washington, a painful knee sparked his demand. An electric Giant Twist from Electric Bikes Northwest (pictured below) let his knee recuperate without injury. It also lets him commute 8 miles to his work as a bus driver without needing a shower. (And unlike Brynnen's Madsen, it fits on the bus.)

For many others, as personal transportation author Katie Alvord says, “advancing age gives that electric option ongoing appeal -- especially on windy days!” Many e-bike marketers, inventors, and enthusiasts are betting on baby boomers, with their active lifestyles, pro-fitness attitudes, and relative affluence, to push e-bikes into the mainstream in North America.

Of course, where two-wheeled electric vehicles are concerned, we’ve been through cycles of high hopes before, as Ms. Alvord pointed out in E Magazine . Auto industry icon Lee Iacocca became an evangelist for electric bikes in 1999, but his company sold disappointingly few "E Bikes." Just so, in 2002, Dean Kamen’s much-hyped two-wheeled electric Segway entered the market amid grandiose predictions of an imminent transportation revolution. John Doerr, arguably the dean of venture capitalists, predicted Segway would reach $1 billion in annual sales faster than any company ever. Instead, it took Segway until 2009 to sell its first 50,000, roughly what it hoped to sell in its first year alone. More recently, Segway has been working on a seated model with General Motors (pictured at right). Still, beyond the aging of the population, at least three reasons suggest electric bikes may soon break out of their novelty niche in the Pacific Northwest and the rest of North America, helping us rise to challenges as great as climate change, oil addiction, and recession. I detail these trends next in part two.

02 - Charging Up: Three trends favor e-bikes.

Technology, overseas markets, and political trends all bring good portents for e-bikes.

Trend 1. Technical innovation keeps improving electric bikes. The latest Giant, with lithium ion batteries, reportedly has a real-life battery range of 50 miles, doubling what previous models achieved. Sanyo has introduced a European style city bike (pictured below left) with impressive power-system integration. Trek, a leading American bike maker has entered the e-bike market with designs that may prove appealing to muscle-powered cyclists because of their high-performance feel (pictured below right).

Meanwhile, garage inventors keep coming up with intriguing innovations like the StokeMonkey (which I've described previously); Electric Mountain Drive from Oregon’s Ecospeed; and this VoltWagon electrified trailer that hitches to a regular bike and hauls cargo effortlessly.

Luckily for e-bike makers, advanced battery research is in its heyday, thanks to billions of dollars of investment from public and private institutions around the world. The hunt is on for better batteries not only because they’re essential to electrifying transportation and getting the world off of oil but also because they’re needed to harness intermittent, renewable power sources such as the sun and the wind. As battery improvements emerge, electric bikes stand to gain quickly.

. . .

Trend 2. Electric bikes are spreading like wildfire in China and are catching on in parts of Europe as well. As David Goodman recently wrote in the New York Times:

In China, an estimated 120 million electric bicycles now hum along the roads, up from a few thousand in the 1990s. They are replacing traditional bikes and motorcycles at a rapid clip and, in many cases, allowing people to put off the switch to cars. . . . From virtually nothing a decade ago, electric bikes have become an $11 billion global industry.

In the Netherlands, a third of the money spent on bicycles last year went to electric-powered models. Industry experts predict similar growth elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany, France and Italy, as rising interest in cycling coincides with an aging population. India had virtually no sales until two years ago, but its nascent market is fast expanding and could eclipse Europe’s in the next year.

China reportedly had 56,000 electric bikes in 1998. Getting to 120 million in 12 years’ time is a phenomenal change, even in a country as populous as China, and e-bikes don’t appear to be slowing: USA Today reports that sales in China are expected to reach a staggering 22 million in 2010 alone, bringing the number of e-bike owners in the country to one tenth of the population. It’s an impressive example of electrifying the transportation sector. It’s also good news for e-bike prices: mass production on that scale has brought production costs down, and just as Chinese-made motor cycles have spread quickly in Asia and Africa, e-bikes are now radiating from China as well.

. . .

Trend 3. Political trends are encouraging for electric bikes as well. Despite disappointment at Copenhagen and slow progress on a climate bill in Washington, DC, climate change, oil addiction, and the chance to transition to a job-generating clean-energy economy remain potent political issues across much of the industrial world, prominently including the Pacific Northwest.

To seize the opportunity for a clean-energy revolution and move beyond carbon, we need to get completely off coal and oil quickly. Efficiency, compact communities, and transportation alternatives are our best friends in these tasks. But even with great success on all these strategies, we will still need some way to propel our trains, buses, trucks, and cars. The main no-carbon candidates are biofuels and electricity. We’ll need some of each, but electricity has tremendous advantages. It can come from many different carbon-free sources, can travel easily by wire, and can integrate the transportation sector with the rest of the electric grid in ways that make each stronger and more economical.

An impressive array of political and industry leaders have recognized and embraced the pivotal role the electrification of transportation can play in advancing a clean-energy economy. That’s why, for example, the 2009 US federal stimulus included a bevy of investments in research on advanced batteries and electric vehicles.

Electrifying bikes is a perfect first step in pursuit of vehicle electrification, because battery-assisted two wheelers are an easier engineering challenge than are electric cars. Frank Jamerson of Electric Bike World Report told USA Today, "The electric bike is the first wave of the electrification of the personal transportation industry."

Vehicle electrification is an energy storage problem, not a propulsion problem. Electric motors are much more efficient than fossil-fueled engines, but storing electricity is dramatically harder than is storing liquid fuels. For example, you can fill the tank of a gasoline-powered car in five minutes then drive on that fuel for several hours at highway speeds. Conversely, you need to recharge the Tesla Roadster, a $100,000 all-electric sports car, for roughly an hour for each hour of highway driving. (It takes 3.5 hours to charge fully. Its range is 244 miles, which it could cover in 3.5 hours at 70 mph. A Chevy Volt, which takes longer to recharge, has an electric-only range of 40 miles, after which it runs on a separate gasoline engine.)

Simple physics favor e-bikes over e-cars. Bicycles, even ones loaded with batteries, weigh less than their riders. Electric cars, in contrast, weigh many multiples as much as their drivers. Consequently, most of e-bikes’ battery charge can be spent moving the mass of the rider, but most of electric cars’ charge must be spent moving the bulk of the car itself. What’s more, part of e-bikes’ energy comes from leg muscles, again reducing the required battery power. In auto parlance, e-bikes have human-electric hybrid drives.

For these reasons, electric bikes are in the cat bird seat of electrified transportation at a time when many forces are aligned to speed electrification.

. . .

This alignment of interests (trend 3) coincides with rapid technical progress (trend 1) and huge economies of scale coming from China (trend 2). Together, surely these trends will push electric bikes into the mainstream of personal transportation, at least in good weather, in urban parts of the bike- and tech-loving Northwest.

Many observers think so. Many marketers think so. Big-box retailer Best Buy is confident enough that it has introduced e-bikes and other small electric vehicles to a Portland outlet in 2009 and is rolling them into more Northwest stores in 2010.

Maybe electric bikes are on the verge of breaking through in the Pacific Northwest, spreading contagiously as they have in China. But maybe they are not. Maybe the barriers to electric bikes are different in North America than in China or Europe. Whether or not you should buy one doesn’t depend on this question. But our public policies with regard to electric bikes, and perhaps with regard to other electric vehicles, depend on what’s blocking e-bikes in North America. If it's just a matter of pushing them to a market tipping point, public subsidies can help — the subject of the next section.

03 - Flipping the Switch?: To subsidize or not.

As I've argued, electric bikes could be forerunners for electrifying the whole transportation sector. They’re sweeping into urban areas in China by the tens of millions. New technologies are improving e-bike performance. And powerful institutions are aligning to speed battery innovations.

Many observers now believe e-bikes will grow rapidly in North America, including in the Pacific Northwest. Colorado-based market analysts Pike Research, for example, predict that US sales will quadruple from 250,000 e-bikes in 2010 to more than 1 million in 2016, as shown in the chart below. (Asia is left off the chart, because it's on a different scale. Some 98 percent of e-bike sales worldwide have been in China.)

To speed this process, one common approach—evident in the bevy of tax credits available for purchasers of hybrid and electric cars—would be to subsidize e-bike sales. That’s what Santa Cruz, California, did early in the 2000s decade. Coupons from local authorities helped sell as many as 1,000 e-bikes there, making it briefly the e-bike capital of North America. Similarly, rebates from Swiss localities have boosted e-bike sales in Switzerland. Some 16,000 sold there in the first half of 2009, according to one report.

The implicit assumption behind underwriting new products with public funds is that once they are adequately established in the marketplace, they will spread contagiously without continued public support. The public investment is justified by the subsequent flipping of a market, in which cleaner, greener products push out dirtier products and yield large benefits for society.

This assumption may be reasonable for green products that are new and unfamiliar, such as ground-source heat pumps and green roofs, or that are not produced on a large enough scale to bring down manufacturing costs. But electric bikes are neither new nor unfamiliar: half a million have sold in the United States over the years. And they’re a variation on the ubiquitous bicycle, which is found in a majority of homes. What’s more, we should have already benefited from the economies of scale, insofar as they’re rolling out of Chinese factories at a pace of 20 million a year, far in excess of the scale of US auto manufacturing before the recession. Furthermore, the notion that there is a tipping point for sales of e-bikes is speculative at best. In fact, a look at electric bikes’ progress in North America and abroad leads to the conclusion that they confront a formidable set of barriers to growth — barriers that public sales rebates are unlikely to overcome — these barriers are described in more detail in the following section.

04 - Circuit Breakers: Four barriers to e-bikes in the Northwest.

Here are four obstacles that are keeping electric bikes from taking hold in the Pacific Northwest in the way they have in China.

1. Immature technology.

As BikeHugger’s master blogger (and e-biker) DL Byron points out, electric bikes may be past the garage-tinkerer phase of development, but they’re still complicated, imperfect devices, plagued with breakdowns and performance issues. Battery care, for example, is still challenging, though it’s vastly simpler than it used to be.

. . .

2. Bike Culture.

In Asian and northern Europe cycling cities, bicycles are ubiquitous utilitarian objects like appliances. In the Pacific Northwest, as throughout North America, cycling is uncommon as anything but a form of recreation and exercise. Among sport cyclists, a major purpose of cycling is to get a good workout, and electric bikes destroy the workout. So sports cycling is no friend of the electric bike.

Meanwhile, the small share of northwesterners who cycle for urban transportation are such a visible minority that they have developed a bike culture, which defines itself against automotive culture. Among other things, urban bike culture revels in muscle power. Case in point: among urban cyclists, the coolest bike on the streets these days is the fixie—a one-gear minimalist cycle like the one pictured above. Riding one is cool in part because fixies are hard work. Another case in point: the flourishing Portland bike-only house-moving scene (portrayed in the video below from StreetFilms), which may be the pinnacle of bike culture: it proves muscle power can replace a moving van.

Among transportation cyclists, as among recreational cyclists, being human powered—not electric or gas-powered—is a point of pride. As Loren Mooney, editor-in-chief of Bicycling magazine, told the New York Times about the electric bike, “to the core cyclist, it’s cheating.”

As I’ve learned over four car-less years, in the individualism of North American culture, our vehicles come to define our identities—something auto marketers understand well. What we drive, or ride, is a tribe marker, and we all know the meanings: Hummer, Prius, Mustang, Volvo. (Among cyclists, too: Bianchi, Campie, Gary Fisher, homemade fixie.)

Consequently, for North Americans, buying an electric bike is not simply a choice of cost, convenience, and functionality. For better or worse, it’s also a statement of who you are. E-bikes are a product for a somewhat different market than regular bikes. But their spread isn’t helped at all by the fact that existing bike culture among both sport and transport cyclists is antithetical to e-bikes. This barrier is substantial, because bike culture affects not only individual attitudes but also access to and support for e-bikes.

. . .

3. Closed distribution channels.

Throughout North America, as VoltWagon entrepreneur Max Dunn noted in a recent paper, “The bike industry consists of two relatively independent segments: the low end sold through mass merchants and the high end sold through specialty bicycle retailers.” Mass merchants such as big-box retailers and sporting goods stores account for 75 percent of bicycle sales, but most of the bikes they sell are used rarely. Many are toys for children. Most bikes that get regular use are sold through bike shops.

Unfortunately, neither mass retailers nor bike shops work at present for distributing e-bikes. Mass merchants reach noncyclists including the affluent baby boomers at the heart of the potential e-bike market, but they lack the expertise and maintenance facilities to support a growing e-bike trend. Bike shops, on the other hand, are dominated by the prevailing bike culture to which e-bikes do not make sense. Their regular customers do not want electric bikes any more than the members of athletic clubs want electric-assisted weight-lifting machines. Almost no bike shops sell e-bikes.

Market analysts at Pike Research describe distribution challenges as among the biggest barriers to e-bikes: “Many manufacturers are trying to find a combination of independent dealers, mass retailers, and online sales that will effectively deliver the vehicles and after-sales service to customers.”

The shortage of e-bike retailers is exacerbated by an even more severe shortage of e-bike repair shops. It’s hard to find a bike repair shop that knows how to fix an e-bike. And electric bikes are finicky and need regular maintenance (see #1 above). Brynnen Ford, the carpool-riding e-biker from section one pictured here, put it this way: “I'm not a bike mechanic and my mechanic is kind of learning as he goes with the electric piece, so I'm never sure if it's really getting the right care.”

At present, the best e-bike sales-and-service in Cascadia comes from one specialized e-bike store in Seattle, two in Portland, and two others in Vancouver, BC. One promising sign is that about one quarter of Trek’s independent dealers, which are typically the leading bike shops in each city, will stock Trek’s new Ride+ line of e-bikes. As these shops master servicing e-bikes, the maintenance shortfall may diminish.

. . .

4. Safety.

Electric bikes promise to make cycling a better option for many people, including those whose weight, health, fitness, clothing needs, or hauling demands make regular bikes impractical. But they do nothing to lower the principal barrier to cycling: the perception that cycling in city streets is unsafe. (It’s actually much safer than most people think. In fact, not pedaling is the larger menace.) Fear of street riding is also the biggest barrier to electrified cycling. If you don’t feel safe on a pedal-powered bicycle at 10 miles an hour, you will probably feel even less safe on an electric bicycle at 15 miles an hour. As Jonathan Maus of BikePortland, Oregon’s definitive cycling blog, wrote in January, “Our current lack of a connected, separated, and comfortable bike network makes many people afraid to even try biking — and simply giving them motors won’t change their minds.”

In North America, the future of electric bikes depends on finding a market that wants their particular combination of lightness, gentle power, and modest range. To date, they have found adherents whose needs they closely match, such as Brynnen Ford and her carpool or Matt Leber and his injured knee. They have yet to find a larger market, I believe, because they are neither fish nor fowl. They make bad bicycles, because they remain imperfect in execution while they’re also heavy and hard to pedal without the power turned on. They also make bad motorcycles. Imagine a manufacturer introducing a motorcycle with a top speed of 20 miles per hour and a one-quart fuel tank that takes several hours to refuel every 25 miles. Not many sales would ensue.

But electric bikes do hold great promise. They could open cycling to huge numbers of additional people, to hillier places, and to heavier loads. Besides, even if their potential market is only one urban trip in twenty, that would still outstrip regular bikes’ current share. And getting to that point would mark an encouraging advance against climate change, oil addiction, and lack of exercise. It would also help strengthen local economies by replacing imported oil with local electricity—plus skilled jobs in electric bike maintenance.

Besides, if electric bikes are proliferating in China, these obstacles must be surmountable, right? They are. China’s lessons are worth understanding, and I’ll cover them next. I'll even reveal why this is a parable. Promise!

05 - The Body Electric: The lessons of China’s e-bike explosion.

In section two, I described the extraordinary growth of electric bikes in China, which grew from novelty items in 1998 to almost one e-bike per ten people today. What caused this growth? What can we learn from China about overcoming the Northwest’s four barriers to e-bikes?

The economic context of e-bikes is radically different in China than in the Northwest. In China, most buyers of electric bikes are stepping up in vehicular speed and comfort from heavy, low-performance bicycles. They are opting for electric bikes not in place of cars but in place of bicycles, motorcycles, or scooters. In the North America, e-bike buyers are stepping down in vehicular speed and comfort from the automobile. (Actually, they’re mostly buying an additional vehicle, to use in place of their car some off the time.)

Chi-Jen Yang, a policy analyst at Duke University, has examined Chinese experience with electric bikes in detail. He argues that their proliferation over the last decade has been “a policy accident.” Overrun with noisy, dangerous, fast, polluting motorcycles, more than 90 major Chinese cities have cracked down by banning or limiting new licenses for motorcycles. But they haven’t regulated electric bikes—even electric bikes (like many in China) that are essentially motor scooters with decorative pedals. So motorcycle demand, burgeoning with China's economic miracle of the last decade, has switched to electric bikes.

Mr. Yang’s research suggests that technological advances and market forces had little to do with China’s e-bike miracle, which helps explain why electric bikes are still outmatched by other technology in North America as well. He strengthens his case by demonstrating that across the Formosa Straits, Taiwan launched massive national subsidies for electric bikes and electric scooters in 1998, intending to trim urban motorcycle pollution and speed as Chinese cities were doing. Taiwan spent tens of millions of dollars making electric two wheelers cost competitive with gasoline-powered ones, but it abandoned the program four years later as futile. Not only were consumers reluctant to buy electric vehicles, many retailers refused to sell them. Mr. Yang quotes one scooter retailer as saying, “for every ten consumers who purchased an electric scooter, ten of them would come back to complain.” Unlike China, Taiwan did not ban or restrict motorcycles, and no amount of subsidy could flip the market toward electric vehicles.

A decade has passed since Taiwan’s failure, and electric-bike (and scooter) technology has improved, but Mr. Yang’s point remains:

Subsidies resulting in comparable price and superior environmental performance may be insufficient to make electric vehicles a commercial success, while limiting the fossil fueled alternatives could be highly effective in forcing the market penetration of electric vehicles. These market dynamics may also apply to the wider electric vehicle market.

Electric bikes, as the forerunners of electric cars and trucks, have tremendous potential, but they’re unlikely to win more than a toe-hold in a marketplace long dominated by petroleum-powered vehicles. Unless public policy makes petroleum-powered vehicles far less attractive, as China did for motorcycles. Petroleum is just too phenomenally effective and (still) cheap. Electric bikes will inch upward in market share in the Northwest, becoming less like novelties and more like regular bikes in their prevalence. But they will not sweep through the population as they have in China, unless we act through public policy to make their fossil-fueled competitors less competitive and cycling in general much more attractive. Specifically, we can

* Enact climate policies that put a price on carbon through a carbon tax or a fair cap and trade system.

* Make dramatic progress in threading a complete network of continuous, separate, named, signed, and lighted bikeways through our communities, so that cyclists (pedal and electric) are shielded from auto traffic, as shown in this photo from Copenhagen. Progress such as that envisioned in Portland’s bold new bike plan.

* Grow our cities up rather than out, constructing compact communities where walking, cycling, and transit are better alternatives than driving for many trips. Density is as important a determinant of cycling as infrastructure.

Electric bikes are promising. They deserve our respect. Their champions, manufacturers, and retailers deserve our encouragement. But the biggest favor we can do for them is not to subsidize them but to change the price of fossil fuels, the layout of our streets, and the design of our cities—creating the kinds of places in which cars become less necessary and bikes become more normal.

The hope that electric vehicles, perhaps led by electric bikes, will displace petroleum-fueled vehicles rapidly, simply by out-competing conventional vehicles on cost and performance is wishful. On the 40-year timeline we have to effect a near phaseout of carbon emissions, it is dangerous thinking—magical thinking. The only way the electrification of transportation will work is if we do what China did: write laws that make the alternatives—fossil fuels, in this case—accountable for their ecological consequences.

That’s not a welcome observation, I realize. We’ve met with setbacks and disappointments on the path to strong climate policy in the past year, first in the Oregon and Washington legislatures, then in Copenhagen at international climate negotiations, and more recently in Washington, DC. There’s something appealing right now about the notion of sidestepping politics entirely and instead inventing our way to an economy beyond carbon. I do not believe that’s possible.

I do not believe it because, over 25 years of studying issues like these, I’ve observed again and again the same patterns evident in this Parable of the Electric Bike. Clean technology has enormous potential, but it rarely sweeps a market unless laws make prices tell the ecological truth or otherwise constrain unsustainable practices. Carrots alone don’t usually work—even lots and lots of carrots; we also need sticks. Voluntary, market-based strategies rarely suffice, though they do demonstrate what’s possible and create momentum for changing the rules. Technology cannot solve problems created by bad public policy, but good public policy can unleash the potential of technology, leading to better solutions than we previously imagined.

So, go ahead and buy an electric bike—or an electric car—if you like. Surge up hills. Haul bigger loads. Replace some more car trips in your own life. Sing the body electric. I might do the same.

But let’s not get distracted from the real work before us, which is to change the rules by which we get and sell fossil energy, and by which we build our streets, neighborhoods, and cities.

Electric vehicles aren’t the answer to our prayers. We are.

Editor's note: This essay is a distillation of Alan Durning's excellent five-part Sightline series, The Parable of the Electric Bike.

Photo of charging electric bicycles courtesy of Flickr photographer Imnop88a under the Creative Commons license. Photos of Brynnen Ford and Matt Leber's Giant Twist courtesy of Brynnen and Matt. Segway PUMA photo courtesy of Flickr photographer saebaryo under the Creative Commons license. Photo of fixie bike rider courtesy of Flickr photographer Looking Glass under the Creative Commons license. Photo of Brynnen Ford courtesy of Brynnen and photographer Heidi Neff.

Bookmark and Share


Good article & thorough. As a middle-aged duffer who loves to ride, one comment about the 'schism' between cyclist-as-athlete and person-riding-simply-as-transit: in my experience bike culture is really open and welcoming so long as you ride and enjoy it. That's really what it's about in the end.
Nitpick: my future tattoo might say "Campy" or "Campagnolo" but *not* "Campie".

Posted by: Phil Evans on 2 Apr 10

Alan Durning gets economics. I really appreciate how gently you deliver your message, which will be difficult for some to accept.

Posted by: Bill S on 5 Apr 10

who says a fixie bike has to be hard work? The kid who gears it up with a 52x12?? This is not rocket science - gear down.

Posted by: viner on 6 Apr 10

having to share roads and streets with automobiles,whether one is a pedestrian, (senior/child/handicapped) or cyclist is just plain dumb.
decades of ignorance from governments and auto corporations and consummers.

Posted by: Oemissions on 6 Apr 10

Alan Durning is the most realistic commentator on electric bikes so far. I do not share all of views: for instance, I regard brakeless fixies as ridiculously unsafe, especially in city traffic. In San Francisco, I also note that many night riders purposely dress in flat black. Add to that, no lights, and no brakes, and you have a delightfully simple, but suicidally nutty means of transport. There is another matter that is rarely mentioned: statistically, the least safe means of transport is the Moped. They are too slow to mix safely with automobiles, and motorcycles, and too fast to mix with pedestrians and bicycles. That problem plus silly price ($5000.00) are among the major qualities that have held back the acceptance of the Segway. Segways also tend to clash with one another when their wheels touch. Yeah yeah, you must learn to drive the, just as is true with any vehicle. But for many, that sort of skill is not easily learned to the degree needed for everyday use. And there is also the matter of how fast is too fast: 15 miles per hour is about how fast you would be going if you jumped from a second story window onto the sidewalk. Add rain or snow and thousands of riders like yourself, and you have major safety concerns. i traveled in China in 1980 when bicycles were the main means of getting around faster than a walk. There were literally millions of bikes in use.We visited a local hospital where the daily entry of bike-caused injuries into the
ER was several hundred! This is yet another example of the need to develop the societal attitude towards two-wheeled transport. It can be done: Davis, CA and Eugene OR have so many bikes in use that their use is considered normal and the local car drivers accommodate their presence.

Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 7 Apr 10

Great write up! Really covered all of the bases on the e-bike... I can add a little bit of personal commentary in here as well as I've ridden an electric bike for the past 2 years... The thing rides really well, buzzes along at a nice pace and most importantly has been a lot of fun. I now prefer to bike within a 10 mile range than to drive... this past winter however the battery fell asleep on me. I took a month long trip over the holidays and didn't think to charge the battery... I came back and tried to take it out for a ride.. no juice. I ended up having to send the battery back to the factory in California, and they also failed to revive it. So, long story short, I got about a season and half of riding on the bike, battery failed, and a replacement lithium ion runs $450... not happy about this! If you do get an e-bike, please know that they need TLC.

Posted by: josh on 10 Apr 10

Why bikes shouldn’t have to follow the rules of the road

Traffic lights and lanes are designed for large, heavy, metal box’s to manoeuvre in. The laws too are designed for cars. It is currently presumed that cyclists in London should use the roads like cars and follow the same laws, like cars. In other words bikes should stop at red lights and stay off the pavements. This is dangerous and disingenuous. It is time for cyclists to make the case for a totally different set of rules to apply for them… to make cycling easier, safer and more popular.

Posted by: Matt Mellen on 13 Apr 10

I notice most of the e-bikes pictured here resemble conventional bikes with motors attached. Here's a folding model which takes a more innovative approach:

...But I don't think it's so much a matter of options for what people will ride but providing safe places to ride. Congestion pricing and no free parking to reduce the number of cars on the streets and dedicated bikeways would go a long way to making the big shift away from cars.

Posted by: robZ on 13 Apr 10

Excellent, thoughtful article. Unfortunately, I think it will take soaring fuel costs and a growing energy crisis to create the necessary change. Most people will not change long-held attitudes and habits unless they face a major tipping point. Our journey towards a sane energy and environmental policy seems to be inching along at a snail's pace. Widespread education and advocacy are ways in which we can help promote healthy, sustainable, safe and positive alternatives to our current dilemma.

Posted by: gangerdesign on 20 Apr 10

What a fantastic write-up. Thanks for all the information. I'll be looking to add some electric bikes to my site.

Posted by: EcoGirl on 20 Apr 10

In India there were efforts in the past to have petrol driven bikes and later electric scooters. The problem is with regard to quality batteries for storage. Good batteries like Nickel Cadmium,Nickel Metal Hydride are expensive. On the other hand India is the second largest user of bicycles. here are some statistics(though a little bit old):

Bicycle Production of Selected Countries, 1990-2000
1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000
Million Units
China 31.9 36.8 40.3 41.0 42.0 41.0 38.0 30.0 23.1 42.7 52.2
France 1.5 1.2 1.0 1.0 1.3 1.3 1.3 1.3 1.6 1.8 1.9
Germany 3.9 4.9 4.6 4.1 3.5 3.2 2.9 2.8 3.2 3.2 3.2
India 8.4 8.8 9.0 9.9 10.5 11.5 11.3 11.0 10.5 11.0 11.0
Indonesia 2.0 2.0 2.2 2.5 2.8 3.0 2.3 3.0 2.8 2.6 N/A
Italy 3.5 3.6 4.1 5.2 5.8 5.3 4.0 4.0 3.0 3.3 3.2
Japan 8.0 7.5 7.3 6.9 6.7 6.6 6.1 6.0 5.9 5.6 4.7
Korea 1.5 1.5 1.3 1.1 1.2 N/A 0.9 0.8 0.6 0.6 N/A
Malaysia 0.3 0.4 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.8 0.5 0.8 0.7 0.8 N/A
Taiwan 6.8 7.7 7.5 7.9 9.2 9.7 7.4 11.9 10.1 8.3 7.5
Thailand 0.7 0.8 1.0 1.0 1.1 1.8 1.5 1.8 1.6 1.5 N/A
United Kingdom 1.3 1.2 1.2 1.1 1.2 1.2 1.2 1.3 1.2 1.3 1.2
United States 5.6 7.6 8.9 7.7 7.3 8.8 8.0 6.0 2.5 1.7 1.1
N/A indicates not available.
Source: Bicycle Retailer & Industry News Directory, from Cycle Press, European Bicycle Manufacturers Association, Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute, Bike Europe, and Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by: Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 21 Apr 10

Appreciate the detail. I was surprised to see an electric car pass me on a rural Texas highway yesterday - and I was going over 70. I was thinking when that happened that electric vehicles have real potential, thanks for sobering me up.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 24 Apr 10

Well, the photo you use to describe this article and that is re-used for chapter "03 - Flipping the Switch?: To subsidize or not" is certainly not electric bikes but Parisian "Velib"s.

They are bikes that are at the public disposal for a daily, monthly or yearly fee... ( )

They are rather heavy too 22kg and do not include electric engine to assist.

This was just a FYI.

Posted by: MadMojo on 26 Apr 10

I own an electric bike and rides it in downtown Paris, France. Perfect place to do that as it is actually quite steep sometimes, with a reasonable number of protected lanes (shared with buses) and a subsidy policy (25% refund from the City). However, my main question mark is on the recycling of used batteries, which, if not tackled, creates a huge environmental issue. Do you know of any recycling initiatives?

Posted by: pascal on 30 Apr 10

Unfortunately, long-term users of electric vehicles (including electric bikes and scooters) have discovered that a Battery Electric Vehicle costs 3X to 6X more, per mile, than an equivalent gasser, due to a cost of battery replacement.



Posted by: robb on 5 May 10

Post A Comment

Please note that comments will remain open for only 14 days after the article is posted. While previous comments will remain visible, attempts to post new comments after this period will fail. This helps stop comment spam, so your forebearance is appreciated.

The Worldchanging comments are meant to be used for further exploration and evaluation of the ideas covered in our posts. Please note that, while constructive disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting. We will also delete at will and without warning comments we believe are designed to disrupt a conversation rather than contribute to it. In short, we'll kill troll posts.

Finally, please note that comments which simply repost copyrighted works or commercial messages will be summarily deleted.

Yes No







MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg