E-bikes have long been disdained in the cycling community as a cop-out. When I write about them on TreeHugger, I invariably get comments like “I'm all for e-bikes for those with physical disabilities or elderly folks. But if you're able, save a little bigger piece of the environment and use your human power.”
But as the huge baby boomer cohort gets older, e-bikes are looking better and better — and they're still great exercise. A University of Colorado Boulder study monitored the cardiovascular health and aerobic capacity of people riding pedelecs, which are the electric-assisted bikes that are legal to ride in bike lanes in Europe.
“Commuting with a pedelec can help individuals incorporate physical activity into their day without requiring them to set aside time specifically for exercise,” said James Peterman, a graduate researcher in the Department of Integrative Physiology at CU Boulder and lead author of the new study.
Electric bikes are becoming big business, and there's a lot of hype about them right now. In fact, TreeHugger is full of kick-starters with some new wheel or electric bike design. They're being promoted like mad to baby boomers in articles like 10 Reasons Boomers are Driving the E-Bike Market, and it makes sense; it's easier to go longer distances, keep up with younger and faster riders and climb hills.
But they can be more dangerous than conventional bikes. On Copenhagenize, Mikael Colville-Andersen notes that in the Netherlands, there are a lot of older people on e-bikes, and they're getting into a disproportionate number of accidents. He speaks to an e-bike skeptic:
He mentioned that 11% of cyclist fatalities were caused by the fact that the cyclist was on an e-bike. Going too fast, losing control, motorists surprised by a speed faster than the average cyclist. He was also concerned about the lack of interest in such matters… [in a Dutch report] they highlight that 20% of e-bike crashes send the cyclist into intensive care. Only 6% of crashes on normal bikes end up in intensive.
And those are European pedelecs. In America, every vendor talks about how big their motors are and how fast their bikes can go, but in Europe they are limited to 250-watt motors with a top speed of 16 mph. They don’t have throttles, but instead the motor kicks in to assist you when you pedal. I personally think this should become the legal standard for e-bikes in North America if they're going to co-exist with bikes in bike lanes here.
I'm often terrorized by the electric scooters with do-nothing pedals that are allowed in our bike lanes; this one just blew past me in the separated bike lane, with a sound system that almost blew out my hearables.
Overpowered and oversized bikes seem to be much more common in North America, where people seem to think that they should be more like motorcycles than bikes. I think we should be learning from the Europeans, who have been doing this a lot longer. The bigger the motor and the bigger the battery, the heavier the bike and the more reliant one becomes on the motor.
The differences among these e-bikes are subtle. One of the nicest on the market is this Faraday.
It has the motor in the rear hub, which is better for traction and control. It has a nice grease-free belt instead of a chain, too. It’s a beautiful bike.
In Europe, a lot of e-bikes have the motor integrated into the frame in the middle of the bike, which keeps the center of gravity low.
In Seattle, a city with lots of hills, e-bikes are very popular. Brad Kahn rides this one to the Bullitt Center, perhaps the world’s greenest office building, which doesn’t have an electric outlet in the bike storage room. But it has a detachable battery that he can take up to his desk for charging. This is a consideration for people who store their bikes in places without available power.
I really like this one, designed (and modeled by) Troy Rank; the batteries are actually built into the frame. You can barely tell it is an e-bike. It has the motor on the front wheel, which is the easiest and cheapest place to put it, but also possibly the most dangerous; too much power and the fork can snap — people have died from this. Most of your weight is on the rear wheel, so the front can spin out. If the motor ever seizes up, you can go flying. But if the motor is small, like a 250-watt model, the chances of any of this happening are minimized.
It rode like a bike, but a lot easier. I wrote after testing it:
This is, I believe, the real future of E-bikes- they are for people who need a little more range, perhaps a bit of a boost in hilly terrain, who don't want to arrive at work drenched in sweat. They make bikes accessible to more people of different abilities and ages. They truly enhance the bike rather than try and be something else.
I'll admit that even after a couple of decades of riding a bike, I find the commute home from the university where I teach to be a slog, as the city of Toronto is built on a slight tilt down to the waterfront. I can see one of these in my future — but not too big and not too fast, just a booster on the bike. I doubt I'm alone.