We here at The Verge love electric rideables. Hoverboards, skateboards, scooters, motorcycles, mopeds, unicycles, tricycles… you name it, we’ve ridden it. But electric bikes belong in a category of their own because they’re more than just a fun tech fad. They could actually be the future of transportation.
Of course, e-bikes aren’t new or without controversy. Some feel threatened by the rising popularity of e-bikes, as though standard bikes will suddenly vanish like the penny-farthing once everyone goes electric. Rest assured: e-bikes won’t make human-powered mobility obsolete. They may actually enhance it.
That said, there’s really no better time than right now to start shopping for an electric bike. The market is flooded with battery-powered bikes of all shapes and sizes. Boutique upstarts are jockeying for funding on Indiegogo and Kickstarter, while a handful of European companies are pushing the envelope with a variety of high-tech designs. Meanwhile, major bike manufacturers are finally waking up to the profit potential of e-bikes and are introducing their own lineups. Prices are fluctuating, but you can get a solidly built, reliable e-bike for less than $1,000.
Obviously, there’s a lot to choose from out there, and you don’t want to get fooled, so here’s what you need to know.
E-bikes are finally catching on in the US
As I said, e-bikes aren’t new; they’ve been around for decades. And if you live in China or Europe, e-bikes are probably already a way of life for you. But it wasn’t always that way.
For years, European e-bikes were used primarily by people 65 and over. For seniors who were already dependent on their bikes in places like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Berlin, e-bikes offered a way to continue riding for many more years. As such, e-bikes had the unfortunate reputation of being just for old people. E-bike manufacturers have been laboring to tamp down this perception, and it seems like it’s working. Young urban commuters in Europe are finally giving e-bikes their attention.
The US doesn’t have this perception problem, but it does have a car and infrastructure problem. As such, electric bikes are still pretty niche here: they only account for 4 percent of total bicycle sales. Compare that to more bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands where, last year, there were more e-bikes sold than regular bikes. Overall, experts predict that worldwide sales will hit $23.8 billion by 2025.
E-bikes represent a small portion of the overall bike market in the US, but bike riders are slowly starting to come around. Electric bike sales jumped by an incredible 91 percent from 2016 to 2017 and then another 72 percent from 2017 to 2018 to reach an impressive $143.4 million, according to the market research firm NPD Group. Sales of electric bikes in the US have grown more than eightfold since 2014.
The major brands are noticing. Waterloo, Wisconsin-based Trek introduced its first electric bike in 1997, but no one bought it. Now, the company is gearing up to introduce a whole lineup of high-tech powerful e-bikes.
“Where will e-bikes be in ten years if I had to wave my wand right now?” asked John Burke, CEO of Trek, in a recent interview with The Verge. “I’d say e-bikes would be at 35 percent. It’s going to be massive, because it’s such an amazing product.”
It took a long time to get to this point. One of the first patents for a battery-powered bicycle was registered in 1895 by an inventor named Ogden Bolton Jr. His idea was simple but quite interesting: a DC electric motor installed on a bike’s rear wheel hub. That motor could take up to 100 amps from a 10-volt battery, which was placed under the horizontal tube of the frame. There was no gearing system or pedals.
Bolton didn’t actually end up making or selling any of these bikes. But amazingly, some of the same design details can be found in e-bikes today: a rear-hub motor with a battery centrally mounted in the frame.
Motors, sensors, and everything in between
Generally speaking, e-bikes are bicycles with a battery-powered “assist” that comes when you pedal or, in some cases, use a throttle. Pushing the pedals engages a small motor, which gives you a boost, so you can zip up hills and cruise over rough terrain without breaking a sweat. Twisting a throttle does the same with no pedaling necessary.
There are two main motor types: mid-drive motors, with the motor positioned in the middle of the bike, usually between the pedals; and hub-drive motors, which are located in the center of either the front or rear wheel (usually the rear).
There are pros and cons to both. Hub-drives have been around forever and tend to be cheaper and more versatile. They’re excellent motors for anyone needing a reliable e-bike for long, mostly flat commuting. Mid-drives are usually smaller and lighter and can allow for greater torque than hub-drives, making them particularly well-suited for hilly areas and off-road use. The centered position on the bike also creates a more balanced ride, and changing a tire on a mid-drive bike is usually less of a pain.
“Mid-drives are more efficient, and are usually able to deliver more torque without expanding nearly as much battery capacity,” said Steven Sheffield, product manager at Bosch, which makes high-end drivetrains for e-bikes. “So if you’re climbing hills, definitely if you’re off road, you want to have to get a mid-drive for that efficiency uphill and the torque.”
E-bikes tend to use different types of sensors to determine how best to dole out power. There are two types: torque sensors and cadence sensors. Torque sensors regulate the motor based on how hard you’re pushing the pedals, while cadence sensors work off of how fast you pedal. Most good bikes use torque sensors, while the low-enders have cadence only. A lot of bikes use both.
I highly recommend testing out both types of motors before buying an e-bike to see which is the best fit for you. Think about how you plan on using the bike: commuting, off-roading, touring. The better e-bike brands usually match the appropriate motor placement with the type of bike they’re selling. Most mountain bikes come with midrange motors, while the majority of commuter bikes sold in hill-less cities like Amsterdam are hub-based.
I’ve got the power!
Now let’s talk power. The main measurements for power are watts (W), volts (V), and amp-hours (Ah). Beyond that, things can get a little sticky.
Manufacturers often list “power ratings” in their spec sheets. San Diego’s Juiced, for example, rates the motor on its new Scorpion e-bike at 750W. But this can get confusing because rated power isn’t the same thing as peak power or actual power output. Some companies creatively measure their power ratings in order to avoid EU regulations that kick in above 250W. As such, it’s probably best to ignore it altogether.
“Attempting to compare e-bike power ratings is a great way to lose your sanity,” Dan Roe writes in Bicycling magazine.
To get a better idea of how much maximum power you’ll actually feel, check to see if a manufacturer lists an e-bike battery’s voltage and the continuous amperage (measured as amp-hours) from the motor controller. Multiply those to get the watt-hours, or the number of watts that can be delivered in an hour. This gives you a great sense of how much range you’ll get out of a bike.
For example, Rad Power Bikes’ cargo bike, the Radwagon, has a power rating of 750W, but a 48-volt battery pack and 14 amp-hours: 48 x 14 = 672 watt-hours. If you’re thrifty with your energy usage, each mile you travel will cost you about 20 watt-hours. Therefore a 672-watt-hour pack will get you a range of about 34 miles. (Rad Power Bikes says the Radwagon can get a range of 25–45 miles.)
Know your classes
There are three classes of e-bikes in the US. Class 1 is pedal-assist with no throttle . Class 2 is throttle-assisted with a maximum speed of 20 mph. And Class 3 is pedal-assist only, no throttle, with a maximum speed of 28 mph.
In Europe, pedal-assisted electric bikes with 250W motors capped at 25 km/h are treated as regular bicycles. Above that, there are two regulated classes: L1e-A electric bikes can have up to 1,000W of motor power, but they require registration and insurance in some areas. This category includes electric cargo bikes popular with families. L1e-B e-bikes have 1,000W+ motors and are capable of going 45 km/h. They’re basically mopeds that require a helmet and can’t be ridden on bike paths. In general, e-bikes capable of 25 km/h are called pedelecs (from “pedal electric bikes”), whereas the faster 45 km/h bikes are called speed-pedelecs. Of course, as with most things that are European, member states have some flexibility in how the rules are applied, creating confusion for manufacturers.
The US is still playing catch-up when it comes to rules and regulations. According to the organization People for Bikes, 2019 started with 11 states using the three-class e-bike definitions. As of June 19th, 2019, 22 states are now defining e-bikes within the three classes, effectively doubling the total in just six months.
Let’s go shopping!
So where can you buy an e-bike? Your local bike store is the best bet because you’re going to get a selection that’s been curated by the owners, and people who work there are going to be able to answer all of your burning questions about performance and repairs. Amazon is another place, obviously, but there are some pretty serious trade-offs. For example, your bike could arrive banged up, and some of the companies that sell their bikes on Amazon are a bit more ephemeral: here one day and gone the next.
It’s not just Amazon, of course. Many e-bikes sold in the US are just cobbled together from a variety of off-the-shelf parts found in a catalog. If that sounds easy, it’s because it is, which explains why there are hundreds of e-bike companies on Kickstarter and Indiegogo trying to impress you with their flashy tech and futuristic designs.
Most don’t come with warranties or customer support. Some are overpriced. And it’s very likely that you’re buying a Chinese model that’s just been rebranded with Western marketing so it can be sold at a markup. If you find a bike online that you like, an interesting test is to search for the bike’s specs on Alibaba and see whether there is something similar being sold in Asia. It may even be cheaper.
E-bikes can come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, from city bikes with thick tires and stylish designs to cargo bikes with enough power to haul heavy loads or even a couple of kids. There are some fun retro designs and some really cool space age ones. My personal favorites are the taco mini bike designs with fat tires and long banana seats.
A quick warning about crowdfunding: sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo can be a crapshoot. Sellers make big promises, but sometimes they can’t deliver. According to a study run by Kickstarter in 2015, roughly 1 in 10 “successful” products that reach their funding goals fail to actually deliver rewards. Of the ones that do deliver, delays, missed deadlines, or overpromised ideas mean there’s often disappointment in store for those products that do get done.
Some e-bike companies don’t really have a choice, though. Bike makers have told me that investor cash is hard to come by these days because scooter-sharing startups like Bird and Lime have made VCs dodgy about funding new mobility startups.
How e-bikes will change transportation
E-bikes lower the barriers to biking, making it easier for people who are older or more anxious about the stresses and strains of biking to justify riding. You’re more likely to ditch your car or delete your Uber app if you know you can get to where you’re going faster and more efficiently without getting overly tired or sweaty.
More importantly, e-bikes can rescue cities from the clutches of car culture. As noted by Curbed’s Alissa Walker:
A 2018 study by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities that surveyed 1,800 e-bike riders found that they bike more often, take longer trips, and make different types of trips than they do on pedal bikes.
Not only did more respondents feel safer riding an e-bike than they did riding a pedal bike, the percentage of people who felt safer on an e-bike was even greater when the respondents were women, over 55, or had physical limitations.
“E-bikes are making it possible for more people to ride a bicycle” reads the study, “many of whom are incapable of riding a standard bicycle or don’t feel safe doing so.”
If you’re worried that electric power will take all the fun and recreation out of biking, well, you’re wrong. Another study looked at the cognitive and psychological effects of outdoor cycling and found equal results for traditional bikes and e-bikes. Climate change got you down? E-bikes are more sustainable than electric cars, and they will help clear up traffic congestion and make cities more livable. Besides, you can always shut off the motor if you’re looking for a little exercise.
As cities become more congested, some businesses are turning to e-bikes to make their deliveries. Domino’s is using Rad Power Bikes to deliver pizza in a couple of cities. UPS is using cargo bikes in Seattle. German delivery company DPD wants to use these cute mini-trucks that are actually e-bikes in disguise. In New York City, e-bikes are almost exclusively used by food delivery workers.
Don’t be fooled: the US is still far behind the rest of the world when it comes to bikes. We see them more as recreational vehicle than as a transportation alternative, something you use in fair weather, not in the rain and snow like the Dutch. But come on, the US women’s national soccer team beat the Netherlands in the World Cup, so surely we can compete in the saddle as well?
Streets in the US are designed for cars, and bikes and pedestrians are often just an afterthought. This marginalization has caused a shameful spike in cyclist and pedestrian deaths nationwide. E-bikes won’t reverse that trend unless enough people stop driving and start pedaling. Only then will cities find themselves confronted with the choice between maintaining the status quo or redesigning their streets to be more livable, walkable, and bikeable.
Electric bikes can make getting around so much easier for everyone, including older people and people with different abilities. Look, everything is terrible, and obviously, e-bikes won’t solve anything unless more people start riding. But there is one thing I can promise you: once you start riding, you won’t want to stop.
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