Ebikes – a tipping point, or another Segway?

Being a bit of a bike geek, I’ve been researching the surprisingly varied models of electric-assist bikes on the market. These are basically pedal bicycles that have an electric motor and battery to provide extra power to the wheels. Some can be run purely off the battery (no pedaling required), while others are “pedal assist” systems – power is only applied to supplement pedal power. They’re still a bit pricey for my taste and budget (decent ones run close to $3,000), but there are also much less expensive DIY kits available that one can add onto an existing bike frame.

This has me wondering whether we’re on the cusp of another transportation revolution. The Bay Area had a high density of early adopters when the Toyota Prius first came out (I myself bought one in its 2nd year of production). Early Prius owners would give each other “the nod” if we pulled up next to one another; there were plenty of web-based discussion boards on topics such as optimal tire inflation, hyper-miling (squeezing every last MPG out of the car), and the like. Nowadays, the Prius is so commonplace nobody bats an eye. Today it’s the Tesla, Nissan Leaf, and other pure electric vehicles that get some notice, but even they are becoming more commonplace.

With the economy on the rebound, Bay Area traffic has gotten horrible. The relationship between cars on the road and traffic snarls is non-linear – it only takes a small increment of cars on the road to really foul up the traffic patterns. I’ve altered my current commute to take more surface streets this year, as the main freeway is simply no longer the fastest route (according to Google Maps transit times, which I’ve found to be accurate). And I’ve certainly noticed that in stop-and-go traffic, a bicycle commuter can more or less keep pace with me over several miles.

All of this has me wondering whether the time is right for a new segment of the population to discover bicycle commuting. I don’t know what the statistics are for bike commuters (in terms of average distance traveled, time used during commute, etc.)… Oh, wait, The Google know all. This page claims in 2014, the national average bike commute was just over 19 minutes, with most commutes falling in the 10-14 minute range. Assuming a fairly casual average speed of 10 mph (which might be reasonable if stop signs and traffic lights are factored in), that means the average bike commute is a bit over 3 miles.  Maybe 4 if the speed goes up a bit.

Ebikes have the potential to change that range dramatically. There are essentially two speed classes recognized by a recent CA law, those limited to 20mph top speed, and those limited to 28mph.  I’ve tried bikes in both categories and believe me, it’s pretty easy to get to the top speed by just exerting the effort I would expend going 8-10 mph on a normal bike.  This means that a 3 mile commute at 10mph (18 minutes) could become a 6 mile commute at 20mph, or nearly 9 miles at 28mph. Inside that ring from 3 to 9 miles out from home are a lot of potential commutes that could be done nearly as quickly by ebike.

That’s the hopeful view. A pessimistic view (spurred by an editorial I dug up – and lost the link to – while researching ebikes) wonders whether ebikes are the next Segway. In the author’s mind this is not a flattering comparison. The initial promise of the Segway was to revolutionize urban transportation. Instead they became associated with mall cops and airport security; the public perception of Segway riders is somewhere between a dork and an overweight couch potato. I have no data to corroborate the author’s claim of public perceptions, but the paucity of Segways on the sidewalks and bike lanes speaks for itself – I almost never see one in the wild, except for an occasional organized tour of a city.

Personally, I don’t see ebikes going the same route as the Segway. First, they come in a variety of styles, from cruisers to road bikes to real workhorse bike/trucks. Anybody interested in one can find one that fits their perception of what a “cool” bike should look like. Most importantly, the “e” part of the ebike can be made fairly unobtrusive – it would take a hard second look to realize a person’s bike was electrically assisted. Also, while the U.S. is not a bike commuting culture in the same way that, say, China is, bikes are common enough that one doesn’t call attention to oneself riding one. A Segway definitely catches people’s eye – a bicycle, not so much.

As for myself, I clocked my commute to Stanford at about 7 miles one way, and timed it at about 35 minutes on my carbon road bike riding at a moderate touring pace (around 12mph, including stop signs and lights). I’m a recreational/fitness cyclist, so that’s well within my range for an easy bike ride. For starters, I’m going to try commuting the old-fashioned way with pure pedal power. If I decide there is real value in cutting the time in half, maybe I’ll consider a plug-and-play e-motor kit, but for now I just don’t think I’m in the right demographic/commute range to justify that. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, here’s my new beast on its first ride out. (Specialized Sirrus Sport Disc)

New commuter on its first time out

New commuter on its first time out

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