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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Electric Bike Makers Vie to Gain Footing in U.S. Market

Already Widespread in Asia and Europe, E-Bikes Face Steeper Climb Here

By Randy Salzman

Craig Fabio pedals into a driveway on River Street and peers inside a stack of tires. “No rims,” the Charlottesville, Va., zoning officer said while pulling out his cell-phone camera. “It’s a violation. Breeds mosquitoes.”

code enforcer

Craig Fabio completes his work as a code enforcer in

Charlottesville, Va., while riding an e-bike.

If Fabio was driving, both parking and a lack of flexibility would decrease his efficiency. But on this October Friday, he was “e-biking” on a year-old Giant Twist Freedom. The 10-15 mph ease at which he studies Charlottesville without sweating is changing the way the zoning department does business while diminishing greenhouse emissions.

ith the help of new software, the photos Fabio takes from his electric-pedal-assist bicycle will record locations and generate violation letters to land-owners while saving Charlottesville on fuel, insurance, future health care costs and parking in the city’s garage.

Available commercially since the mid-90s, e-bikes have battery-powered motors that kick in when a rider pedals. E-bike riders can regulate how much or little help they want. Commuters often let the battery do most of the work on the way to their jobs so they arrive feeling fresh, then primarily pedal their own weight home where a shower awaits. E-bikes tend to have three levels of power assist, but most rarely push the bike past 20 miles per hour, since that has legal implications which may require licensing.

The amount the rider pedals affects how long the battery can last. Most manufacturers estimate that a cyclist can expect at least 40 miles from a typical five-hour charge.

While electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, have generated all the buzz, there’s been a slow, but sweeping gain in two-wheel electrics across the world. Over a million electric scooters, motorcycles and e-bikes were sold this year in Europe, while in China they’ve outselling cars by a 2-1 margin.

Travis McGhie

Electric-assist bicycles, or "e-bikes," are equipped with

battery-powered motors that can do some or all of the work

for riders.

They’re even making inroads in the American car culture. Colorado’s Pike Research, a firm that specializes in analysis of global clean technology markets, projects that American e-bike sales in 2015 will total 683,000 units, with some 466 million two-wheel electrics rushing out of worldwide showrooms by 2016. Frank Jamerson, of Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports, believes American e-bikes will recover from weaker than projected sales during 2009’s decrease in gasoline prices and reach a “couple hundred thousand in 2010 and grow to half a million over the next few years.”

E-bike sales jumped 45 percent in the U.K. last year and both Italy and Paris began offering rebates on e-bike purchases. Back on this side of the pond, Portland proclaimed itself the “city for e-bikes” as local governments began recognizing the potential of pulling drivers away from their steering wheels. In Pasadena, Calif., government worked to increase light rail use by subsidizing e-bike purchases to help Los Angeles-bound commuters with their last mile travel.

“The reason electric cars get such a bigger chunk of the media pie is that cars are significantly more expensive,” said Pike Research analyst David Hurst. “The U.S. market by 2015 for e-bikes in terms of dollars will be about $855 million, but compared to the automotive market, it’s still significantly smaller. I’m very bullish on sales in Asia and Pacific nations, but conservative for American and Northern Europe, although Netherlands sales are doing very well.”

Indeed, e-bike rider Claire Metz, a Virginian of Dutch origin, said that virtually everyone she knows in Holland has purchased them—one bike shop there often sells 10 a day. However, she said her friends in the U.S. are so fearful of distracted drivers that they’d probably never use an e-bike enough to justify its $1,500 price tag.

With its scarcity of bike lanes and absence of a bike culture, America is expected to lag the world in sales, even though about 40 percent of the U.S.’s 411 billion annual trips are 2 miles or less. The U.S., with 2.7 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves, uses over a quarter of annual world petroleum production—most as auto fuel—and produces almost half of the world’s automotive greenhouse emissions. Even if every 4-wheel vehicle sold was electric, at traditional turnover rates, it would still take almost 20 years to replace America’s existing 251 million cars and trucks.

U.S. Sales Challenges

In 1997, famed automaker Lee Iacocca first tried to interest Americans in electric two-wheelers but failed, primarily due to distribution challenges. Iacocca put e-bikes into dealerships and discovered that salesmen interested in the commission on a $30,000 car were disinclined to pitch a $1,500 item. American bicycle shop distribution, as well, has been weak because employees have a difficult time selling “no sweating” and “help up the hills”—the prime benefits of e-bikes—when they tend to worship Lance Armstrong, who famously said that he bicycles “not for the pleasure, but for the pain.”

shop owner

According to Chattanooga Electric Bikes

owner Garnet Caldwell, building public

awareness of the vehicles in the U.S. remains

a challenge.

“Getting them into bike shops, that’s our number one challenge,” said Jason Seybold, founder of Dulles, Va.-based E+ Electric Bikes. “People who are really into bicycles, they generally are not fond of e-bikes. By far, our number one market is people who are out of shape or for some other reason are just getting back on bikes.”

“We need a fundamental shift in the attitudes in bike shop owners and employees,” said Craig Taber, marketing director for Optibike, of Boulder, Colo. “We gave up on trying to sell Optibikes in bike stores because we’re dealing with people who don’t already ride bikes to work.”

Walking into Chattanooga Electric Bikes in Tennessee, the difference is immediately apparent—owner Garnet Caldwell easily tops 300 pounds. Caldwell picked up electric two-wheelers while teaching English in China, where 90 percent of all e-bikes today are purchased and produced. There are so many on the streets that the Chinese government is trying to license and register e-bikes over the push-back of 120 million owners.

“The move to e-bikes is coming here, but getting the word out is the hard part,” Caldwell said. “We still get people every day coming in saying they’ve never heard of them. I thought I’d be selling three bikes a month to begin with but [a year later] we’re still in the red.”

Successful Markets

Although marketed almost exclusively as commuter vehicles, many—if not most—of American e-bike sales have been to the elderly, who recognize that exercise is crucial for long-term happiness and health, but no longer have the ability, money or time for gym memberships. With Best Buy and Wal-Mart carrying Currie E-Zips online as cheap as $500, riders don’t have to carve out a section of time to exercise.


Donald Shoup

E-bikes offer seniors like Lionel Metz

the opportunity to exercise with the

safety net of electric assistance when

they reach challenging slopes or get


Claire and Lionel Metz climb hill after hill in their neighborhood of 3-acre lots on e-bikes with minimal exertion, passing teenagers taking dogs for a run. The bike helps get 87-year-old Lionel outdoors for moderate exercise—movement he desperately needs after battling kidney and bladder infections and eventually prostate surgery.

“You don’t have to be a Superman, just normally healthy,” he said. “Maybe they aren’t for the millions, or the thousands, but for some people, electric bikes are a dream.”

That’s a word that also shows up when Fabio and his Charlottesville co-workers talk about their e-bikes. The city enjoys at least $1,000 in annual gasoline savings after the total purchase price for two e-bikes was a fraction the cost of replacing zoning’s 15-year-old Ford.

Besides being able to ride across grass and into driveways for quicker inspections, Fabio is most impressed by the diminished parking concerns. Finding a space for the 1994 Taurus used to derail his time schedule.

“An urban environment works quite well for these,” Fabio said. “Now all I need to do my job is my Blackberry and my bike. That’s pretty convenient.”

Convenience is one reason advocate Steve Roseman is passionate about e-bikes. The founder of the San Francisco-based Electric Bike Network also points to health, time, hills, parking and the environment, but reserves dollars for his strongest pitch. According to his economic analysis, the average fuel cost for traveling 10,000 miles is $1,210 per SUV, $910 per car and $20 in electricity for an e-bike. At the cost per mile, an e-bike runs on less than 5 cents while a Ford Taurus costs 73 cents.

Taylor and Susan Stein try out rental e-bikes in Tennessee.

On a beautiful September afternoon, Susan and Taylor Stein wanted to enjoy Chattanooga’s Riverwalk, but since cars are prevented there and they live atop the famed Lookout Mountain, going and coming on bicycles was out of the question. Instead, they stopped at Chattanooga Electric Bicycles and paid $25 each to rent e-bikes so they could pedal and coast across the arcing Walnut Street Footbridge or climb the short hill to Aretha Frankenstein’s restaurant between keeping up with—and occasionally passing—the lycra-and-spandex cycle crowd rushing along the Tennessee River.

So far, the Steins have resisted purchasing e-bikes because they worry that the winding climb from work to Lookout Mountain is dangerous. They plan, however, to move to downtown Chattanooga within a year and get electrics for commuting. In the meantime, 51-year-old Taylor Stein occasionally rents an e-bike for lunch-time cruises.

“I’d buy one in a minute now if Susan would let me,” Stein said. “I’m getting to that midlife crisis where others buy a motorcycle and this is about halfway there.”

Randy Salzman is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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