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E-bikes in America

E-bikes are a good proxy for examining cultural attitudes towards transportation.  They’re available practically everywhere in the world, but have only significantly caught on in a few select markets.  China is the biggest e-bike market in the world by a wide margin, followed by Europe, and with India and the US just starting to develop real sales.

I started thinking about e-bikes in the US after reading this article looking at slow growth in the UK.  This line caught my attention: “The electric bike is largely suited to the over 50s rider with creaky knees and anyone who requires that little extra bit of push up a hill, whether it be down to disability, or simply bought as the first stepping stone in a regime to get in shape.”  I think the industry analysis has been largely the same in the US, and I think it’s completely wrong!  The reason the US e-bike market has been so slow to take off is that most of the e-bikes for sale here have been the sort of junk bikes aimed at this geriatric market.  Old folks are only one demand component; there is an entire, underserved segment that wants sleek, lightweight e-bikes because they make wonderful commuters!

The super-sleek specialized turbo

The market has changed significantly in just the past year.  Cannondale and Specialized, two of the biggest American bicycle makers, have both had e-bike models in their lineups for at least a year.  Specialized initially only offered the Turbo e-bike for sale in Europe, which says a lot about their assessment of the US market at that time.  The Turbo made it to US showrooms only a couple months agoCannondale’s E-Series bikes remain unavailable.

e-bike for rent in arlington, va

e-bike for rent in arlington, va

E-bike sightings seem to be much more common now, too.  It seems like almost every time I venture out in Arlington lately I can spot an e-bike locked to a rack on the sidewalk somewhere.

Despite all the benefits of e-bikes (low carbon footprint, cheap transportation) there is still strong opposition to them in the US.  New York City recently revamped a long-standing e-bike ban to specifically target food delivery services.  The press release from the City Council had this to say: “…e-bikes are unlicensed, unsafe and unwelcome in our city.  Electric bicycles are not bikes… they are deceptively fast because of their sudden acceleration, and that is why they are illegal.”  Umm, someone should tell the New York City Council about cars and their ‘sudden acceleration’.

Perhaps surprisingly, e-bike opposition also comes from other cyclists.  I have repeatedly heard the opinion voiced, usually by sports cyclists, that e-bikes are ‘cheating’.  Cheating at what exactly?  Cheating at commuting?  Are cars cheating?  It seems like a ridiculous notion and yet it seems to surface anytime the topic of e-bikes is brought up.

This leads to the main point of this discussion, which is the pervasive attitude in the US that bikes are sporting goods rather than vehicles for personal transportation.  Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize sums this attitude up well: “The problem in the U.S. is all about perception… Many commuters see cycling as a form of exercise, not convenient transportAmericans often perceive cyclists as extreme athletes.”  Here, Copenhagen serves as a perfect example of a more transportation-oriented approach to cycling.  The picture on the left is an electric trike used by the Danish postal service.  This, of course, has nothing to do with the mailman getting exercise and everything to do with efficient delivery of mail.

utilitarian bikes in copenhagen

utilitarian bikes in copenhagen

I snapped the picture on the right at the Copenhagen Zoo.  These cargo bikes are used by zoo personnel for carrying equipment around the zoo grounds.  Again, this is an application entirely unconcerned with exercise or fitness and is instead a simple and efficient solution to a specific transportation requirement.  Both of these would be absolutely revolutionary here in the US.  Why is that?  Because of entrenched attitudes that bicycles are toys.

There are, thankfully, signs of a slow but building shift in this sort of attitude.  It was only in 2009 that Specialized relaunched their Globe brand of commuting bikes, indicating an increasing demand for practical bikes.  Bikeshare has swept the nation since 2010.  E-bikes are feebly catching on.  Bikelanes and cycle tracks have sprung up in cities across the country almost entirely within the last 8-10 years.  Washington, DC had only 3 miles of bike lanes (warning: pdf) in 2000, and is now constructing a third segregated cycle track.  There is reason for optimism; attitudes seem to be shifting.  The challenge is to keep this ship turning along its present trajectory.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

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