Thursday, January 24, 2013

E-Bikes: The Future of City Travel?

We were shopping in Santa Fe last week and grabbed a couple things in a local natural pharmacy store (don't ask me to define a natural pharmacy store). While waiting to check out, I spied on the magazine rack a publication I had never seen before, Momentum magazine.I snagged a copy for general edification on how the other bicycling half lives.

There were several articles about E-bikes in this issue (see link above for the table of contents). I think its an important topic, since the big push in the magazine and e-bike circle is to convince more folks to ride bikes by providing a mild electric power assist. If gasoline ever gets really expensive in the States, this mode could find a big following.

To be sure, there are some details to work out. I sent in this comment (slightly edited here) in one of the articles, "E-Bikes: Boom or Bust in North America".


This industry is, at least in the U.S., still in its youth, if not infancy. E-bikes could not make it past the laugh test prior to the invention and development of modern, reliable, lightweight and high performance batteries and electric motors. The e-bicycle industry must mature this technology with better integrated designs that are attractive enough to get people out of their cars; given the low cost of gasoline and car-centric culture of the US, that is a daunting task. At present, all but the “lightest” of these bikes is ponderous by any measure compared to a normal human powered bike of equal cost, meaning that in any but dead flat locations, one will be dependent on the electric power rather than human power. Nothing wrong with that from an environmental standpoint if the choice is between an e-bike and Old Belchfire, although the physical fitness benefits of cycling will be largely missing.

Second, Momentum magazine implies the market for the e-bike to be for potential, not current riders, as an alternative to the car. While the exchange of a car for an electric bicycle is laudable in terms of its drastically reduced carbon footprint and storage space requirements in the built environment, an e-bike is still a bicycle, subject to all the forces of gravity, friction, and momentum and completely lacking in air bags and crumple zones. New riders riding a bike that can reach high bicycle speeds (15-20 mph) with little or no training in bike handling nor any bicycling experience will be at elevated risk until they master the new vehicle. So will the rest of us sharing facilities with them. We must ensure that efforts to encourage e-bike use for non-cyclists are matched by equal efforts to make sure these folks learn some basic bike handling skills and bike law, since every electrically-assisted uphill is matched by a fast downhill. There are enough bikes collecting dust in garages now, put there after naive riders took a bad spill.

Finally, while Momentum criticizes government regulation for hindering development, we must be sure that e-bikes, especially those intended for use on bicycle facilities, look and act more like bicycles instead of electric mopeds; designs and regulation should be standardized enough to allow a manufacturer to sell in all fifty states. Designs, if intended to be used on bicycling facilities, should not put human powered bicycling at risk. Again, since these will be intended for general purpose transportation, some concerns must be given for providing Federally-standardized safety features such as speed limiters, brakes, lighting and even perhaps fenders to keep crud off of their lighting surfaces. Currently, the laws regulating safety equipment on bicycles are designed for the bicycle as a toy, for example, the CPSC mandated all reflector rule. The resulting crazy quilt of bicycling equipment, coupled with lack of enforcement, leads to cyclists taking senseless risks with their lives, especially when riding at night or in inclement weather.

As a longtime utilitarian as well as sport cyclist (I started riding to work in 1978 and only later started riding for endurance and sport), I welcome this new development and hope for better, lighter designs as the technology matures.


Ian Brett Cooper said...

Good comment, although I'd take issue with the idea that electric bikes are environmentally friendly. At this point, and into the foreseeable future, electricity in the US is generated primarily by coal, so any vehicle that is 'plug and play' essentially runs on a fuel which is (as I understand it) just as damaging to the environment as oil. Though I suppose if an electric-assist cyclist uses rooftop solar to generate his electricity, he could argue that his bike is indeed environmentally friendly.

On the other hand, I suppose electric assist bikes use far less power than cars, so from that standpoint they are a better choice - less damaging to the environment.

As for me, I'll stick with good old fashioned pedal power. In my view, electric assist is for the old, the infirm and the morbidly obese.

Khal said...

Environmentally friendly is a relative term indeed. In New Mexico, much of our electric power comes from the big, old, and filthy Four Corners coal fired power plants. They are politically protected.

On the other hand as you say, the overall CO2 footprint of an ebike must be compared to that of what it replaces. If it is replacing an SUV, that should be a plus.

In the long run, we have to depend on something other than coal and increasingly hard to obtain oil. Los Alamos, to its credit, now has our 2 megawatt solar array functioning and has invested in other diversified power sources**. That said, we are not much better than anyone else if one looks at McMansions and SUVs.

Jerry said...

"electric assist is for the old, the infirm and the morbidly obese"

I fit two of these categories and STILL ride my fixed gear as a commuter.

Steve A said...

Ian writes "electric assist is for the old, the infirm and the morbidly obese"

While I do not use an electric assist bike, it appears that Ian does not live in a location where he might want to haul cargo and it hits 100F+ for 20+ days at a time in the summer. When it hit 110F last summer, electric assist would have been nice on uphill stretches. Thermal wind heating would still have kept speeds down.