While China has a long-established mass culture of bicycle transportation (though it has certainly waned in recent years), cities such as Seattle and Portland and elsewhere in the United States have a long way to go to make electric bicycles a part of the everyday American commute.
It is estimated that while 100 million Chinese use electric bikes as part of their daily commute, only about 58,000 Americans do. Major factors for this enormous discrepancy include the lack of electric vehicle charging infrastructure in most American cities, the lack of shoulders and bike lanes on most arterials, longer commuting distances and lower densities of urban neighborhoods that make bicycle transportation impractical.
Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute, a prominent Seattle think tank has recently published a series outlining the promises and struggles of creating an electric bike culture in the Northwest.
Three primary trends favor the rise of electric bikes as part of the low-carbon, "green" transportation infrastructure of the future, thanks in large part to the large amounts of the stimulus funding now available for such projects.
- Technical innovation keeps improving electric bikes. To give one example, the Japanese firm Sanyo has designed the Eneloop eletric assist bike which promises to change the electric bike market in the US permanently. The bikes are sleek and cost-competitive, available for $2,300 at Best Buy. American manufacturer Trek has also introduced a competitive electric model, the Ride+.
2. Electric bikes are catching on like wildfire not only in China, where 120 million users are expected by late 2010 (a massive increase from just 56,000 in 1998) but in Northern Europe, India, and New York City. Although the American market numbers less than 200,000, according to David Goodman's article in the New York Times the number is projected to rise in the coming years. Two types of electric bikes are emerging as contending popular models. The first, most popular in the US and Europe, is similar to a typical manual-powered bicycle with an auxiliary motor that can be engaged on command or when the cyclist pedals.
By contrast, in China, electric bicycles have evolved into bigger machines that resemble Vespa scooters. They have small, wide-set pedals that most cyclists do not use as they travel entirely on battery power. The bikes move at up to 30 miles an hour, with a range of 50 miles on a fully charged battery.Best Buy has recently released electric bike models for sale at many of its outlets in the Seattle and Portland metro areas, some for as little as $899.
3. Electric bikes are more energy-efficient and easier to charge than electric cars. According to the Sightline Institute's Durning,
Simple physics favor e-bikes over e-cars. Bicycles, even ones loaded with batteries, weigh less than their riders. Electric cars, in contrast, weigh many multiples as much as their drivers. Consequently, most of e-bikes’ battery charge can be spent moving the mass of the rider, but most of electric cars’ charge must be spent moving the bulk of the car itself. What’s more, part of e-bikes’ energy comes from leg muscles, again reducing the required battery power. In auto parlance, e-bikes have human-electric hybrid drives.Despite these trends that favor an explosion of electric bike production in the urban US (some estimates predict sales of 1 million e-bikes annually by 2016), there are four obstacles that stand in the way of a truly viable electric bike culture.
- Immature Technology - relative to electric cars, e-bikes still have a long way to go before the technology of installing, charging, and cleaning the bicycles' batteries is seamlessly integrated and convenient for consumers, as DL Byron pointed out on the e-bike blog Bike Hugger.
- Bike Culture - In Asian and Northern European cities, bikes are ubiquitous forms of transportation, nearly as commonplace as automobiles in many. However, in North America, bicycles are seldom used for purposes other than recreation. Especially in the urban Northwest, the local bike culture has defined itself in opposition to the automobile, and its point of pride is that bicycles are "trendy" because they are hard work to commute with using only muscle energy. The individualism and identity that come with car ownership in American culture also work heavily against electric bikes.
- Inefficient Distribution - There is a very segregated bicycle sales market in the US - the high end that sells racing and commuter bikes, comprising 25% of all sales, and the low end selling primarily childrens and recreational or mountain bikes, comprising the other 75%. Neither sector has adapted to the rise of e-bike technology, and as such very few American bike shops today have the technology or expertise to help customers with their electric bikes.
- Safety - Few American cities have provided the bicycle infrastructure needed to make e-bikes a viable option for most commuters. According to Jonathan Maus of the Portland bike blog BikePortland, “Our current lack of a connected, separated, and comfortable bike network makes many people afraid to even try biking — and simply giving them motors won’t change their minds.”
According to the Sightline Institute's Durning, the market contexts of electric bikes are very different in China and the US, and therefore expanding the American market and its associated infrastructure has very different policy implications.
The economic context of e-bikes is radically different in China than in the Northwest. In China, most buyers of electric bikes are stepping up in vehicular speed and comfort from heavy, low-performance bicycles. They are opting for electric bikes not in place of cars but in place of bicycles, motorcycles, or scooters. In the North America, e-bike buyers are stepping down in vehicular speed and comfort from the automobile. (Actually, they’re mostly buying an additional vehicle, to use in place of their car some off the time.)
Electric bikes, as the forerunners of electric cars and trucks, have tremendous potential, but they’re unlikely to win more than a toe-hold in a marketplace long dominated by petroleum-powered vehicles. Unless public policy makes petroleum-powered vehicles far less attractive, as China did for motorcycles. Petroleum is just too phenomenally effective and (still) cheap. Electric bikes will inch upward in market share in the Northwest, becoming less like novelties and more like regular bikes in their prevalence. But they will not sweep through the population as they have in China, unless we act through public policy to make their fossil-fueled competitors less competitive and cycling in general much more attractive. Specifically, we can:
- Enact climate policies that put a price on carbon through a carbon tax or a fair cap and trade system.
- Make dramatic progress in threading a complete network of continuous, separate, named, signed, and lighted bikeways through our communities, so that cyclists (pedal and electric) are shielded from auto traffic.