Around this time last year, Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, was pedaling home when he experienced a quirky moment of convergence.
Just as he passed a fellow cyclist mounted atop a jaunty penny-farthing bicycle, with its comically mismatched wheels, an electric bicycle zipped past them both. Technologically speaking, it was the past, the present, and the future of the bicycle, all riding side by side, if only for a second.
The electric bicycle has so far remained a novelty item in the United States, but manufacturers, retailers, and analysts say that will soon change. Fueled by soaring numbers of bike commuters and rapidly evolving battery technology, the electric bicycle is poised for a breakthrough, if it can only roll over legal obstacles and cultural prejudices.
The market "has been growing very consistently since about 2008," says Larry Pizzi, the president of Currie Technologies, one of the nation's largest distributors of e-bikes, as they're called. "They haven't become mainstream. But they're getting closer."
Sleeker and cleaner than the clunky rides of yore, the newest wave of commuter e-bikes are nearly indistinguishable from regular bicycles. Many have motors located in the hub of the rear wheel, which on the best models, can sense the pressure on your pedals and contribute assistance accordingly. A full charge at a standard wall outlet can take a rider dozens of miles at the federally mandated speed of 20 mph.
For potential riders, there are two main drawbacks: cost and weight. A nice electric bicycle tends to cost around $2,000, and to weigh roughly 50 pounds, twice as much as a normal bike. Both metrics figure to get smaller as the bikes grow more popular and technology improves.
Because e-bikes are a generic consumer product, like pens or lamps, there's no firm data on how many are sold in the U.S. But Pizzi says Currie's sales have grown around 20 percent each year. Other e-bike companies, like Florida's ProdecoTech, report that their business has doubled over the last year. With a $1.5 million grant from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Berkeley and San Francisco will launch a pilot e-bike sharing program next spring. Copenhagen will also debut an electric bike-share program.
The consulting group eCycleElectric estimated that the overall market for e-bikes in the United States doubled between 2012 and 2013. A more conservative analysis, by Navigant Research, has annual sales crossing the 100,000 mark in 2018.
Legally, the electric bicycle landscape is messy. The New York City Council voted in May to ban all electric bicycles (for the second time, no less), which has left owners in the city confused and cautious. Even a local bicycle retailer told me he was unsure about the law's scope.
Across the United States, too, electric cyclists are caught in a web of conflicting ordinances. Few legal codes properly distinguish between "throttle" bikes, which operate like motorcycles, and "pedal assist" bikes, which send power to the wheels only when the cyclist pedals. Access to infrastructure also varies from city to city. E-bikes are for the most part permitted in bike lanes (where they are permitted at all), though banned from multi-use paths in cities like Denver and Boulder.
Looking for lessons abroad, which proved a successful tactic for U.S. cities researching bicycle infrastructure, yields few obvious suggestions. In the bike-mad Netherlands (pop. 17 million), over 100,000 electric bicycles are sold each year, to little controversy. Singapore's boom in electric bike consumption, meanwhile, has activists calling for more regulation.
In China, where some estimate the electric bike count at 120 million, the battle over the "silent killer" — so-called for the e-bike's quiet approach that leaves pedestrians oblivious — has raged for over a decade. Citing pedestrian safety, Beijing banned electric bikes in 2002, only to repeal the prohibition in 2006. In Shenzhen, where e-bikes were reportedly responsible for 15 percent of all traffic accidents and 64 deaths in 2010, banned electric bikes in 2011. Guangzhou banned them in 2007, but police confiscating e-bikes sparked riots this summer.
In the U.S., where e-bike speed and horsepower regulations are tightly enforced, there's no evidence that electric bicycles are more dangerous. Advocates point out that man-powered bikes routinely exceed the 20 mph limit of the e-bike.
While many cycling advocacy groups in the U.S. see e-bikes as a lure for drivers, the elderly, and the sweat-averse, a certain suspicion remains. "To the core cyclist, it's cheating," Loren Mooney, the editor of Bicycling Magazine, has said. City governments are wary, and some "regular" cyclists fear that the spread of electric bicycles could stoke pedestrian vitriol, as it did in Chinese cities.
Bias narrows the market, advocates say. "The biggest challenge for the e-bike industry is that distribution points are few and far between," says Larry Pizzi. Out of more than 4,500 bicycle shops in the United States, fewer than one in six sell e-bikes.
That could be a huge missed opportunity for independent outfits. "Bike shops and traditional bike retailers need to get their heads out of the sand and realize that electric bikes are a huge opportunity, and a huge potential market we have struggled to reach," Clarke, of the League of American Bicyclists, says. "I don't think it takes a genius to realize these things are selling like hotcakes in both Denmark and Germany."
Clarke posits that this obstinacy may be due to the unusually self-conscious nature of cycling in the U.S. Even as bicycle commuting is entering the mainstream, its core acolytes have continued to treat the bike as a cult-like object rather than a regular consumer product. How can supporters dispel the sense that, as the Guardian's Steve Caplin wrote in a defense of the mode, the electric bicycle is "masquerading as a bike"?
I asked Clarke if he didn't feel some resentment when his electrically powered comrade sped past in the bike lane.
"For a fleeting second," he conceded. "But I'd rather have someone riding that bicycle than not."
Top image: Timur Emek/Associated Press