There is a joke told in transit circles about people who ride electric bicycles: How do you know if someone has an e-bike? They’ll tell you.
The idea, of course, is that users of the battery-powered two-wheelers tend to be proselytizers for the technology. Take Monte Paulsen, a building engineer in Vancouver, B.C., who used to drive a car five days a week. A former “fair-weather cyclist,” he rode his bike maybe twice a month, weather permitting.
The pandemic, he decided, was a good time to buy a RadWagon, an electric cargo bike from Rad Power Bikes, a top-selling e-bike company headquartered in Seattle. Now, Paulsen said, he makes 90% of his trips on it.
“I started as a personal experiment to see how I could lower my carbon footprint,” he said. “I’ve stuck with it because it’s really fun.”
Modern life is peppered with moments of discovery around mobility: the first car drive as a teenager; the first trip on a train, plane or bus, watching the world from a window seat. In this decade, that moment is increasingly likely to be an inaugural ride on an e-bike, often said to spark a childlike joy, thrilling and freeing.
Indeed, e-bikes are everywhere. The pandemic bike boom boosted e-bike sales 145% from 2019 to 2020, more than double the rate of classic bikes, according to the market research firm NPD Group.
While estimates vary, industry experts put the number of e-bikes Americans brought home in 2020 somewhere around half a million. (In comparison, they bought 231,000 all-electric cars in that time period, according to the Pew Research Center.)
And that growth does not seem to be slowing. Deloitte projected that between 2020 and 2023, 130 million e-bikes would be sold worldwide. At the moment, e-bikes — not cars — appear to be the world’s bestselling electric vehicle.
That sort of trend has the potential to transform urban transit. Many short car trips could be replaced, hypothetically, with a short, brisk e-bike ride. So what would it take to get there?
The exploding appetite for electrified rides is a product of three trends unfolding simultaneously, said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a specialist in new forms of mobility technology.
The first is the rapid development of lithium-ion batteries. Used to power electric cars, these batteries “have gotten smaller, more efficient and cheaper,” Zipper said, allowing their use in scooters, mopeds and bicycles.
The second, he said, is a worldwide resurgence of interest in urban cycling over the last decade. And the third is what he called the “gateway drug” of bike-sharing programs, which allow riders to try e-bikes without buying one.
“You put those together and it’s a sort of natural outgrowth,” said Zipper, who uses Washington’s Capital Bikeshare, or CaBi, regularly. “E-bikes capitalize on all of those things.”
Most e-bikes fall into three categories. With the first, pedal assist, riders are given a motorized boost, like an invisible hand is pushing them forward. The second, a throttle, allows the rider to zoom around, up to 20 mph, without pedaling, and is commonly used by delivery drivers and couriers. And the last is a faster pedal assist, allowing speeds of at least 28 mph.
For New York’s Citi Bike, the electric-blue pedal-assist bikes make up 20% of the fleet but carry 35% of all rides, according to internal data provided by Lyft, its parent company. Given that monthly Citi Bike rides have topped three million four times this year, that’s a lot.
Laura Fox, the general manager of Citi Bike at Lyft, said that for longer trips, e-bikes dominate.
“There is clear data that people want to try them,” Fox said. “And when they do, that becomes the dominant mode selection for them.”
One study found that people cycle at least twice as much when they own an e-bike, which combats criticism that the ease of riding makes it a less effective activity, proponents say. Riders may not be sweating as much, but if they’re biking longer and more frequently, they could be getting more exercise.
Greater regular use could also be critical to reducing car trips. In Norway, which has a national bike network, car usage dropped among e-bike users as they learned how far they could go on one.
In the United States, getting more people to travel by e-bike does come with obstacles. E-bikes do not qualify for commuter tax benefits that cover public transit and parking, and they remain expensive, with prices ranging from less than $1,000 to nearly $10,000.
A provision in Congress would offer tax credits and commuter benefits for e-bikes, mirroring incentives in countries like France.
But experts say people won’t use electric bikes if riders aren’t comfortable and if there isn’t infrastructure that allows them to feel safe. Vancouver’s bike-friendly streets were “half the equation” when he started riding more, Paulsen said.
Some countries are ahead of the United States on that front. In Britain, the government is offering tax credits for e-bikes and funds local efforts to expand bike lanes. According to one figure from the market research company Mintel, the e-bike market there saw a 70% jump this last year, with 170,000 sold in 2020.
But there have been challenges — ones that entrepreneurs are trying to address. When he was studying electrical engineering at college in London, Adebola Adeleye used Santander Cycles, the city’s bike-share program, to get around. But he noticed issues: the design of the bike, which was then approximately 51 pounds and is now closer to 45, was hefty for new riders.
“The style and the weight actually limited the amount of people who could get onto this product,” Adeleye said.
So he started building a prototype in his bedroom, leading to the CrownCruiser, an electric bike that looks as if it rode off the set of “Blade Runner.” Adeleye is now the chief executive of CrownCruiser Motors, a new e-bike startup. In an interview, Adeleye shared the screen with Mica Osbourne, a director at the company. The sleek, jet-black model is designed to cater to noncyclists. Fast, safe and stylish — to beat the car, one might have to think like a car.
“We want people to view their cars in the same way they view their bikes, which we don’t think is happening at the moment,” Osbourne said.
“We know a lot of people don’t have confidence on a bicycle, and that’s one of the reasons why we want this bike to set you apart,” Adeleye said. If the bike can keep up and has ample space to move, then zipping past traffic becomes an afterthought. “Because then you won’t think about the traffic. You want to give people that freedom.”