You might be seeing more e-bikes on the streets. Seattle is now home to several bike builders and specialty stores. Even REI sells a few models.
Only the brave would commute from Vashon Island to Redmond in these trying times for traffic.
Randy Winjum, a designer at Microsoft, has been doing it for 12 years.
Last month, he decided to try something new: an electric bike that gets a motorized boost as the user pedals.
What’s an e-bike?Electric-assist bicycles are pedal-powered, and have a battery, controller and motor that give riders extra power. They don’t absolve you from effort.
- Price: Johnson carries new bikes between $1,500-$7,000
- Weight: 40-72 pounds
- Power: Federal law restricts bikes to 750 watts
- Range: 20-30 miles per charge, but it depends on the rider
- Speed: Legally, 20 mph, but some pedal-assisted bikes can go slightly faster
- Restrictions: Under state law, you can’t ride on sidewalks or trails that prohibit motors
- Mechanics: Some bikes sense the rotation of the pedals and add power. Others deliver power that corresponds to pressure on pedals. Some are operated with a throttle.
- Brakes: Because the bikes are so heavy and Seattle so hilly, Johnson recommends disc brakes
Winjum’s plan: Ride his new e-bike from his house on Vashon Island in the morning and hop on the ferry to West Seattle. Then, pedal to his car, parked in West Seattle, to drive to Redmond, or cruise to the Microsoft commuter bus, depending on his schedule.
Winjum is part of a trend, e-bike advocates contend. They believe the industry is about to take off, just as it did in Europe 10 years ago.
In the past two years, estimated sales in the United States have jumped from 174,000 to 250,000, according to an industry report. It’s projecting the number will rise to 350,000 by 2017.
In Seattle, electric bikes are gaining ground.
The city is now home to several e-bike builders. At least five Seattle bike shops carry e-bikes. REI sells a few models. And to grow Pronto, Seattle’s bikeshare system, the city is considering electric bikes.
Winjum doesn’t see himself an early adopter.
“I’m not the guy to have the first (gadget) all the time,” he said.
But with traffic so bad and the cost of his commute rising, he purchased an $800 used Trek e-bike on Craigslist for practical reasons.
“With kids now, we’re a little more budget conscious than we used to be,” he said of his family.
Microsoft subsidizes his ferry pass — bike included. When he takes a car on the ferry, it costs him about $14.57 per trip.
“By using the bike, I’m reducing my ferry fees to zero,” he said.
Perhaps the best part: Now, he won’t wait in lengthy ferry lines on his commute home and he’ll have more time with his children.
The rise of electric bikes has been predicted many times.
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Frank Jamerson, author of the industry analysis, Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports,, has been calling e-bikes the next big thing for at least eight years.
In 2012, Seattle blog The SunBreak published a story headlined, “Suddenly, E-Bikes are Everywhere You Look.”
“The last two years, there’s been so many companies coming into the U.S., it’s overwhelming. More companies than customers sometimes,” said David Johnson, who owns Seattle’s first e-bike shop, Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest, in Ballard. “They think the U.S. is at the tipping point.”
E-bike technology has improved substantially since 1996, when the Ballard store opened.
Back then, electric bikes looked like low-slung beach cruisers, with big lead-acid batteries behind the seats.
Now, they’ve got lithium-ion batteries and sex appeal.
The two companies produced a concept bike called the Denny with automatic gear-shifting, rubber-brush fenders and an e-assist motor.
Teague associate creative director Roger Jackson said the team designed the bike for Seattle, focusing on safety, security and convenience. The battery is hidden.
“We were very conscious just how big and bulky and ugly, at times, e-bikes had been. We wanted to produce a bike at first glance you couldn’t tell was an e-assist bike,” Jackson said.
It worked. The Denny won the contest, and the bike went viral in design circles.
Jackson thinks manufacturer Fuji could bring it to market next year.
E-bikes aren’t fully motorized scooters; they just provide a boost, either with the flick of a wrist or the turn of pedals. But they appeal to commuters, families and riders looking for less intensity than full-out biking.
Winjum, who lives at the foot of a “giant hill,” prefers his e-bike when traveling to work.
No stranger to long rides (he’s done the Seattle-to-Portland ride six times) on his Felt road bike, Winjum found the 25 miles to Redmond too time consuming unless he was training.
I get people in looking for a scooter and they’re disappointed. None of them are going to go up Queen Anne Hill or over Dravus (hill) without effort.” - David Johnson
“I can use a little help on that hill in my work clothes,” he said.
Others seek electric bikes because injuries have kept them sidelined.
“They used to love cycling but can’t anymore,” Johnson said, because of a hip, knee or back injury. His store has modified recumbent bikes with e-assist technology.
David Giugliano, who goes by the name Davey Oil, outfits about one-third of the cargo bikes he sells at Greenwood’s G & O Family Cyclery with electric-assist technology. He said e-bikes flatten the city for his customers.
“Pretty much all of our bikes are being used by parents to carry children. Many are being used by commuters,” he said.
Shirley Savel, who purchased an electric cargo bike from Oil, uses her bike more like a minivan than a motorcycle.
Savel once trucked an Ikea bookshelf home on her bike.
She regularly tows her 11-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son (he sits in a special toddler seat) to her daughter’s school about 10 miles from home.
“I rode all nine months of my pregnancy,” Savel said. When her water broke, she nearly hopped on her e-bike for the hospital, but decided on the bus instead.
“My doctor said that it was probably better that I got there the way that I did,” she said.
Expands biking world
Biking advocates see e-bikes as a way to grow their ranks.
“I love electric bikes. I think they’re a great way to get people who aren’t used to biking on bikes,” said Elizabeth Kiker, the executive director of Cascade Bicycle Club.
In Seattle, “you have to wear all this fluorescent stuff, this spandex,” said Blake Trask, policy director at Washington Bikes. “An electric bike removes that barrier.”
Electric bikes can be part of a transportation solution for the region, Trask contends.
“It’s still small. It’s still space efficient. You don’t have to deal with congestion. You don’t have to pay to park,” Trask said.
The Seattle Department of Transportation wants to turn Pronto into a significant part of the overall transportation system, said Nicole Freedman, who is leading the city’s bikeshare efforts. E-bikes could be a part of that.
“Bikeshare is transformational in that it gets the average person out biking. Go electric, and you’ll appeal to an even wider audience,” she said.
Birmingham, Ala., recently launched the nation’s first electric-bikeshare system, and Freedman said the next generation of bikeshares will most likely be electric.
She said Seattle faces a tough decision.
The federal government denied SDOT a grant that would have provided $10 million more for Pronto. Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget allots about $5 million to expand Pronto, but Freedman said the city must choose between expanding it to new neighborhoods or flattening terrain with electric bikes.
Even if the city decides against electric bikes, they seem to have found their niche with Winjum.
He’s looking forward to more time relaxing on the Microsoft Connector shuttle after hopping off his e-bike. “It’s so nice to sit and listen to music and not worry about traffic so much,” he said.