Electric bicycles are already popular in Europe and in China,
which has more e-bikes than cars on its roads. Now, manufacturers
are marketing e-bikes in the U.S., promoting them as a "green"
alternative to driving.
Most Americans know about Tesla [NASD:TSLA
the Chevy Volt, and the Nissan Leaf. But what about Evelo, the eZip
Trailz, and the Faraday Porteur?
The first three are, of course, electric cars. They benefit from a
lot of media attention and generous government subsidies, including
a $7,500 tax credit for buyers in the United States. The latter are
electric bicycles, and they attract neither.
Yet Americans bought as many electric bicycles as they did electric
cars last year. About 53,000 electric bicycles were sold, according
to Dave Hurst, an analyst with Navigant Research who tracks the
industry. Electric car sales came in at 52,835.
Globally, electric bicycles outsell electric cars by a wide margin.
An estimated 29.3 million e-bicycles were sold in 2012, with perhaps
90 percent of those selling in China, which has more electric bikes
than cars on its roads. E-bicycles are popular in Europe, too,
selling about 380,000 a year in Germany and 175,000 in the
Netherlands in 2012. By comparison, about 120,000 electric cars were
All of which raises a question: Can electric bicycles help solve big
environmental problems? The industry — which is making a push to
expand its sales in the U.S. — says e-bicycles will reduce
greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and traffic congestion,
while enabling Americans, two-third of whom are obese or overweight,
to become more active. In Europe and China, most electric bicycles
are sold to commuters, although it’s not clear whether they are
replacing conventional bikes, mopeds, or cars.
E-bicycle makers eagerly market themselves as “green.” Dashboards on
e-bicycles sold under the Polaris brand and made by a Miami-based
company called EVantage include a “carbon footprint savings”
function to calculate how many pounds of CO2 are saved by using the
bicycle in place of a gasoline-powered car. Evelo, a Boston-based
startup, recently launched a 30-day electric bike challenge, asking
people to give up their car keys and blog about using their electric
bikes. “We don’t want to wean people from bicycles,” says Boris
Mordkovich, Evelo’s founder, who previously worked at car-sharing
company RelayRides. “We want to wean people from cars.”
electric bikes end up replacing human-powered bikes, or if they are
used only for exercise or fun, they could well add to pollution
because they consume electricity, much of which comes from burning
fossil fuels. Only if electric bicycles replace cars will their
environmental benefits materialize — and that’s the goal, say bike
“Traditionally, people don’t use bikes for transportation,” says
Larry Pizzi, the president of Currie Technologies, a leading
e-bicyle manufacturer based in Simi Valley, California and part of
the international Accell Group (ACCEL.AS
“We’re trying to change a paradigm.” There are reasons to believe
that the e-bicycle industry may be able to do just that.
Before explaining why, let’s make clear what we mean by an electric
bicycle. These are not mopeds or motorcycles, but bicycles that can
be pedaled with or without an assist from an electric motor. They’re
sometimes called “pedelecs” or “pedal assist” bicycles because in
Europe the boost from the motor only kicks in if you pedal; in the
U.S., most e-bicycles also come equipped with a throttle to turn on
the motor without any pedaling required. Riding an electric bike
feels a bit like riding a conventional bike with a brisk wind at
your back; the motor helps you go faster and climb hills, but it’s
not the primary source of propulsion. Unlike mopeds or electric
scooters, e-bicycles are typically permitted on bike paths, and they
can’t travel faster than 20 mph.
Like electric cars, electric bicycles are manufactured by a mix of
startup companies and established players, including Schwinn (part
of Dorel Industries (DIIBF.PK
Trek (private), and Giant (9921.TW
Industry executives cite several reasons why e-bicycle sales are
poised to take off in the U.S. Most important is the fact that more
Americans than ever already bike to work, and that cities and towns
are building infrastructure to accommodate them. According to the
League of American Bicyclists, bike commuting grew by 47 percent
nationally between 2000 and 2011, and it grew by 80 percent in
communities designated as “bicycle friendly” by the league. Cities
including New York, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles are
building dedicated bike lanes, like those found in northern Europe,
to make commuting safer and easier.
“It’s happening in every major city, and a lot of secondary cities
around the country, and it’s causing people to think differently
about getting around on two wheels,” says Pizzi. “If you don’t have
safe infrastructure, people don’t feel as if biking is safe and
Electric bikes make commutes more inviting by easing worries about
hills, headwinds, and fatigue. “They increase the distance that
people can ride comfortably,” says Evelo’s Mordkovich. Commuters on
e-bicycles are also less likely to arrive at the office dripping
with sweat. “It seems like a small detail,” Mordkovich says, “but
it’s a big deal to a lot of people.”
Chinese Buddhist monk riding an electric bike. Photo by J.G.
(Flickr user "clip
Baby boomers are an obvious market for electric bicycles. “We’re
seeing an aging population, and a growing number of people getting
back into cycling,” says Bill Moore, an Internet publisher who
recently launched ePEDALER, an electric-assist bicycle retailer.
Urbanization will be another driver of electric bike sales, Moore
said, as will the obesity crisis, rising health care costs, and the
desires of employers to encourage their workers to become more
Like electric cars, electric bikes are pricey. A basic e-bike can be
had for as little as $499 on Amazon, but sturdy, well-designed
models with better-quality batteries cost between $2,000 and $3,500.
(Conventional bikes sell for an average of about $450 in speciality
stores and about $100 in retailers like Walmart and Target where
most bikes are sold.) Prices could come down as batteries and
electric motors become more efficient, and economies of scale come
into play. “The technology is getting better, rapidly,” says Dave
Hurst of Navigant.
Unlike drivers of electric cars who are plagued by “range anxiety,”
electric bike owners don’t have to worry about running out of
electricity: They can travel under their own power, assuming they’ve
got the energy to pedal a bike that weighs 45 to 60 pounds.
Batteries typically deliver 20 to 40 miles of assisted riding, and
they can be recharged in a few hours in ordinary power outlets.
While some companies are emphasizing the practical benefits of
electric bikes — they’re good for your health, good for the planet
and a low-cost way to get from here to there – others focus on fun
and style. They are targeting urban buyers in their 20s and 30s,
without a lot of money to spend, for whom the allure of owning a car
“We want our bike to be a sexy product, one that everyone will
want,” says Daniel Del Aguila, a co-founder of Prodeco Technologies,
which is about to open a new factory near Fort Lauderdale. By
squeezing efficiencies out of its supply chain, Prodeco sells a
number of models for $1,000 to $1,500 that, Del Aguila contends,
compare favorably to bikes selling for $2,000 or more.
For the premium buyer, there’s the Faraday Porteur, the brainchild
of Adam Vollmer, a mechanical engineer from Ideo, the famed design
firm. First launched as a Kickstarter project last year, Faraday is
now taking pre-orders for the Porteur, which is priced at $3,500. It
weighs less than 40 pounds, features a leather saddle and bamboo
fenders, and its Web site promises that it is “crazy fun.” Even more
expensive is the $4,000 eFlowE3 Nitro from Currie, which was
designed by a Swiss firm, Flow AG, and promises “fast, powerful and
nimble handling.” And if you’ve really got money to burn, there’s a
German e-bicycle called the Blacktrail BT-1 that claims a top speed
of 65 mph and retails for $80,000. Think of it as the Tesla of
Marc Gunther is a contributing
editor at FORTUNE magazine, a senior writer at Greenbiz.com and a
blogger at www.marcgunther.com.