Electric cars remain something of a novelty, commanding premium prices and presenting charging challenges, but another kind of electric vehicle has been gaining momentum: the e-bike.
Globally, electric cars — battery and plug-in hybrids — account for only about 1 percent of all vehicle sales, with about 1.15 million expected to be sold worldwide this year, according to EV-volumes.com. Compare that with the 35 million e-bikes expected to be purchased this year, according to Navigant, with countries like Germany and the Netherlands experiencing double-digit percentage sales growth over the previous year.
“We see e-bikes as the entry point into electric mobility,” said Claudia Wasko, director of e-bikes for Bosch America. Bosch makes one of the more popular electric motor systems for bicycles but is better known as an auto parts supplier and designer of advanced automotive technologies.
E-bikes have taken off in Europe, Ms. Wasko said, because they are viewed not just as recreational vehicles but as a practical transportation option. In fact, electric-assist bicycles offer significant advantages over electric cars.
“If you run out of power in an electric car, you have a problem,” she said. “With a bike, you can still pedal.”
And then there are the advantages in cost and convenience: E-bikes can be had for less than $1,000, and their batteries can be easily removed, plugged into a regular outlet and charged in about three hours.
With designs that have to accommodate a motor and battery, e-bikes are heavier — weighing about 50 to 60 pounds — than traditional bicycles. Most models in the United States are pedal-assist e-bikes — they provide an electric boost only when the rider is pedaling, unlike throttle e-bikes, which can provide assistance even when the rider isn’t pedaling. Typically, pedal-assist models have a handlebar-mounted digital display where riders can select various levels of electronic aid, from zero on level paths to full power when climbing hills or dealing with challenging terrain.
Pedal-assist bikes are available in every bike category to appeal to every type of rider. There are step-through cruisers like the Raleigh Sprite iE Step Thru for casual cyclists. There are serious daily commuters like Riese & Müller’s Charger GX, and there are even folding models like the Oyama CX E8D.
“We think of these as an alternative to cars, not as an alternative to bicycles,” said Sandra Wolf of Riese & Müller. The company also makes a line of Packster cargo models, which can haul a week’s worth of groceries or two small children.
Indeed, the e-bike market is so broad today that every major brand, even those traditionally associated with dedicated cycling enthusiasts, has jumped onto the e-bike saddle.
“E-mountain bikes these days are super popular,” said Dominik Geyer of Specialized, whose company did some soul searching before developing its own e-bikes. But now even advocacy groups like the International Mountain Bicycling Association have abandoned their anti-e-bike stance and now support the use of pedal-assist bikes on some trails.
E-bikes can enhance the cycling experience for all kinds of riders, from novices to committed commuters who want to extend their routes without arriving at the office soaked in perspiration, said Murray Washburn, the director of global marketing for Cannondale. The technology also encourages owners to ride more often, safe in the knowledge that they can get a boost should they encounter steep hills or become fatigued far from home.
Improved technology has also helped their popularity. Manufacturers have switched from motors attached to the hub of the rear wheel to more efficient center-drive motors in the pedal crankshaft, which improve the bike’s center of gravity and handling. New lithium ion batteries are more efficient and able to deliver greater range. Depending on the weight of the cyclist and the terrain, a single charge can last between 20 and 70 miles.
More important, the experience is much more akin to riding a traditional bicycle than it was in the past. Less than a decade ago, e-bikes struggled with lugubrious handling and motors that would kick in with a jolt. Today’s models are better balanced and use smart algorithms to apply torque gradually, sensing when the rider is putting more pressure into the pedals and then delivering subtle assistance. The latest models even know when they’re stopped and can help the rider get away after a red light quickly.
That adds up to increasing sales. About 400,000 e-bikes are projected to be sold in the United States this year, double last year’s total, according to PeopleForBikes, an advocacy and industry trade group. But that would be just 2.5 percent of the 16 million bikes sold in the country.
Before they can succeed here as much as they have in Europe, e-bikes will have to negotiate a few potholes. Most notably, there is the criticism of throttle e-bikes, which can reach speeds of 28 m.p.h. or more, presenting a danger to pedestrians and other cyclists.
A phalanx of silent, high-speed bikes being used for deliveries in neighborhoods like the Upper East Side of New York has drawn attention to the need for new and better-defined regulations. About a half-dozen states have instituted rules recognizing different classes of e-bikes and allowing pedal-assist bikes that are limited to 20 m.p.h. to be used in bike lanes, without a license.
Nevertheless, the various rules can be confusing. Officials from the New York City Department of Transportation insisted in emails this month that all bicycles with any sort of electrical assistance are illegal, which would make them subject to confiscation and fines of up to $500.
But just last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio directly contradicted that view. In an announcement of a crackdown on businesses using all-electric throttle bikes, Mr. de Blasio made it clear that slower pedal-assist e-bikes, like those made by Cannondale, Riese & Müller and Specialized, “are allowable.”
But Tim Blumenthal, the president of PeopleForBikes, said he did not believe that legislative restrictions were as big a factor in sales as cost.
While e-bikes are available for about $500, buyers can expect to pay $2,000 or more for a quality model with a reasonable range and reliable service, said Chris Nolte, the owner of Propel Bikes in Brooklyn.
Mr. Nolte also recommended that buyers look for models with a center-drive motor and at least a 400-watt lithium-ion battery. Expect a two-year warranty from the manufacturer and a battery life of 1,000 full charges.
E-bikes are beginning to acquire a certain cachet, Mr. Nolte said, with more aesthetically appealing models that are difficult to distinguish from regular bicycles. Proponents say the best argument for e-bikes, however, is the experience of riding one.
“Some people said, oh, that’s like a motorcycle, that’s not bicycling,” said Mr. Geyer from Specialized. “But then they rode it and changed their minds.”