The Subaru Outback and Subaru Forester have recently been identified by Colorado AAA as the two top-selling new vehicles in the state. What many like about these vehicles is that they allow for hauling of family and/or luggage while getting decent fuel efficiency and the safety and ruggedness of all-wheel drive. It’s about the versatility.
Bicycles, on the other hand, offer much more limited versatility. They have traditionally been used for short commutes or for recreation by those fit enough to move via leg power. Longer rides may call for earlier wake-up times, extended exposure to potentially unpleasant weather, and perhaps the need for a shower upon reaching your destination. This is where the electric bicycle comes in.
Electric bicycles work by using a DC motor fed by a battery to either fully power the bike or to provide a “pedal assist”. Although they may be able to go faster, Colorado law limits e-bike speed to 20 mph. They are allowed on roads and bike lanes, and local governments can choose to permit e-bike riders to engage their motors on bike paths (currently allowed in the city of Boulder). Most e-bike batteries are lithium-ion or lead-acid and provide 15-30 miles per charge (depending on how much manual pedaling you do). A charge from empty to full can take 2-8 hours depending on battery type and size.
Environmentally, e-bikes are a winner if they offset vehicle driving, but a loser if they offset manual bike riding. Financially, e-bikes generally cost more than comparable manual bikes, but they cost only about $0.01 or less per mile for charging. The bigger operating cost is in battery replacement, as lead-acid batteries may last for 300-500 charges and lithium-ion batteries for 700-1,000 charges.
So, pay a little more upfront (or retrofit your manual bike) and you get to take quicker trips, longer trips, and don’t need to expend undue effort if you don’t want to. This versatility should mean sales, right? The market for electric bikes has been growing, with 33 million sold in Asia and 1.6 million expected in Western Europe in 2016. But with only 150,000 expected to be sold in North America in 2016, time will tell if they will ever achieve ‘Subaru status’ in Colorado.
Denver Post, “Colorado e-bike advocates hope to spark a quiet commuter revolution”, July 17, 2016.