Full disclosure: I have never owned, or wanted to own, an electric bicycle, so I can't bring the experience of an extended test period to this article. But I did work as a bike shop salesman during my poor college student days, so I have spent a lot of time around e-bikes and the people who buy them.
And let me tell you, the experience was not one I wish to repeat.
I encountered two broad categories of e-bikes, each with its own set of problems. The first category is the cheaper, and less durable, of the two. These are the bikes that are brought in once a month for the mechanics to look at—a do-it-yourself conversion kit slapped onto a Blue Light Special.
My main issue with these rigs is safety. Install the kit incorrectly or on a bike with cheap parts, and it could (and likely will) fall apart under you. I have seen DIY motors bend frames, corkscrew spokes and shatter brake calipers. And that's in an area with no off-road riding—I would hate to see what becomes of a kitted bike when you take it off a jump. I don't care how much time or energy you save riding one of those things, it's not worth the cost of a trip to a hospital.
Then there are the bikes built around the motor. These pass the safety inspection test, but fail when it comes to price. The e-bikes we sold at our shop cost at least four times as much as a “regular” bike. The battery alone cost half the price of the bike. (The batteries also happen to be impossible to lock up and are thus often stolen.) E-bike enthusiasts like to beat their chests about how much they save on gas and bus passes, but I wonder how many miles it takes to recoup the initial investment?
But the biggest flaws with e-bikes are physical and psychological. The bicycle is meant to be an endorphin-multiplier. In my mind, bike commuting's big draw is burning calories on the way to your destination. Yes, an e-bike is better for the environment than your car, but in the end, you forgo a crucial part of the experience. You make yourself better, and stronger, when you ride a real bike.
By doing the hard work for you, e-bikes cheat people out of that accomplishment and ultimately make them lazier. They enable entitlement to motion and a sense of false accomplishment. People will convince themselves they're doing more work than they are to achieve the same results, and their health will suffer for it. In other words, e-bikes are the Planet Fitness of transportation.
In three years, I encountered only one e-bike owner who actually deserved his machine—a man with a spinal injury who would otherwise have been unable to ride. I will never begrudge someone the thrill of cruising on two wheels, and e-bikes do have a reason to exist.
But to everyone who doesn't have a medical excuse—go ride a real bike.
Support Outside Online
Our mission to inspire readers to get outside has never been more critical. In recent years, Outside Online has reported on groundbreaking research linking time in nature to improved mental and physical health, and we’ve kept you informed about the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous coverage helps spark important debates about wellness and travel and adventure, and it provides readers an accessible gateway to new outdoor passions. Time outside is essential—and we can help you make the most of it. Making a financial contribution to Outside Online only takes a few minutes and will ensure we can continue supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers like you depend on. We hope you’ll support us. Thank you.