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.