They're fast, easy to use, and environmentally friendly.
People who criticize electric bikes like to say that they breed laziness. The perception seems to be that e-bikes are like motorcycles—just climb on and the thing will cart you wherever you want to go, no pedaling necessary.
That’s just ignorance. Electric bikes are normal bicycles that have been manufactured or modified to incorporate the assistance of an electric motor. It’s more accurate to call them electric-assist or pedal-assist bicycles because they do not go unless you pedal them. The only real difference between an e-bike and a standard one is that on an e-bike an electric motor augments whatever power you produce from pedaling. That means you can either a) be more comfortable riding, or b) go faster.
Think of all the cool implications. On city bikes, electric assist means commuters who might otherwise climb in the car because they’re late can take their e-bike and still get to the office on time. Pedal-assist bikes have also been shown to extend bike commuting range, since the electric help makes it feasible to go longer distances. In the Netherlands, e-bikes have extended the distances cycled so much that bikes are second only to automobiles in total mileage traveled in that country. And most experts agree that the rise of e-bikes as a practical commuting option in Europe is eroding sales of cars. More bikes, less cars—what’s not to like?
I especially like how e-bikes can bring cycling to new demographics. Take my mother, for example. She never rides a bike. She says it’s too hard and no fun. When I told her about e-bikes, though, her eyes lit up and she wanted to know where she could get one. If a little pedal assist is enough to get more people outside, in the saddle, out of their vehicles, I’m all for it.
I’ve heard some people rail against e-bikes on the grounds that they degrade cycling. This is just narrow mindedness. If I’m a walker, does it matter to me if others run? Or if I ride a moped, what difference does it make that there are also motorcycles? These are not either / or propositions. The e-bike police are not going to suddenly start making mandatory electric modifications to all bicycles. Don’t want pedal-assist? Don’t get it. But don’t try to mandate that others shouldn’t have the option.
Critics also like to point out that e-bikes raise all sorts of logistical problems. For instance, because they can accelerate so quickly, you are likely to have more conflicts with pedestrians. There are also the questions of licensing, insurance, street-legality, and all the other bureaucracy that comes with motorized vehicles. But these arguments are just distractions. I’m sure the government, which already successfully regulates licensing for all manner of vehicles, can figure out how e-bikes fit into the equation. We didn’t stall progress at horse-drawn carts because vehicles with engines were too fast.
Then there's the argument that e-bikes are too expensive. But that’s just a question of time and market share. My father bought one of the original personal computers, an Osborne, back in 1981 for $1,800. That was a fortune back then (the equivalent of $4,600 today), but of course as PCs have become ubiquitous, the features have improved and the prices have tumbled. Today you can get an iPhone 4s, which is more computer than the Osborne ever was, for $450. E-bike prices will fall, too, as they become more pervasive.
Some people also warn that e-bikes are dangerous, especially the DIY kits you can install at home. But remember, it's not just e-bikes. In the wrong hands, any bicycle can be assembled improperly and could end up killing you.
Probably the easiest way to persuade critics of the merits of the e-bike is to simply let them ride one. Do you know how much fun it is to add 400 watts of power to the 400 watts you’re already putting out? In the city, riding feels safer because you can easily keep up with and dodge in and out traffic. On hills, it makes you laugh out loud when you realize how little effort it takes to climb. And on cargo bikes, you can haul more weight than you could ever otherwise carry—last year, I loaded three boxed bicycles onto the back of an e-cargo bike and easily took them across town to the shipping store.
That’s the funny thing about the laziness argument. Many of the people who complain that e-bikes are just a symptom of America’s slothfulness are the same ones who train and race on high-performance bicycles, but then take their cars for the quick hop to the grocery or post office to save their legs. I can say that because I’m guilty of it myself. But what’s lazier—a combination of riding a standard bike and driving, or pedaling an e-bike everywhere you go?
Last year, I rode nearly 7,000 miles on my bikes, including road, mountain, and commuter. None of that mileage was on an e-bike. However, in May, I also committed to parking the car for a month and only using a Trek Transport+ for my in-town errands. I racked up over 250 miles on that bike—250 miles I'd have otherwise traveled in a car. I discovered that more often than not I was actually faster on the e-bike than in my Volkswagen. And I was also shocked how much I could get done on that bike, including hauling two big bags of sand and some lumber to and from Home Depot.
But when it came time to return the Transport+, I reverted to my old ways of hopping in the car for my errands. I could have still ridden my standard bikes for those tasks, but I had grown accustomed to the convenience and speed of the e-bike. I suppose you could say that makes me lazy. But the way I see it, it’s the car that bred laziness, while the e-bike had me out riding more than ever.