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The Rise of the E-Bike

For the casual urban cyclist in a hilly city, a little electric power in your bike can’t hurt.
September 27, 2011

When I lived in Washington, D.C., I wanted to bike to work. Nine-tenths of the journey from my home to my office was level, smooth, and comfortably bike-laned. The only problem was that last 10 percent: a sudden, brutal, and lengthy ascent up a series of steep hills. It wasn’t the prospect of daily exhaustion I minded so much (though I did mind that a little); it was that I would inevitably arrive at work with a shirt soaked through with sweat. So I scrapped the bike commute, and since there was no decent crosstown public transportation option, took my car every day to and from work.

I wish I had known, then, about e-bikes. An electric bike looks and acts just like a normal bike, for the most part. But it packs something special: a modest battery-powered motor that can help you out when you’re climbing that doozy of a hill. With a wider set than ever of e-bikes on the market, concepts in the works, and design challenges underway, now just might be the e-bike’s moment.

An e-bike is something like a hybrid between a normal bike and an electric scooter, and it’s priced accordingly. Schwinn is said to have a line starting at about $1,500 (though the ones easily found on its site appear to run about $2,700); others can run to ten times that or more. A slideshow from the Daily Green gives you a sense of the range of e-bikes out there; some flaunt their electric-ness, while others hide it. As with the recent mind-reading Prius X Parlee bike, e-bikes are a space where even car companies are showing some interest: Ford recently showed off a racecar-inspired e-bike at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Though Ford has no plans to mass produce the bike, the car company Smart does plan to do so with its own e-bike, set to launch in Europe and North America in early 2012.

“The e-bike market is growing very, very rapidly, with some 30 million units sold globally last year,” Axel Wilke of Ford Europe, said, according to PC Mag. “We see e-bikes as an important element of urban electric mobility.” Based on my own experience in Washington, an e-bike could take the sting (and stink) out of a cycling commute. And for those who live farther from their offices, it might just be a solution to that “last-mile problem“—plugging the gaps in your commute not filled by public transport.

There’s one last speed bump e-bikes will have to pass if they’re to gain wide acceptance: the withering gaze of the bike snob. The whole point of a bike, say purists, is that they don’t have a motor—that their motor is you. But the newest generation of e-bikes—for instance, this Ideo-Rock Lobster bike that served as an entrant in the recent Oregon Manifest 2011 Constructor’s Design Challenge—wear their e-ness very lightly indeed. As CNET explains, the bike’s 24-volt, 250-watt motor is housed unobtrusively between twin top frames, and it only operates when the cyclist is pedaling—no free rides allowed.

Ideo and Rock Lobster are onto something: If the bike snob can’t even tell what you’re riding is an e-bike, then there’s no way to incur his wrath.

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