‘It’s a delightful and liberating experience’: US witnesses surge in ebike popularity after years of setbacks | Environment

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By Car Brand Experts

Following numerous failed attempts, electric bicycles have finally gained traction in American society, with a multitude of models flooding the market and more states incentivizing individuals to trade in their cars for two-wheeled, motor-assisted transportation.

This period could be dubbed as “the year of the ebike”, as declared by John MacArthur, a transportation expert at Portland State University. The sale of ebikes in the United States surged by 269% between 2019 and 2022, with the market poised to expand further in 2023, estimated to be valued at $2.59 billion.

While ebikes flourished in other parts of the world, the US was slower to catch on until the Covid pandemic emerged. Street closures, declining public transit usage, and a quest for alternative modes of transportation led to a significant surge in ebike adoption, propelled further by city and state initiatives aimed at reducing transportation emissions to meet climate targets.

“The convergence of these trends suggests that we will likely look back at this year as a pivotal moment,” MacArthur remarked. “Ebikes have pervaded the zeitgeist, sparking conversations. They are inclusive and appeal to all demographics. Even my mother is contemplating getting one.”

On a national level, the focus of Joe Biden’s administration has primarily been on transitioning from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles, offering tax incentives up to $7,500 for EV buyers. Despite the surging sales of ebikes, surpassing those of electric cars, there is no equivalent federal support for ebike purchases, even though many experts extol the superior advantages of two-wheeled transport, including lower air pollution emissions and enhanced safety during road incidents.

In the absence of federal support, there are over 100 local and state-based initiatives across the country aimed at promoting ebike adoption, as outlined in a database compiled by MacArthur. New York is set to implement one of the most substantial ebike support programs, with the state senate passing a bill that offers a 50% discount on the purchase of a new ebike or electric scooter, up to $1,100.

A man rides an ebike through Times Square in New York City. Photograph: VIEW press/Corbis/Getty Images

Jabari Brisport, a Democratic New York state senator, expressed optimism that despite delays, the bill will gain approval in the lower house, the New York assembly, and be signed into law by the governor. “There hasn’t been any resistance to the bill so far,” Brisport mentioned, who occasionally utilizes a communally shared ebike for his commute to his Brooklyn office.

“While there’s a considerable emphasis on transitioning from one type of car to another, there exist other transportation alternatives, with ebikes being one of them. They are an eco-friendly mode of transport ideal for short city trips,” Brisport highlighted.

Ebikes integrate a battery and motor into the traditional bicycle frame, offering assistance akin to having a push from behind while pedaling. There are various types of ebikes – some equipped with throttles for independent motor-powered movement, capable of reaching speeds of up to 28mph. Regardless of the classification, ebikes are deemed environmentally friendly, surpassing electric cars. Internationally, approximately 280 million electric mopeds, bikes, and scooters are reducing oil consumption by about a million barrels per day when combined.

The rise of ebikes transcends environmental implications, noted MacArthur. Foldable ebikes for commutes and heavy-duty cargo ebikes capable of transporting up to 550lb signify the versatility of ebikes for individuals with varying physical abilities. More than half of all trips made by Americans are under three miles in distance, a feat easily achievable with ebikes. Cycling is no longer solely a recreational activity but a practical means for running errands and commuting in a car-centric America.

“Ebikes eliminate barriers that people often worry about – such as distance, physical limitations, or arriving sweaty at their destination,” MacArthur emphasized. “With batteries providing a 40-mile range, ebikes can be viewed from a utilitarian standpoint rather than just for leisure. They are transforming people’s perspectives on cycling.”

Upon acquiring her first ebike six years ago, Bryn Grunwald, a transportation analyst at the environmental organization RMI, initially dismissed the idea as “silly”. However, her perception changed dramatically when she effortlessly ascended a steep hill while riding it to college. “That experience was life-altering – I arrived without being sweaty, out of breath, or flushed, but instead felt invigorated,” shared Grunwald, based in Colorado. “Since then, I have been fervently advocating for ebikes.”

Grunwald noted that her reliance on her car has diminished significantly since using her ebike, leading to cost savings in terms of operating and maintenance expenses, significantly lower than those of a car. Her enthusiasm seems to resonate with others in Denver – when the city introduced a new rebate program last year, the application website crashed due to the overwhelming number of visitors.

“I sense a shift occurring in the US,” Grunwald observed. “Not everyone may want to bike, but not everyone wants to drive either. Having one less car on the road benefits everyone. I use my ebike for grocery shopping, library visits, and commuting to work. When that pedal assist kicks in, it’s a delightful and liberating experience.”

A lady rides an electric bicycle on the Strand in Hermosa Beach, California. Photo: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The ebike success narrative comes with reservations. They are still costly compared to conventional bicycles, with prices ranging from around $1,000 to $16,000 or higher, and a significant number of Americans are still hesitant to ride in areas dominated by large SUVs and lacking dedicated bike paths.

“Without improved biking infrastructure in urban areas, the progress of ebikes might be limited,” warned MacArthur.

There are also safety apprehensions expressed by non-ebike riders. Some pedestrians and cyclists feel uneasy about ebikes passing by at higher speeds than regular bicycles, and a series of fires in New York caused by the lithium-ion batteries used in the bikes have underscored the risks posed by defective or poorly manufactured batteries (recently, regulations have been introduced in New York City to ensure ebike batteries adhere to specific safety standards).

MacArthur acknowledged the validity of such concerns but suggested comparing them to the existing hazards posed by cars, which can also catch fire and are responsible for approximately 40,000 fatalities per year in the US due to accidents. For ebikes to replace car trips rather than just conventional bike rides, the overall benefits need to be evident.

“Most pedestrian fatalities are caused by cars, that is the real concern,” MacArthur stated. “The crucial thing is to have dedicated pedestrian and cycling paths to minimize conflicts. Ebikes are not a cure-all, but I believe more cities will start embracing them.”

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