In a broad sense, an electric bicycle or e-bike is a bicycle with pedals and a rechargeable, electric motor assist. We have identified no fewer than 120 e-bike manufacturers worldwide, and there are many more. Designs and uses vary widely. Technology is evolving. Strong sales are a much needed boon for the otherwise stagnate bicycle industry. According to the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association or People for Bikes, e-bike sales in the U.S. have nearly doubled every year since 2016.
Richard Paul owns Velo Reno a bicycle sales and repair shop and an Electra brand e-bike dealer. Electra is a subsidiary of the Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle Corporation. Paul said in a short four year period e-bike sales now makeup roughly 10 percent of his business, his fastest growing seller.
“Four years ago we would get people asking questions, and there really wasn’t a lot of really good product available in the U.S. at that point. Part of it was possibly the market itself. There wasn’t a lot of demand. You go to Europe and they’re everywhere. It just took a little time for that to filter over here,” Paul said.
The European Cyclist Federation (ECF) reports that e-bike sales made up nearly 25 percent of the German bicycle market in 2018. German manufacturers reported a 51 percent jump in exports during the same year.
In the US, the Bicycle Parts Supplier Association did not begin keeping e-bike sales data until 2016 and has yet to determine with confidence what percentage of the U.S. bicycle market comes from the group’s member distributors e-bike sales, but Richard Paul said e-bikes have found their way to Reno and the United States.
“Now you’re starting to see these bikes everywhere. You’re starting to see in Madison, Wisconsin, Trek has their BCycle rental bikes that are in docking stations, and those are e-bikes now. They just replaced the entire fleet with all e-bikes. The idea is, get on it and ride to where you need to go, park it in another dock, and the rental fees are very reasonable, a couple of dollars for an hour, and that lets people get around easy enough without having to wonder if they’re going to take a taxi or if they want to get a little exercise.”
Who is buying e-bikes and how are they using them?
“Right now it’s quite a big range,” Paul said. “I have some people that have the hybrid styles. They want to be able to ride the paths. They’re getting back into riding. They may be a little bit older and they just want something that when they do have a hill in front of them, that they don’t feel that they’re struggling up the hill.
“We do get some people that commute and have been using the bikes for commuting and getting around or even just using those bikes as an all-around bike for just riding.”
E-bikes enable partners of different fitness level riders to ride together.
“What the e-bikes do is they level the playing field. You have some couples and one of the riders is accomplished and strong and they will go out and they can ride 100 miles and they’ve got a spouse or significant other that can’t necessarily keep up with them. An e-bike allows them to keep up. I’ll usually tell most people that had one person always waiting for the other, it’s going to be switched. The person that doesn’t have the e-bike will be the one that’s slowing the two of them down,” Paul said.
Green Time Efficiency, Green Stress Reduction
If you’ve ever been late for an appointment and riding a bicycle, the electric boost of an e-bike could seriously help relieve the physical and mental stress of tardiness. And if you commute to work or shop on a bicycle, depending on the context, the trips can take significantly more time than driving in a car, and hauling groceries and other cargo with pedals alone is a challenge many are not willing to assail; but an e-bike delivers a green efficiency that not only helps make a rider more fit but affects their quality of life in time savings while keeping transportation environment friendly. Richard Paul referred to a case study of a man with an hour and 15 minute commute on his non-motorized bike.
“The e-bike allowed him to shave a half hour of time in both directions. Some people would say, ‘what is an hour of your time worth a day?’ If you could have an extra hour of time for yourself, whether it was to spend time with the family, spend time with the kids, have some alone time for yourself. An extra hour a day is pretty valuable. That was one of the benefits that this consumer received from using an e-bike, so there’s a lot of exciting territory.”
“I have yet to put anybody on an bike or a test ride that hasn’t come back with a smile on their face,” Paul said. “They may say ‘this isn’t for me, but it really was fun.’”
The maneuverability, zero emissions, and freight-hauling power boost make e-bikes and their derivatives a natural choice for deliveries in tight urban settings.
There was an e-bike uproar early in 2019 in New York City when the city’s Department of Transportation prohibited the use of all e-bikes out of safety concerns following a number of preventable accidents. As early as 2012, New York transportation officials estimated more than 10,000 delivery people in New York were using e-bikes. The large number of e-bike users and the companies who hire them, usually as independent contractors, came together as a political force to persuade the New York City Council to allow pedal-assist bikes to ply the streets of New York, while throttle-controlled units have been banned.
The European Cyclist Federation also reports that the French Postal Service has some 30,000 e-bikes in service and that DHL Express delivery saves 13,000 Euros a year when they swap out a van for an electric cargo bike.
Earlier this year Domino’s Pizza tested the use of e-bikes to deliver food in Houston, Miami and New York. According to the world’s largest pizza company, e-bikes proved so popular in testing that they plan to deploy hundreds of them in corporate-owned stores in Miami, Salt Lake City, Baltimore and Houston. There are currently no e-bikes delivering Domino’s pizza in Reno, but the company has deployed 43 e-bikes for pizza delivery in Las Vegas.
In 1907, United Parcel Service started its business delivering telegrams by bicycle. The world-wide parcel delivery giant began using bicycles again in 1998, and staring in 2016, UPS has deployed an electric assist e-truck-trike in a half dozen urban and university locations in the United States.
The Hazy Line
Are e-bikes regulated like bicycles or gas-powered scooters and mopeds?
In 2002 Congress moved to regulate e-bikes with an amendment to the Consumer Product Safety Act. The language does not regulate the use of e-bikes but defines a single class of “low-speed” e-bike. House Resolution 727 also enabled subsidiary forms of government to regulate the uses of e-bikes as needed. From the law:
The term`low-speed electric bicycle’ means a two or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.
The U.S. Consumer and Product Safety Commission is the federal agency that broadly regulates e-bikes, which means that e-bikes are not subject to the product scrutiny and regulation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration vehicle standards. They do not have to be registered and insured, and no license is needed to operate them. The Consumer and Product Safety Commission regulates e-bikes like traditional bicycles without motor assist.
State transportation officials and federal land managers are responsible for regulating e-bike use, and over time, the single class of e-bike was not a fine enough distinction to adequately regulate a growing suite of uses and technologies. In 2015, in an effort to ease confusion, enhance safety, and support a green transportation method, the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association published a 3 tier classification system for e-bikes. Since then, 22 states have adopted the 3 tier model. California was the first in 2016.
On August 29 of this year, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed Order 3376, Increasing Recreational Opportunities through the Use of Electric Bikes. The order establishes 3 distinct classes of e-bikes almost identical to the BPSA classes for federal land managed by the agencies of the Department of the Interior – the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, and others.
Class 1 electric bicycle shall mean an electric bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
Class 2 electric bicycle shall mean an electric bicycle equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that is not capable of providing assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour. Translation: Class II bikes are equipped with a twist throttle that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches 20 miles per hour.
Class 3 electric bicycle shall mean an electric bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 miles per hour.
The Order goes on to direct public land managers to allow e-bikes where other types of bicycles are allowed and that e-bikes shall not be allowed where non-motorized bicycles are prohibited.
The U.S. Forest Service is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and published its own set of interim rules in late October that regulate e-bikes like motorized vehicles. Nevada Capital News is currently preparing a report that focuses on a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Tahoe National Forest regarding where e-bikes can ride in the forest.
The Tahoe National Forest regards e-bikes as motorized vehicles and according to its website allows e-bikes on the forest’s roughly 2,500 miles of roads and trails open to motorized vehicles. The plaintiffs contend the Forest Service authorized e-bike use on 130 miles of trail reserved for non-motorized bicycles without the required environmental oversight and public meetings.
Richard Paul said e-mountain bike sales are strong and emphasized that only Class I bikes are allowed on trails.
“The bikes that are allowed (on trails) are limited to Class I because they are 20 mile an hour max assist. They don’t want people going to the speed that the Class III can produce on those trails.”
There are aftermarket tools available online that enable an owner to enhance an e-bike’s performance beyond legal limits. Enforcement of e-bike rules on federal land is often on the honor system. E-bikes are silent and can surprise hikers and horses on winding trails intended to confer a pastoral experience devoid of fast-moving motorized machines.
Paul said most mountain e-bike riders are good trail partners but lamented that there will always be a few bad apples who disproportionately influence future rule making. Paul noted that the product’s warranty is voided when an e-bike is altered, and more, he takes time to ask those who buy Electra e-bikes to play by the rules and be extra courteous.
“Like any consumer, it’s your responsibility to know that the bike you have is allowed to be where you want to ride it. I always suggest people follow up, do some research, follow local laws and just be considerate. The biggest thing that most of these people can be is, if you’re considerate of other people that are using the trails, then you won’t have an issue. It’s a simple wave, hello, good morning, all that stuff goes a long ways. Ripping past somebody on an E bike just because you can with a hiker that doesn’t hear you coming …” Paul huffed and shook his head.
No mater where you live in Nevada, the weather is well-suited for biking. The state government, regional transportation commissions and local forms of governance are engaged and incorporating bicycle transportation in their development plans. As e-bikes become more popular and roadways and regional transportation systems are designed to accommodate them, the number of people and products moving around on two wheels is likely set to increase. The Electra Café Modo may be a glimpse of the future.
The Café Modo is an urban commuter bike with a smart combination of futuristic and genuine retro styling. There is belt rather than a chain. Once broken in, the classic leather Brooks seat rides like no other. The timeless and minimal “Challenge Tool bag” is buckled to the seat like a proper English bike. The Bosch battery/motor system is mounted in the middle of the frame, so wheels can be removed to change flats with a similar ease as a non-motorized bike. The wide-eyed headlight has the same shape and teardrop switch a bike in 1969 may have had.
“That’s a Class III that’ll give you an assist up to 28 miles an hour,” Paul said. “It’s designed for getting you to and from school, from work, whatever it is you want to do as a commuter, or if you’re just using it as a standard get me from place to place type of type of bicycle.”
How much do e-bikes cost?
Electra makes e-bikes with the motor on the frame, though they are now selling a hub-powered Class I e-bike as an introductory model. Richard Paul said most of his sales are in the mid to upper price range of his e-bike lines. The Electra e-bike line currently runs from roughly $1,500 to around $12,000. Based on People for Bikes data, the average price for an e-bike has declined over 3 years of record keeping.
The E-bike Future
Nevada is not one of the 22 states to formally adopt the 3 tier e-bike classification system but the state has laid down some e-bike rules of the road. An electric bicycle with pedals is treated like any other bicycle in Nevada as long as the motor has no more than 1 horse power and or 750 watts of power. NRS 484B.017 limits e-bikes without pedals to 20 mph assist.
Neither Reno nor Las Vegas have adopted e-bike regulations. E-bikes can go where traditional bikes are allowed.
In terms of future technical improvements to e-bikes, Paul said engineers are working on products that will be released in 2 years. Top of the list is battery technology.
“As battery technology improves, what you’ll see is smaller batteries giving you the same amount of power or range in this case. They’ll give you more range and better power in the same size package.”
Bosch has long been a leading manufacturer of battery-powered hand tools, and undoubtedly that technical legacy is apparent in the design of e-bike motors, but again, looking to the future, performance improvements will not come in the form of faster bikes but more efficient models.
“You won’t see a lot of changes in the motors. They will continue to try to work on making them lighter and a little bit more efficient, but for total watt power coming out the motors, because of the limitations on the different classes, a Class I can only do a 20 mile an hour assist. A certain size motor doesn’t matter if you put a 250 watt motor or you get a 500 watt motor, you’re still limited, so a higher power motor’s not going to really give you a big advantage.”
The market share for electric bicycles is growing and exactly how much of the total bicycle market e-bikes ultimately makeup is a matter of much speculation among investment analysts. Richard Paul said he is a traditionalist who prefers that he be the only source of power on his bicycle. As generations grow up with e-bikes from their earliest days on wheels, bicycles will be more widely accessible to those who would not otherwise be bike riders.
“I see these as becoming a larger and larger segment of not only of our overall sales transactions but what you’ll see more and more of out on the road. Even when I go out riding right now I see more and more e-bikes, which, as I said is not necessarily for me yet, but I see the advantage it gives other people, and it’s great to see people getting out and riding and using bikes who may not have been interested in getting on a bike before.”
Brian Bahouth reports on the environment and science for Nevada Capital News. Brian has been a public media producer for more than 20 years and has lived in Reno since 1999. @brianbahouth