A few months ago we published a piece titled: Should I buy an electric bicycle? Here's everything you need to know to get started! It generated quite a bit of interest, as well as some additional questions about electric-bikes (apparently that piece didn't literally cover everything). So today, we are answering the top questions that were unanswered before with major help from Boris Mordkovich, the CEO & Co-Founder of EVELO Electric Bicycle Company ("producing stylish and comfortable e-bikes for the 99% of people who are not cyclists"). He regularly writes about the electric bike industry on his blog at Behind the Scenes.
Lets get started:
Q: Can you still get exercise on an electric bike?
A: Absolutely. It’s actually the great paradox – people something think that electric bikes are for people who don’t want to exercise, but actually the exact opposite is true.
People get electric bikes (and not a scooter or motorcycle) specifically because they want to exercise more and be more active.
The electric bikes makes riding accessible for the 99% of the population who are not regular cyclists already.
For some people, it’s the fear of hills or going away far and not being able to come back easily that keeps them from cycling. For others, it’s the health limitations, age or athletic ability. For many people who are thinking about commuting, it’s the inconvenience of arriving to their destination sweaty.
The question for those people then becomes: is it better to use a hybrid electric bike that allows you to pedal as much as you feel comfortable or just continue to use other modes of transportation that they were using before, primarily cars.
Once you make it easy for people to ride – regardless of where they live or their physical ability – you find that people start biking regularly because they always know that they can safely reach their destination, even if it’s hilly or they are tired. Remember that they are still pedaling the entire way – but they adjust how hard or easy they want that to be.
I’ve seen a lot of feedback from people for whom electric bikes became a gateway to cycling in general. They may initially use the electric bike with a lot of assistance from the motor, but as they build up their strength and stamina, they reduce the level of assist or turn it off completely.
Q: What is your opinion about allowing ebikes in places where "motorized" vehicles are not allowed, such as bike trails?
I think that is a great example of policies and rules being made without trying to understand the issue behind them.
In most places, the reasons behind these rules are two-fold:
• to control pollution and noise
• to address safety concerns
Let’s address all of those one by one:
Pollution and noise. We see this a lot in a variety of national parks and natural areas. In most cases, rules and regulations were implemented to prevent gas-powered vehicles, such as mopeds. Due to their size, these vehicles were loud, did not meet the emission standard and posed a genuine risk to the surrounding nature.
The problem is that rules rarely get updated, and in many cases cannot keep up with the times or the technology. The fact of the matter is that electric motors are close to silent. They are electronically limited to a safe speed of up to 20mph, which is around the same a regular bicycle can achieve. Also, they produce no emissions of any kind.
There’s no logical reason to lump them in with the old motor vehicles.
Pedestrian safety concerns about electric bike. Although the concerns around what would happen if a pedestrian is stricken by an electric bike rider are valid, they miss an important point.
When rules are made, politicians lump together electric bikes with heavy, motorized scooters.
However, a real electric bike looks, feels and handles like a traditional bicycle. It does weigh a little more due to batteries and motor (e.g. 55 pounds for an electric bike vs. 35 pounds for a regular bike). However, when the weight of the average – 170-180 pound rider is taken into account – the overall difference negligible.
In reality, an electric bike would cause the same damage if a pedestrian were stricken as a traditional bicycle traveling at the same speed. And remember – electric bikes are limited to traveling at a maximum of 20 mph, which is comparable to the speed of a regular bike.
I believe that many of the rules addressing this are made in response to accidents involving unlicensed electric scooters, not true electric bicycles. However, due to poor understanding of the options on the market, electric bicycles are misplaced in the same category.
Q: Is it dangerous to have ebike riders mixed in the same paths and trails with regular cyclists?
A: That is a good question. To address it, it is important to understand some of the basic specs of an average electric bicycle.
By law electric bikes are limited to a maximum speed of 20mph. This is comparable to the speed you can achieve on a traditional bike. In fact, most road bikes can go well above that.
In addition, the weight difference between an electric bike and a regular bike is negligible when the weight of the rider is taken into account. A 180 pound rider on a 60-pound electric bike is just about 15% heavier than the same rider on a 30-pound traditional bike.
Think of it as riding a bike with an extra bag of books or groceries. Does that really make you substantially more dangerous to the fellow cyclists or pedestrians?
This means that the results of a crash involving an ebike will be similar or milder than those involving traditional bicycles.
The important thing is to practice common courtesy and rules of the road. Don’t ride against traffic or on sidewalks. Don’t run red lights. Give right of way to others when it’s proper. I am a firm believer that regular cyclists and those riding electric bikes should learn to share the road and be more accepting of each others’ choices.
Q: Should eBikes be allowed in cities like New York?
Electric bikes have been subject of much controversy in New York City for a number of years.
Many of the issues surrounding electric bicycles started to come up as a result of poor riding behavior exhibited by the food delivery personnel in Manhattan who often ride on the sidewalks or against the traffic using scooter-like electric bikes. Such bikes have barely functioning pedals that are there simply to avoid having to register them as motor vehicles. They are big, heavy, and - if they are used improperly (i.e. ridden on the sidewalk) - can be dangerous.
Unfortunately there are still many misconceptions about the electric bicycles among the population and politicians who tend to make no distinctions between scooters with electric powerful electric motors weighing 100-200 or more pounds and bicycles with small electric assist motors. These misconceptions are what caused e-bikes to have a poor image in New York City as a consequence.
In 2009, electric bicycles have been banned from the streets of New York City. The ban, however, was generally not enforced and existed primarily on paper. There's been an interesting article on that subject in New York Times.
In short, there seems to be a trend - every couple of years a new fine or a law gets passed which results in a lot of media coverage discussing the status of the electric bicycles in New York City.
However, at this time, there are two bills currently working their way through the New York Senate and Assembly that will eventually define and legalize electric bicycles in New York State and therefore New York City.
These bills, when passed, will define and fully legalize electric bicycles in New York City as long as they meet the federal guidelines which state that an electric bicycle is to be classified as a bicycle and not a motor vehicle (therefore enjoying all of the same privileges as traditional cycles such as no license requirements to operate one, no insurance or registration requirements and an ability to be ride them on the bike paths) as long as it conforms to the following rules/specs:
• Has functioning pedals;
• Does not exceed the speed of 20 miles per hour;
• Has a motor that does not exceed 750 Watts.
As a whole, New York City is working hard to improve their cycling infrastructure now. They are adding more lanes, growing their bike share program, and actively encouraging more people to take up cycling.
By removing all of this confusion regarding electric bikes, it would make it a huge step in the right direction as it would enable a whole new segment of the population – those that live in hilly areas, or too far away from work, or are just intimidated by cycling – to start riding.
As with regular bikes, we certainly need to enforce common riding rules, such as not riding on sidewalk or against the traffic flow, but these things are just as applicable to regular cyclists, as they are to folks using electric bikes.
Q: Is it true eBikes are difficult to carry up and down stairs?
A: Electric bikes are heavier than their traditional counterparts. There’s no way around it.
To understand the difference, you can imagine a regular mountain bike that weighs around 30 pounds. Then you’d have to add a motor, battery and controller that would add up to another 30 pounds or so, so the complete package would be around 60 pounds.
However, there are a few ways to get around it!
One trick works great if your electric bike has a throttle. When you’re going up the stairs, simply position the bike in the direction that you are walking and use the throttle gently – as a result, the bike will almost climbs the stairs itself, with a little guidance from you.
Another trick is to remove the the battery from the frame. It takes a second and reduces the weight of the bike by almost 10lbs – in which case the difference is much less noticeable.
We’ve also seen a lot of people keep their electric bike in the building’s basement or storage room – just removing the battery and taking it upstairs for charging.
So while the extra weight is certainly there, there are ways to get around it.
Q: Are there any benefits to buying an eBike vs. making one yourself?
A: Besides saving countless hours figuring out and building an electric bike? Absolutely!
One of the key benefits is that ready made electric bikes are designed from the ground up. That means that all the bike components, electric and otherwise, are made to work well together. Everything was tested before it was packed in a box and shipped to you. Even frames are made to carry the wiring inside of the frame tubes, making the bike a lot more waterproof and elegant.
On top of that, if you ever encounter any problems, you will have dedicated support department to turn to. Whereas when you build a bike from multiple components, it can be very hard to avoid getting the runaround.
Electric bikes are still a fairly new product and while the maintenance required is fairly small, things can still go wrong. Being able to call a customer service toll free number and get answers to your questions 7 days a week is very helpful.
Q: Are there ways to try an ebike before you buy one?
A: Of course. While rare, bike shops specializing in ebikes are starting to pop up across the country. Unfortunately they are still few and far in between and their inventory is usually limited to just a few brands. However, they are a good place to start.
Some companies will also connect you with their existing customers, so you can meet, ask questions and test-ride a bike from a real customer.
If, after a test ride you are convinced, you should continue your search on Google. Compare brands, and make a short list. Then, make 1-2 calls to the customer service departments or open a sales ticket and see how quickly they respond. It’s important that you get a response within a day or two because it’ll be a pretty good indicator of how quickly they’ll respond if things go wrong down the line.
Customer reviews are also a great way to evaluate bikes you have no physical access to. Only consider brands that are reviewed often and for the most part get positive reviews. When looking at the reviews, dig in to see the specific things that people highlight. If something seems unclear or concerning, bring that up with the company.
Remember that nothing is perfect and every product out there is bound to have some negative feedback. Take it as a positive, as a way to figure out the cons of a product without a long term trial and to help you understand if they are deal breakers for you.
Q: Do electric bikes break more often than regular bikes?
A: Electric bikes do not break more often than their traditional counterparts. On a typical electric bike, 80% of all of the components are standard bicycle components anyway – remember it’s still a bike.
Most of the components that make up the electric part are fairly maintenance free nowadays. There aren’t a lot of moving parts in an average electric motor. The modern brushless motors can have very few parts that can wear out (such as brushes on the older brushed motors). The batteries from good quality manufacturers such as Panasonic, Samsung, and others, can last for years with just a bit of care.
On a good electric bike, the electric part may just outlast the bike part.
Again, big thanks to Boris Mordkovich, CEO & Co-Founder of EVELO Electric Bicycle Company ("producing stylish and comfortable e-bikes for the 99% of people who are not cyclists") for sharing his expertise with TreeHugger. If you want more from Boris, check out his e-bike blog: Behind the Scenes.