An electric bicycle parked in Shanghai. Image CC BY-SA Lars Plougmann.
Here at Core77, we've featured a number of electric bicycles. In our 2012 Year in Review, we noted that vehicles are increasingly going electric, from motorcycles to cars to bicycles. And earlier this year we took a look at the nCycle, a notable electric bike concept that's sleek and modern like an Apple device. From folding e-bikes to retrofittable motors, electric assistance remains a holy grail for commuters who want the convenience of bicycles without the sweat equity demanded by having to pedal to work.
A recent piece in Atlantic Cities pointed out this emergent trend: "The electric bicycle has so far remained a novelty item in the United States, but manufacturers, retailers, and analysts say that will soon change. Fueled by soaring numbers of bike commuters and rapidly evolving battery technology, the electric bicycle is poised for a breakthrough, if it can only roll over legal obstacles and cultural prejudices." The article goes on to explore some of the bigger challenges, like legal restrictions. These barriers have prevented wide adoption in a city like New York, which is dense and flat enough to encourage electric bike usage.
It's easy to see these electric bicycle hype stories as just that: hype. But it's impossible to deny just how popular they are in other contexts. As the article points out, electric bikes are very popular in Denmark and Germany, both countries that have historically been friendly to cyclists. (Of course, this recent column in the Copenhagen Post suggests Danes are still adjusting to the idea of electric bikes.)
The bigger example is China. Clunkily designed, they remain incredibly popular and part of the landscape in big cities. They represent a lower-cost mode of transportation than a motorcycle but are still faster and more convenient than a traditional bicycle. This FastCo Exist piece note that annual sales in China have reached 25 million, which represents 92% of the market for electric bikes. Visit a Chinatown in any major American city and you're likely to find electric bikes parked outside restaurants, as they're a favored transportation method for delivery staff.
It helps to understand why the electric bicycle makes sense in many Chinese cities. The streets already accommodate cyclists well; bikes zip down the same lanes as other bikes. Charging a bicycle is affordable and accessible, since it doesn't require a special charging station. The cost of entry is lower but the potential benefit—less sweat, more business opportunities—is higher. And the endless traffic congestion is prohibitive to bus and car usage. This sounds an awful lot like the challenges that face many American cities.
The secret sauce, then, as the Atlantic, Fast Company and many others have pointed out, is simply showing Americans that electric bikes exist and that they are a viable, convenient alternative to both cars and regular bicycles. Part of this includes a mandate for designers to develop both visual designs and rider experiences that make sense for the American market. But whether it's this year or a few years hence, it seems like a given that electric bicycles are on their way.
What do you think?