Electric bicycles, better known as e-bikes, have moved from novelty to mainstream with breathtaking speed. They’ve been a boon to hard-working delivery persons during the pandemic (and their impatient customers), and commuters who don’t care to be a sweaty mess when they arrive. And while the scoffing tends to center around the “purity” of cycling—the idea that e-bike riders are somehow lazy cheaters—that electric assist is actually luring people off the couch for healthy exercise. That’s especially welcome for older or out-of-practice riders (which describes a whole lot of folks) who might otherwise avoid cycling entirely, put off by daunting hills or longer distances.
While powerful “Class 3” models especially are trying the patience of pedestrians in crowded cities like New York, with blazing assisted speeds approaching 30 mph, e-bikes are now front-and-center in discussions of future urban mobility. They’re a way to potentially free up precious street space, provide alternatives to automobiles and reduce energy consumption and harmful emissions. California, through its powerful Air Resources Board, recently allocated $10 million in rebates for e-bike buyers, a smaller-scale version of state or federal tax breaks for EV car buyers. The possibilities are fueling cool tech ideas, from covered, rain-proof cargo bikes; to pavement-embedded wireless chargers and automated stabilization systems to help senior riders. CityQ is taking pre-orders for a four-wheeled cargo “bike” that it touts as cycling “with a Tesla feeling.”
According to market research company NPD Group, the pandemic helped increase e-bike sales by 145 percent from 2019 to 2020, more than double the growth of traditional bikes. Exact figures on industry sales are hard to pin down; yet The New York Times quoted experts saying Americans bought roughly 500,000 e-bikes in 2020, compared to about 210,000 plug-in automobiles.