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A Practical Way to Pedal – Where Are The E-bike Shares?

Going green is #trendingnow here in the United States, but are we fully embracing technology to further shrink our massive carbon footprint? Major U.S. cities like New York, Washington, D.C., Denver, and San Francisco have successfully adopted bike share programs but the trend has yet to infiltrate suburbia. So it could be asked, is it plausible to “bike-through” city boundaries with standard bike share programs, or are those that commute from the suburbs stuck using public transit or driving in?

Cars and public transportation including bus and rail are still the most widely adopted commuting methods, with bicycles still making up a small fraction of the mix in most US cities. While bicycle technology has improved significantly over the years, including more gears, lighter frames, and more integrated safety features, the basics of the design remain relatively unchanged. Until now; introducing electronic bikes.

An electronic bike, or e-bike as they are now known, differs from a traditional bicycle by incorporating an electric motor powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. These bikes differ from motorized bikes, such as mopeds, in that the motor assists the pedaling rider, making the average ride exponentially easier. An e-bike rider can manipulate how much assistance they receive by manipulating a throttle-like mechanism on the handlebar. Aside from saving energy for the rider, an e-bike will make just about every rider faster—with speeds up to 20-25 mph—allowing them to fare better in traffic. Today’s e-bikes have a battery life of roughly 25 miles or 18 hours, and the removable batteries are easily rechargeable using a normal 110-volt outlet at home or at work. Additionally, some e-bikes allow for the rider to use the electric motor only, without pedaling, for those mid-day rides between meetings where you prefer to not work up a sweat.

With the majority of bike shares being deployed using traditional bicycles, and the existing infrastructure, including the bicycle docking mechanism already wired with power; wouldn’t it seem like an obvious upgrade to begin transitioning from traditional bicycles to e-bikes that have more than double the range allowing bike shares to be located further apart and further into the suburbs? You would think so, but there seems to be an apprehension to embrace this new breed of bicycle in the US.

The main reasons electric bikes have not taken off are cost and culture. In the U.S., the bicycle is largely a recreational tool and while commuting by bike is a growing trend, it is still a very small segment. Electric bike vendors have difficulty conveying a compelling value proposition, which centers on asking prospective buyers to shell out as much as $1,500 or more for an e-bike. This is in contrast to some communities in Scandinavia and some parts of Europe where bicycling in the primary means of transportation and where e-bike sales have taken off, particularly among the older segments of the population.

Bike sharing programs such as BiciMad in Madrid and Bycklyen in Copenhagen have introduced e-bikes. This past summer BiciMad launched a fleet of nearly 1,600 e-bikes at 123 stations. Within the first three weeks of launch, the system’s 8,000-odd users were making around 2,500 daily journeys. BiciMad aims to recruit 90,000 users, predicting that users will make around 15,000 daily journeys, by the program’s fourth year.With a slightly smaller fleet, Bycyklen in Denmark initially launched 250 e-bikes at 20 docking stations in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg but is scheduled to release 1,860 bikes in coming months.

Another obstacle to e-bike adoption in the U.S. is that most states’ light electric vehicle or low-power cycle laws were enacted before the electric bike’s time. State laws can be vague and sometimes prohibitive. For instance, New York’s state law requires that you get an official vehicle registration certificate for your e-bike, but their Department of Motor Vehicles cannot provide this because electric bikes do not have VIN, or vehicle identification number, that all traditional motor vehicles leave the factories with.

Perhaps the integration and acceptance of e-bikes in the U.S. will allow for bike shares to expand into the suburbs. With an impressive battery life, low cost per mile, and the ability to reach higher sustained speeds with less effort, e-bikes could be the perfect solution for getting people out of their cars. Now what will it take to get Americans on board?

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