Last March, the Chinese national government began enforcing decade-old standards requiring that e-bikes weigh no more than 40 kilograms (88 pounds) with top speeds of no more than 20 kilometers per hour (12.4 mph). Any e-bikes that exceeded those limits would be deemed substandard and be subject to confiscation.
U.S. consumers catch on, but slowly
In the United States, where e-bikes have captured a tiny niche within the larger bicycle industry, the challenge is convincing bicycle purists about e-bikes and converting users from strictly recreational riders into commuters for work or personal business.
Larry Pizzi, president of Chatsworth, Calif.-based Currie Technologies, the largest e-bike distributor in the United States, said the e-bike industry saw a sizable boost in 2008, when gasoline prices in the United States soared to nearly $4 per gallon. That trend repeated itself in 2011 as gas prices soared again, and could happen again this summer if pump prices go up.
"I think there is a growing interest, particularly among urban dwellers, that is directly linked to the cost of gasoline," Pizzi said. At the same time, he said, urbanites are seeking more convenient ways to navigate city streets and sidewalks without the hassle and cost of parking a motorcycle or full-size vehicle.
Benjamin said urban planners and developers are increasingly discussing how to efficiently move people to their workplaces, shopping districts, parks and other places that are within commuting distance but are not walkable due to terrain, weather or other obstacles.
"This is what transportation planners now call the 'first-kilometer vehicle,'" Benjamin said. "We used to drive those kinds of distances, and we touted the idea of 'inexpensive automobile transportation.' But those three words don't fit together anymore."
Not surprisingly, experts say the early adopters of e-bikes in the United States are people living in high-density areas such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as in bicycle-friendly cities with hilly terrain such as San Francisco and Seattle.
E-bikes are also being deployed by police departments -- Los Angeles has police officers on 26 e-bikes -- and on traffic-choked college campuses such as the University of Tennessee, where Cherry and his associates have piloted a program to get students and faculty out of their cars and onto motorized bikes.
Pizzi said the U.S. market for e-bikes also includes many older Generation Xers and Baby Boomers who seek a recreational bicycle for short trips and mild exercise. "Their initial intent is to buy the e-bike to have fun recreationally, but what inevitably happens is they seed how easy and practical it is to use it for other things," Pizzi said. "They begin to use it for neighborhood transportation."
Cost remains a factor for e-bike adopters in the United States. An entry-level e-bike sold by Currie Technologies -- with most of its components coming from China -- runs around $1,000, roughly three times more than a conventional bicycle of equal quality, Pizzi said. Higher-end e-bikes, such as those used by the Los Angeles Police Department, can fetch as much as $5,000 per unit.
Even so, "almost every nation in the world has been exploring the idea of electric bikes," said Benjamin. And as Chinese production continues to scale up, with exports to as many as 200 countries last year, there's little reason to think the technology won't take hold elsewhere, including the United States.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500