Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Electric Bicycles: Where do they fit?

1kw Electric bicycle that I saw at the 2010 Tour de Tempe (battery up front, motor out back)

I'm torn. 

On the one hand, I like electric bikes. They appear to represent a bridge between cars and bicycles, which could address some of the perceived disadvantages of both. I have a fantasy, second only to the "commuting in my Sinner Mango velomobile to my job with premier cosmologist Paul Davies" scenario, of replacing my car with an electric bike recharged from my rooftop solar array. An electric-assist Mango kind of combines these fantasies. Freedom from the car. Surgical disconnection of the oil companies from my bank account. Much lower operating costs. There are others, but those are the reasons that appeal to me.

On the other hand, "e-bikes" are not bicycles. Pedal your lazy ass to work/the store/the park/the coffee shop/the book store/the kids' school function/the art museum, dude, I would always be thinking/saying to myself, if I was being carried around by one. They are more like mopeds or motor scooters than bicycles, right? They are closer to those conversion cruisers I see and hear around that have gas engines bolted onto them, in many ways. You haven't been really annoyed until one of those things blasts past you at 30 mph on a non-motorized multi-use path. With an advertised top speed of 30+ mph, the same scenario is possible for an electric bike built around one of these kits (minus the leaf blower sound and smokey exhaust, granted). And for $2000+, which is what the conversion kit above will run you, there are many transportation alternatives out there. Plus whatever a rooftop solar array and storage batteries to recharge one would cost.

And, most challenging, I'm not sure where these things go. Where they fit. Kind of like monster electric Humvee golf carts, pocket bikes, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, UTVs, and various other motorized wheeled conveyances (MWC). Different localities have made laws which govern the operations of these MWC, or in some cases, made them illegal to operate in some or all places. I attempted to compare the Tempe, Scottsdale, and Phoenix city codes on the matter, since those are the three cities I ride a bicycle in most often, and found more differences and questions than I could reasonably put in one blog post.

On the one hand, I feel that places like multi-use paths and bike paths are rightfully the domain of mammal-powered conveyances (MPC) only. On the other hand, as a bicyclist, I recognize that this might be a slippery slope argument or point of view. Most of the reasons that I might raise against some or all MWC using a certain type of road or path could be turned around and used against bicycles. The last thing I would want is the rising popularity of the e-bike to undercut the tenuous pedalhold that bicycles have established.

I think I will let that last sentence be my guide. Keeping in mind that I appreciate the advantages that the electric bicycle could offer, I will focus on the differences between them as members of the MWC class, compared to bicycles and the rest of the MPC class, and evaluate unfolding events in this light: as long as the rising popularity of e-bikes results in practices, laws, and infrastructure which recognize that they are MWC and not MPC, and does not impinge on the practices, laws, and infrastructure in place or planned in the future for MPC, I am OK with e-bikes. In fact, I will continue to keep my eyes on the technology and the price points in the market. You know, of 1kw conversion kits, rooftop solar arrays, and electric-assist Mangos, for that matter. The world's changing. It's one of the reasons I am so supportive of my older daughter's continued interest in learning more about horses and their upkeep. I'm keeping my transportation options open. Get up. Go ride.

X-Treme Electric Cooler Scooter: Apparently allowed on bike paths in California, unless prohibited by local ordinance


  1. I can see an electric assist bicycle in my future but not yet. Even though I can still ride without it I expect to live long enough that it may be necessary to have some help. Fortunately I can still drive so I am not isolated like some but if I couldn't an assisted bike would be essential. I have no intention of laying down and dying just because I have had the misfortune of growing old which seems to be the solution some of the younger folks want.
    As a member in good standing of "the Slow Bicycle Movement" any bicycle ,electric or not, that exceeds 12 mph is a waste of energy.

  2. Electric mopeds.
    Remember when mopeds were iike, well, mopeds?
    The early ones actually had pedals on them?
    Soon electric bikes will have lights, fairings and trunks too.
    I'll bet the JRA Sinner Mango isn't too far away.
    I'd get one though.
    If it came in black.

  3. Electric bikes are simply on the spectrum in between bikes and motorcycles. The principles of proper operation are the same for all of these.

  4. Steve, the Wright Brothers (my favorite bicycle mechanics) see your spectrum, and raise a set of wings. Your bet! For the rest of us, the devil's in the details, though, and the throttle on the MWC, their power, and their push-button ease of hitting top speed, raise issues of detail that are not easily accommodated on a continuous spectrum, introducing discontinuities and differences of type that need to be addressed in practice and law.

    Oldfool, that 12mph "slow" is still pretty fast compared to a walking pace, which often makes it plenty fast, I think. I'm much less concerned about people who need them (due to age/infirmity/whatever) using any powered machine that works for them to get around, than the rest of us who can still get around if we just get up and move ending up like the people in the movie "Wall-e", riding around in powered EZ chairs, sucking down super-sized sugar drinks.

    limom, just a hunch, but you may be due for a new bike, color: black. I wanted a Yamahopper when they were at the height of their popularity. Never got one, had to ride my black Centurion Sport instead.


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