Bike to the Future

As pedaling goes electric, alternative transport goes individualist.


On a recent afternoon in one of San Francisco's hilliest neighborhoods, I experienced what it must be like to be a world-class cyclist doped to the gills on high-oxygen blood and testosterone. Streets with mild upward slopes felt like child's play. Even double-digit grades suddenly seemed manageable. Heart pounding, I'd summit one peak and then quickly set out for another.

The secret to my new prowess was not pharmacological but mechanical: I was riding a Focus Jarifa Speed, a $3,399 German-engineered bicycle equipped with a small lithium-ion battery pack and a 350-watt motor.

Remember when our car-free future was supposed to be powered by jet packs, transporters, and family-sized flying saucers? That happy postwar vision has long since devolved from Jetsonian utopia to post–peak oil apocalypse, a new Mad Max era of economic collapse and medieval brutishness. But while electric bikes can't quite match the autonomy and convenience that yesteryear's imminent dream machines once promised, they do suggest a future marked by technological progress and greater individual freedom.

Automobiles, those long-maligned gas guzzlers, are incredible freedom machines. Their ability to cover great distances in relatively short amounts of time, in all kinds of weather, on schedules we largely determine ourselves, greatly expands our ability to choose where we live, where we work, and with whom we socialize.

Unlike buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation frequently proposed as an alternative to mitigate rising petroleum costs and the environmental impact of cars, bikes feature many of the same characteristics that have made car travel so popular. You can come and go on your own timetable. You're free to choose your ideal route and can modify it on the fly. Like car travel, bike travel permits spontaneity and promotes autonomy.

But there are also many ways in which bikes aren't nearly as convenient. First and foremost, they require physical effort. And even for fit individuals, peak sustainable speeds on a bike are relatively modest. Choosing to make a trip via car usually just involves looking for your keys. Choosing to make a trip via bike typically involves a series of questions: Do you have the time it will take to get there? Do you have the energy? How much stuff do you have to lug around with you? Does it matter if you're sweaty and disheveled when you arrive at your destination?

With an electric bike, which federal regulations currently define as a pedal-driven vehicle with a maximum motor-assisted speed of 20 miles per hour, bike travel becomes a little more like car travel, which is to say, a little more spontaneous and convenient. That minor shift may be just enough to make bike travel practical for a much wider range of individuals. A five-mile trip at 12 miles per hour takes 25 minutes. A five-mile trip at 20 mph takes just 15. Traveling by bike even when you're pressed for time, covering long distances, carrying lots of cargo—all of this becomes much more feasible if you're riding a bike equipped with a small electric motor.

Fifteen years ago, electric bikes were strictly for hobbyists. They had a range of just five to 10 miles. Their sealed lead-acid batteries took eight hours to charge and were environmentally undesirable. Today's electric bikes are still a relatively immature technology, but they're improving rapidly. The Focus Jarifa Speed claims a range of up to 80 miles. Pi Mobility, a Sausalito, California, manufacturer, sells a model, the PiCycle Limited, that can attain a top speed of 30 mph. (When electric bikes exceed the 20-mph federal standard, licensing regulations vary from state to state.)

Right now, the PiCycle Limited costs $5,995, but according to Pi founder Marcus Hays that price could decrease substantially as the company ramps up production from its current level of around 500 units a year. "When lithium batteries get cheaper, when we bring a new manufacturing process online that allows for more automation, $1,995 at the retail level is possible," he says. "But that's still three to five years away."

Compared to traditional bikes, electric bikes, which typically weigh between 45 and 80 pounds, are heavy. Compared to a 3,500-pound Nissan Leaf, they're light as a feather. As sustainability advocate Alan Durning put it in a 2010 Grist article, "most e-bikes' battery charge can be spent moving the mass of the rider," while "most of electric cars' charge must be spent moving the bulk of the car itself."

Furthermore, while zero-emissions cars fueled by solar, hydroelectric, or other forms of clean energy can theoretically eliminate their carbon footprints, even they do little to address how overbuilt traditional automobiles are for many purposes. Although the ample passenger space, cargo space, and driving range of gas-powered cars all contribute to their extraordinary utility and convenience, we habitually underuse our automobiles. According to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, the average vehicle occupancy for trips to and from work was 1.13 persons. The average vehicle occupancy for all purposes (e.g., shopping, socializing, schlepping the kids to soccer practice) was 1.67 persons. At best, our cars are perpetually half full.

Shifting at least some of our transportation to electric bikes addresses this phenomenon in a way that shifting to electric cars does not. Electric bikes require fewer resources to manufacture. They consume less energy and take up less space on roads and parking lots. Best of all, they cost a fraction of what electric cars cost and are cheaper to maintain.

So while an electric bike at first glance may seem like a product borne out of scarcity, dwindling resources, diminishing possibilities, and the politics of limits, the opposite is actually true. Electric bikes allow people to harness the power and convenience of private transportation while letting them deploy their comparative savings elsewhere. They expand consumer choice and personal autonomy and remind us that while tomorrow's transportation challenges are often posited as an insurmountable uphill slog, we're actually already well on our way to a more mobile, liberating, and affordable transportation future.

Yet it's still not as easy as it should be to buy an electric bike. Car dealers—and also motorcycle and scooter dealers—offer low-interest financing, rebates, and various other incentives that make buying a car seem more like a windfall than a burden. With bikes, traditional or electric, that isn't usually the case. "The lifetime cost of an electric bike is really low," says Brett Thurber, owner of The New Wheel, a San Francisco shop that specializes in electric bikes. "But the upfront cost can be significant. That's something that we had to figure out a way to overcome."

His solution? "We have a partnership with GE Capital," he says. "It's basically a credit card with deferred interest. People fill out an application, they get an instant credit decision from GE, and if they're approved they can spend that on the bike." Thus a bike that would otherwise cost $3,499 upfront can be had for no money down and 12 monthly payments of about $300 each. Or to put it another way: Even if you can't really afford an electric bike, you can afford it! At least for 12 months.

While it may seem odd to apply such unbridled salesmanship to a product typically associated with low-impact consumption, few products ever go mainstream because they're hard to buy. A dealer's $1,000 cash-back incentive on a new electric bike may not make it quite as enticing as your own personal hovercraft, but it will certainly help narrow the gap between an enhanced bicycle and an old-fashioned car.