Popular Culture

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. 

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  1. “Does it matter if you’re sweaty and disheveled when you arrive at your destination?”

    It never matters. I have biked to a job interview before. I looked slightly ragged. I didn’t get the job. Fuck that place.

    1. YOu also get a mud stripe down your back if it’s raining.

  2. Except for a brief mention of their dealers, this article ignores a very important fact: the existence of motor scooters and motorcycles. Some of which are cheaper than a decent electric bicycle, and bring nearly all the advantages Beato cites of a bicycle. They’re not emissions free and aren’t as easy to park or store, but I think we all know how banking on innovations to make battery powered vehicles more practical goes.

    1. Scooters are fine. The 2-cycle ones are rampant in my city (Madison, WI) and make a lot of noise and noticeable air pollution (like, you can taste it when they go by). Also, they are driven by entitled douchebag students that desperately need a clotheslining sometimes, so I have some bias against them. But a well-tuned model driven by a responsible person can be a nice little transportation option.

      Electric bikes are a bit sneakier though. They are almost silent in operation, and can be turned off and completely silent if you are just walking your bike through a crowded area, for instance. Also, they are much lighter than scooters and can be taken up stairs, into elevators, etc.

      1. Carrying regular bicycles up stairs is a serious PITA. I can imagine how annoying carrying one of these behemoth battery bikes would get if you did it every day.

        Of course, you don’t have to worry about carrying bikes up stairs and elevators if it’s possible to secure them at street level, which isn’t a problem for scooters.

  3. “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.”

    On a real bicycle, in my estimation my speed peaks somewhere above 20mph on paved road with no grade. 12mph is more like an average. An electric bicycle that maxes at 20 mph would also have a lower average speed due to encountering exactly the same inconveniences.

    Also, the idea of the government defining what is an electric bicycle, and doing it partly by maximum speed, is fucking gay.

    1. I have an electric bike that I built myself. It goes about 25 mph, so considerably above the categorical speed limit. While federal regulations might exist for this sort of machine, they are certainly not enforced by anyone where I live. Most people don’t even know that I’m riding something that isn’t a regular bike.

  4. Has there even been a tall, fit, middle-aged black man who looked like more of a wimp?

  5. The hipster “bikes are the future” crowd are most assuredly not on board with electric bikes.

    1. This is true. I have a kit-built electric bike. Hipsters think it is cool, but when I start telling them the engineering details that went into the project, their eyes glaze over. There aren’t too many hipsters with basic circuitry familiarity. As soon as you get to “pulsewidth modulation”, it goes downhill from there.

    2. Because electric bikes aren’t emissions free. Of course, if you’ve been in the same room with a hipster after they’ve ridden their bike for an hour on a summer day, you know they’re not emission free either.

  6. I wonder how much money is going into teleportation research now. It’s one of those things that’s a very long shot, but might pay off at any time, and would pay off at such gigantic odds that it could be a winning bet for somebody.

    1. I’m looking for more volunteer test subjects for the teleportation lab at my secret island lair, if anyone is interested. I keep running out.

      1. Funny, in The Prestige, Tesla had the very opposite problem.

    2. A distance record was recently broken.

  7. In the future, you won’t need to go anywhere, and you won’t want to thanks to the TSA. Everyone will just stay where they are and hold teleconferences.

  8. For people who wonder what the carping about “cosmotarians” is all about, this article should provide an answer.

    Electric bikes – all the disadvantages of bicycles, with none of the advantages of electric cars, for the low, low price of $6K!

    Fuck me, what a stupid idea. Only someone marinating in deep urban hipsterdom could think otherwise.

    1. Well yeah, fuck you, I guess. I don’t know why it’s a problem for you – no one is forcing you or anyone else to buy an electric bike. Mine was around $1000 in parts and compares favorably in performance to the commercial ones. It’s a little more finicky and less idiot-proof than a showroom model, so I guess it wouldn’t work for you.

    2. Don’t get me wrong, F. As I have said many times, I gots no problem with anybody’s hobby.

      But to push this as some kind of serious “transportation-of-the-future” is just ludicrous. Will it have a niche? Sure, why not. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say. Will it tranform in any perceptible way our transportation? Not in a million years.

      1. How is it ludicrous? I have no interest in electric bikes (much prefer either the pedal variety or the ridiculously overpowered four cylinder gasoline variety), but I think this is very much a viable alternative to out-sized, over-budget public transit boondoggles in some cities and Beato argues the case for it quite adeptly. So relax, the cosmotarian secret police definitely aren’t coming for your Chevy Suburban or your uncool niece.

        1. It’s ludicrous because outside of east Manhattan, nobody operating in their right mind would pay 3 to 5 thousand dollars for a fancied up bicycle that offers no ability to, say, haul around kids, groceries, luggage, or tools (yes, some people still use tools in their work). I can buy a used motorcycle all day that will go 100 Mph for as long as I’ve got gasoline in the tank or access to a filling station for half the price of the lowest-priced electric bicycle mentioned in this article. If I wanted to save gas money, have some fun, ride on 2 wheels, and actually get to where I’m going, I’d probably just do that.

    3. Fuck me, what a stupid idea. Only someone marinating in deep urban hipsterdom could think otherwise.

      Also, they look gay.

      Also, I never liked those Asian cities where everyone rides bikes or scooters. The American way to to get a H3 Hummer (RIP) and ride *over* those people while playing AC/DC full blast.

      God bless America.

    4. Fuck me, what a stupid idea. Only someone marinating in deep urban hipsterdom could think otherwise.

      Also, they look gay.

      Also, I never liked those Asian cities where everyone rides bikes or scooters. The American way to to get a H3 Hummer (RIP) and ride *over* those people while playing AC/DC full blast.

      God bless America.

      1. There’s always the Segway.

  9. The future will not be a generation of fit-hipsters on environmentally-friendly bicycles

    The future will be Old Fat People, grossly fat people, shockingly obese people…riding those shitty little sit-scooters through the drive-thru…

    They are subsidized by Medicare.

    I saw some woman in the NYC subway today with one. I fear the future.

    1. A mobility scooter backing over a human face….forever.

  10. I don’t see how an expensive electric bike would be preferable to a gas powered scooter if one wanted powered two wheel transportation.

    1. you can carry it into class?

      1. You must have a different experience with classroom dimensions than I do.

        The reason it’s advantageous to carry your bike inside places is because they’re so easily stolen if you park them outside. Not so with scooters.

  11. “Automobiles, those long-maligned gas guzzlers, are incredible freedom machines.”

    The hell they are. In order to use a car, you have to take a government class, a government written test, and government practical test, to get a government issued card with your picture on it, and pay a fee at each step. Then you get a car from a government approved make and model, title it with the government, register it with the government, insure it from a government approved company, and fuel it with a government regulated fuel blend.

    And better still, now that you have this government issued card, you’re expected to present it in all sorts of contexts that have nothing to do with driving.

    You call this a freedom machine? Just because you can tootle around in it at 4AM to find a 24 hour shop and get a frozen burrito, does not make it a freedom machine. It’s particularly ridiculous when people often make it impossible for them to pursue their normal affairs without a car, and then drone on and on about how it’s a symbol of freedom, when they’ve effectively given the government the power to make them prisoners in their own homes.

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  14. You can add a small gas engine to a bike for about $200. Isn’t that a lot more effective than spending thousands on an e-bike?

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