In part III, I promised to describe the obstacles that are keeping electric bikes from taking hold in the Pacific Northwest in the way they have in China. Here are four.
1. Immature technology.
As BikeHugger’s master blogger (and e-biker) DL Byron points out, electric bikes may be past the garage-tinkerer phase of development, but they’re still complicated, imperfect devices, plagued with breakdowns and performance issues. Battery care, for example, is still challenging, though it’s vastly simpler than it used to be.
2. Bike Culture.
In Asian and northern Europe cycling cities, bicycles are ubiquitous utilitarian objects like appliances. In the Pacific Northwest, as throughout North America, cycling is uncommon as anything but a form of recreation and exercise. Among sport cyclists, a major purpose of cycling is to get a good workout, and electric bikes destroy the workout. So sports cycling is no friend of the electric bike.
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Meanwhile, the small share of northwesterners who cycle for urban transportation are such a visible minority that they have developed a bike culture, which defines itself against automotive culture. Among other things, urban bike culture revels in muscle power. Case in point: among urban cyclists, the coolest bike on the streets these days is the fixie—a one-gear minimalist cycle like the one pictured above. Riding one is cool in part because fixies are hard work. Another case in point: the flourishing Portland bike-onlyhouse-moving scene (portrayed in the video below from StreetFilms), which may be the pinnacle of bike culture: it proves muscle power can replace a moving van.
Among transportation cyclists, as among recreational cyclists, being human powered—not electric or gas-powered—is a point of pride. As Loren Mooney, editor-in-chief of Bicycling magazine, told the New York Times about the electric bike, “to the core cyclist, it’s cheating.”
As I’ve learned over four car-less years, in the individualism of North American culture, our vehicles come to define our identities—something auto marketers understand well. What we drive, or ride, is a tribe marker, and we all know the meanings: Hummer, Prius, Mustang, Volvo. (Among cyclists, too: Bianchi, Campie, Gary Fisher, homemade fixie.)
Consequently, for North Americans, buying an electric bike is not simply a choice of cost, convenience, and functionality. For better or worse, it’s also a statement of who you are. E-bikes are a product for a somewhat different market than regular bikes. But their spread isn’t helped at all by the fact that existing bike culture among both sport and transport cyclists is antithetical to e-bikes. This barrier is substantial, because bike culture affects not only individual attitudes but also access to and support for e-bikes.
3. Closed distribution channels.
Throughout North America, as VoltWagon entrepreneur Max Dunn noted in a recent paper, “The bike industry consists of two relatively independent segments: the low end sold through mass merchants and the high end sold through specialty bicycle retailers.” Mass merchants such as big-box retailers and sporting goods stores account for 75 percent of bicycle sales, but most of the bikes they sell are used rarely. Many are toys for children. Most bikes that get regular use are sold through bike shops.
Unfortunately, neither mass retailers nor bike shops work at present for distributing e-bikes. Mass merchants reach noncyclists including the affluent baby boomers at the heart of the potential e-bike market, but they lack the expertise and maintenance facilities to support a growing e-bike trend. Bike shops, on the other hand, are dominated by the prevailing bike culture to which e-bikes do not make sense. Their regular customers do not want electric bikes any more than the members of athletic clubs want electric-assisted weight-lifting machines. Almost no bike shops sell e-bikes.
Market analysts at Pike Research describe distribution challenges as among the biggest barriers to e-bikes: “Many manufacturers are trying to find a combination of independent dealers, mass retailers, and online sales that will effectively deliver the vehicles and after-sales service to customers.”
The shortage of e-bike retailers is exacerbated by an even more severe shortage of e-bike repair shops. It’s hard to find a bike repair shop that knows how to fix an e-bike. And electric bikes are finicky and need regular maintenance (see #1 above). Brynnen Ford, the carpool-riding e-biker from part I pictured here, put it this way: “I’m not a bike mechanic and my mechanic is kind of learning as he goes with the electric piece, so I’m never sure if it’s really getting the right care.”
At present, the best e-bike sales-and-service in Cascadia comes from one specialized e-bike store in Seattle, two in Portland, and two others in Vancouver, BC. One promising sign is that about one quarter of Trek’s independent dealers, which are t
ypically the leading bike shops in each city, will stock Trek’s new Ride+ line of e-bikes. As these shops master servicing e-bikes, the maintenance shortfall may diminish.
Electric bikes promise to make cycling a better option for many people, including those whose weight, health, fitness, clothing needs, or hauling demands make regular bikes impractical. But they do nothing to lower the principal barrier to cycling: the perception that cycling in city streets is unsafe. (It’s actually much safer than most people think. In fact, not pedaling is the larger menace.) Fear of street riding is also the biggest barrier to electrified cycling. If you don’t feel safe on a pedal-powered bicycle at 10 miles an hour, you will probably feel even less safe on an electric bicycle at 15 miles an hour. As Jonathan Maus of BikePortland, Oregon’s definitive cycling blog, wrote in January, “Our current lack of a connected, separated, and comfortable bike network makes many people afraid to even try biking—and simply giving them motors won’t change their minds.”
In North America, the future of electric bikes depends on finding a market that wants their particular combination of lightness, gentle power, and modest range. To date, they have found adherents whose needs they closely match, such as Brynnen Ford and her carpool or Matt Leber and his injured knee. They have yet to find a larger market, I believe, because they are neither fish nor fowl. They make bad bicycles, because they remain imperfect in execution while they’re also heavy and hard to pedal without the power turned on. They also make bad motorcycles. Imagine a manufacturer introducing a motorcycle with a top speed of 20 miles per hour and a one-quart fuel tank that takes several hours to refuel every 25 miles. Not many sales would ensue.
But electric bikes do hold great promise. They could open cycling to huge numbers of additional people, to hillier places, and to heavier loads. Besides, even if their potential market is only one urban trip in twenty, that would still outstrip regular bikes’ current share. And getting to that point would mark an encouraging advance against climate change, oil addiction, and lack of exercise. It would also help strengthen local economies by replacing imported oil with local electricity—plus skilled jobs in electric bike maintenance.
Besides, if electric bikes are proliferating in China, these obstacles must be surmountable, right? They are. China’s lessons are worth understanding, and I’ll cover them in my next (and final) post on the Parable of the Electric Bike. I’ll even reveal why this is a parable. Promise!
Read the conclusion of this series, “The Body Electric.”
Photo of fixie bike rider courtesy of Flickr photographerunder the license. Photo of Brynnen Ford courtesy of Brynnen and photographer Heidi Neff.