Aafter several years of false starts, electric bikes are finally entering the American mainstream, amid booming sales of a multiplying number of models on offer and as more states offer incentives for people to ditch their cars and switch to two, motor-assisted, wheels to switch.
This year could be considered “the year of the ebike,” according to John MacArthur, a transportation researcher at Portland State University. Ebike sales in the United States jumped by 269% between 2019 and 2022, with the market size expected to have further grown in 2023to be worth $2.59 billion.
While e-bikes took off in other parts of the world, the US was slow to catch on, until the Covid pandemic, when streets were closed, public transport numbers dropped and people were looking for alternative ways to get around . That, combined with city and state efforts to reduce pollution from transportation to meet climate goals, has helped fuel an e-bike boom that shows no sign of abating.
“All of these converging trends mean that I think we’ll look back on this year and think it was an important moment,” MacArthur said. “Ebikes are in the zeitgeist, people are talking about it. They include everyone. Even my mother is thinking about getting one.”
Nationally, Joe Biden’s administration is fixated on moving people from gas cars to electric cars, with tax credits worth up to $7,500 for people looking to get an EV. But there is no comparable federal support for buying an ebike, although sales of ebikes now surpassed that of electric cars and many experts point to the superior advantages of the two-wheeled version, which emits less air pollution from tire wear and is safer in road accidents.
Instead, there are more than 100 city- and state-based incentives to promote e-bike adoption across the U.S., according to a database compiled by MacArthur. One of the most important ebike support packages could soon be introduced by New York, with the state senate passing an account it takes 50% off the purchase of a new ebike or electric scooter, up to $1,100.
Jabari Brisport, a Democratic senator from New York state, said that despite a delay, he is optimistic that the bill will pass the lower house, the New York Assembly, and be signed by the governor. “I haven’t heard of any backlash on the account,” says Brisport, who sometimes a shared publicly ebike to get to his Brooklyn office.
“There is a lot of focus on moving people from one type of car to another type of car, but there are other means of transport and e-bikes are one of them. They are a low-carbon means of transport that are ideal for getting around the city for short journeys.”
Ebikes add a battery and a motor to the classic bicycle frame and offer a helping hand, like someone pushing on your back when you pedal. There are different classifications of ebikes – some, with accelerators that the ebike independently of pedaling, can reach as fast as 28mph – but all are considered climate-friendly, even more so than electric cars. Worldwide, there is about 280m electric mopeds, bicycles and scooters and, combined, these vehicles already reduce the demand for oil by about a million barrels per day.
But the rise of ebikes has wider connotations than just climate change, MacArthur points out. You can now get folding e-bikes, for commuting, or large cargo e-bikes that can wear 550lb in weight. They can be used by people of different physical abilities. Half of all trips made by Americans is less than three miles – a distance that ebikes can easily overcome. Suddenly, biking isn’t just a fitness activity or something done for fun by little kids—it’s a method of running errands and getting to work in car-centric America.
“They break down barriers that people worry about — about distance, about physical ability, about being too hot and sweaty when you get somewhere,” MacArthur said. “You have batteries with a 40-mile range on them and so you can think of it in a more utilitarian way, outside of recreation. E-bikes are changing the way people look at cycling.”
When Bryn Grunwald, a transport analyst at the environmental group RMI, got her first e-bike six years ago, she initially thought it “sounded stupid”, but had an epiphany when she used it to commute to university come, via a steep hill. “The first time I rode that hill on a bike, it was a life-changing experience — I wasn’t sweaty, I wasn’t out of breath and red in the face, I was refreshed,” said Grunwald, who is based in Colorado , said. . “I’ve been evangelical about them ever since.”
Grunwald said that using her own e-bike reduced her dependence on her car and saved her money in operating and maintenance costs, which are relatively small for an e-bike. Her enthusiasm appears to be shared by others in Denver — when the city offered a new rebate scheme last year the apps website immediately crashed of the number of people who visit it.
“I think something has changed in the U.S.,” Grunwald said. “Not everyone wants to cycle, but not everyone wants to drive and it makes life better for everyone to have one less person in car traffic. I use the ebike to get groceries, to get a library book, to go to work. When that pedal assist kicks in, it feels really nice and liberating.”
There are caveats to the ebike success story. They remain expensive compared to regular bikes—ranging from about $1,000 to $16,000 or more—and many Americans are still afraid to ride on streets typically dominated by large SUVs that lack separated bike lanes.
“We won’t see it go anywhere unless we see more cycling infrastructure in cities,” warned MacArthur.
There are also safety concerns raised by those not on the ebikes. Some pedestrians and other cyclists are unnerved by e-bikes whizzing past at faster speeds than a regular bike, while a flurry of fires in New York stemming from the lithium-ion batteries the bikes use highlighted the dangers posed by faulty or cheaply manufactured batteries (regulations was recently introduced in New York to ensure that ebike batteries meet a certain safety standard).
Such concerns are reasonable, MacArthur said, but must be compared to the status quo presented by cars, which also catch fire and are responsible for about 40,000 deaths per year in the US due to accidents. If ebikes are to replace car rides, rather than just other bikes, the net benefits should be tangible.
“The majority of people killed while walking are killed by cars, that’s the real problem,” MacArthur said. “The most important thing is to have separated walking and cycling areas to reduce conflicts. Ebikes won’t solve everything, it’s not a panacea, but I think more cities will lean towards it.”