If you’re already making most of your daily trips by bike or on foot, you don’t need to read further. An electric bike is unlikely to improve your life. For everyone else, read on!
Would you like to be stronger and smarter? Would you like to be happier and healthier? Would you like to keep depression at bay without medication? Would you like to reduce your stress by 40% and sleep better? Would you like to do all this in everyday clothes, without sweating, and have fun while you’re at it?
It’s time to get an electric bike. It will change your life. Seriously. I’m not kidding.
If you don’t bike now because you live in a hilly area, electric bikes make hills flat. If you don’t bike now because you don’t like to get sweaty, an electric bike means you don’t have to get sweaty at all if you choose. (If you can walk without sweating, you can e-bike without sweating. If you can’t walk without sweating, you have a health emergency you need to deal with pronto.) If you don’t bike now because you have to cart around children or groceries, an electric cargo bike will do both for you in a snap. If you don’t bike now because you don’t have time, you will find an electric bike is as fast as a car for distances under five miles, and in heavy traffic for distances under ten miles. If you don’t bike now because you always have to drive more than five miles for your daily trips, you’re probably overestimating how far away your daily errands really take you. If you don’t bike now because the drivers in your town are freaking maniacs, well, we’ll talk about that.
The benefits to cycling are legion. If a pill or a gadget could make you happy, improve your immune function, make you less likely to take sick days, make you less likely to get depressed, cure your depression better than current medications, give you more energy throughout the day, help you sleep, improve your skin, promote your brain health, prevent heart disease and type 2 diabetes, prevent dementia, reverse heart disease and diabetes, prevent multiple kinds of cancer, help you age well, and help you stay mobile and active until a few short years before your death, you would see people standing in line for days to purchase it. But the fact is exercise can accomplish all of the above for you. Indeed, 30 minutes of exercise a day is basically a wonder drug that is cheap, available to all, and has few side effects. Since you already have errands and commutes to do, walking or biking these trips is an easy way to ensure you get your vital 30 minutes a day. I’m a big fan of walking, but due to how our poorly US suburbs are designed (as opposed to The Ten Minute Neighborhood) most people can do few of their daily trips on foot. However, daily trips on an e-bike are very doable because e-bikes are just that great. Even better, they’re fun. Really fun. And they’re the most energy efficient mode of travel on the planet.
Hard-core bicyclists are quick to object to e-bikes as hardly counting as exercise, but this isn’t true. With a pedal-assist e-bike (that only kicks in if you pedal) you expend 70-80% of the calories you’d expend on a regular bike over the same time period, depending on terrain, of course. I live in San Francisco, land of big hills. On flat pavement, I am most comfortable biking at about 12 mph on my regular bike, and about 15 on my e-bike, not counting waiting for lights. I cover distances faster on my e-bike, especially returning home since I live up a big hill, so I burn fewer calories on my e-bike because of the shorter rides. However, once I got my electric bike, I replaced many, many car trips with e-bike trips, so net I have a lot more calorie expenditure. I still use my regular bike when I want to get more serious exercise, but to zip down to the store? To go to the symphony? To go to my evening tai chi class? It’s electric bike all the way.
I’ve been a driver for over forty years. Our household used to own two cars, and I used to personally drive more than 10,000 miles a year, most of it on complex San Francisco city streets. I totally get that cars are convenient and that it can be enraging in a very primal way to share street space with cyclists. My husband and I now own just a 2004 Prius that we drive less than 4000 miles a year total, most of that on trips out of town. If you’ve never ridden an electric bike, you may not believe this, but the switch from car driving to biking is liberating. What most people don’t realize is that riding an e-bike is just about as fast, and often faster, than driving a car or taking Lyft or Uber. What people also don’t realize is that driving or sitting in a car makes you sedentary just as much as watching TV does. It’s possible to be a little overweight and healthy. It is not possible to be sedentary and healthy. Our bodies need movement to function properly. It’s as simple as that.
Let’s take a 150 lb person and examine their average calorie burn per 30 minutes of activity, the exercise being on the moderate side.
Sitting in meetings—60
Walking 3.5 mph (17 min/mi)—149
E-biking 12 – 14 mph–223
Regular bicycling 12 – 14 mph—298
As you can see, regular biking is more exercise than e-biking, but both are much, much better than sitting on your butt driving. Time squandered sitting on your butt trapped in your car is time you could’ve put towards health, happiness, and having fun. I know you’re still not convinced. Read on!
Your daily errands are closer than you think. Here’s a great mapping tool. Use it to draw three circles centered on your home with radii one, two and three miles. To left are my three circles. I live in a congested part of the city where there is a light or stop sign every single block. Which means I am stopping every 15 – 30 seconds. On my e-bike I can pretty much get to every destination in the inner circle in 6 – 7 minutes. The second circle 10 – 12 minutes. The outside edge of the third circle I’m confident I can get to in 18 – 20 minutes, faster if I hit the lights right. As you can see, most of San Francisco is within a 20 minute e-bike ride. And this is with constant stops in the second densest city in North America. I’m sure you can do much better.
While looking at your three circles, think about all the trips you made in the last week. How many fit in the first circle? If you don’t live in a city, maybe not many. How many fit in the second circle? Probably quite a few. How many in the third? All these trips you can easily bike to, and it probably won’t take much longer than driving and parking (maybe a minute or two more?) If you go during heavy congestion times, e-biking is likely faster than driving, plus it’s lots of fun zipping past cars stuck in traffic.
I’ll give a case of going to my acupuncturist. Her office is 2.2 miles away, on a bus line that stops half a block from my house. There are two substantial hills on the way if I bike.
Muni bus—30 min (includes 3 min walking and 8 minutes waiting)
Regular bike—24 min there, 27 min home (worse hill on way home)
Drive—24 min (20 min drive + park/feed meter)
E-bike—15 min each way
E-bike wins hands down. It even substantially beats Lyft/Uber because while you don’t have to park with rideshare, you do have to wait 1 – 5 minutes for them to pick you up.
Here’s another case. My sister lives in the suburbs of Seattle. Her closest grocery store is 2.2 miles from her house, up a big hill every time she leaves her home.
Bus—not an option, none exists
Regular bike—17 min (Google map estimate)
Drive—8 – 11 min, depending on time of day (6 – 9 min drive + 2 min park/walk)
E-bike wins because it’s as fast or nearly as driving, less frustrating if there’s traffic, and better exercise. And more fun!
Last case. My sister works 8 miles from her home in an industrial part of a small city.
Walk—2 hrs 43 min
Bus—not an option, none exists (completely ridiculous, but so it goes.)
Regular bike—50 min
Drive—20 minutes without traffic, 40 min with traffic + 5 min walk from parking lot
It may seem like driving is quicker, but the fact is my sister commutes when everyone else does, when traffic is at its worst. Though 50 minutes of regular biking might leave you a bit tired and sweaty, some people might like such a workout if they’re able to shower at work. However, 35 minutes of e-biking will leave you energized, non-sweaty and perfectly ready to start your day. E bike wins.
Some of the benefits of e-bike versus regular bikes: easier on the knees, you can get built-in lights to make you very visible to motorists, they’re usually more upright, which also makes you more visible to motorists, easier to carry heavy things home, can get out of intersections faster (most dangerous places on roads with turning drivers not looking out for you like they should.) Riding into the wind or uphill is no longer a miserable experience. Cons: more expensive than a regular bike, have to worry more about it getting stolen, not as good exercise, heavier, hard to carry upstairs, harder to bring onto public transportation. The mining of elements in e-bike batteries has a negative environmental impact.
Compared to cars e-bikes require a tiny fraction of the cost to own and operate. No need for insurance or gas, little maintenance, uses a very tiny amount of electricity (1/2 cents worth per mile.) You will never have to hunt for parking or get parking tickets. You don’t have to uselessly carry around 3000 pounds of metal with you wherever you go. No fumes, no emissions, no vibrations, no noise. All bicycles are on a human scale that is good for neighborhoods and neighborliness. Because of their far lighter weight, both bikes and e-bikes do very little damage to roads, creating in and of themselves almost no need for costly road maintenance. And all bicycles require far less land use, both when in use and when parked.
Land use is an important point. Think of a terrible traffic jam. You’re inching along and it takes five minutes to go half a mile. Your stress builds as you realize you’re going to be late. You think not only could you bike faster, you could walk faster than your car is moving. Look around at all the cars in front and behind you. How many can you count? Forty? Fifty? If a traffic fairy waved her wand and all the cars you just counted magically turned into people on bikes, the traffic would disappear instantly. The bikes would hardly fill one lane of the road. There would be plenty of room for everyone; in fact there would be room for ten times the number. That’s how much less space bicycles take, both on the road and parked.
Carrying children is easy with an e-cargo bike. In fact children vastly prefer it to being strapped motionless to a car seat seeing the world vaguely from behind a window. There are all sorts of kid-oriented models these days, many with rain canopies to keep your little ones dry. An added bonus to ebiking is passing the long line of cars dropping children off at school while you pull right up to the front door.
Carrying groceries or other heavy stuff is easy on an e-bike. You can use panniers, baskets, bike buckets or straps. On my Xtracycle e-bike I can carry five bags of groceries plus a twelve-pack of toilet paper. Up hill. Into the wind. And it’s fun!
E-bikes do require batteries that have negative environmental impact, but because the batteries are so much smaller than those of electric cars, the impact is an order of magnitude smaller. While not zero, if an ebike will allow you to downsize a car, this would be would be far, far better for the world than buying an electric car or continuing to drive your current vehicle. An e-bike battery runs 4 – 8 lbs. The Nissan Leaf battery is 403 lbs. The Tesla Model S battery is 1600 lbs. Right now there are more cars than drivers in the United States. This is insane. Replacing all of these current cars with electric cars would be insane. If two-thirds of American cars were replaced with e-bikes, the health and happiness of the US population would not only improve, people would actually get where they were going faster. And they would have more fun.
I’m not going to recommend any particular brand of e-bike, but I will say that the technology has advanced substantially since I pieced my bike together with a kit I got online. (Not easily. I finally got it going well with the help of an electric bike guy in town.) Now you can get e-bikes that are entirely waterproof, with the batteries integrated into the frame, or at least encased in a goodly amount of firm plastic. My advice is not to get the cheapest e-bike you can find (it’ll just fall apart), but there are good ones to be found starting around $800, and great ones for more. Depending how often you use it, you may have to get a new battery every 3 – 5 years, so factor that into your calculations. The good news is electric brushless motors have very few moving parts and need very little maintenance. What’s more likely to go bad is the controller for the electrical system. I’ve had my bike (which was really a kluged together job) for nine years now. I’ve replaced the battery twice and the controller once. I have a 300W motor that does a great job moving me, groceries, and my 80 lb bike up very big hills. I can’t see why anyone would get a 500 Watt motor or, worse, a 750 Watt. If you have to pedal to get it going and it has a top speed of 20 mph, you don’t need that much power unless you live at the top of a volcano. Don’t get a bike with a throttle unless you know yourself well and know you’ll always pedal. Just sitting on your butt on your bike doesn’t count as exercise, plus it’ll cut your range significantly. Last piece of advice on bike choice: get a bike with an electric motor, not an electric scooter with pedals. If it doesn’t really look like a bike or a trike, you will get few exercise benefits from it.
Rain. I can’t say I’m fond of biking in it, but with proper gear (poncho, rain paints, etc) it’s not so bad. Fenders are essential. Rain canopies on cargo bikes can be had for children. When it rains I also sometimes take the bus, walk (I like walking in the rain) or postpone an errand for another day. If I get wet coming home, it’s no big deal, I just change my clothes. Getting wet on the way to a destination is the biggest issue.
Snow. I have a friend in Minneapolis who bikes year round, even in sub-zero temperatures. He gets studded snow tires and says proper clothing is essential. Again, he bikes year around. In Minneapolis. It is more than possible.
Wind. San Francisco is often windy, with wind blowing in from the ocean. My electric bike has increased my happiness level when having to bike into the wind considerably.
Seniors! Let’s not forget them. They need to exercise for health as much as anyone. E-bikes are wildly popular among those over 65 in the Netherlands, a land where people ride bikes daily from childhood on. Seniors there say e-bikes keeps them on bikes an additional ten years. If you don’t feel comfortable on a two-wheeler, there are always senior electric trikes, very fun, great for shopping and getting around town.
Freaking terrible dangerous drivers. In my estimation, two-thirds of drivers are decent, courteous, responsible human beings. The other third are devil’s spawn. They speed. They text. They run lights. They turn without looking. Many have no idea where they’re going or lack the mental capacity to negotiate any kind of complex street environment. Some are deeply angry, alienated, unhappy people, and their driving reflects it. Even worse, their vehicles give them a sense of anonymity, power and entitlement, a dangerous combination. Some drivers feel hostile (consciously or subconsciously) towards bicyclists because they perceive bicyclists to have a different social identity that they view as inferior in status, power and legitimacy. In an effort to enforce and preserve social and personal dominance, they express disdain and aggression towards bicyclists that can be unpleasant if not harrowing. In San Francisco aggressive, reckless drivers hit three people a day on average, often elderly pedestrians in crosswalks, but sometimes cyclists as well.
What about those lawless bicyclists! you might say. Bicyclists aren’t nearly as dangerous. They don’t have the speed or the mass to injure anyone in a car, or even anyone on foot unless they’re going very fast and get a direct hit. It happens, but rarely, mostly because if a cyclist hits a pedestrian with any speed, both are going to end up in the hospital. There are huge consequences to the cyclist. Car drivers hit people every single day. There are almost no consequences to the car drivers.
So with all these crazy, irresponsible drivers, is it just too dangerous to bicycle you might wonder? I’ve been cycling in San Francisco for ten years, and have also during that time bicycled in Seattle, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York, Washington DC, Charleston, Boston, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. In that time I’ve had two low-speed crashes, both the result of getting my front tire caught in light rail tracks. (I now have sufficient fear of God of light rail tracks.) Here are some techniques I’ve used:
–Use bicycle infrastructure when it exists. (Check bike routes on Google maps.) Good bicycle infrastructure protects bicyclists and substantially reduces conflict between motorists and cyclists. Many communities are slowly putting in bike lanes here and there. Few are protected like they should be and sometimes they just disappear mysteriously, but having a wide enough shoulder to ride on makes a big difference. If you have a completely off road bicycle path that takes you at least close to where you want to go, kick your heels for joy and use it!
–Advocate for bicycle infrastructure. The reason you don’t have enough in your community is that not enough people have asked for it with enough urgency.
–Advocate for speed humps to slow cars down. Speed kills.
–Ride a bike with plenty of lights. I love my Monkey Light. Use lots of lights at night.
–Wear bright clothing. At night wear reflective clothing. (I break this rule when my husband and I take our e-bikes to the symphony.) Never ride at night without a light front and back. (This rule I don’t break.)
–Take residential streets that are calmer with less traffic. The route you would take in a car may very well not be the best route to take by bike.
–Don’t be afraid to bike to the right of congested car traffic. Again, it’s speed that kills. Cars going under 20 miles an hour are much less likely to hurt you than cars doing 30 or 40 mph. Even better if they’re crawling along at 5 mph.
–Don’t get all duded up in Lycra like you’re training to be Lance Armstrong. Especially if you’re on an electric bike, it just looks silly. Dress like an ordinary human being, doing an ordinary daily task that’s just as important as what anybody in a car is doing. Because it is. Riding an upright bike in regular clothes makes you more visible, but it also makes you less of an alien species to drivers, increasing their empathy and willingness to take adequate safety precautions.
–If a car driver pulls some stunt that threatens you, don’t be shy. Yell loudly. Even “Hey, hey, hey!” will do. It’s faster and louder than a bike bell and gets better results.
–When stopped at intersections, I do my best to get myself in front of traffic (in the crosswalk if need be, once pedestrians have passed) before the light changes. Better to be in front of cars where drivers can see you than to the right where they might right-hook you as they turn.
–At four way stops I signal turns with my hands and make eye contact to make sure the other drivers see me. Often drivers will wave me through before them so it helps to really look at them behind their windshield. If someone is nice to you, give them a friendly wave as acknowledgement.
–Watch out for car doors. Take the lane if necessary to get far enough from them so you don’t have to veer suddenly into traffic. If someone opens a car door right as you’re passing it probably won’t kill you but it will likely send you flying and it might break bones.
–Watch out especially for people making unprotected left turns. They’re crazed, looking for gaps in traffic, not for you. Wave if you must to make sure they see you.
–Safety in numbers. If there are routes popular with other cyclists, then cars drivers are more likely to expect cyclists there and look out for them.
–Don’t bike too fast. This is key. I rarely bike over 15 mph. I know many cyclists love going faster, but the faster you go, the less time you have to react to cars or other obstacles, and your speed increases the force impact of any spill or collision you might have. Low speed spill onto pavement=skinned knee. Medium speed collision=broken bone. High speed collision=death.
–I don’t bike next to 50 mph highways. It just makes me too unhappy. If that’s your only option, I’m really sorry.
–If you’re going to try out e-biking to work, I suggest trying out the route during non-peak hours first, when there’s little traffic and no time pressure. There will inevitably be things you don’t expect, and perhaps ways to optimize your route or make it safer or more pleasant that you can’t tell just by looking at a map.
–Smile. Put out good vibes. Enjoy the trees, the flowers, the sunlight, perhaps a pale moon rising in the east. I find being a middle-aged woman with flowers on her wicker basket also helps. Did I mention riding an electric bike is fun?
Teaser photo credit: By Cccosmin – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76814893