Electric bikes have started to become common,in Sweden in recent years. It’s been a big thing in other countries for a while, so I guess they have finally matured to the point that they can stand our climate. To be honest, I never quite saw the point of such a vehicle, until my wife took a job that perfectly fit their sweet spot, and I got to try hers. It was quite a revelation. I am usually rather hesitant to believe hype, but in this case, I think we do have the making of a really useful type of vehicle that offers a useful alternative for a particular niche in the transportation continuum.
The niche to me would seem to transport people to and from a workplace that is within 10 km of home, especially if the trip takes you through urban areas. With an electric bike, you can get there at a speed of 20-25 km/h, typically in less than half an hour, and do so while retaining your dignity and without having to get all sweaty.
The mechanism on the bike I tried was a truly elegant pedal-assist (pedelec). The electric motor is attached at the pedals, and you controlled speed by pedaling. Don’t pedal, and the bike will coast to a stop. The effect of the motor is to assist your pedaling, making it much easier to get up to speed. The rest of the bike works as normal: pedal backwards to brake, and a regular 7-speed in-hub gear. It was incredibly natural to bike; essentially zero learning curve. I am not sure how a motor attached to the wheels (but still somehow controlled by the pedaling) would feel, but having the motor at the pedals does seem like the best solution. I guess the mechanics are rather intricate, though, but this is something you should hand in to the bike shop for service anyway.
Motor at the pedals, on a Trek LM400, motor unit from Shimano:
Compared to a regular bike, the advantage of the electric bike is essentially that you do not have to work all hard to travel quickly, and that you can expect a more consistent speed. The bike I tried was limited to 25 km/h (unless you manually force it to go faster, but then you’re doing all the work yourself, as required by law). But doing 25 on the electric bike was a literal breeze, while keeping that tempo up using just muscles would quickly make you rather hot. The electric bike also helps you conquer wind and bad road conditions, as its assistance just increases a bit to counter the increased load. Thus, if the goal of the commute is to get a real work-out, the electric bike is a total miss. But if the goal is just to get to work with a little bit of exercise and fresh air, and without worrying about hills, it is excellent.
Compared to a car, the electric bike is much less expensive, much more climate-friendly, and you do get a bit of fresh air and exercise. In an urban area, it is also usually easier to get through on a bike. The raw speed advantage of the car does not really provide much benefit when stuck in traffic jams and waiting for traffic lights. Bikes also tend to be able to find shorter more direct routes, at least around where I live. Parking also tends to be easier to find for bikes than for cars.
Compared to a gasoline-powered scooter, the electric bike costs about as much to buy, but is more environmentally friendly and likely less mechanically unreliable. You can also use it on bike paths, while scooters and motorbikes tend to have to use regular roads and fight with the cars, which is not a particularly nice experience. Also, since you do provide some of the propulsive power yourself, the battery and overall mechanism is a bit lighter than a full-blown scooter would be. The range of a fully battery-powered scooter seems to be a bit less than an assisted bike, since you do help the range a bit. And if the battery does run out, you can still (with some added effort due to the weight) get the bike home.
Compared to using public transport, the electric bike gives you the freedom to go when you want to, and not when the schedule says you have to. In a big city, a subway is probably much faster than a bike since it can go straight through and under buildings and complicated street layouts. However, in smaller cities where the alternative is usually bus, the bike will probably get you there faster, since you don’t have to stop at bus stops all the time, get stuck in traffic, and you take the bike door-to-door while public transport involves getting to and from the stops. Cost-wise, I guess you can get several year’s worth of tickets for the cost of a single electric bike though.
If we look at more exotic alternatives, a couple of years ago, I looked at the Segway and concluded it was really just a toy. The electric bike is a much more practical proposition.
To sum up, I really believe that the electric bike has the makings of a quiet revolution in personal transportation. It has all the well-developed practicality of a regular bike: it can carry luggage both on the front and back, and you can fit a child seat (update: probably not a good idea for the most common configuration with battery at the read of the bike) or tow a trailer. I have transported all kinds of rather large things with a bike over the years, and an electric bike lets me do the same, but will less effort expended. Just like a regular bike, an electric bike is also fully winter-capable. Just put studded tires on it, and it will work just fine in minus ten degrees with snow and ice on the ground and the bike paths – just remember to take the battery with you so that it does not get cold.
I can actually see an electric bike working very well for a businessperson who needs to get to their job in a city in an efficient way. It offers all the superior convenience of a bike, but without forcing you to work hard physically (unless you want to). It increases the range where a bike is a viable alternative to a car or scooter quite radically. It broadens the appeal of biking in places where there are many hills. It should get people out of cars, and even some light biking is better than driving for your health.
It just brilliant, really. Now, I want a Gore-Tex business suit to go with the bike ride rather than practical but-not-too-professional-looking clothes.