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Electric bicycles are like the Cruzbike recumbent – I want to like them, but can’t bring myself to. When I read this article, about a New England bicycle shop and their growing electric bicycle sales, I had to stop and scratch my head, as there is so much that is so wrong, on so many levels.
While the inset photo was clearly not taken specifically for the article, it does make it painfully obvious that the shop owners are business people, not cyclists. Not that I expect them to be posing in full spandex kit, but they don’t really look like they throw a leg over a bike too often. Is it just me, or does everyone else want to shop where the proprietors share their passion?
What really gets me is that they pitch electric bicycles as an alternative to electric cars, another product I don’t think much of. But anyone considering the purchase of an electric bicycle to avoid the “pain at the pump” might want to consider buying a calculator instead. Prices at this shop range from $500 to $3,500, but we’ll use $2,000 for our equation, which is somewhere in the middle of that range, plus tax and maybe a helmet, lock, and a few accessories. Locally, our gas prices are hovering around $3.80/gallon, which is probably lower than most of the country. We’ll use 25 MPG as the average fuel economy, (electric bikes replace city, not highway miles) since that is what the embarrassingly low US CAFE regulations currently require. (If you’re not familiar with CAFE, please click that link. American auto makers have produced crappy little economy cars at a near loss for years, in order to keep selling bloated, overpriced gas guzzlers. It’s all about the “average” fuel economy of their production) Next, we need to set the mileage that the electric bike is replacing vs auto miles each day. I’ll use ten, which I suspect is high. Anyone not willing to ride a conventional bike might find more than that distance to be a bit daunting, but we can adjust it up or down easily enough.
Here’s how that breaks down: Cost of gas per mile = 15.2 cents x 50 miles/week = $7.60 saved each week. At that rate, the $2k electric bike pays for itself in a mere five years, assuming all the math remained constant, which it wouldn’t. The $500 bike, assuming it lasts a full twelve months and doesn’t require that the expensive battery pack to be replaced, would pay for itself in a bit over a year. Ride less, (weather?) gas prices drop (not likely) or you own a more fuel-efficient car to begin with (also not likely) and the numbers can vary.
My point is simply that buying a bicycle with a battery and electric motor is not a wise financial decision. And from a performance standpoint, we regularly hear of the battery assist being used for getting up hills. Hey, if my bike weighed 40-60+ pounds, I’d need help with hills too. An inexpensive folder like the $299 Downtube Nova 7 weighs just 24 pounds, is geared for flats and climbs, and can be folded up to fit in a trunk, a cab, or a bus if the ride turns bad. Electric bicycles are much more difficult to transport than even a conventional non-folding bike due to the extra weight and placement of battery and drive components. Routine maintenance, even flat repairs, are more complicated as well.
I know electric bicycles have their place. For cyclists with a physical impairment, or those that simply cannot pedal a conventional bicycle, but have the will and desire to enjoy the outdoors on two wheels, they’re a boon. Let’s just not pretend they’re something they’re not.