Oct 14 2013

Sunday Train: eBikes & Green Austerity

(2 PM – promoted by TheMomCat)

About a week ago, the following story caught my eye:

For the first time on record, bicycles have outsold cars in Spain.


Higher taxes on fuel and on new cars have prompted cash-strapped Spaniards to opt for two wheels instead of four. Last year, 780,000 bicycles were sold in the country – compared to 700,000 cars. That’s due to a 4 percent jump in bike sales, and a 30 percent drop in sales of new cars.

And this is not primarily about a wave of government policies promoting cycling, or an outbreak of climate activism among the young … its the result of the crisis. As this NPR story concludes:

“We are learning every day, about the crisis. Maybe it’s not changing the things that we thought at the beginning would change – the politicians, the banks, that kind of things. But it’s changing our minds,” says Juan Salenas, another cyclist at the Bici Crítica rally. “We spend less. We try to live with [what we have, and be] more happy. And we try to keep what we have, because maybe we will lose it tomorrow.”

Spain is experiencing a shift in which both conventional and eBike sales are increasing, but as The Economist reports, in Germany, France and the Netherlands, where transport cycling culture is more entrenched, the shift is within bicycle sales:

In the Netherlands one bicycle in six sold is an e-bike. In Germany the cycle industry expects electric-bike sales to grow by 13% this year, to 430,000 (the most sold in any European country), and to account for 15% of the market before long. In France sales of traditional bicycles fell by 9% in 2012 while those of e-bikes grew by 15%.


E-bikes are catching on as people move to cities and add concern about pollution and parking to worry over petrol prices and global warming. Frank Jamerson, who produces the Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports, estimates sales at around 34m this year and perhaps 40m in 2015. China buys most of them and makes even more, with European sales of 1.5m in second place.

So, as events in DC have unraveled to the point were the outcome that the Democrats are fighting for is to fund the government at austerity “sequester” levels, this Sunday Train looks at Electric Bikes.

eBikes & Pedelecs & Scooters, Oh My

This week, I’m going to use eBike generically, as any two-wheeled vehicle that can be pedaled and has an electric motor.

By contrast, in many countries in Europe, it is common to talk about “eBikes” and “Pedelecs” separately, where a “Pedelec” is an electric bike where the act of pedaling is what turns on the electric motor, while an “eBike” has a throttle that allows the bike to go on electric power without pedaling. The reason for this is that under common regulation in many European countries, a “Pedelec” with a low power moter was regulated as a bike, and any other electrified bike was regulated as a motorcycle or moped.

The pedelec requirement has been dropped in recent EU regulation, but as recently confirmed by the European Parliament, not the power requirement, and a class of electric bikes with 250W or less motors and capable of going no more than 25kph (16mph) are classified as bikes, do not require registration as mopeds or motorcycles (depending on country) and are allowed to use bike-specific infrastructure.

Now 250 Watts is about 1/3 of a horsepower, which in a “hub motor” (see below) is not enough to push a normal sized adult up an even moderately steep hill without the rider pedaling. So most electric bicycles designed to operate with 250 Watt motors are still designed to operate as pedelecs.

By contrast, in the US, the federal Consumers Product Safety Commission distinction only applies to selling eBikes, as it was originally created to clarify which electric bikes are Consumer Products, under their jurisdiction, and which are motor vehicles, under DOT jurisdiction. However, each state is responsible for deciding whether a ebike is a bike, a motorcycle, a moped, a scooter, or whatever. Wikipedia has a rundown on state laws, though of course you are best off referring to the actual traffic laws for the state or states where you intend to ride. Here in Ohio, the law is basically the same as the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission’s definition of what sells as a bike: fully operable pedals, have a 750 Watt or less motor (IOW, less than one horsepower), and cannot be able to travel at 20mph on flat ground without pedaling. If it satisfies all three, it is a bike, and requires neither drivers license nor state registration (though local towns or villages may require bike registration). If it violates any one or more of those three, it is a “motorized bicycle”, that is, a moped or scooter, and requires registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles like a gas powered moped.

(Registering as a moped in Ohio includes a requirement that it has a speed indicator that lights up when the lights are turned on, which is a difficult condition to meet, primarily because the Chinese have no such rules, so the Chinese makers of cheap ebike kits offer not such speed indicators.)

Now, even with my large frame, with far more flesh hanging on the frame than when I returned from teaching Math in Grenada for the Peace Corps near three decades back, 750 Watts would likely allow me to get over the steepest hill on my cycle commute to school without pedaling. Even if it did not, going an average 25mph or more on the flat, I could circumvent that hill and still get to work faster than I can get on my current bike.

So the difference between a throttle-controlled and a pedal-controlled bike here in Ohio is a matter of taste rather than a matter of qualifying as a bike. A Pedelec is like cycling with a constant tail wind … while if you don’t pedal along with the motor, a throttle control is more like operating a cycle-shaped scooter. (And of course mostly pedaling and only sometime hitting the throttle, when accelerating across the highway with a light or climbing a hill, is like riding a fairly heavy bike with an occasional turbo boost.)

A decided contrast to the fairly “Green” Ohio traffic law is on-again, off-again bike friendly but decidedly and officially ebike unfriendly New York City:

Electric Bikes, or e-Bikes, are illegal in New York State. Because they have motors they do not qualify as bicycles. Because they cannot be registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles they are not vehicles. For a decade the New York State legislature in Albany has unsuccessfully debated one bill after another that would change that. Now while that debate continues, at the other end of the Hudson River, a new ordinance approved by the New York City Council and signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made e-bikes even more illegal. (Can something be more illegal?) Yes, that’s the same Mayor Bloomberg who sponsored a major new bike sharing program. The headlines made it sound like one of the most progressive mayors in one of the most liberal cities in one of the most liberal states was declaring all-out war on e-bikes. …

Now, the target was actually a traffic problem that we don’t really have here in Ohio:

But a closer reading of the New York City measures reveals that’s not at all the case. Besides tightening the definition of e-bikes, the new rules very clearly target one class of e-bike riders: commercial users, who consist primarily of food delivery bikers. However, the rest of the e-bike community is being caught in the crossfire.

The result is that NYC is one place in the US where the hard Pedelec/eBike distinction of Europe is, for the moment, firmly in place:

The new city rules specify that bikes that can be motor propelled without pedaling are banned. In other words, if you’re riding a pedelec (that’s an electric bike that requires human pedaling to activate its motor) you’re pretty safe. But if your e-bike can be throttle driven without pedaling, you are running afoul of the new rules.

More generally, some recreational cyclists in various parts of the country may also have a negative reaction to ebikes:

While many cycling advocacy groups in the U.S. see e-bikes as a lure for drivers, the elderly, and the sweat-averse, a certain suspicion remains. “To the core cyclist, it’s cheating,” Loren Mooney, the editor of Bicycling Magazine, has said. City governments are wary, and some “regular” cyclists fear that the spread of electric bicycles could stoke pedestrian vitriol, as it did in Chinese cities.

However, the local nature of regulation of ebikes in the United States also means that there is substantial opportunities for local activism to improve conditions on the ground. In states where the definition fits the Federal CSPC definition, there is often local ignorance of what the law is, so that activism can focus on education about the law. In areas, like New York, where the state law leaves substantial leeway to local governments, activism can focus on gaining local recognition of the Federal CSPC definition of under 1hp, pedaled, under 20mph ebikes as treated as bikes.

The two benefits of using the Consumer Product Safety Commission definition is that it already applies to the sale of ebikes as bikes, so local activism that focuses on getting those vehicles reguulated as bikes allows for bottom-up, largely locally driven action that, first, builds a national market for ebikes, and second, also expands the constituency for fair treatment for all transport cycling.


I Want To Ride My (e)Bicycle!

This is still a niche market in the United States, but its well advanced from the realm of backyard tinkerers that I remember it being back in the 90’s, before I headed off to Australia for a decade. Indeed, an ebike originating from Australia is the “Stealth Fighter”, pictured right, which in its US version has two controller settings ~ a 750 Watt, 20mph speed limited setting, and a 3,000 Watt, 32mph “Competition” setting (on the premise that the “Competition” setting would be used off-road) … and a price of $8,000.

The eBikes from mainstream bicycle makers are normally above $1,000 … but not that far above. $8,000 is for sophisticated rich people toys from luxury auto-makers or high-end off-road mountain ebikes.

So, for instance, Bicycling Magazine has reviewed the Trek 720+, a $2,300 54lb Pedelec with a 350 Watt motor built into the hub of the rear wheel. You can set the Pedelec controller to add from 25% to 200%  of your own pedaling effort, and an estimated range of 18.7 miles ~ though its range would be substantially greater if you relied on the lower boost levels.

The Kettler Twin Center NX7 is $3,500 “mid-drive” eBike, with the motor attached behind the pedals and helping drive the bike chain, so it can take advantage of the bike’s own gears. This gives a 250 Watt Pedelec system that can easily climb quite steep hills.

The iZip Metro is a $2,500 59lb eBike with a 500 Watt motor in the rear hub, that can operate either in Pedelec mode or with a throttle. In Pedelec mode you can set the boost to 25%, 50% or 75% of your pedaling effort, and still use the throttle to add a boost of power, such as when climbing a hill.

These are all conventional frame bikes, but there are also electric folding bikes, most of them based on 20″ wheel designs, which can be used to combine an eBike leg of a trip with a train or bus trip.

For instance, Prodeco offers the Mariner 7, a $1,300 folding eBike, with a 300 Watt electric motor in the hub of the front wheel, Lithium battery over the rear wheel and an eight-gear rear derailleur, while folding bike maker Dahon offers the Ciao D5, $2,500 at NYCeWheels, a 250 Watt front hub electric with the battery above the rear wheel. Both rely on thumb throttle controls rather than being Pedelec bikes.

One of the most widely available eBikes in the United States is the eZip Trailz, with models available from a number of Big Box stores. The eZip is $600 list (I have seen it advertised for $500), a 68lb eBike with a 11mile range, with the combination of low price, high weight and low range all due to relying on a Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) battery rather than a Lithium Ion battery. It has a so-called “side-mount” electric engine, driving a gear mounted on the other side of the rear wheel from the pedal gears. And it would seem from the review that you want to be sure to never run the bike beyond its range, since it would be a chore to pedal home on muscle-power alone.

Improved batteries are a major key to the growing popularity of eBikes in Europe. The varieties of Lithium rechargeable batteries are substantially lighter and smaller than SLA batteries. The smaller size means that there is a much wider choice of places to put the batteries, including a “frog pack” behind the seat, in a bike  with a slot for the battery so that it can still be used for a trunk or panniers, in holder that looks like a large bottle and uses the attachments for the bike bottle carrier, and in holders that look like an extension of the seatpost or front tube. And the options that put the battery in the triangle are especially attractive since they lower the center of gravity, which gives better handling.

Indeed, if someone had $600-$1,000 to spend on an eBike, and was handy enough with tools to change a tire and to fix a bike chain, I’d suggest that they not bother with the Trailz, and instead convert a regular bike to an eBike using an eBike kit.


OK, so I want to make my (e)Bicycle!

Its not actually necessary to buy an eBike to have an eBike. Just as with the eBikes themselves, the kits run a range of price and quality. One of the higher end kits is BionX. Their entry level BionX hub motor kit, $1,000 from NYCeWheels, is a 250 Watt motor fitted into a rear wheel, a battery that can be attached to the standard bike bottle attachment points, and a handlebar console to control the motor, plus a brake sensor to allow the regenerative braking, since BionX uses the type of rear hub that that can also perform regenerative braking.

BionX focuses on Lithium battery powered systems. AmpedBikes is a kit vender that sells both Lithium and SLA kits, with 350 Watt to 450 Watt Lithium systems at ~$1,020, and kits without batteries for $365-$410.

At Amazon, one can find a kit to convert your own bike to the equivalent of a heavy, clumsy eZip Trailz with the $376 Currie Technologies Power Kit, complete with custom SLA Battery Pack and custom bike rack that can hold two SLA Battery packs (a second is available for about $110).

And real DIY enthusiasts can find a wide range of “hub” motor kits on eBay, as well as side-mount and mid-mount kits at China’s GNG Electric. To mount a mid-motor kit, you have to be willing to change the pedal and front gear assembly of your bike, for a system with one gear that drives the rear wheel, and a second gear that is driven by the electric motor, but include a 24V, 250 Watt kit for $227 (excluding battery). Someone looking to turn a single-gear (or old internal-hub 3-speed) bike into an ebike could get a side-mount kit for $150, including shipping and SLA battery charger, so someone willing to duct-tape together their own SLA battery pack could upgrade an dodgy old bike to a dodgy eBike system for $250 or less.


A Nation Of eBikes

In most of the United States, we are already legally a nation of Cycleways. For example, here in Ohio bikes are lawful users of all public roads except for limited access expressways. So if I wanted to, I could go circumvent the hill on my commute by going up a different street to the State Route at the north edge of town, then turn left onto the State Route, and then turn right onto my normal road to work.

And I know that there are some intrepid souls that cycle in exactly that way, but that does not include me. With our 35mph speed limit, I ride on all of my towns streets, including Main Street. And out in the county, I ride on the township and county highways. But when it comes to the State Routes out in the county, I mostly stick to the shoulder.

This is in a “city” that is really a town, at the extreme edge of the Akron Urban Area, and is less than 3 miles by 3 miles, so it represents small town and country conditions more than large urban area conditions. Everywhere in town is readily accessible by bike, so obviously readily accessible by ebike. There are some modest improvements that could be made to encourage cycling, but what a car is normally needed for is to get anywhere else.

On the other hand, there is a Cleveland Express and an Akron Express bus at Kent, which is 6 miles away. The closest Mall is 12 miles away. There is, indeed, a bus to the local airport and intercity buses to Columbus and elsewhere at the Akron Metro Transit Center, 16 miles away. An eBike with an average speed (with both pedaling and motor) of 20mph and a comfortable range of 16miles brings all three within reach.

Now, in an Urban Area encouraging the adoption of eBikes, both the Mall and the Transit Center would include rentable bike storage lockers including plugs for charging. However, both of these would be investments in urban and suburban centers, which would simply be more accessible from a small town on the fringe of that Urban Area to a rider with an ebike than a conventional bike.

For a sprawl cul-de-sac suburb, it may be that the key for improved bike mobility comes from a combination of strategic bike lanes that connect to back-to-back cul-de-sacs and road shoulder bike lanes that the cars us to drive into and out of the cul-de-sacs. As discussed in Sunday Train: Rescuing the Exurb from its Design (29 July 2012), there is a need to provide a local focal point, what I have been calling a “suburban village”. As described there, if a common carrier transport system is being put through, the area around a strategic transit stop can provide that focus. However, given today’s consideration of bottom-up reaction to austerity, this can also be provided by upgrading a dedicated single-use shopping district into a mixed-used residential, shopping and office district, especially in a sprawl suburban areas with a struggling shopping districts. The strategic benefit of the ebike in this case is the ability it offers to recruit car-independent traffic across a wider radius, increasing the density of cycle traffic at the focal point which itself encourages more people to bike due to the safety in numbers effect.

In central urban areas and their inner suburbs, cycle access in residential neighborhoods is often as convenient as in a small town setting, with the chief obstacle to increased use most often being high traffic bottlenecks perceived as dangerous by novice riders (and in the worse cases by experienced riders as well). The importance of eBikes here is in recruiting cyclists from a larger share of the population than would consider relying on regular bikes, therefore getting a better return on dedicated investment in cycle-friendly infrastructure.

In some cases, these bottlenecks can be bypassed by converting side streets into Bike Boulevards, using a range of traffic calming measures to keep cars speeds down and cycle promoting measures such as Car-Stop/Cycle-Yield, two-way cycle lanes with alternate way one way car lanes, speed bumps and traffic circles with bike cutouts. In other cases it is appropriate to provide dedicated protected cycle lanes where routes along high traffic streets are strategic for cycle mobility, though the frugal ways to do this may require freeing dedicated cycle lanes from the dead hand of auto-only Level of Service regulations.


A Nation Of eBike Commuters

For any transport system, the most important single trip most adults make is the trip to work. The reason I have been able to free myself from car dependency is that the places I have worked have either been in riding distance or else along the bus route ~ with “the” highlighting a critical difference between public transport at the core of an Urban Area and public transport at the edge. An eBike offers an ordinary cycle commuter both a wider radius in which we can commute directly, and a greater opportunity to connect to urban public transport routes for pedal&ride commutes.

Of course, for those getting into the workforce, whether new graduates or re-entering after a period of unemployment, it is much easier to bootstrap a conventional bike commute. One can start with a used bike, whether from the classifieds or a thrift store, or a cheap department store “so-called mountain bike”, with the bare minimum needed to get to work and back along with whatever you need to bring, and, with the money not spent on gas and car expenses, progressively work your way up to a better ride. And while a car would be far more expensive, there are a range of used car dealers selling cars in a wide range of decrepit condition with “easy finance” terms, while an eBike would normally have to be bought up front.

But if there is a job within eBike commuting range, the underlying fact remains that an eBike is a far more frugal way to get there than a car. The problem is one of finance.

There is an opportunity here to offer offer improved mobility to people in a community. This is an opportunity that could be pursued by a town council or a neighborhood improvement organization. The system would be organized around “rent to own” (though without the profiteering that is normally associated with rent-to-own), where someone rents a bike or an ebike for a certain period of time, and if they make all the rental payments, they own the bike or ebike. I assume 24 monthly payments, 3/4 applied to the original cost of the item, 1/4 paying forward to expand the program, and the right to either return the eBike or buy out the balance of the cost in any month:

  • For a monthly payment of $50, a solid, useful commuter eBike can be put together for $900, from a good entry level $250 mountain bike, a $350 rear wheel bike motor kit, and a $300 Lithium Ion battery;
  • For a monthly payment of $100, a higher end commuter eBike can be put together for $1,800.
  • For a monthly payment of $25, a cheap $450 eBike can be put together from a Big Box “mountain” bike, a budget mid-mount drive and a pair of 15AH SLA batteries to make a 24V battery pack (once paid off, $25 over 18 months allows a Lithium battery upgrade).

A key stakeholder in this project is a local cycle shop. The local cycle shop has a vested interest in the success of the project that includes the hope that the eBike renters will become future customers. Their vested interest goes further, though, since the more visible cycle commuters there are, the more likely people are to consider cycle commuting as a viable alternative.

The third piece of the puzzle, after a group committed to pursuing the project (whether as committed volunteers, because it is part of their job, or a combination of both) and technical support from a bikeshop, is the capital funding to launch the project. One advantage of this project is that it can start quite small, as a pilot project, with five $50/month ebikes and five $25/month ebikes, for a capital budget of $7,000. If successful, the experience of the pilot will help guide the development of the full project, as well as being used as the platform for fund-raising for a larger capital base. It may be possible to work with a local employers who are willing to run a salary set-aside program.  Since the bikes are being rented rather than donated, project fund-raising can be augmented by bank borrowing if demand exceeds the available funds.

Projects of this kind are not, of course, necessary parts of an increased reliance on cycle transport. Certainly the impressive growth in cycle transport in Spain was not achieved primarily by this kind of pro-active activity, but rather by squeezing the economy so hard with austerity policies that people who could not afford cars and could not rely on austerity-budgeted public transport resorted to cycle transport as their best available option for getting around. Still, its the kind of bottom-up project that relies heavily on the basic frugality of cycle transport.

And that frugality is part and parcel of the sustainability of cycle transport. With a 1/3hp to 1hp electric motor, a lithium battery pack is not tens of thousands of dollars, but rather hundreds of dollars. In many office settings, recharging at work is not a matter of having charge stations installed in the parking lot, but a matter of bringing the battery in and plugging it into a charger. With a well-made eBike, when the charge level of the battery is low, we can stretch out its range by relying more heavily on pedaling and less on the engine. And even while repair and maintenance of modern cars relies more heavily on dedicated diagnostic computers, repair and maintenance of the bike is something that can be learned from the more experienced in a series of Saturday afternoon classes, and then passed on in turn.


Conversations, Considerations and Contemplations

As you can tell, this week’s Sunday Train is more about a consideration of possibilities than advocacy of a specific project or policy reform.

So now, as always, rather looking for some overarching conclusion, I now open the floor to the comments of those reading.

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusing me, given my tendency to filter comments through the topic of this week’s Sunday Train, feel free to use the shorthand “NT:” in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

And if you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.

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