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I've lived in different cities in Europe and Australia, and I noticed more and more the creation of bike lanes, and increases in bike commuters. Still, the number of eletric bikes in the streets is incredibly low. Although it can be said they are expensive (see related question), I cannot believe this is the only reason.

So I ask the experts: what is the biggest issue to bring them to the mainstream market?

  • 24
    Short answer - Money. Same reason we still have liquid fuel cars being sold now. – Criggie May 2 '18 at 9:59
  • 14
    At least for the Netherlands: they're mainstream. – Pieter B May 2 '18 at 14:56
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    At least for Austria: They are mainstream. I’ve been riding along the Danube and Inn this weekend and at least half the bicycles had an electric motor. Which is quite surprising considering the price, charging dependency and unnecessaryness. – Michael May 2 '18 at 16:18
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    At least in Germany, they are mainstream. I regularly see them in the city, and about 15-20% of bicycles sold are electric bicycles. – sleske May 3 '18 at 6:59
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    @Damon: For Germany, I don't think they are useless, but the group of users where they help is not the typicall bike.sx user. I see lots of older people using them, who otherwise wouldn't use a bike any more. The point where they help is not (by legislation) meant to be for fast biking, but I see (in theory, in practice I use a normal bike) their point in hilly country and in cities where you have many stopy, so much of the total energy spent on a bike is for accelarating to travel speed. – cbeleites supports Monica May 3 '18 at 17:27

15 Answers 15

50

I would add to the already existing answers some of the thoughts that come to me as a bike user.

For me using a bicycle is a mean to prevent getting out of shape. Using an electrical bike would be like going hiking with a car or elevator. This applies for a lot of my friends riding bikes.

Some of my colleagues complimented me on the fact that I exercise daily by riding to work. In the same register, I expect the opposite reaction for riding an electrical bike, as it would point the user out as a lazy/weak person, unwilling/unable to do any effort. Not saying it's true or right to be judged, but people often live by what others think about them (the coolness factor). you may get coolness points in the gadget section, but it's a different group of people that will compliment you on that. So it depends on where you want to position yourself.

A cheap bicycle is something you can easily toss in some corner when reaching a destination (edit: and of course diligently chain it up), without too much worry regarding theft. Can't do the same (with peace of mind) with an electrical bike.

Depending on where you live, using a cheap (second-hand, maybe) bicycle for two to three months already pays for the bike itself, by saving on transport costs. With an electrical bike, there is a steep initial investment, and the ROI is spread over a much longer term.

Electrical bikes are heavy and not so easy to maneuver in tight spaces where you need to carry them (like stairs). If they are light usually they are very expensive.

Finally there is the same concern as for electrical cars: will the charge last for the whole trip? If not, you'll have to pedal-drive a lot of additional mass accounting for the motor and battery.

  • 17
    Having owned an ebike I can say the exercise perception is wrong, its as much work to ride an ebike as you want it to be which for me was still a fair bit but yes it's certainly perceived as being no effort at all. – Qwertie May 2 '18 at 13:57
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    I know I feel a little bit of bike snobbery when I see someone riding an electric while I'm riding my bike. Like.. I'm the real cyclist. I should probably remember that they are still make a much lower environmental impact than driving. And Qwertie makes me feel like my snobbery is even more misplaced. – Todd Wilcox May 2 '18 at 13:58
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    "A cheap bicycle is something you can easily toss in some corner when reaching a destination" I'm not sure how literally you intend that to be taken. In any city in the UK, I'd expect an unlocked bike of any quality to have a very high chance of being stolen. – David Richerby May 2 '18 at 14:48
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    Just as an opposing point of view, some bikes with electric assist or full electric could help you ride more. For instance, if I worked 15 miles away I'd consider riding but not unless I could arrive non-sweaty in the morning. In the evening I'd pedal home on my own power. I used to do this by taking the train 20 miles to work then riding home, but now I work too far away & off the route so I have to drive. If I was closer an ebike would definitely be an option. – Bill K May 2 '18 at 23:06
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    I'd add that the consumer group most likely to benefit from e-bikes (e.g. those with long commutes, health/weight issues or the elderly) are often so removed from the world of biking that starting to bike with or without electric assistance doesn't even cross their mind; Most e-bike owners I've seen tend to be 40ish (upper) middle-class urban professionals-- who are already more likely to consider non-car transport. – errantlinguist May 3 '18 at 23:50
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  • Cost is the overarching reason. Not only buying (and re-buying after theft!) but also maintaining. I can happily leave a cheap bike in the rain for a year; at worst I'll buy a new chain (€10) that I can easily replace myself. I'm living now in a relatively flat city of 250K with over 50K of students: I can buy a second-(well, probably third- or fifth-)hand bike for €75 that'll serve me for a few years. Replacing or upgrading parts of the electric bike is comparatively expensive. The chance that a drunken vandal completely destroys it is small, but it does happen. There's safety in numbers: My €75 bike (with a €50 motorbike lock!) will not be targeted, while an expensive electric bike would. Another factor of the cost equation is market volume --- electric bicycles would get much cheaper if more were sold. But they aren't for previous and following reasons.

  • Unnecessary. There's little point in an electric bike over short distances and rather flat terrain.

  • Insurance and regulations. Technically, an electric bike would require motor vehicle insurance of about €150/year here, and hence also a yearly inspection (cost) which will require better standard of maintenance --- for example, replace tire when depth gauge officially too little, not "with the next puncture after it's visibly worn out" as usual. If you are involved in an accident (whether causing or not), judgement may go very different depending on it being a regular or electric bike. And police here apply same 'drunkenness' standards for pedestrians and cyclists (so, after a few cans you're fine; unless aggressive then it would be more under 'breach of the peace' regulations that you have problems), while cars, motors and electric bikes would fall under specific Mg/L alcohol concentration rules (where you are breaking the law long before a policeman would address you for being 'drunk in public').

Crash your electric cycle into a parked car and you probably lose your driving licence; same with your normal cycle and you can just reimburse its owner.

  • 3
    In the USA, regulations are also problematic. For example, Indiana classifies them as a "class B motor-driven cycle", which means that they're subject to licensing and registration requirements. However, the state BMV lacks any mechanism to do so, which means that technically it's illegal to ride one. Some cities have passed various confusing laws, some of which make it legal to ride them as long as they don't/can't go over 20mph, while others impose fines on anyone using one, or in the third case, trying to differentiate between pedal-assist and throttled bikes. – GalacticCowboy May 2 '18 at 18:36
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    @TKK For what it's worth, their primer on e-bike policies explains why the federal legislation does not preempt state laws re: e-bikes. (linked from e-bike Policies + Laws) – GalacticCowboy May 2 '18 at 21:02
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    @TKK, it took some digging, but the law you linked does two things: 1) it defines electric bicycles as "not a motor vehicle" for the purpose of product safety (ie. the safety of an electric bicycle as an object falls under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, not that of the Department of Transportation). 2) It pre-empts state regulations related to product safety. It says nothing about how electric bicycles are treated under the traffic code, which is a state-by-state issue. – Mark May 2 '18 at 22:09
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    @TKK, no, Section 1 says "The Consumer Product Safety Act (15 U.S.C. 2051 et seq.) is amended by adding...(d) This section shall supersede any State law or requirement...". That is, the law must be read in the context of 15 USC 2051-2089, and in particular 15 USC 2056, which states what sorts of rules the CPSC is allowed to make. – Mark May 2 '18 at 23:21
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    @TKK you only quoted the first half of the sentence. The rest of it says "...to the extent that such State law or requirement is more stringent than the Federal law or requirements referred to in subsection (a)." The federal law in question is a product safety law. Requirements related to licensing, registration, or operation of a bicycle are not pre-empted. – phoog May 4 '18 at 21:35
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I live in The Netherlands, where cycling is one of the most (if not the most) popular modes of transport, with an average of 1.3 bicycles owned per person (22.7 million bikes / 17 million citizens) [source].

So far, 1.9 million electric bikes have been sold country-wide. That roughly means 1 e-bike per 10 non-electric bikes sold, and 1 e-bike per 9 people. I'd say that's fairly mainstream.

As mentioned in other answers, e-bikes cost quite a bit more than regular bikes, meaning they're less likely to become as common.

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    I also live in the Netherlands, when I ride in the near national park or on a long distance route on weekdays, I am overtaken by lots of pensioners on e-bikes. In those situations they are almost 50% of the bikes on the paths. In the weekends a different group is out, more the 'road bike' type, but still a lot of e-bikes. – Willeke May 2 '18 at 20:47
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The expense is part of it: for the price of a cheap electric bike I can buy a much better bike without a motor.

A much bigger effect is that electric bikes are still bikes, with all the exposure to the weather, perceived risk, and at least some of the effort. So tempting people out of their cars onto electric bikes is a hard sell. Tax breaks might help but would have to be significant given the upfront cost. Electric bikes are generally too expensive for schemes like the UK bike to work scheme.

Getting people who ride normal bikes onto electric bikes means starting from a small number of people in the first place, and again you've got the upfront cost plus they're not much quicker than pedal bikes in many places due to legal restrictions.

  • BTW I live in a hilly city with a high (for the UK) proportion of cyclists. Just the sort of place you'd see lots of electric bikes. I occasionally see one on my commute or at the station, but see dozens of normal bikes every day, including plenty that cost more than basic electric bikes – Chris H May 2 '18 at 14:34
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What is the biggest issue to bring them to the mainstream market?

  • Price
    • Corollary: risk and impact of theft.
  • Maintenance
    • Corollary: higher dependency on your local bike store (for those that prefer to work on their own bike but are afraid to botch the electrical stuff)
  • Not caring about the additional "ballast" (figuratively and literally), comparable to those people who prefer fixed-gear over 3, 5 or 20+ gears...
  • No need: some bikers don't view the commute as difficult, they just hop on and go there.
  • No want: some love the "workout" aspect of riding bikes, and prefer a challenging ride.
  • Nice comprehensive list. – cmaster May 4 '18 at 19:08
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  1. The exercise is part of the appeal. Many people that ride bikes find the cardiovascular workout aspect of it to be part of the appeal. They like to get their blood pumping in the morning on their way to work, and they like being reinvigorated by their ride home. For these people it would be counterproductive to ride an electric bike.
  2. The most popular biking cities got that way because they are flat, and in flat cities, electric bikes aren't that helpful. The most famous cities in the world for cycling are Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Both of those cities are remarkably flat. That is a large part of the reason that cycling became popular there in the first place, encouraging the positive feedback loop of investment in high quality cycling infrastructure which encouraged further increased cycling. The same is true of most other cities around the world where cycling is popular. If the city is too hilly, cycling probably never became popular there. As electric bikes become cheaper this trend could change, because electric bikes make hills irrelevant, but until then there's still the issue of most cities where biking is popular not really needing electric bikes.
  3. Cost / Theft. These issues are really one and the same because at least in North America and Europe, bike theft is so commonplace as to be expected. If for the same quality of bike, an electric version costs $1000 more, thats an extra $1000 of loss in the case of theft.
  • 1
    This makes sense, but Ghost's answer says that about 11% of people in the Netherlands own e-bikes, despite the fact that nearly the whole country is flat (not just Amsterdam). – David Richerby May 2 '18 at 14:42
  • Wrong about the reason and result of why cycling in Amsterdam is popular. It used to be the weakest cycling area in the country, with poor cycling infrastructure and it is now middling for the country. (Copenhagen is well behind, whatever numbers they produce.) – Willeke May 2 '18 at 20:50
  • +1 for the first point - for some reason that seems to be forgotten by most of the other answers. I have no clue about the situation in Amsterdam/Copenhagen, however, the question "What profit does an E-bike give over a normal one?" is spot-on as well. You might add that any decent biker cruises around 25 km/h anyway, which is the point where E-bikes stop adding power. Without an E-bike, there's not much difference between riding 24 and 26 and I'm motivated to reach higher speeds, with an E-bike, that's the difference between letting the bike do most of the work, and working all by yourself. – cmaster May 4 '18 at 19:07
  • #1 is inaccurate. Electric bicycles provide plenty of exercise, in fact they allow many people to exercise more often, by enabling more routes and lowering barrier to entry. I for one could not commute by normal bike but I use ebike a few times a week. – Ekus May 5 '18 at 3:19
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I live in Tel Aviv and here electric bikes are very frequent. The reason is probably a combination of climate, traffic congestions, coolness, and the size of the city.

The reason that some people still use manual bikes is mostly the cost, but also the possibility of theft, particularly of the battery. You actually see people that carry the heavy battery with them in recreational places, workplaces, religious buildings, etc.. because they fear it will be stolen otherwise. Still another reason can be the willingness to exercise a bit.

  • I do not need nor want an e-bike (and I was offered one for free) because I like cycling, not the going fast. – Willeke May 2 '18 at 20:49
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As an electric bike owner I'd say there's a relatively small niche where they're useful.

For eg my commute is currently 6 miles and hilly enough to break a sweat. I bought an e-bike so that I don't have to change clothes when I get to work - but would never use it for anything else! (And will probably have to get rid of it when I move house closer to work..). They're speed limited as well as range limited so in any of the following cases:

  1. cycling A to B, any longer than about 10 miles
  2. cycling a loop for enjoyment
  3. cycling short distances where its relatively flat

you're much better off with a normal, lighter bike. Mine is so heavy I can't lift it up stairs, which also restricts for eg, taking it on the train.

2

Additional points from a former ebike rider:

I've had an electric bike, and it got too dangerous for my taste.

It was an old rigid MTB with a front wheel motor, and despite weighing about 25 kilograms (55 US pounds) I could consistently achieve speeds of 40+ km/h (25 mph) and peaks of 45 km/h (28 mph) It was "rated" at 300W the legal maximum here.

  1. An electric bike can let you get into more energetic collisions because of the velocity increase, and therefore the increased momentum.

  2. Related - other road users can fail to observe your real forward speed. I've had multiple times where a car would pull out in front of me because they thought they had time to get out of the driveway or round a corner. This can be termed "looking but not seeing" where they observe a bike 50 metres away, check the other way, go, and I've ridden that distance before the car has completed the manoever. 50 metres is only 4 seconds at 45 km/h.

  3. Some ebikes allow the rider to not pedal. This decreases the rider's overall visibility even more than just being on a bike - something about the vertical movement of the legs helps indicate to other road users that you're a bike. Sitting stationary can make an ebike look like a person standing still from some angles.

New transport options bring changes - and it takes three generations before those changes become natural. Electric cars will take 60 years to become completely normal and ubiquitous, cos thats about how long it took for horses to disappear completely from the road transport network.

2

I live 12 miles from work. I have been toying with an electric bike - I own a "normal" bike, which I've not really used to commute much - 12 miles is a long way when you're out of shape.

For me, the core problems are:

  • Up front cost. I can viably buy a decent bike for less than £1000, and potentially make use of cycle to work schemes.
  • Risk - bikes get stolen, more expensive bikes get stolen more aggressively and are more expensive to replace. This in turn means theft insurance, less choice of places to 'park' etc.
  • Speed - initially, my speed on electric over 12 miles will be faster. But as I improve in fitness, the speed limit will become more of a problem. (This is because UK limits the bikes to 25km/h)

Otherwise I'm a firm fan - they'd have the same drawbacks of weather/traffic, but with a more reliable pace, and a good chance of arriving without being hot and sweaty.

But I still find it hard to justify a few thousand on a bike, when an annual bus pass is £800.

  • UK models are limited lower aren't they? Pretty sure the 'letter of the law' is a 15.5mph limit. (25km/h). Any faster and they become Light Mopeds, and thus need tax, insurance, MOT, crash helmets etc. (Not that people don't have 'broken' speed limiters occasionally) – Sobrique May 3 '18 at 15:49
  • @ChrisW The speed limit varies by jurisdiction. In the UK they are limited to 25kph (15mph). In Switzerland, there are two categories: up to 25kph, and up to 45kph; the latter require a driving license and a helmet. I can easily imagine 25kph being a limit for people. – Martin Bonner supports Monica May 3 '18 at 15:51
  • UK EAPC rules – Sobrique May 3 '18 at 15:58
1

I use my bike mainly for transport in and around the city (~100k residents, Netherlands) I live in. Although an electrical bike would be convenient when I have to commute for larger distances between cities/villages, it is pretty useless inside the city. This is mainly because of lack of e-bike infrastructure.

Now I am told that the Netherlands has all these convenient biking lanes, but in the city my biking speed is usually limited by the amount of corners, traffic lights and other people on the road. Not by speed I can reach on quiet roads in the countryside, with or without electrical motor.

So the real reason is cost / benefit. I'm willing to pay more for a fast bike, but only if it's really faster. I am not paying for an expensive bike if I can't really make use of it inside the city.

1

The main reason why electric bikes aren't mainstream is the fact that human legs and electric motors want to produce power at much different RPMs.

Casual cyclists pedal at around 60 RPM. Experienced cyclist can pedal at higher RPMs, 90 RPM. Both of these are nothing when compared to optimal electric motors that want to rotate at 10 000 RPM, if optimized to produce the largest possible power with lowest possible cost and lowest possible weight.

At 25 km/h, a wheel with 2m circumference rotates at 208 RPM.

So, pedals rotate more slowly than wheels (about 3x difference), whereas optimal electric motors want to rotate at about 50x faster than bicycle wheels.

Engineering has allowed us to create a motor producing 250 watts of power within the hub of a wheel. This is bit over what casual cyclist can produce continuously. However, even causal cyclists can climb up short hills at over 500 watts, more than what these hub motors produce.

These hub motors also are heavier than necessary due to being restricted to about 200 RPM, and also more expensive than necessary.

If you want to create a cheap lightweight electric transportation vehicle, you need to have the gearing to increase RPMs at the electric motor. This means a drivetrain that increases RPMs at the power source, rather than decreasing them. Thus, you need to get rid of the pedals because there is no way to have both the existing drivetrain for pedals and the new drivetrain for the electric motor. It won't be an electric bicycle anymore. Such a vehicle needs to be insured.

On some countries, vehicles that:

  • Have pedals
  • Have electric assist at up to 25 km/h
  • Have at most 250 W of electric assist
  • Assist only when pedaling

...can be used without insurance. They are barely adequate, but heavierweight and more expensive than necessary due to the limitation that the motor needs to be in a wheel hub, and thus rotate at suboptimal RPMs.

I believe that by eliminating the pedals, you could easily have 750 W of electric assist at up to 40 km/h, in a lighterweight package than most electric bikes, and also for a cheaper price tag than most electric bikes. However, by eliminating the pedals, it won't be an electric bike anymore.

A long time ago, there were motor vehicles with pedals, called mopeds. Then afterwards, it was realized that it is better to eliminate the pedals. The vehicles are still called mopeds even though there are no pedals. I believe a similar thing will happen with electric bikes. The pedals will be eliminated, and thus, we end up with electric scooters.

  • The motor does not need to be in wheel hub. For example: theeverydayman.co.uk/blog/bmw-cruise-electric-bike – Martin Bonner supports Monica May 3 '18 at 15:56
  • @MartinBonner In the crank area it's even worse, since RPMs at bottom bracket are lower than in the wheel hub. The only reason the BMW motor works is that it's limited to 250 watts only. – juhist May 3 '18 at 17:23
  • But most ebikes are limited to 250W. – Martin Bonner supports Monica May 3 '18 at 17:55
  • Electric motors can produce their maximum torque at any RPM, including 0. That's why diesel-electric locomotives are a thing. – ReinstateMonicaSackTheStaff May 3 '18 at 19:07
  • Torque is only one part of the story, RPM is the other part. Although max torque is produced at 0 RPM, to produce power, you need high RPMs. Just for fun, I found specs of one diesel electric locomotive (sze.hu/~szenasy/VILLVONT/Diesel-Electric_Loco_SD90MAC_EN.pdf) and it has electric motors with max speed 3435 RPM. Also, locomotives are hardly the location of weight-saving. To save weight, you want to bump up the RPM from 3435 RPM to much higher values. – juhist May 3 '18 at 19:26
0

Here in Northern Ontario, Canada, a certain type of electric bike is quite popular. It is mostly a bulky electric scooter with pedals attached.

They're popular since they can run on public roads, but do not require insurance or a motorcycle permit since they are still classified as bicycles.

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    Popular compared to what? More of them than pedal-only bikes? How many bikes in total? (Roughly speaking.) – David Richerby May 2 '18 at 14:40
  • Can you post a link? I'm not sure what you mean. – Jean-Bernard Pellerin May 2 '18 at 16:34
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    @Jean-BernardPellerin Probably something like a Motobecane Moby. – David Richerby May 2 '18 at 17:05
  • @DavidRicherby Thank you, I didn't know those existed. – Jean-Bernard Pellerin May 2 '18 at 17:50
0

There are three simple reasons why the population choose a traditional bicycle over an electric. Note that I am not discussing why someone chooses an electric bicycle, as I think those are different motivations.

  1. Fitness - riding a normal bicycle increases your fitness
  2. Cost - cheaper to run than other means of transport as a person is the engine, cheaper initial cost when compared to any other transport (Car, E-Bike etc).
  3. Environmental - choosing to ride a bicycle which consumes no energy from the national power grid, little oil based products, a largely recyclable product at end of life.
-1

I think the main drawbacks are weight and autonomy of the battery.

  • Welcome to Bicycles SE. We're looking for answers with more detail. Please consider expanding your answer to explain why you think, those are the main drawbacks, ass opposed to others. A short, one-line answer like this is likely to get downvoted, flagged for moderator intervention, and possibly deleted. – jimchristie May 7 '18 at 13:39

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