Electric-assist bicycles are becoming very popular in Europe and industry insiders at this year’s Interbike show were speculating that they may be the next big thing here in the U.S.

With high gas prices and dire economic conditions on everyone’s mind, more people than ever are looking at the bicycle as a serious mode of transport. The problem is that many people are not capable of just hopping on a bike and making a 10-20 mile (or longer) daily commute after being sedentary for years. The e-assist bike may be a solution for these people, as well as for those with physical handicaps or injuries that prevent them from riding a traditional bicycle long distances.

One of the arguments against e-assist bikes is that they’re not as environmentally-friendly as standard bicycles. At first glance, this seems true enough, but upon closer inspection it appears the answer may not be so simple. From e-bikes.ca:

Surprisingly, electric bikes can have a smaller environmental footprint than pedal-only bicycles. Not convinced? Look at it this way, a human powered vehicle is using the human metabolism to convert food energy into work, with a conversion efficiency of about 25%. That’s the first part of the picture, then we have to step back and look where the food energy comes from. In north america and europe, the food is grown with the aid of chemical fertilizers and machinery, it is then transported, processed, packaged, transported, sold, transported again, and finally cooked before consumption. In the end about 10 times more primary energy went in to producing the food than is actually stored in the food itself. The net effect is that for every unit of human energy used on a bike, about 40 times that much was consumed.

By comparison, with an electric vehicle you are taking primary energy from the grid and storing it in a battery at between 60-80% efficiency, and then converting it to work through an electric motor with roughly 75% efficiency. That’s a lot more direct than the human route. Once you take into account the energy to manufacture and recycle the batteries, e-bikes end up consuming from 2 to 10 times less fossil fuel energy than their human-powered equivalents. To see more details and references, have a look at the Ebike Energy article.

I can’t vouch for the above analysis, but however you spin the numbers, e-bikes are highly efficient and a heck-of-a-lot better than automobiles. And more importantly, they provide an alternative to the traditional bicycle for those who would otherwise be excluded from using bicycles for transportation.

There are currently over 1,400 e-bike manufacturers in China, producing over 5.5 million units a year (mostly low-end models in the $500-$1500 price range). High-end models manufactured in Canada and Europe can run as high as $3000-$4000.

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20 Responses to “E-Assist”

  • arcadiagt5 says:

    The e-assist bike might also serve as a transitional vehicle as the riders condition improves.

    ie A rider might start on e-assist and then move to a bike without.

  • David Hembrow says:

    The figures for energy consumption of a person depend very much on that person. I’m not sure that cyclists on average consume any more food than non-cyclists. They simply tend to be a little less round in appearance.

    I see the main problem with e-bikes as that they simply don’t last anything like as long as a good quality non electric bike. While a good quality bike can be designed to last for 20 years of daily use, batteries on e-bikes would have be replaced many times inside that period, and you’ll be lucky to find a compatible replacement battery more than 5 years after the bike was manufactured. This reduces the lifespan of the bike considerably, wasting the energy embedded in its manufacture, which in itself is larger than that of the conventional bike which will outlast it.

    Batteries simply are not nice things. They have a huge embedded energy cost themselves, and they tend to contain quite unpleasant chemicals and often poisonous heavy metals.

    Perhaps when I’m 90 I might consider electric assistance. However, my 87 year old neighbours cycle nearly every day, and they haven’t bothered yet.

    I’m quite surprised that the market in the UK and US seems to put up with quite ugly e-bikes with obvious power assistance. It’s not the same over here. People don’t particularly want to be seen to need an electric bike. One manufacturer’s website address is literally “invisiblemotor.nl”: http://www.onzichtbaremotor.nl/

    Note that the battery is built into the frame so that the bikes look more or less normal and it’s a low step through frame to accommodate the target audience of older people who aren’t so flexible as they used to be.

    The slogan at the top reads “always cycling with the wind behind you”. It’s a common them here. Pretty much the same slogan was used to sell Sturmey Archer 3 speed gearing in the Netherlands back in the 1950s. Being a flat country with nothing much to stop the wind, the Netherlands has mighty headwinds. Having cycled here and in parts of the UK with hills, I have to say that so far as the effort is concerned, I’d much rather have hills. You get respite with hills due to going back down the other side. Not so with headwinds.

  • Alan says:

    Still, even with all their negative attributes, e-bikes are far cleaner and more efficient than automobiles, and even motorcycles and scooters for that matter.

    I don’t see them as a replacement for the standard bicycle, but as an alternative for those that otherwise would be unable to ride a bicycle at all. My Mother-in-law is a good example; she had bi-lateral knee replacement surgery last year and is only able to ride her trike a mile or two at most, and only on level ground. I’m looking into an e-assist conversion for her trike. Assist would allow her to extend her rides outside her neighborhood which would turn her trike into a real vehicle she can use for grocery shopping, etc.

    I think we’re going to see an influx of new riders here in the U.S. that don’t look anything like our traditional “cyclists”; people that aren’t interested in cycling sport or culture, but simply want a relatively clean, safe, and inexpensive mode of transport in whatever form it takes.

    Some of the arguments I hear used against e-bikes are the same tired old slams I’ve heard used against recumbents: they look goofy; they’re for old people and nerds; etc. It’s the old macho cyclist attitude again. As with recumbents, people that need assist are going to ride what works for them, regardless of whether it conforms to someone else’s “sporting” image.

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Good points, Alan. I have no problem with e-bikes, but I must admit I was sorely annoyed by one not too long ago. I was motoring up a moderate hill on my recumbent–not breaking any speed records but doing a journeyman’s job of the thing–when I noticed a bloke on a bike in my rear view mirror. He’s a big, bulky bloke, and he’s closing on my like the wind. I get a little competitive. I turn up the juice. Big dude keeps closing the gap. Before I know it, he’s alongside, not breathing in the least big heavily, and asking about my ride in a pleasant, relaxed voice! What the hell, thinks I. Then I see the Bionix battery pack. The cheater! He zooms away, leaving me to my pedals and human-only effort. For some silly reason, I’m still annoyed.



  • Alan says:

    @ Scott

    LOL.. :-)

  • Darryl says:

    I see no problem with electric or combustion assist bicycles. They are an alternative version of ground transportation. Essentially, they are a niche within a niche transportation sector. Bicycles by themselves are wonderful machines, but they aren’t for everybody for one reason for another. Likewise for electric assisted cycles. In the future, I expect an even more varied mixture of vehicles with exotic and common hybridization of power sources.

    The important issue for any vehicle is the infrastructure in the public by-ways that will accept electric, hydrogen, combustion and human power vehicles. That includes safe routes, safe and secure parking, power-supply stations at home, en route and at the destination. The hard part is to convince the governing bodies that different vehicles of different sizes, weights, and safety parameters are all legally entitled to public routes. And the corollary part is to convince vehicle users that their choice of vehicle will not impinge the freedom of travel and expression of other vehicles.

    Whew, did my all-inclusive but clear-as-mud statement come out alright?

  • s says:

    @ scott – pretty funny! a clubmate of mine had the exact same experience here in Calgary many months ago and he is still annoyed! i think he wants some e-assist…

    …i can see why “joe average” would be interested in e-bikes but until those bikes become more standardized (ie: availability of replacement batteries) i think they will remain on the fringes of cycle-commuting. on paper, e-assist makes a lot of sense for a large demographic of the population but right now these bikes are too heavy, too expensive, and not widely available (here in Alberta anyway).

  • Ian M. Camera says:

    I rode mine to work this morning (rans rocket plus bion-x). Don’t anyone blather at me about it being “worse than my rocket without the bion-x”. Given the constraints of family schedule, without the bion-x I would have used my ’98 Camry. No comparison. And I wasn’t “going nowhere fast” on a stationary bike in the gym to get my workout. Throw in the environmental footprint of that institution and you really have no comparison.

    Thanks for covering this!

  • Greg says:

    I agree with Ian although I have a LWB recumbent that I built and was commuting one day a week (26.5 miles each way) plus some additional riding around my small town outside Salem, OR. Being diabetic that was really hard especially on high wind days. A couple of months ago I installed a 35cc belt drive motor assist and now I ride three out of my four days a week. Not only do I pedal with it all the way (thus getting more exercise without going past my threshold) but I feel better am losing weight and am having a blast. Also, in the evenings going home it takes 45 minutes to drive the car and it only takes 55 minutes on the bike (yes my speed is generally in the 28-30 mph range). I still wear a bike helmet when riding around to the store and such, but when commuting at the higher speeds I wear a full face motorcycle helmet.

  • Greg says:

    In the post above I forgot to mention that I get 212 mpg so even at $4.00 per gallon gas it costs about $1.00 a day for me to ride. How’s that for a hybrid vehicle (human,gas)!

  • Nate Briggs says:

    The edge of this topic seems to be intruding in several of the blogs I read regularly.

    Here are some random thoughts:

    – if it gets people out of their cars, how bad can it be?

    – electric assist will always be “cheating” for those for whom bicycling = suffering and sweat … the same people who don’t seem to notice that BICYCLING magazine runs the same damn cover photo on every issue (well … almost the same);

    – speaking of sweat, most offices (where most people work) have dress codes – and, if we waited to ride until employers installed things like lockers and showers, we would be too old to ride … electric assist gives office workers a way to arrive hygienically secure and then gives them a nice workout as they drag that dead weight back home.

  • Hercule says:

    I have to second the durability argument. My best bike is a 1990 AM14 – still going strong, and I see no reason for it not to see another 18 years. In fact I will be extremely disappointed if it doesn’t!

    I have investigated the e-bike idea because it did have some attractions for me – I’ve a fairly long commute to work that would be made considerably easier by a bit of electric assist, but not so long that the best e-bikes wouldn’t get me home and back on one charge per day. The increased speed would also make the journey far more competitive with the car – my car average over several weeks is only 33mph, if I could manage 23-24mph on an e-bike that would compare very favourably with my unassisted 15-16mph (at best :-( )

    However, a lot hinges on that battery – my experience with rechargeable NiMH batteries is that they lose their capacity inexorably over successive recharges, and I’m not aware of Li-ion batteries being that much better. I’ve seen an orienteering headlamp battery go from one charge lasting 4-5 hours to only just over an hour over 3 years or so of daily winter use. These bike batteries are not cheap – representing up to 50% of the premium over a non-assisted equivalent bike, as far as I can see -and as David comments, will they be available in a few years time?

    I suspect the technology is still quite immature, however, and there may be further developments to come. I don’t personally see them as in competition with the standard bike – I prefer to see them as one choice in a menu of potentially sustainable transport options with increasing dependency on external factors – from the bike (fully independent) to public transport (fully dependent). Better than a Hummer any day!

  • Scott says:

    Hey, as I said, go e-bike, go! I just land in purist mode sometimes. I can see all the “pro” arguments as valid points. If one has to cover a longer distance than can be reasonably covered by lactic acid alone, battery assist would be a fun, clean way to stay out of a car. And, as mentioned, anyone with physical limitations should seriously consider this technology.

    A related point: What is a reasonable distance for a regular bike commute? This must vary quite a bit depending on fitness level and motivation. My commute is both too short and too long. Most days I ride 2.5 miles each way to the bus, which hauls me down to the college. Once a week, I saddle up Mojo, my recumbent, and headout in the pre-dawn gloom for a 45 mile run and take the bus back home. It’s a great ride, but I can’t do it all the time. It’s just too long. For my taste, about ten miles each way would be ideal: enough to get a pleasant workout but not too long on either end to wipe you out.

    Get out there and ride–or else!


  • Alan says:


    I’m in the same boat Scott; the ride to the train station is a little short, but the ride all the way to work is too far and on heavily-trafficked roads. Like you said, what is reasonable probably depends upon a number of factors such as age/physical conditioning, schedule/available time, the type of work you do, difficulty of the route, etc., etc. When I was in a young lad, I made a tough, very hilly, 35+ mile round-trip commute 4-5 days a week. The same commute today would require e-assist… :-)

  • peteathome says:

    E-bikes aren’t just for people who are out of shape.

    I’ve been a daily bicycle commuter for about 20 years. In our midAtlantic climate I think I typically take other transport to work maybe 1-2 weeks a year.

    But I’ve been gradually doing more intra-work trips – from one site to another. Typically no more than 13 miles round trip, but in warm weather that’s plenty to get one hot and sweaty. So I would have to change into bicycling cloths, bike to the other location, change back into work clothes. Then repeat the process on the return to the initial site. And sometimes I would have to do this more than once a day. Between the changing of clothes and lower speed, this wasn’t very competitive with a car.

    This summer I added a Bionx kit to my bicycle. Incredible. I use to average about 12-13 mph ( lots of stoplights, etc. with a cruising speed of 15 mph). Now I average around 17-18 mph with a cursing speed of 20 mph. I can travel 35 miles on a charge at assistance level 2, the level I mostly use. Even in the summer, I could simply hop on the bike without changing and go to another site without being too sweaty.

    And I’ve pretty much stopped using our family car altogether. I think nothing of doing a 20 mile round trip errand after work on the bike. I use to go home and get the family car to do these trips.

    I’ve noticed that my bicycling mileage has doubled since I got the Bionx – I was doing about 3500 miles a year. At my current rate it will be 7000 a year. That’s how much car driving I’ve done away with.

    And the bicycle still bikes like a regular bicycle. The kit adds about 14 lbs to the weight which I only notice if I have to pick up the bike. When I bicycle with the system turned off I don’t notice anything different about the bike. And I think I’m getting even more exercise with the assist system than I was getting without it.

    The battery is the big replacement item. From what I’ve read, the Li-ion battery is good for about 500 full charge cycles or 17,500 miles. That’s just over two years at my current rate of use. Supposably the motor should last much longer than that and can be reconditioned when it needs it. The rest of the bike will last as long as I want to keep it up, just like any bicycle.

    Some of the newer battery technologies look promising. Not only do they charge faster, so you could, in principal, completely recharge the bike in 30 minutes or less, they last for 1000s of cycles. The A123 claims 2000 cycles.

    If good ebikes were cheaper, I’d recommend them to everybody. But the decent ones are VERY expensive, even the add-on kits like Bionx. So I think most people, who are interested in using their bikes for short trips, should avoid them for now.

  • Ron Georg says:


    I’m really tiring of that statistical dishonesty which attempts to analyze a bicyclist’s tailpipe emissions. As someone has pointed out, we’re not using more calories than the average American, we’re simply putting them to better use. I’m also put off by the smug tone of the argument, which suggests that no matter how righteous we may feel, we’re just as accountable as the rest of the population for the environmental sins of industrial agriculture. Personally, I try very hard to source my food locally (the beef in my freezer spent his life nibbling local flora; there’s not a trace of corn in its DNA), so I don’t need any smarmy carbon apologists lecturing me on my food’s footprint.

    Still, I like Ebikes more than I like cars and other combusters. I just hope they will be replacing cars, not displacing pedestrians. Ebike promoters have been quite successful in getting them legally codified as bicycles, and in many places bicyclists can behave as either vehicles or pedestrians. Most parkways, closed to vehicles, are open to bikes. Our local facility, the Mill Creek Parkway, is generically referred to as “the bike path.” It features signs saying, “No motor vehicles,” but state law doesn’t recognize these as motor vehicles, despite physical evidence to the contrary.

    Granted, most of these things can’t go over 20 mph without human input, and many of the state codes specify that top speed. Still, consider the previous post about the big guy charging hard up the hill behind a push-pedaler (I hope I’ve used that Britishism correctly). That big guy is going to be ripping up bike paths in the same mode, and I’ll bet he doesn’t have the most well-developed handling skills.

    Bike paths were designed with the knowledge that they would only attract a certain percantage of the population, those willing to self-motivate. Ebikes are an insult to that intent.

    On the other hand, if they were to proliferate on the roads, Ebikes would force people to recognize that roads are public rights-of-way, open to a variety of users. I hope that happens, but I believe that it’s more likely Ebikes will attract inexperienced riders who are afraid to ride in traffic, but who lack the experience to understand the danger of piloting a 20-mph motor vehicle down a path designed for human power.

    Of course, the sky’s not falling. I don’t expect to see cargage up and down the bike path. But I do worry that a place which was designed as a pleasant alternative to the streets will become just as stressful as any other commute. These things have the potential to be really annoying.

    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg
    Moab, Utah

  • Fritz says:

    I kind of like e-bikes, but I think the widely circulated information that e-bikes have a smaller carbon footprint than fully human-powered bikes is bologna.

  • beth says:

    I worry about the perception that eBikes are somehow “cheating”, or even “insulting” to those who ride totally under their own power.

    I have two friends who are cancer survivors. Without e-assist add-ons to their bikes they simply would not be able to ride anymore in our hilly town.

    Our population is graying rapidly — in many cities and towns in the US, where distances are farther away because of decades-old, freeway-based planning decisions, many elderly riders would have to stop riding altogether without e-assist.

    Riding a bike in most large US cities is not at all like riding a bike in mostly-flat Amsterdam, and not only because of the topography but also because the existing infrastructure and traffic laws — indeed, the whole American transportation culture — lopsidedly favor automobiles.

    Granted, the technology is young and imperfect. Current battery technology poses an environmental problem that must be solved, and quickly! Municipalities must figure out where and how to rewrite traffic laws for bikes with e-assist (i.e., should they be allowed to use the bike lane, or required to take the auto lane always? Will some infrastructure re-design be required in the future? What about traffic laws concerning electric bikes and their ability to go a little faster than pedal-only bikes? Should e-bikes only be engineered to be capable of certain maximum speeds, as scooters and mopeds are under most state laws? And on and on).

    There is a lot of work still to be done with e-bikes. But I think they’re here to stay, at least for now; and totally dismissing them isn’t a sensible approach either. Someday we may all have to consider whether to go electric as we get older.

  • Ron Georg says:


    I didn’t say I consider Ebikes insulting. I said that I consider disingenuous ploys to allow motor vehicles on bike paths insulting. Beth and I agree wholeheartedly that American culture lopsidedly favors automobiles. I hope that Ebikes can tip that balance, inspiring more people to use the road with less powerful vehicles.

    I also don’t have any problem with Ebikes in bike lanes. My objection is bike paths, especially bike paths which are little more than sidewalks.

    Before the Ebike people (and, more notoriously, the Segway people) snuck through legislation to allow 20 mph motor vehicles on sidewalks by codifying them as bicycles (where bicycles aren’t prohibited on sidewalks, they’re allowed, in most states), my local town’s ordinance specifically allows motorized wheelchairs on our non-motorized pathway.

    That is appropriately compassionate. Perhaps there’s even some level of electric assist, below the 20 mph many of these can maintain, that could be appropriate for particular users. I don’t know what the critieria would be, but I’d certainly agree that someone who qualifies for a handicapped license plate should be entitled to a little boost on a non-motorized pathway.

    However, allowing a grayring population to climb straight out of their automobiles and onto their electrobicyclemobiles to clog the pathways created for those who never became so sedantary (many of whom are graying, thank you very much) is pandering to the same lopsided culture.

  • Rick Steele says:

    Not everyone has an urban commute. I live 12 miles from my workplace ( my bike shop), but in that distance there is over 1,000 feet of climbing. That’s not too bad before I developed some health issues just before turning 58 years. I now have to take heart meds that keep my max heart rate down, and have completely affected my climbing ability.

    At my shop I have been getting more and more inquiries for electric assist bikes. It came to me before this past InterBike Show in Las Vegas, NV. that I should look into some quality e-bikes not just to sell, but for my own purpose of making the commute vs. driving a gas thirsty shop van. I found what I was looking for in the OhmCycles Sport XS700 that uses the bionx assist, and their own extended range Li-ion battery.

    I got to try one at the Outdoor Demo and was completely impressed. I doesn’t move if you don’t pedal, and you can set the level of assist one needs. I’m very excited about getting my first one here and start using it. It’s ready to ship so I hope to have it soon and I’ll be happy to post some feedback from my first commutes.

    Gold Country Cyclery

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