For the better part of the past decade, a handful of manufacturers of electric-assist bicycles, or e-bikes, have tried, and largely failed, to crack the U.S. bicycle market. "They'll sell one million e-bikes in Europe this year," Don DiCostanzo, chief executive of Irvine, Calif.-based Pedego Electric Bikes, recently told me. "And we'll be lucky with 100,000 units sold in the U.S."
While the number of recreation bikers slowly dropped as the U.S. population grew over the past 16 years, the ranks of cyclists who pedal to and from work has swelled considerably -- by as much as 77 percent from 2000 to 2010 in the most bike-friendly cities.
On paper, bike commuters look like a slam dunk for e-bike marketers. Bikes with electric assist are fast, they require less exertion and therefore produce less sweaty work clothes. Plus, they essentially flatten hills. But most commuters aren't biting. That has something to do with the bikes themselves -- mass-produced, entry-level e-bikes are heavy, clunky, and often lack high-end components -- and it has something to do with bike culture.
Pete Prebus is a former competitive mountain biker who started the Web site Electric Bike Report after becoming enamored with e-bikes. Most of his cycling buddies "turn up their noses" at e-bikes, viewing them as steeds for wussies.
That perception is changing, however, as more serious cyclists like Prebus begin to view e-bikes not as biking-made-easier but as a viable alternative to automobiles. This transformation owes much to a recent disruption in the bike industry: the emergence of high-capacity cargo bikes.
The long haul
To be fair, cargo bikes are nothing new in the industrial and commercial sectors. Since 1898, New York-based Worksman Cycles has manufactured bicycles and tricycles used for everything from delivering mail to carting parts around factories. But in recent years (first in Europe and now in the United States) delivery companies started employing cargo bikes to ferry goods through urban corridors -- faster and less expensively than by using cars and trucks.
While a fit rider can pedal a moderately heavy load through flat city streets, the advantages of adding small electric motors to cargo bikes quickly became vividly clear to companies in the nascent bike delivery business.
Phillip Ross, co-founder of Portland, Ore.-based cargo bike manufacturer Metrofiets, says he was inspired to create cargo bikes based on the beautiful "bakfiets," cargo bikes made in The Netherlands and Denmark, and often used to pedal groceries and/or kids through town. "I thought they were great," Ross says. "But the Dutch have relatively few hills." So he and his partner set out to create models with designs similar to the bakfiets, but made to withstand fast, curvy descents and tough hill climbs.
For businesses that want to use the bikes to haul goods for delivery or to serve as food or coffee carts, the addition of an electric motor makes good sense. But Ross found that the same types of hard-core cyclists who were turning to cargo bikes as a way to carry more stuff (including their children) without having to resort to a car, were also piqued by the torque boost the motor provides.
DiCostanzo is seeing the same type of dual demand from individuals and commercial customers. In fact, Pedego has already converted its electric tandem into a cargo bike and is introducing a commercial-grade electric cargo bike in response to demand from businesses.
Auto industry pushing e-bike innovation
Meanwhile, batteries are shrinking (in size and cost), motors are becoming more efficient, and the options for integrating them into different bike frame and gearing systems are quickly improving, with companies such as EcoSpeed and Bionx offering bolt-on solutions.
Ross and Prebus say advances in electric vehicle technology are also trickling down to e-bikes. "The solutions are becoming more modular, the battery chemistry is more stable, and you get more power with less space and weight" than you used to, Ross says.
Tad Beckwith, EcoSpeed's director and sales and marketing, says he's been fielding more calls than ever from commercial customers who want to add an electric motor to cargo delivery bikes or pedicabs. But the interest is just as strong among individuals who are drawn to cargo bikes as alternatives to owning a car, but who want -- or need -- an added boost to get where they'd going.
"Some people look at e-bikes and say 'I won't need that 'till I'm 70,' but with cargo or kids on the bike, as soon as you ride up a hill you're going three miles an hour and not having any fun," Beckwith says.
"Our motors can output up to 1300 watts, which is like adding the power of four professional cyclists to the bike," he adds. "In the U.S., bikes are seen as toys or recreational items, not as utility vehicles. But cargo bikes are changing that. As soon as you see them from that point of view, the electric assist totally makes sense."
(Photo: (Top) A Metrofeits bike with electric assist, from the fleet of Vermont delivery service One Revolution.(Lower) A Pedego electric cargo bike, targeted to non-commercial users)