Can You Live With an Electric Bicycle?

Electric power eases pedaling effort

If you’re like me, anything with two wheels and a motor is good thing. While not a scooter per se, a bicycle with an electric motor can still whisk you down the road on two wheels. Their differences may be significant, but not every difference between scooters and electric bicycles, or e-bikes, is as obvious as you may think.

Fast scooters with powerful engines are fun, but I also love bicycles. I also enjoy clean, quiet electric power, so I find e-bikes both fun and cool. Yet can they meet your real world transportation needs? Are they simply neat gadgets, or can buying one replace your scooter? Most of us have to make hard decisions on how and where to spend our limited transportation dollars. I know I can’t just buy every cool new “toy” that comes along. Cost-effectiveness is a reason many people get involved with gas scooters to begin with, only to discover the pure fun and passion later. So if you’re wondering if an e-bike could meet your needs, read on.

What is an e-bike Exactly?

That may sound like a simple question, but taking a look at the details reveals a few things you should know. An e-bike has a standard legal definition, and all reputable manufacturers sell models that comply with these rules.

Prodeco Interceptor, a high-quality electric bicycle.

The Pedego Interceptor, which I consider a high-quality electric bicycle.

Specifically, e-bikes sold in the US are not “motor vehicles”, so their guidelines fall under the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which is the same organization that regulates bicycle standards. In order to remain exempt from the motor vehicle classification, an e-bike must have two or three wheels, fully operable pedals, a motor-only top speed under 20 mph, and an electric motor that produces less than 750 watts (1 hp). This definition is a federal guideline, but individual states do have differing laws on the use of e-bikes. For example, helmet requirements, age restrictions, or road/lane use rules may vary by state. You can check for your state’s specifics in places like Wikipedia.

A Growing Trend

Currently, e-bikes are booming. According to a report from BusinessWire, e-bike sales in the United States will more than triple between 2012 and 2018, to about 265,000 annually. This same popularity has brought a downside, however. The e-bike market is flooded with poor-quality copies of many brands and models. This should sound familiar, since a similar thing happened back in 2008 when gas hit $5/gallon and scooters boomed in this country. The trick with e-bikes is making sure you’re investing in a quality machine.

What to Look For

When choosing an e-bike, there are many considerations beyond price. Here are a few things you should know to help you choose.

Frame and Style
Let’s face it, the style and looks of a bike are important. Yet make sure you find a model that fits you comfortably. Scooters only come in a couple different overall sizes, but the reinforced steel or aluminum frames on e-bikes come in hundreds of different styles and sizes. Pick one that allows you to reach all the controls safely, not just one that simply looks cool.

E-bike with front suspension and a rear hub motor

Drivetrain
There are too many variables to go into detail here, but you should know the following:

  • Brushless motors are better than motors with brushes (and they cost more)
  • Internally geared motors are better than direct-drive motors
  • The higher the wattage of the motor, the faster the bike will accelerate (however, a 350 or 500 watt brushless geared motor may perform as well or better than a 750 watt brushed motor)
  • Lithium-Ion (or better-yet, Lithium-Polymer) batteries are much better than conventional lead-acid batteries
  • The higher the amp-hours of the battery pack, the longer the range (look for at least 10-12 amp-hours or more)

Pedal-Assist
Some e-bike models have feature called pedal-assist. Instead of simply twisting the throttle for power, pedal-assist senses when you are pedaling and when you are coasting, and only supplies power to the motor when you need it. This is a great way to balance the exercise benefits of pedaling against the hill-flattening benefits of having power onboard. I recommend you consider an e-bike model with this feature. The best models have variable assist, which allows you to choose how much help you want with the pedaling (for example, level 1–5).

Personally, I didn’t think I’d care for the pedal-assist mode until I tried it. I was wrong. It made me feel like a pro bicycle racer ascending a pass in the Alps.

Pros and Cons
You can search “electric bike vs. scooter” online and see numerous arguments both for and against each side of the equation. Here are mine:

Pros

  • E-bikes are extremely light compared to a scooter, so one person can typically lift one into a car, or onto a bike rack, etc.
  • Clean, quite electric power means you can glide past people without them even noticing
  • Many replacement parts are available from your neighborhood bicycle shop
  • Easy maintenance
  • No fuel costs, and typically no tags, insurance, or other fees
  • Flattens those hills!

Cons

  • Range is very limited, typically 18-35 miles
  • Speed is limited, by law, to 20 mph
  • Recharge times can take many hours, although some systems allow 80% charges in about an hour
  • High-quality models are not cheap, with many costing more than a new 50cc gas scooter
  • Carrying capacity is limited (no enclosed or lockable storage)

Conclusion

Is an e-bike right for you? Hopefully the background knowledge in this article provided some of the information you’ll need to make your decision. In short, if you rely on your scooter for commuting more than 20 miles a day, or need to ride at the posted speed limit, an e-bike may not be the best choice for you. On the other hand, if the fun and freedom of an e-bike helps you relive those childhood memories of the wind in your hair on your first bike, an electric bike may be just what you’re looking for.

City-bike-styled ebike

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