Interbike Blog

New York Times on the Business of Electric Bikes

New York TimesWhile making breakfast for the kids in the morning and preparing their lunches to take to school, I listen to the radio. More often than not, it’s set to NPR. You know: news, weather, little tidbits on what’s going on in the world while the oatmeal cooks and the eggs are boiling. Between slicing up a banana and buttering some toast, I heard the words “electric bicycles” come from the speakers. Ears perked, I moved a bit closer, but it was only a brief mention of the growing importance of electric bicycles in China, with a passing comment that while in China there are currently 120 million ebikes cruising the streets, we bought “only” 200,000 of them last year here in the States.

“Interesting,” I thought to myself and made a mental note to use it as a reason for a post here. Later, while skimming through the most popular articles area in the New York Times app on my iPhone during lunch, I saw that a piece on ebikes was in the top 10.

“An Electric Boost for Bicyclists – Born in China, Electric Bikes Gain a Toehold in the West” is the article featured in the Global Business section of the February 1 edition of the Times. Confirming the high popularity ranking, there are already 95 comments to the piece as of this writing.

The article by J. David Goodman is worth a read and features comments from some industry notables such as consultant Jay Townley and ebike expert Ed Benjamin who is quoted as saying that ebikes are a “gift from God” for bike makers. Sure seems like the industry is treating them like they are.

Proving that there’s always something left to learn, here are a few things I learned:

  • Electric bicycles are not officially permitted on the streets of New York.
  • While producing far fewer emissions, a typical Chinese ebike goes through five batteries in its lifetime – each containing 20 to 30 pounds of lead (!). Ouch.
  • Two distinct types of bikes are emerging as their popularity grows: the very bicycle-like pedal-assist in the US and Europe and the more scooter-like variant in China.
  • Government planners are seeking to address the challenges that the increase in ebikes on the streets are causing traditional cyclists: do they belong in bike lanes/paths?

And again I ask, considering that Best Buy is taking on the category, that specialty bicycle retail has a general lack of enthusiasm toward them (described here in a previous post), and that many traditional cyclists not exactly embracing the concept (according to the article), who will own the electric bike retail channel going forward?

8 Comments

  1. I believe that once electric bikes become mainstream, the phobias diminish, and acceptance by traditional bicyclists improves, the local bike shops will own the retail channel. Most people won’t be satisfied with an electric bike from discounters for quality reasons and lack of service and support.

    On line sales will improve but will not have the service and support of a LBS.

    Custom built electric bikes will also become more popular with people who want a bike designed to their specific requirements.

    Regarding batteries, lead acid batteries will be replaced with other, less toxic, alternatives. For example LiFePO4 technology is non-toxic and biodegradable. The initial cost is higher but the lifetime cost is less than lead acid technology.

  2. I bought my electric bike through an independent shop. Am enjoying the heck out of it.
    By the way, have gotten the snide attitude from bike snobs… foolishly as far as I’m concerned; it serves a different set of purposes. More curiosity and interest, though – and whenever someone tries it out, they are delighted! It’s just straight up fun. Mine is pedal-assist.

  3. Linda –
    Snobbish cyclists? Working at a bike shop? Pshaw!
    Unfortunately, this is a problem that predates electric bikes. However, I do allow some leeway for cyclists to still debate where ebikes fit into the traditionally purely human-powered transportation category. As you mentioned, though, maybe all it will take is for them to try a pedal-assist bike. I was instantly convinced after a test ride of their place in the transportation – and even bicycle – landscape. I don’t accept, though, any derision directed at people/customers interested in any type of bicycle.
    Enjoy your new bike!

    Don –
    We agree that IBD’s have the opportunity to take the category – if they decide to. Good to hear that there are some enlightened dealers out that you’re working with.

    Woodard –
    I don’t know if it’s phobias surrounding the batteries that’s the problem. I’ve seen the new battery designs and what can be done in a more eco-friendly way, but the old lead-acid is still cheapest and apparently still very prevalent in many places around the world. Eco-friendly is nice, but it’s got to be nice to the wallet as well to make a difference in adoption.

  4. The only reason e-bikes are not taking off as fast as expected in the US is because of so many out dated policies across the states. If they were revoked, we would see many businesses appear and a whole new industrial sector thrive, which would be good for our economy.

  5. As a life-long cyclist, it amuses me when I ride my high end road bike by another “roadie” and get snubbed. I chuckle.

    I doubt the IBDs, who’s customer base includes lots of high end roadies, and other cyclists, will carry ebikes. It’s not in their dna. I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner, either. It’s like eating broccoli for some – no thanks.

    Ebikes and their related LEVs will take off in the US if a mega-mega-star (last name starts w/ “O”) pushes the category. Or, if the government wakes up to view it as significant health benefit to millions.

    Otherwise, developing the interest will be up to those who believe in Ebikes and are passionate enough (funding helps) to evangelize on the web and face-to-face.

    Please visit the ebike blog community for more information; http://velorep.com/velochef

  6. Lead-acid batteries aren’t particularly green, but neither are they as efficient as Lithium based batteries.

    Lithium, has seen a big resurgence in demand. Popular with laptops, phones and portable electronics, it’ll become the backbone of the growing electric vehicle industry.

    Lithium is the next oil – you read it here first.

  7. I bought my electric bike through an independent shop. Am enjoying the heck out of it.
    By the way, have gotten the snide attitude from bike snobs… foolishly as far as I’m concerned; it serves a different set of purposes. More curiosity and interest, though – and whenever someone tries it out, they are delighted! It’s just straight up fun. Mine is pedal-assist.