I have been doing a lot of work on projects in China lately, and a new mode of transportation has been added to my palette of design options. The electric bike (e-bike) has been a growing form of transportation in our new "green" culture. 120 million e-bikes in China as of early 2010, and sales are expanding rapidly in India and the Netherlands. The “Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports – 2010 Update” estimates that 1,000,000 electric bicycles will be sold in Europe in 2010. The same report estimates that sales in the U.S. will reach roughly 300,000 in 2010, doubling the number sold in 2009.
Last night as I was heading to dinner in Winter Park, I am sitting at a stop light, and a bike pulls up in the left turn lane. I didn't even think twice about it. I just thought it was cool to see a cyclist hitting Mills Ave. Of course my surprise was when the light turns green and the guy on the bike takes off and his feet aren't moving at all. Oh yeah, he had an e-bike and was cruising at about 15mph through the streets of Winter Park. It leaves one to ponder; Is he a cyclist? Is that good for the bike community? Is it really "green"? Would I ride one if it was given to me?...
The first question was an easy one. I have a somewhat purest idea about whom and what a cyclist is. If one has a DUI and can't drive, and is left to only bike around town, I don't consider them a cyclist, only a bike rider. Same goes for folks that do any other type of biking out of necessity and then drive everywhere else and never ride a bike just for fun or for simple transportation. On the same note though, any attempt that I see to get more people on the roads and on bikes and out of cars does make me want to grow the tent and pull them all in.
The other questions are interesting ones. These e-bikes are going to push the bike extremists to the edge. Do these e-bikes get to use bike facilities? How will we design for these new vehicles on the road? These e-bikes do become stepping stones for electric vehicles, since it creates a routine of plugging a vehicle in everywhere you go, increases the need for charging stations, and increases battery and clean energy technology for higher demand. Asian countries have seen the transition between the e-bikes to e-cars at a much higher rate than anything that our gas loving countries have experienced.
I would definitely ride an e-bike around out of curiosity, but I do enjoy riding my bike for the physical exercise and calming effect that experience from it. Unless I had a ridiculously long commute, which I don't, I wouldn't buy one of these. It seems to completely take the recreation aspect out of riding a bike. I would rather see these on the road than gas guzzling Hummers or SUVs, so if they catch on, I hope they do so in a way that will help reduce our country's dependency on oil and will reduce roadway speeds and make things safer for the rest of us on "real bikes". I believe that if these e-bikes add to the population of commuter cyclists, it will make it safer for all bike commuters, since I believe whole heartily that more bikes=more safety. There is safety in numbers and e-bikes could help bring those numbers up for us, while we wait for things like bike sharing, special facilities, and a complete streets style to our infrastructure.