Should You Get an Electric Bike?
When I first heard about electric bikes, they struck me as the ultimate life hack. They allow you to commute relatively speedily without the hassle of public transportation, to get exercise without getting overly sweaty, to get from point A to point B without spending money on gas. As a longtime urban cyclist who’d sworn off bike commuting after a move put a sizable hill between me and the office, I wondered if electric bikes were the answer. I decided to find out.
The 3 Classes of Ebikes
First, let’s define our terms. An electric bike, or ebike, is any bike that has an electric motor. There are three main classes of ebikes.
Pedal-assist bikes, or “pedelecs”: The electric assist on these bikes is activated by pedaling. In the U.S., they are limited to assisted speeds of 20mph with a motor of 750 watts or less. They’re legally classified as bicycles.
Power on demand: The electric drive system on these bikes is activated either via pedaling or on demand with a throttle (e.g., a button or grip twist). They have the same top speeds and motor wattage limits as Class 1 bikes, but since you aren’t required to pedal, power-on-demand bikes might be more restricted than pedal-assist bikes, depending on where you live.
Speed pedelecs: Similar in operation to regular pedelecs, speed pedelecs allow you to achieve speeds up to 28 mph. Some states view speed pedelecs as full-on mopeds and require a special license and registration, and usage in bike lanes is often restricted.
I tried two Class 1 ebikes over the course of a few months. During the time I was testing the bikes, New York City (where I live) made pedal-assist bikes legal, and they were soon after added to the bikeshare fleet. Class 2 ebikes are still illegal in NYC, which is controversial to say the least, as the majority of throttle bike riders are delivery workers who depend on the speed of ebikes to get city dwellers their Seamless and Postmates and Prime Now and [insert modern on-demand convenience] fast.
The Pros of Ebikes
You know that dream where you’re cycling or jogging or pushing a boulder up a mountain and suddenly the effort vanishes? A wind comes from behind you and makes the strenuous task simple—you could ride forever, run forever, what was impossible now seems a cinch? (Surely we’ve all had a dream like this, right?) Well, riding with pedal assist is like that dream, but it’s real. You’re cycling along, you come to a hill, you’re exerting effort. Then, like a magical wind from behind, the pedal assist kicks in and you’re sailing up the incline. You’re still pedaling, but you’ve got help. It’s exhilarating.
You really can bike to work without getting gross
It doesn’t take much to get me sweaty, so even with assistance, I arrive at work with a nice sheen of perspiration (or more, depending on the humidity levels). But less sweat-prone cyclists, as well as those who can heed their mind’s continuous warning not to work too hard in the 90-degree heat, can arrive at work as unmussed as if they’d taken a bus or train. On the few days that temperatures dipped below 80 this summer, I was able to ride the four miles to work (including one considerable hill) without breaking a sweat.
You can save money
The average cost of a new car is around $36K. The average used car costs over $19K. The ebikes I tried cost about $3000, which is about average. Is that a lot for a bike? Hell yes. But if you have a car that you’re using mostly to travel the “last mile”—from say, the train station to your house—and for errands on the weekend, an ebike could easily be a lot more cost-effective. When you factor in the cost of gas (~$2.80/gallon right now) or the monthly rate for public transportation ($121 in NYC), the numbers start to favor the bike, provided you don’t leave it in the garage picking up dust.
You could lessen your carbon footprint
There are a lot of studies that compare the environmental impact of an ebike to that of a regular bike or a car. I saw this one that argues a regular bike produces 8.5 times more carbon emissions than an ebike, which stretches credulity but is interesting nonetheless. My takeaway is that it’s not indisputably more virtuous to use one form of transportation over another, but it’s worth considering the whole picture of energy consumption and environmental effect when deciding whether to buy anything. The various metals in your bike or car, the cobalt in your bike’s (or Prius’) lithium-ion battery—they all came from mines. It’s not as simple as “cars spew exhaust, bikes don’t.”
You get exercise
Not as much exercise as riding a regular bike, of course, but more than driving or taking the bus. One oft-cited experiment declares you burn about 20% fewer calories with electric assistance as you do without. According to Strava, I burn ~100-150 calories riding one way to work with low pedal assist on the whole way, which is not a ton, but it’s more than I’d burn sitting in a car.
You save time
It takes me 25-35 minutes to commute by subway. It takes a cool 20 to commute by ebike. If your city has good cycling routes, an ebike might allow you to skip that daily rush hour traffic jam or subway crush.
You get out more
If it’s calorie burn you care about, a non-electric bike is going to win every time. This was a sticking point for me as I debated buying an ebike: if I were to ride my decent commuter bike everywhere, I’d get a lot more exercise, without shelling out thousands of dollars. But the thing is, I don’t ride my commuter bike everywhere—I barely ride it anywhere. Before going for a ride, I consider how far away my destination is, how steep the incline, how sweaty and exhausted I will be when I arrive, and whether I’ll feel like making the trip back. I usually opt for public transportation.
With the ebike, these considerations fall away. I’ve checked out farmers’ markets in new neighborhoods, zipped to visit friends who live off the beaten path, volunteered to pick up that forgotten grocery item at the store because the very act of traveling there would be fun.
You gain confidence
Large hills that I’d previously inched up in the lowest gear are barely challenging with electric assistance. On group excursions, I’m able to keep pace with the front of the pack if I desire. This is big—I’m not super-athletic, and I avoid exercising with other people so as not to relive the grade-school humiliation of being one of the last picked for kickball. The pedal assist helps me to forget my anxiety about not being fast enough and permits me instead to concentrate on the wind in my hair, the scenery, the joy of cycling.
The Cons of Ebikes
They’re not cheap
Even after you do the math on bike vs. car, we’re still talking about a bike that costs many times what you’d pay for a middle-of-the-road Schwinn. Add to that the cost of insurance, a good lock, lights, a helmet and other accessories, and things are getting pretty pricey. Are you going to ride this bike enough to make it worth the cost?
The lightest pedal-assist bike I found weighs about 40 pounds without baskets, racks, locks and other accoutrements. So it’s not the sort of bike you’re going to sling over your shoulder and spirit up to your sixth-floor walkup.
You need a safe, climate-controlled place to store the bike
These bikes are magnets for thieves. Depending on where you live, you’ll need a very good bike lock (or two) and a safe place to keep the bike. I live in a small New York City apartment, so keeping the bike in my home is not an option. I’ve been storing the bikes I’ve been testing in my building’s basement, but this isn’t an option for everyone. I’ve left my regular old road bikes locked to signposts through ghastly northeastern winters in the past, but that’s not a route I’ll be taking with a ride this fancy.
You need a place to charge the bike
You’ll have to plug the bike in to charge it, so you need a garage or outdoor outlet, or a place indoors to which you can easily wheel the bike to juice it up every day or two. This is seldom an issue if you live in a house, but for those living in cities, something to consider.
Batteries have drawbacks
Ebike battery life can take you anywhere from about 10 to 60 miles on a single charge, depending on many factors. You can certainly keep biking beyond the battery’s capacity, but you’ll be doing so without assist. Some bikes have auxiliary batteries you can carry along to swap in as need be, but you won’t be able to go as far as you want, as fast as you want, as you would in a car. Ebike batteries also have to be replaced after a certain number of charges, adding another regular cost to the overall price of the bike.
The laws governing ebikes differ by state
As ebikes grow in popularity, states are devising laws regarding rider age, bike classification, helmet requirements, licensure and which types of ebikes are permitted on bicycle paths. Check your state’s requirements.
People might hate you
Ebikes are zippier and faster than regular bikes. That rider huffing and puffing up the hill who you pass effortlessly with a carefree wave can be forgiven for despising you. To him, you’re a cheater. To others, you’re a menace. An ebiker weaving through the bike lane at 20mph is going to disrupt the flow of traffic, surprising fellow riders and, if the e-cyclist is not cautious, potentially causing accidents. So ebikers need to be extra-considerate of other cyclists. If you’re riding in a pack of commuters going average speed, it’s not acceptable to tailgate, nor is it okay to swerve into traffic to pass everyone.
You might hate yourself
I’m not joking. If you’re used to a regular bike, you may feel like an ebike is cheating. Cycling is transportation, but it’s also a workout. A challenging ride is rewarding because you’ve made the trip on your own steam. When cruising past mortals peddling for dear life, you may feel guilty, like a rich kid whose dad bought his way into college.
For me, the psychological trip of having assistance has been tough to reconcile with my image of myself as someone who accomplishes things through hard work. Of course, a life hack by very definition is a shortcut to a goal. It allows you to reach the same end with less stress, time or effort. Riding an ebike has been, for me, a means of contemplating everything that is good and everything that is problematic about life hacking. Yes, it’s faster and easier than an analog bike. But is a certain amount of suffering to reach a goal important? Do we appreciate things more when we’ve sweat for them? Should we slow down and enjoy the journey, no matter how long it takes, without looking for cheats or hacks?
For the moment, the pros of ebikes outweigh the cons for me—I’m in. I’ve made a deal with myself to only use the electric assistance when I need it, in order to climb a big hill or commute speedily. When I’m on leisure rides, I’ll keep the assist off, using the bike for exercise, taking it slow. Unlike a moped or scooter, using electricity with ebikes is optional. You can choose when to life hack, and when to just live.