Electric Bikes: Will They Become the Future of American Bike Transportation?

By Lou Melini

Heather Khader commutes with her kids on a Yuba elMundo cargo bike. Photo: Karim Khader.
Heather Khader commutes with her kids on a Yuba elMundo cargo bike. Photo: Karim Khader.

The commuter column has now been published for 10 years. I will start the next decade with what could be the next revolution in bicycle transport – Electric bicycles (e-Bikes). To help with this column I will be profiling two users of e-Bikes, Heather Khader and Elicia Cârdenas.

Cycling Utah: Heather, discuss a little about yourself and how you came to bike commute on an e-Bike.

Heather: I’m a married mom of two wonderful girls ages 5 and 2 1/2. I feel pretty strongly about minimizing my environmental impact and doing my part to improve the air. I was focusing on public transportation to get to work but became frustrated by the cost. I’m not physically competitive or athletic. I really enjoy biking as I’m much more in tune with the world around me and it keeps me healthier. I enjoy the journey and appreciate a form of exercise that has more than one purpose. Biking gets me where I need to go and fulfills my fitness needs. It’s win-win for me.

I started commuting to work very occasionally early last spring after purchasing a hybrid bicycle. Prior to that, I owned an older, neglected mountain bike that actually never made it to a mountain. Last fall my schedule changed a bit when I went from a full-time management position at St. Mark’s hospital to a prn/per diem dietitian. This freed up a lot of my time to be with my kiddos. I really got motivated to find an environmentally friendly way to go on our adventures.

We tried a Burley child trailer that we utilized with our regular bikes but it always made me nervous. I felt like the girls were too far away from me and not very visible to drivers. They started sneaking their hands out of the cover and playing with the bike and trailer wheels and my 5 year-old didn’t fit so well. I started my search for something different.

C.U. How did you end up with the e-Bike?

Heather: My first exposure to a Yuba Cargo bike happened when a dad came zooming thorough an intersection with three kids sitting right behind him. The kids looked so happy and carefree and I thought ‘I’ve got to get me one of those’. I started my research and originally got really excited about the bucket style of cargo bike like the Madsen but started to think it was more bike then I could handle – it just seemed really big. The info I read indicated that Yuba was the more affordable option for cargo bikes and I liked the look of the Yuba Boda Boda. The website directed me to my local dealer and I went to test drive one as soon as I could. That’s when I realized I’d have to get the elMundo longtail bike in order to haul both kiddos; I test drove it and became smitten.

I was part of the camp that thought of e-bikes the wimpy way to ride a bike. After I test-drove the Yuba elMundo and other electric bikes. I became really excited about the opportunities an e-bike could provide. They are incredibly fun and powerful. I realized that the elMundo could replace my car for at least 80% of my transportation needs and had to have it right away.

My husband chose the Pedego City Commuter because it was the best fit for him. It’s a cruiser-type bike with a rack area, lights, and disc brakes. The classic bike frame and seat are a bit large for me so I have a hard time staying in the seat. This prevents me from riding it much and I think my hubby is okay with that as I was pretty excited to frequently borrow it from him. Lou, you and I, ran into each other at the bike rack at work and you noted how big the seat was. I believe your comment was, “Is that thing heated?” It’s obviously a pretty cushy ride for the right body.

We’ve gone to Blue Monkey Bicycles in Murray for our e-bike purchases. They’ve been really wonderful to work with. Duane, the owner, and his team have been incredibly helpful with assisting us when issues have come up.

C.U.: It sounds like the e-bikes have helped expand your bike commuting. How do the kids like the bike?

Heather: My older daughter loves the bike in all kinds of weather and prefers to commute by cargo bike. The younger daughter is a fair weather biker and initially didn’t like the bumps and the wind. We’ve found her enough warm gear and she’s been enjoying it more as she ages. They both are a lot happier on the bike when the weather is warmer than 50 degrees. I’m lucky that my schedule is pretty flexible so we are able to bike to most of our errands including music class, tumbling, library visits, trips to the park to play, shopping, eating out, etc.

Elicia Cârdenas commutes on a Specialized Turbo E-bike. Photo: Courtesy Elicia
Elicia Cârdenas commutes on a Specialized Turbo E-bike. Photo: Courtesy Elicia
Cârdenas.

C.U.: Elicia, your turn. Tell me about yourself.

Elicia: I was raised in Grand Junction, CO, and went to university back east to get a degree in theatre. I started riding my bike for transportation when I was on the road working for various opera companies in Florida, Chicago, Portland, and New York. While living in Portland, I started working in a community bike shop running women's programs, working in kids programs, and doing basic retail and education / outreach in the bike community. I stuck with it and taught Safe Routes to School programs in Portland for several years, teaching bike and pedestrian safety classes to grades 4-high school. I also worked for Alta Planning and Design. In Portland, I was active with the cycling community, serving as a media contact, volunteer, spokesperson, and event organizer. I helped found the Sprockettes and was featured in a short film about Portland's bike facilities. I was invited to be a presenter at the first national Safe Routes to School conference in 2007.

After living for several years in north Lake Tahoe and working in a fantastic bike shop with my husband, we moved to Salt Lake City. Here, I worked as a Spanish teacher last year at Rowland Hall. Currently I am a third grade teacher at Alianza Academy, a charter school in South Salt Lake. I am a League Certified Cycling instructor. I work with the Bicycle Ambassador Program with Salt Lake County as a volunteer ambassador and trainer. I also use my 5+ years of experience as Vice-Chair of Portland's Bicycle Advisory Committee to serve on the Salt Lake City Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee. I ride a road bike, a custom Vanilla touring bike, a 29-inch mountain touring bike, a 29-inch mountain touring bike, a full suspension mountain bike, cross bike, city bike, and now, Specialized Turbo, an e-bike.

C.U.: Your background sounds like a natural inclination to commute by bike.

Elicia: Truth be told, I started bike-commuting when I wanted to go out in my early 20s and make sure I could get home safely. From there, it was a pretty quick transition into riding a bike downtown to my various job sites (I was a freelance stage manager at the time) because in Portland, there were already good bike routes and plenty of safe parking. When I went back to school to try to find another career, it made sense to ride my bike to the university, to my work, etc., and then I started working at a bike shop and went car- free for several years.

C.U.: How did you end up with an e-bike?

Elicia: In Salt Lake City, I commute on a Specialized Turbo. It is the first big purchase my husband and I have made together, and it was a big decision. I don't think of myself as someone who rides an electric assist bike. I'm strong, and fit, and reasonably healthy, but between the demands of a job that requires professional dress, foot surgeries, and a huge increase in my asthma, bike commuting just wasn't working for me. I was still riding my beloved Electra Ticino around town, but commuting just made me blue in the face and completely miserable. What a shift for me to be in the car all the time, and I hated it.

The Turbo has been a game changer for me. I can carry all the clothes I need (I have little storage and no shower at work) plus meals and any materials I need for the day to teach elementary school. The Turbo rides just fine, no asthma or misery, no matter how much I carry. But I am still getting all the great benefits from riding- clear head, no freeway, fresh air, neighborhood perspective, human-scale interaction, etc.

C.U.: What are some of the advantages/disadvantages of the e-bike?

Elicia: Advantages: no hassle commuting, almost unlimited carrying capacity (we have a rack and fenders), a no-sweat commute if I want it, and an average speed of around 20 mph. Disadvantages: cost, weight, and feeling like I should be making fun of myself. It's hard to ride with someone who isn't on a Turbo. It's not a social bike. There is the potential of running out of battery, but the bike has a lot of settings to make sure you know when that is going to happen. I do have issue with having to charge it (use electricity) but I use a mobile phone too, so I can't be too much of a hypocrite.

C.U.: Heather, what has been your overall experience with the e-Bikes?

Heather: Initially, I was using my regular bicycle for commuting to work and the elMundo when I had the kids because the elMundo is really big and was intimidating. With all of the accessories, motor and battery it weighs about 70 pounds. It took me a few months to feel comfortable and in control and now I prefer the elMundo to my other bikes. I’m a bit type A and like to have all the items I need to be prepared so it was hard for me to switch back and forth between bike, bags, locks, lights, work clothes, rain gear, face mask, etc. I kept forgetting something. It’s been simpler for me to focus on getting everything organized for one bike. The elMundo can also carry a lot of stuff so it’s useful to have it if I stop by the grocery or other store on the way home.

I’m in love with assist especially with a bike of 70 pounds and a kid load of 80 pounds. My husband frequently uses the elMundo to take my daughter to school in the mornings and rarely puts the battery on the bike so the assist option isn’t available. I always have the battery on so that I can track my mileage and am constantly changing my level of assist and gears.

Karim Khader on a Pedego Electric Bike in fronf of Blue Monkey Bicycles in Murray. Photo: Heather Khader.
Karim Khader on a Pedego Electric Bike in fronf of Blue Monkey Bicycles in Murray. Photo: Heather Khader.

I love the BionX system on the elMundo over that on the Pedego as it has additional functionality. It has 4 levels of assistance, 4 levels of generation and a throttle. I can utilize the throttle at anytime (except when in generation mode) to zoom through yellow lights, move out in and out of traffic or just to entertain the kiddos. On flat areas you very quickly get to 20mph and stay there with the throttle on. It’s important to note that electric bikes are regulated to 20mph so the motor will keep you at that speed when in assist mode.

The % of assist is anywhere from 35% to 300% and it really feels like you have bionic legs. On flat areas I often don’t need the assist, for slight inclines I use level 2 and for large hills I use level 4 or I push the throttle and still have to put a lot of energy into peddling. It’s a 21-speed bike and I’m generally trying to get everywhere I can as fast as I can so I’m constantly switching my gears and assist to maintain as close to 20mph and still get a decent workout. The assist mode won’t kick in until your going at least 2mph so I always try to down shift at stoplights to make sure I don’t fall over when I try to start peddling again (it did happen once at a very busy intersection and was horribly embarrassing).

The generation mode allows you to put up to 15% power back to the battery and essentially feels like downshifting. I use this mode when going down large hills because it slows the bike down while peddling so I don’t have to ride my brakes so much. It also gives me more control over the bike especially when the girls are really wiggly.

The batteries are easily removed from the bikes with a key. We bring them in each night and charge them. It takes about 5 hrs to charge with lights indicating when the charge is complete. The batteries are lithium and unlike electronics they don’t require periodic draining of the battery for best performance or longer life. The battery on the elMundo is 48V and Yuba claims it costs 3-5 cents to recharge the battery. They also claim a distance of 25-50 miles on a charge but I’ve yet to see that happen for me. I went 16 miles from my house (the bottom of the foothills in Sugarhouse) to Olympus Cove with my 5 year-old and had two bars of the eight left on the battery display. It was an elevation gain of about 800 feet with half the ride up some big hills. I don’t think my battery would have made it another 9 miles – I’ll have to test it out another day and see. (Editor’s note: Heather reported that she has gone 20 miles on a charge in hilly terrain.)

C.U.: Heather, have you had any problems?

Heather: Unfortunately, I have had some significant issues with my motor and my computer console. Fortunately, the bike comes with a 2-year warranty and Blue Monkey has incredible customer service. Soon after I got the bike the assist stopped working and the diagnostics showed the motor had to be replaced. BionX, which is located in Canada, wouldn’t send a new motor until they evaluated the dead one. It took several weeks to fix and left me without my elMundo for several weeks last fall. As soon as I got the new motor, the console backlight stopped working and that had to be replaced. I’ve read info on the web about the early 2013 BionX systems having issues so maybe that’s what I was dealing with. I’ve not had any problems since and it’s been about 8 months of frequent use. The battery has worked fine.

We’ve had a few other quirky electrical issues that have required service for both my bike and my husband’s. Some of which have required diagnostic tools and understanding of mechanics that I don’t have. Duane or Mikey from Blue Monkey have been willing to come to my house to fix some of the issues. I’ve really appreciated their service. Everything so far has been under warranty and free of charge.

C.U.: Elicia, tell me about the Specialized Turbo.

Elicia: The bike is like riding a cruiser around the city, upright and cushy, while traveling at 20 mph. There are four modes, including full assist, eco-assist (uses less battery), no assist, and regeneration mode. Full assist means that I can go to work and back, moving very quickly, about 15 miles round trip, and still have about 60% of the charge left. It kicks in as soon as I pedal, and it's powerful! The eco setting (represented by a leaf shape on the interface screen) is a less-powerful option that is more efficient. I'm still experimenting with that. The no-assist and regeneration modes both have a lot of pedaling resistance, and seem to be best for long downhill rides. One nice thing about the power-assist is that if your battery is running low, the eco-mode will automatically kick in to extend the range. In addition, there is a built in light system that will continue to light up even if your battery runs too low to provide any power to the wheel.

We have the bike built up with fenders and a rear rack to make commuting that much easier, and aside from the rather thick downtube, it looks like any other heavy bike. I'm not sure if I mentioned this before but my husband and I share the bike. All we need to do is change the seat height because the bike is so easy and comfortable to ride, so bike position and perfect fit are less important. He's 5'11 and I am 5'3; we have a size medium.

Being new to Salt Lake City, I don't have a certain bike shop that I go to. We do most of our maintenance in-house, as it were. It's worth noting that not every Specialized dealer will be able to carry Turbo bikes. Those dealers are selected based on their ability to service the bikes and have had special training. However, we haven't had any particular problems with our bike after 400+ miles of riding. We did have one flat, and the only special tool that you need to change it is a 5mm allen wrench. The wrench is necessary to unbolt the thru-axles. There is just a cable to unplug to decouple the power-assist hub from the wiring.

Specialized doesn't have a schedule for regular maintenance beyond that of a regular bike. The tires are made of a long-wearing compound and are almost as large as a 29″ mountain bike tire. A fat 700c (or 29er) tube works just fine.

The bikes are relatively new to the US market this year, having been introduced in Europe the year before.

C.U.: Elicia, you are a member of the new Salt Lake City Bicycle Advisory Committee. Is there a legal issue with E-bikes? For example, at what point would an electric bike become a motorcycle?

Elicia: I think that silent electric-assist bikes should be held to the same standards as traditional bikes. I still have to pedal, deal with the rain and snow and inattentive drivers, lock up my bikes, wear lights and rain gear, and figure out how to carry my stuff. I still have to make sure my hands are warm enough to brake on cold mornings. I think that noisy two-stroke engine assist bikes are something different, especially if they move on their own without pedaling.

I am always aware that it would be easy for me to hit something at speed and have a very bad crash because I can go so fast- but I can go incredibly fast on my road bike too. I have the same responsibility on Turbo as I do on a non-assist bike. I tend to stay off shared use paths on whatever bike I am riding because I ride faster than many users unless I am trying to go slow. I don't think that ebikes should go their “normal” speed (+20mph) on shared-use paths. Those facilities are for riders who are, perhaps, looking for a more peaceful and protected experience than they would get by riding on an arterial. The Turbo does great in city traffic, and those routes are generally more direct, so I'd rather use streets.

C.U.: Heather, how would you counsel someone that came to you for advice about buying an e-bike?

Heather: Both the e-bike world and the cargo bike world are expanding quickly. I would review the websites on electric bikes and read the reviews. The website http://electricbikereview.com has some great info and there numerous others out there.

It’s really helpful to have a good idea of how you plan to use it as well. With cargo bikes, some systems have components that work really well together. I think this is a big focus for Xtracycles Edgerunner longtail bike but the system is more expensive. I love my Yuba and the price point but their accessories don’t all work together. I purchased a peanut shell (child carrier seat) for my younger daughter to ride in but it prevents me from attaching the pannier bags or the towing tray that allows you to easily tow other bikes. It seems like they develop their accessories as consumers demand them but not as a whole working system. Through a blog called Tiny Helmets Big Bikes I found a company called Carsick Designs and special ordered their pannier bags they’ve designed to work with the peanut shell.

Cost is a huge thing to consider. You have the base price for the bike and the accessories quickly add up. I’ve added a breadbasket, handlebars for passenger, peanut shell, panniers, lights and additional reflective stickers. I ended up making my own passenger cushion and my father-in-law made a less expensive footrest for my older daughter. Now I want to get a bike rack for our e-bikes and there is only one that works with the elMundo. It also requires a hitch that I currently don’t have.

Other questions to ask yourself: Will you utilize the bike enough to make the expense worth it? (It’s been a worthwhile investment for us.) Do you have the space to store the bike? (We didn’t initially and it has created some cluttered storage areas for us.) Will I be able to lock it up at the places I frequent? (I can usually find a spot but it is a massive bike and can take a bit longer to lock up, especially if I remove my battery, console and lights.)

Also, I really recommend going through a dealer as e-bikes have the potential for more issues that a bicycle.

If you have a suggestion for a commuter profile, have a commuter question, or other comments, please send it to [email protected]

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