By Charles Pekow — Lets face it: electric bicycles have become a significant part of the cycling community, both for transportation and recreation. But research into who rides them and their effect on the bicycle business is lacking. In an attempt to partially fix this lack of knowledge, researchers at the National Institute for Transportation & Communities at Portland State University in Oregon surveyed owners in 2013. To see what has changed since the, they released a follow-up in March 2018.
They found not much has changed since 2013 in terms of why people buy e-bikes: they're easier to ride than standard bikes, especially when climbing hills and they cut automobile trips. And yes, more people can ride bikes, go for longer distances and carry more cargo (including children) than on standard bikes, the research found. The survey, however, was done disproportionately in the Portland area and the sample wasn't random. About 70 percent of respondents were male and almost all of them rode a standard bicycle before buying an e-bike; only about seven percent stated the first bike they bought as an adult included a motor.
The authors suggest that use of e-bikes could reduce smog and energy use, since many riders use them in lieu of driving an auto. “The majority of the utilitarian trips (i.e., errands and commutes) being made by e-bike are replacing motor vehicle trips, which signifies an impressive decrease in vehicle miles traveled,” the report says. “I am 63 years old and have had 3 knee surgeries and cardiac bypass. Having an e-bike enables me to ride more often than I would on my regular bike,” one respondent noted.
Many owners also said they felt safer on an e-bike than on a conventional bicycle, but it's not clear if safety was a major factor in determining whether to buy one. E-bike riders are more inclined to take indirect routes to stay off major roads, can accelerate more quickly to get through intersections and can go faster than other cyclists, improving safety or the perception thereof. The downside, however, lies the fact that motorists may misjudge their speed. Safety remains an open question, the report notes.
Americans aren't pedaling to the e-bike stores with the same speed as Asians. Americans bought between 200,000 and 250,000 e-bikes in 2006, but by then 200 million had been sold in China. The study didn't conclude in what parts of the USA e-bikes were most popular but they seemed more common in major cities, particularly Los Angeles and hilly San Francisco.
On difference over time between the two surveys (which are not completely comparable as they used different methodology) is that now people are more likely to buy e-bikes rather than conversion kits for standard bikes.
But communities will need to deal with code and policy questions. Are e-bikes considered bicycles or motorized vehicles? Should they be allowed on sidewalks or recreational trails. (The U.S. Forest Service is dealing with the question of allowing them on mountain bike trails). The authors concluded that e-bikes can go a long way to encourage longer and more bike trips. But first, they say, “they will not be met to their full potential in the absence of policies and regulations which support and protect the use of e-bikes.”
You can find the report, A North American Survey of Electric Bicycle Owners, at https://ppms.trec.pdx.edu/media/project_files/NITC_RR_1041_North_American_Survey_Electric_Bicycle_Owners.pdf.