The popularity of traditional bicycles and e-bikes was already accelerating before the global upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic. With the shift towards home-based activities and lesser need for cars, bikes, especially electric ones, have become an essential mode of transport across the U.S. In fact, despite a minor plateau in 2021, the electric bicycle market witnessed a staggering 269 percent jump in 2022 according to NPD Group, a renowned market research company. It's no surprise given the immense versatility and allure of e-bikes.
Choosing the Right One
Before purchasing an e-bike, it's crucial to assess your unique requirements. The e-bike universe is as varied as traditional bicycles, each designed with specific functionalities. Factors like your locale, climate, availability of bike lanes, typical travel distance, and how e-bikes are regulated can greatly influence your choice.
Electric bikes are treated differently across states. Some require an operator’s license for e-bike riders, while others categorize e-bikes as bicycles, depending on their speed and power application (via pedals or hand control).
electric bike classifications (PDF)
At present, e-bikes are generally categorized into three classes.
Class 1 e-bikes are pedal-assist bikes, with the motor kicking in as you pedal. There's no throttle, and the e-assist halts at speeds above 20 mph.
Class 2 e-bikes include an electric motor working up to 20 mph, with pedal assist or standalone electric propulsion via a throttle control.
Class 3 e-bikes limit the pedal assist to 28 mph, necessitating a speedometer.
The legality of riding an e-bike varies by location, so always check local regulations before hitting a bike-only trail. Helmets are strongly recommended for e-bike riders, even if not mandated by local laws.
There exist more potent e-bikes intended for off-road areas, resembling bicycles but functioning like motorcycles. For this guide, we'll focus on the three classes that most mimic a conventional bicycle.
Why Buy an Electric Bike?
There are countless reasons to invest in an e-bike, but according to industry experts and users, the key drivers are commuting, leisure, and transporting light goods. In the wake of the pandemic, health considerations have also stimulated the bicycle sales boom. As demonstrated by consumer demand, bikes have emerged as a compelling transportation alternative for urban and suburban commuters avoiding public transit. Furthermore, they offer excellent exercise and recreational opportunities, even with the assistance of an electric motor.
Research from the Department of Transportation reveals that over half of all trips taken are less than 3 miles. Surprisingly, 72 percent of these short journeys are made by car, with less than 2 percent by bike. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) asserts that such distances are ideal for cycling, particularly on e-bikes.
Cost of Electric Bikes
E-bike prices vary widely, from under $500 to several thousand dollars. For many consumers, high-end models range between $6,000 and $7,000. The NCSL reports the average cost for an electric commuter bike to be around $2,000 to $3,000, as compared to $1,000 for a mid-range conventional commuter bicycle.
Consider the advice of Jenna McDonald, a renowned authority from E-Bike Enthusiasts, a digital platform specializing in electric mobility. She counsels budget-aware customers to refrain from settling for the cheapest e-bikes, as low-cost parts may lead to subpar performance and durability. Likewise, she recommends new entrants to the e-bike scene to shy away from the priciest models until they've established their riding preferences. With the blossoming diversity of e-bikes, McDonald identifies the $1,500 mark as a favorable price range for many. While inexpensive alternatives from lesser-known brands may be tempting on online marketplaces like Amazon, high-quality e-bikes generally command a starting price of $1,000 to $2,000.
Commuter Electric Bikes
Electric commuter bikes, designed for efficient travel, embody a diverse range of styles. To many, e-bikes provide an economical substitute to fuel-guzzling cars or, at a minimum, an opportunity to reduce the family vehicle count. A notable advantage of these bikes is the ability to reach your workplace without breaking a sweat, and bypassing the standstill vehicular traffic.
Consider the experience of Mia Sanchez, a commuter from the hilly region of San Francisco. With an e-bike, she navigates the city's steep terrains with ease, saving valuable time over public transportation and avoiding the hassle of parking a car in congested city streets. The power assist feature of her electric bike makes the challenging slopes more manageable, enabling her to reach her office without the strain associated with a traditional bike.
Take the case of 70-year-old John Thompson from Vancouver, who has been a bicycle enthusiast for over three decades. As he aged, he found his strength waning, particularly on his daily ride through Vancouver's diverse topography. Switching to an electric bike was a game-changer for him. The motor assist helped him maintain his active lifestyle without pushing his limits. Despite the assistance, he still gets a good amount of exercise and enjoys his rides just as much, if not more. On his e-bike, he continues to make most of his journeys, reaffirming the practicality and benefits of electric bikes for everyday commuting.
From the familiar city-type models sporting slim tires and straight handlebars to robust variants boasting fat tires and sturdier frames, commuter bikes offer variety to suit different needs. Fat-tire bikes, though initially challenging to pedal, are becoming increasingly popular as their electric counterparts hit the market. The e-bike category also includes foldable models for easy storage or for carrying onto a train or bus.
Electric Bikes for Leisure and Fitness
The surge in bicycle sales during the pandemic, as reported by NPD, largely catered to enthusiast cyclists keen on road and mountain biking. The infusion of electric motors into these activities has broadened their allure even further. Research indicates that while e-bikes offer a less strenuous workout compared to traditional bicycles, they still contribute significantly to physical health. A 2021 study, published in the Translational Journal, found that riding an e-bike over a simulated 3-mile commute still met the exercise intensity benchmarks recommended by globally recognized institutions like the World Health Organization and the American College of Sports Medicine, despite having lower metabolic, cardiovascular, and perceived exertion levels.
Much like their pedal-powered counterparts, e-bikes come in an array of forms, each designed for a unique purpose - be it conquering mountain trails, undertaking lengthy road trips, or simply having a relaxed ride around the neighborhood. Traditional cyclists may scoff at e-bikes due to the added assistance they offer, but those who've made the switch testify to their appeal.
Moreover, the additional support from electric motors has brought the joy of cycling within reach of those who previously might not have been able to partake. Take the example of George Wilson, a respected cyclist from Austin, who found himself at risk of giving up his beloved hobby due to health issues that made pedaling a traditional bike arduous. Thanks to the emergence of e-bikes, he has been able to keep his enthusiasm for cycling alive and well.
Marked by their featherweight frames, slender tires, and drop-down handlebars designed for an aerodynamic posture, racing bikes are often spotted in colorful groups speeding down cycling trails or roadways. Emulating their non-electric counterparts, e-racing bikes sport sleek, lightweight components and necessitate an aerodynamic cycling stance to optimize efficiency over extensive distances. The push provided by an electric motor allows riders to traverse more extended distances and negotiate steep inclines with less fatigue than traditional bikes might induce.
Despite their speed and relatively light weight, these performance-oriented bikes might not be everyone's cup of tea due to the assertive riding posture they necessitate, which some riders may find uncomfortable.
Crafted with sturdier frames, larger tires, and often equipped with long-travel suspension components, off-road bikes are designed to tackle trails, substantial rocks, logs, and other challenging terrains and obstacles. A quick tour of off-road biking videos online shows that riders frequently anticipate their bikes to endure more than just rough terrains — spectacular aerial jumps are also part of the excitement.
Certainly, the exhilarating part is the speedy, almost effortless descent. However, this usually demands an arduous uphill pedal on steep, unstable surfaces. Incorporating an electric motor into an off-road bike presents an appealing solution for those who crave the adrenaline rush of downhill biking but might not possess the physical stamina for the strenuous uphill climb. The e-bike sector has made bikes with larger tires — typically harder to pedal using just leg power due to their increased weight and rolling resistance — more attractive. Plus, it allows more riding in a day due to diminished fatigue. Some trails don't allow electric off-road bikes, so it's crucial to check local regulations. Furthermore, as verified by CR testers, it's imperative to purchase an electric off-road bike equipped with brakes capable of managing the additional weight of the battery and electric motor.
Combination bikes merge the functionality of road bikes with the preferred upright cycling posture of mountain bikers and daily commuters, usually featuring straight handlebars. This kind of bicycle is an excellent all-purpose solution for those who desire a bit of everything. Leisure bikes, on the other hand, offer a laid-back, comfortable upright seating position, and typically a smoother ride due to larger tires and more comfortable seats. Distinctive sweeping handlebars ensure a rider's arms remain at a relaxed distance from the body. Fitting an electric motor to either of these models allows for the use of a heavier frame and broader tires to absorb road bumps. Volkers, a commuter from Maryland, opted for this kind of e-bike, citing its versatility for both light off-road trails and paved roadways.
Freight Electric Bicycles
Designed to transport goods and additional passengers, freight bicycles are constructed with sturdy frames, wider tires, and durable components, earning them a reputation as the workhorses of the bicycle world. Traditional, pedal-powered cargo bikes have existed for some time, and they can come equipped with back seats or cargo racks, or even front-end cargo compartments bolstered by one or two wheels. Bicycle taxis, especially two-wheeled models, fall into this category as well, gaining popularity for city deliveries and child transport.
The benefits of introducing electric propulsion to a structure built to carry heavy loads are evident. Adding weight to any object makes it more challenging to maneuver, and electric assistance can be transformative for those looking to substitute a bike for a car for tasks such as running errands, carrying substantial grocery loads, parcels, or passengers. Not just confined to the heavy-duty cargo types, e-bikes are increasingly favored by city food delivery riders aiming to avoid traffic congestion and double parking issues.
Folding Electric Bikes
Envision the collapsible bike as a more transportable variant of the commuter bike. Generally equipped with smaller wheels, elongated handlebar stems and seat posts, these bikes have frames designed with hinges and other adaptable parts that enable them to fold into a more compact size. This bike type might be attractive to individuals who need a bike that can fit into a car trunk, be taken on a bus or train, or be stored in a home with limited space. Various electric models are available, but it's important to note that those with more potent motors tend to be heavier and thus more challenging to fold, carry, and store. However, there are exceptions, like a model tested by Consumer Reports, which offered a touch of electric assistance in a lightweight package that folded quite small for convenient packing or storage. (Refer to Consumer Reports' review of the best folding bikes.)
Shopping for an Electric Bike?
See Mihogo’s electric bike buying guide.
Safety Aspects of Electric Bicycles
Electric bikes can attain similar speeds as traditional bicycles, introducing equivalent safety hazards. However, models capable of exceeding 20 mph present an additional risk layer. The increased velocity means less reaction time for riders to decelerate or halt. Whether on a bike or motorbike, the aftermath of even low-speed accidents—particularly involving vehicles—can result in severe or even lethal outcomes. Research published in the 2019 edition of the Injury Prevention journal, based on emergency room data analysis, found that electric bike users were more prone to internal injuries compared to traditional cyclists.
Adopting simple yet powerful precautions like donning a bike helmet can significantly decrease the risk of serious head injuries. A research study from the Injury Prevention journal in 2007 indicated that helmet use could diminish the threat of severe head damage by anywhere from 63 to 88 percent. Other safety-enhancing practices include wearing high-visibility clothing and complying with traffic regulations. The availability of dedicated and properly secured bike lanes also plays a crucial role in cyclist safety. When it becomes necessary to use the same lanes as cars, it's vital to be mindful of the prevailing speed and traffic flow, given that motorists may be moving too quickly or be too distracted to spot cyclists.
Various aftermarket products, mirroring the functions of automobile's active driver assistance systems (ADAS), can be added to any bike. These include features like blind spot alerts and collision detection.
As for the potential risks e-bikes may pose to children, academic research remains limited. However, it's prudent to exercise utmost care when considering young or novice cyclists. Recollections of childhood bike falls serve as a reminder that even minor accidents or mishaps can lead to injuries.
With lithium-ion batteries being a common component in e-bikes, fire hazards should also be considered. Always use the appropriate charger and cable provided by your bike's manufacturer. If battery replacement becomes necessary, choose a UL-listed battery that's approved by the bike's manufacturer. Don't leave the bike unsupervised while charging, and avoid charging e-bikes in sleep areas or places where they might obstruct entrance or exit points of a room or building. While lithium-ion battery fires are infrequent, they can be intense, typically stemming from inappropriate charging or storage methods.