By KATIE SHAW
Poulsbo resident John Scheunemann rides his bike up and down the daunting slope of Forest Rock Lane for his daily commute to and from Central Market. The hill is typical of most Pacific Northwest terrain: steep and unforgiving.
“I decided to get an e-bike because of the hill; that was the impetus,” Scheunemann said. “I was biking home, and I’d just be dying by the time I got to the top of the hill. I tried [the e-bike] out in Seattle, on the steep streets coming up from the ferry, and it pulled me up, no problem.”
Electric bicycles can be ridden like a regular bicycle, but with the addition of an electric motor to assist the rider. The battery and motor provide an extra kick on hills or long stretches, making it a valuable tool for recreational riders or commuters.
Scheunemann isn’t the only local resident praising the value of e-bikes. Poulsbo’s Phil Herzog is also spreading word.
“The worst day on a bike is better than the best day in a car,” Herzog said, an electric bike enthusiast and vice president of sales and marketing for the e-bike company e-JOE.
Electric bicycles have become popular worldwide, but remain relatively uncommon in the United States. Modern European and Asian city designs and commuter cultures are known to be much more bicycle-friendly. In 2012, 29.3 million e-bikes sold worldwide. About 90 percent of these were sold in China, but European countries were big buyers as well, especially Germany (about 380,000 in 2012) and the Netherlands (about 175,000), according to Marc Gunther’s article “Will Electric Bicycles Get Americans to Start Pedaling?” on Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
China is one country that has embraced the e-bike. According to “China’s electric bicycle boom: will the fashion last?” by Henry Grabar on chinadialogue.net, there were more than 120 million electric bikes in China as of 2013; one in five bicycles in the country were electric.
In comparison, e-bike purchases during 2012 in the United States, which has a population more than three times that of the Netherlands and Germany combined, amounted to about 53,000.
Herzog feels that number should be higher, given the benefits for commuters, recreational cyclists, and riders needing only local transportation or enhanced mobility. Herzog even cites the benefits for people with DUIs who cannot drive but still need transportation.
E-bikes are attractive to commuters in that they can be faster than cars in urban areas since riders can avoid automobile traffic. For people with a “last-mile commute,” or a commute that requires a bus or ferry, it is cheaper and easier to ride an e-bike.
“If I need to get from my house to the transfer station here in Poulsbo and get the bus, I take my folding electric bike,” Herzog said. “It takes me seven minutes to get from my house to the transfer station. I fold the bike up, walk it into the bus, they drop me off at Winslow, I get my bike onto the ferry. Then I get back on my bike when I get to Seattle.”
Using an e-bike eliminates the parking, registration, insurance, gas, and maintenance costs associated with a car. A commuter can save $3,000 a year with an e-bike; a $6,000 bike pays for itself in two years, although Herzog said that a $2,000 bike could easily replace a car.
Lower-priced e-bikes sell for up to $1,500; mid-price is $1,500-$2,500. People pay up to $10,000 for premium e-bikes, Herzog said.
“I chose to join e-JOE because they are the only company that I saw that is exclusively devoted to providing an affordable, quality bike to as many people as possible in North America,” Herzog said.
E-bike users also leave less of a carbon footprint, as they don’t use a gas motor. Their batteries are rechargeable. Some electric bike batteries are even regenerative, and recharge themselves when the brake is used.
“I drive my Prius, so I don’t have a gas guzzler, but I probably fill up half as much at least as I used to,” said Scheunemann, who rides his e-bike from about April until it gets too cold to ride.
A challenging market
Since most recreational bikers use traditional bikes for exercise, the market is usually smaller, Herzog said.
“There is pushback from hardcore bikers who think e-bikes are cheating,” said David Johnson, owner of Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest, Inc., in Seattle. “There’s a pride issue there. It’s ridiculous to think that way.”
Scheunemann takes his e-bike off-roading, and Herzog said Hurricane Ridge is a great location for recreational riding.
Such a substantial global population of e-bikes does not come without consequences. In the city of Shenzhen, China — which now has a ban on electric bikes — 15 percent of traffic accidents in 2011 involved e-bikes, according to Grabar’s article.
In the States, New York has banned electric bikes, although they are still frequently used, especially by delivery restaurants, to avoid New York traffic.
“The big issue I think is the occasional recklessness of high-speed cyclists,” Herzog said.
To comply with traffic laws, most e-bikes are designed to cut off power at 20 miles per hour, he said. Some e-bikes allow for speeds over 70 miles per hour; Rimac Automobili’s Greyp G-12 e-bike can reach 40 miles per hour, but has a street-safe mode that restricts maximum speed.
Locally, three serious e-bike sellers are located in the Seattle metro area; two shops on Bainbridge Island sell kits.
At Bainbridge Island Cycle Shop, Gabriel Chrisman said the store currently offers BionX electric kits, which can be attached to regular bicycles to give them the capabilities of an e-bike. B.I. Cycle has gone through several other brands and models as well.
“The difficulty is that they’re appealing, but they’ve cost more than people want to pay,” Chrisman said.
Kits from companies such as Bionx cost about $1,250; a regular bike to go with it would cost around $500. Such a kit could attach to any bike, Chrisman said, although mountain bikes or hybrids are more suitable than lightweight ones.
The price and weight of e-bikes — usually 40-50 pounds — can be intimidating to customers, but they are especially useful for people who live on Bainbridge and commute on the ferry every day, Chrisman said. Commuters can bike to work wearing their work clothes without having to worry about getting sweaty or tired, thanks to the help of the electric motor.
There is a range of electric bike models and varieties. From the 108-pound Greyp G 12 e-bike that can reach 40 mph, to the compact Brompton electric bike by NYCeWheels that weighs 45 pounds and folds up, e-bikes are categorized in several ways.
Some bikes are pedal-activated, which sense the rider’s rotation or torque and assist with additional power accordingly. Others, similar to motorcycles, are throttle-operated, and allow manual control of power with a twist grip on the handlebar. Many models, including the BionX kits, are dual mode, and combine both of these features.