This article was originally published at Mobility Lab.
If you watched the Super Bowl, you may have noticed an inordinate amount of car commercials. They showed you pristine rides along sunny coastal highways, open roads dripping with freedom, and Bob Dylan claiming that cars are America.
This may still be true in parts of the country, but the reality in Washington D.C. and other American cities is that large numbers of commuters want to shift out of their often-dreary car trips and into … well … anything better. In fact, 63 percent of D.C. area commuters are looking for a better way to travel each day.
While those numbers have meant more crowded public transit, a focus on building streetcars, and a heightened discussion around teleworking, one area in particular in undergoing an exciting transformation: bicycling, and the many more riders we’re all seeing on area streets these days.
Still, jumping on a bicycle – and not just taking a leisurely weekend ride but actually using a bike to get to work, meetings, the store, Nationals’ games – can seem like an intimidating stretch for someone who pretty much travels only by car.
In making such a behavioral change, electric bicycles are an interesting proposition. They are somewhere between a car – or at least a moped – and a bike. Anecdotally, there seem to be quite a few more ebikes around town lately. Ebike sellers are reporting tons of curiosity around people taking test rides. And while they are still relatively expensive, they may be reaching a more critical-mass price point in the near future.
“We’re in this business because we think it will take off,” said Amber Wason, co-founder with Jeff Stefanis of Riide, what is thought to currently be the only D.C.-based ebike manufacturer. “There is the perfect storm. Technology is progressing, people are living in more dense areas, and there is a huge trend of Millennials not getting driver’s licenses.
Jason Walder, vice president of Freshbikes, which has stores in Arlington, Bethesda, and Fairfax, added, “If there’s a place to make ebikes happen, it’s D.C. You can get anywhere on the network of roads and paths.”
He said the most recent addition of ebikes that his store now carries is the $5,900 Specialized Turbo (great review by Mashable here). I am one of thousands who have now test ridden it at his Ballston store and – like the other testers – couldn’t believe how fun and fast it is. It requires the rider to always pedal, but if pedaling, for instance, at a 14-miles-per-hour pace, the ebike will actually be going at the pedal-assist maximum speed of 28 mph. If pedaling 10 mph, it will go 20 mph. I was literally passing cars on Wilson Boulevard.
Walder added, “We’ve sold more than I thought we would. We haven’t sold any to any racer types. Some have been to elderly people, and some have sold to commuters and a couple to people who just wanted a toy. It’s a large initial investment, but it’s a massive return-on-investment.”
Riide is an interesting new player in the market because its ebikes – which are still in the Kickstarter phase but will begin shipping its 50 or so sales thus far in late spring – offer a much lower price tag than the fancy Specialized at Freshbikes. Riide ebikes, priced at $1,799, have a throttle on the handlebars that allows a rider to zip along at up to 20 mph without the need to pedal at all. I test rode this one too and, while not as mind-blowing as the Specialized, it’s definitely an eye-opening thrill.
“Lots of our marketing is around giving test rides. All the riders have ear-to-ear smiles when they get off the bike,” Wason said. “Ebikes haven’t taken off in the U.S. because there has not been a high-quality, affordable product on the market, and we want to change that.
“Just seeing the increased infrastructure in D.C., with bike lanes and Capital Bikeshare, there’s an increase in the macrotrend of people looking for other ways to get around the city. With my regular bicycle, I would consistently leave it at work because I would want to wear heels or go out after work and not sweat getting there.”
Unlike most ebike marketing efforts of targeting Baby Boomers with disposable income, Riide’s philosophy thus far has been to aim at young city dwellers with a desire for independence and commuter freedom.
But whether any of the marketing can work is yet to be decided. Navigant Research found that “nine out of every 10 e-bicycle sales still occur in China” with worldwide growth to expand from 31 million sold in 2013 to 38 million in 2020. The research also noted that new, young ebike riders in North America are using them for transportation rather than entertainment, with about 60,000 sold in the U.S. in 2013.
Still, Walder of Freshbikes admitted that “the U.S. is not ready for ebikes yet. We’re too spread out, cars are too popular, and gas is too cheap,” adding that the high cost of gas in places like Europe and Africa make ebikes a real alternative.
Wason thinks that’s about to change. “Ebikes have gotten a really bad reputation in the U.S. Early on, the ones on the market were cheap Chinese models that broke a lot and early adopters had bad things to say about them.”
Other than the Internet, there aren’t a lot of places to buy ebikes yet. However, Hybrid Pedals opened last year in Arlington and offers ebikes for sale and rental, with about 80 models on its showroom floor.
“Secretly I’ve always wanted a motorcycle but always been afraid to get one. This is sort of the middle ground,” said part-owner Jay Jacob Wind, who rides his folding electric bike to do errands. “I’m a champion long-distance runner and having an electric bike hasn’t changed that. I’m not running any less, I’m just not driving as much.”
Wind – who added that his bike has “made a huge difference in how I look at transportation” – often uses it to get to work meetings in New York City from his home in Arlington. “I ride to Union Station in D.C., passing traffic, fold it up and take it on Amtrak to New York Penn Station. It’s so much easier than finding parking, renting a vehicle overnight, and the train is far more pleasant than taking an airplane with delays and security lines.”
The customers Wind and chief owner Alan Levine have seen at Hybrid Pedals have typically been Baby Boomers who are no longer as strong on hills. Elderly people are also buying them – one was even sold to a man with a walker. They have also sold to former soldiers wounded in war, beginning cyclists, and people simply looking for more freedom in their transportation.
The benefits of ebikes are clear: safe, easy, fast, still offering a degree of exercise, and a pricetag that appears to be making them more affordable. Repairs are no longer a problem either, at least in the D.C. region, since there are now shops like Freshbikes and Hybrid Pedals.
Like with any bicycle or automobile purchase, the trickiest part may simply be deciding which model is for you – the Lamborghini-like Specialized Turbo, the Tesla Model S-like Riide, or any of the other 80 models at Hybrid Pedals.
Photos by Paul Mackie and Jason Walder