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Revolution in Pedal Power
Revolution in Pedal Power

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama called for the U.S. to take a leadership role in developing technologies that would reduce our dependence on oil. To jump-start the program, he proposed putting one million electric vehicles (“EVs”) on the road by 2015.

In support of large-scale adoption of EVs, the Obama Administration invested millions in research and development, provided billions in loans to manufacturers, and offered consumers a $7,500 tax credit for purchasing an EV. Four years later, as 2015 came to an end, just 400,000 EVs were on the road.

While growth in the EV market is strong year after year in the U.S. and abroad, thanks to lower fuel prices and the abundance of comparatively inexpensive gas-powered automobiles, EV sales pale in comparison to traditional cars and trucks. But that doesn’t mean an electric revolution in transportation isn’t taking place. You just have to look to another industry to find it.

For nearly a century innovations in bicycle design were largely structural and material. That changed in the 1990s when Chinese manufacturers began equipping bicycles with small, battery-powered motors and the “e-bike” arrived on the market. For over twenty year now, the demand for e-bikes has remained in high gear. The case in point: in 2013 worldwide sales of e-bikes reached nearly forty million. Sales of EVs on the other hand topped out at roughly 200,000 that same year.

Compared to China and Europe where most e-bikes are sold, demand in the U.S. has been slow to develop. 2013 sales estimates put the number at nearly 174,000 units, or roughly 0.4 percent of the total market. But e-bikes are catching on nevertheless, as is evidenced by the increasing number of e-bike shops opening in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, and other “bike-friendly” cities.

John MacArthur, the Sustainable Transportation Program Manager at PSU’s Transportation Research and Education Center, has followed the e-bike trend for years. He is one of the few researchers around the country looking into e-bike use and asking how e-bikes might alter the transportation landscape.

“My research examines how the integration of technology and bicycles can break down barriers to cycling and get more people to ride more often,” Mr. MacArthur said.

With an e-bike it’s easy to coast by many of the typical obstacles that prevent people from cycling. The extra power provided by the motor means less legwork when climbing hills or riding longer distances. E-bikes make cycling accessible to individuals with prohibitive health conditions. And they are an attractive alternative to automobiles for short trips around town.

Evidence that e-bikes, unlike traditional bicycles, can help potential riders overcome barriers to cycling turned up in an online survey of e-bike adopters Mr. MacArthur conducted in 2013. Of 553 e-bike owners surveyed, sixty percent indicated they rode e-bikes because they lived or worked in hilly areas; fifty-nine percent said e-bikes helped them ride despite disabilities; and sixty-five percent said they used e-bikes to replace car trips.

“From what we’ve learned from people who ride e-bikes, it’s pretty clear that issues like time, distance, health, and topography just aren’t as difficult to overcome as they might be if we were talking about regular cycling,” Mr. MacArthur said.

So why then, given the advantages of e-bikes, aren’t they permeating the transportation landscape in the U.S.?

Figuring that outdated rules, regulations, and classifications may have something to do with the comparatively slow growth rate of the e-bike market in the U.S., Mr. MacArthur conducted a nationwide assessment of legislation covering e-bikes. He found a hodgepodge of federal, state, and local laws that may lean too heavily on the ecosystem in which e-bike retailers and distributors operate. The complexity of that regulatory environment is likely negatively impacting the nascent e-bike market and limiting the adoption of the technology by the American public to places where e-bikes and bicycles are regulated in the same way.

“The e-bike market in the U.S. is one we’re really working to understand at this point,” Mr. MacArthur said. “Along with the rules and regulations governing the market, we want to know who the consumers are, why they’re choosing e-bikes, and what they’re getting out of it.”

To answer some of those questions, Mr. MacArthur recently partnered with Drive Oregon, a non-profit that supports the electric mobility industry in Oregon, and health provider Kaiser Permanente to evaluate a program in which Kaiser employees “test drove” e-bikes for ten weeks.

At the start of the trial participants were asked about their attitudes towards cycling, whether they had bicycles at home, how often they rode, for what reasons, and other questions. At the conclusion of the ten-week trial, participants were queried again, this time about their experiences using the e-bikes and whether those experiences had changed their attitudes.

“We definitely saw a shift in attitudes and behaviors after the Kaiser employees had the e-bikes,” Mr. MacArthur said. “Some participants who had negative attitudes at the onset changed their opinions over the ten-week trial. People who didn’t typically commute by bike reported giving it a try. Others commuted by bike more often. In fact, in all categories of use, participants reported riding more often with the e-bikes. And the reason people gave most frequently for the change in attitudes was that they thought it was fun. More so than saving money on gas or getting exercise, it was a sense of enjoyment that got them riding the e-bikes.”

That particular insight could prove useful to Portland and other cities working to address urban issues such as traffic congestion, public health, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Portland’s “Bicycle Plan,” for instance, aims to increase the bicycle share of total trips taken within the city to twenty-five percent by 2030. That’s a steep hill to climb, and to make it the city is going to have to encourage residents who don’t typically ride a bike to jump on the bandwagon and pump the pedals. But as Mr. MacArthur points out, one way to get Portlanders to change their behavior is to show them that cycling can be fun, enjoyable, and accessible for all. And considering the cost point and potential health benefits of e-bikes, they’re an excellent alternative to EVs for getting around town. So as more people begin to adopt e-bikes, the transportation landscape in Portland and other U.S. cities may begin to look much more like the cities of Europe and Asia where millions of people find traveling by bike to be a natural part of everyday life and not just an activity reserved for the ultra-fit.