(Still) tired of mis-understanding of the potential for e-bikes
Riide - Gift Guide") on the founders of the Riide e-bike in the GW Magazine for alumni, which has a quote worth citing and mentions the cost of the bikes as about $2,000, when I said the typical cost for an e-bike is double that; (2) plus my earlier point in the comment thread about aging cyclists as another market segment.
From the article:
Sweat—lots of it—dampening summer styles and spirits, drip by drip. It's one of the chief obstacles D.C. commuters name when it comes to biking to work, says Amber Wason, BBA '07. With an eye toward easing the effects of the heat and humidty on bikers, she and Jeff Stefanis co-founded Riide, a company that makes a sustainable, single-speed electric bike.I love the line "flattening the city." It's brilliant.
It has the effect, she says, of "flattening the city."
But unfortunately as discussed below, they miss the point of where "the city needs help becoming flat."
In the core of the city it's already flat and an e-bike doesn't make it any flatter. It's places farther from the core and in hilly areas and for older people, where "flattening assistance" becomes the killer app.
That being said, the Riide bike is attractively designed, especially in how they integrate the battery apparatus into the frame.
Yesterday's Post has an article ("Are electric bikes the wheels of the future or just the new Segways?") about e-bikes above the fold in the Style section. It's about how some local entrepreneurs have created an e-bike, which can go up to 20 mph, and you can "cycle" without getting sweaty.
I heard a presentation by one of the principals a couple years ago, and my sense then was that they didn't have a good sense about mobility as a market and that they were focused on alternatives to the car, rather than on mobility technologies and products that are most appropriate for "center city applications."
Sweat seemed like the biggest point of differentiation for him--riding a bike gets you sweaty. Using a e-bike, since you don't have to pedal, means you won't sweat.
He was thinking of e-bikes capturing trips by people who normally drive a motor vehicle. But most trips in the city center made by residents are not performed by car.
Sweat isn't the deal-killer for transportational biking. Even in DC, where it is hot and humid from about June 15th to September 15th, sweating isn't an issue much of the time when you cycle.
There is a place for e-bikes in cycling for transportation. But I don't think it is for short trips in a city's core, especially at 20 mph.
It's for trips in places that are hilly, for longer distance trips, and for medium distance trips that some people are willing to cycle by traditional means but others won't.
Five years ago, when I came across a series of articles, "The parable of the electric bike" on e-bikes by Alan During of the Sightline Institute, I wrote this:
I don't think electric bikes will save the world. I do think that they can make bicycle commuting much more attractive to larger segments of the population. Maybe, over time, it could lead to as much as 10% of work trips by bicycle, or more. And that would be a significant contribution.The Sightline articles discuss whether or not the electric bike will take off, why they are more efficient than electric cars, and whether or not they should be subsidized as electric cars have been (he argues no).
The Segway comparison. The Post article compares the e-bike featured in the story to the Segway, which didn't live up to the hype that was made about the product. Instead of transforming transportation, the Segway is mostly used to patrol campuses and large buildings like malls and airports, and in more narrow applications, such as tours for tourists.
But the Post journalist doesn't get why the Segway failed. It was because it was a product in search of a problem--which I argue is the same issue for e-bikes in urban cores ("A Lesson in Innovation – Why did the Segway Fail").
The people most likely to travel on trips of the distances for which a Segway is seemingly efficient--pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users--didn't see much benefit from changing. Not to mention the cost--today a Segway can be bought for about $6,500.
For motor vehicle operators, while a Segway is a lot cheaper than a car, it fails to satisfy most of the demands for trips a typical user satisfies by car, including protection from the elements.
Hills. Most cities are flat in their cores (topography and proximity to rivers and ports being the primary reasons for cities locating where they did). For example, the core of DC is pretty flat. The fall line starts around W Street and the hills can be pretty steep. Riding home can be difficult. Some people find hills they don't mind riding (e.g. Georgia Avenue or 14th Street vs. 13th Street or 15th Street or 16th Street), others may choose not to ride.
But if you could get a boost from an electric motor up one or more hills, that might make the difference between choosing to cycle regularly as your primary mode of transportation.
Long distances. I am willing to ride 10 to 15 miles to get somewhere, and budget time accordingly. Beyond that distance, it takes too long to cycle, at least for me, because I am not a fast rider. An e-bike could be the difference from commuting to Downtown DC from White Flint or Rockville vs. taking public transit.
When I was still involved in bike and pedestrian planning in Baltimore County, the Baltimore Sun ran a story ("Electric bicycle gives commuter a boost on 22-mile way to work") about someone using an e-bike for a 22-mile commute.
Trips of such distances are when being able to ride 20 mph, and not having to stop every few blocks at a stop sign or traffic signal, makes a big difference. But I do wonder how much of the time is spent pedaling the bike vs. riding the bike as it is propelled by its electric motor--a big reason why I cycle is for the health benefits of exercise. You lose that with e-biking.
Medium distance. While I am willing to ride 10+ miles for a single trip, most people aren't. While about 51% of all trips in the United States are 3 miles or less--an easy distance on a traditional bike--13% of trips are 3 to 5 miles, which is a distance that seems long to many, so they drive rather than bike.
Having the option of an e-bike could be the difference for a larger segment of people being willing to cycle for transportation.
People less willing to cycle more generally. And while I haven't tested this empirically, I think it might be possible to coax people onto an e-bike when they may be less willing to cycle more generally. Maybe.
[This section has been added.] Enabling cycling as you age/biking for senior citizens. In one of my pieces about the outer city as suburban in mobility paradigm ("DC as a suburban agenda dominated city") I made the comment about how sustainable mobility is possible in the outer city based on the experience of my own household. We live eight-tenths of a mile from a Metro station and about 3 blocks from a bus stop--during morning and evening rush the bus goes Downtown, outside of rush it travels between the Petworth and Takoma Metrorail stations.
I cycle for most trips, including grocery shopping. Suzanne and I walk and Suzanne uses transit to get to and from work. We also use car share (both one-way and two-way) and occasionally rent cars.
In a comment on my piece on a listserv in Chevy Chase, the mobility lifestyle I describe was said to be achievable only by younger people. The woman who said so is a couple years younger than I.
While I do think that it will be harder to do this as I age because of the uphill climb from Downtown and the hills around where we live, e-biking could be a way towards maintaining cycling as a primary form of transportation as we age.
cf. (from other blog entries) For example, working with senior centers and retirement communities could increase biking activity by seniors. The Ateaze Senior Center in Baltimore County has a serious biking club ("Seniors redefine a life cycle," Baltimore Sun). Retirees in the Blue Bell community in Greater Philadelphia created the "Old Spokes" club which holds rides every couple weeks in area parks ("Freewheelers The Old Spokes, members of a bicycling club, venture from their retirement community to cruise the region's byways," Philadelphia Inquirer).
Caveat: cost. You can buy a new city bike for $400 or less (of course you can spend a lot more too). Electric bikes cost ten times that, around $4,000 and up, although kits to add a motor to an existing bike can be purchased for much less.
The Riide people featured in the article are leasing the bikes to people for $79/month. While that is potentially worth it for long distance cycling, it's a waste of money compared to the cost of a traditional bike capable of satisfying the biking needs of the typical city resident.
Bike share as a cost-efficient alternative. One month's e-bike rental is almost the same cost as a year's membership in bike share. For residents in the core, a bike share membership is a great way to add biking to their portfolio of trip options without having to own a bike.
Caveat: weight and parking. E-bikes are heavier than regular bikes, weighing between 50 and 60 pounds versus less than 20 pounds for a traditional bicycle.
Depending on where you live and where you park your bike, this can be a problem, if you have to take the bike inside your house or apartment in order to park. Plus, many multiunit buildings provide bike parking that is insecure--while it sucks to have your $400 bike stolen, it would really suck to have your $4,000 bike stolen.
Marketing. The reason that I think e-bikes have failed to take off in the market segments where they make the most sense is because of a failure to market e-bikes appropriately.
In marketing, textbooks always cover the "4 P's of marketing"--product, promotion, price, and place.
Product: as discussed above, for the transportation need most typically suggested, short in-city trips, e-bikes are "overengineered."
Promotion: E-bikes are being marketed for in-city use when in most cases, for trips up to 5 miles in mostly flat places, e-bikes are overkill
Price. Compared to alternatives--owning a bike or using bike share, the price for an ebike is significantly higher. A lease cuts the monthly cost, but it is still financial overkill to use an e-bike to accomplish trips in the core.
Place is where the product is sold. E-bikes are most likely to be useful in the suburbs. Most e-bike shops end up being opened in city cores. Many urban e-bike shops have failed, such as an e-bike shop in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore, which got some start up funding from the Abell Foundation. That's because they are not located proximate to their "natural" base of customers.
To be successful, e-bike shops ought to be placed in suburban centers--e.g., in the DC region in places like Rockville/White Flint, Reston, Tysons Corner--where trip characteristics are more likely to be congruent with the advantages of e-bikes over human-powered bicycles.
For example, there is a bike shop in Takoma Park, Maryland, The Green Commuter, which focuses on e-bikes and it has been open for more than 5 years. That being said, I have seen an e-bike on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in DC only once, and I can't say I see a lot of people on electric bikes, even though I live within a couple miles of this store.
Conclusion. Despite the arguments above, there's likely to be a niche segment of the mobility market in the city where the Riide bikes will satisfy their needs, and that's fine. But it won't change the world or even the city.