North America has been a much slower adopter of ebikes than Europe or China. Compared to the 1.5 million ebikes sold in Europe in 2015 and the whopping 32 million sold in China, in 2016 the USA only sold about 250,000. That’s about as many as the Netherlands. Canada and Mexico, albeit with smaller populations, didn’t buck the trend, selling mere tens of thousands of ebikes each. In part this is due to the confusing array of state and municipal laws that regulate ebike use in the US, putting some people off buying an ebike or simply banning their use in some places altogether (You can find a useful summary table of different state laws here).
States have their say
At one end of the scale is a state like California where you not only don’t need a license to ride an ebike, the rules on maximum speed and motor power are in fact much more relaxed than in the rest of the world: a 750W motor can speed you along the beach-side bike paths of LA at 20mph (32km/h) or at 28mph (45km/h) along its sunlit boulevards if you’re willing to wear a helmet.
This has led to a mini ebike boom with ebikes not only flying off the shelves but ebike startups also successfully carving out a niche for themselves. Faraday Bikes, founded in 2011 and something of a style icon on the West coast, was so successful that it caught the eye of Pon Holdings, a giant Dutch bicycle conglomerate, who brought it into the growing Pon family of bicycle brands in a multimillion dollar deal less than six years later.
A Faraday Porteur Ebike (source: Bicycle Space DC)
Below the state level, cities have also emerged as ebike champions in the US with some like Portland working hard to integrate them into urban planning and others, like Baltimore and Birmingham, including ebikes in their city bikeshare fleets. As in Europe, those city planners who have been encouraging citizens onto ebikes foresee a number of benefits such as easing pressure on road capacity and public transport, reducing air pollution, and improving public health.
But not all local governments are quite so keen. At the other end of the spectrum are states like Alabama where all ebikes are considered to be motorcycles, and you need to have a driving license to ride them. New York City is even stricter, with ebikes completely banned from the streets and the police willing to take a no tolerance approach:
Impounded Ebikes in New York City (source: Twitter)
Canada, for its part has relaxed ebike laws in recent years. Most provinces have regulations that are comparable to California’s: ebikes in British Columbia for example can be boosted along by a 500W motor up to speeds of 20mph (32km/hr). Only in the sparsely populated province of Prince Edward Island do ebikes face severe restrictions, being considered in the same as a moped before the law.
Cargo ebike boom
One type of ebike that has seen a mini boom is the electric cargo bike. Originally developed in north-west Europe (mainly the Netherlands and Denmark), cargo bikes come in a variety of shapes and sizes with names like longtails or bakfiets. They are designed to haul a lot of stuff, as the name implies, whether it be kids on the way to school or the weekly shop on the way home. Understandably, many cargo bike riders appreciate a bit of assistance from a motor to do this, especially if they live in a hilly or hot part of the country and they’re carrying loads of 100kg or more. Although they can be found throughout the country, these electric cargo bikes are most likely to be spotted in certain cities like Portland, Chicago or Seattle.
Some of the different styles of cargo bike (source: www.momentummag.com)
Ebike potential in a nation of car lovers
The USA has long been less keen on bicycles than Europe or East Asia. Except for the famous Bike Boom of the 1970s, bicycles are all too often thought of as children’s toys. Instead the private car very much rules the road with adults on bikes virtually non-existent in some parts of the country. Alex, one of our team members got first-hand experience of this when he cycled across the US coast-to-coast in 2011. Although there were plenty of cyclists in some areas, notably in the national parks and some cities like Seattle, other places were far less bike friendly with a bit more bravery required to get out on the road.
But the latest generation of ebikes offers something new and they do seem to be catching on, whether it’s because of the ease with which you can climb the steep hills of San Francisco or the ability to traverse large distances by boosted pedal power. And if American companies can innovate around ebikes the way that they have transformed a host of other technologies in the past then it’s surely going to be a country to keep an eye on.
Other blog posts in this series:
[Edit: Hinton Bikes was renamed Flit in October 2018 – links have been redirected to the new website: dev.flit.bike]