Q. I’m thinking about getting an electric-assisted bicycle (1). What should I consider?
A. First, a congratulatory shout-out is in order. In 2017 the League of American Bicyclists named Washington state the country’s No. 1 bicycle friendly state. Thanks to all those in the bicycling community that helped make this happen, especially Cascade Bicycle Club (CBC/WABikes).
Washington defines an e-bike as a bicycle with an electric motor with no more than 1,000 watts of power, which cannot go faster than 20 mph on a flat surface when the motor is used. However, the federal standard maximum is 750 watts. 3
The motor can be engaged or disengaged by the rider. Typically, they are pedal-assisted (you must pedal to engage the motor) and/or have a throttle. E-bikes overcome the two main obstacles to riding a bike in this area: our hilly terrain, and the weather. You can ride with heavier clothes and carry more personal gear, but not worry about being sweaty when arriving at your destination/work. Although they are usually considerably heavier than a road bike (60 pounds is about average), the motor more than compensates for the additional weight.
Mercer Island’s Neighbors in Motion interviewed Mike Radenbaugh, president and CEO of Rad Power Bikes; Marty Pluth, general manager of Gregg’s Cycles; and Brian Gierke of Gerk’s Ski and Cycle. All of them reported e-bikes comprise only a small percentage of bike sales in the U.S., but their sales are steadily increasing.
According to Pluth, e-bike sales at Gregg’s grew 300 percent in 2016. E-bikes are becoming even more popular in the United States; a study by the NPD Group showed a 95 percent year-over-year growth from summer 2016 to July 2017. 4
E-bikes are even more popular in China and Europe. Pluth estimated e-bikes are about 40 percent of bike sales in Germany, 50 percent in the Netherlands. Gerk’s sells specialized e-bikes; Gierke reported that he is aware that e-bikes sell like “wildfire” in Europe, and is investing heavily in specialized e-bikes for the U.S. market. Gierke emphasized the fun of riding an e-bike. He related several instances of skeptical people being won over after just one e-bike ride.
Besides the cost, fit and your personal preferences, there are some legal and common-sense factors to consider before buying an e-bike.
Legally speaking, all bicycles, including e-bikes, are considered vehicles by Washington state law and must so comply. By state law all bikes may be ridden on any roadway, except limited access highways, and are legal on bike lanes and trails.
Under state law bikes may be ridden on sidewalks but e-bikes may not; however, Redmond prohibits any bike on pedestrian-only sidewalks. Washington does not require a valid driver’s license to operate an e-bike, but no one under the age of 16 may operate one. Local jurisdictions may place restrictions on e-bikes, e.g., Kirkland’s Municipal Code prohibits e-bikes on the Cross-Kirkland Corridor. Neighbors in Motion has found no additional restrictions on e-bikes imposed by Seattle, Bellevue, Renton or Mercer Island. (Seattle’s Municipal Code defines e-bikes but makes no distinction between them and regular bikes.)
There are several practical factors to consider. Because e-bikes are not allowed on sidewalks, be sure you are comfortable riding on the street. Opinions differ on whether an e-bike should be one of the first bikes you ride. Radenbaugh believes e-bike riders can be safer because they are usually less tired, more focused and ride more miles each year because of motor assistance, improving their bike handling experience.
Gierke agrees, noting e-bikes are easy to learn to ride and do not go much faster than a regular bike. Pluth agreed an experienced biker could quickly adjust to an e-bike, but an inexperienced rider may not. He noted the speed and acceleration of an e-bike may be difficult for a new rider to harness. Gierke noted the quality of e-bikes can vary greatly; “you get what you pay for.”
Pluth believes e-bikes will grow in popularity, mainly due to three factors: they are attractive to older riders who want to continue to ride for exercise with less effort, they provide a travel and commuting option without contributing to pollution and they are an enjoyable way to get some fresh air. They also are economical compared to the cost of driving a car (fuel, maintenance, tolls, etc.).
Should e-bikes be rented? Rad’s rents e-bikes and Radenbaugh encourages renting. He said the learning curve is easy. They might be advantageous on a trip for those who do not want to rent a car or deal with public transportation, while also getting a ground level view of their destination. But Pluth of Gregg’s reported e-bikes are difficult and/or expensive to ship. Gregg’s does not rent e-bikes, believing the liability risk is too large. Its concern is not the safety of the e-bike, but the behavior of the rider. Radenbaugh fully concurred in that opinion. Gerk’s does not rent e-bikes but has them available to demo/test ride. However, as recently reported in the Seattle Times, e-bikes will soon be offered for rent by Seattle’s bike share programs.
Most e-bikes cost between $1,500 and $5,000. The laws and conventions are evolving. Proposals exist to amend e-bike rules, including some advocated by CBC. If you buy an e-bike, be alert to possible changes, e.g., the maximum speed allowed, or whether sidewalk or trail riding is allowed.
Neighbors in Motion will be at the Leap for Green Fair on April 14 at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center, and is optimistic at least one e-bike vendor also will host a booth.
This is the fourth of an occasional article written by Neighbors in Motion, a Mercer Island organization dedicated to improving and increasing bicycling and walking on Mercer Island. You may contact NIM at firstname.lastname@example.org. Typically, these articles will focus on bicycle and pedestrian safety, rules and courtesy. NIM’s Steering Committee consists of James Stanton, Robert Olson, Mark Clausen, Jeff Koontz and Kirk Griffin.