E-Bicycles in Los Angeles

by journojames on April 9, 2012

On a breezy April afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, Calvin Phuong, a 32-year-old Marina del Rey resident who recently purchased an electric bicycle kit, was riding his new bike around a parking lot, demonstrating its speed and handling.

“One day my wife and I stopped by an Izip store in Venice and rented a couple electric bikes for the day. We had so much fun, we didn’t want to return them,” Phuong said with a smile.

In the last couple of years, electric bicycle shops such as Izip, Hollywood Electrics, and Pedego have popped up around Southern California trying to tap into the alternative transportation market. Popular consumer stores such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Costco have also begun selling e-bikes nationwide.

“I was thinking about a motorized bike for my commute,” said Phuong, a fraud manager for the online retailer Hautelook in downtown L.A. “I’ve got a big truck and it takes a good amount of gas, so I was looking for a way to reduce my carbon footprint.”

Phuong is part of a growing trend of economically and environmentally conscious Southern California commuters who are seeking alternative forms of transportation, such as bicycling, or riding buses and trains.

From 2000 to 2009, the number of bicycling commuters in Los Angeles rose by 92 percent, according to the 2012 Bicycling and Walking Benchmark Report. And the MTA recently announced that it had seen a 21 percent rise in ridership since last year, mostly attributed to high gasoline prices.

The average cost of gas is currently $4.30 a gallon in L.A. County, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA). And that price will surely rise with the summer months approaching if history is any kind of barometer.

The climbing cost of fuel and the mild climate of Southern California give e-bicycles a chance at becoming a viable form of transportation for local commuters, according to e-bike advocates. But whether the popularity of e-bikes will reach its potential in car-centric Los Angeles and the U.S. is still a question both e-bicyclists and experts are struggling to determine.

“We hear ‘I love my bike’ all the time from our customers and it never gets old,” said 29-year-old General Manager Ethan Grunstein from his Izip shop in Venice. “And we have a lot of different kinds of customers.”

Grunstein said that most of his patrons are short-distance commuters who are looking to bike to their jobs without showing up to work all sweaty and older bicyclists who primarily use it for recreation to stay active.

An e-bike, or an electric bicycle, is exactly that – a bicycle with a small electric motor that can power the vehicle or help a rider with pedaling.

They look much like traditional bicycles and many of them have gears like a regular bike. They use rechargeable batteries with about 1 horsepower that allows them to reach speeds of up to 20 mph.

Depending on the battery, a single charge of a few hours can usually power a bike up to 20 to 30 miles before it needs to be plugged into an outlet and recharged.

Independent and specialty companies, such as Currie Technologies, Ewheels and Ultra Motor, have produced most of the e-bikes currently out on the market, but more established bike companies, such as Schwinn, Trek and Giant have begun producing their own models. E-bikes vary in style and the price can range from $400 to more than $13,000 depending on the brand, frame, motor size and type of battery.

In California, e-bikes are not categorized as motor vehicles and do not require a driver’s license or registration to ride, making them accessible and inviting to consumers.

Nationally, e-bike sales reached roughly 300,000 in 2010, double the number in 2009, according to Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports, a service that determines electric bike sales. E-bikes have been growing at a 21 percent year clip and could reach sales of 785,000 units a year by 2016, according to Pike Research, a clean energy market research firm.

These numbers, however, are dwarfed by the immense figures being registered overseas. In Europe, an estimated 1 million e-bikes were sold in 2010, according to Electric Bikes Worldwide. And in China, where there are about 450 million bike riders, more than 100 million electric bikes currently rule their roads.

Despite promising U.S. projections from e-bike consultants, manufacturers and merchants, the sluggish growth of e-bikes in America, compared to the rest of the world, has cast doubt in its future here.

“I don’t believe e-biking will become significant in America,” Bill Knowles said, a 47-year-old consultant engineer in Boston who has been riding his e-bike since 2008. “We’re a car culture.”

Knowles is a life-long bicyclist who uses his e-bike to commute 12 miles to work 2 to 3 times a week, but even he sees major obstacles that must be overcome for e-bikes to be truly accepted and embraced by the masses in the U.S.

“We (Americans) have a ‘bicycle is exercise’ mentality. There are also a lot of commercial e-bikes that perform poorly. All these factors make it tough for e-bikes to be widely accepted in this country,” Knowles said.

Robert Kalkman, a 52-year-old commercial building maintenance manager in Peoria, Illinois, who rides to work on his e-bike, agreed.

“I see little future for e-bikes here,” Kalkman said. “One thing that might well do it, though, is high fuel prices. If they stay up, then all sorts of alternative transportation, including e-bikes, become viable.”

Edward Benjamin, managing director for eCycleElectric Consultants and chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, sees a more promising view for e-bikes here in the U.S.

“I think we’re coming to understand as a culture that there is more than one form of transportation,” Benjamin said.

“A number of major bicycle companies in the U.S. see very clearly in an electric bicycle future. This idea that a lot of folks have that there isn’t interest here is false; it’s simply not the case. It’s a really young business and it’s doing okay. And internationally, business is spectacularly good.”

That could have been another way to describe how Calvin Phuong was feeling after finishing his quick demonstration on his bicycle in the parking lot. He had a big grin on his face.

After locking it up, he said he and his wife were planning to use their new e-bikes as much as they could.

“Electric bikes are a lot more fun than people know,” Phuong said. “You just feel so free. People really just don’t know enough about them yet.”

 

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