They seem to fit the profile of new tech that takes off: They make a popular activity faster and easier, and they’re green, to boot.
So why aren’t electric bicycles all over Seattle’s streets?
“Sixty percent of the people who come in here say some version of, ‘I had no idea these things existed,’ ” Daniel deCordova told me last week. We were at MadBoy Electric Vehicles, his shop in Sodo, surrounded by bicycles that do things bicycles don’t do.
Next time you see someone pedaling up a steep hill as if it’s nothing, take a look at the machine. See a round bulge at the center of one wheel? That’s a motor. The thick bar over the back wheel or hooked to the frame? That’s a battery. The e-bike might have a throttle, a display — even, in some models, a key ignition. The rider can pedal a lot, or just a little. It’s not up to physics. It’s up to the rider.
E-bikes are sold at just a handful of stores in Seattle. David Johnson, owner of the oldest, commutes the 26 miles from West Seattle to Ballard’s Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest and back on his $3,500 black 2012 Stromer Elite, which can go about 20 miles with one charge. With his bike set at the second of four levels of assistance, he does enough exercise to break a sweat, but not enough to have to take a shower. Some days, he beats traffic.
“You’re cheating!” a cyclist told him in the bike line.
“I’m cheating with my car!” Johnson, amused, said back.
The average cyclist produces 80 to 100 watts of power pushing pedals. Lance Armstrong churns out 250 watts or higher. An e-bike can add up to 750 watts of electric pedal power to your ride, for speeds up to 20 mph, and still count as a bicycle, according to federal limits. In Washington, the state power cap is even higher: 1,000 watts.
Many of Johnson’s customers love the feel of riding a bike but can’t do it without help.
Eighty-seven-year-old Charles Noble of Edmonds had a hard time pedaling a traditional bike after a truck hit and nearly killed him 16 years ago. He bought a $2,400 Sprint e-bike from Johnson and now rides 100 miles on it every week.
“I feel like I’m 12 years old,” Noble said with a laugh. “That’s why I’m still alive — exercise.”
E-bikes are a growing U.S. market, but a teeny one. U.S. sales more than doubled to 159,000 units in the year ending in July, from 70,000 in the same period ending July 2012, according to a survey of 908 independent e-bike retailers that does not include sales at big-box stores or on Amazon.com. For context: 19 million traditional bicycles were sold in the U.S. in 2012.
E-bikes are much more popular in Europe and Asia. But perceptions of safety have been a problem in some spots. Two cities in China have banned e-bikes, and this spring New York City officials made it illegal to ride an e-bike on city streets or sidewalks, citing their speed and silence, and what some residents deemed reckless behavior by souped-up food-delivery bikers.
Maggie Groves’ first encounter with an e-bike was after a Mariners game. She and two friends needed to get home to Capitol Hill, and a pedicab operator offered them a lift. Groves didn’t believe the driver could pedal all three of them up those brutal slopes, so she bet him $20 on it. She lost.
The pedicab operator happened to be riding the city’s first electric pedicab, a modified Main Street that deCordova built himself in 2007. About 15 of Seattle’s electric pedicabs — most of them — were either bought at or rented from deCordova’s shop. Groves, then a Boeing engineer, joined MadBoy Electric Vehicles on a part-time basis two years ago.
To Groves, people misunderstand e-bikes because they think they’re bikes. What kind of bike weighs 50 pounds and costs upward of $2,500?
But e-bikes are something else, she said. Something more powerful and more interesting.
Together, she and deCordova lend e-bikes a kind of industrial, hot-rod vibe. One bike at the back of their shop, which deCordova built and takes off road, packs 2,000 watts, twice the state’s street maximum. Another, in the shop’s warehouse space, makes it easy for a rider to reach 30 mph by adding pedal power to the 20 mph motor limit.
Groves and deCordova are convinced they could build the luxury e-bike Audi plans to sell next year for about $20,000 for just $5,000 to $7,000. And after lots of work and many smoked motors — “It’s always fun when you see the wires melted,” Groves joked — they’ve designed a custom drivetrain they believe makes e-bikes better hill climbers.
DeCordova, who began riding e-bikes after a repetitive-strain injury, beamed every time he showed me another bike. “Once you understand the tech,” he said, “it’s not hard to turn it up to 11.”
The two are talking to Seattle waterfront developers about making e-bikes an option for green public transportation. As for the idea that pedaling two wheels has to be hard, they’re not buying it.
There’s more than one way to not drive a car. Soon enough, they think, more Seattleites will find it.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.