Electric bikes gaining ground in the U.S.

I encountered a truly strange bike last weekend. I was running on a local trail when I noticed what looked like a submarine on wheels making its way towards me. It was as if someone had taken a reclining bike, enclosed it in bright orange steel, and added an electric motor to it. The helmeted occupant of the mysterious contraption hummed past me, and raised an arm in casual greeting before peddling off into the sunset. 

It turns out that I had encountered a velomobile - an enclosed, human-powered vehicle that offers greater speed and protection from the elements than traditional bicycles. As I expected, velomobiles are derived from recumbent bicycles, and can be purely human-powered or electric-assisted. Velomobiles aren’t stereotypical electric bikes, but my close encounter got me thinking about electric bicycles and their increasing presence in communities around the globe.

[caption id=”attachment_116” align=”aligncenter” width=”385”]Velomobiles: aerodynamic, eye-catching, and environmentally-effective.  Source: http://velomobilemedia.com/index.html Velomobiles: aerodynamic, eye-catching, and environmentally-effective.
Source: http://velomobilemedia.com/index.html[/caption]

Electric bikes first took hold in China as an efficient, inexpensive alternative to car ownership. China still leads the world in electric bike sales, with 32 million sold in 2013, but other countries are slowly but surely expanding their own electric bike fleets. Although sales of traditional bikes have remained stagnant or fallen in many European countries in the past eight years, electric bike sales are slowly but surely increasing. 250,000 electric bikes roam the roads in Switzerland, and electric bikes command around 11 percent of the market in Germany. 

Faster than traditional bikes and considerably less expensive than automobiles, electric bikes are also gaining ground in the United States. Electric bicycle startup companies are popping up in major U.S. cities, and some experts predict that the United States will take its place as a leader in electric bike sales in as few as twenty years. 

Contrary to stereotypes about clunky electric bikes common in previous decades, modern electric bikes are taking on all sorts of sleek, exciting forms. The winner of the 2014 Oregon Manifest Bike Design Project, Denny, features an onboard computer that automatically shifts gears based on peddling intensity. My favorite innovation in electric cycling is the Copenhagen Wheel. The Copenhagen Wheel is a high tech bike wheel that can replace any traditional bike wheel, and recaptures energy when braking or biking downhill. The Copenhagen Wheel’s flexible software development kit also provides software developers with the unique opportunity to develop new applications including navigation and wheel customization. 

[caption id=”attachment_121” align=”aligncenter” width=”377”]Source: http://www.bostonglobe.com Source: http://www.bostonglobe.com[/caption]

Considering the increasingly sophisticated models that are being developed, it comes as no surprise that more and more people are turning to electric bikes as a mode of transportation. As in most systems, our nation's transportation system benefits from increased diversity. We need a transportation system made up of cars, mass transit and human-powered vehicles alike. While cars will continue to serve as the dominant mode of transportation for the foreseeable future, this new generation of electric bikes will hopefully help to narrow the gap. 

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