There’s a dedicated group of cyclists who pedal to and from errands, work and social outings in any weather. By dint of their extreme contrarianism, they are lowering carbon dioxide emissions by not driving as well as by freeing up space on commuter trains and buses. Mike Berners-Lee, the author of “How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything” says that even when a cyclist’s food intake is taken into account, cycling creates a tenth of the carbon dioxide emissions of the most fuel efficient gasoline-powered cars.
But let’s face it – most people don’t like showing up at work sweaty, wet, cold or all three at once. That’s why electric bikes are the future of cycling. Because they take less effort to operate, even if they are more expensive and have a slightly higher carbon footprint.
Before we dive into the particulars of modern electric bikes, let’s dig through some pedal-powered history. Bicycles as we know them today came into being in the 19th century, in the form of a two wheeled wooden horse the rider would just push along with his feet. The first mass-produced bicycles were known as penny farthings – that’s the one with the big, pedaled wheel in front and a small one out back, usually with some guy wearing a bowler hat and a waxed mustache perched way up on the seat. They were difficult to mount and not super safe.
It took a while for inventors to figure out how to propel the rear wheel, but in the 1880s, John K. Starley installed a chain drive on his bicycle, which also had a lower seat mounted farther back on the frame for better stability. By driving the rear wheel instead of the steered wheel, his bicycle was much safer than the unstable penny farthing. Dubbed the safety bicycle, it became the standard design we still use today.
Where We Go Next
Although the basic design of pedal-powered bikes has changed little over the past 134 years, the improvements in battery and electric motor design in recent years has created a small revolution in two-wheeled transportation. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the diehard cyclist who pedals through all manner of frightful weather (and deep down, most likely considers it a badge of honor) is the food delivery guy. By necessity, he is the most practical of cyclists – he needs something cheap that won’t wear him out after years of daily use. Enter the electric bike.
I tried an e-bike a few years back. Fortunately, prices have come down, because it’s a brilliant way to get around. Unlike an EV, when the battery on an e-bike runs out of juice, you can still pedal it around. Fully charged, they’re fast compared with most pedal-powered bikes. With a minimum of effort, I was able to go 20-plus miles per hour consistently – enough for any commute within a city.
That brings us to the next point: Why would anyone really need an e-bike? Aren’t cars good enough? Well, consider a future when residential units are, by necessity, packed more closely together than they are now in many places. Some American cities are doing away with zoning requirements that call for parking to be included in new developments – the land is too valuable. That means urban residents are going to have to find other ways to get around.
Even when the public transit system is working perfectly (which, in New York, which has America’s most robust one, it never is), sometimes the bus or train isn’t a good option. They’re late, out of service – there can be problems. Bicycles, which are easy to store relative to cars, make it possible to expand one’s area of operations and set one’s own schedule – a big reason for the continuance of the single-driver vehicle in the age of we-should-know-better. As the automobile did in the days before anyone knew about the effects of traffic congestion and air pollution, the electric bicycle is poised to become the next big thing in personal transportation. As long as it does what most American commuters want it to do and propels itself.