cycling · fitness

To e-bike or not to e-bike?

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing e-bikes everywhere: in the news, in my Facebook feed, and all over the place in the real world. Last Wednesday, while driving oh so slowly through morning traffic on my way to a critical thinking workshop, a woman on an e-bike zipped by us all in the bike lane. I looked on in envy and admiration. I was carpooling with a friend to a disclosed location 40 miles away, so biking there wasn’t an option.

But a lot of the time biking is an option. I bike not just for fun, but also for errands and meetings near where I live. Most places I go in my part of the Boston area I can get to within 20-ish minutes on a bike. I can’t say the same for driving: there’s the current road construction chaos and the omnipresent parking problem, both against a backdrop of congested urban streets. For this kind of cycling I have to pay very close attention to what’s going on around me, but I tend to get where I’m going quite efficiently and in good time. No need for an e-bike, it would seem.

Then there’s my commute to work.

My university is 41 miles from my house. I commute generally 3 days a week, about 30–32 weeks a year. This is not horrible. I’m lucky that I have the option of working from home 2 days a week, and also in the summer and during school breaks.

And yet.

I hate the drive to and from work. It takes an hour to get there– I leave after 9am to avoid the morning traffic crush– but it takes anywhere from 1:15 to infinity to get home, which is during the evening rush hour. Yes, yes– I listen to podcasts and audio books. But it is still a long and not fun drive.

There are public transportation options, and I’ve tried them from time to time. It involves either:

  1. walking to the bus stop near my house; taking the bus to the subway (called the T); taking the subway to the train station downtown; taking the commuter rail to school (47 minutes); walking 10 or so minutes to class or office. OR
  2. Cycling to the train station (around 45 minutes depending on traffic lights); changing clothes in the train station bathroom, as I’m sweaty after that long a ride; taking train to school; walking or cycling to class or office (depending on whether I took my bike on the train).

Either of these options makes my commute take 1 hour 45 minutes–2 hours EACH WAY. Blech. I’ve duly tried to make myself adjust to this over the years, but it never sticks.

Enter the e-bike option.

In a big fancy survey of e-bike owners, they listed a bunch of reasons why they chose e-bikes (over driving and over regular bikes). Here’s the big fancy graph of their responses:

Lots of reasons why people switched to e-bikes.
Lots of reasons why people switched to e-bikes.

All of these reasons make a lot of sense. Of course a bunch of these motivations would promote non-e-bike riding. However, they also cited a bunch of barriers to standard bike commuting. Here’s the fancy graph with that info:

Barriers to riding a standard (non-e) bike.
Barriers to riding a standard (non-e) bike.

These reasons make a lot of sense, too. For me, the factors that are motivating me to test-ride some e-bikes are:

  1. An e-bike would reduce my commuting time; by how much, I’m not sure.
  2. I’ll likely be less sweaty when I arrive at the train station, which means not changing in the bathroom and also arriving at class looking less disheveled (the train arrives 12 minutes before class starts).
  3. Given 2., I think I’d bike commute for more of the year; in the colder months, I would be less sweaty (I sweat while cycling no matter the weather– that’s the fact), which would make the rest of my commute more comfortable.

So what is holding me back?

  1. Price– e-bikes are still very expensive. From very preliminary research (more will be forthcoming and duly reported here), decent ones start around $2500 and go up from there. Way up.
  2. I’m not an early adopter of new technology. I prefer waiting until the kinks are worked out, more and better features appear and the price drops.
  3. I’m not sure how much shorter an e-bike commute would be. It’s about 8 miles to the train station from my house, but it’s a very congested route on city streets with loads of traffic lights. My land speed record there on my road bike is 38 minutes. It’s not clear how much the e-bike would cut the time of the trip.
  4. It’s not clear how much less sweaty I would be, either. Pedal-assist bikes do require pedaling, so it will take some experimenting to see how my body behaves.

What do you think? Do you have an e-bike? How do you like it? Do you want an e-bike? I’d welcome any thoughts you have on the matter. I’ll report back as I try some out.

19 thoughts on “To e-bike or not to e-bike?

  1. Hi Catherine… a couple of years ago, I did quite a bit of research to inform my decision to purchase an e-bike. The most important thing I learned is that there are two primary types of e-bikes: 1) with a throttle meaning that it will run on its own, and 2) peddle-assist that will help make peddling easier but you still need to peddle.

    I opted for a peddle-assist bike and I love it! I can exert as much effort as I want and for the most part, that effort is consistent. For example, with the peddle-assist, I climb hills at the same pace and with the same effort that I apply on flats.

    I’m sure you’ll find the bike that works for you… and I know one thing… you’ll have a lot of fun test-driving all of the options!

    1. Thanks for the report and info. Glad to hear you love your e-bike. Yes, I think pedal-assist is the way I would/will? go. And yes to fun test riding! Will certainly report on that outing.

  2. I have a pedal-assist Electra e-bike, and I love it. It’s what I was able to ride after my knee replacement. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to another bike, because I have the option of no assistance to considerable assistance. It makes pulling hills a breeze. The only draw back is its weight, and a good portion of that is from the battery. I would have to take the charger with me too if I were doing a lengthy commute. Give one a test ride.

    1. Hi Vicki– thanks for the info. Yes, the weight of most e-bikes is a drawback, in large part because it limits storage options. Question: do you leave your bike locked outside when you do errands? This is a concern of mine too.

      1. I have yet to run errands with it, but you’d lock it the same as any bike — so I’m told. The battery has a separate lock on it. You can’t remove it from the bike without a key once it’s in place.

  3. The two circumstances that make me think I’d want an ebike are commuting and bike touring. When I was in Vancouver I saw lots of e assist road bikes covering big distances with lots of hills. If I was commuting there I’d definitely get one. Also I love bike tours but they are challenging. Rides of 80-100 km aren’t manageable for lots of people but with an ebike? Sure.

    1. Thanks, Sam, for the comments. Pata and I were talking about e-bike touring, and she was saying she doesn’t mind riding slowly while touring (she and her partner do DIY heavy loaded touring) and also not going far in a day. I get that. But still, it seems like e-bikes give you more options and more control while out there. I will do a blog post of our conversation about this: are e-bikes pressuring us to keep going fast?

      1. Not pressure to go fast, practicality. You can cover bigger distances and more hills and still get to work on time. In terms of bike tours around here there are big distances between communities. On our big day in Newfoundland, 130 km, there weren’t places to stay between the places we did stay.

  4. Oh oh oh. Also age. Later I’ll definitely want one to keep up with young friends.

    1. I’m 60 years old, and it’s perfect for me. I can ride longer and faster.

      1. Yep. This is what I’m facing, and I have so many feelings about it, many of them not very positive about myself. Thanks for saying this (you too, Sam!). Chewing on it now…

  5. I’ve had an e-bike with a Bosch (pedal-assist) mid drive motor for about a year. I LOVE IT. I am running into some chronic fatigue issues, and I have a very physical job (bike mechanic), so even my short bicycle commute was starting to be sort of a last straw situation; a significant hill on my way home seemed to be getting steeper by the day. On my days off I would be too exhausted to do anything, which was no fun at all, and I had to call in sick every few weeks from sheer exhaustion. Taking transit was less physically tiring, but was a challenge in terms of both time and executive function.

    I was even starting to consider buying a car – something I have not owned in 14 years – so that I could feel less limited in getting around the city, but I really can’t afford even a very bad used car, and insurance rates would be out of reach as well. And there would be a mental health toll, as I’ve always had a lot of anxiety around driving and car ownership. Cars need a lot of expensive maintenance, and a breakdown could wipe me out financially.

    Therefore, e-bike! As soon as I started thinking in terms of a transportation solution, not “a bike that lets me cheat” I realized pedal-assist was ideal for me. I’m still able to enjoy all the parts of cycling that I have always loved; I am still outside, and moving under my own power (mostly), and I can use all the bike-only shortcuts for getting around the city. It’s just that I can now do that without worrying about overtaxing myself, and I can make it up hills without feeling like I am going to faint. The pedal assist cuts out at 32 km/hr, but that’s about as fast as I want to go anyway. Most of my commuting routes go through school zones and quiet neighbourhoods.

    The price of the bike only looks high on paper; when you compare purchase price PLUS running costs, it’s much cheaper than a car or even something like a Vespa or motorcycle. Bosch and Shimano mid-drive systems are mature technologies and the batteries now have a lifespan of 8 to 10 years. I’m certified through Bosch to do all the maintenance and repair on those systems, and even if I weren’t a mechanic myself, $200 a year for bike tune-ups and replacement of worn chains and cogs is much less than one would need to spend on car repairs.

    Oops, I appear to have written a novel… 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Kim, for your comments. Length is good– I appreciate the details. You really addressed some of my worries about getting an e-bike, namely the feeling that it’s “giving in” to age, weight, fitness, etc. issues. It’s time to do some test riding and see how it feels. I’d like to rent one and do my proposed commute at rush hour, too, to see how the timing actually works. And you’re so right about the cost– it’s a no-brainer when you factor in car expenses. I own a car, but it’s old, and I’d really like to keep it until electric car batteries get a bit better/there are more hybrid models to choose from. And I HATE my commute, so trying something new may be in order. Hey–I just wrote a novella in response… 🙂

  6. Looks like some great advice here on pedal assist e-bikes.
    Perhaps having a bike like this, will help you bike-commute more frequently. It may not cut down a lot of time because traffic congestion is unavoidable on the road.

    1. Yes, you are probably right about this. The studies I’ve read say that e-bike owners end up 1) riding more, period; and 2) subbing it in for car trips. That’s a big win.

  7. Yes, I have one that has pedal assist. It is awesome to get around traffic. I use it to go to restaurants, grocery shopping, and joyriding because it’s so fun!

    1. Ah, yes– the joy! I hear they are big fun. This is not to be underestimated– thanks for the reminder!

  8. Re: using e-bikes to get out more often – I’m certainly riding more consistently than I had in several years, as well as faster and slightly farther. It’s not just that the physical effort is less intense, though that’s a big part of it of course! Knowing I can just RIDE, and not worry about hurting myself, or wiping myself out to the point I will miss out on other activities, has helped me get back a lot of my confidence on the bike.

    It’s also been very easy to set up a no-brainer cycling routine with the e-bike. Mine has an integrated pannier rack, fenders, and lights, so I don’t have to think about any of those things before setting out – no hunting around for charged lights, or figuring out how to carry my purse, groceries, etc. Flat pedals mean I can use whatever shoes I happen to be wearing, and my well-broken-in Brooks saddle (transferred from my previous commuting bike) is comfortable to ride even without cycling shorts. I mounted a set of waterproof bags on the pannier rack, and those are basically just big open-top sacks into which I can drop a shoulder bag or small backpack. They stay on the bike all the time.

    In one of the pannier bags, I keep a lock, my flat repair kit, several folding shopping bags, a rain jacket, and spare gloves/socks/neck tube. My other lock, an ABUS folding one, has a holster on the bike frame itself, and I added a basket on the handlebars to chuck my purse and water bottle. My helmet stays in the basket when i am not riding.

    All of this has made it super easy for me to just grab my keys and purse, walk out to the garage, grab the bike and go – so I do!

    1. Thanks, Kim, for all the detailed info. I have an ABUS lock too (it weighs 3 lbs!) with its holster. I almost never use it for my bikes (bought it for a Brompton, which I later sold), but for an e-bike it would be fine. I’ve got Ortlieb panniers, and the other accoutrement for commuting and going around town. The only issue for me is where to store it. I don’t have a garage, and my basement is not easy to get even my road bike in and out of. Will have to think on this, but I’m sure there will be a solution around.

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