E-bikes face uphill climb
E-bikes are gaining traction among aging baby boomers and urban millennials, but the industry still faces challenges.
Car drivers blast their horns as they swerve to avoid him, cyclists admonish him to “get in shape.” When Gary Salo rides his electric bike on Toronto’s city streets, he experiences a conflicting sense of freedom and frustration. “People try to run me off the road. You’re not allowed in the bike lanes and nobody wants you on the road. It’s really an experience,” says Salo, who posted a video on YouTube of his ride through Toronto’s west end that demonstrates many of the dilemmas e-bike riders face. Proponents of Light Electric Vehicles (LEVs) insist they’re not only here to stay but see them as the wave of the future, despite the ongoing confusion over the rules of the road – not to mention the culture clash between cars, bikes and e-bikes.
Whether they’re the type that looks like a traditional bicycle, or more like a Vespa-style scooter, these battery operated vehicles offer low cost, clean transportation in an increasingly congested city, advocates say. Riders don’t need a license or insurance, parking is free and maintenance is minimal, says Virginia Block, owner of Amego, a downtown Toronto-based e-bike company that imports, distributes and retails e-bikes and e-scooters under its own brand name. From aging baby boomers who want to keep cycling, to environmentally conscious millennials living in congested city cores, to courier companies, tourism operators and people who need a cheap way to get to work, advocates say the market for e-bikes is ripe. The market even includes people who have lost their license due to a conviction for driving while under the influence of alcohol.
But how many of those people are actually buying these relatively new vehicles? Global sales of ebikes reached an estimated 34.5 million in 2013, according to Electric Bikes Worldwide Report, a U.S. based publication. Most of those sales were in China, at about 32 million units, followed by Europe at 1.8 million, and Japan at 440,000. The U.S. had an estimated 185,000 in sales. (In comparison, Americans bought 15 million regular bikes that year and 15.6 million electric automobiles, including hybrids, pure electric vehicles and extended range EVs.) All e-bike figures are estimates, cautioned the report’s co-author Ed Benjamin, senior managing director at eCycle Electric, an advisory firm specializing in the light electric vehicle industry. No figures are available for Canada, but at one-tenth the U.S. market’s size, Benjamin estimates just under 20,000 e-bikes were sold here last year.
A number of Canadian companies have placed a bet on the industry’s future. Among them are the founders of Canadian auto parts giant Magna International Inc., Frank Stronach and Fred Gingl. BionX started out selling retrofit kits that allow bike riders to convert their existing wheels into power-assisted vehicles, said Paul Gingl, who runs the company. But it also counts major bike manufacturers, such as Trek, Tern and Norco, among its customers as more established bicycle brands seek to offer a power-assisted version. Most of its sales are in Europe, a quarter is in Canada, while the U.S. market is up and coming, Gingl said. The privately held firm does not disclose its sales figures. Toronto-based Daymak Inc. won a 2010 CleanTech North Foundation Award for its contribution to an environmentally friendly industry. Daymak imports the bikes from China under its own brand name with its own proprietary technology. Founder Yeg Baiocchi got into the business after unsuccessfully trying to import an electric scooter for her daughter in 2001. No one in the U.S. would ship to Canada and Transport Canada wouldn’t admit them as they didn’t meet any existing standards.
Today the company sells about 5,500 e-bikes in Canada a year, including mobility scooters, spokesperson Daniel Cargnello said. Toronto is its biggest market. Amego’s Block says she discovered e-bikes while working on a project in the oil and gas industry and left to start her own business, with help from family and friends. Today, she sells three different models through 27 distributors across Canada, including her flagship store on Richmond St. W., near Bathurst. Block, who lives and works downtown, says she sold her car after she realized owning a Vespa-style electric scooter and belonging to car rental clubs like zipcar and autoshare met most of her transportation needs.
But while e-bike converts are enthusiastic, gaining wider acceptance has been an uphill battle. Initially, traditional bicycle shops were reluctant to carry them. Often run by keen cyclists, they saw power assisted vehicles as “cheating,” Benjamin says. A former cycle shop owner in Naples, Fla., Benjamin got into the e-bike industry in 1996. At the time, they were slow, unreliable and expensive, he recalls. His former peers in the bike shop business laughed at him, he said. But as the technology improved, and profit margins on conventional bikes compressed, bicycle shop owners took a second look at the e-bike market, he said. “The e-bike is a new customer demographic. Larger ticket. Larger margins. It’s rapidly redefining the industry,” Benjamin said. Today, e-bikes are sold in 900 stores across the U.S., as well as on walmart.com and amazon.com, he said. For consumers, the cost to buy an e-bike ranges from $900 to $3,000. The average spend is between $1,200 and $1,500, according to industry members. But there’s no added insurance or license fee and the cost of recharging the 500 watt battery is pennies a day, industry members say. The only stipulation is the driver must be at least 16 years of age, wear a helmet and not exceed the 32 km/h maximum e-bike speed limit. E-bikes have limitations. As with most battery powered vehicles, there’s a limit to how far they’ll go. BionX says its latest version could last up to 100 kilometres. But that’s the exception.
Confusing and frequent changes in the rules of the road have also resulted in clashes between e-bike riders, regular bike riders, cars and pedestrians. In Toronto, the rules changed – again – earlier this year and for the most part are seen to be better. E-bikes that look like traditional pedal bikes will be allowed on bike paths and in bike lanes. E-bikes that look like scooters will be restricted to bike lanes on city streets. Both changes are an improvement over the previous bylaws, which forced scooter-type riders into regular city traffic even though they’re restricted to top speeds of 32 km/h.
But traditional cyclists say the city should have gone further. While they don’t have a problem with power-assisted pedal bikes that look like conventional bicycles, the issue is the e-scooter, said Jared Kolb, spokesperson for the advocacy organization Cycle Toronto. Larger and heavier than a conventional pedal bike but slower than a car, the e-scooter “is neither fish nor fowl,” Kolb says. The province needs to reclassify e-bikes into two separate categories, Kolb said. A power-assisted pedal bike could be treated like a bicycle, but restricted to speeds of up to 25 km/h, while an electric scooter could be treated more like a car, with a maximum speed of 50 km/h and a requirement that it be licensed, he said. To some degree, e-bike riders in Toronto face the same issues as all bike riders in Toronto. There just isn’t enough room on the road and everyone is in a hurry.
Doug Beatty has been a cyclist in Toronto since 1971, but at age 50 a bad knee threatened to force him onto the sidelines. “An e-bike allows me to pedal quite a distance, just like I did when I was a kid.” A Beach resident, he also uses it to run errands downtown because it saves up to $30 in parking costs. Still, he understands the resentment felt by traditional cyclists at the prospect of sharing the city’s limited bike lanes with motorized interlopers. “I fought hard for bike lanes. You don’t necessarily want to share them with anyone else.” Toronto isn’t the only jurisdiction grappling with the issue of how to classify and regulate these relatively new vehicles. In Europe and Japan, the only style of e-bike that’s legal is the kind that looks like a traditional bike, Benjamin says. The world’s biggest e-bike market, China, accepts both styles, but demand is waning as an increasingly affluent market opts for cars, instead. In Toronto, Beatty says there’s been a noticeable shift in dealers’ inventory away from electric scooters to more conventional e-bikes. Benjamin believes electric scooters have a bright future as a commuter vehicle – over longer distances – if battery prices fall and public charging stations become more widely available. Could e-bikes eventually go the way of the Segway, a motorized personal vehicle once touted as an environmentally friendly solution to modern transportation needs? No, aficionados insist. The Segway was never permitted on public streets or sidewalks, they note. Thus, their use has been restricted to very specific niche markets and tourist attractions, such as Toronto’s Distillery District.
“When I got into this four years ago, I was the only person I knew riding a bicycle with a motor. The scooter style was just starting out. Now I see a lot of e-bikes on the road. And I’ve sold thousands,” said Salo, a truck driver by profession, who also distributes e-bikes made by China’s Golden Motor.
However, it’s clear the e-bike industry is still evolving.