We here at The Verge love elec­tric ride­ables. Hov­er­boards, skate­boards, scoot­ers, motor­cy­cles, mope­ds, uni­cy­cles, tri­cy­cles… you name it, we’ve rid­den it. But elec­tric bikes belong in a cat­e­go­ry of their own because they’re more than just a fun tech fad. They could actu­al­ly be the future of trans­porta­tion.

Of course, e‑bikes aren’t new or with­out con­tro­ver­sy. Some feel threat­ened by the ris­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of e‑bikes, as though stan­dard bikes will sud­den­ly van­ish like the pen­ny-far­thing once every­one goes elec­tric. Rest assured: e‑bikes won’t make human-pow­ered mobil­i­ty obso­lete. They may actu­al­ly enhance it.

there’s real­ly no bet­ter time than right now to start shop­ping for an elec­tric bike

That said, there’s real­ly no bet­ter time than right now to start shop­ping for an elec­tric bike. The mar­ket is flood­ed with bat­tery-pow­ered bikes of all shapes and sizes. Bou­tique upstarts are jock­ey­ing for fund­ing on Indiegogo and Kick­starter, while a hand­ful of Euro­pean com­pa­nies are push­ing the enve­lope with a vari­ety of high-tech designs. Mean­while, major bike man­u­fac­tur­ers are final­ly wak­ing up to the prof­it poten­tial of e‑bikes and are intro­duc­ing their own line­ups. Prices are fluc­tu­at­ing, but you can get a solid­ly built, reli­able e‑bike for less than $1,000.

Obvi­ous­ly, there’s a lot to choose from out there, and you don’t want to get fooled, so here’s what you need to know.

E‑bikes are final­ly catch­ing on in the US

As I said, e‑bikes aren’t new; they’ve been around for decades. And if you live in Chi­na or Europe, e‑bikes are prob­a­bly already a way of life for you. But it wasn’t always that way.

For years, Euro­pean e‑bikes were used pri­mar­i­ly by peo­ple 65 and over. For seniors who were already depen­dent on their bikes in places like Ams­ter­dam, Copen­hagen, and Berlin, e‑bikes offered a way to con­tin­ue rid­ing for many more years. As such, e‑bikes had the unfor­tu­nate rep­u­ta­tion of being just for old peo­ple. E‑bike man­u­fac­tur­ers have been labor­ing to tamp down this per­cep­tion, and it seems like it’s work­ing. Young urban com­muters in Europe are final­ly giv­ing e‑bikes their atten­tion.

The US doesn’t have this per­cep­tion prob­lem, but it does have a car and infra­struc­ture prob­lem

The US doesn’t have this per­cep­tion prob­lem, but it does have a car and infra­struc­ture prob­lem. As such, elec­tric bikes are still pret­ty niche here: they only account for 4 per­cent of total bicy­cle sales. Com­pare that to more bike-friend­ly coun­tries like the Nether­lands where last year there were more e‑bikes sold than reg­u­lar bikes. Over­all, experts pre­dict that world­wide sales will hit $23.8 bil­lion by 2025.

E‑bikes rep­re­sent a small por­tion of the over­all bike mar­ket in the US, but bike rid­ers are slow­ly start­ing to come around. Elec­tric bike sales jumped by an incred­i­ble 91 per­cent from 2016 to 2017 alone, and then anoth­er 72 per­cent from 2017 to 2018, to reach an impres­sive $143.4 mil­lion, accord­ing to the mar­ket research firm NPD Group. Sales of elec­tric bikes in the US have grown more than eight­fold since 2014.

The major brands are notic­ing. Water­loo, Wis­con­sin-based Trek intro­duced its first elec­tric bike in 1997, but no one bought it. Now, the com­pa­ny is gear­ing up to intro­duce a whole line­up of high-tech, pow­er­ful e‑bikes.

“It’s going to be mas­sive, because it’s such an amaz­ing prod­uct”

“Where will e‑bikes be in ten years if I had to wave my wand right now?” asked John Burke, CEO of Trek, in a recent inter­view with The Verge. “I’d say e‑bikes would be at 35 per­cent. It’s going to be mas­sive, because it’s such an amaz­ing prod­uct.”

It took a long time to get to this point. One of the first patents for a bat­tery-pow­ered bicy­cle was reg­is­tered in 1895 by an inven­tor named Ogden Bolton Jr. His idea was sim­ple but quite inter­est­ing: a DC elec­tric motor installed on a bike’s rear wheel hub. That motor could take up to 100 amps from a 10-volt bat­tery, which was placed under the hor­i­zon­tal tube of the frame. There was no gear­ing sys­tem or ped­als.

Bolton didn’t actu­al­ly end up mak­ing or sell­ing any of these bikes. But amaz­ing­ly, some of the same design details can be found in e‑bikes today: a rear-hub motor with a bat­tery cen­tral­ly mount­ed in the frame.

Pho­to by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge Motors, sen­sors, and every­thing in between

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, e‑bikes are bicy­cles with a bat­tery-pow­ered “assist” that comes when you ped­al or, in some cas­es, use a throt­tle. Push­ing the ped­als engages a small motor, which gives you a boost, so you can zip up hills and cruise over rough ter­rain with­out break­ing a sweat. Twist­ing a throt­tle does the same with no ped­al­ing nec­es­sary.

There are two main motor types: mid-dri­ve motors, with the motor posi­tioned in the mid­dle of the bike, usu­al­ly between the ped­als; and hub-dri­ve motors, which are locat­ed in the cen­ter of either the front or rear wheel (usu­al­ly the rear).

There are pros and cons to both. Hub-dri­ves have been around for­ev­er and tend to be cheap­er and more ver­sa­tile. They’re excel­lent motors for any­one need­ing a reli­able e‑bike for long, most­ly flat com­mut­ing. Mid-dri­ves are usu­al­ly small­er and lighter and can allow for greater torque than hub-dri­ves, mak­ing them par­tic­u­lar­ly well-suit­ed to hilly areas and off-road use. The cen­tered posi­tion on the bike also cre­ates a more bal­anced ride, and chang­ing a tire on a mid-dri­ve bike is usu­al­ly less of a pain in the ass.

“Mid-dri­ves are more effi­cient.”

“Mid-dri­ves are more effi­cient, and are usu­al­ly able to deliv­er more torque with­out expand­ing near­ly as much bat­tery capac­i­ty,” said Steven Sheffield, prod­uct man­ag­er at Bosch, which makes high-end dri­ve­trains for e‑bikes. “So if you’re climb­ing hills, def­i­nite­ly if you’re off road, you want to have to get a mid-dri­ve for that effi­cien­cy uphill and the torque.”

E‑bikes tend to use dif­fer­ent types of sen­sors to deter­mine how best to dole out pow­er. There are two types: torque sen­sors and cadence sen­sors. Torque sen­sors reg­u­late the motor based on how hard you’re push­ing the ped­als, while cadence sen­sors work off of how fast you ped­al. Most good bikes use torque sen­sors, while the low-enders have cadence only. A lot of bikes use both.

I high­ly rec­om­mend test­ing out both types of motors before buy­ing an e‑bike to see which is the best fit for you. Think about how you plan on using the bike: com­mut­ing, off-road­ing, tour­ing. The bet­ter e‑bike brands usu­al­ly match the appro­pri­ate motor place­ment with the type of bike they’re sell­ing. Most moun­tain bikes come with midrange motors, while the major­i­ty of com­muter bikes sold in hill-less cities like Ams­ter­dam are hub-based.

Pho­to by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge I’ve got the pow­er!

Now let’s talk pow­er. The main mea­sure­ments for pow­er are watts (W), volts (V), and amp hours (Ah). Beyond that, things can get a lit­tle sticky.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers often list “pow­er rat­ings” in their spec sheets. San Diego’s Juiced, for exam­ple, rates the motor on its new Scor­pi­on e‑bike at 750W. But this can get con­fus­ing because rat­ed pow­er isn’t the same thing as peak pow­er or actu­al pow­er out­put. Some com­pa­nies cre­ative­ly mea­sure their pow­er rat­ings in order to avoid EU reg­u­la­tions that kick in above 250W. As such, it’s prob­a­bly best to ignore it alto­geth­er.

“Attempt­ing to com­pare e‑bike pow­er rat­ings is a great way to lose your san­i­ty,” Dan Roe writes in Bicy­cling mag­a­zine.

“Attempt­ing to com­pare e‑bike pow­er rat­ings is a great way to lose your san­i­ty.”

To get a bet­ter idea of how much max­i­mum pow­er you’ll actu­al­ly feel, check to see if a man­u­fac­tur­er lists an e‑bike battery’s volt­age and the con­tin­u­ous amper­age (mea­sured as amp-hours) from the motor con­troller. Mul­ti­ply those to get the watt-hours, or the num­ber of watts that can be deliv­ered in an hour. This gives you a great sense of how much range you’ll get out of a bike.

For exam­ple, Rad Pow­er Bikes’ car­go bike, the Rad­wag­on, has a pow­er rat­ing of 750W, but a 48-volt bat­tery back and 14 amp-hours: 48 x 14 = 672 watt-hours. If you’re thrifty with your ener­gy usage, each mile you trav­el will cost you about 20 watt hours. There­fore a 672-watt hour pack will get you a range of about 34 miles. (Rad Pow­er Bikes says the Rad­wag­on can get a range of 25–45 miles.)

Know your class­es

There are three class­es of e‑bikes in the US. Class 1 is ped­al-assist with no throt­tle . Class 2 is throt­tle-assist­ed with a max­i­mum speed of 20 mph. And Class 3 is ped­al-assist only, no throt­tle, with a max­i­mum speed of 28 mph.

In Europe, ped­al-assist­ed elec­tric bikes with 250W motors capped at 25km/h are treat­ed as reg­u­lar bicy­cles. Above that, there are two reg­u­lat­ed class­es: L1e‑A elec­tric bikes can have up to 1,000W of motor pow­er, but these require reg­is­tra­tion and insur­ance in some areas. This cat­e­go­ry includes elec­tric car­go bikes pop­u­lar with fam­i­lies. L1e‑B e‑bikes have 1,000W+ motors and are capa­ble of going 45km/h. They’re basi­cal­ly mope­ds that require a hel­met and can’t be rid­den on bike paths. In gen­er­al, e‑bikes capa­ble of 25km/h are called ped­elecs (from ped­al elec­tric bikes) where­as the faster 45km/h bikes are called speed-ped­elecs. Of course, as with most things Euro­pean, mem­ber states have some flex­i­bil­i­ty in how the rules are applied, cre­at­ing con­fu­sion for man­u­fac­tur­ers.

The US is still play­ing catch-up when it comes to rules and reg­u­la­tions. Accord­ing to the orga­ni­za­tion Peo­ple for Bikes, 2019 start­ed with 11 states using the three-class e‑bike def­i­n­i­tions. As of June 19th, 2019, 22 states are now defin­ing e‑bikes with­in the three class­es, effec­tive­ly dou­bling the total in just six months.

Pho­to by Thomas Rick­er / The Verge Let’s go shop­ping!

So where can you buy an e‑bike? Your local bike store is the best bet because you’re going to get a selec­tion that’s been curat­ed by the own­ers, and peo­ple who work there are going to be able to answer all of your burn­ing ques­tions about per­for­mance and repairs. Ama­zon is anoth­er place, obvi­ous­ly, but there are some pret­ty seri­ous trade-offs. For exam­ple, your bike could arrive banged up, and some of the com­pa­nies that sell their bikes on Ama­zon are a bit more ephemer­al: here one day and gone the next.

It’s not just Ama­zon, of course. Many e‑bikes sold in the US are just cob­bled togeth­er from a vari­ety of off-the-shelf parts found in a cat­a­log. If that sounds easy, it’s because it is, which explains why there are hun­dreds of e‑bike com­pa­nies on Kick­starter and Indiegogo try­ing to impress you with their flashy tech and futur­is­tic designs.

Many e‑bikes sold in the US are just cob­bled togeth­er from a vari­ety of off-the-shelf parts found in a cat­a­log

Most don’t come with war­ranties or cus­tomer sup­port. Some are over­priced. And it’s very like­ly that you’re buy­ing a Chi­nese mod­el that’s just been rebrand­ed with West­ern mar­ket­ing so it can be sold at a markup. If you find a bike online that you like, an inter­est­ing test is to search for the bike’s specs on Aliba­ba and see whether there is some­thing sim­i­lar being sold in Asia. It may even be cheap­er.

E‑bikes can come in a huge vari­ety of shapes and sizes, from city bikes with thick tires and styl­ish designs to car­go bikes with enough pow­er to haul heavy loads or even a cou­ple of kids. There are some fun retro designs and some real­ly cool space age ones. My per­son­al favorites are the taco mini bike designs with fat tires and long banana seats.

A quick warn­ing about crowd­fund­ing: sites like Kick­starter and Indiegogo can be a crap­shoot. Sell­ers make big promis­es, but some­times they can’t deliv­er. Accord­ing to a study run by Kick­starter in 2015, rough­ly 1 in 10 “suc­cess­ful” prod­ucts that reach their fund­ing goals fail to actu­al­ly deliv­er rewards. Of the ones that do deliv­er, delays, missed dead­lines, or over­promised ideas mean there’s often dis­ap­point­ment in store for those prod­ucts that do get done.

Some e‑bike com­pa­nies don’t real­ly have a choice, though. Bike mak­ers have told me that investor cash is hard to come by these days because scoot­er-shar­ing star­tups like Bird and Lime have made VCs dodgy about fund­ing new mobil­i­ty star­tups.

Pho­to by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge How e‑bikes will change trans­porta­tion

E‑bikes low­er the bar­ri­ers to bik­ing, mak­ing it eas­i­er for peo­ple who are old­er or more anx­ious about the stress­es and strains of bik­ing to jus­ti­fy rid­ing. You’re more like­ly to ditch your car or delete your Uber app if you know you can get to where you’re going faster and more effi­cient­ly with­out get­ting over­ly tired or sweaty.

More impor­tant­ly, e‑bikes can res­cue cities from the clutch­es of car cul­ture. As not­ed by Curbed’s Alis­sa Walk­er:

A 2018 study by the Nation­al Insti­tute for Trans­porta­tion and Com­mu­ni­ties that sur­veyed 1,800 e‑bike rid­ers found that they bike more often, take longer trips, and make dif­fer­ent types of trips than they do on ped­al bikes.

Not only did more respon­dents feel safer rid­ing an e‑bike than they did rid­ing a ped­al bike, the per­cent­age of peo­ple who felt safer on an e‑bike was even greater when the respon­dents were women, over 55, or had phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions.

“E‑bikes are mak­ing it pos­si­ble for more peo­ple to ride a bicy­cle” reads the study, “many of whom are inca­pable of rid­ing a stan­dard bicy­cle or don’t feel safe doing so.”

If you’re wor­ried that elec­tric pow­er will take all the fun and recre­ation out of bik­ing, well, you’re wrong. Anoth­er study looked at the cog­ni­tive and psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of out­door cycling and found equal results for tra­di­tion­al bikes and e‑bikes. Cli­mate change got you down? E‑bikes are more sus­tain­able than elec­tric cars, and they will help clear up traf­fic con­ges­tion and make cities more liv­able. Besides, you can always shut off the motor if you’re look­ing for a lit­tle exer­cise.

As cities become more con­gest­ed, some busi­ness­es are turn­ing to e‑bikes to make their deliv­er­ies. Domino’s is using Rad Pow­er Bikes to deliv­er piz­za in a cou­ple of cities. UPS is using car­go bikes in Seat­tle. Ger­man deliv­ery com­pa­ny DPD wants to use these cute mini-trucks that are actu­al­ly e‑bikes in dis­guise. In New York City, e‑bikes are almost exclu­sive­ly used by food deliv­ery work­ers.

Pho­to by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Don’t be fooled: the US is still far behind the rest of the world when it comes to bikes. We see them more as recre­ation­al vehi­cle than as a trans­porta­tion alter­na­tive, some­thing you use in fair weath­er, not in the rain and snow like the Dutch. But come on, the US women’s nation­al soc­cer team beat the Nether­lands in the World Cup, so sure­ly we can com­pete in the sad­dle as well?

Streets in the US are designed for cars, and bikes and pedes­tri­ans are often just an after­thought. This mar­gin­al­iza­tion has caused a shame­ful spike in cyclist and pedes­tri­an deaths nation­wide. E‑bikes won’t reverse that trend unless enough peo­ple stop dri­ving and start ped­al­ing. Only then will cities find them­selves con­front­ed with the choice between main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo or redesign­ing their streets to be more liv­able, walk­a­ble, and bike­able.

Elec­tric bikes can make get­ting around so much eas­i­er for every­one, includ­ing old­er peo­ple and peo­ple with dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties. Look, every­thing is ter­ri­ble, and obvi­ous­ly, e‑bikes won’t solve any­thing unless more peo­ple start rid­ing. But there is one thing I can promise you: once you start rid­ing, you won’t want to stop.

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