Learning to love a bike you don't need to pedal.
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Of course, you could crest most any hill without a problem on a scooter or moped. But an electric bike is smaller, lighter, and easier to park than a Vespa. And because they run on electricity rather than gas, they're silent, too. Scooters and electric bikes are similar in the way the level out the city for you—everything becomes flatter, smoother, faster, and more accessible. But you're still in the city. This is what I mean when I say that an electric bike induces delusions of liberation. When you trade a car for a bike, you're trading one set of urban hassles for another. You've still got to worry about everyone else on the road, only now you worry while perched on two thin wheels rather than from the confines of a reinforced steel cage. For me, this limited the utility of the electric bike. As a novice rider, there were certain main roads I refused to traverse, and thus certain locales that were off limits. With more practice I'd probably pick up the arrogant fearlessness that so many urban riders display, but I'd need a lot more than a week to reach that level.
What did I use the bike for? Short runs—I'd ride over to the sandwich shop a mile away to pick up lunch, or to the supermarket two miles away to get stuff for dinner. In these scenarios, the bike is fantastic for all the reasons I expected it would be. If you factor in traffic, time to park, and the way bikers casually (if illegally) whiz through stop signs and traffic lights, you can travel a five-mile-or-so distance on an electric bike faster than you can in a car. If you work a little too far away from home for walking or riding a traditional bike (or if you'd prefer not to be sweaty when you get in to the office), the electric bike can be an ideal way to commute, especially if you work in a place where parking a car is next to impossible.
That's the lifestyle argument for electric bikes. There is also a political argument. An electric bike is not as environmentally friendly as a motorless bike (your electricity could come from a coal plant, and the lithium for your battery might be causing political instability somewhere else in the world), but it is much, much better than your car. This can put electric riders at odds with traditional bicyclists; as Roseman concedes, some biking purists may look down on you when they notice you're not pedaling. But most bikers, says Roseman, would welcome someone ditching a car for an e-bike, because you can make a pretty good argument that electric bikes represent the best way to get a lot more people on two wheels.
Range estimates for electric bikes are very dodgy; how far you'll get on a full charge depends on the terrain along your route, the wind, your weight, the weight of the stuff you're carrying, how much you plan to pedal, and how fast you plan to go. What's more, a lot of electric bikes feature some kind of generative charging system—they use the bike's momentum to charge up the battery when you apply the brakes or go downhill. Even considering all these variables, you'll probably get at least 10 miles out of a charge (my motor add-on gave me an estimated range of 18 miles on full power; it charged up fully in about three hours). This means that a lot of people in cities can conceivably get to work on an e-bike. The main thing standing in their way is their fear of cars. Of course, as more people get on bikes, the fewer cars we'll have on the road, and the more bike-friendly your city becomes—which in turn invites more bikes. It could be a virtuous cycle of bike-riding, all sparked by an electric catalyst.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
BioniX electric bike © 2010 BionX Intelligent Mobility Systems.