See our Magnum Photos gallery on bicycling.
Larry Kline, the owner of Noe Valley Cyclery, was a bit dubious when I came to pick up an electric bike last month. I'd arranged to get a loaner to see whether adding an electric motor to a standard two-wheel bicycle really could, as I'd heard, make for a next-generation transportation device. There was only one problem: I don't ride. I get around my home city of San Francisco mainly by car, with occasional excursions on foot or by public transportation. Sure, I'd learned to ride a bike when I was a kid, but riding in the city presents challenges—traffic, hills, thieves—that Kline wasn't sure I could handle. I wasn't sure either. The bicycle that Kline was going to lend me normally sold for nearly $2,000. I don't own a helmet or a bike lock.
After some negotiations and warnings—Kline loaned me a lock, took down my credit card number, and explained that being a city rider was a big responsibility—he showed me how to use the bike. Some bikes are born electric; others have electricity thrust upon them in the form of an add-on motor. Mine was the latter kind—a standard two-wheeler whose frame was outfitted with a water-bottle-sized battery pack connected to a motor mounted on the back wheel. The rider controls the motor through a console on one of the handle bars. My system, manufactured by a Canadian company called BionX, was pedal-activated, meaning that the 350-watt electric motor would add power in proportion to my own effort. (Pre-built electric bikes sell for about $1,500 to $3,000; the add-on kit sells for about $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the model.) I could choose one of four levels of assistance—35 percent of my own pedal power, 75 percent, 150 percent, or 300 percent. There's also a "throttle mode," which runs the motor at full power without any pedaling from the rider. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be my favorite mode of operation.
I'd driven to the bike shop, so I had to stuff my new ride into the trunk to get it back home. The drive was only about three miles, but with all the usual hassles of city driving—traffic, parking, idiot tourists—it took me more than 15 minutes. This was exactly what I wanted to escape. Even if you forget its enormous financial and environmental costs, driving a car is often a drag. You always feel chained down—stuck in traffic, stuck at the light, stuck behind the moron trying to make a left turn during rush hour. Then, when you get to your destination, you're stuck trying to park a hulking piece of steel. My electric bike held the promise of liberation. It's faster than walking, but without any of the baggage that comes with driving.
When I finally got home and unloaded the bike, I switched the motor up to 300 percent and took it for an inaugural ride. It was incredible. The closest comparison I can think of is to my recurrent dreams of being able to fly—or of that one time my wife and I rented Segways on the beach. "It's a kinesthetic pleasure, like having your fairy godmother tap you on the shoulder to make you twice as strong," says Steve Roseman, the founder of the Electric Bike Network, a San Francisco business that connects local bike shops with electric bicycle suppliers. "It changes the realm of possible."
What he means, I think, is that an electric bike deludes you into thinking you can go anywhere you like. In throttle mode on a flat road, my bike hit a top speed of around 18 miles per hour. It was essentially like riding downhill all the time. San Francisco's smaller hills—which dwarf many other cities' tallest hills—presented no challenge at all; the bike would slow to about three to five miles per hour depending on the grade, and if things got really steep, I'd have to add some minimal pedaling to get to the top. Monster hills were still difficult; I made it to the top of the steepest hills around my house only by doing some serious motor-aided pedaling. There are probably at least a dozen hills in the city that I wouldn't have survived on the electric bike. But remember, I'm a 120-pound weakling without much experience riding; with the help of an electric motor, people in better shape than me should be able to tackle San Francisco's steepest inclines.
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.