The Loneliness of the Long Distance Biker Part 1: The Context

Author Laurence Clarkberg sets out from Ithaca to New York City, a 230-mile trip.

The question of the century is “How can we make vehicles that use less energy than our automobiles but have the same functionality?” Electric cars are a step in the right direction–they use about a tenth of the energy of gasoline-powered cars. However, the technology exists to go even further: electric bikes use about one one-hundredth the energy of gasoline-powered cars. But do ebikes have the same functionality as a car? For example consider long distance travel, meaning travel on the order of hundreds of miles. Can an ebike do that? Of course not, right? Last month I made a long distance trip on an electric bike in order to answer that question and discovered that the answer is “Ebikes make long-distance travel only a little bit slower, but a lot more enjoyable.” With only some minor changes in a traveler’s attitude about what is an acceptable speed and distance, and no new technology, an ebike can perform the task of long-distance travel about as well as a car. This three-part series will first explore the context of my journey, secondly the trip itself, and lastly the technical details of my long-distance electric bike.

The term “bike” is unfortunate because in the United States bicycles are thought of as exercise machines; for that reason the whole idea of putting an electric motor on a bicycle just doesn’t make sense for most people. Ebikes are for kids and old people, right? But if we can suspend our prejudice about the purpose of an ebike, and look at whether it actually can be used to do what a car does, we can see that a car and an ebike are not that different after all (as described in detail in this previous blog post):

–Most people live in urban areas. In urban areas motorists usually drive 25 miles or less per day at an average speed of 20mph. A stock electric bike has a range of 25 miles and an average speed of 20mph. The ebike rider and the motorist go the same distance and speed!

–Most motorists drive by themselves or with one passenger. An electric cargo bike can also carry one passenger. The ebike rider and the motorist most often carry the same number of passengers!

–The carrying capacity of a small pickup truck or car is about 1,000 pounds; the carrying capacity of two electric cargo bikes is the same: 1,000 pounds. Two ebike riders can carry as much as a pickup truck!

The remaining differences between cars and ebikes are largely lifestyle choices. Cars are large, impressive and expensive. Ebikes are small, somewhat ascetic and inexpensive. Cars achieve safety by having heavy steel enclosures. Ebikes achieve safety through maneuverability and visibility. Cars provide private weather-free spaces. Ebikes provide interaction with the world. But basically cars and ebikes perform the function of urban transportation about equally well. However, what about long distance travel? Could an ebike achieve a similar level of comfort, speed, and safety as a car for long distance travel?

Last month an event came up that allowed me to test this question. New York City hosted the People’s Climate March, which turned out to be the biggest climate-related event to date. I felt it would be appropriate to travel to the march by bike. After all, who would use fossil fuels to go to an event protesting the use of fossil fuels?

New York City is about 230 miles from my home in Ithaca, NY, so I planned a leisurely journey biking 100 to 120 miles a day over two days each way. Since ebike batteries typically have a range of 25 miles, I simply outfitted a touring bike with four ebike batteries, front and back, left and right (as will be described in part 3). I stayed at hotels to recharge the batteries while I slept, and I made the trip relatively quickly and comfortably. Traveling within Manhattan was particularly sweet; the bicycling infrastructure there has improved significantly in the last few years (as will be described in part 2).

As expected the main difference between doing the trip by ebike instead of by car is that it took about twice as long. The trip took 12 hours by ebike whereas I predict it would have taken 6 hours by car. Bus schedules between Ithaca and NYC show 5 hours, but  a car trip would include at least another hour stressfully crawling through Manhattan to find parking. Here we have to ask ourselves “Why do we feel the need to get everywhere as fast as possible? Doesn’t the quality of the journey matter as well?” A hundred years ago trains traveled at 20mph and people were happy with that. What’s changed?

The trip by ebike was about as physically comfortable as by car. I only spent three hours at a stretch on the bike, so I wasn’t sore in any places. I didn’t have to exert myself as a would have had to do on a muscle-powered bike, and there was ample opportunity to stretch my legs.

The trip by ebike was much more entertaining than a trip by car. In a car I would have been sitting for hours in what is effectively a small room. On the bike I am able to see the sights, hear the sounds, and  talk to people.

And of course another big difference is that my trip by ebike took a lot less energy than by car. Gasoline-powered cars consume about 2,000 watt-hours per mile of energy. Ebikes consume about 20 watt-hours per mile. Let that sink in for a moment: I made a long-distance trip with almost the same utility as a car, but using only one one-hundredth the amount of energy. Isn’t this something significant that people should be jumping on? In particular climate-change activists?

I am sad to report that of the 400,000 activists who attended the climate march, I only met two other people who had travelled there by bike. The rest had shamefully used fossil fuels to travel to a march protesting fossil fuels.

Gretchen biked from Georgia to the People’s Climate March.

The GreenBiker has been biking around the U.S. for months to spread the word about climate change.

To return to my original question “How can we make vehicles that use less energy than our automobiles but have the same functionality?” the answer is “We already have such vehicles and they are called electric bikes.” In the last few years a handful of ebikes hobbyists developed long distance ebikes from off-the-shelf components and used them to travel thousands of miles, including Justin Lemire-Elmore’s epic 3,000 mile journey across Canada in 2003 using only $10 in electricity and most recently Troy Rank’s record-breaking 4,400 journey from Rochester to Colorado and back. Why are electric bike hobbyists the only ones who see the need for this? Where are the bicycling advocates who work so hard to make urban biking easier but totally ignore the needs of the long distance bicyclist? Where are the bicycle designers, fresh from the Interbike convention, to design the ultimate long distance electric bike? Where are the energy activists who rail against the fossil fuel industries but have sought no alternative to their own automobiles? Where are you guys? It’s lonely out here.

Next week: Part 2: The Trip.