The future is electric

A few days ago, I was carrying a load of groceries home on my cargo bike. Ahead of me, a serious lycra-clad cyclist was cranking a nice-looking bike up the steady incline. Normally, I try to avoid passing hard-working cyclists on hills out of respect for their efforts. But on this occasion, the gap between us was shrinking quickly with the assistance of my electric motor. Cars were approaching us from behind which would catch up to me at about the same time I caught the cyclist. To avoid a situation which might force me out of the bike lane, I quickened my pace and passed the cyclist at more than twice his speed.

Many biking purists scoff at electric bikes, and I can understand why. If my hard-earned athletic achievements were nullified by someone “cheating” with an electric motor, I wouldn’t be thrilled. On the other hand, the boundaries of “pure” biking aren’t black and white. For example, some dedicated cyclists ride fixed-gear bikes (“fixies”) without extra gears and derailleurs. Extreme purists even remove the freewheel for coasting as well as the brakes (although that’s illegal in some cities).

Fixie bike

One could reasonably say that purity ends where non-muscular assistance begins. But that’s where practicality begins as well. The fact is, I wouldn’t have been hauling those groceries up that hill if it hadn’t been for my electric motor. If bicycle-based transportation is going to grow significantly in the U.S., we must broaden the concept of cycling to include motor assistance. We must enable Americans of average fitness to carry stuff uphill on two wheels.

This vision was validated by bike giant Trek when they announced their Transport+ electric cargo bike (see here for further thoughts on that bike). This month, another big company joins the parade: Shimano is introducing its “STEPS” system that includes a 250W front hub motor activated by a torque sensor (like the Kona Electric Ute), an electrically-shifted hub transmission, regenerative braking, and battery-powered front and back lights. Although a 250W motor is, in my opinion, a little skimpy for cargo bikes, more powerful motors and batteries will come. What’s important right now is the products and competition brewing in the electric bike market. I can imagine a day when unpowered bikes will be considered like fixies are today: cool, but for a very special segment of the population.

Shimano STEPS

Will the march of progress stop with the coming generation of electric bikes? Of course not. Will bikes play a bigger role in future transportation, or will they also make way for something like a lightweight, enclosed personal car with no pedaling required? I hope that’s not the outcome, but our individual choices will determine that.