Saturday, July 22, 2023

"Hell on Two Wheels, Until the E-Bike’s Battery Runs Out"

From Patricia Marx at The New Yorker:

In 2020, Americans bought more than twice as many electric bikes as electric cars. I test-drove a fleet of them and lived to tell the tale—and make recommendations.

You can learn a lot about what’s trending by reading T-shirts. A few months ago, I saw someone on the subway whose chest announced, “My other car is an eBike.” The tee was onto something: e-bikes are the top-selling electric vehicle in the United States. In 2020, Americans bought more than twice as many e-bikes as they did electric cars (score: an estimated 500,000 to 231,000). In China, e-bikes outnumber all cars, e- and not e-, Edward Benjamin, the chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, told me over the phone from his house in Fort Myers, Florida. He went on, “Can Americans change from a four-wheel culture to a two-wheel culture in the next century? I say absolutely! There ain’t enough roadway, there ain’t enough materials to build cars, there ain’t enough wealth to sustain the car culture.”

As someone who is not an influencer but an influencee, I have had an urge lately to strap on a helmet, join the traffic, and e-go with the flow. “When the pandemic came, that pretty much ripped the cover off of the e-bike business,” Shane Hall, a senior buyer for Bicycles NYC, told me one afternoon at the company’s Upper East Side operation, which was crammed with bicycles and accessories. Several of the latter sounded vaguely pornographic, such as Muc-Off dry lube, Tannus Armour inserts, and a Mudguard Mounting Kit. “Our sales were huge, especially cargo bikes—gotta get the kids to school.” (Many private schools remained open during lockdown.) “Suddenly, biking became utilitarian,” Hall said. 

“Some of our e-bike customers had never even ridden a bike in New York before.” Post-lockdown, the e-bike momentum has continued. What’s bad for General Motors—rising fuel prices, concern for the environment, etc.—is good for e-bikes, sales of which rose two hundred and forty per cent between July, 2020, and July, 2021. K. C. Cohen, the owner of Joulvert E-Bikes SoHo, saw a similar surge in sales. “A lot of corporate types lost their jobs and started doing deliveries,” he said. “They needed bikes and we were the first responders and allowed to stay open.”

It was in the summer of 2020 that I joined Citi Bike, the bicycle-share program serving New York City and parts of New Jersey. In February, Citi Bike had rolled out only two hundred e-bikes. By the end of the year, Citi Bike had three thousand, and had logged six hundred thousand first-time riders. One humid day this past summer, when I was huffing up Murray Hill on my pedal bike, an old guy who, I flatter myself to think, looked as if he should be the tortoise to my hare whizzed by on a hey-look-at-me, red motorized bike. Cheater!, I thought, as if he were Lance Armstrong on extra steroids. Actually, studies have shown that riders using pedal-assists—a type of e-bike that amplifies your pedal power but does not take over entirely—get more exercise than those on regular bikes, because they cycle longer and more frequently.

E-bikers, even the ones who don’t have “Life Is Better with an E Bike” mugs, are so ardent about their new transports that you’d think they’d given birth to them. Ozzie Vilela, a cherubic-looking sixty-year-old I met on Fifty-seventh Street and First Avenue, as we waited at a red light—he on a peacock-blue folding Fly Wing-2 ($850), I on my legs—told me that he’d had his bike for only three months but had already persuaded two friends to buy one. “When I ride in the morning, there are lots of parents taking their kids to school,” he said. 

“I’m invisible to the parents, but I can see the kids’ eyes are big. They’re thinking, Hey, I want a toy like that!” Clarence Eckerson, a videographer who lives in Queens, borrowed his wife’s Tern HSD ($3,699) and promptly bought his own. He rides thirty or forty miles a week. Carol Sterling, an eighty-five-year-old puppeteer, who has had two knee replacements and a hip replacement, e-bikes in Central Park a few times a week. “As I got older, I realized I don’t have as much stamina,” she said. “And yet I love being outside, feeling the sun on my face.”

Motorized vehicles, including e-bikes, are not permitted in New York City parks, although plenty of pedal-assists clog the paths and the drives, which is technically a violation. Asked about how the city deals with scofflaws, Meghan Lalor, a Parks Department spokesperson, said, “When safely able to enforce, we do.” In Los Angeles, John Bailey Owen, a TV writer, bought his Cero One ($3,799) after he and his wife got rid of their second car. Now he considers errands “so, so fun,” he said in an e-mail, which closed, “My ebike is my favorite purchase of all time. I love it, dammit.”

I weighed the pros and cons and concluded, “What’s wrong with cheating?” That there never seemed to be any electric Citi Bikes available made me want one desperately. They are the four-leaf clovers of the fleet. Among the total bicycle stock of 26,450, they number 4,450 but account for more than forty-five per cent of the rides. The most sought-after pedal-assists are the spiffy models that were released by Citi Bike last May. They are palest gray, whereas the old ones were scuffed Citibank blue. (Spooky coincidence: the color is similar to that of ghost bikes, a term that refers to the bicycles, usually freshly painted throwaways, that mark the site where a cyclist was killed in a road accident.) The new bikes have a mightier motor, so they accelerate faster, and a heavier-duty battery that enables the bike to be ridden sixty miles—more than twice as far as the old ones—before needing a charge. (An e-bike battery charges the same way as a phone: plug the charger into an outlet, connect your battery to the charger, and wait three to five hours on average. Many e-bikes don’t require you to remove the battery in order to charge it, but maybe you have a no-wheels-inside rule.) 

The downside is that the husky newcomers weigh around eighty-four pounds, which is fifteen per cent heavier than the blue ones, and can be cumbersome to maneuver when you’re not going fast. You know how it feels when you drive a First World War battle tank? 

Like that.
By the time I managed to snag a new model, I wasn’t so gung ho about getting on it. My trepidation was similar to how I feel about trying heroin: what if I like it? I begin pedalling. The motor kicks in. It’s not a jerky or a sudden sensation; it’s more like when I was five and learning to ride a bicycle, being helped along by a gentle push from behind by my father. On the other hand, the bike’s poor suspension makes me empathize with tennis sneakers put in clothes dryers. I tackle a hill, forty degrees upward. Easy peasy. Obviously, I have superhero legs—and a budding Icarus complex. Coasting downhill in a bike lane, the motor leaves me alone, knowing when it is wanted and when it is not. How does it know? E.S.P.?

Here we must break for a lesson on how e-bikes work. Every e-bike has a battery and a motor, and, if you don’t know that, may I recommend my class on the invention of the wheel? The motor delivers power to your crankset by one of two systems: the pedal-assist and the throttle control. (Crankset, n. 1. the metal arm and surrounding components that connect the pedal to the wheel 2. informal. your neighbors in 8-G.) The Citi Bike is a pedal-assist. It will help you, but only if you help yourself. Pedal daintily and the boost it supplies will be commensurately unenthusiastic; pedal with more vigor and it’ll send in the Marines....


Previously from Patricia Marx at the New Yorker: 

Questions Americans Want Answered: "Is the Army’s New Tactical Bra Ready for Deployment?" (and what about the radioactive cockroaches)