|Updated 2/12/2010 9:35 AM | Comments 170 | Recommend 19|
By Kathy Chu, USA TODAY
HONG KONG — In Xiamen, China, Zhou Debao weaves his electric bike through the busy city streets to pick up dried noodles and candy to sell at his family's convenience store. His wife sometimes borrows it to run errands, and his son, to go to work.
"Electric bikes are really popular here in China," says Debao, who has given up riding a gas-powered moped because he says the bike is a more environmental option. "They're all over."
Nearly 7,000 miles away, Paul Kelleher rides his electric bike around Los Angeles to pick up hardware supplies and mail letters, rarely seeing another electric bike on the streets. He says that in a country where cycling is seen as recreation rather than transportation, some people frown at motorized bikes because they see them as another excuse for Americans not to exercise. "I don't know why I feel guilty, but I'll ride by somebody, and I'll start pedaling," he says. "I don't want them to know that it's an electric bike."
The contrast in Debao's and Kelleher's experiences helps explain the promise and the challenge of electric bikes, which come with motors and allow consumers to pedal as much, or as little, as they want. While they're often pricier than regular bikes — electric bikes generally sell for between $500 and $14,000 — they have rechargeable batteries and can travel up to 20 mph.
Already, electric bikes have gained mass acceptance in China, where 22 million are expected to sell this year, and are taking off quickly in Europe. In the U.S., they are still struggling to gain ground. But a growing number of analysts say the next few years could determine whether these bikes become a part of the U.S. cycling landscape or remain a novelty. Some promising signs:
•Electric-bike makers such as Currie Technologies and Ultra Motor have reported a pick-up in sales since U.S. gas prices hit record highs of more than $4 a gallon in mid-2008. "Americans are very car-centric for transportation," says Larry Pizzi, president of Currie Technologies. "The summer of 2008 was really the first time we saw habits changing in a big way."
•Best Buy began testing electric bikes and electric scooters in 19 of its stores on the West Coast last June. Best Buy spokeswoman Kelly Groehler declined to say how the bikes are selling, but says the aim is to see "where technology is going next for consumers." Wal-Mart already sells electric bikes in more than 400 stores.
•The largest U.S. bike manufacturer, Trek, rolled out a line of electric bikes late last year. Trek tested electric bikes in the 1990s, only to pull back on them. But Trek spokesman Eric Bjorling says that this time is different because electric motor and battery technology has improved, and the company has so far gotten 500 of its 2,300 U.S. dealers to commit to carrying the bikes.
Gary Gardner, a senior researcher at Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, a group that focuses on environmental issues, says he's "bullish" on the growth of electric bikes in the U.S. "Not that I expect them to fill the streets here like they do in China, but I think they have a bright future," Gardner says.
According to Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports, U.S. electric-bike sales are expected to double to 300,000 per year from 2009 to 2010. Still, only 500,000 electric bikes have sold in the U.S. to date, a fraction of the 120 million sold in China. "The electric bike is the first wave of the electrification of the personal transportation industry," says Frank Jamerson, publisher of EBWR. He believes that if electric bikes catch on, so will electric scooters and cars.
U.S. bike companies are counting on aging Baby Boomers to provide a boost to electric-bike sales. This demographic of 79 million is the "low-hanging fruit," because they want to stay active but may not want to overexert themselves, Bjorling says.
As consumers age, they may also forgo cars and motorcycles, which require licenses to drive, and pick up electric bikes, says Jonathan Galligan, analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. The problem, he says, is that Americans "love driving cars, so getting them to switch to electric bikes would be a big change in mind-set."
It's a difficult, but not impossible, task. Cathy Ryan, of Hinesburg, Vt., rides her electric bike from her home to her office. An electric bike makes the 14-mile hilly ride to work more feasible, she says, because the motor gives her a boost on steep terrain.
Ultimately, electric-bike makers are hoping that riders in the U.S. will find as many reasons to be enthusiastic about electric bikes as the Chinese.
Fred Lam, who lives in Shenzhen, a bustling city north of Hong Kong, says an electric bike allows him to bypass traffic. "I can slip in between cars and take back roads which are not accessible by car," Lam says.
For Debao, an electric bike offers freedom. "In the summer, I can feel the breeze," he says. "In the winter, when I put on a leather jacket and ride my electric bike, I feel so connected to my environment."