By J. DAVID GOODMAN
Photographs by J. David Goodman/The New York Times
The shop, MNC E-Bikes, is one of a handful in Chinatown and around the city that caters to a small but rapidly growing market for bicycles with an added oomph of electric power. Hugely popular in China for several years, e-bikes, as they are often known, are increasingly present on the streets of New York, especially downtown and in Midtown, where many delivery men have traded up for the faster, easier ride.
“In the last couple of years we’ve started to sell to delivery guys,” said Bert Cebular, who has been selling electric bicycles from his shop in Yorkville, NYCeWheels, since 2001. At around $2,000, an average e-bike goes for considerably more than a standard bicycle. Because of the steep price tag, many e-bike buyers also purchase theft insurance.
The difference between an electric bike and other electric-powered, two-wheeled vehicles is that an e-bike can be pedaled with no motor power. Most have a longer wheelbase than standard bicycles and only eight gears, with the motor providing the extra assistance. One of the more common e-bikes in Manhattan is the eZee Forza, which resembles a regular bicycle with a battery pack running along the seat tube.
“I sold about 500 bikes last year,” Mr. Cebular said. “We’ve been up every year 40 percent, except this year because of the financial crisis. But when gas prices were up,” he added, business “was crazy.”
A brief walk around Grand Street reveals a healthy number of electric bikes chained outside of restaurants or quietly zipping along the street. When asked about the bike locked up in front of one restaurant, a woman at the register offered to sell it for $700. (When told that the inquiry was related to journalism and not commerce, she lowered her price to $500. This reporter did not accept either offer.)
Of course downtown deliverymen are not the only e-bike customers. Anthony Jaswinski, 38, a screenwriter who lives on the Upper East Side, bought the moped-style A2B from Mr. Cebular five months ago and is effusive about it. “Love love love it,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Can’t help but grin a little when gliding by angry cars and even scooters. Two times cops have approached me. Both times, they asked where they could get a bike like the A2B.”
Mr. Jaswinski might be wary of the police because, for the moment, electric bicycles occupy a nebulous legal lane on the road. Not quite a scooter, not quite a bike, e-bikes are considered “motor-assisted bicycles” under New York State law and are banned from state roads and city streets.
“It’s a gray area,” Mr. Cebular said. A bill is making its way through Albany that would amend the law to allow electric bikes with a top speed of 20 miles per hour and less than 1,000 watts of power. (Most other states limit power output to 750 watts.)
The change would bring New York State in line with federal rules, which consider e-bikes to be consumer products and not motor vehicles, and other states’ laws. “They were supposed to change the law when the State Senate was shut down,” said Mr. Cebular, who has spoken out in favor of the change. Technically his customers can be ticketed for being on an electric bike, he said, “but I’ve never heard of this happening. A 90-year-old woman with an electric wheelchair on the sidewalk is in the same situation.”
Indeed, legal concerns do not stop Roger Phillips, 78, from enjoying his electric-assisted rides. “On a hill it makes it like a level,” he said. “It’s miraculous — it takes the hills out of riding!” He said the sensation was akin to riding on a moving walkway at the airport — you feel as if you are pedaling normally, but move much quicker than you would without assistance. “It’s very hard to describe because its so unlike anything you’ve ever done,” he said.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic about a bike that acts like a scooter. Mr. Jaswinski said that he had several unfriendly encounters with other bikers in Central Park. “There was this one guy who tried to to cut me off and make me crash,” he said. “Purists that don’t think they should share the road with electric bikes. I like to think I’m helping the environment and lessening congestion.”